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.
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.
After the death of his father in 1849, Friedrich Nietzsche spent 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 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 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. Because 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 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 Nietzsche’s 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 Schopenhauer. Nietzsche would one day reject Wagner as he would Schopenhauer.
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, Nietzsche was appointed to the chair of classical philology; he was twenty-four, a resident of Switzerland, and no longer a citizen of Prussia.
In the two decades of sanity that remained to Nietzsche, he would often battle 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. The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music was far from 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...
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