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Nietzsche's Will to Power: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

The will to power is one of Nietzsche's best known and most controversial concepts. Here we will summarize Nietzsche's writings and most relevant quotations on the will to power and review how they have been understood by philosophers.

Nietzsche's Compassion

As the story goes, one January day in 1889, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown over a horse in the streets of the Italian city of Turin. Nietzsche had witnessed the horse being beaten; overcome with suffering for the animal, Nietzsche tried to protect the horse before he collapsed to the ground. The frail philosopher would spend the rest of his life either cared for by his family or in a clinic. Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the seeming inconsistency between Nietzsche's compassion for the animal, and his philosophical writings, including the concept of 'the will to power.'

Schopenhauer's Influence

Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work influenced Nietzsche greatly
Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the most famous philosophers of the 19th century, and a significant influence on Nietzsche. As a young man, Nietzsche was a strong admirer of Schopenhauer's work, although he later broke with Schopenhauer over the idea of 'the will.' Schopenhauer wrote that the world was the result of the will. By the will, Schopenhauer meant human wants, desires, and efforts. It is through the will that human beings find suffering, because their desires can never be satisfied. Nonetheless, human beings should try to reduce their desires. This approach has been termed asceticism.

Nietzsche's Opposition to Schopenhauer's Asceticism

Nietzsche's 1881 work Daybreak: Reflections on Moral Prejudices contains the germ of what would become known as 'the will to power.' Here, Nietzsche attributes the ancient Greeks' good health to agon or competition. Rather than giving competition a negative connotation, as with the desires of Schopenhauer's ascetic approach, Nietzsche gives it a positive inflection.

Nietzsche in 1869, before he broke with the work of Schopenhauer
Nietzsche picture

The Will to Power Appears

Two years later, Nietzsche articulated the will to power (the Wille zur Macht in the original German) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche described the will to power as the 'unexhausted procreative will of life.'

The Theory of the Will to Power

In The Antichrist, a work written to oppose Christianity and intended to be the first volume of a series titled The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote: 'whenever the will to power fails there is disaster. My contention is that all the highest values of humanity have been emptied of this will -- that the values of décadence, of nihilism, now prevail under the holiest names.' Elsewhere in the book, Nietzsche defined good and bad, asking: 'What is good? -- All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? -- All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? -- The feeling that power increases -- that a resistance is overcome.'

Nietzsche uses the will to power to oppose both Christianity and its focus on compassion for the weak, and Schopenhauer, who not only based his philosophy of morals on compassion for other people's suffering but also used an ascetic approach to the idea of the will.

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