Heidegger’s Nietzsche

Heidegger’s Nietzsche

Hans Sluga



  1. When a creative thinker devotes himself intensively and for some years to the work of another creative thinker, this deserves our notice. Something is surely to be learned about one or the other of the two and perhaps also about the nature of their relation, and possibly even about the milieu which brought them together. When the first is, moreover, the leading German philosopher of the mid-twentieth century and the second the leading German philosopher of the late nineteenth century, this engagement calls even more for our attention.

I am concerned here with Heidegger’s examination of Nietzsche’s thought and my question is then what this undertaking reveals (1) about Heidegger, (2) about Nietzsche, (3) about their relation, and (4) about the problems and circumstances that brought them together. To answer these questions in full is difficult. It requires us to have a grasp, first of all, of what Heidegger stands for and of the precise nature of his intellectual development from Being and Time to his later thinking. It requires, second, a comprehensive understanding of Nietzsche’s thought and a comparison with how it is reflected in Heidegger’s eye. It calls, third, for a broad picture of the philosophical circumstances that got Heidegger to attend to Nietzschean thought. What I have to say here on these topics has the character of preliminary and often sketchy remarks. In order to be succinct I cannot avoid a certain dogmatic tone in describing philosophical ideas and the issues at stake. I will be happy, if I have convinced you at the end of the complexity of the task of unraveling the relation between Heidegger and Nietzsche.


  1. The first point I need to emphasize is the fact that Heidegger came only late to Nietzsche. In Being and Time he gave short shrift to him. Nietzsche makes, in fact, only three marginal appearances in that work. In the first of these, Heidegger simply borrows a phrase from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations without indicating its context or characterizing Nietzsche’s philosophical concerns in the passage he quotes. Heidegger writes:

/1/ “In anticipation, Dasein guards itself against falling back behind itself, or behind the potentiality-for-Being which it has understood. It guards itself against ‘becoming too old for its victories’ (Nietzsche).” (BT, 264/308)

The second mention of Nietzsche’s name occurs in a footnote concerned with the concept of conscience. Here Nietzsche is just mentioned once together with others:

/2/ “Besides the interpretation of conscience which we find in Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, one should notice M. Kähler… See too A. Ritschl… See finally H. G. Stoker…” (BT, 272; 495)

The third reference to Nietzsche is slightly more substantive but only slightly so. It takes note of Nietzsche’s early essay on “The Use and Abuse of History” – a text to which Heidegger will examine at length in a lecture course in 1938. But here, in Being and Time, he expresses simply agreement with Nietzsche about the three ways in which history can be conceived and immediately corrects and goes beyond the point he has made. Heidegger writes:

/3/ “The possibility that historiology in general can either be ‘used’ ‘for one’s life’ or ‘abused’ in it is grounded in the fact that one’s life is historical in the roots of its Being, and that therefore, as factically existing, one has in each case made one’s decision for authentic or inauthentic historicality. Nietzsche recognized what was essential as to the ‘use and abuse of historiology for life’ in the second of his studies  “out of season” (1874), and said it unequivocally and penetratingly. He distinguished three kinds of historiology – the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical – without explicitly pointing out the necessity of this triad or the ground of its unity… Nietzsche’s division is not accidental. The beginning of his ‘study’ allows us to suppose that he understood more than he has made known to us.” (BT, 396; 448)

It is worth noting here also that the first and last of these three references are to Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations and the second to his Genealogy of Morals. Heidegger takes no explicit notice, on the other hand, of works such as The Birth of Tragedy, Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Will To Power. He reveals, in particular, no interest in Nietzsche’s reflections on art, in his theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, or his critique of nihilism (all themes that will come to matter to him later on). Nietzsche appears simply as a philosopher of history and as a moral psychologist in Being and Time.


  1. Heidegger’s serious engagement in Nietzschean thought belongs to the decade of the mid-nineteenth thirties to mid-nineteen forties. We get a first hint of his new assessment of Nietzsche in the Rectoral address of the Spring of 1933. On that public and official occasion Heidegger calls, as you may remember, for a political renewal of Germany through renewal of the German University. What is needed, above all, he argues, is reflection on the nature of science (Wissenschaft) itself. There are, Heidegger continues, two historical moments to consider in the development of science. The first is that of Greek philosophy. For: “The Greeks thought science not merely a means of bringing the unconscious to consciousness, but the power that hones and encompasses all existence.” (RA, p. 7) The second moment in due to Nietzsche. For,

/4/ “[I]f our most authentic existence itself stands before a great transformation, and if it is true what that passionate seeker of God and last German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said: ‘God is dead’  – and if we must be serious about this forsakenness of modern human beings in the midst of what is, then what is the situation of science?… Questioning is then no longer merely a preliminary step that is surmounted on the way to the answer and thus to knowing; rather, questioning itself becomes the highest form of knowing.” (RA, p. 8)

This as yet only rhetorical appeal to Nietzsche can be understood, in the first instance, as Heidegger’s response to the fact that Nietzsche has suddenly become elevated to the role of being the philosopher of the National Socialist revolution. But this external political factor detracts in no way from the seriousness with which he is now beginning to look at Nietzsche’s thought. This becomes evident from his words at the start of his first lecture course on Nietzsche in 1936. Heidegger says on that occasion:

/5/ “The task of our lecture course is to elucidate the fundamental position within which Nietzsche unfolds the guiding question of Western thought and responds to it. Such elucidation is needed in order to prepare a confrontation with Nietzsche. If in Nietzsche’s thinking the prior tradition of Western thought is gathered and completed in a decisive respect, then the confrontation with Nietzsche becomes one with all Western thought hitherto.” (N, 1, p. 4)

When we look back at Being and Time with its few meager references to Nietzsche, we realize Heidegger has come a long way in the roughly ten years that separate that book from the 1936 lecture.


  1. Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche elicits three questions. (1) Why did Heidegger begin to read Nietzsche so intensively in the 1930’s? We must consider in this connection, in particular, how Heidegger sees Nietzsche situated in relation to his own thought at that time. (2) How did Heidegger read Nietzsche? We must trace here what Heidegger himself says about the way he intends to read Nietzsche. We must also consider how he means to distinguish his reading from alternative interpretations offered at the same time by Alfred Baeumler and Karl Jaspers. (3) What is the outcome of Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche? We are forced here to look specifically at the way Heidegger uses Nietzsche in his critique of the modern age and of the entire technological mode of thinking. But we must also not overlook the fact that in Heidegger’s thinking the name of Nietzsche is indissolubly tied to that of Hölderlin.


Why Heidegger reads Nietzsche

  1. Nietzsche appears in Heidegger’s thought, as already stated, at a relatively late moment and at a time when his thinking is undergoing critical transformation. In trying to describe Heidegger’s development from 1927 to 1936 I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to do this.

One thing is certain, however. The Heidegger who devotes himself so intensively to Nietzsche is no longer the Heidegger of Being and Time. That Heidegger had sought to elicit ontology of Being from a hermeneutics of Dasein. But this project had collapsed under Heidegger’s inability to come up with the promised continuation of the argument of Being and Time. In his inaugural address at Freiburg in 1929 he had said, instead, that a scientific metaphysics or ontology, as it might have been envisaged in Being and Time, was impossible. In the essay on “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” from the same period he had, furthermore, criticized all philosophy since Plato as being under spell of humanism and subjectivism. As a result he had by 1936 abandoned the whole project of a hermeneutic analysis of Dasein in favor of a direct concern with the question of Being. Among the factors that drove him beyond Being and Time was also that he had in the mean time been exposed to various criticisms of it. Most stinging was, perhaps, the accusation by his friend Oskar Becker that the work had omitted any discussion of art and was, in fact, unable to accommodate a philosophy of art, that art could not be understood from the perspective of Dasein since it revealed the intrusion of something from outside human existence.


  1. We can see Heidegger responding to these challenges raised by himself and others in his writings between 1929 and 1935. A decisive moment in his turn against his own earlier thought was reached in the lectures “Introduction to Metaphysics” and the lecture and essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” both of 1935. The former is not so much an introduction to metaphysics as an introduction to the problematic character of metaphysical thinking. Metaphysics, so Heidegger argued now, had generally concerned itself with the nature of beings. This had been its leading question. It had ignored, on the other hand, the fundamental question of the nature of Being itself. The metaphysical form of thought was due to Plato and Aristotle with whom therefore the decline of philosophy had begun. Heidegger concluded that we must turn back this decline and return, instead, to the question of Being itself. His essay on art from the same year was equally concerned with turning the tables on Being and Time. Heidegger agreed now with Oskar Becker that art could not be understood from the limited perspective of human Dasein. His essay rejected all forms of subjectivism. The origin of the work of art, it said, lies not in the autonomous choices of the great artist, but both the work of art and the artist have their origin in something else.


  1. These thoughts took Heidegger directly back to Nietzsche. Had Nietzsche not presented himself as a radical critic of metaphysics and of the whole metaphysical tradition since Plato? And had Nietzsche not given such a critique in the name of art? Heidegger’s two new preoccupations: the critique of metaphysics and the philosophy of art seemed, thus, to have been anticipated by Nietzsche. But at the same time, it became quickly evident to Heidegger that his own way of addressing these two concerns might conflict with Nietzsche’s. Heidegger makes this explicit already in “The Introduction to Metaphysics” and the same critical attitude is implicit in “The Origin of the Work of Art” – that is, even before he begins his long engagement with Nietzsche. In the “Introduction to Metaphysics” Nietzsche is, in fact, a pervasive presence, both named and unnamed. But the predominant tone of Heidegger’s words is surprisingly critical. He, first of all, deplores Nietzsche’s characterization of the concept of Being as a mere vapor and an error. Because of this view, he thinks, Nietzsche remains confined to the metaphysical question of the nature of beings.

/6/ “Merely to chase after beings in the midst of the oblivion of Being – that is nihilism. Nihilism thus understood is the ground for the nihilism that Nietzsche exposed in the first book of the Will to Power.” (IM, Polt-Fried, p. 217)

Nietzsche is, in other words, a victim of the very nihilism he diagnoses. Secondly, because of his failure to deal adequately with the question of Being, Nietzsche thinks there is an absolute opposition between Being and Becoming and hence, in Greek philosophy, an absolute opposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus.

/7/ “To be sure, Nietzsche fell prey to the commonplace and untrue opposition of Parmenides and Heraclitus. This is one of the essential reasons why his metaphysics never found its way to the decisive question.” (IM, p. 133)

To this he adds significantly, though, that “Nietzsche did reconceive the great age of the inception of Greek Dasein in its entirety in a way that is surpassed only by Hölderlin.” The remark is worth noting both because of Heidegger’s positive assessment of Nietzsche’s rethinking of Greek philosophy as for the comparison of Nietzsche with the poet Hölderlin – a comparison which will become gain increasing significance for Heidegger in the following years and which already at this point reveals his ultimately placing Hölderlin above Nietzsche. A third critical remark on Nietzsche occurs at the end of Introduction to Metaphysics when Heidegger attacks the neo-Kantian theory of objective values as yet another piece of ungrounded metaphysics. He then turns his critical gaze on the Nietzschean conception of created values and writes:

/8/ “Because Nietzsche was entangled in the confusion of the representation of values, because he did not understand its questionable provenance, he never reached the genuine center of philosophy.” (IM, p. 213f.)

Heidegger argues in this passage that we cannot make intrinsically valueless things valuable by an act of human willing. That conception must appear to him as steeped in the subjectivist tradition which he has come to reject. In dismissing the idea of man as the originator of values, Heidegger is, in effect, also without mentioning this attacking Nietzsche conception of art.

Such critical remarks raise the question why Heidegger should have embarked a year later on a prolonged study of Nietzsche’s work. The answer must be that despite his criticisms he must have been convinced that Nietzsche had something essential to offer, that the confrontation with Nietzsche was essential for a confrontation “with all Western thought hitherto.” Heidegger was never to take back his critical judgments about the limitations of Nietzsche’s philosophizing. (We can see that most clearly from the essay “Nietzsche’s word: ‘God is dead’” which Heidegger wrote at the end of his long engagement with the philosopher.) But when we look carefully at his lectures we see that in their course he became increasingly more convinced of the crucial importance of Nietzsche for understanding the modern world. The paradoxical fact is, in other words, that Heidegger’s assessment of Nietzsche became increasingly more positive as he was, at the same time, moving beyond him.

It is clear, in any case, that Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche became pressing and inevitable to him in the years between 1935 and 1945. He felt it necessary to determine the extent of his disagreement with Nietzsche but even more so the extent of his agreement. Heidegger’s concern with Nietzsche was then neither historical nor scholarly in character. It was driven, rather, by internal pressures in Heidegger’s own developing thought and much of our difficulty in unraveling what he says about Nietzsche is due to the difficulty we have in explaining to ourselves the nature of Heidegger’s own philosophical turns.


How Heidegger reads Nietzsche

  1. We must certainly never forget that Heidegger’s focus on Nietzsche is distinctive and personal. In his lectures on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power as Knowledge” he declares:

/9/ “His [Nietzsche’s] words and sentences provoke, penetrate, and stimulate. One thinks that if only one pursues one’s impressions one has understood Nietzsche. We must first unlearn this abuse that is supported by current catchwords like biologism. We must learn to ‘read.” (N, 3, p. 47)

Nietzsche’s writings are, in fact, full of “incoherences, contradictions, oversights” and his expositions are “overhasty and often superficial and arbitrary.” (N, 1, p. 66) We must therefore, first, strip away what is flawed to get at the philosophical essence of Nietzsche’s thinking. As our quotation reveals, we must, in particular, strip away Nietzsche’s biologism – his preoccupation with the facts of biology, with life, blood, the metabolism, the processes of digestion. (There cannot be any doubt that Heidegger’s remarks here are in critique of National Socialist readings of Nietzsche as a biological racist,)

Just as important is it for Heidegger to set aside Nietzsche’s interest in physiology (the physiology of the emotions, of art, etc.) and his attraction to positivism. Heidegger does not say explicitly that he also means to ignore Nietzsche’s concern with psychology, his attempts to ground philosophical doctrines in theoretical physics, and his reliance on the natural sciences more generally. He means, in fact, to separate Nietzsche from everything characteristic of the nineteenth century. Heidegger says with emphasis:

/10/ “In order to draw near to he essential will of Nietzsche’s thinking, and remain close to it, our thinking must acquire… the ability to see beyond everything that is fatally contemporary in Nietzsche.” (N, 1, p. 127)

For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s own time is a “complicated and confused historical and intellectual milieu.” In it two great streams mingle together: “the genuine and well-preserved tradition of the great age of the German movement, and the slowly expanding wasteland, the uprooting of human existence.” (N, 1, p. 85) The fame of Schopenhauer and Wagner are for Heidegger products of this dubious milieu. Their influence on Nietzsche is therefore also best ignored. Instead, we must connect Nietzsche with Kant, Schelling, and Hegel and the great movement of German idealism. Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power must not, for that reason, be traced back to Schopenhauer (as seems most plausible) but to Schelling and Hegel.


  1. The genuinely philosophical Nietzsche is for Heidegger not the one who reveals himself to his own time in his published writings. Nietzsche’s published work is for that reason of minor philosophical significance. Instead, we must turn to his unpublished and uncompleted main work. Nietzsche left this work to us in his notebooks from the middle and late eighties. His philosophy is, thus, to be found in his aphorisms or better still in the book that Nietzsche’s sister compiled from them according to a plan lay down by Nietzsche himself. Nietzsche’s main philosophical achievement is, in fact, the book called “The Will to Power.”

It is with this book and the aphorism from which it is distilled that Heidegger mostly concerns himself in his Nietzsche decade. That means, he ignores or treats as merely subsidiary such works as Nietzsche’ early “Birth of Tragedy,” but also “Zarathustra,” “Human, all too Human,” “The Genealogy of Morals,” “Beyond Good and Evil.” And this, means, in turn, that he ignores or downplays the Wagnerian and Schopenhauerian Nietzsche, but also Nietzsche, the cultural critic, the psychologist, the genealogist, the political thinker.

But even with respect to Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” Heidegger’s interest is highly selective. He completely ignores book 2 of that work with its critique of religion, Christianity, morality, and philosophy. In book 3 he ignores Nietzsche’s discussion of “the will to power in nature” (section 2) and of “the will to power as society and individual,” (section 3), thus passing by the naturalistic and the political elements of Nietzsche’s thinking. In line with the latter prohibition, he also passes over section 1 of book 4 (“Order and Rank”) with its discussion of politics, the masters of the earth, and the great human being. All in all, Heidegger ignores roughly 310 out of the 550 pages of the whole work.

His focus in the lectures is, instead, sharply on Nietzsche’s examination of art, knowledge, metaphysics, and nihilism. These topics are for him parts of a single theme. Heidegger is convinced that

/11/ “Nietzsche belongs among the an essential thinkers. With the term thinker we name those exceptional human beings who are destined to think one single thought, a thought that is always ‘about’ beings as a whole. Each thinker thinks only one single thought.” (N, 3, p. 4)

Heidegger characterizes this single thought alternatively as the thought that the world is will to power and as the thought of the eternal return of the same. In yet another place he speaks of it even more fully as having three distinct facets:

/12/ “Eternal Recurrence, Will to Power, Revaluation: these are the three guiding phrases under which the totality of the planned major work stands, the configuration in each case differing.” (N 1, p. 17)


  1. In considering Nietzsche seriously as a philosopher, Heidegger was adopting a decidedly new and modern line towards him. From his death in 1900 to the 1930’s, Nietzsche had been for the most part treated as a literary figure and cultural critic and as such of little concern to the academic philosophers. Philosophical amateurs like Thomas Mann or the members of Stefan George’s circle might identify with him, but to the Neo-Kantians who still dominated the philosophical scene in Germany Nietzsche was of no or little interest.

All this was changing by the time Heidegger began to lecture on Nietzsche. In 1931, Alfred Baeumler, known until then for his work on Kant’s aesthetics, had published a book on “Nietzsche as Thinker and Politician” that proposed to treat Nietzsche as a metaphysical thinker whose doctrine of the will to power had, at the same time, clear and intended political implications. Shortly before Heidegger embarked on his own lectures, Karl Jaspers had published a comprehensive study of Nietzsche that likewise emphasized his metaphysics of the will to power and also took note of Nietzsche’s conception of a great politics. There were, however, profound differences between Baeumler’s and Jaspers’ treatment of Nietzsche. For Baeumler, “The Will to Power” was Nietzsche’s main philosophical work; all his other writings were by comparison secondary in importance. And from this work one could reconstruct a completely coherent metaphysics, provided one set the doctrine of the eternal recurrence aside as a mystical and poetic intrusion. Jaspers, on the other hand, was convinced all of Nietzsche’s writings, both published and unpublished, had to be used equally to account for Nietzsche’s philosophy. From this material one could not, however, extract a completely coherent philosophical system. Both the will to power and the eternal recurrence were genuine elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy. But Baeumler was right that they could not be fully reconciled. One had to conclude therefore that Nietzsche’s thought could be appropriated by us only existentially, as the expression of a particular radical search for limit experiences. There was one further point on which Baeumler and Jaspers were radically at odds. For the former the thinker of the will to power was also the natural forerunner of Hitler and his National Socialism. Jaspers, on the other hand, meant to present a picture of Nietzsche as being in sharp opposition to Nazi ideology.

It was only natural for Heidegger to try to go beyond both readings. In addition, he had personal reasons for seeing himself in competition with these two interpreters for he was personally acquainted with both of them but had become estranged from both by the time of his lectures. Jaspers had been a trusted philosophical friend and associate of long standing until their break-up over political differences in 1933. Baeumler had become known to him in 1933 as another supporter of the new regime. He had, moreover, brought Heidegger in contact with Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and had got him appointed to the governing board of the Nietzsche archive in Weimar. But after Heidegger’s withdrawal from active political engagement, his relation to Baeumler had also become problematic.

One cannot read Heidegger Nietzsche lectures today without becoming immediately aware of the competitiveness of his relation to Baeumler and Jaspers. He agrees with Baeumler that “The Will to Power” is Nietzsche’s main work and needs to be put at the center of any interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought. But he has no sympathy for Baeumler’s emphasis on the political side of Nietzsche’s thinking. He takes exception, on the other hand, also to Jaspers refusal to give pre-eminence to “The Will to Power” and his attempt to reduce Nietzschean thought to an existential dimension.

At the center of Heidegger’s attempt to distance himself from both Baeumler and Jaspers lay his insistence that the will to power and the eternal recurrence of the same are components of a single and coherent metaphysical conception. This is certainly a difficult and controversial position to maintain but Heidegger sticks to it through the course of his lectures. He declares:

/13/ “Baeumler’s reflections on the relationship between the two doctrines do not press in any way toward the realm of actual inquiry…. For Baeumler the doctrine of eternal recurrence cannot be united with the political interpretation of Nietzsche; for Jaspers it is not possible to take it as a question of great import, because, according to Jaspers, there is no conceptual truth or conceptual knowledge in philosophy.” (N, 1, pp. 22-23)

Against these two, Heidegger draws again and again on section 617 in “The Will to Power” as decisive counterevidence. Nietzsche writes there: “To impose upon becoming the character of being – that is the supreme will to power… That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being: – high point of the meditation.” On Heidegger’s picture, then, Nietzsche’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of becoming which approximates being through the idea of the eternal recurrence. One might take Nietzsche more plausibly to have meant here only that the idea of a constantly changing but constantly recycling universe introduces the appearance of stable reality into the picture of a world continuously becoming. But it appears that Heidegger reads Nietzsche’s remark here in the light of his own understanding of the concept of Being. And this may explain the importance he attaches to the Nietzschean doctrine of the eternal recurrence. As a metaphysician, Nietzsche is typically forgetful of Being, but there is a component in his metaphysics which points, in fact, to Being itself. It is the idea of Being having a certain kind of circular temporality.

In proposing such a reading, Heidegger rejects at the same time both Baeumler’s political and Jaspers’ existential reading of Nietzsche. His Nietzsche is to be strictly metaphysical and hence apolitical rather then either for or against National Socialism. But from this were, in turn, to arise conclusions one might call political in a broader sense. At the end of the road stood Heidegger’s attempt to define a new form of German identity, a purified national consciousness, a new and spiritualized National Socialism.


What Heidegger learns

  1. I will have to be summary quickly Heidegger’s negative conclusions about Nietzsche’s thought. Here are, what I take to be, the main points: (1) Nietzsche fails to escape the metaphysical mode of thinking. His conception of the will to power is genuinely metaphysical in character. (2) As such, Nietzsche is caught in the forgetfulness of Being. He fails to confront the question of Being. Only in the concept of the eternal recurrence of the same does there appear hint of this question in Nietzsche’s philosophizing. (3) Nietzsche’s conception of the world as will to power is part of the modern, technological, and subjectivist mode of thinking. The critique of Nietzsche’s philosophy implies therefore a critique of the whole modern and Western mode of technological thinking. Insofar as actually existing National Socialism is product of this form of thought, the critique of Nietzsche can provide us with an implicit critique of this political ideology. (4) Nietzsche’s doctrine of values, of their creation and revaluation is a consequence of his metaphysics of the will to power. (5) Nietzsche’s conception of art is an instance of the modern, subjectivist, and technological mode of thinking. (6) Nietzsche’s thinking as a whole is nihilistic in character.

Informed readers of Nietzsche might quarrel with all of these propositions. It is certainly possible to find arguments against them in Nietzsche’s multi-faceted formulations and this was surely not unknown to Heidegger. He knew, in particular, Jaspers’ Nietzsche book which shows at length how Nietzsche constantly undermined all firm conclusions, how, in particular, his perspectivism seems to invalidate his metaphysics, and how his dismissal of the ego as an illusion and of the concept of substance, more generally, militates against the assumption of autonomous, strong individuals and thus against any subjectivist form of thinking. Heidegger bypasses these objections and presents us, instead, with a straightforward and, one might say, one-dimensional picture of Nietzsche.

One can understand his harsh judgment on this one-dimensional figure only, if one sees also that, by drawing it, Heidegger is at the same time trying to highlight what he sees as Nietzsche’s real achievement. The explanation is to be found in Heidegger’s claim that Nietzsche as a genuine and original thinker gives expression to the way Being actually manifests itself in the modern age. Nietzsche’s metaphysical conception of the will to power may not b e able to tell us what Being is, but it gives according to Heidegger an account of how Being appears in the modern world. Nietzsche is, in fact, both a diagnostic and a symptomatic thinker. He reveals the nihilistic condition of modern man and shows how the history of metaphysics from Plato onwards leads inevitably to this nihilistic denouement. At the same time he exemplifies the condition he analyses.


  1. In thinking about Nietzsche, Heidegger is not mainly interested in drawing negative conclusions about him. Nor does he want to limit himself to diagnostically critical observations about modern or Western thought. He wants, rather, to look beyond these to the question how the precarious condition of modernity or of Western man as a whole can be overcome. This question present to him not only in its general form but in the specific guise of the question what it can or should mean to be German. In The Introduction to Metaphysics he had argued already that the dilemma of modern and Western existence manifested itself most severely in Germany, “the land of the middle.”

“We lie in the pincers. Our people, as standing in the center, suffers the most intense pressure – our people, the people richest in neighbors ad hence the most endangered people, and for all that, the most metaphysical people…. Precisely if the great decision regarding Europe is not to go down the path of annihilation – precisely then can this decision come about only through the development of new, spiritual forces from the center.” (IM, p. 41)

The development of these new forces required first of all the recognition that Nietzsche had been right in his diagnosis that the question of Being has become a mere vapor and error for modern man. “Nietzsche’s judgment, of course, is meant in a purely dismissive sense.” (IM, p. 42) We, on the other hand, must recover that question against the whole metaphysical tradition. Only in this way, Heidegger is convinced, can the middle be saved and the dilemma of modern man be resolved. The question of Being and the question of German identity thus belong in a mysterious way together.

Heidegger seeks to clarify this astounding claim in the decade from 1935 to 1945 by again and again confronting Nietzsche with Hölderlin. For the poet is for Heidegger the one who can resolve dilemma which Nietzsche has diagnosed. He is the one who can open for us once again the question of Being and he is also the one who can point the way to a new and deeper way of being German. It is for this reason that Heidegger’s discussion of Nietzsche in the decade between 1935 and 1945 is interwoven with an examination of Hölderlin’s hymns. We can see this interweaving clearly when we list the courses he gave on Nietzsche and Hölderlin in this period:

/14/ WS 34/35  Hölderlin’s Hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine”

WS 36/37  Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art

SS  37        Nietzsche Basic Metaphysical Position in Occidental

Thought: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same

WS 38/39   On the Interpretation of Nietzsche II:

Untimely Meditations: One the Use and Abuse of History

SS 39          Nietzsche’s Doctrine of the Will to Power as Knowledge

2nd  Trim. 40 Nietzsche: European Nihilism

WS 41/42    Announced but not given: Nietzsche’s Metaphysics

Instead: Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”

SS 42          Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”

WS 44/45    Announced but cancelled: Introduction to Philosophy:

Thought and Poetry

Some comments are necessary to reveal fully how the two sets of courses are interwoven. In the first of the Hölderlin lectures Heidegger had announced a whole series of lectures on Hölderlin’s hymns. Instead, he proceeds from 1936 onwards to a series of courses on Nietzsche. The last one of these is announced for the Winter of 1941 but is then abruptly dropped for a course on Hölderlin’s “Remembrance.” In the Winter of 1945 Heidegger had finally planned a course on Hölderlin and Nietzsche together (“Introduction to Philosophy: Thought and Poetry”) which was, unfortunately, not delivered because of the war situation. We do, however, possess Heidegger’s notes for the planned course and these are of the greatest interest for understanding his double interest in these two figures. Heidegger speaks in these notes of an interdependence of thought and poetry in German culture which is exemplified “in Nietzsche, who as a thinker is a poet, and in Hölderlin, who as a poet is a thinker.” (GA, 50, p. 95f.) As such, the two are strictly distinct but nevertheless belong together. Previously he had already said as much in his interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymn “Remembrance”:

/15/ “The recent fashion which puts Hölderlin and Nietzsche side by side is completely misleading. Abysmally different, the two together, nevertheless, determine the nearest and the farthest future of Germany and the West.” (GA, 52, p. 78)

The two belonged together because Nietzsche was the philosopher of the godlessness and worldlessness of modern man, Heidegger wrote in his undelivered notes in the Winter of 1944. Nietzsche’s thought that the gods and all things are ‘products’ of creative man gives voice to the destiny of Western man. “In the absence of the gods and in the decay of the world homelessness is specifically assigned to modern, historical man.” (GA, 50, p. 116) Nietzsche had, in this way, correctly diagnosed the modern condition. Hölderlin, by contrast, was the poet of homecoming. His deepest insight was the recognition that historical man is not initially familiar with his home at “the beginning of his history, that he must first become not at home, in order to learn from the other, by departing to it, the appropriation of his own, and that he can come to be at home only in the return from this other.” (GA, 53, p. 23) We, too, as Germans and moderns are called to share in the poet’s concern. And if we do, “then there is kinship with the poet. Then there is homecoming. And this homecoming is the future of the historical essence of the German.” (GA, 4, p. 30)

But the home of which the poet speaks is not just the geographical place in which the Germans live. The home is rather the hearth and the hearth is Being itself. To come home means then to come home to the question of Being and to constantly face that question as a question. Nietzsche had been right in seeking that science in the deepest sense had now become the capacity to live in the face of the question and without answer. In characterizing the world as will to power he had, unfortunately, fallen back into an attempted answer. He had lost sight of the question of Being which the poet faced more squarely and poetry could, in this way, claim preeminence over philosophical thought.

There was a second lesson to be learned from the comparison of Nietzsche and Hölderlin and in this lesson the poet once again excels over the thinker. This becomes evident already in the first of the Nietzsche courses from 1936. Heidegger says there that Nietzsche may well lay claim to “the first public presentation” of the distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. But he points out that Jacob Burckhardt may already have made some such distinction in lectures that Nietzsche attended and he continues: “Of course, what Nietzsche could not have realized, even though since his youth he knew more clearly than his contemporaries, who Hölderlin was, was the fact that Hölderlin had seen and conceived of the opposition in an even more profound and lofty manner.” (N, 1, p. 103) According to Heidegger’s account “Hölderlin’s tremendous insight” is contained in a letter to his friend Böhlendorf from December 4, 1801. This letter is, in fact, quoted repeatedly in Heidegger’s subsequent Hölderlin lectures and plays a decisive role in his interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns. Hölderlin had written in this letter to his friend: As I see it, clarity of presentation is original to us and just as natural as the fire from the sky is to the Greeks.” Heidegger interpreted this in 1936 to mean that the poet was contrasting here “the holy pathos” of Greek culture with the “Occidental Junonian sobriety of representational skill” of the Germans and that this contrast precisely and more deeply to Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. This was, of course, a daring and questionable comparison to make, since for Nietzsche Greek culture was itself defined by the balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian and was not a contrast between two national identities. But for Heidegger it was clear that “by recognizing this antagonism Hölderlin and Nietzsche early on placed a question mark after the task of the German people to find their essence historically. Will we understand their cypher? One thing is certain: history will wreak vengeance on us if we do not.” (N, 1, 104)

Heidegger’s concern with “the essence of being German” may strike us now as dated and as being, at best, only of local interest, but it is clear from his repeated discussion of his theme in the years between 1935 and 1945 that his interest in both Nietzsche and Hölderlin was to a large extent motivated by this “political”question. That concern may now have lost its urgency. But we must not forget that it was, in turn, related to Heidegger’s deepest and most general and most persistent preoccupation with the question of Being itself. If Nietzsche had a lasting significance for him it was because his thought revealed something crucial about the history of Being itself. Something that was of more than theoretical interest, something that confronted us with the question of who we ourselves are and what we must become.

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