The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

In the world of the 8‑bit video game, there may be no more a frus­trat­ing, Sisy­phuse­an task than com­plet­ing the var­i­ous iter­a­tions of Mega Man. Each suc­ces­sive lev­el can feel end­less, as one dies and starts again, time after time, with no glo­ri­ous end in sight. It can feel like, as Friedrich Niet­zsche might say, being caught in a cycle of “eter­nal recur­rence,” des­tined to repeat the same actions, over and over again for eter­ni­ty.

The videos here then—part of the pop­u­lar trend of 8‑bit shorts—use the graph­ics and bleep­ing sound effects and music of Mega Man to illus­trate Nietzsche’s seem­ing­ly pes­simistic ideas. First, with a nod to Rust Cohle, we have the theory—or rather the thought experiment—of “eter­nal recur­rence.” Draw­ing on Arthur Schopen­hauer’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Bud­dhism, Niet­zsche imag­ined a uni­verse with no end and no begin­ning, an end­less loop of suf­fer­ing in which one is des­tined to make the same mis­takes for­ev­er.

If this seems ter­ri­fy­ing­ly bleak to you, you may approach life through a haze of resen­ti­ment, Niet­zsche might say, a bit­ter tan­gle of anger and blame that rejects the world as it is. The one who over­comes this snare—the uber­men­sch—has achieved self-mas­tery. Strong in the ways of the “will to pow­er” is he, and delight­ed by the prospect of liv­ing in the present moment an infi­nite num­ber of times, even if the uni­verse is cold, cru­el, and indif­fer­ent to human exis­tence. The “will to pow­er” gov­erns all life, for Niet­zsche, and human life in par­tic­u­lar is weak­ened by ignor­ing this fact and cling­ing to moral sys­tems of resen­ti­ment like that of Chris­tian­i­ty.

Niet­zsche’s argu­ment against Chris­tian­i­ty, as explained above at least, is that it encour­ages, even cel­e­brates medi­oc­rity and frowns upon excel­lence. That such is the gen­er­al tenor of our cur­rent age—an assess­ment the nar­ra­tor makes—is debat­able. Yes, we may pro­mote medi­oc­ri­ties at an alarm­ing rate, but we also at least nom­i­nal­ly cel­e­brate uber men (almost always men), who may not tru­ly be self made but who sure­ly live by the dic­tates of the will to pow­er, tak­ing what they want when they want it. Whether Nietzsche’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of this preda­to­ry behav­ior as the high­est of human pos­si­bil­i­ties inspires you or not may depend on how far you feel your­self to be above the com­mon herd.

Nietzsche’s amoral phi­los­o­phy has appealed to some pret­ty preda­to­ry char­ac­ters, but it also appeals to anti-author­i­tar­i­an, post-mod­ern types because of his crit­i­cal stance toward not only reli­gion, but also what can seem like its sec­u­lar replace­ment, sci­ence. Niet­zsche respect­ed the sci­en­tif­ic method, but he rec­og­nized its lim­i­ta­tions as a means of describ­ing, rather than explain­ing the world. All of our descrip­tions are inter­pre­ta­tions that do not pen­e­trate into the realm of ulti­mate caus­es or mean­ings, and can­not pro­vide a priv­i­leged, god-like van­tage point from which to make absolute judg­ments.

When, in the hopes of replac­ing the cer­tain­ties of reli­gious moral­i­ty and meta­physics, we ele­vate sci­ence to the posi­tion of ulti­mate truth for­mer­ly grant­ed to the mind of god, we lose sight of this basic lim­i­ta­tion; we com­mit the same fal­la­cy as the reli­gious, mis­tak­ing our sto­ries about the world for the world itself. Would Nietzsche’s extreme skep­ti­cism have made him sym­pa­thet­ic to today’s cli­mate sci­ence deniers and anti­vaxxers? Prob­a­bly not. He did rec­og­nize that, like the phys­i­cal bod­ies where thought takes place, some ideas are healthy descrip­tions of real­i­ty and some are not. Nonethe­less, our expla­na­tions, Niet­zsche argued, whether sci­en­tif­ic or oth­er­wise, are contingent—effects of lan­guage, not exposés of Truth, cap­i­tal T.

For more 8‑Bit Phi­los­o­phy, see our posts on Pla­to, Sartre, Der­ri­da, as well as Kierkegaard and Camus, all illus­trat­ed in short, nos­tal­gic recre­ations of clas­sic video games.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Phi­los­o­phy of Niet­zsche: An Intro­duc­tion by Alain de Bot­ton

Niet­zsche Dis­pens­es Dat­ing Advice in a Short Screw­ball Film, My Friend Friedrich

The Dig­i­tal Niet­zsche: Down­load Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • mark turner says:

    The Chom­sky video is in the Friedrich Niet­zsche link and vice ver­sa.

  • Nicholas says:

    “Sisyphean,” not “Sisy­phuse­an,” which sounds like a baby name I heard the oth­er day in the Bronx.

  • Jordan Bates says:

    I’ve always felt Niet­zsche’s “will to pow­er” meme could be inter­pret­ed a lit­tle more gen­tly. I don’t think it nec­es­sar­i­ly has to equate to “tak­ing what [you] want when [you] want it.” If you come at it from the angle of pow­er = becom­ing a being who accepts eter­nal recur­rence, then per­haps the true Uber­men­sch would be some­thing more resem­bling a kind of Zen accep­tance and delight in the moment.

    I haven’t read enough Niet­zsche to know if my reser­va­tions about the strict def­i­n­i­tion of “will to pow­er” are jus­ti­fied. I just think that there are many types of “pow­er.”

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