In Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Rüdiger Safranski reviews and offers commentary on the writings of seminal nineteenth century thinker Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). Safranski, a former teacher at the Freie Universität in Berlin before turning freelance author and critic, isolates and discusses key themes and concepts in Nietzsche’s work, throws light on Nietzsche’s intellectual and aesthetic influences, and draws connections between Nietzsche’s life and his work. The book closes with an abbreviated account of some of the uses and abuses that have been made of Nietzsche’s ideas since 1890, when Nietzsche ceased writing due to mental illness.
It must first be stated that the biographical aspects of Safranski’s book are quite limited. They really only arise in the context of trying to understand Nietzsche’s writing. Readers will nevertheless come away with some definite impressions of what Nietzsche’s life was like and how it may have affected his work. For one thing, Nietzsche was a lonely individual. His father died early in his life and Nietzsche never felt very well understood by his mother. He appears to have had an essentially hostile relationship with his sister, who later became executor of his work. While Nietzsche enjoyed the friendship of many notables during his lifetime, he did not sustain many of these friendships for very long, often parting on bad terms. As far as is known, Nietzsche never achieved a healthy, long-term, intimate relationship. He was turned down by the two women to whom he proposed, and even these proposals seem to have been awkward and halfhearted. Nietzsche was often physically ill throughout his life and succumbed to mental illness over the last decade of his life. Because of his illnesses, Nietzsche experienced difficulty reading. He was, therefore, aggressive and enthusiastic in his reading, but not comprehensively well-read overall. Nietzsche spent the last part of his writing career as a virtual nomad, moving around between many different locations in Europe and never quite finding a place to call home. Finally, it is significant that Nietzsche’s first love was music, not literature. His eloquence as a writer masks the fact that he was unable to express himself forcefully in the medium for which he originally had the highest regard.
The balance of Safranski’s book is spent on the difficult task of unraveling Nietzsche’s philosophy, starting with his diaries and ending with a flurry of activity that ended up being the fragments that would comprise Der Wille zur Macht (1901; The Will to Power, 1910). One thing that makes this task so difficult is the fact that Nietzsche was a powerful, provocative writer who moved in a mercurial way from topic to topic rather than develop an easily interpretable (or even discernible) philosophical system. Then, too, Nietzsche was given to exaggeration and overstatement—he was, to put it bluntly, willing to sacrifice precision (and consistency) for impact. Finally, it is not clear that Nietzsche’s is a finished body of work. He certainly indicated there was more to come. Indeed, there is an air of something adolescent and unfinished about much of Nietzsche’s writing. Even in this state, however, there is also an undeniable uniqueness to the work. It is simply too brilliant and stimulating to be ignored.
Well aware of these difficulties, Safranski wades into the material without hesitation or fanfare. He discusses various influences on Nietzsche such as the great composer Richard Wagner, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and radical individualist Max Stirner. More specifically, he shows how Nietzsche’s works such as Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872;The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896), Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886; Beyond Good and Evil, 1907), andZur Genealogie der Moral (1887; On the Genealogy of Morals, 1896) may have been affected by these figures.
Most central to Nietzsche’s development was his contact with the larger-than-life Wagner. As mentioned, Nietzsche’s first love was music, and the most prodigious musical force of his time...
(The entire section is 1749 words.)