Life lessons from Nietzsche

John Armstrong


Life lessons from Nietzsche‘The School of Life offers radical ways to help us raid the treasure trove of human knowledge’ Independent on Sunday

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, poet and cultural critic. He is best known for his controversial idea of ‘life affirmation’ that challenged traditional morality and all doctrines. Born in 1844 outside Leipzig, Germany, his teachings inspired people in all walks of life, from dancers and poets to psychologists and social revolutionaries. Here you will find insights from his greatest works.

The Life Lessons series from The School of Life takes a great thinker and highlights those ideas most relevant to ordinary, everyday dilemmas. These books emphasize ways in which wise voices from the past have urgently important and inspiring things to tell us.

‘thoroughly welcoming and approachable … If the six books in the Life Lessons series can teach even a few readers to pay passionate heed to the world – to notice things – they will have been an unquestionable success’ John Banville, Prospect

‘there is a good deal to be learned from these little primers’ Observer



  1. How to Find Your Best Self
  2. On Visiting the Pyramids
  3. Dealing with Conflict
  4. The Troubled Path to Freedom and Maturity
  5. On Changing One’s Mind
  6. The Merits of Shock Therapy
  7. Be a Noble Not a Slave
  8. Don’t Pull Your Punches

Conclusion: On Keeping a Notebook





No one is born with the ability to say ‘Nietzsche’. One way is to remember that Nietzsche rhymes with ‘teach ya’ – as memorably demonstrated in Monty Python’s philosophers’ drinking song.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was one of the most daring and ambitious thinkers of the nineteenth century. He felt that the prevailing values of his society were obstacles to the good life and launched a one-man revolution to transform pretty much everything. He particularly relished attacking what he regarded as conventional pieties or reversing our expectations: he decides, for example, that pity might not always be a good thing or that loneliness is good for us. He likes taking risks and he’s not afraid of shocking us.

Nietzsche was born into a deeply religious family (his father, uncle and grandfather were all pastors). He was an extremely conscientious schoolboy and student, especially good at Greek. He so impressed his teachers that in his mid-twenties he was appointed professor of classics at the small University of Basle.

Around the age of twenty he lost his religious faith, arriving at the conclusion that there was no adequate evidence for the existence of God. He became, in some ways, deeply hostile to Christianity. In fact, he seems to have been irritated by almost every aspect of German culture as it then was. But although he was shy and lacking in self-confidence, Nietzsche was filled with a longing to speak intently into the lives of others and to help them in their deepest spiritual needs.

Just as his academic career was taking off he became close friends with Germany’s foremost cultural figure, the composer Richard Wagner. Wagner wanted to transform the imaginative life of Europe and Nietzsche was fired with equally grand ideas. He soon felt constrained by the careful, cautious limits of academic life.

In 1870 (when Nietzsche was twenty-six) the recently unified, rapidly industrializing Germany waged a very successful war against France. Nietzsche served as a medical orderly. Under the strategic leadership of Bismarck, Germany entered a period of immense self-confidence and collective pride. This was extremely upsetting to Nietzsche. All his dislike and frustration and contempt for the people around him seemed defeated by their all too obvious material and political triumphs. It’s very hard to get much response when you criticize people who think themselves amazingly successful.

In 1879, after a few years of teaching at Basle, Nietzsche retired on a small pension paid by the university. His health was precarious. He spent much time in Italy and Switzerland, often in small towns, living quietly and alone. He broke with Wagner and came to see his former mentor as a symptom of the very spiritual sickness that needed curing.

For a while Nietzsche thought of marriage and family life, but he felt terribly betrayed in his closest relationships with women. His craving for ideal friendship was unsatisfied. But, crucially, he did not repudiate the things he wanted simply because he was unable to attain them himself.

All his life, even though he was single, he believed that marriage could be wonderful. He also believed, despite his lack of both, that power and fame were tremendous honours and great resources. He held good health in the highest esteem, as central to the good life, even though he was frequently ill. He believed in the value of a life of action, despite being cooped up in small lodgings, poring over his books. He asserted the importance of strong, healthy instincts, which he regarded as far more important than his own special skill – the acquisition of scholarly knowledge.

Living often alone, in poor health, short of money, Nietzsche wrote a sequence of books that have made him one of the founding figures of the modern world of ideas. But at the time few were paying attention, and he was deeply wounded by the lack of interest his contemporaries showed in his ideas. But somehow he ‘overcame’ this, to use one of his favourite terms. Instead of giving up he devoted incredible energy and fertility of mind to the elaboration of views that for many years mattered only to him.

In 1889 while he was living in Turin, delighting in the golden autumnal weather and going repeatedly to the opera house to hear performances of Bizet’s Carmen, he saw a horse being beaten by its driver. He rushed towards the horse shouting: ‘I understand, I understand.’ He then collapsed and was taken back to his inn.

For the rest of his life he was in the grip of intense delusions. He was sent back to Germany to live with his sister whom he had disliked and distrusted. She established him as a ‘seer’ – he grew a long white beard and sat robed in a white toga. She and her husband edited Nietzsche’s works so as to align them with German Nationalism and the glorification of military power, grotesquely distorting his clearest intentions. Nietzsche loathed all groups; he was entirely devoted to cultivating the strength and wisdom of individuals.

While suffering from pneumonia he died of a stroke at the end of August 1900.

Trying to do the impossible and sum up his life’s work in a single phrase, Nietzsche said that he wanted to bring about the ‘re-evaluation of all values’. It’s a striking phrase. But what does it mean?

Nietzsche believed that values are the central concern in life: What do you love? What do you think is important? What do you give priority to? What do you take seriously in your life and what do you brush aside as irrelevant? This is not just a matter of what you say or what you tell yourself that you believe. It is played out in conduct, habit and choices. Someone may say that they care about global justice, but in their day-to-day life this does not actually take centre stage. Values should be lived out in our lives and should shape every aspect of our existence.

Nietzsche thought that the people he lived amongst mostly had the wrong values. They cared about the wrong things and for the wrong reasons.

But what are the right values to have? Through his works, Nietzsche offers us a series of lessons on what he thinks our true concerns should be and what we should hold in high esteem. In other words, he offers lessons for life.

6. The Merits of Shock Therapy

The atmosphere of our times – the collective values of decent people – enters so deeply into our assumptions that we almost stop noticing. Nietzsche was keen on shocking his readers, firing off a string of incredibly hostile insights against the very things which we assume we must revere: democracy, the importance of pity and compassion, the value of community, the pursuit of the common good. The use of these cruel assertions is to let us try out, even if only for a few minutes, what it would be like not to share the basic assumptions of our times.

Talking of people as ‘herds’ as Nietzsche does in the following extract can come across as mean. But it is the risk he takes in order to jolt us into recognition of some unpalatable but serious thoughts. Maybe at times we are a bit too preoccupied with fitting in; maybe we have in some ways become timid, in our fear of confrontation. Obviously, this does not apply to everyone: what useful lesson could? The underlying question is this: does fear rule your life too much? Are your ideas about life mainly ways of protecting yourself?


Inasmuch as ever since there have been human beings there have also been human herds (family groups, communities, tribes, nations, states, churches), and always very many who obey compared with the very small number of those who command – considering, that is to say, that hitherto nothing has been practised and cultivated among men better or longer than obedience, it is fair to suppose that as a rule a need for it is by now innate as a kind of formal conscience which commands: ‘Thou shalt unconditionally do this, unconditionally not do that’, in short ‘Thou shalt’. This need seeks to be satisfied and to fill out its form with a content; in doing so it grasps about wildly, according to the degree of its strength, impatience and tension, with little discrimination, as a crude appetite, and accepts whatever any commander – parent, teacher, law, class prejudice, public opinion – shouts in its ears. The strange narrowness of human evolution, its hesitations, its delays, its frequent retrogressions and rotations, are due to the fact that the herd instinct of obedience has been inherited best and at the expense of the art of commanding. If we think of this instinct taken to its ultimate extravagance there would be no commanders or independent men at all; or, if they existed, they would suffer from a bad conscience and in order to be able to command would have to practise a deceit upon themselves: the deceit, that is, that they too were only obeying. This state of things actually exists in Europe today: I call it the moral hypocrisy of the commanders. They know no way of defending themselves against their bad conscience other than to pose as executors of more ancient or higher commands (commands of ancestors, of the constitution, of justice, of the law or even of God), or even to borrow herd maxims from the herd’s way of thinking and appear as ‘the first servant of the people’ for example, or as ‘instruments of the common good’. On the other hand, the herd-man in Europe today makes himself out to be the only permissible kind of man and glorifies the qualities through which he is tame, peaceable and useful to the herd as the real human virtues: namely public spirit, benevolence, consideration, industriousness, moderation, modesty, forbearance, pity. (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886)


It is hardly a bad list. His point is that it misses out too much. He is probing the trade-off we make between the desire for domestic peace and quiet and the will to argue, struggle, demand, order, fight.

So long as the utility which dominates moral value judgements is solely that which is useful to the herd, so long as the object is solely the preservation of the community and the immoral is sought precisely and exclusively in that which seems to imperil the existence of the community: so long as that is the case there can be no ‘morality of love of one’s neighbour’. Supposing that even there a constant little exercise of consideration, pity, fairness, mildness, mutual aid was practised, supposing that even at that stage of society all those drives are active which are later honourably designated ‘virtues’ and are finally practically equated with the concept ‘morality’: in that era they do not yet by any means belong to the domain of moral valuations – they are still extra-moral. An act of pity, for example, was during the finest age of Rome considered neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral; and even if it was commended, this commendation was entirely compatible with a kind of involuntary disdain, as soon, that is, as it was set beside any action which served the welfare of the whole, of the res publica. Ultimately ‘love of one’s neighbour’ is always something secondary, in part conventional and arbitrarily illusory, when compared with fear of one’s neighbour. Once the structure of society seems to have been in general fixed and made safe from external dangers, it is this fear of one’s neighbour which again creates new perspectives of moral valuation. There are certain strong and dangerous drives, such as enterprise, foolhardiness, revengefulness, craft, rapacity, ambition, which hitherto had not only to be honoured from the point of view of their social utility – under different names, naturally, from those chosen here – but also mightily developed and cultivated (because they were constantly needed to protect the community as a whole against the enemies of the community as a whole); these drives are now felt to be doubly dangerous – now that the diversionary outlets for them are lacking – and are gradually branded as immoral and given over to calumny. The antithetical drives and inclinations now come into moral honour; step by step the herd instinct draws its conclusions. How much or how little that is dangerous to the community, dangerous to equality, resides in an opinion, in a condition or emotion, in a will, in a talent, that is now the moral perspective: here again fear is the mother of morality. When the highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out, carry the individual far above and beyond the average and lowlands of the herd conscience, the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, its faith in itself, its spine as it were, is broken: consequently it is precisely these drives which are most branded and calumniated. Lofty spiritual independence, the will to stand alone, great intelligence even, are felt to be dangerous; everything that raises the individual above the herd and makes his neighbour quail is henceforth called evil; the fair, modest, obedient, self-effacing disposition, the mean and average in desires, acquires moral names and honours. Eventually, under very peaceful conditions, there is less and less occasion or need to educate one’s feelings in severity and sternness; and now every kind of severity, even severity in justice, begins to trouble the conscience; a stern and lofty nobility and self-responsibility is received almost as an offence and awakens mistrust; ‘the lamb’, even more ‘the sheep’, is held in higher and higher respect. There comes a point of morbid mellowing and over-tenderness in the history of society at which it takes the side even of him who harms it, the criminal, and does so honestly and wholeheartedly. Punishment: that seems to it somehow unfair – certainly the idea of ‘being punished’ and ‘having to punish’ is unpleasant to it, makes it afraid. ‘Is it not enough to render him harmless? Why punish him as well? To administer punishment is itself dreadful!’ With this question herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate conclusion. Supposing all danger, the cause of fear, could be abolished, this morality would therewith also be abolished: it would no longer be necessary, it would no longer regard itselfas necessary! – He who examines the conscience of the present-day European will have to extract from a thousand moral recesses and hiding places always the same imperative, the imperative of herd timidity: ‘We wish for the day that there will no Longer be anything to fear!’ One day everywhere in Europe the way to that day is now called ‘progress’. . .

We know well enough how offensive it sounds when someone says plainly and without metaphor that man is an animal; but it will be reckoned almost a crime in us that precisely in regard to men of ‘modern ideas’ we constantly employ the terms ‘herd’, ‘herd instinct’, and the like. But what of that! We can do no other: for it is precisely here that our new insight lies. We have found that in all principal moral judgements Europe has become unanimous, including the lands where Europe’s influence predominates: one manifestly knows in Europe what Socrates thought he did not know, and what that celebrated old serpent once promised to teach – one ‘knows’ today what is good and evil. Now it is bound to make a harsh sound and one not easy for ears to hear when we insist again and again: that which here believes it knows, that which here glorifies itself with its praising and blaming and calls itself good, is the instinct of the herd-animal man: the instinct which has broken through and come to predominate and prevail over the other instincts and is coming to do so more and more in proportion to the increasing physiological approximation and assimilation of which it is the symptom. Morality is in Europe today herd-animal morality – that is to say, as we understand the thing, only one kind of human morality beside which, before which, after which many other, above all higher, moralities are possible or ought to be possible. But against such a ‘possibility’, against such an ‘ought’, this morality defends itself with all its might: it says, obstinately and stubbornly: ‘I am morality itself, and nothing is morality besides me!’ – Indeed, with the aid of a religion which has gratified and flattered the sublimest herd-animal desires, it has got to the point where we discover even in political and social institutions an increasingly evident expression of this morality: the democratic movement inherits the Christian. But that the tempo of this movement is much too slow and somnolent for the more impatient, for the sick and suffering of the said instinct, is attested by the ever more frantic baying, the ever more undisguised fang-baring of the anarchist dogs which now rove the streets of European culture: apparently the reverse of the placidly industrious democrats and revolutionary ideologists, and even more so of the stupid philosophasters and brotherhood fanatics who call themselves socialists and want a ‘free society’. They are in fact at one with them all in their total and instinctive hostility towards every form of society other than that of the autonomousherd (to the point of repudiating even the concepts ‘master’ and ‘servant’ – ni dieu ni maîtresays a socialist formula –); at one in their tenacious opposition to every special claim, every special right and privilege (that is to say, in the last resort to every right: for when everyone is equal no one will need any ‘rights’); at one in their mistrust of punitive justice (as if it were an assault on the weaker, an injustice against the necessary consequence of all previous society); but equally at one in the religion of pity, in sympathy with whatever feels, lives, suffers (down as far as the animals, up as far, as ‘God’ the extravagance of ‘pity for God’ belongs in a democratic era); at one, one and all, in the cry and impatience of pity, in mortal hatred for suffering in general, in their almost feminine incapacity to remain spectators of suffering, to let suffer; at one in their involuntary gloom and sensitivity, under whose spell Europe seems threatened with a new Buddhism; at one in their faith in the morality of mutualpity, as if it were morality in itself and the pinnacle, the attained pinnacle of man, the sole hope of the future, the consolation of the present and the great redemption from all the guilt of the past – at one, one and all, in their faith in the community as the saviour, that is to say in the herd, in ‘themselves’ . . .(Beyond Good and Evil, 1886)


Nietzsche pushed the point even further in a later book called The Gay Science, 1882. (The title signifies ‘joyful knowledge’ – the knowledge that helps us to be cheerful and to remain in good spirits, in the face of the troubles life throws at us.)

I welcome all signs that a more virile, warlike age is about to begin, which will restore honour to courage above all. For this age shall prepare the way for one yet higher, and it shall gather the strength that this higher age will require some day – the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and that will wage wars for the sake of ideas and their consequences. (The Gay Science, 1882)


The first instinct is, perhaps, to recoil from the very mention of war. But Nietzsche is not submitting an eccentric report to the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon. Rather, to get beauty and wisdom to prevail in the world is a task like a war, requiring the same level of devotion and the same degree of mobilization of resources and effort.

About the author:

John Armstrong (born 1966) is a British writer and philosopher living in Melbourne, Australia. He was born in Glasgow and educated at Oxford and London, later directing the philosophy program at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. Armstrong was Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School and Senior Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University until 2014. In 2014 he became a Professorial Fellow at the University of Tasmania.[1] He is author of several books on philosophical themes.

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