Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900
(Full name Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche) German philosopher, philologist, poet, and autobiographer. The following entry presents an overview of Nietzsche's career.
Nietzsche is considered one of the greatest philosophers of the modern era. Largely ignored and misunderstood during his lifetime, Nietzsche's revolutionary style of thinking and writing influenced a wide variety of twentieth-century disciplines, including psychoanalysis, existentialism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. Trained as a classical philologist, Nietzsche's insight into the origins of ancient Greek culture provided the foundation for his critique of traditional philosophy. While he never achieved a systematic formulation of his ideas, Nietzsche's insights into the veiled motives of philosophy and morality inaugurated a wellspring of discoveries about the psychological, existential, and linguistic bases of human existence.
Nietzsche was born in Rocken, Prussia, to a devout Lutheran couple. After considering and rejecting the study of theology, in 1865 he entered the University of Leipzig, where he concentrated on classical philology. Nietzsche acquired a reputation as a prodigy in his field, and though he had not yet finished his doctoral thesis, he was appointed as an associate professor at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four. During this period, Nietzsche discovered the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, made the acquaintance of Richard Wagner, and published his first book, Die Geburt der Trago'die aus dem Geiste der Musik (The Birth of Tragedy). Nietzsche suffered chronically from numerous physical ailments, including severe headaches, gastrointestinal problems and partial blindness, and in 1879 he resigned his post at the university. With his retirement from teaching, Nietzsche devoted himself exclusively to the development of his philosophy. In 1889 he suffered a mental breakdown and partial paralysis. His condition gradually worsened over the ensuing decade. Nietzsche died in 1900.
Many critics maintain that Nietzsche's works reflect three periods of development. The first, from 1872 to 1876, is exemplified by The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche contends that tragic drama and early Greek philosophy resulted from the interplay of Dionysian and Apollonian forces. Unzeitgemdsse Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations) advances Nietzsche's thesis that metaphysical reasoning is a symptom of decadence, though with respect to German culture in the 1870s. In the second period, from 1878 to 1882, Nietzsche began to use an aphoristic style of writing to accommodate his radically skeptical and experimental mode of thinking. In such works as Die Morgenrilte (The Dawn) and Die Frdhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science), Nietzsche began to probe psychological phenomena and to describe the functions of the unconscious. His analysis of Christian virtue as a sublimated drive for power and a symptom of "slave morality" foreshadowed the more rigorous formulation of the will to power in his later works. In The Gay Science Nietzsche also unveiled his dictum "God is dead," which metaphorically expresses the meaning of nihilism. The final period was initiated by Nietzsche's masterwork, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), a stylistic tour de force which embodies the central themes of Nietzsche's philosophy, particularly the eternal recurrence of the same. After the publication of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to disseminate his doctrines in a more accessible form in Jenseits von Gut und Bdse (Beyond Good and Evil) and Zur Genealogie der Moral (On The Genealogy of Morals). While he drafted plans for a magnum opus, variously titled The Will to Power or The Revaluation of All Values, he was either unwilling or unable to systematize his philosophy, and he abandoned the project. Nietzsche did, however, produce three important works in the year before his breakdown. In Die Götzendaimmerung (The Twilight of the Idols) Nietzsche formulated in his most succinct and penetrating style his opposition to metaphysical thinking, demonstrating that Platonic doctrines constitute the source of European nihilism. Der Antichrist (The Antichrist) is vitriolic and uneven, but also a profoundly insightful polemic against Christianity as a nihilistic religion. Ecce Homo is Nietzsche's unorthodox attempt at autobiography. Boastful to the point of megalomania, it nevertheless exhibits profound psychological insight and styistic brilliance.
While Nietzsche is now considered one of the greatest philosophers in history, his works were frequently denigrated by early commentators who objected to his "unphilosophical" use of aphorisms and irony. His professional isolation began with the bold but poorly documented insights of The Birth of Tragedy, which was scorned by a majority of classical scholars. By the turn of the century, however, Nietzsche's works began to generate considerable enthusiasm in literary circles, well in advance of his philosophical reception. Such authors as Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and George Bernard Shaw embraced Nietzsche as a prophet of anti-humanist modernism. Serious consideration of the strictly philosophical aspects of his work did not appear until the advent of psychoanalysis and existentialism, though the taint of its association with Nazi ideology prevented a more widespread acceptance. This situation was radically altered in 1961, with the publication of Heidegger's four-volume study of Nietzsche, which outlined the central themes of his philosophy and asserted that Nietzsche's critique of traditional thought and value was at once the end point and culmination of Western metaphysics. During the 1960s Nietzsche became a central touchstone for such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who detected in his revolutionary experiments with style a proto-deconstructionist understanding of language and conceptual reason. Since then, the rehabilitation of Nietzsche's reputation has continued unabated, with a torrent of studies from such diverse perspectives as feminism, Marxism, hermeneutics, and poststructuralism, and Nietzsche is commonly linked with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as a principal architect of the modern intellectual landscape.