What was Nietzsche’s philosophy about the “will to power”?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) developed many theories of human behavior, and the will to power was one of these. While other philosophers (including the ancient Greek Epicurus) argued that humans are motivated by a desire to experience pleasure, Nietzsche asserted that it was neither pleasure nor the avoidance of pain that inspires humankind, but rather the desire for strength and power. He argued that in order to gain power, humans would even be willing to embrace pain. However, it’s critical to note that he did not view this will to power strictly as a will to dominate others: Nietzsche glorified a superman or “overman” (ubermensch), an individual who could assert power over himself (or herself). He viewed artists as one example of an overman—since that person successfully harnesses his or her instincts through creativity and in so doing has actually achieved a higher form of power than would the person who only wishes to dominate others. A notable exception to Nietzsche’s esteem for artists was the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), whom the philosopher opposed. Since Wagner led an immoral lifestyle, unlike the ubermensch, Nietzsche maintained that the composer had not gained power over his own instincts.

Nietzsche was a professor of classics at the University of Basel in Switzerland from 1868 to 1878. Retiring due to poor health, he turned to his writing, which included poetry. In 1889 he suffered a mental breakdown and died the next year. After his death, his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (1846–1935), altered her brother’s works in editing, changing their meaning. In 1895 she married an anti-Semitic agitator, Bernhard Förster (1843–1889), who, with his wife, attempted to establish a pure Aryan (a non-Jewish Caucasian) colony in Paraguay. The effort failed, and Förster took his own life. These events and, more importantly, the changes to the philosopher’s own words resulted in the popular misconception that Nietzsche’s philosophies had given rise to Nazism.


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