Nietzsche (1844-1900): Beyond Good And Evil (1886)
Nietzsche is a vastly too complex and influential philosopher for us to treat well or fairly in this class, but his influence on Modern (and Postmodern) thinking is worth covering briefly, especially as his theory of the "Ubermensch" pertains to Conrad's Heart Of Darkness.
In a nutshell, in Beyond Good And Evil Nietzsche argues that:
a) Concepts of good and evil ("morality") are culturally constructed rather than inherently "true"; different cultures develop different moral laws in order maintain social order. This concept of knowledge is quite similar to Marx's definition of Ideology; the difference is the Marx's Ideology is rooted in economic relations and Nietzsche's concepts of morality are more broadly rooted in social order writ large. Also, Marx is interested in changing the social order as a means toward social equality; Nietzsche believes social equality is a large part of the problem.
b) Although not necessarily cosmologically or ultimately "True", such concepts are still necessary and useful; nihilism, a belief in nothing at all, would be more dangerous than holding false beliefs because nihilism would lead to outright anarchy and chaos. Even if rules are simply created by people, people still need rules.
c) These concepts of good and evil, in religions like Christianity (or theories like communism or American constitutional equality) which emphasized meekness, humility, love, equality and the "common good", only acted/act to weaken a people's/culture's strongest members. All humans have a "will to power" and moral systems generally curtail these by privileging the group over the individual.
d) But great societies were generally measured, remembered and advanced via these same strongest members. That is, people like Plato, Alexander the Great and even Christ himself were important because they broke free from the traditional moral principles (the concepts of "good and evil") of their own people.
Sometimes, he believes, it is necessary to emphasize meekness and equality to balance out overly selfish cultures (thus the rise of Christianity in Rome), but, he argues, currently too much meekness is simply stifling great individual potential and thereby holding back Western culture from its full flowering. (Just as Marx addressed a period embracing slavery and child-labor, we might cut Nietzsche some slack by remembering he's writing to repressive Victorian Europe.)
Slave Morality vs. Master Morality
This leads Nietzsche to differentiate between slave morality and master morality: Slave morality is a moral system (like Christianity, like communism, ) requiring submission to others for "the greater good" (the individual submits to the community), while master morality is individualistic: that which makes a man the master of his own destiny and fate.
He implies that while the New Testament encourages slave morality (humility, meekness, turning the other cheek, love), the Old Testament encouraged master morality: the Jews saw themselves as the "chosen people", as the unique "children of God", and were a minority willing to impose their will upon their neighbors, often by force.
Basically, Nietzsche argues if we could break free from traditional conceptions of good and evil a people could advance to achieve their greatest potential. The truly great man could define a new morality beyond good and evil.
In this way Nietzsche pits himself not only against organized religion (especially Judeo-Christian values) but also against Marxist equality: Nietzsche rebels against the concept of equality itself as that which holds us back from become "Supermen": Ubermensch.
We'll explore other Nietzschean ideas in Postmodernism, but we're interested in this portion of his philosophy now in relations to:
a) This deepening Modernist and especially Post Modernist sense that knowledge (in this case, morality) is not "Truth" (in direct contrast with Locke); it is instead a set of culturally constructed concepts rooted in human relationships like power.
b) Conrad's representation of Kurtz as a kind of ubermensch in Heart of Darkness.
c) Hitler's adaption of the "social-Darwinist" implications of the Ubermensch. Nietzsche died decades before the rise of the Nazi movement and his Beyond Good And Evil explicitly criticizes exactly the kinds of nationalism and anti-Semitism at that movement's heart, but his thinking, including that of the ubermensch, certainly were adopted into Nazi ideology.
d) Ayn Rand's adaption of Nietzsche toward modern Libertarianism (see her The Fountainhead or The Virtue of Selfishness). Ironically, in our current culture these ideas have gained the most currency among conservative Christians, the group Nietzsche -- and Rand herself -- originally railed the loudest against.
e) Highly influential in the current hipster mustache craze.
A Broader Context
It's worth stepping back to think about how Nietzsche is wading into a debate as old as history: the dialectic between an individual's freedom and desire to stand out among others in conflict with our need to sublimate our desires to serve others. This is the theme Adam and Eve confront in the first books of The Bible (1200 BC), the theme Achilles confronts in the The Iliad (800 BC), and theme of much Socratic/Platonic philosophy, and the theme of our Declaration and Constitution, both of which attempt to delineate the balance between liberty and equality.
I'd argue that it's the basic conflict inherent to any pack animal: our need to excel and get as much for ourselves rubbing up against our need for community, both of which are encoded in our DNA.
What's radical about Nietzsche (and Ayn Rand) is that they radically break with this tradition to side entirely with radical individualism.
Extra Credit: NPR's On The Media's excellent summary of Nihilistic Philosophies (a 22 minute radio broadcast that is more generous and forgiving than Tom's Christian-Marxist take and an excellent into to Existentialism)