Friedrich Nietzsche Nietzsche, Friedrich - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik [The Birth of Tragedy] (essay) 1872

Unzeitgemdsse Betrachtungen [Untimely Meditations] (essays) 1873-76

Menschliches, Allzumenschliches [Human, All Too Human] (essays and aphorisms) 1878-80

Die Morgenrote [The Dawn] (essays and aphorisms) 1881

Die Frdhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science] (essays, poetry, and aphorisms) 1882

Also Sprach Zarathustra [Thus Spake Zarathustra] (prose) 1883-85

Jenseits von Gut und Böse [Beyond Good and Evil] (essays and aphorisms) 1886

Zur Genealogie der Moral [On the Genealogy of Morals] (essays and aphorisms) 1887

Der Fall Wagner [The Case of Wagner] (essay) 1888

Die Götzen-dämmerung [The Twilight of the Idols] (essays) 1889

Der Antichrist [The Antichrist] (essay) 1895

Nietzsche contra Wagner [Nietzsche contra Wagner] (essay) 1895

Ecce Homo [Ecce Homo] (autobiography) 1908

Der Wille zur Macht [The Will to Power] (notebooks) 1909-10

Martin Heidegger (essay date 1954)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Heidegger was a German philosopher, critic, and educator. His magnum opus, Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time), exerted a profound influence on the development of existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and other contemporary philosophical disciplines. Heidegger's four-volume study of Nietzsche's philosophy was a major impetus for the renewed interest in Nietzsche among scholars in the mid-twentieth century. In the following excerpt from the second volume of that work, subtitled The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, Heidegger examines the meaning of the figure of Zarathustra in Nietzsche's philosophical thought.]

Our question ["Who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra?"], it...

(The entire section is 8361 words.)

William Barrett (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Barrett was an American critic, educator, and editor who was associated with the influential leftist journal Partisan Review, whose editors, including Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, and Mary McCarthy, espoused Marxist and modernist ideas in politics and literature. Barrett reacted against the utopian strain in these ideologies and distinguished himself in translating and explicating the work of European existentialists. In the following excerpt from his much-praised study of existentialism, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, Barrett elucidates Nietzsche's contributions to existentialist thought.]

By the middle of the nineteenth century …, the problem of man...

(The entire section is 11070 words.)

Erich Heller (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[A German-born American critic and educator, Heller has written extensively on modern German literature and culture in such books as The Disinherited Mind (1952), Franz Kafka (1969), and Thomas Mann: The Ironic German (1979). In the following essay from his The Importance of Nietzsche, Heller asserts that the central idea in Nietzsche's philosophy is the death of God, from which stemmed his prophetic insight that the nihilistic drive of modern science and politics would unleash technological warfare and destruction on an unprecedented scale.]

In 1873, two years after Bismarck's Prussia had defeated France, a young German who happened to live in Switzerland and...

(The entire section is 7422 words.)

Henri Birault (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Birault is a French critic and educator in philosophy. In the following essay he explores Nietzsche's use of the concept of beatitude.]

There is something paradoxical in choosing the idea of beatitude as an introduction to Nietzsche's thought. On the one hand, beatitude never presents itself as an introduction, but as a conclusion; it is not initial or initiating, but terminal or concluding. It is always at the end of a certain itinerary of the soul that we find it—as the recompense, the fine flower or beautiful mirage of a great labor achieved, a slow maturation, an old nostalgia. Logically, then, we should not begin with it; at most we might end with it.

But on the other...

(The entire section is 6372 words.)

Jean Granier (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[A French critic and educator, Granier is the author of Le Probleme de la verite dans la philosophie de Nietzsche (1966). In the following essay he investigates Nietzsche's philosophy of the nature of truth.]

One of the principal themes in Nietzschean thought is "the interpretive character of all that happens. No event exists in itself. Everything that happens consists of a group of phenomena that are gathered and selected by an interpretive being." For Nietzsche, these phenomena are not masks attached to a thing in itself, some lesser beings, or nothingness, or facts; their being belongs to an interpretive process, which consists only in the difference between an...

(The entire section is 3221 words.)

Thomas J. J. Altizer (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[An American critic and educator, Altizer has described himself as an atheistic Christian theologian. Altizer was deeply influenced by Nietzsche's critique of Christianity, and has authored such books as Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966), Toward a New Christianity (1967), and Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today (1980). In the following essay Altizer argues that Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same expands on a teaching of Jesus Christ that was subsequently obscured by orthodox Christianity.]

Nietzsche's Zarathustra is a product of the Second Innocence of atheism, the new historical destiny created by the death of...

(The entire section is 6879 words.)

Karsten Harries (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Harries is a German-born American critic and educator in philosophy. In the following essay he examines Nietzsche's frequent metaphors likening philosophy to sea exploration.]

In his preface to Nietzsche as Philosopher, Arthur Danto writes, appropriately enough given Nietzsche's understanding of himself as a seafaring discoverer, a new Columbus setting sail for uncharted seas: "His language would have been less colorful had he known what he was trying to say, but then he would not have been the original thinker he was, working through a set of problems which had hardly been charted before. Small wonder his maps are illustrated, so to speak, with all sorts of monsters and fearful...

(The entire section is 10190 words.)

Terry Eagleton (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[An English critic and educator, Eagleton is the author of numerous Marxist literary studies, including Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes (1975) and Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (1976). In the following excerpt from his The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Eagleton examines Nietzsche's critique of idealism.]

It is not difficult to trace certain general parallels between historical materialism and the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche is in his own way a full-blooded materialist, whatever scant regard he may pay to the labour process and its social relations. One might say that the root of all culture for Nietzsche is...

(The entire section is 10715 words.)

Daniel W. Conway (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay Conway offers a deconstructionist analysis of Thus Spake Zarathustra.]

Deconstruction presupposes the critic's insight into the contingency of the construction of authority. By exposing the empowering presuppositions of the author's discourse, deconstruction effectively discredits any claim to an epistemically privileged authority. But does deconstruction adequately provide for the author's own insight into the construction of textual authority? How does deconstruction (or any other self-conscious interpretative strategy) deal with a text whose textuality presupposes the kind of indeterminacy and self-referentiality upon which deconstruction operates?...

(The entire section is 8252 words.)

Clayton Koelb (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Koelb is an American critic and educator. His works include Inventions of Reading: Rhetoric and the Literary Imagination (1988) and Kafka's Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading (1989). In the following essay Koelb asserts that Nietzsche's insistence on the figurative origin of language reveals his basic philosophical method, whereby ideas are apprehended through a rhetorical manipulation of metaphors and double meanings rather than a purely conceptual logic "beyond" language.]

There is a prima facie case to be made for Nietzsche's early and abiding interest in the rhetorical aspect of all discourse. Much of that case has already been made by Paul de Man in Allegories of...

(The entire section is 7610 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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, 276 p.

A compendium of reminiscences by personal acquaintances of Nietzsche.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. 1980. Reprint. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982, 424 p.

Authoritative critical biography.

Pletsch, Carl. Young Nietzsche: Becoming a Genius. New York: The Free Press, 1991, 261 p.

Biography of Nietzsche's formative years which views genius as a self-conscious, creative strategy for defining...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)