BORN: 1844, Ro¨cken, Germany DIED: 1900, Weimar, Germany NATIONALITY: German GENRE: Nonfiction,
poetry MAJOR WORKS: The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) Beyond Good and Evil (1886) On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) The Will to Power (1889)
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, believing European society was standing at a critical turning point, foresaw Europe collapsing into nihilism. The advance of scientific enlightenment, in particular the Darwinian theory of evolution, had destroyed the old religious and metaphysical underpinnings for the idea of human dignity. ‘‘God is dead,’’ declared Nietzsche’s spokesman Zarathustra, and man, no longer ‘‘the image of God,’’ is a chance product of a nature indifferent to purpose or value. The great danger is that man will find his existence meaningless unless a new grounding for values is provided. In works of powerful prose and poetry Nietzsche struggled to head off the catastrophe, writing which has made him the most compelling and provocative figure of German philosophy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Household of Women Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Ro¨cken, a Prussian province in Saxony where his father served as a Lutheran pastor in a long line of clergymen. His father was loving to his son, keeping the child close when he wrote sermons and entertaining him with songs at the piano. But in 1846, Pastor Nietzsche, still in his mid-thirties, began suffering blackouts and extreme neurological distress. Three years later he died, and an autopsy reportedly revealed a condition described as ‘‘softening’’ of the brain. This death left Nietzsche in a household of women: his mother, grandmother, several aunts, and a sister, Elisabeth.
The death of Nietzsche’s father meant upheaval for the remaining family. In the spring of 1850, they moved to Naumburg to live with relatives. There, young Nietzsche began studying for the ministry and wrote his first poems and plays. After attending local schools in Naum-burg, in 1858 Nietzsche won a scholarship to Pforta, one of the best boarding schools in Germany. Here he received a thorough training in the classics and acquired several lifetime friends. While in school, Nietzsche became increasingly interested in music. He studied piano and, like his father, showed promise as an impro-viser. But Nietzsche was already suffering the headaches and eye strain that would debilitate him throughout his adult life. The headaches, which had begun when he was ten, were particularly painful, leaving him bedridden for weeks, while the eye strain resulted in burning sensations and blurred vision.
The Inception of a Disease At the end of this period of schooling, Nietzsche, who had earlier shared the genuine piety of his family, found that he had now ceased to accept Christianity—a view that soon hardened into outright atheism. With the highest recommendations of his Pforta teachers, Nietzsche enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1864. There he pursued classical studies with philologist Albrecht Ritschl, and when the latter, within the year, moved to Leipzig, Nietzsche followed.
Nietzsche attempted to enter into the social life of the students, even joining a dueling fraternity, but soon discovered that his own mission in life had isolated him from the pursuits and interests that most other students shared. Some scholars theorize that it was at this time that Nietzsche contracted syphilis, a venereal disease that was incurable at the time, in a Leipzig brothel, which may have been the cause of his later madness (late-stage syphilis causes madness). In the 1890s, the insane Nietzsche prompted such speculation when he confessed to having had deliberately exposed himself to the disease on two occasions in 1866. But even these revelations are rendered dubious by his questionable sanity during disclosure. By the middle of his life, Nietzsche suffered almost constantly from migraines and gastric upsets. Loneliness and physical pain were the constant background of his life—though Nietzsche later came to interpret them as the necessary conditions for his work.
The Birth of Nietzschean Philosophy Nietzsche’s early publications in classical philology so impressed Ritschl that when a chair of philology opened up at Basel, he secured it for Nietzsche, then only 24 years old and still without his degree. The University of Leipzig awarded the chair to Nietzsche on the strength of his writings without requiring an examination, and Nietzsche entered into a teaching career. When Nietzsche took up residence in Basel, German composer Richard Wagner was nearby at Tribschen, and Nietzsche was soon drawn into his circle. Wagner was then at work on the Ring Cycle and on the great festival at Bayreuth that would soon present its premiere. The project needed publicity and financial support, and was backed by many German intellectuals. Nietzsche entered into this cause with enthusiasm and for several years was a frequent house-guest at Tribschen. Friendship with the charismatic but egocentric Wagner was, however, short-lived due to Nietzsche’s independence of thought, the quality he most valued.
Prior to the break, Wagner had greatly influenced Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which gave an imaginative account of the forces that led to the rise of Athenian tragedy and to its subsequent decline. Nietzsche ended the book with a rousing advocacy of Wagner’s musical drama as a revival of Hellenic tragedy. No sooner had the book been published than Nietzsche began to perceive the difference between Wagner’s musical genius and the shabby pseudo-philosophy of the Wagnerian cult. From then on, though he still felt affection for Wagner himself, Nietzsche attacked ever more vigorously the decadence of Wagner’s political and philosophical ideas. Two works of his last year of writing would deal with the subject: The Wagner Case (1888) and Nietzsche contra Wagner (1888).
The Rejection by Salome´ In late spring, 1882, while awaiting publication of The Gay Science, Nietzsche vacationed with Paul Ree in Italy. There Nietzsche met Lou Salome´, a young, independent woman who had already impressed Ree during philosophical discussions. Nietzsche also responded immediately to Salome´’s independent demeanor and he was soon confiding his thoughts on religion and morality while hiking with her in the mountains and fields. Eventually, Nietzsche, Salome´, and Ree formed plans to platonically share living quarters. Nietzsche greatly anticipated this arrangement as his first possibility for steady companionship in many years. But when Nietzsche, increasingly giddy from Salome´’s friendship, professed to Salome´ sensual desires for her, she fled with Ree. Subsequent correspondence was minimal, and Nietzsche soon found himself alone and ignored. Scholars have since cited this painful break with Salome´ as a possible explanation for the cruel misogyny of Nietzsche’s subsequent works.
The Magnum Opus Nietzsche’s teaching at Basel was frequently interrupted by prolonged bouts of sickness and by several months of service as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, a conflict that led to the unification of various regions into the German Empire. In April 1879 his health had deteriorated so much that he was driven to resign. He was given a small pension and began a ten-year period of wandering in search of a tolerable climate. Though racked by increasing pain from the relentless progression of his disease, Nietzsche would manage to produce ten substantial
books before his final collapse, works now belonging to the first rank of German literature and containing a provocative set of philosophical ideas.
After publishing his landmark philosophical work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche undertook revision of an earlier work, Human, All Too Human, and its sequels. Following these he also felt compelled to articulate his beliefs in straightforward prose, and from the summer of 1885 to early 1886 he wrote with this purpose. The result was Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, a caustic condemnation of conventional morality. In this nine-part volume, Nietzsche applied the concept of the will to power to specific philosophical issues, including the will to truth and the will to morality. Objective truth, Nietzsche had already proclaimed in Untimely Meditations, was unprovable; in Beyond Good and Evil, he applied the same logic to refuting notions of the self, thus reducing even human existence to the will to power.
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