Nietzsche's Criticism of the Herd Mentality and Kierkegaard's Individual

Danielle Stevens

Nietzsche intended to read the philosophy of Kierkegaard, writing to Georg Brandes on February 19, 1888 "...I have decided that during my next trip to Germany I want to study the psychological problem of Kierkegaard...." But Nietzsche never did get the opportunity to read Kierkegaard. A main focus in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is his criticism of the 'herd mentality.' In this paper, I plan to present Friedrich Nietzsche's criticism of the herd mentality fostered by Christianity and Soren Kierkegaard's theory of what it is to be an individual, and in conclusion, will argue that Kierkegaard's theory of what it is to be an individual escapes the Nietzschean criticism of the Christian 'herd mentality.' It is my contention that, had Nietzsche read Kierkegaard, he would have accepted that Kierkegaard's individual, albeit Christian, was not of the herd mentality - and Kierkegaard would have gained esteem in Nietzsche's eyes. 

I. Nietzsche

In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche illustrates his criticism of the mentality he sees as upheld by the majority of mankind. In this section of my paper, I will first illustrate the historical foundation for Nietzsche's criticism of the "herd mentality." I will then illustrate what it is that Nietzsche means by the term "herd mentality" - what characteristics one of "the herd" might exhibit.

I. Historical Background

Nietzsche begins his criticism of this "herd mentality" by attempting to show how, in light of the degeneration of traditional philosophical and religious views, his contemporary society is doomed to fall into nihilism because of the values it upholds. He wants to present a system of values that, if incorporated into the society, would prevent it from sliding into this hopeless situation. Nietzsche sees the values of "the herd" as being fostered and upheld by Christianity. Nietzsche maintains that the belief in God has come about because of man's need for comfort rather than a desire to seek the truth.

It is possible that underneath the holy fable and disguise of Jesus' life there lies concealed one of the most painful cases of the martyrdom of knowledge about love: the martyrdom of the most innocent and desirous heart, never sated by any human love; demanding love, to be loved and nothing else, with hardness, with insanity, with terrible disruptions against those who denied him love; the story of a poor fellow, unsated and insatiable in love, who had to invent hell in order to send to it those who did not want to love him and who finally, having gained knowledge about human love, had to invent a god who is all love, all ability to love,  who has mercy on human love because it is so utterly wretched and unknowing. (BGE 269)
Nietzsche contends that man has fostered a belief in God in order to promote his own ease and security in life. Were there not this belief in an all-loving being, then man would have only himself as a way to position himself in respect to the world around him. There would be no false comforts, no mind dulling and pacifying methods utilized to avoid facing reality and its loneliness. In seeking this comfort, the unconditional love of God, man is reduced to the stupidity and complacency of "the herd." "Anyone who feels that way, who knows this about love, seeks death." (BGE, Section 269) Although Nietzsche criticizes the Christian belief in and worship of God, it must be noted that he too has a similar commitment to the god Dionysus. Nietzsche, however, sees his own commitment as world-affirming, rather than world denying.

In Section 62 of his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche contends that men have tried to erase the distinctions, superiorities and inferiorities among men: "[S]uch men have so far held sway over the fate of Europe, with their 'equal before God,' until finally a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today." (BGE, Section 62) Nietzsche argues that it is better for the whole of our society that such discrepancies in the characters and qualities of men not be ignored or denied. If these distinctions are ignored, then mediocrity is embraced by society. Qualities such as greatness, which are always less common, become even more rare. If all men are equal before God, then potentialities are not developed as people settle into a comfortably common mindset. This 'herd animal' ceases to think, and instead blindly accepts his position while not giving a thought to his own nature and well being. This is the context within which Nietzsche has been working and it is this very complacency that he fears will lead to rampant nihilism. 

II. Nietzsche's Criticisms of the Herd

In the section of Beyond Good and Evil entitled "What is Noble," Nietzsche illustrates the two prevalent moralities he sees in society. These are the "master morality and slave morality." (BGE, Section 260) He claims that the distinction between these two sets of values lies in the person to whom the values belong. A person of the master morality is not of the master morality because of the values for which he stands. He holds these values because he is a noble, higher being. In this section, I will lay out several of Nietzsche's criticisms of the "herd mentality." In doing this, the argument that Kierkegaard's notion of the individual will avoid this criticism of the herd-like Christian will be structured so as to clearly respond to each individual Nietzschean criticism. 

A) Denial of one's own will 

In Section 259 of his Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche criticizes the herd for their penchant for denying their own will. Nietzsche contends that those of the herd mentality are causing the ruin of society in that they uphold a societal value system rather than a personal value system.

Refraining mutually from injury, violence, and exploitation and placing one's will on a par with that of someone else;  this may become, in a certain rough sense, good manners among individuals if É these men are actually similar in strength and value standards... But as soon as this principle is extended, and possibly even accepted as the fundamental principle of society, it immediately proves to be what it really is - a will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay (BGE, Section 259).
As is illustrated in this quotation, Nietzsche believes that when people put the community good above their own good, the society begins to fall apart (or fall into nihilism). If people of different strengths and value standards all are held to the same system of principles, then those more noble in character are denied the ability to flourish or to blossom into what they potentially are. People should be held to the principles of the strong, so that society can be used as a tool for the noble to develop themselves to the height of their capability.

B) The Herd as Dishonest

Nietzsche sees the herd as dishonest; he sees dishonesty as rampant in our "plebian age." In order to explain this contention, I will first show that Nietzsche believes that habits, tastes, routine actions, and predilections are character traits passed down genetically. This is true of all people, be they noble or plebian in nature. In Section 264, Nietzsche writes of plebian traits: 

If one knows something about the parents, an inference about the child is permissible: any disgusting incontinence, any nook envy, a clumsy insistence that one is always right - these three things together have always constituted the characteristic type of the plebian. (BGE, s. 264)

It is apparent that Nietzsche holds the view that such traits (as those he mentions) are heritable.

Having said this, we can move on to the issue more relevant to this project- that being that those of the herd mentality are dishonest. The plebs (the herd) are dishonest about their backgrounds, their history. They deny from whence they have come, the attributes that they have inherited, and are therefore being dishonest with themselves. Nietzsche contends that people ought to embrace their nature - embrace what it is that they are - and in doing so build on that instead of trying to build on a false platform (a denied nature or self). While he specifies that such an honesty is characteristic of a nobler individual, the desire to refuse one's own heritage only submerges the plebs further into their own misery. There isn't any sense in trying to deny one's nature, as this is the essential aspect of one's being.

C) The Herd as Common

Friedrich Nietzsche criticizes those of the herd mentality for their communitarian tendencies. In order to reach agreements, people must have similar sets of concepts. For people to have these similar sets of concepts needed to relate to one another, they must live in a community that is closely knit enough to foster a similitude betwixt a word and a concept. Having these same concepts and manners in which to relate them, a people can communicate without difficulty.

The human beings who are more similar, more ordinary, have had, and always have, an advantage; those more select, subtle, strange, and difficult to understand, easily remain alone, succumb to accidents, being isolated, and rarely propagate. (BGE, Section 268))
Nietzsche contends that it is those who are necessarily isolated, not having compromised their own experience in order to concede to a concept which is more communicable and common, are noble in being uncommon. Those who are common have the advantage of feeling the comfort of relating to those around them. This comfort, however, comes at the cost of reconciling one's experience with others. In doing so, one becomes less genuine, and more herd-like. Nietzsche writes:
One must invoke tremendous counter-forces in order to cross this natural, all too natural progressus in simile, the continual development of man toward the similar, ordinary, average, herdlike --- common! (BGE, Section 268)
It is more difficult, and more admirable, to 'choose the road less traveled,' as people tend to deny their nature and to compromise their more individual values and experience in favor of "placing one's will on a par with that of someone else" (BGE, Section 259). For Nietzsche, reaching agreements with others and easily communicating with others are of little importance. His main emphasis is on the individual, and the individual's self-overcoming (or self-creation).

D) Suspicious Pessimism

Another aspect that Nietzsche sees as contributing to the 'herd mentality' of the majority of mankind is rampant pessimism. Nietzsche sees the weaker people in society as suspicious of the condition of man, in that they are distrustful of the happiness of even the noble, value-creating 'masters.' Nietzsche's worry about this tendency of the herd when he considers the outcome of the herd making an attempt at moralizing:

Suppose the violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, who are uncertain of themselves and weary, moralize: what will their moral valuations have in common? Probably, a pessimistic suspicion about the whole condition of man will find expression, perhaps a condemnation of man along with his condition. (BGE, Section 260) 
The herd are those people who are jaded, who see themselves as being in a fairly hopeless situation, and are in a position which renders them unable to imagine that people are able to lead truly happy or meaningful lives. Because of their own resignation and weakness, they have developed this bleak and desperate outlook on the world and man. It has been said that 'misery loves company,' and the herd is no exception. Actually, one might even say that this phrase applies specifically and exclusively to the herd. Yet again the member of the herd comforts himself, by placing everyone else on par with himself, including those of master morality. Someone of the herd mentality does not, for the sake of his own consolation and encouragement, recognize the superiority of the master morality: "he would like to persuade himself that even their happiness is not genuine.... Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility" (BGE, Section 260).

E) Value Judgments based in fear

Nietzsche contends that morals are products of our psychological needs and desires rather than having a basis in some transcendent nature of reality or human nature. This section will pertain to the prior section, in that the morality of the herd is one in which the value is placed in those human drives which best suit the community rather than the individual. 

How much or how little is dangerous to the community, dangerous to equality, in an opinion, in a state or affect, in a will, in a talent  that now constitutes the moral perspective: here, too, fear is again the mother of morals. (BGE, Section 201)
The herd seeks to be comfortable, and they fear the possibility of someone excelling - of someone who could be a danger to the comfort of the society. This person would be seen as a threat not because they had truly done something wrong, but rather because in proving to be better in some way than the herd, they have made the herd feel inferior. So rather than grant this person superiority, the herd will call him immoral. 
The highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience, wreck the self-confidence of the community, its faith in itself, and it is as if its spine snapped. Hence, these drives are branded and slandered most. (BGE, Section 113)
Nietzsche argues that those values that correspond to our needs and desires are higher than those 'values' upheld by the herd. I hesitate to call the moral value judgments of the herd values because they are not compatible with our drives as individuals. The values of the herd produce a sense of mediocrity, of equality, and condemn the person who rises up to recognize his own instinct. The herd will call something bad or evil if they feel that it will instill fear, or discomfort, among the herd. Nietzsche, however, would claim that it is more harmful, disgraceful, and debase to deny one's instincts in order to provide a community with a sense of safety and equality. 

In this section, I have laid out several of Nietzsche's criticisms of the "herd mentality." These include criticisms of self-denial, dishonesty, commonness, pessimism, and fear-induced value judgements. In elucidating Nietzsche's criticism of the herd mentality by explaining specific characteristics he condemns, I hope to have presented Nietzsche's criticisms clearly and distinctly, in order to examine Kierkegaard's notion of the individual with respect to these criticisms.

II. Kierkegaard

In his Concluding Unscientific Postcript, Soren Kierkegaard illustrates his theory of what it is to be an individual. The task that Kierkegaard sets up is to show how it is that one can give one's life meaning, to show how someone can become an essentially subjective existing individual. He holds that one has to constantly strive to maintain a relationship with God, as God will not make an effort to gain your attention. We are unable to know anything about God, but must have faith in him and commit ourselves to him nonetheless. One gives oneself, and all that one is, in faith without knowing if it will be returned. This sort of commitment is not made in the belief that one will be rewarded with an eternally blissful afterlife; this commitment is in no way selfish. This relationship with God is not a means to an end. Rather, it is a striving to which there will be no end. The only way to for a human being to become an individual (an existing subject) and therefore have a fulfilling life, is to take this 'leap of faith' and strive to maintain a relationship with God. This relationship is subjective in the same sense that a relationship with a friend is subjective. There is no point at which one is through, at which the people having the relationship do not have to work at it.

For Kierkegaard, the subjective thinker is an existing individual essentially interested in her own thinking. She puts everything into a process, and herself is always in a process of coming to be. The existing subjective individual is isolated, and becomes more and more so the more she refrains from objective thought. Objectivity is contrary to the inwardness of subjectivity. Where as subjectivity focuses on no end results, objectivity is a more direct form of communication for which the ends are facts and results. The subjective thinker exists in this indirect mode of communication. To be sure, one cannot communicate one's subjective thoughts to another person, nor can one know anything of another person's relationship with God.

In presenting Kierkegaard's position, I will divide the section up into similar parts as the Nietzsche section was divided. The sections will not mirror each other exactly, as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche handle the issue of identity in very different ways. However, I will present Kierkegaard's theory of the individual responding as closely as possible to Nietzschean criticisms while keeping true to Kierkegaard's philosophy. The passages that I have selected from Kierkegaard's philosophy will not always be clearly relevant to the Nietzschean criticism, and Kierkegaard will not always be making the same criticisms that Nietzsche makes. However, the passages with which I have chosen to work do present Kierkegaard's philosophy is such a way as to present his individual concisely while still demonstrating an avoidance of the criticism of the herd mentality. We can then see how it is that Kierkegaard can respond to each Nietzschean criticism. 

A) The Individual's Will to Strive

Kierkegaard's conception of the individual is one in which all importance is placed on the individual himself, rather than the individual as a part of a group (e.g. Christendom). The focus of Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is to give purpose and meaning to the subjective lives of individuals. Each individual experiences Christianity from within his own isolation. "Christianity wants to give the single individual an eternal happiness, a good that is not distributed in bulk but only to one, and to one at a time" (CUP, page 130). If one were to deny one's own subjectivity, one would be unable to have the meaning in his life. Kierkegaard criticizes those who consider themselves Christian, but do not actualize their subjective relationship with God. Those who are Christian, and consider themselves quite devout as they go to church and such, may be hoping for the reward of an eternally blissful afterlife. If this is the case, and they are thinking of Christianity as a means to an end, then they are not truly Christian. To be a Christian, for Kierkegaard, entails much more than a devotion to the institution of Christianity. Kierkegaard expresses doubt about whether the number of people who claim to be Christian truly are Christian. "This work has made it difficult to become a Christian, so difficult that among people of culture in Christendom the number of Christians will perhaps not be very great; I say perhaps for I can have no certain knowledge of such things" (CUP, page 520). While there is no way for Kierkegaard to know whether people are striving to maintain a relationship with God, he suspects that people are living their lives in a more objective fashion. People associate themselves with the church, and in doing so feel that they have done their part in striking up a relationship with God. They may live their lives as a part of Christian society, endorsing 'Christian' morals, but they are using Christianity as a means to an end, or are looking at Christianity as though it were something about which they knew and could know certain and definite facts. This objective view of Christianity is in opposition to the truly Christian life, as one who takes part in such objective thought is not seeking to make himself an essentially subjective being. 

And even if [the truth of Christianity] is only in one single subject, then it is only in him, and there is greater Christian joy in heaven over this one than over world history and the system, which as objective powers are incommensurate with the essentially Christian. (CUP, page 130)
The Christian endeavor is not to ensure understanding, happiness, or anything really, for a great number of people. Rather, Christianity provides itself as the way people can become subjective, and can give their lives meaning by accepting what is incomprehensible. One has to make this effort, as Christianity does not just provide comfort for you throughout your life. In fact the life of a true Christian may be more difficult than the life of one who chooses to live objectively (in the world historic). To constantly strive for that to which there is no end, to never know whether your struggle to maintain this relationship is proving to be successful, one must blindly, passionately, and faithfully accept that God is there without rational objective proof.

B) The Individual as Honest  Thought as Incommunicable Kierkegaard's existing subjective individual is someone who is completely honest with herself. Those who seek objective truth, and feel that they can know Christian truths objectively, are being dishonest with themselves. Kierkegaard's existing subjective individual is one who realizes that their Christianity, their relationship with God, is intensely personal. An individual knows that essentially subjective thoughts cannot be communicated directly. Those people who consider themselves Christians while proposing to share their thoughts on God and truth with others are dishonest. These thoughts on God and truth can only be reached individually. One can only communicate with God through this individual striving, and another person will never be able to understand one's own inwardness  which is essentially private. Suppose, then, that someone wanted to communicate the following conviction: truth is inwardness; objectively there is no truth, but the appropriation of truth. 

Suppose he had enough zeal and enthusiasm to get it said, because when people heard it they would be saved. ...Then he would have contradicted himself even more, just as he had from the beginning, because the zeal and enthusiasm for getting it said and getting it heard were already a misunderstanding. (CUP, page 77)
As is apparent in this quotation, Kierkegaard does not plainly state that those who try to speak of subjectivity objectively are being dishonest with themselves or with others. It is obvious, however, that the person about whom he speaks seeks to say something that cannot be said, to teach something that cannot be taught. He is contradicting himself by even expressing these ideas by expressing that something is private, one attempts to make that something public. If it is essential that people come to know truth privately, inwardly, then it is counterproductive to preach this since the point will inevitably not be made. 

C) Isolation of the Individual

Central to Kierkegaard's theory of the individual is his belief that an individual is necessarily isolated. In order to be an individual, according to Kierkegaard, one must exist subjectively knowing that the religious can concern only oneself. Kierkegaard feels deep gratitude towards Lessing, as Lessing embodies all that Kierkegaard sees as admirable in a person. Needless to say, Kierkegaard recognizes that he can truly know nothing of Lessing and his relationship with God. But, this is how Kierkegaard views Lessing and Kierkegaard admires those qualities that he sees (to the best of his ability) in Lessing. Of Lessing, Kierkegaard writes: 

He closed himself off in the isolation of subjectivity, did not allow himself to be tricked into becoming world-historical or systematic with regard to the religious, but he understood, and knew how to maintain, that the religious pertained to Lessing and Lessing alone, just as it pertains to every human being in the same way, understood that he had infinitely to with God, but nothing, nothing to do directly with any human being. (CUP, page 65)
It is impossible for one individual to relate his own thoughts, or anything of his God-experience, with another person. The existing subjective individual is essentially involved in her lifelong endeavor to maintain a relationship with God. This endeavor, as in the case of Lessing, renders more obvious the arbitrariness of our relations with other people. In our struggle with our God-relationship we are constantly looking inward, becoming essentially subjective, and in turn are unable to relate to other people. This inwardness puts individuals in an isolated situation  where their thoughts and experiences are entirely isolated. 

D) Despair in the Aesthetic and the Ethical Stages of Life

Alienation is a main theme in both the life and philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling focuses on his "teleological suspension of the ethical," which takes place in the third and final stage of life, the religious stage. Fear and Trembling focuses on the story of Abraham, and uses Abraham to exemplify Kierkegaard's knight of faith. Because the knight of faith is not a person whose actions are comprehensible to other individuals, he lives a solitary and misunderstood life. The knight of faith epitomizes Kierkegaard's existing subjective individual. 

Kierkegaard believes that there are three stages in life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic stage focuses on superficial beauty. Those in the aesthetic stage live their lives for the moment, and never commit themselves to anything. Nothing found in this realm or stage of life can furnish a person with a reason to live, only immediate sensory enjoyment and surface beauty. A life led in this fashion can only lead to despair. The second stage is the ethical stage. Upon entering the ethical stage, the values of the aesthetic stage are left behind. The ethical stage follows universal laws that put a person on the same level as everyone else. The institution of marriage is an example of a commitment made at the ethical level. This commitment seems to be satisfying; it allows one the ability to relate to and have a sense of belonging with other married couples. The third stage, the religious stage, surpasses both of the aforementioned stages in that one encounters an alien, unknown other. In this relationship, faith is necessary. One cannot try to prove the existence of a god, but has to know and believe that there is a god. This commitment to a higher being on faith alone, disregarding reason, is incomprehensible but awesome. Few people, however church-going and moralistic, are truly faithful. Kierkegaard claims that it is better to be a faithful sinner than to be a person who is faithless but morally upright. The alienating aspect of this sort of commitment is its absurdity, its certitude of a being whose existence must be accepted without tangible or reasonable evidence. One has to be willing to accept the absurd.

E) Value Judgments Based in Fear

Kierkegaard contends that values have no rational, objective justification. It cannot be the case that there exists an external source of moral authority, because in order for something outside us to count as a source of moral authority, we must choose or decide to see it as authoritative. This choice is fundamental: there can be no rational basis for deciding one way or the other. For Kierkegaard, there is nothing between God and man except the ethical. "True ethical enthusiasm consists in willing to the utmost of one's capability, but also, uplifted in divine jest, in never thinking whether or not one thereby achieves something" (CUP, page 135). The ethical is the inwardness of the spirit, and we can know nothing of the ethical except that which we find in ourselves. There is no basis for the ethical in a world-historical sense no way to determine morals in light of the past, or in light of some shared dense of the good. The ethical is intensely private, and cannot be seen in the public sphere. One should act without considering the outcome of one's action. Kierkegaard writes of one who seeks to concern himself with benefiting others:

...he is immoral and wants sneakily to insinuate into his account with God the thought that God nevertheless does need him just a little bit. But this is obtuseness, for God needs no human being. How highly embarrassing to be Creator if it turned out that God came to need the creature. On the contrary, God can require everything of every human being, everything and for nothing, since every human being is an unworthy servant, and the ethically inspired person is different from others only in knowing this and hating and loathing all deception. (CUP, page 136)
It is unethical to perform some action for the good of humankind. In acting for the benefit of one's fellow man, one is implicitly asserting that God cannot help mankind. God is omnipotent and created everything. He is the one who can help mankind, and we have no right to demand His help. Either He will or He will not that decision is in no way ours to make. Nor is it our business to act in His place and try to benefit mankind. To be ethical one must learn how to be faithful and loyal.

III. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard: a clarification of the issues at hand

Having illustrated five points on which Nietzsche criticizes the herd mentality, and Kierkegaard's conception of the individual with regard to those five criticisms, I will now delve more specifically into the more important of the issues. I will argue that Kierkegaard's theory of the individual does not fall prey to Nietzsche's criticism of the herd mentality. Kierkegaard's Christian individual is one who can conceivably thwart Nietzsche's criticisms of the herd mentality and, in turn, Christians. I plan to extract three of the issues dealt with in the prior two sections, and elucidate how it is that Kierkegaard's theory of the individual avoids Nietzschean criticism. The three sections that I will discuss are a) denial of the will, b) the herd as common, and c) values. I have chosen these criticisms because I believe they are the three issues on which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most align. The philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche do not discuss the same concepts. Rather, there are a number of things which they both talk about, and an even greater number of areas on which their philosophies do not overlap at all. These three issues are ones with which Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both concerned.

Denial of the will - The Individual's will to strive

Nietzsche's main point in criticizing the denial of the individual will is that when people hold themselves to a shared set of principles, they are denying their individual strengths and desires. Kierkegaard maintains that an individual is one who uses his own will to the fullest of his capacity. Kierkegaard's existing subjective individual is one who must will himself to strive constantly, to avoid the cheap comfort he sees as valued among the majority of humankind. There lies a similarity between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, because both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard feel that it is vital for one's will to remain uncompromised. Both thinkers hold that one who puts his own will on the same level with that of the community is denying his own potential, and resigning to be ordinary and conventional.

The herd as common - the individual as isolated

Nietzsche criticizes the members of herd for compromising their own experiences in order to more easily communicate with each other. Kierkegaard too sees this want to communicate clearly as a problem. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both believe that it is impossible to communicate directly anything substantial. For Kierkegaard, people who try to communicate such objective things as the world historical will necessarily be unable to articulate anything significant, for any truth they find there will be only accidental. When people try to convey subjective truths, they will also necessarily fail, as such things cannot be communicated amongst men. All inward, subjective experiences are necessarily private and personal. For Kierkegaard, an individual is one who recognizes the isolation, and who continues to will himself toward the inwardness and subjectivity essential to individuality. Nietzsche's criticism of the herd mentality does not apply to Kierkegaard's individual, since Kierkegaard's individual is essentially isolated; his thoughts, beliefs, and experiences being intensely and necessarily personal. 


Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard agree that there is no rational objective basis for our values. Nietzsche criticizes the members of the herd for denying their individual drives to promote the general contentedness of the whole. Nietzsche contends that when someone acts according to his instincts and outshines the rest of society, the society will call him immoral. Condemning the stronger person allows the members of the herd to feel good about themselves, while promoting their own complacence and mediocrity. Kierkegaard 's individual is necessarily ethical. He wills himself to the utmost of his capacity (p. 135), but this does not mean that he acts with the good of society in mind. An ethical action is not determined as ethical by its outcome, by the effect that it has on society. It may very well be the case that an ethical action benefits society, or it may very well not. Benefit to society ,however, is not the issue that Kierkegaard sees as essential to ethics. For an action to be ethical, it can not be performed with the intent of benefiting mankind. Whether it benefits man is irrelevant, as the ethical is intensely private. Having illustrated Nietzsche's criticism of the values of the herd, and Kierkegaard's view of the ethical individual, it is clear that Nietzsche's criticism does not sully Kierkegaard's theory. Both believe that values are tremendously personal and that societal good is completely irrelevant with regard to the ethical.

IV. Arguments 

In this section of my paper I plan to present two Nietzschean criticisms of the Kierkegaaardian individual. I will respond to each criticism in turn, and hope to show that the criticisms of the contention that the Kierkegaardian individual falls prey to the criticism of the herd mentality do not hold water. The first criticism will challenge Kierkegaard's belief that everyone has the capacity yo be an individual. The second criticism will challenge Kierkegaard's reliance on God.

A) A Nietzschean Criticism of this Argument

In criticism, Nietzsche could claim that Kierkegaard's philosophy is weak because it allows for no master morality. Kierkegaard's individual does not fit into the master morality, and Nietzsche's philosophy only allows for two sorts of person. The first sort of person would be one with the 'slave morality,' one of the herd who is weak and ordinary. The other sort of person is one of the 'master morality'  and this sort of person is noble, and creative. Since Nietzsche's philosophy has only the master morality and the slave morality, it must be the case that Kierkegaard's individual is a member of the herd mentality. Nietzsche's is an aristocratic philosophy; Nietzsche does not intend for his philosophy to be adopted by any and every person. Nietzsche holds that some people are necessarily inferior to others; those of the herd mentality are by nature subordinate to those who are by nature noble. It would not be possible, in Nietzsche's opinion, for the majority of people (the herd) to go beyond their own mediocrity, and relinquish their herd morality. Nietzsche does not want 'followers'  and if the herd were to make Nietzsche's philosophy their own, they would necessarily be following, and therefore doing his theory an injustice. On the other hand, if one of the master morality were to appreciate Nietzsche's philosophy, it would likely be the case that this person would feel as though Nietzsche were a kindred spirit, rather than one to follow and adore.

B) A Possible Kierkegaardian Response

While it is the case that Kierkegaard's individual is not one of the master morality, it is also the case that Kierkegaard's individual is not of the herd morality. Because the existing subjective individual is not herd-like, Kierkegaard's philosophy gains esteem within Nietzsche's philosophy. Kierkegaard would, being a Christian, contend that everyone has the potential capacity to become an individual. This individual would not be subject to Nietzsche's criticism of the herd; however, Kierkegaard's individual is not identical with Nietzsche's noble soul (one of the master morality). It cannot be the case that the existing subjective individual is a noble soul because the potential to be an individual is in every person, waiting to be realized, whereas the potential to be a noble soul exists in the superior few. Nietzsche's philosophy seems unable to allow for the Kierkegaardian individual, since there exists no gray area between the master and slave moralities. It could be seen as a weakness in Nietzsche's philosophy that he doesn't allow for this third sort of person, who is neither a master nor a slave. It is also the case that Kierkegaard does not seek followers, much in the same way that Nietzsche does not seek to be followed. Kierkegaard maintains that the conclusions which he has reached must be reached privately. A person has to realize on his own what it is to live a meaningful life, and to think that this can be learned objectively is a grave error. While there are irreconcilable differences between the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, one such difference being Nietzsche's aristocratic view of the master morality, and Kierkegaard's theory of human potential, these differences do not strike at the heart of either philosophy. The philosophy of Kierkegaard can come away from this debate without being tarnished. In light of the facts that the Kierkegaardian individual does not fall prey to the criticism of the herd mentality, and that Kierkegaardian theory is meant to be read in the same way as Nietzschean philosophy (i.e. not to be 'followed') it would seem as though Kierkegaard is a 'kindred spirit' of Nietzsche's.

C) Another Nietzschean Criticism

In criticism of Kierkegaard's philosophy, Nietzsche could possibly claim that Kierkegaard's philosophy is weakened by commitment to his belief in God. Nietzsche criticizes Christianity again and again, often on the basis that Christianity is disadvantageous for those who are of the master morality. Kierkegaard's commitments to God, for Nietzsche, could be construed as a critical flaw. In Nietzsche's view, Christianity came about as a way for the weak to assert power over those who were strong (or capable of strength). Kierkegaard's dedication to Christianity puts him in the midst of this embrace of weakness. Kierkegaard is taking the importance away from man, and putting it into a higher authority. For Nietzsche, Kierkegaard's is a negative way to view the world, and his philosophy is one of world affirmation. Kierkegaard's emphasis is on God diminishes mans sense of self worth, and he cannot be a yes-sayer if he is constantly belittling himself. Kierkegaard's individual cannot be a world affirmer if he is a Christian, and if he is not a world affirmer he cannot be of the master morality. If Kierkegaard's individual is not one of the herd, and he is also not of the master morality, then he falls into the same category as Socrates and Plato, and that is one of sick individuals. 

D) A Possible Response

In response to the aforementioned criticism, one might first point out that Nietzsche criticizes Christendom rather than criticizing the individual Christian. Kierkegaard's philosophy rejects the institution of Christendom, calling it 'childish Christianity,' while upholding the doctrine of Christianity. What is most often preached and practiced under the name of Christianity is not in accordance with the tenets of Christianity. Nietzsche cannot claim that Kierkegaard represents an individual wrapped up in the trivialities of Christendom, as Kierkegaard's individual is isolated from what is often thought of as Christian (e.g. acting in order to benefit others). This line of thought leads one to then question Nietzsche's commitment throughout his philosophical career to the God Dionysus. Nietzsche calls himself Ô the last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysus" (BGE, Section 295). Nietzsche is criticizing Kierkegaard for having faith in and giving importance to a higher authority while all the while affirming his own allegiance to Dionysus.

It does not seem as though Nietzsche at any point relinquishes his allegiance to Dionysus, but rather that at every stage of his philosophy he reaffirms his dedication. If this is the case, then Nietzsche has no room to criticize Kierkegaard's commitment, as he has one which is quite similar. Nietzsche writes of descending deeper and deeper into a cave, getting closer and closer to what is ultimate and real:

Indeed, [the hermit] will doubt whether a philosopher could possibly have 'ultimate and real' opinions, whether behind every one of his caves there is not, must not be, another deeper cave - a more comprehensive, stranger, richer world beyond the surface ... 'There is something arbitrary in his stopping here to look back and look around'... Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hide-out, every word also a mask. (BGE, S. 289)
Rather than rejecting Dionysus at some stage of his descent, it appears as though Nietzsche reaffirms his God at every point. His devotion to Dionysus reaffirms his passion for life in every situation, and no matter how far Nietzsche descends, and how close he finds himself to the truth, there is no point at which he does or will reject Dionysus.

Nietzsche's commitment to Dionysus renders his criticism of Kierkegaard's passionate faith - Kierkegaard's devotion to God - mistaken. Kierkegaard's relationship with God is quite that of Nietzsche to Dionysus, and Nietzsche would be erroneous if he were to deny this. Nietzsche must differentiate between the God he associates with Christendom and Kierkegaard's God, in that Kierkegaard's God was not concocted to be an all-loving comfort to mankind. Instead, He is something with which Kierkegaard struggles and suffers, and it is through this struggle that Kierkegaard is able to affirm himself, his life, and his world.

V. In Conclusion

In conclusion, I find that Kierkegaard's subjective existing individual is not disparaged by Nietzsche's criticism of the herd mentality. However, it remains unclear where Kierkegaard's individual would fit into Nietzsche's philosophy. It may be the case that Kierkegaard's individual would be criticized in the same way that both Socrates and Plato were, as sick individuals. There seems to be no place in Nietzsche's philosophy for the Kierkegaardian individual, as Nietzsche cannot criticize Kierkegaard's belief in God without subjecting his own Dionysian philosophy to the same criticism. Nietzsche would hold Kierkegaard in high regard, as the individual deserves much credit in Nietzsche's philosophy for avoiding this criticism of the herd mentality. 



1. Gardiner, Patrick. Kierkegaard. Oxford University Prese. Oxford. 1996 

2. Guignon, Charles. Pereboom, Derk (editors). Existentialism: Basic Writings. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana. 1995 

3. Kierkegaard, Soren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1992 

4. Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Penguin Books. London. 1985

5. Nash, Ronald. "Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the death of God." Bridges. 1991. Vol 3, p. 1-8 

6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Random House, Inc. New York. 1989

7. Westphal, Merold. "Kierkegaard's Politics. Thought. Fordham University Press. New York, 1980. P. 320-32 

8. Zelechow, Bernard. "Fear and Trembling and Joyful Wisdom: the same book..." History of European Ideas. Oxford. 1990; vol. 12, no. 1:p. 93-104 


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