Friedrich Nietzsche

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Article abstract: Though mostly ignored during his lifetime, Nietzsche’s writings became a bellwether in the twentieth century for radical philosophical, psychological, linguistic, and literary critiques of Western culture. Through a series of remarkable works of German prose, Nietzsche sought to smash the idol of Christian morality and liberate a few who might follow after him into a triumphant and tragic this-worldly life.

Early Life

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche—named for the reigning king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, whose birthday was also October 15—was born in a parsonage. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a Lutheran pastor; his mother, Franziska Nietzsche (née Oehler), was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. (The union produced two other children, Elisabeth in 1846 and Joseph in 1848, who died shortly before his second birthday.)

With the death of his father in 1849, Friedrich would spend most of his early life surrounded by women: his mother, his sister, his paternal grandmother, and two maiden aunts. The family moved in 1850 to Naumburg, in Thuringia, where the young Nietzsche attended elementary school and a private preparatory school. In 1858, he entered Germany’s most renowned Protestant boarding school, the Schulpforta, on a scholarship. There he met Paul Deussen, also a student, who became one of his few lifelong friends; Deussen found Nietzsche to be deeply serious, “inclined to corpulence and head congestions,” and extremely myopic.

Nietzsche was graduated from the school at Pforta in 1864 with a classical education; that same year, he entered the University of Bonn to study theology and philology, the latter under Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl. Unable to fit into the rowdiness of student life at Bonn—despite his entertaining students on the piano—Nietzsche abandoned any pretense of theological studies and transferred in 1865 to the University of Leipzig, where his friend Ritschl had gone. Writing to his sister Elisabeth about his abandonment of the Christian faith, Nietzsche told her that he had become a disciple of the truth, wherever it led; he could not be content with a religious happiness. That same year, the serious Nietzsche told Deussen that a recently published “life of Christ” by David Strauss was disingenuous in its removal of the miraculous Christ from the Gospels while holding on to his precepts. “That can have serious consequences,” said Nietzsche; “if you give up Christ you will have to give up God as well.”

The year 1865 was remarkable for two other reasons. As Deussen later wrote, Nietzsche had told him that a street porter, asked to take him to a restaurant in Cologne, instead had delivered him to a brothel. Speechless, Nietzsche soon left. Deussen speculated that his friend remained a lifelong virgin. There is much scholarly debate on the subject, but it seems likely that Deussen was wrong. Since there is no indication in Nietzsche’s correspondence that he ever had sexual relations with a woman of his own class, it is probable that in 1865 or later Nietzsche acquired syphilis at a brothel. Early in 1889, he would collapse into insanity.

It was in 1865 that Nietzsche encountered the works of the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and though Nietzsche was later to renounce his allegiance to Schopenhauer’s perspective, and his anti-Semitism, by late in 1865 he had announced that he had become a follower. The Leipzig years, from 1865 to 1869, saw Nietzsche taken under Ritschl’s wing as his protégé, the development of his friendship with Erwin Rohde, and the entrance of composer Richard Wagner into his life. After hearing Wagner’s music in 1868, Nietzsche became a convert; meeting with the composer that same year, Nietzsche found that Wagner, too, loved...

(This entire section contains 2488 words.)

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Schopenhauer. Yet, as he would do with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche would one day reject Wagner.

Nietzsche entered into the cavalry company of an artillery regiment in October of 1867, but in March of the next year he suffered a serious chest injury while trying to mount a horse. On extended health leave from the military, Nietzsche resumed his studies in Leipzig; in 1869, the university (on Ritschl’s recommendation) conferred a doctorate on Nietzsche on the strength of his published philological writings and without the customary examination and dissertation required for a German degree. That same year, Basel appointed Nietzsche to the chair of classical philology; he was twenty-four, no longer a citizen of Prussia, now a resident of Switzerland.

Life’s Work

In the two decades of sanity that remained to Nietzsche, he would battle often against long periods of ill health, especially after 1870, when he fell victim to dysentery and diphtheria while serving as a medical orderly with the Prussian army in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). On his return to Basel to resume his teaching chores in philology (he was an unsuccessful applicant to the chair of philosophy), Nietzsche was plagued with frequent bouts of nausea and exhaustion.

For a time, his one surcease was his friendship with Wagner. From 1869 until Wagner moved to Bayreuth in 1872, Nietzsche visited the composer and his wife, Cosima, some twenty-three times at the Wagner residence at Tribschen, near Lucerne. The composer welcomed a disciple; yet his increasing use of Christian images, especially in his last opera, Parsifal, sickened Nietzsche, as did Wagner’s anti-Semitism. By 1878, their friendship had been sundered.

Nietzsche’s first book broke with tradition. Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, 1909) was far from being a classical philological study burdened by arcane footnotes. Instead, Nietzsche had written a speculative treatment of what he found to be two competing forces in ancient Greek life—the Dionysian, representing potentially destructive passion, and the Apollonian, representing reason and restraint. Greek tragedy had fused the two, but, with the triumph of Socrates, the Apollonian was in the ascendant. (Much later Nietzsche would redefine the Dionysian impulse as a sublimated or perfected “will to power” and would ally himself with Dionysus.)

Nietzsche was granted a leave of absence from Basel in 1876 because of ill health, but his continued headaches, vomiting, and deteriorating eyesight led to his resignation in May, 1879, with a pension of three thousand Swiss francs a year for six years. From that time onward, Nietzsche increasingly became an enigma to his friends. His publication of the aphoristic Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878; Human, All Too Human, 1910, 1911) was characterized by Wagner as the beginning of Nietzsche’s slide into madness. Nietzsche cut his intellectual mooring to Schopenhauer as well, writing a friend that he no longer believed what the philosopher had said.

In the decade beginning in 1879, Nietzsche, moving from boardinghouse to boardinghouse, always seeking new curatives, lived in the French Riviera, Italy, and Switzerland, a virtual recluse. His letter writing was a substitute for most human contact. Suffering almost ceaseless pain, Nietzsche turned within—as if the pain itself were a spur to creativity, or as if, through his project of revaluing traditional Christian values, his literary genius would master his physiology.

There was much emotional pain as well. His friendship with philosopher Paul Rée (who was investigating the psychological basis of religious belief), which had begun in 1873, was marred when in 1882 both men met Lou Salomé (later the wife of Orientalist F. C. Andreas, friend of Sigmund Freud, and mistress of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke) and both proposed—Nietzsche apparently through Rée. Declining both requests, Salomé counterproposed a platonic ménage à trois; Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth learned of the plan, took him to task for his immorality, and informed their mother of Nietzsche’s behavior. The three continued in one another’s company, but by November, with Salomé and Rée having departed, Nietzsche realized that he had been abandoned.

In January, 1883, in only ten days, Nietzsche penned the first part of what was to become his literary masterpiece, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896). His only work of fiction, the book (completed in 1885, the fourth and final part privately printed from Nietzsche’s own funds) brings a biblical narrative style to parody the Socratic and Christian wisdom teachings, and to bring to “everyone and no one” (the subtitle) the teachings of the Übermensch (variously translated “superman” or “overman”). A more explicit elucidation of Nietzsche’s philosophical orientation came in 1886 with Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft(Beyond Good and Evil, 1907), and, in 1887, Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals, 1896). Books streamed from Nietzsche’s pen. In the last year of his sanity, 1888, he wrote five of them, including Der Antichrist (1895; The Antichrist, 1896) and Ecce Homo (1908; English translation, 1911), the last a semiautobiographical overview of Nietzsche’s published works.

Several months of euphoria preceded Nietzsche’s descent into madness, but following his collapse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, in Turin, Italy, on January 3, 1889—he had seen a cab driver beating his horse and had flung himself around the horse’s neck—the darkness was complete. For the next eleven years, Nietzsche was variously cared for in a Basel asylum, by his mother in Naumburg (until she died in 1897), and by his sister in Weimar.

Elisabeth, married in 1885 to anti-Semite Bernhard Förster (who committed suicide in 1889), managed to gain control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and began zealously to refashion her brother’s image into that of a proto-Nazi. She withheld Ecce Homo from publication for twenty years after Nietzsche had written it, established a Nietzsche archive, and compiled and published a series of notes Nietzsche himself had never intended for publication. She edited it and titled it Der Wille zur Macht (1901; The Will to Power, 1910).

Only in the last year of his sanity did Nietzsche begin to receive important public notice, a result primarily of the philosophy lectures given by Georg Brandes at Copenhagen. It seems ironic that the first commercial successes of the man who wanted to be understood came at the hands of his sister, who carefully crafted a mythical Nietzsche. Poignantly, it was the ever-prescient Nietzsche who had written in Ecce Homo, “I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy. . . .” Nietzsche died in Weimar on August 25, 1900, not yet fifty-six, his mane of hair and his shaggy mustache still dark brown.


There is much scholarly dispute over the nature of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s philosophy, and even over whether he intended to have one. In his mature works, from Thus Spake Zarathustra on, many themes seem important to Nietzsche, from the concept of the overman, the idea of eternal recurrence, of a man being in love with his own fate and thus triumphant in it, to the psychological origins of traditional morality, the nature of the will to power in human affairs, and the death of God, the last announced by a madman in section 125 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882, 1887; The Joyful Wisdom, 1910). Yet in Nietzsche’s modified aphoristic style, his themes receive no systematic exploration; scholarly interpretations are legion.

Nietzsche’s analysis of the psychology of the priest, and of Christian morality, anticipated Freud. Traditional morality has quenched the instinct for life, and has pronounced sexuality, nobility of self, and intellect to be evil; the afterlife is promised only to those who submit to the priest, to the slave morality, the ressentiment of those who are weak. Nietzsche’s message was that the sickness, the life-denying morality of the Church, must be replaced by the message of the overman; though perhaps an unachievable ideal, the overman is able to fall in love with every aspect of his fate and, without self-deception, to will the eternal repetition of every part of his life. God is dead—the new learning killed Him—but the late nineteenth century slumbered on in its nihilism, unaware of the consequences. Nietzsche’s message of triumph and tragedy fell on deaf ears during his lifetime.

Yet his insights, often not fully developed, have been mined by twentieth century existentialists such as Albert Camus, deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger, religious thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, novelists such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and playwright George Bernard Shaw; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung also felt Nietzsche’s influence. As a man “born posthumously,” Nietzsche is a key to understanding the twentieth century’s most influential and most deeply perplexing currents of thought.


Gilman, Sander L., ed. Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries. Translated by David J. Parent. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Fully aware of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s tendencies to mythologize her brother, this anthology draws carefully on her letters, and those from dozens of other correspondents and writers, to paint a picture of Nietzsche as others knew him. Accessible to the general reader, who will be struck by the varying impressions Nietzsche made on those around him.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A chronological account of Nietzsche’s life and work. Includes a helpful timeline and a section of photographs. Hayman draws extensively upon Nietzsche’s letters, especially in detailing Nietzsche’s many illnesses. Attempts to integrate the man with his philosophy but is sometimes murky and cryptic.

Higgins, Kathleen. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. A cleanly written and accessible exploration of the book Nietzsche considered his best. Higgins finds thematic and structural unities when the book is considered from the literary standpoint. The first chapter draws on Nietzsche’s life and letters during the time of the composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra to reveal Nietzsche’s serious concerns behind the sometimes-mocking prophet. The twelve-page bibliography is useful.

Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965. A sympathetic chronological and interpretive narrative, contending that, in the end, one is left with Nietzsche the man and not with some movement or philosophical system. A standard work by one of Nietzsche’s English-language translators.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950, 4th ed. 1974. A standard and important account of Nietzsche’s life and thought by one of his modern English-language translators. The extensive thirty-page annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources is invaluable. Included are samples of Nietzsche’s handwriting. Kaufmann attempts to smooth Nietzsche’s rough edges even as he removes the onus of Elisabeth’s manufactured image of her brother. Somewhat dated, as it takes issue with many works on Nietzsche published early in the twentieth century.

Solomon, Robert C., and Kathleen M. Higgins, eds. Reading Nietzsche. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Based on papers presented at a 1985 seminar on Nietzsche at the University of Texas at Austin. Twelve Nietzsche scholars in the Anglo-American tradition provide insightful interpretations of most of the Nietzsche canon. A ten-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources, including works on specific texts, is extremely valuable in directing first-time readers of Nietzsche into the mountain of Nietzsche studies. Works in the continental tradition are also cited in the bibliography.