Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Rocken, Germany, the son of a Lutheran minister. His father went insane and died while Nietzsche was quite young, and he grew up the only boy in a household of women. He was an excellent student, and so impressed his professor at university that he was granted a doctorate and a professorship in philology at the age of twenty-four, before he had even written a dissertation. At this time, he was deeply impressed with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, though he would later come to criticize both these figures.

In 1870, the young Nietzsche served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, where he contracted dysentery, diphtheria, and perhaps syphilis. He suffered 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 future of science, knowledge, and the German people, Nietzsche characterized his age as "nihilistic." The Christian faith no longer held sway over European thought as it once had (a fact Nietzsche famously expresses in the phrase "God is dead"), and the rise of science and Darwinian evolution had led people to see the world increasingly as a meaningless and chaotic jumble. Nietzsche recognized the need for a set of positive values to direct the energy and will of Europe. Prophetically, he predicted that if European nihilism were to run unchecked, the following century would see wars of a kind this earth had never before experienced.

Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, in which he praised the composer Richard Wagner, whom he had befriended. Nietzsche's admiration for Wagner cooled during the 1870s, largely owing to Wagner's anti-Semitism, nationalism, and Christianity. Because of Wagner's early influence, and also the influence of Nietzsche's sister, who was also a virulent nationalist and anti-Semite, Nietzsche was particularly outspoken against German nationalism and anti-Semitism (not to mention Christianity) throughout his career.

Nietzsche's mature period began with the publication of Human, All-Too-Human in 1878, and culminated with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche wrote each of the first three parts in ten-day spurts, while living alone in modest conditions and battling horrendous ill health. They were each published separately, and the fourth part did not reach the general public until 1892. While his writing and thinking were incredibly energetic, he was miserably lonely and continued to suffer from indigestion, migraines, and insomnia.

As Nietzsche's health quickly declined, his writing became more and more prolific. 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 he collapsed in the street and became insane. He remained in an incapacitated state for the last eleven years of his life, and died in 1900.

Nietzsche's sister was his literary executor, and she used her brother's fame to advance her own proto-Nazi views, distorting Nietzsche's opinions and publishing selectively to make Nietzsche seem to support her cause. For the first half of the 20th century, Nietzsche was largely misconstrued as being the primary philosopher of Nazism even though he is quite explicit about his hatred for German nationalism and anti-Semitism in many of his writings.

Nietzsche has influenced twentieth-century thought more than almost any other thinker has. He has been an inspiration to almost every new movement in European philosophy in this century, and his critiques and methodology were far ahead of his time. Among those who owe a debt to Nietzsche are Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Popular pages: Thus Spoke Zarathustra