Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer (Götzendammerung, oder: Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt, 1889) is a statement of many important aspects of his philosophy. The book’s title is a satirical reference to the title of Wagner’s opera, Twilight of the Gods (Götterdammerung).
The book includes a “Foreword,” followed by eleven chapters, entitled “Maxims and Arrows,” “The Problem of Socrates,” “’Reason’ in Philosophy,” “How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Myth,” “Morality as Anti-Nature,” “The Four Great Errors,” “The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind,” “What the Germans Lack,” “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” “What I Owe to the Ancients,” and “The Hammer Speaks.”
The first chapter, entitled “Maxims and Arrows,” is a series of aphorisms, which are numbered consecutively. All of the other chapters are divided into numbered paragraphs, with a space between each paragraph. Each chapter has 5-12 paragraphs, with the exception of “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” which has 51 paragraphs.
Nietzsche's central concern is that he wants to affirm life, rather than deny it. He wants to say “Yes” to life, and thus is vehemently opposed to any philosophy that proposes the denial of the ‘will to life.’ Thus, what is called for is a ‘revaluation of values.’
The ‘idols’ referred to by the title of the book are empty or hollow beliefs which can be ‘sounded out’ with the philosopher’s hammer.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is not systematic. His style is forceful, incisive, and epigrammatic. He rejects any attempt to create a philosophical system. He says that the will to create a system reflects a lack of integrity on the part of the philosopher.
For Nietzsche, man defines himself by the ‘will to life.’ The ‘will to life’ is what affirms human identity. Decisive action affirms the ‘will to life.’ Indecisiveness or moral questioning denies it.
Compromise and equivocation represent a form of intellectual dishonesty. Man must say either “yes’ or “no” to life, there is no middle path. Man is like a tightrope-walker, who either stands on a rope or falls off.
If man refuses to step onto the rope, he is being intellectually dishonest. Man must take responsibility for his decisions. There is no way to evade personal responsibility.
For Nietzsche, life has meaning insofar as it reflects the ‘will to power.’ The meaning of an individual's actions reflects the will that is placed in them. Judgments about the ‘value’ of human life can never be true, because man cannot be objective about the life in which he is a participant.
The ‘will to life’ is a ‘will to power.’ The ‘will to power’ is a striving to gain mastery of the self and of existence. The ‘will to power’is the striving to extend the self.
Denial of the ‘will to life’ is a form of decadence, which reflects moral decay or degeneration. Denial of instinct is a denial of the ‘will to life.’
Nietzsche disagrees with Socrates that self-knowledge is virtue, and that virtue is attained by knowledge of the self. Nietzsche says that there is no basis for the equation of reason with virtue, or virtue with happiness.
Nietzsche describes Socratic rationalism as decadent, because it is a method of doubt, rather than an affirmation of the world of possibility. For Nietzsche, the dialectical method of Socrates is not a convincing form of argument.
According to Nietzsche, Socratic rationalism was a response to the anarchy of instinct. Socratic rationalism was an attempt to gain mastery of the self, by opposing reason to instinct. Socratic philosophy, like Christian theology, is a ‘morality of improvement’. It is decadent, because it is opposed to instinct, even though instinct is an important part of the self.
Nietzschean ontology emphasizes transformation and the eternal recurrence of life. Nietzsche agrees with Heraclitus that reality is a continual state of becoming, and is not a state of being. Reality is eternally changing, and is not a constant, immutable state of being. Reality consists of plurality and change, rather than duration and unity. ‘Being’ is an empty fiction; ‘becoming’ is what is real.
Nietzsche disagrees with Heraclitus that our senses may falsify reality. According to Nietzsche, reason is what distorts our perceptions of the world, because reason can falsify the evidence of our senses. The only ‘real’ world is the world which is apparent to our senses. To divide the world into a ‘real’ world and an ‘apparent’ world is an act of decadence, because it is to deny that what is apparent to our senses is real.
The real world is in a state of becoming. An ideal world of unchanging being is only a state of non-being, or nothingness. Reason attempts to establish unity, as well as identity, duration, cause, materiality, and being. Reality, however, is a state of transformation, change, disunity, plurality, and becoming.
According to Nietzsche, we are not responsible for the fact that we exist. Nietzsche argues that we are not created by any divine will, nor for any divine purpose. If we were created by God, then we would be accountable to God for the fact that we exist. If we were accountable to God, then God would be an objection or contradiction to our existence. Thus, Nietzsche argues that God does not exist. If we deny God, we deny accountability. By denying that we are accountable to God, we redeem ourselves.
Nietzsche condemns Christianity, describing it as corrupt and decadent. For Nietzsche, the Christian concept of God is a ‘will to nothingness.’ God is dead. We cannot believe in God without denying the ‘will to life.’ The Christian concept of devotion, self-sacrifice, and self-renunciation is a denial of who we are as human beings.
According to Nietzsche, man must see beyond good and evil, and must reject the illusion of moral judgment. There are no moral facts, only moral interpretations of facts. Morality interprets phenomena, but actually misinterprets them.
The means by which morality is enforced are actually immoral. Morality attempts to ‘improve’ human beings by weakening and subjugating them. Morality is only useful as a form of sign-language to describe the realities of culture and psychology.
The concept of the superman (Übermensch) had been developed earlier by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5). The superman is beyond good and evil, because he affirms his ‘will to life.’ He creates his own affirmative values, which affirm the ‘will to power,’ because the value of a belief or idea is in whether it is life-affirming.
The superman is the man who can overcome his own instincts, but not deny them. The superman has mastered his instincts, so that he can fully express himself. The superman is the man whose will to power has been sublimated creatively.
Nietzsche defines freedom as the will to affirm and to be responsible for oneself. Freedom requires struggle against hardship. Freedom is gained by accepting and by affirming life, despite life’s pain and suffering. Freedom is also gained by mastery of the instinct for ‘happiness.’
Freedom does not mean the denial of one’s impulses and instincts, but neither does it mean having to rely on them. Freedom is measured by the resistance that has to be overcome, and by the effort it takes, to make choices and be responsible for them.
For art to exist, or for any form of aesthetic activity to exist, there has to be an inspired condition on the part of the artist or observer. The inspired condition is described as ‘Apollonian’ or ‘Dionysian.’ These are two antithetical concepts in Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy.
The Apollonian condition is a state of intensity in which a creative vision of form is fully realized. The Apollonian impulse is toward order, form, rationality, and control.
The Dionysian condition, on the other hand, is characterized by a dissolution of form, and by a release of energy. The Dionysian force is an impulse toward disorder, irrationality, and spontaneity. The Dionysian condition is characterized by an ability to respond to any stimuli, and is a state of emotional intensity.
Art is the result of the interaction or conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian and the Dionysian transform each other, so that mastery of irrationality is obtained, and the Dionysian condition becomes the creative 'will of life' to affirm itself.
The true philosopher does not separate himself from life, but places himself within it. He strives for totality, and against the separation of reason, passion, feeling, and the will. The true philosopher affirms everything which is related to him, and thus has the faith that only what is separate and individual may be rejected. He freely creates himself, and thus has faith that in the totality of his freedom, everything is affirmed and redeemed.
Many of Nietzsche’s statements in Twilight of the Idols are deliberately provocative and controversial. His opinions are vehemently radical, and in many ways show him to be an extremist. He attacks democracy, socialism, women, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, rationalism, and altruism. His opposition to any concept of moral fact is a result of his opposition to any universal principle of morality.
Nietzsche is not a nihilist; nihilism asserts that there are no moral values, and that there is no such thing as morality. Nietzsche instead says that there must be a ‘revaluation of values.’ He does not argue that moral value does not exist, but that it has been misinterpreted and misunderstood. He says that morality is false if it supposes that there are moral truths or values which are universal, or which are independent of the particular situations in which morality is applied.
Nietzsche’s criticism of morality is particularly sharp and penetrating. He shows that the morality of self-negation and self-denial may become an instrument of subjugation and oppression. His total rejection of traditional morality is an important demonstration that principles of traditional morality require a better foundation.