Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Who IS this Guy?

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

By the mid-nineteenth century, says William Barrett in Irrational Man, his interpretation of existential philosophy, the problem of man was being viewed in a radical new way. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed ideas toward the end of that century that would have ramifications for more than a hundred years for how certain psychopathic criminals would perceive and justify themselves. He believed that for the truth about ourselves we should look back to the time of the early Greeks, before science or Christianity had blunted man's natural instincts and weakened him.

Book cover: Irrational Man
Book cover: Irrational Man

He had encountered tales about the half man/half god Dionysus and was intrigued by the cults that held rituals in his honor. They participated in drunken orgies, because he was god of the vine, and sought an ecstatic and mystical union with him. Nietzsche viewed Dionysus as the supreme union of the otherwise warring forces of culture and base instinct. Dionysus, he believed, was a savior-god for the human race: man could be both primitive and refined. It was a way to revive what seemed to be a state of spiritual fatigue. Dionysus had sacrificed himself to human ecstasy, torn to pieces, but through his sacrifice others could participate in freedom. Yet their orgiastic revelry was always tinged with danger from excess.

But it wasn't just Nietzsche's celebration of physical instinct and aggression that made him famous. He also proclaimed the death of God via the visible signs of a decline in the force of religion. That was a basis for his notion that, without a higher power in place, human beings must create meaning for themselves, and only the most morally courageous and clear-sighted could actually devise a code of morality. Everyone else was part of the herd — followers who let others think for them.

Book cover: Beyond Good and Evil
Book cover: Beyond Good and
Evil

In 1886, Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil, in which he spelled out how absolute morality is illusory and also postulated that crime might be regarded as an invigorating condition to make the human species stronger. Exploitation within society is normal, because "life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker." In other words, life is a "will to power," his title for a more forceful book in which he described the human ideal as an intense Dionysian affirmation of the existence as it truly is, including violence

Morality, Nietzsche said, was a system of judgments that coincided with the conditions of the moralist's life. There was a master morality and a slave morality. People who could assimilate the will to power would survive, be honest about the aggressive instinct, become leaders, and determine what is good and what is evil. The greatest enjoyment, Nietzsche said, was to "live dangerously," i.e., to live on one's own terms. In the century to come, those who encountered these ideas and desired to "live dangerously" would adopt Nietzsche's perspective. He was a renowned philosopher, after all. What he said was intelligent. Some people believed he justified their crimes, and among them was one of the most heinous people who ever lived.

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