Nietzsche’s writings have elicited a large variety of reactions and interpretations. Often writing in enigmatic aphorisms rather than rational arguments, Nietzsche never attempted to formulate a philosophical system, and he did not hesitate to change his mind about fundamental issues. He had a tendency to make bold generalizations without making necessary qualifications and exceptions. A highly emotional man, he usually wrote rapidly and in a spontaneous style, apparently considering the aesthetics of literary expression more important than precision of thought. Nietzsche’s unhappy life, health problems, and loneliness, moreover, probably contributed to the apparent pleasure that he took in shocking bourgeois society.
His writings are commonly divided into three periods. During the early period, 1872-1876, he attacked modern culture as superficial and empty in comparison with that of ancient Greece, attributing most of the blame to the modern emphasis on science rather than on art and myth. During the middle period from 1877 to 1882, he acknowledged the value of science and sought a naturalistic understanding of human life. In his late period, 1883-1888, his writings became more accessible, and he grew increasingly strident in attacking conventional morality and orthodox Christianity. Some scholars, however, reject the three-part schema, arguing that he never freed himself from the Romantic inheritance of the early period and never ceased to engage in metaphysical speculation, despite his assertions to the contrary.
In his early period, Nietzsche was particularly influenced by the music of Richard Wagner and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Like many people, he was overwhelmed by Wagner’s artistic skill and mythical vision of Germany’s heroic past. Schopenhauer’s major book, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstelung (1819; The World as Will and Idea, 1883-1886), asserted that the essential reality of the universe is an irrational and mindless cosmic force that he called either the “will to live” or simply the “will,” which is indifferent to human needs and aspirations. Believing that this ubiquitous force produces evil and suffering, he recommended denial of the will through an ascetic cessation of desire, but he allowed for temporary escape by way of art and aesthetic experiences, especially in music. For several years, Nietzsche appeared to look upon this metaphysical perspective as a key to unlocking the meaning of human life.
The influences of Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner were clearly seen in Nietzsche’s first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1909). Likewise, his four lengthy meditations, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (1873-1876; Thoughts out of Season, 1909), continued to use Schopenhauerian and Wagnerian ideas to criticize modern culture and elevate art over science. In his unpublished essay of 1873, “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne” (“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”), which is considered his most important discussion of language and rhetoric, he insisted that all claims of objective truth were illusions based on chains of metaphors. He also asserted his influential theory of perspectivism, emphasizing that a person’s perspective profoundly affects the nature of the reality that is observed.
By 1876, Nietzsche was ending his friendship with Wagner, who was now speaking favorably of Christianity, the German Empire, and anti-Semitism, three things that Nietzsche detested. He was also beginning to view Schopenhauer’s nonempirical speculations as superfluous, in part a result of his new appreciation for the French Enlightenment and empirical science. His philosophy during this period is best seen in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878; Human, All Too Human, 1910, 1911).
By the time he wrote Die fröliche Wissenschaft (1882, 1887; The Joyful Wisdom, 1910), which inaugurated the final period of his writings, Nietzsche had returned to a hostile stance toward rational science, again praising human instincts and advocating an aesthetic perspective of life. This book included the famous aphorism in which a madman proclaimed the death of God, as well as another aphorism which asked readers to reflect on the possibility that their entire lives would recur throughout eternity. Until his breakdown in 1888, Nietzsche continued to emphasize these two themes, which he combined with two others: the coming Übermensch (literally translated as “Superman” or “Overman”) and the “will to power.”
In using the term Übermensch, Nietzsche was primarily referring to a person of superior aesthetic and intellectual qualities who has overcome the weaknesses of the “common herd” of humans. This Overman was expected to remain apolitical and to sublimate his will into contemplation and artistic creation. In contrast to the Nazis’ racist idea of a superior Nordic superrace, he held that the development of the superior type of persons can be found among different racial groups and cultures of the world.
Nietzsche claimed that the “will to power” provided a comprehensive and compelling explanation for human motivation. He wrote, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” By “power,” Nietzsche apparently meant the capacity to obtain one’s desired goals through any number of means, including persuasion, prestige, money, warfare, artistic ability, or even self-control. He apparently did not consider the possibility that his unqualified glorification of all forms of power could be exploited to justify extreme militarism and aggressive nationalism. In 1906, his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who later supported Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, published a controversial selection from his later notes, Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power, 1910).
Although there is a general consensus that his sister’s choice of aphorisms reflected her own ideology more than his, historians disagree about the extent to which Nietzsche’s ideas were compatible with those espoused by the Nazis. Nietzsche’s many defenders emphasize that he frequently denounced Otto von Bismarck’s aggressive wars of expansion, and that he rarely expressed anti-Semitic views, except in the context of the similarities between Christianity and the Jewish religion. Critics of Nietzsche concede that he opposed German racism and nationalism, but they nevertheless find that his ideas and those of the Nazis shared much in common, particularly his antidemocratic tirades and his defense of exploiting the common people in the interests of the Übermensch.
Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic book of autobiographical reflections, Ecce Homo (1908; English translation, 1911), written a few weeks before his mental breakdown, summarized the ideas that he had expressed over the years, but it was not very revealing about the details of his life. One of the unusual aspects of the book is the extent to which Nietzsche boasted about his intelligence and his place in history. He wrote, for example, “My destiny ordained that I would be the first decent human being. . . . I was the first to discover truth. . . . Mankind can begin to have fresh hopes, only now...
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