Personal Background

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in the small German town of Rocken. He was named for the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, on whose birthday he was born, and who was responsible for appointing his father as town minister. Just five years later, Nietzsche's father lay dead of a brain ailment, followed by his younger brother six months later. Shortly thereafter, Nietzsche moved with his mother to Naumburg.

After studying at Schulpforta boarding school from ages fourteen to nineteen, Nietzsche attended the University of Bonn in 1864 as a theology and philology student. In 1865, Nietzsche followed his professor Friedrich Ritchl to the University of Leipzig, where he established his academic reputation with essays on Aristotle, Theognis and Simonides. In that same year, Nietzsche accidentally came across Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (1818) in a local bookstore. Nietzsche was fascinated by Schopenhauer's aesthetic approach to understanding the world and his great praise for music as an art form. Shortly thereafter, Nietzsche read F. A. Lange's History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Significance (1866), the main idea of which was that metaphysical speculation is an expression of poetic illusion. Nietzsche found this message particularly compelling.

In 1868, Nietzsche met the composer Richard Wagner in the home of Hermann Brockhouse, who was married to Wagner's sister Ottlie. Nietzsche and Wagner immediately bonded over their common interest in Schopenhauer and their love of music. Wagner was also the same age as Nietzsche's father would have been. Nietzsche's relationship with the great German composer would remain of great importance to him over the course of his life.

In 1869, at the age of twenty-four, Nietzsche was offered a position on the classical philology faculty at the University at Basel, in Switzerland. In 1871, Nietzsche completed in the first text of The Birth of Tragedy, which he had first entitled "Greek Cheerfulness." Wagner then encouraged Nietzsche to connect this work with his own musical projects. Nietzsche, no doubt eager to please his father figure, renamed the book The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, and included numerous references to Wagner and to the role of music in tragedy. Finally published in 1872, the book was heavily criticized by a young philologist called Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Millendorff, who was to become one of the most brilliant and well-respected classicists of his day. In general, the critics did not take well to the book's confusion of philology with philosophy, and its championship of music as the highest art (an assertion that clearly bound Nietzsche to Wagner). Some have argued that this book virtually destroyed Nietzsche's career.

Historical Context

The historical context that Nietzsche was responding to was not limited to his own specific decade or century, but spanned the distance from ancient Greek culture to the present day. Much of his work struggles with Christianity, which he sees as responsible for the weakening of man. He also attacks the continuing influence of the Alexandrian thinkers, whose Socratic doctrines separated man from his forces of vital nourishment.

One historical event that did affect Nietzsche personally was the war between Prussia and France. Soon after arriving at the university in Leipzig, he left again to fight for Prussia. He was allowed a leave of absence on the condition that he did not actually fight, so he joined the medical corps. After only a month on the front, however, he fell seriously ill and went home to recuperate. In the preface to The Birth of Tragedy that he later added, Nietzsche writes that he wrote this book "in spite of the time in which it was written." As the battle raged, he says, he was holed up in some alpine nook conceiving this book. And, as the peace treaty was being signed at Versailles, he himself made peace with his ideas and completed the final draft of the book. Nietzsche portrays himself as being very much outside the stream of current events even as he was struggling to formulate a theory of modern culture that might explain these events.

Philosophical Context

As The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche's first published book, it is a rather awkwardly written representation of his early ideas. Nietzsche lamented as much in a supplementary preface, which he wrote fifteen years later in 1886. The older Nietzsche looks back, as we all do, with embarrassment on the na&ium;eveté of his younger self. He writes, "Today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates…" (section three). Writing with the benefit of hindsight and with many great philosophical successes at his back, the older Nietzsche can afford to laugh at himself. However, he also clearly shows in this later preface that the questions he dared to pose in The Birth of Tragedy are still entirely relevant to him, as is the importance of Schopenhauer, under whose influence he wrote the book. The ideas contained in this small first treatise persisted in his more sophisticated works.

Nietzsche's 1873 unpublished essay, entitled "On Truth and Lies in an Nonmoral Sense," demonstrates some key developments in his thought. In this essay, Nietzsche rejects universal constraints, claiming that what we call objective truth is only an army of metaphors. There are clear connections here to the criticisms of Socratic thought that Nietzsche presents in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche's contention that 'truth' was an idea created for comfort flows naturally from his criticism of Socratic optimism. Objective truth, the foundation upon which scientists build their theories, is only a phantasm. Socrates thought he could uncover the secrets of the universe with logic. But, if 'truth' is relative, then no amount of theoretical thinking can pin it down.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886), Nietzsche takes this subjectivity one step further. There are no absolute moral standards, he argues. Exploitation is not an inherently objectionable activity, but rather its moral acceptability depends upon the position of the one who exploits in society. Nietzsche explains that his philosophy argues from "the perspective of life," rather than from dusty scholarship. In this argument, we see that Nietzsche continues to draw from imagination, self-assertion and originality, traits which, in The Birth of Tragedy, he accorded to the Dionysian artist. Nietzsche frames this attack on 'truth' as a specific criticism of Christian doctrines.

In his next book, On the Geneology of Morals, A Polemic, Nietzsche advances his critique of objectivity still further. Traditional moral standards, he argues, are a product of Christian weakness and should be discarded. Feelings of guilt and bad conscience are an unhealthy and unnecessary limitation on our powers. They are shackles that Christianity has put on our progress. Nietzsche argues that there is no "God's eye," no standpoint from which we may gain a universal perspective. Everything is relative: "there are no facts, only interpretations." Because there is no absolute moral force, we are then responsible for setting our own standards. This is a strongly Existentialist aspect of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's attacks on modern culture continue in his later works, which include: The Case of Wagner, A Musician's Problem (1888), Twilight of the Idols, or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer (1888), The Antichrist, Curse on Christianity (1888), and Ecce Homo, How One Becomes What One Is (1888). In this last book, Nietzsche wishes to replace Jesus, the god of the 'other' world, with Dionysus, the god of life's vitality and exuberance. Thus we see that while he may have regretted the style of his Birth of Tragedy in later years, Nietzsche remained faithful to its precepts throughout his scholarly life.

Nietzsche has had an enormous effect on thinkers from all disciplines in the 20th century. Some examples include Camus, Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Heidegger, and Yeats. Unfortunately, his mental health collapsed in 1889, and he was to spend the next eleven years of his life in a feeble mental state, unaware of his expanding influence. One other group that looked to Nietzsche for inspiration was the Nazi party, many of whose ideas seemed to coincide with Nietzsche's in theory, although certainly not in practice. Many have seen the sinister references to the 'ultimate' man, the Aryan race, and the superiority of the German spirit as a kind of proto-Nazism. However, others argues that Nietzsche's sister, who took charge of his writings after his collapse, endeavored to alter many of them to accord with her clearly stated Nazi beliefs. It is difficult to know just how far she took her alterations, but we must always keep that fact in mind when analyzing Nietzsche's texts.

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