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Joseph Kaminski

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July 22, 2017

Existential Self-Realization: Comparing Nietzsche and Sartre

Nietzsche and Sartre are oftentimes compared as “atheistic existentialists” in the world of philosophy. One similarity between the two would have to be their use of in-depth analyzation for determining the process of life. Nietzsche, in “The Gay Science”, discusses the concept of Amor fati or “love of fate”, which is essentially Nietzsche’s definition of accepting all suffering and loss as “good and necessary” due to their essential places among “the facts of one’s life [and] existence”. Sartre, in “Being and Nothingness”, heavily falls back on his concept of bad faith, which he uses to describe the self-deception of human reality as living a life that is literally defined by one’s status in society. In a sense, both of these existentialists believe that merely “accepting” something as good is a life that isn’t worth glancing over.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche.

Another similarity would have to be the two philosophers’ opinions on naming conventions and nothingness. “…My greatest difficulty: to recognize that unspeakably more depends on what things are called than on what they are” can be depicted as the existential mentality of disregarding the flow of categorization within a society that needs no such thing. As Nietzsche claims, mankind seems to focus on “what things are called” rather than what they are. Another in-depth claim to note would be that “nothing is until it is named”.

Sartre has his own equivalent, claiming that nothingness is nothing but a mental concept that is used to create the negative judgement of mankind. As he continues, “there are even men (e.g. caretakers, overseers, […]) whose social reality is uniquely that of the not, who will live and die, having forever been only a Not upon the earth […] This attitude, it seems to me, is bad faith”.

In my opinion, these two quotes equate to the same mentality: that living a life based on a status or title by some naming convention is living a bad life. Suppose you are a grocer attempting to be the best grocer due to their desire to have their social role let them reach the peak of their own existence…you live a life that will go unnoticed that will, as Nietzsche and Sartre would claim, will be recycled into the cosmic abyss.

Although Nietzsche and Sartre share the same philosophical thought cloud of existentialism, there are obvious differences between their foundational structures. Nietzsche, throughout his works, suggests a will cannot be either “free” or “unfree”, and focuses instead on a will’s platform on some sort of spectrum of both. Nietzsche’s work in “Beyond Good and Evil” shows that no will can ever be a free and morally responsible one. In “The Gay Science”, Nietzsche refers to the freedom of will as a “superstition” by stating: “Woe, when homesickness for the land overcomes you, as if there had been more freedom there – and there is no more ‘land’!”. The emphasis on the word freedom in this metaphorical statement should stand out to readers, and when compared to his earlier works, it certainly shows the very weak relationship Nietzsche has with the concept of it.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre, on the other hand, seems determined to demonstrate that free will does exist throughout his works. He claims that “[…] there are no accidents in life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. […] I have chosen it”. In a sense, the difference here lies upon a similarity. Both philosophers are adamantly anti-God, yet their ideals of free will lie in opposite corners of Nietzsche’s aforementioned naming clause and Sartre’s self-reliability and responsibility.

Another interesting difference between the two would have to be their relationship with the concept of religion. Once again, this is a difference that lies upon a similarity. A relatively common misconception is that Nietzsche was a diehard nihilist or a diehard atheist. His famous words “God is dead”  is usually taken as a celebratory pro-atheism standing, when, in reality (pun), it is a method of showcasing how ordinary people don’t care and aren’t affected by such a claim. As several philosophers and scholars after him have analyzed, nobody even seemed to notice that Nietzsche’s depiction of a God had died. Nietzsche was perhaps more of an anti-Christian than an atheist. He was an atheist when it came to believing in a God, but his written work of “The Anti-Christ” showcases a pursuit against specifically Christian idealism. The initial teachings of the so-called messiah seemed admirable or acceptable to a certain degree, but misguided on a nihilistic sense. We can see this replicated to an extent in “The Gay Science”.

Sartre, on the other hand, is a by-description atheist; and his work “Being and Nothingness” adopted a similar format to Nietzsche that went on to “prove” the nonexistence of God. How could a society kill a God that does not and never had existed? How could man claim to have a passion – a useless one at that – towards a being that had no acceptance of such passion from being unreal? Nonetheless, neither of these philosophers openly adopted any form of deity and thus rest on a similar platform.

Comparing these two philosophers is like comparing oranges and apples that somehow managed to grow on the same tree. Honestly, I personally respect both Nietzsche and Sartre on separate levels. They both have groundwork in my personal believe that the meaning of life is that life has no meaning. They both earn my respect by ending the notion that God is any form of all-knowing and omnipresent being.

I’ve seen comparisons between the two on vastly different levels: some claim Sartre was less radical than Nietsche and others claim Nietzsche had less reasoning within his philosophy. I, personally, have read more of Nietzsche than Sartre, and it may be my own personal bias – but Nietzsche resonates more with me and seems easier to read through. Nietzsche’s “Gay Science” relates to me more than Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”. It seems, from reading, that Nietzsche’s philosophy extends further; and that Sartre’s writing adopts a mentality that it doesn’t relate to as much as his counterparts. That, of course, is opinion and subjective at best. My favorite quote from “The Gay Science” would have to be Nietzsche’s spiel on God being dead, while my favorite quote from “Being and Nothingness” would be Sartre’s explanation of bad faith.

If you liked this article, check out my article on The Meaning of Life’s Existential Dilemma!

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