Nietzsche: The Power Within Us | Steven Gambardella

“It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able to grow from it”

 – Nietzsche


Why do things change?

Many people would find this question bizarre. They would understand it to be a fact of life that we’d never hope to understand. But if we come somewhere towards a theory of why things change, we may come close to how change can be harnessed positively.

Why things change has been a matter for thinkers since the beginning of western philosophy. Parmenides (born circa 515 BCE) believed that change is an illusion, that all things are one and the same. The philosopher thought the world to be in a perpetual state of “being”.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 — c. 475 BCE) believed that the cosmos was eternally “becoming” rather than remaining in a state of static “being”, that the cosmos was in fact change. He compared it to an eternal fire:

“This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.”

Reality is an ever-flowing stream of change. Heraclitus gave us the often-used adage, “no man steps in the same river twice.” The pre-Socratic philosopher also wrote of violence and war in terms that suggests that war is a manifestation of change, and that human beings are merely at the mercy of its forces.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) agreed with Heraclitus that the world is always becoming and never merely being. Ourselves and everything around us is in flux. Nothing is stable and war and conflict is the most pointed expression of that fact.

While Heraclitus believed that a fire within all things drove change, Nietzsche subscribed to a more modern, but similar idea: a force he called the “will to power” (Wille zur Macht).

As a young man Nietzsche came under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer, whom he started reading in 1865. The older German theorised that a primordial force that he called “the will” is driving change in the universe.

According to Schopenhauer, the “will to life” — a manifestation of “the will” in living things — is what causes the desire to stay alive and procreate. But the pessimistic older philosopher believed the will to life caused nothing but anguish since it was the source of insatiable desires. Schopenhauer reasoned that the best thing to do was renounce this will and to find peace instead in art and compassion.

Schopenhauer’s idea of the will impressed Nietzsche, whose early writings sporadically refer to a “will” at work in things. But the idea of a will to life did not seem to satisfy Nietzsche and the younger philosopher started to develop his own idea of a driving force behind change.

It was in the early 1880s that Nietzsche started to write about the “will to power” as a significant part of his thinking. There were problems with Schopenhauer’s theory, which seemed paradoxical, for one thing, and unable to account for many seemingly masochistic behaviours in people and animals. He wrote in his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “On Self-Overcoming”:

“What does not exist cannot will; but that which is in existence, how could it still want to come into existence? Only where life is, there is also will: not will to life, but — so I teach you — will to power!”

Nietzsche observes that two fundamental things are happening. All things change, and living things seek to flourish. Procreation is only one aspect of flourishing. The impulse to flourish in living things invariably brings them into conflict.

Nietzsche understood that living things often risk death for the sake of flourishing. He started to think in terms of a will to power as a driver of human and animal striving and for a cosmic manifestation of change itself.

From single cell organisms and plants to animals, all living things find themselves in a struggle for survival. Even when you are sick with a common illness like influenza or the cold, your body is in a death-struggle with an organism — in this case a virus — that seeks to flourish.

What drives us to flourish? Our desires are our impulses. Often we are not even aware of these impulses. Every day we meet obstacles to our desires. These obstacles can be physical barriers, colleagues, friends or family members. We most often compromise. But when we don’t compromise a special kind of pleasure fills us, even if momentarily. This feeling for power is what Nietzsche understands to be a driving force, that we’ll take great risks to achieve. He wrote:

“Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power: self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most infrequent consequences of this.”

Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Photo by Gustav Adolf Schultze (Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia)
Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Photo by Gustav Adolf Schultze (Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia)


The propensity for senseless cruelty seemed to also be a manifestation of a will to power for Nietzsche. What’s more, Schopenhauer’s ideas to oppose the will — compassion and art — were, for Nietzsche, simply the manifestation of will in different forms and certainly not its antithesis. An all-encompassing force like the will cannot by definition have an antithesis.

Whether Nietzsche meant the theory of the will to power to be a cosmic phenomenon of change, as opposed to just a psychological or biological phenomenon, is a point that philosophers and historians have disagreed on. The quotation from Thus Spoke Zarathustra above suggests a pervasiveness of the will to power, but not beyond “life”.

While the published works of Nietzsche largely emphasise the will to power as a psychological phenomenon, his notebooks from the 1880s expound on the idea of the will to power being all-pervasive and encompassing of the universe, just like Schopenhauer’s “will”. Nietzsche wrote in a notebook:

“This world is a monster of energy, without beginning or end, a fixed and invariable magnitude of energy, no more, no less, which is never expended, merely transformed, of unalterable size as a whole, whose budget is without either expenses or losses, but likewise without gains or earnings, surrounded and bounded by ‘nothingness’. […] This world is the will to power — and nothing besides!”

The notes were seemingly made in preparation for what Nietzsche believed would be his most significant work, but abandoned in the years before his mental breakdown in 1889. After Nietzsche had become sick, hundreds of pages of chaotic notes were compiled by Nietzsche’s publisher Heinrich Köselitz and his sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche into a book called The Will to Power, despite Nietzsche expressing no wish to use the notes.

It is not clear then, how seriously Nietzsche took this “cosmic” conception of the will to power. He may have considered the idea merely speculative, merely the workings of his mind as untested ideas formed.

The Will to Power in its published form certainly lacks the stylistic finesse of Nietzsche’s finished books of the time, and is woven together from disparate fragments and jottings (to the extent that critics have claimed The Will to Power is a “forgery” by the hands of Förster-Nietzsche and Köselitz). His published works nevertheless point to the will to power as an impersonal force, but probably one that is observable only in the living world.

The Power of the Mob

The idea of the Will to Power has been widely misunderstood. Many have assumed that the philosopher is applauding brutality and totalitarianism, and this is partly because the Nazis – aided by Förster-Nietzsche, who was herself a German nationalist – interpreted the theory as such.

Nietzsche did not help himself in this respect, his views would be unpalatable to the majority of modern readers. His admiration for brutal despots like Napoleon, and his spiteful comments about women in the notes for The Will to Power probably betray more about Nietzsche’s own vulnerabilities than add anything to the theory of the will to power. Bitterness runs through Nietzsche’s writings like a flaw in a marble statue.

But the will to power is not a crude theory of just conflict and domination. Power is shaped through the actions of individuals and groups in many ways; it can be exercised through benefiting people just as much as hurting them. If the will to power is ubiquitous in the living world then of course all actions are an expression of the will.

One can exert strength through beneficence, since those we benefit are indebted to us. Moralities are forms of wielding power, creating values and imposing them on masses of people.

While strong individuals exert power directly, Nietzsche thought, the weak use systems of values to inhibit the strong indirectly. The philosopher was an elitist who felt that “the mob” had wielded the power to shape civilisation in Europe.

A mass emotion that Nietzsche labelled with the French word “ressentiment” (the hatred of the masses for the elite) had channelled the power of the multitude through belief systems that stifled the creative possibilities of potentially great individuals.

For Nietzsche, justice and equality are founded on envy. The demand for equality is the demand that the power of the individual is curtailed, that an equally distributed prohibition against joy is placed on everybody. These belief systems were religious, political and ultimately philosophical.

But while such systems are an expression of the will to power, they inevitably crumble because they are contrary to the truth of the will to power. The will to power is aimless and purposeless. Systems of belief exert power but ultimately fail because they make false claims to truth and purpose. Nietzsche believed that when these systems fall, nihilism sets in.


By the nineteenth century, European civilisation, Nietzsche thought, was in crisis because its own foundational belief systems had been shaken. Europe was in the grip of a pervasive nihilism that had sickened its culture.

Nihilism is important to the philosopher’s thought since it is the foil against which so many of his ideas are pitted against. The phenomenon emerges when people are disillusioned and become both sceptical and pessimistic as a result of their disillusionment. Nietzsche saw himself as a kind of philosophical doctor who could both diagnose and suggest a cure for this mass cultural and spiritual sickness.

Nietzsche believed that European civilisation had planted within itself the seeds of its own destruction. He wrote, “The highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and ‘Why’ finds no answer.”

The philosopher observed that civilisations build foundational belief systems. These systems give the people’s lives purpose within a unified understanding of the universe that is underscored by truth. Nietzsche describes three types of psychological nihilism in his notes used for The Will to Power. These types, he believed, demonstrated that the inevitable breakdown of these systems was at nihilism’s root.

The first kind is lack of purpose: When we have sought a meaning in existence that cannot be found. If a person no longer believes in a moral order to the world, the compliance of all things to that order, they feel it was all in vain.

The second kind is lack of unity: When we have believed in a system, unity or organisation of the world that is no longer believed in. A person can lose belief in their own self-worth if they come to understand that they are not part of a greater whole.

If people are dispirited by the two forms of disillusionment above, they invent a world beyond this world. While the world our bodies inhabit is illusory, imperfect and flawed, the world beyond is true and perfect. The best example of this is Plato’s “forms”. But this attempt to find meaning cannot hold up either, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, and leads to its own kind of disillusionment, making it the third and final kind of nihilism.

Painting: Vincent Van Gogh ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’, 1888. (Public Domain. source: Wikimedia Commons)

Caption: Nietzsche believed that cultural nihilism sets in when people no longer believe in the place they are told they have in the grand scheme of things. 

The Discharge of Energy

For Nietzsche, “process and change are the only reality”. He wrote of the crisis of nihilism as a struggle for survival, a test of strength for individuals:

“I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength.”

Nietzsche pits against these failing moral and metaphysical systems the will to power expressed through creativity and exuberance by strong individuals. The philosopher pays particular attention to what he called “self-overcoming”: to use the will to power for the purposes of self-mastery, creativity and self-transcendence. The will to power when harnessed properly is more about growth and creativity than it is about domination and brutality.

That’s not to say creativity in the sense that we understand it — people who, for example, are virtuosos of one or two artistic disciplines like poetry and painting. The philosopher loathed the idea of the modern “genius” who specialises in only one discipline.

Nietzsche’s mouthpiece Zarathustra tells a crowd that men who have “too little of everything and too much of one thing” as being “inverse cripples”: “men who lack everything except one thing, of which they have too much — men who are no more than a great eye or a great mouth.”

He jokingly describes coming across a “giant ear”, but found a tiny stalk of a man attached to it, who people described as “a great man, a genius.”

The philosopher believed that modern specialisation had turned people into mere fragments. Zarathustra compared walking among people as walking among the torn apart limbs and pieces of men on a battlefield: “I walk among men as the fragments and limbs of men!”

Nietzsche admired polymaths who cultivated and harnessed power in many aspects of their lives. Inspired by evolutionary theory, the philosopher proposed that an Übermensch (“Overman”) ought to supersede human beings, who as ancestors will become an embarrassment to such a figure.

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.”

Übermensch prototypes included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte, who excelled in many talents without being hindered by what Nietzsche described as “herd morality”. Like plants that have overgrown, these men had risked their own reputations and even lives to flourish, to expend the power they had on reshaping themselves and the environment around them.

But neither of these historical figures are Overmen, and Nietzsche was never clear on what would qualify the achievement of this status. The point of the Overman, it seems, was to present a spiritual ideal that is opposed to the common ideals of moral virtue. To Nietzsche, these ideals are of course negative, they stop people from mastering their own selves.

Nietzsche pits the Overman to what he called the “Last Man”: the lazy modern human being who is steeped in nihilism and seeks only contentment and comfort. The Overman, in contrast, would be willing to risk everything to achieve excellence and self-mastery.

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself.”

Zarathustra’s “dancing star” is the Overman, and the warning is that humanity ought not to leave it too late. The positive “chaos” within us diminishes as the world is rationalised, as comfort becomes our goal, as life is treated like a balance sheet, as we mark up the cost of everything and value nothing.

The philosopher warned that the soil of human potential will only be fertile for so long for “man to plant the seed of his highest hope.” For Nietzsche, nihilism in the modern world was stifling human potential. If we do not harness the will to power for the purposes of our own self-mastery, we could be caught in a web of power that is far beyond our own control.

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