To any one caught in this net, life must be a onesided fanaticism or a condition of vacillating unrest. The great tragedy of Nietzsche's existence was due to the fact that, while he perceived the danger into which he had fallen, yet his struggles to escape only entangled him more desperately in the fatal mesh. His boasted transvaluation of all values was in reality a complete devaluation, if I may coin the word, leaving him more deeply immersed in the Nihilism which he exposed as the prime evil of modern civilization. With Hume and the romantic naturalists he threw away both the reason and the intuition into any superrational law beyond the stream of desires and passions and impulses. He looked into his own heart and into the world of phenomena, and beheld there a ceaseless ebb and flow, without beginning, without end, and without meaning. The only law that he could discover, the only rest for the mind, was some dimly foreseen return of all things back into their primordial state, to start afresh on the same dark course of chance -- the Eternal Recurrence, he called it. "No doubt," he once wrote, "there is a far-off, invisible, and prodigious cycle which gives a common law to our little divagations: let us uplift ourselves to this thought! But our life is too short, our vision too feeble; we must content ourselves with this sublime possibility." At times he sets up the ability to look undismayed into this ever-turning wheel as the test that distinguishes the Superman from the herd. And this is all Nietzsche could give to mankind by his Will to Power and his Transvaluation of all Values: the will to endure the vision of endless, purposeless mutation; the courage to stand without shame, naked in a world of chance; the strength to accomplish -- absolutely nothing. At times he proclaims his creed with an effrontery of joy over those who sink by the way and cry out for help. Other times pity for so hapless a humanity wells up in his heart despite himself; and more than once he admits that the last temptation of the Superman is sympathy for a race revolving blindly in this cycle of change -- "Where lie thy greatest dangers? In compassion." As for himself, what he found in his philosophy, what followed him in the end into the dark descents of madness, is told in the haunting vision of The Shadow in the last section of Zarathustra:--
"Have I -- yet a goal? A haven towards which my sail is set?
The end of it all is the clamor of romantic egotism turned into horror at its own vanity and of romantic sympathy turned into despair. It is naturalism at war with itself and struggling -- to escape from its own fatality. As I leave I think of the ancient tragedy in which Heracles is represented as writhing in the embrace of the Nessus-shirt he has himself put on, and rending his own flesh in a vain effort to escape its poisonous web.
Revised February 3, 2001