Friedrich Nietzsche was born in the small town of Röcken, Germany, in 1844. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when Nietzsche was only four years old, and Nietzsche grew up in a family consisting of his mother, grandmother, two aunts, and a younger sister. He attended a top boarding school and studied philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. He was such an exceptional student that he was offered an academic position at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four, before he had even completed his doctorate. Around this time, he also met the great composer Richard Wagner, whom he idolized and with whom he became close friends.
Nietzsche volunteered to serve as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and returned to Basel after having contracted dysentery, diphtheria, and perhaps syphilis. Health problems would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1872, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which met with controversy due to its unconventional style. He continued teaching at Basel until 1879, but his interest in philology waned in favor of philosophical interests. In the late 1870s, Nietzsche broke with Wagner, disgusted by the cult of personality surrounding Wagner as well as with Wagner’s German nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Between 1879 and 1889, Nietzsche lived mostly in Switzerland and Italy, subsisting on a small university pension and writing furiously despite his declining health. He suffered constant migraines, insomnia, and indigestion, such that he could only read and write for a few hours each day, and his eyesight became so poor that he was partially blind. Despite these setbacks, Nietzsche wrote eleven books and thousands of pages of notebook jottings in the next ten years. Throughout this time, Nietzsche’s books sold very poorly, and he had only a handful of admirers.
In January 1889, Nietzsche saw a man beating his horse on the street in Turin and rushed to intervene. He collapsed in the street and never regained his sanity. He spent the last eleven years of his life as a vegetable, oblivious to his surroundings, and died in August 1900.
During his insanity, Nietzsche was cared for by his half sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. She was married to Bernhard Förster, a prominent German nationalist and anti-Semite, whose political views she shared. Elisabeth published Nietzsche’s writings selectively and used her close relationship with her brother to promote him as a kind of proto-Nazi saint. Though Nietzsche was unaware of it, he became suddenly famous during the 1890s, and by the time of his death he was a national celebrity. Due to his sister’s influence, however, he was frequently and wrongly associated with the politics of the Nazi party, and it was only after the Second World War that his reputation was cleared.
Nietzsche lived during a time of rising German nationalism. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1, Germany was united for the first time as a single empire. The brutish nationalism and anti-Semitism that Nietzsche derides in his writings are precisely the sentiments that led Germany into two world wars.
Nietzsche also lived at a time when the scientific spirit was triumphant in the West. Physicists of the late nineteenth century were confident that they had essentially settled all the major questions their discipline had to offer, the social sciences were coming into their own, and Darwin’s theory of evolution was making great waves in all variety of fields.
Despite the optimism felt by his countrymen at Germany’s rise as a world power and the triumph of the sciences, Nietzsche characterized his age as nihilistic. The scientific worldview does not require God, and while most Europeans were still practicing Christians, Nietzsche recognized that “God is dead”: Christianity had given way to science as the primary means of making sense of the world. However, science is avowedly value-neutral: it had replaced Christianity without introducing any new values. As a result, Nietzsche saw a great void opening up in the realm of human values, which was in danger of being filled by the kind of narrow-minded nationalism that indeed led to two world wars. Much of his writing is concerned with this crisis in values that most of his contemporaries did not even recognize.
As a trained philologist, Nietzsche knew the Greek and Roman classics backward and forward. However, his philosophical tastes were atypical. He rarely mentions Aristotle, and he is mostly contemptuous of Plato. His attitude toward Socrates is more complex but mostly negative. Instead, he prefers Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher famous for the doctrine that one cannot step into the same river twice. Heraclitus contends that everything is in flux, such that we cannot make any fixed claims about any aspect of reality.
Nietzsche first became fascinated by philosophy when he read Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation. Schopenhauer argues that reality has two different aspects. The first is the “world as representation,” which is the world as it appears to the senses. The second is the “world as will,” which lies behind the senses. According to Schopenhauer, the world as will is the real world, and we must look behind appearances to see the wills at work in nature. Schopenhauer was also the first major Western philosopher to take seriously the philosophies of India, and it is thanks to Schopenhauer that we find Nietzsche conversant in the main ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism.
While Nietzsche drew some influence from thinkers, such as Heraclitus and Schopenhauer, and drew much negative influence from many other thinkers, most notably Plato, Kant, and the Christian tradition, he does not belong to any tradition. Nietzsche is as much of an oddball as can be found among the great philosophers.
His peculiarities have not kept him from being tremendously influential in the twentieth century, however. Those philosophers who stand in his debt read as a “who’s who” of twentieth-century continental philosophy: Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and Foucault, just to name a few. More than perhaps any other philosopher, Nietzsche has had a profound impact on literature and other fields. Joyce, Yeats, Freud, Shaw, and Thomas Mann are only some of the major thinkers deeply indebted to Nietzsche. In his preface to The Antichrist, Nietzsche writes, “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.” Given that Nietzsche was largely ignored while he wrote, and given his tremendous influence on twentieth-century thought, we can only conclude that Nietzsche was right on that count, and that he was, in a sense, born posthumously.
Take a Study Break!