Nietzsche staked his reputation on the future. He believed that a great cultural upheaval was imminent and that his thought provided the resources required to make the best of it.
In some ways Nietzsche’s expectations for the future of Western civilization were borne out by the twentieth century. He said that Christian belief would decline; it did. He predicted newly destructive wars driven by ideological conflict; they came to pass. He hoped for creative geniuses who would free themselves from Christian morality and other forms of the “ascetic ideal” and create great works of art that would celebrate “this world” rather than the metaphysical “other worlds.” Here too, in my opinion, the last century did not disappoint. It would be silly to try to list the artistic accomplishments of the last 120 years. But in literature, names such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Wallace Stevens come to mind. In music, it’s difficult to imagine a more Dionysian composition than Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), not to mention composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. With the exception of Eliot, their works were not notably shaped by Christian morality; in fact many were inspired or influenced by Nietzsche himself. An assessment would also have to take into account the achievements of film, an art form that didn’t even exist in Nietzsche’s time.
In moral theory virtually no one working in the field relies on religious assumptions; academic moral philosophy, at least, is emphatically post-theological. It is true that most contemporary philosophers uphold the universality and objectivity of our moral obligations to one another, and Nietzsche wouldn’t approve of that. On the other hand, during the last decades of the twentieth century many philosophers (e.g. Bernard Williams and Susan Wolf) argued for a more “relaxed” understanding of the place of morality in human life, as one among other legitimate goods. Again, the influence of Nietzsche himself is at work here. In the wider moral culture, the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s was just one expression of the emergence of a more tolerant and pluralistic atmosphere than the Victorian morality that Nietzsche found so destructive. Continue reading