Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsch ewas born in 1844 in Rocken, Germany. His father, part of a long lineage of Lutheran ministers, went insane and died when Nietzsche was only four years old. An older brother, Joseph, died six months later and young Nietzsche was left to grow up as the only boy in a household of women. Nietzsche was an excellent student and so thoroughly impressed his university professor that he was granted a doctorate and obtained a professorship in philology at the age of 24, before he had even written a dissertation. At this time, he was deeply impressed by the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, though he would later come to criticize these figures and their theories.

In 1870, Nietzsche served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, during which he contracted dysentery, diptheria, and possibly syphilis. He continued to suffer from increasing ill health—migraines, indigestion, insomnia, and near blindness—for the rest of his life.

While the Germany of Nietzsche's day was marked by an unbridled optimism in the promise of scientific progress, the expanse of human knowledge and the prosperity of the German people, Nietzsche characterized his age as "nihilistic." The once monolithic Christian faith no longer dominated European thought as it once had (a fact Nietzsche vehemently expresses in the phrase "God is dead"), and the rise of Darwinian evolutionary theory along with the proliferation of modern sciences had led people to see the world as an increasingly fragmented, chaotic and meaningless jumble. Nietzsche recognized the need to establish a set of potent, positive principles that would give direction to the energy and will of Europe. Prophetically, he predicted that if European nihilism were to run unchecked, the following century would bring wars of a kind this earth had never before experienced.

In Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872, he draws on the work of composer and long-time friend, Richard Wagner, to expound his views on western art and the role of the artist. Nietzsche's admiration for Wagner cooled during the 1870's, however, due largely to Wagner's adherence to anti-Semitic, nationalist, and Christian values. In response to the reactionary stance of his one-time mentor, whose views were shared by Nietzsche's equally anti-Semitic and nationalistic sister, Nietzsche became an outspoken critic of German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and religious dogmatism.

Nietzsche's mature period, when he penned his most perceptive and incendiary texts, began with the publication of Human, All-Too-Human in 1878, and culminated with Thus Spoke Zarathustrapublished in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche wrote each of the first three books during ten day sessions, while living a hermetic existence that was punctuated by battles with his failing health. The three parts were originally published as separate volumes, and the fourth part did not reach the general public until 1892, more than seven years after it was first completed. Ironically, the sheer vitality and energy of Zarathustra belies the physical and emotional state of its author—Nietzsche was continually plagued by bouts of extreme misery and debilitating illness.

Oddly, as Nietzsche's health continued to decline, he became a more prolific writer, perhaps sensing his inevitable mental collapse. In an outstanding display of stamina and inspiration, he wrote Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner between 1886 and 1888. In January 1889, at the sight of a coachman whipping a horse, Nietzsche collapsed and suffered a nervous breakdown. He never fully recovered from this attack, remaining in a vegetative state for the better part of eleven years until expiring in August of 1900.

As Nietzsche's literary executor, his sister, Elisabeth, used her brother's reputation and work to advance her own proto-Nazi views. By distorting Nietzsche's theories and selectively publishing works Elisabeth enlisted Nietzsche in support of her own pro-Aryan quasi-fascist agenda. For the first half of the twentieth century Nietzsche was largely misjudged as a precursor to and proponent of the Nazi platform, despite his often explicit abhorrence of German nationalism and anti-Semitic sentiments.

Nietzsche has had an undeniably profound influence on the development of 20th century thought. He has played a role in the birth of almost every modern theoretical movement—his philosophical insights and methods were simply decades ahead of their time. Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre are a few of the innumerable theorists who are indebted to the intellectual struggles of Nietzsche.