Nietzsche, Friedrich

views updated May 21 2018


"god is dead"
systems of morality

NIETZSCHE, FRIEDRICH (1844–1900), German philosopher.

With his declaration that "God is dead" and his ideal of the superman, which in the 1930s dominated Nazi thought in Germany but also flew into the United States as the comic-strip figure "Man of Steel," Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most recognizable modern philosopher. He celebrated the intoxicating "Dionysian" side of life expressed in myth, dance, and music; wandered the Swiss Alps; wrote compulsively in dingy hotel rooms; and finally, in 1889, went incurably mad at the age of forty-four at the sight of a man beating a horse on the streets of Turin, Italy. He had little intellectual influence in his lifetime: his "drama was played to a finish before empty seats," wrote the critic Stefan Zweig (p. 445). Yet after his death in 1900, Nietzsche emerged as one of the most influential philosophers in Europe, his thought deeply entwined in the political projects and intellectual debates of the twentieth century.

Readers took up Nietzsche's books because they were so unfamiliar and so wicked—one Swiss critic suggested placing the warning "Danger: dynamite" on Nietzsche's work. In his fragmentary pieces, Nietzsche blasted apart the conventions that regulated social interaction and mocked the public responsibilities of government. He wrote about gods with a passion his secular age found obsolescent. At a time when the certainty that the sciences would come to know the world went virtually unquestioned, Nietzsche held all systematic knowledge to be metaphorical, thus erroneous, and ultimately a matter of fancy. If the great nineteenth-century thinkers Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud proposed valid laws drawn from the observation of the natural world to apply to human behavior, Nietzsche imagined new worlds of the mind that might still be inhabited. He conjured up an alter-ego Zarathustra who came down from the mountains to invite people to explore endless horizons and roilsome seas. No other major philosopher wrote like this and no other was so at odds with his time. While most nineteenth-century Europeans believed themselves to be at the pinnacle of progress, Nietzsche saw a dead-end.

Nietzsche repudiated the fundamental premises of liberalism and democracy, which sought to create more fair and equal forms of collective life. He thought that European societies had turned into sick rooms, good for caring for the weak but unable to live adventurously. The nineteenth century was particularly odious to him because its inhabitants had come to believe they lived in the very best, most comfortable, and most advanced period imaginable. Nietzsche loathed the puny ambition of modern politics that was to make people even more cozy. This ferocious attack on the present condition appealed to revolutionaries. However it was not socialists who picked up Nietzsche, but dissidents of a different kind who proliferated in the unsettled decades around 1900: conservatives who rejected democracy's enfranchisement of the masses, aristocrats who despised liberalism's reforming spirit, and nationalists, who envisioned a more heroic collective history. Nietzsche's most notorious political heirs were the Nazis, who in the 1930s frequently quoted Nietzsche (with the blessing of his sister, Elizabeth Förester-Nietzsche, the keeper of Nietzsche's papers) as they constructed the Third Reich and its hierarchies of racial superiors and racial inferiors. Nietzsche remains tainted with their violence and pitilessness.

What made Nietzsche so compelling was not simply his criticism of Western civilization but also his conviction that human beings could recover what made them human if they acknowledged their ability to remake themselves. He saw people as potential masters and lamented that they remained slaves. Nietzsche's most lasting influence was on those individuals who were willing to question received wisdom. In the fin-de-siècle period, he was avidly taken up by proponents of new lifestyles: anarchists, feminists, and atheists, the prophets of religious cults and the enthusiasts of physical culture, and most of all young people anxious to find a distinctive and vital voice for their generation. For the nineteenth century, which prized maturity rather than youth, foundations over questions, Nietzsche was particularly explosive, but his thought has beckoned all those on a journey. No other philosopher can claim such a wide readership.

"god is dead"

At the center of Nietzsche's thought is his audacious statement "God is dead." Throughout his writings, he returned repeatedly to the theme that Christianity had corrupted human beings. For the last two thousand years, he argued, Western civilization had been humiliated by a God who had made sinners out of mortals. The only way for human beings to recover their full potential was to reject God and the stifling moralities imposed in his name. These ideas were very offensive to many readers. But they are the key to Nietzsche's philosophy because Nietzsche believed that it was humans who created moral systems, who invented supernatural powers and deities, and who therefore could get rid of God as easily as they had made him up. This conviction led Nietzsche to an even more radical proposition, which was that concepts and beliefs were simply imaginative descriptions of the world. There was no real world beyond our creative rendering of it. Nietzsche believed this insight to be extraordinarily liberating because it meant that humanity was not headed toward one single authoritative or true comprehension of reality but could endlessly conjure up different places. And just as it had fashioned Christianity in one audacious step two thousand years ago, it could invent something else with another step. What Nietzsche called his perspectivism basically corresponds to the relativism of postmodernism in the early twenty-first century, which also puts forward the idea that interactions with the world depend on descriptions of it. Twentieth-century philosophy is very much the product of and a response to Nietzsche's radical perspectivism and his defiant immoralism. His contention that there is no world outside the interpretations of the world continues to attract, astonish, and anger readers.

Nietzsche also enticed readers because he wrote in an utterly new way. He used words in order to jolt readers, to dynamite them out of their preconceptions. Precisely because Nietzsche believed that language was composed of common expressions that inhibited creative thought, he experimented with different and shocking ways of saying things. His hyperbole, in which people kill God, supermen are cruel, truth is error—all this is designed to shake assumptions loose from his readers; he claims to be "writing in blood" (quoted in Solomon, p. 24). Moreover, his images and metaphors restlessly change. Sometimes Nietzsche prefers to think with mountains, altitudes, and stairs; elsewhere he is in the desert with camels or dancing around statues. Among his favorite images are eyes, which blink or remain awake, and see and resee the world anew.

This emphasis on eyes is much in keeping with Nietzsche's belief that human beings can only interact with the world they have interpreted and that they move on to new experiences by redescribing the world. His poetic and figurative uses of language all signal the fabricated, changeable, and fundamentally unstable nature of meanings.

The declaration that "God is dead" is a useful entryway into Nietzsche's ideas. It introduces his condemnation of Christian morality and the modern age, his perspectival theory of knowledge, and his quest for new mythical ways of living. It also recalls Nietzsche's personal background: Nietzsche's father and maternal grandfather were German pastors in the Kingdom of Saxony and Nietzsche very much remained a preacher's son. He impresses readers as a consequential thinker, one who put great stock in his own interpretation of texts and was highly suspicious of received wisdom and traditional authority, as Luther had been of Rome. He shared with his fellow Protestants the "extravagant belief in one's ability," and also the terror of doubt and skepticism (Aschheim, p. 22).

Born in the small town of Röcken, Saxony, in 1844, Friedrich Nietzsche acquired his atheism early, while still in high school. A brilliant, if unorthodox student of Greek philology at the university in Leipzig, Nietzsche won a university post in Basel, Switzerland, at the startlingly young age of twenty-five. The conformist atmosphere of the university left him unhappy, however, and soon enough Nietzsche abandoned his professorship, set off on his journeys, and wrote with difficulty but without rest the ten or so books that make up his work before his mental collapse early in 1889 and his death in 1900. The role of the gods is a central motif in each of Nietzsche's books, from The Birth of Tragedy (1872), to the highly personal Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), his most well-known text, through the powerful syntheses, Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and finally to his last autobiographical fragments in Ecce Homo (1889); his announcement of the death of God was first detonated in The Gay Science, published in 1882.

What does it mean for Nietzsche to say "God is dead"? The proposition is introduced in the parable "The madman" in The Gay Science and it surprises readers because it is different from the more familiar insistence "There is no God." "God is dead" implies that God was once alive. Moreover, the madmen goes on to explain the death of God: "we have killed him—you and I" (sec. 125). What is important for Nietzsche is not to debate whether there is or is not a God, but for people to see themselves as the murderers of God. Nietzsche wants to expose the murderers, not the victim; the momentous act of killing, not the mute result of a dead God. He wants the people to see themselves as murderers because that would enable them to see themselves as a people who can make and destroy God and thus a people who are strong and creative and have taken control of every aspect of their lives.

Nietzsche has nothing but scorn for those atheists who took the death of God to be an unveiling of the "real" material world and thus lived on as if God had never existed. Rather, Nietzsche wants to shake contemporaries so that they see themselves as people who are able to create gods and thus are strong enough to be fully human by giving form and meaning to the world. For Nietzsche, the truthfulness of truth is not important; the audacity to make truthlike statements and live by them is. What Nietzsche often refers to as the "decadence" of his age is knowing about the death of God without knowing oneself to be the murderer of God and the creator of all concepts and ideas about the world.

Given that the God who is now dead was once alive, Nietzsche attempts to reconstruct the history of God. He does this by means of a genealogical method that looks at the historical origins of belief. There is no otherworldly or metaphysical realm. "God is dead" thus leads Nietzsche to a dramatic theory of knowledge, which can be briefly described as perspectivism. Perspectivism does not make claims about truth; it exposes new and richer ways of thinking about the world based on looking at things in a different way. In Nietzsche's view, what separates humans from other animals is collective life in a society in which members must communicate in order to survive. In order to express themselves, humans developed common languages, and these languages in turn provided humans with the tools by which they could explore and know themselves. Without language there is no knowledge, and as a result, men and women only knew themselves through the words and concepts with which they named their feelings and described the world around them.

Across time and space, each group constituted its own language and its own myths. Each was a self-contained universe. There is no common or real world "out there" because there is always the irreducible presence of different cultures and languages that enable unique interpretations. According to Nietzsche, everything humans experience is comprehended and passed on in terms of the distinct vocabularies that the groups they belong to have fashioned. "What, then, is truth?" Nietzsche asks: "A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthromorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically" (quoted in Allison, p. 78). What this means is that there is no world aside from interpretations of it—"as though there would be a world left over once we subtracted the perspectival!" (quoted in Danto, p. 76).

systems of morality

Nietzsche is dazzled by these audacious acts of creation. The infinite capacity for creativity is what makes human beings fully human. However, Nietzsche does not just want to propose an anthropological theory of knowledge; he wants to criticize the need for certainty which kept individuals in his own time from exploring new ways of thinking about the world, and he especially wants to attack Christian morality. To do this, Nietzsche distinguishes between two systems of morality, one characterized by the distinction between good and bad, which Nietzsche identifies with the Greeks and other ancient cultures, and the other characterized by the distinction between good and evil, for which western Christianity and nineteenth-century Europe are the primary examples. That the second system succeeded the first is an extraordinary example of creative transformation, something Nietzsche cherishes in a formal way. But this particular succession Nietzsche never ceases to condemn as a crime against the potentialities of men and women because it has produced the "slave morality" of the West.

In the ancient morality of good and bad what is good is what distinguishes humans from other animals: their ability to name the universe and their desire to play in the world they have created. Anything that expands the powers of men and women to feel masterful is good. By contrast, what is bad are those things that keep people from creating and re-creating the sense of mastery, everything that is ordinary, satisfied, and comfortable. What this distinction implies is that good and bad are not judgments on the intentions of protagonists but judgments on how well the actions of protagonists have enhanced what it might mean to be human.

It is ancient Greece that for Nietzsche best expresses the enhancement of life. The Greek city-states and particularly Athens had long been cherished by Europeans as the cradle of Western civilization, but Nietzsche loves them differently. He reveres exactly what distinguished Greece from the overarching authority of Christianity that followed: the sheer variety of Greek culture; the scale of emotional registers in Greek comedy and tragedy, and the polytheistic, many-sided relations the Greeks maintained with their gods. By inventing many gods, some who celebrated exuberant passion such as Dionysius and others who honored self-discipline such as Apollo, the Greeks developed "a plurality of norms." Polytheism invited experimentation by encouraging "the free-spiriting and manyspiriting of man" and by providing examples of "the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes—and ever again new eyes that are even more our own" (Nietzsche, Gay Science, sec. 143). This wonderful sentence is a clear statement of what makes people distinctively human: the will to see things from fresh perspectives. Greek culture facilitated this; Christianity did not.

If the morality of good and bad cherishes mastery and experimentation, the morality of good and evil emphasizes virtue and charity. A fascinating parable in Thus Spoke Zarathustra gets to the heart of the matter. Zarathustra, the prophet through whom Nietzsche preferred to speak, strolled "over the great bridge" where at once "cripples and beggars surrounded him" (pp. 137–138). A hunchback offers Zarathustra the opportunity to "heal the blind and make the lame walk." But Zarathustra refuses to do so. He rejects pity because he believes that the victims have become what he calls "inverse cripples." Zarathustra explains, telling about his encounters with cripples who identifiy themselves completely with what they do not have. Rather than remain men, they have become the leg that they do not have, the eye that no longer sees, the belly that is not filled. Nietzsche is rather cruel (and funny) in the way he makes his point: "when I … crossed over this bridge for the first time I did not trust my eyes and looked again and again." What he saw was "an ear as big as a man." "The tremendous ear was attached to a small, thin stalk," legs, trunk, and arms. And "if one used a magnifying glass one could even recognize a tiny envious face." These are the horrible products of the morality of pity. Across the world, Zarathustra reports, he has walked "among men as among the fragments and limbs of men." For Nietzsche, the cripples and beggars who speak to Zarathustra only in terms of what they do not have are little more than the body pieces they lack. They see themselves only in the magnified reflection of their debility and they thus walk around the world as giant eyes or tremendous ears.

The transvaluation of good and bad into good and evil is accomplished when cripples and beggars see themselves as legs and bellies and convince society to make up the losses they have suffered. What Nietzsche describes in The Genealogy of Morals as the morality of the "sickroom" is fueled by the resentment of the have-nots and is designed to compensate them (third essay, sec. 14). It is important to remember that Nietzsche is not separating out the weak from the strong or the poor from the rich. Rather he is condemning the centrality that suffering plays in ideas about the meaning of life.

It was the early Christians who took the biggest step in codifying the morality of good and evil and speaking in the name of the victim. While Christians could not actually undo the misfortunes of life, they created a morality that valued the meek and powerless and demeaned the strong. By inventing the concept of sin, Christianity enabled the weak to take revenge on the strong, whose freely chosen lifestyle was now regarded as a contravention of God's will. Step by step, priests reined in the nobles with the convictions of sin, and the nobles in turn developed what Nietzsche calls a "bad conscience." Nietzsche provides striking images of the former master with a guilty conscience: "this deprived creature," "this animal that rubbed itself raw against the bars of its cage" (second essay, sec. 16). Christianity also extended the promise of a glorious afterlife to compensate for a lamentable this-worldly life. Henceforth, the promise of God's rewards justified the acceptance of God's punishments, with priests serving as accountants of God's moral balance sheets. A single, all-powerful God established a single moral law that was inscribed onto the tablets of monotheism.

The morality of good and evil was the singular achievement of the great monotheistic religions. Yet it is the very break that Christianity achieved, the world-historical difference it made, that actually gave Nietzsche confidence in his view of the world as a series of utterly innovative beginnings in which men and women create for themselves their "own new eyes." "From now on," he writes in the Genealogy of Morals, there can be no doubt, "man is included among the most unexpected and exciting lucky throws in the dice game of Heraclitus' 'great child,' be he called Zeus or chance." For all the pessimism with which Nietzsche regards Christianity, it is contained in a more sweeping optimism about the "great promise" of humankind (second essay, sec. 16). This is why Nietzsche wants people to see themselves as the murderers of God—so they will continue to play the game of dice.

Nietzsche is overwhelmed by the sheer staying power of Christian morality. He lauds the scientific spirit of Renaissance inquiry, if not the certainty it places in the answers it provides, and he grudgingly notes the value the Protestant Reformation placed in the individual interpretation of sacred texts, although not its insistence on humanity's sinfulness. But the big picture is the same: the slave morality of resentment remains pervasive in the present day, even as scientists and philosophers claim that they no longer believe in God. Even the Enlightenment is fundamentally misguided because it regards its insights into the natural world and human affairs as real knowledge not just different descriptions. Thus Nietzsche cannot accept the conceit of modernity, which is its certainty of its superiority over the cultures of the past and its cleverness in understanding nature. Precisely because modern Europeans are so sure that they are at the zenith of intellectual development they are completely unwilling to imagine themselves with "new eyes." This incomprehension of anything but what is constitutes modernity's biggest flaw. With this critique, Nietzsche stands out as one of the few thinkers of his age to think outside of the modernity ushered in by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the scientific and industrial revolutions.


If most people blink, and accept the world around them, the true hero stays completely awake in order to gain new knowledge. This hero Nietzsche named the Übermensch, superman (or more accurately, but clumsily, overman). What is superman? For many of Nietzsche's twentieth-century readers, superman was a frightening figure, reminiscent of everything that is cruel and ruthless in life. But the superman is a deliberately hyperbolic designation conjured up by Nietzsche to push readers to ceaselessly examine the prescriptions of their lives. The most famous account of the superman comes in Nietzsche's work of prophecy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which he published in 1883. Nietzsche chose the figure Zarathustra to be his "son" who would speak his philosophy from Zoroaster, the Persian prophet in the sixth century b.c.e. who first introduced the morality of good and evil. If Zoroaster created "this most calamitious error," it would be Nietzsche's Zarathustra who would undo it.

The superman is not so much strong as unblinking. Again and again, Nietzsche moves the the discussion away from strength toward sightfulness, as he had with the cripples and beggars at the great bridge. It is not a particular victor, or identity, or outcome that interests Nietzsche, but the willingness to move away from the triumph of the winners, from someone else's description of yourself, and away from the comforts of home. This spur to new knowledge is what characterizes the free spirits.

The first step is to assume the role of the annihilator who breaks old tablets. Nietzsche wants his readers to see the commandments of morality broken up on the ground. Do not "act 'for your neighbor"' Zarathustra urges. "Plug up your ears" when you hear moral authority demand that you do things "'for' and 'in order' and 'because"' (pp. 290–291). There is something quite belligerent about this uncompromising annihilator, but he is twinned with a more sympathetic figure who appears repeatedly in Zarathustra. This is the dancer who takes many steps, joyously, playfully. "Yes, I recognize Zarathustra.… Does he not walk like a dancer" (p. 11), which is to say he moves "crookedly," without purpose, and thereby evades custom and common sense. The dancer's opposite is the statue, "stiff, stupid, and stony," a "column" in the temple of moral authority (p. 294). What dancing represents for Nietzsche is the defiance of the "spirit of gravity" (p. 41), the effort to escape the frozen identities of statues. The dancer is a wonderful way to capture the unceasing, constantly turning quest for new knowledge and new ways of looking at things. The dancer is Nietzsche in his most congenial form and he is what most strongly appealed to readers in the two decades before World War I. He offered dissidents justification for alternative lifestyles and different readings of the world, and he encouraged individuals to make an endless journey of self-discovery.

Nietzsche also repeatedly introduces a third figure, the child. This is a very different image because the child does not acquire knowledge, but wakes up in a world that it sees for the first time. This fresh view is the naive belief in belief and facilitates the acquisition of new myths and new gods. For Nietzsche's readers this opened up a new realm of political and spiritual possibilities and for Nietzsche's reputation it opened a Pandora's box of troubles because it seemed he sanctioned myth-making effort of any kind.

In Zarathustra's speech "on the three metamorphoses of the spirit," the first two are pretty clear. First the camel, an animal well-adapted to take up the burdens of truth-seeking in the desert, and second the lion, whose strong spirit can oppose the "thou shalt" with "I will" and do battle with the "last god," the god of monotheism. But "to create new values—that even the lion cannot do," Nietzsche observes. The task of creation is left to the child, for "the child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning" (pp. 26–27). Unlike the camel and the lion, the child does not leave behind or fight what is old, but wakes up to a completely new reality without the memory of having abandoned an older version. With the metamorphoses into the child, the free spirit exists inside a new myth without the self-defeating knowledge that the universe is just something made up and thus still possesses the complete confidence of living vigorously.

Many late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century commentators are not impressed with the innocent child. The objection is that the child does not and cannot have the difficult genealogical knowledge of the origins of morality and of the fundamentally fictional nature of describing and redescribing the universe and is thus not a satisfying incarnation of Nietzsche's ideas. According to the American philosopher Richard Rorty, with the spirit's final metamorphoses, Nietzsche has "fobbed us off with the suggestion" that the child will "have all the advantages of thought with none of the disadvantages of speaking some particular language" (p. 112). Rorty repeatedly asserts that Nietzsche is good for individuals to think through in order "to make the best selves for ourselves we can" through the continual activity of redescription (p. 80), basically the business of the camel and the lion. But Nietzsche is not a useful guide to creating a good and just society, and Rorty has little patience with Nietzsche's invitation to construct new myths via the child's innocence because they undo all the genealogical work that Nietzsche has made such an effort to undertake. However, Nietzsche himself is very taken with the idea of creating new myths for society to live by and even of inventing new gods to inhabit those myths. He refers to "premature births of an as yet unproven future" (Gay Science, sec. 382) and to the "firstborn of the twentieth century" (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 214), images which suggest that Nietzsche is thinking in insistently social terms. Nietzsche's brilliant commentary, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," published in 1874, takes as its subject the collective health of society. In it Nietzsche repeatedly attacks the nineteenth century for lacking vitality. In his view, modern men and women were not capable of imagining a future fundamentally different from the present they inhabited. For a time, Nietzsche believed that Richard Wagner, who had created a grand cycle or ring of operas that featured medieval Germanic heroes, might be able to create a new, modern myth to live by. But if Nietzsche initally believed that Wagner's art represented "the path of a German paganism … a specifically un-Christian way of viewing the world" (Williamson, p. 274), Nietzsche's actual exposure to Wagner's artistic circle at Bayreuth in newly unified Germany in 1876 convinced him that Wagner and his supporters simply performed an exaggerated, self-satisfied Geman nationalism. Nietzsche eventually turned his attention to uncovering the genealogy of morals, underscoring the erroneous, tendentious, and even conformist aspect to all collective interpretations. In the end, Nietzsche pursued the principle of difference. Almost everything Nietzsche wrote in the 1880s was directed against the iteration of a particular identity and against the experience of a single authentic self. Nietzsche lauds the act of creation, but does so as the premise for further movement; he values differentiation, but in order to admit the foreign and strange.


Nietzsche's general celebration of the world-making ability of cultures, his criticism of the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world, and his initial exaltation of Wagner as a source of modern myth preoccupied the reception of Nietzsche's work in the two decades after World War I. It was not the unblinking individual, but the suffering collective that was the object of attention. Moreover, in Germany, Nietzsche's contempt for the idea of global humanity reinforced the tendency to see German history as a special path from the catastrophe of military defeat to the redemption of total victory. Enthralled readers in Germany itself and curious half-alarmed readers elsewhere in Europe consistently interpreted Nietzsche's myths as national myths. Not surprisingly, the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche and elevated Thus Spoke Zarathustra into a canonical "Aryan text." Given Nietzsche's outspoken attack on anti-Semitism and on essential or authentic identities, Nietzsche is misplaced as a Nazi prophet. Yet his insistence on the value of creating new rules to live by, his acceptance of violent political campaigns in the case of the ancient Greeks, and his general contempt for those who cast their lives in terms of their suffering suggest how it was possible for readers in the interwar period to Nazify Nietzsche.

The main thrust of Nietzsche's thought is not the urge to kill gods or even to invent them. His emphasis is on perspective, which is why he makes so much of the state of wakefulness, condemns the weak-willed who blink, and cherishes men and women who have created for themselves their own new eyes "and ever again new eyes." It is this Nietzsche who inspired existentialist thinkers in France and Germany beginning in the 1930s and 1940s and to whom contemporary philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty return again and again. His attention to both the contingency of knowledge and the possibility of new angles of perception remain highly pertinent topics in the debates about truth, ethics, and representation. Nietzsche remains so radical because he does not operate inside the dominant rational and scientific framework of the modern era, which holds that critical thought and scientific method are actually revealing the state of the world. Rather he ascertains that all cultures and all peoples live inside the languages and perspectives and myths they have fashioned and that these forms are both life-enhancing and life-denying and are both authoritative and breakable. Moreover, the search for "the" truth is misguided, and the expectation for complete clarity is impossible. Truth is not obtainable because meaning has to be produced by human beings in their own vocabularies and these meanings will be utterly different. That superman at one point speaks in a stammer poignantly indicates the sheer effort of the individual to say something new about the world: "Then speak and stammer, 'This is my good; this I love…. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statue"' (Zarathustra, p. 36). The stammerer is a fitting image with which to conclude this entry. It recalls Nietzsche's overriding interest not in defining the world in any particular way but in telling his readers that the world we know is encompassed by ordinary language; that it is a hard struggle to think in new ways because we speak in "old tongues"; and that any such struggle is intense and highly personal and difficult to translate. The stammerer displaces superman and his strength and restores to view the individual who struggles with new sounds and new possibilities.

See alsoFreud, Sigmund; Germany; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Marx, Karl; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Secularization.


Primary Sources

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York, 1966.

——. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York, 1974.

——. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecco Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York, 1967.

——. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Allison, David B. Reading the New Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and On the Genealogy of Morals. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Aschheim, Steven E. The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1980–1900. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Chamberlain, Lesley. Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography. New York, 1996.

Danto, Arthur. Nietzsche as Philosopher. New York, 1965. Expanded ed. New York, 2005.

Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy. Rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J., 1974.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Rorty, Richard. Continengcy, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Translated by Shelley Frisch. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Solomon, Robert C. Living with Nietzsche: What the Great "Immoralist" Has to Teach Us. New York, 2003.

Williamson, George S. The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche. Chicago, 2004.

Zweig, Stefan. Master Builders: A Typology of the Spirit. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New York, 1939.

Peter Fritzsche

Nietzsche, Friedrich

views updated May 23 2018

Friedrich Nietzsche

BORN: 1844, Röcken, Germany

DIED: 1900, Weimar, Germany


GENRE: Nonfiction, poetry

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 Röcken, 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 midthirties, 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 Naumburg, 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 improviser. 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 houseguest 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 Salomé In late spring, 1882, while awaiting publication of The Gay Science, Nietzsche vacationed with Paul Ree in Italy. There Nietzsche met Lou Salomé, a young, independent woman who had already impressed Ree during philosophical discussions. Nietzsche also responded immediately to Salomé'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, Salomé, 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 Salomé's friendship, professed to Salomé 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 Salomé 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.

The period in which Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil was full of personal anguish. His health was constantly poor, and conflict with his publisher, who was bankrupt from promoting antiSemitic literature, further aggravated the already bedeviled Nietzsche. By early 1883 when he heard of Wagner's death, he lapsed into still another bout of physical distress. He also experienced strained relations with his sister, who had married—on Wagner's birthday—notorious anti-Semite Bernhard Foerster. For Nietzsche, the prospect of relations with a bigoted brother-in-law were immensely distasteful, and he even missed the wedding to avoid introductions.

By mid-1887, Nietzsche was prepared to resume writing. He had already published aphorisms, poems, and sequential diatribes, but with his next work, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), he attempted a more formal polemic. Here he addressed three specific philosophical issues—the nature of good and evil, the essence of guilt, and the meaning of asceticism—and related each subject to the failings of Christian morality. Portraying Christianity as a sado-masochistic, ultimately self-destructive order, and following his logic that the will to truth was a will to nothingness, he now added that the will to morality would prove similarly futile for Christianity. Christian morality would be destroyed by its dogmatism, a decline he called “the great spectacle” of his age.

In 1888, Nietzsche went to Turin, Italy, and wrote Twilight of the Idols; or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer, a seething, anti-Christian, anti-German work full of irony and sarcasm. Despite the poisonous tone of the book, Nietzsche was refreshed by his new surroundings and even considered moving his mother there with him. But his optimism was soon undermined by a disastrous trip to Switzerland, where he endured days of vomiting, and a return to his suddenly chilly home. Impoverished from a lack of steady income, Nietzsche aggravated his financial troubles by paying for publication of his new works, and was thus without means to keep warm during a cold spell that extended into June and July. After a late summer vacationing with friends, he returned to Turin to write The Antichrist, an alternately analytical and unreasoning account of Christianity and its destructive impact on humanity in the context of its relationship to Judaism.

Upon completion of the book, Nietzsche is said to have experienced a final euphoria or final delusions. He believed citizens of Turin basked in his presence, that shop owners and merchants gave him preferential treatment, and that his physique was more youthful. He even wrote cheerful notes to friends describing the sunny, treelined boulevards. Especially refuting these perceptions, however, is biographer Ronald Hayman, who notes that Turin's climate was actually rainy and Nietzsche's own home was particularly drab.

Nietzsche celebrated his forty-fourth birthday by beginning Ecce Homo, a flamboyant account of his life and work. In what Kaufmann calls “one of the great treasures of world literature,” Nietzsche presented stunning, if often brazen, insights into his own life and work, titling chapters with such grandiose lines as “Why I Am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and making such bold statements as, “I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far; this does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial.”

Nietzsche completed Ecce Homo within weeks, and became progressively worse, physically and mentally. In letters he wrote how his facial features were difficult to control and that he would often smile for long periods. Everything seemed to be achieved with the greatest ease. And, he would soon suggest, he was destined to rule the world. Nietzsche was eventually taken to a clinic, where he alternately strolled the halls muttering to himself or remained in bed. When his mother arrived from Naumburg, Nietzsche recognized her and showed relatively stable behavior before proclaiming himself a tyrant and degenerating into lunacy once again. After staying in an asylum, where he believed someone was trying to shoot him, Nietzsche moved to Naumburg under his mother's care. In 1897, when his mother died, he was tended by his sister Elisabeth, whose husband had previously committed suicide.

Nietzsche was too incoherent to appreciate that since his breakdown he had become famous through the efforts of scholars such as Georg Brandes. Elisabeth, however, realized that the family still possessed several volumes of unpublished material, including Ecce Homo and many notebooks, and she exploited her brother's newfound fame. She hired anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner to instruct her on the fundamentals of her brother's philosophy and cultivated a new image as a social benefactor. Her new lifestyle was entirely supported by Nietzsche's now lucrative writings, which she augmented in new editions with her own comments. Among her most notorious literary enterprises was the suppression of Ecce Homo, which she pillaged for her own literary purposes, and an entirely forged work, My Sister and I, attributed to Nietzsche.

By August of 1900, Nietzsche had been signing his last letters “Dionysus the Crucified,” had suffered two strokes, was immobile and inarticulate, and had incurred a respiratory infection. On August 24, following a third stroke, he died. Elisabeth arranged a final fate that doubtlessly would have enraged him: a Christian burial replete with a solemn benediction that included the phrase, “Hallowed be thy name for future generations.”

Works in Literary Context

The Will to Power In his constructive works, Nietzsche sought to find a force in life itself that would serve to set human existence apart. He found it in the hypothesis of the will to power—the urge to dominate and master. All creatures desire this, but only humankind has achieved sufficient power to turn the force back upon itself. Self-mastery, self-overcoming: these are the qualities that give a unique value to human life. The ideal man, the “superman,” will achieve a fierce joy in mastering his own existence, ordering his passions, and giving style to his character. Self-overcoming will release in him a flood of creative energy. The lives of such men will be the justification of reality; their preferences will constitute the standard of value. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche pronounced the will to power as the basic motivating force of human action, the will to power characterized as the will to overcome one's weaknesses and embrace difficulties, both moral and social. To overcome one's failings is to become, according to Nietzsche, the superman.

The Concept of Eternal Recurrence In The Gay Science Nietzsche also conceived of eternal recurrence, which he ranked above the will to power and the superman as the principal tenet of his entire philosophy. Derived from scientific formulations regarding energy conservation, eternal recurrence was defined by Nietzsche as a recycling of everything in endless repetition throughout time. In later volumes, notably Zarathustra, Nietzsche elaborated on this theory and shaped it into an integral part of the will to power. But in The Gay Science, Nietzsche's conception is nearly theological instead of philosophical—with the will to power revealed by a devil who is hailed as a god for his disclosure.

Influences Important for Nietzsche's intellectual development was his discovery and extensive reading from the works of the Greek philosophers, along with the philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Lange, John Stuart Mill, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Baruch de Spinoza, as well as those he had shared ideas with or expressed affinity for: the seventeenth-century French moralists, Darwinists, and authors on a list including everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Charles Baudelaire.


Nietzsche's famous contemporaries include:

William James (1842–1910): American philosopher and pioneer in the field of psychology.

Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886): British artist and illustrator for whom the Caldecott Medal was named.

Dame Ellen Terry (1847–1928): British actress who came to be known as the best Shakespearean actress in Britain in her time.

Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918): The last czar of Russia. He ruled from 1894 to 1917, when he abdicated in response to pressure by revolutionaries. He and his family were executed in 1918.

In turn, worshipped by some as the savior of humanity and damned by others as its foe, he has had a profound, volatile influence on later and contemporary peoples and thought. Left-wing Germans of the 1890s began to follow his work, while right-wing Germans wanted to censor and ban it—though this faction would eventually come to use Nietzsche's works as inspiration for their militaristic points of view. Likewise, the antiSemitic right-wing French faction opposed the leftwing individualists and intellectuals, the Nietzscheans, while Nazi Germans (ironically, connected at some point to Wagner) identified with Nietzsche, and several esteemed philosophers—from Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida to Albert Camus—have since been informed by his work.

Works in Critical Context

Nietzsche's far-reaching, controversial concepts such as “eternal recurrence” and the “superman” marked him as an insignificant eccentric during much of his career, and though he labored in obscurity he anticipated the day when his ideas would be realized in all their power and magnitude. “I know my fate,” he wrote in 1888 before succumbing to insanity. “One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man. I am dynamite.”

While most of his ideas and many of his works have gained popularity and loyalty, many standing out as most often read, re-read, studied, discussed, and even adopted, there are particular works that are considered most impacting, among them Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Beyond Good and Evil (1886) With its searing criticisms of conventional morality and German culture, Beyond Good and Evil ranks among Nietzsche's most vehement and vicious diatribes, one even Nietzsche admitted was “devoid of any good-natured word.” However disturbing, with its exposition of the will to power and its stirring criticisms of Christianity, Beyond Good and Evil must also be considered one of Nietzsche's most profound works, and some critics have even cited it among the most important works of Nietzsche's era. Walter Kaufmann has been especially enthusiastic, calling it “one of the great books of the nineteenth-century.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) Upon Lou Salomé's rejection of his rare advances, Nietzsche returned to the melancholy of solitude and to working on what is also considered one of his greatest works. In this verse epic—which developed into four volumes over the next two years—Nietzsche altered his theories of the will to power and eternal recurrence and introduced his most popular, and most misunderstood, concept, that of the übermensch, or superman.

Zarathustra, with its explication of the will to power and characterization of the superman, is probably Nietzsche's most popular work. Its poetry alone renders it a classic of German literature, and its far-reaching philosophy establishes it as a seminal work in nihilism and existentialism. In 1888, Nietzsche expressed the belief of many contemporary scholars when he said that Zarathustra was his finest achievement. “Among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself,” he wrote in the preface to Ecce Homo. “With that I have given mankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far.” He added that Zarathustra, which he had conceived as an alternative to the Christian Bible's New Testament, was “the highest book there is.”

Responses to Literature

  1. After reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, consider how you would explain the concept of the will to power to someone who knows nothing of Nietzsche or his concepts.
  2. Several philosophers throughout history have offered allegory and recognizable, concrete objects to their readers to illustrate profound concepts. Plato used the cave, for instance; Camus had Sisyphus. Kierkegaard referred to the abyss. What allegory or objects would you use to explain Nietzsche's concepts of the will to power and eternal recurrence?
  3. Considering the sociopolitical climate in Germany during Nietzsche's time, why was it, in your view, that Nietzsche's popularity went in waves? With which groups was he popular at that time, with which was he not? Why? With which groups might he be popular today?


Writing to analyze and criticize an old system of values or to formulate a new system, Nietzsche aimed in all his work to provide a new meaning for human existence in a meaningless world. In the absence of any higher power, men must create their own values, he maintained. Here are a few works by writers who also produced similar philosophical assertions:

The Reality of the Mass Media (2000), a nonfiction work by Niklas Luhmann. A thorough discussion of the moralizing or demoralizing of a culture by way of contemporary media/technology.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), a philosophical essay by Albert Camus. Futility, absurdity, and meaninglessness compose the approach by the author, who explores humanity's hopeless attempts to understand human existence.

The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), a philosophical essay by Simone de Beauvoir. In this well-conceived departure from existential philosophy as Nietzsche commanded it, the author explores freedom and free will, politics and phenomenology, and much more.



Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Lampert, Laurence. Nietzsche's Teaching: An Interpretation of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Web Sites

The Gutenberg Project. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844–1900. Retrieved February 9, 2008, from

Video Google. Human, All Too Human: Nietzsche 1949. Retrieved February 9, 2008, from

Nietzsche, Friedrich

views updated Jun 27 2018


NIETZSCHE, FRIEDRICH (18441900), German philosopher and social, cultural, and religious critic. Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most remarkable, controversial, original, and important figures in modern philosophical and intellectual history. In his short productive life (which ended with his collapse in 1889, although he lived on until 1900), he published an astonishing number and variety of works, and wrote a great deal more. His writings attracted relatively little attention prior to his collapse; but the subsequent impact of his thought was and continues to be both great and diverse.

Life and Work

Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, Saxony (in Prussia). The son of a Lutheran pastor (who died when he was six), he entered a boarding school in Pforta in 1858, excelling in his studies of religion and classical and German literature. In 1864 he entered the University of Bonn, intending to study theology and classical philosophy; but after only one year he transferred to the University of Leipzig, where he concentrated on philosophy. While there he discovered Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, which profoundly influenced him. It was as a classical philologist, however, that he received a call from the University of Basel at the astonishingly early age of twenty-four.

Nietzsche taught at Basel from 1869 until 1879, when he retired owing to the deterioration of his health (which resulted from illnesses he contracted in 1870 as a volunteer medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War). During this period he formed a close association with Richard Wagner, his early fascination with whom is reflected in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). His later break with Wagner, culminating in his polemic The Case of Wagner (1888), was both profound and painful to him. At first regarding Wagner as showing the way to a cultural and spiritual renewal, Nietzsche came to see him as epitomizing and fostering decadent and dangerous tendencies.

These concerns with the direction and health of contemporary cultural and intellectual life were the real focus of most of Nietzsche's early writings. As he developed his own quite distinctive philosophical idiom and method, he drew strongly upon the idea and practice of interpretation associated with his discipline of classical philology. He departed increasingly from the conventional limits and norms of that discipline, however, and the unorthodox character of his published work during his tenure at Baselbeginning with The Birth of Tragedy and becoming more pronounced in his Untimely Meditations (18731876) and Human, All-Too-Human (1878)effectively divorced him from it. This rendered his retirement in 1879 merely the ratification of an accomplished fact.

The following decade, most of which Nietzsche spent alternating between residences in Switzerland and northern Italy, was phenomenally productive. The Dawn (1881) and the first four books of The Gay Science (1882) were followed by the four-part Thus Spoke Zarathustra (18831885). The next four years saw the appearance of Beyond Good and Evil (1886), the fifth book of The Gay Science and The Genealogy of Morals (1887), The Case of Wagner (1888), and Twilight of the Idols (1889) as well as the completion of several other works that were published some years later: The Antichrist (1895) and Ecce Homo (1908). During this period he also amassed a great deal of material in notebooks. (A substantial selection of this material, the significance of which is a matter of considerable controversy, was arranged and published posthumously under the title The Will to Power.)

Having written the last four of these works in the single year of 1888, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown in early January of 1889, in Turin. His illness probably was the consequence of his having contracted syphilis many years earlier. He remained a partially paralyzed invalid, never regaining his health and sanity. During the remaining years of his life he was cared for by his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche. She obtained control of his writings, sought to enhance and exploit his reputation, and was partly responsible for the misrepresentation of his thought that culminated in the travesty of his work being presented as the philosophical inspiration of National Socialism. This seriously damaged his reputation and long obstructed a just assessment of his work.

Nietzsche's style and manner of writing have affected his reception as well. Unlike most philosophers, he generally did not set out his views systematically, in clearly discernible lines of argument cast in dry and measured prose. His works, for the most part, consist of series of short paragraphs and sets of aphorisms, often only loosely (if at all) connected. Many deal with philosophical topics, but in very unconventional ways. His language, moreover, is by turns coolly analytical, heatedly polemical, and highly metaphorical. It is not surprising, therefore, that many philosophers have found it difficult to know what to make of him or whether to take him seriously, and that they have interpreted his work in many different ways.


The early Nietzsche was greatly concerned with basic problems he discerned in contemporary Western culture and society, for which he considered it imperative to seek new solutions. He was further convinced that Schopenhauer's bleak picture of the world and the human condition was fundamentally sound, and yet he was determined to discover some way of avoiding Schopenhauer's pessimistic conclusions. In The Birth of Tragedy he looked to the ancient Greeks for clues and to Wagner for inspiration, believing that their art held the key to human flourishing in a Schopenhauerian world. In his subsequent series of four essays collectively titled Untimely Meditations, he expanded upon the need to reorient human thought and endeavor in a manner more conducive to the creativity and vitality of human life.

These essays were followed by a number of aphoristic books in which Nietzsche refined and extended his assessment of various human tendencies and social and cultural phenomena. During this period his thinking became much more sophisticated, and he developed the philosophical style and outlook that found mature expression in his writings of the 1880s. He prophesied the advent of a period of nihilism as traditional modes of interpretation and valuation collapsed in conjunction with the "death of God," the demise of metaphysics, and the discovery of science's inability to yield anything like absolute knowledge. However, the prospect of this forthcoming crisis deeply disturbed him. He took the basic challenge of philosophy to be that of overcoming not only traditional metaphysics and scientific rationalism but also the nihilism resulting from their abandonment. In the early 1880s, when he conceived and wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he arrived at a conception of human life and possibilityand with it, of value and meaningthat he believed could serve to fill the void left by the bankruptcy of traditional philosophy and religion and the poverty of science.

What Nietzsche called the "death of God" was both a cultural eventthe waning of the "Christian-moral" interpretation of life and the worldand a philosophical development: the dismissal of the idea of God as a concept deserving serious philosophical attention. As a cultural event it was a phenomenon to be reckoned with, and a source of profound concern. As a philosophical development, on the other hand, it was his point of departure, demanding a radical reconsideration of the nature of life and the world, human existence, knowledge, value, and morality. Thus the "de-deification of nature," the "translation of man back into nature," the development of a "naturalistic" value-theory and its application to a "revaluation of values," and the tracing of the "genealogy of morals" and their critique were among the main tasks he set for himself.

Nietzsche emphatically rejected not only the "God-hypothesis" but also any metaphysical postulation of a "true world of 'being'" transcending the world of life and experience, and likewise deemed the "soul" and "things-in-themselves" to be ontological fictions. He conceived of all existence in terms of an interplay of forces without any inherent structure or final end; these forces ceaselessly refigure themselves as the fundamental disposition he called "will to power" gives rise to successive arrays of power relationships among them. His idea of the "eternal recurrence" underscores this conception of the world, in which things ever happen in this same manner. He thus construed human nature and existence naturalistically: "The soul is only a word for something about the body," he wrote; and the body is fundamentally an arrangement of natural forces and processes manifesting the "will to power." At the same time, however, he stressed the importance of social institutions and interactions in human development. He also insisted upon the possibility of the emergence of exceptional human beings ("higher men") capable of an independence and creativity elevating them above the general human level ("the herd"), and he proclaimed the "overman" (Übermensch ) to be "the meaning of the earth," representing the overcoming of the "all-too-human" and the attainment of the fullest possible "enhancement of life."

Thus, far from seeking to diminish one's humanity by stressing animality, Nietzsche sought to direct one's attention and efforts to the emergence of a "higher humanity" capable of endowing existence with a redemptive human justification. He espoused a "Dionysian value-standard" based upon an affirmation of the "will to power" as the creative transformation of existence; and he accordingly made the "enhancement of life" and creativity the central themes of his "revaluation of values" and value-theory.

Insisting that moralities ought to be understood and assessed "in the perspective of life," Nietzsche argued that most of them were obstructive rather than conducive to the enhancement of life, reflecting all-too-human needs, weaknesses, and fears. Distinguishing between "master" and "slave" moralities, he found the latter to have eclipsed the former, issuing in a dominant "herd-animal morality" well-suited to the mediocre who are the human rule but stultifying and detrimental to potential exceptions. Therefore he advocated a "higher morality" for the latter, one that would be "beyond good and evil" and better attuned to their attainment of an enhanced, creative form of life. This reflects the linkage of his notions of such a "higher humanity" and the associated "higher morality" to his conception of art. Art, involving the creative transformation, in restricted contexts, of the world as humans find it, anticipates the kind of life that might be lived more fully in this manner and constitutes a step toward its emergence.


In the decades following Nietzsche's collapse, a veritable Nietzsche cult developed in central Europe, as self-styled followers produced a variety of influential but simplistic and distorted interpretations of his thought. Thus he was depicted by turns as a latter-day Romantic, an iconoclastic nihilist, a social Darwinist, and a racist and protofascist. He also attracted a substantial following in artistic and literary circles beyond as well as within central Europe. It was only slowly, however, that he began to be taken seriously by philosophers, and even then he was, and continues to be, interpreted in ways lending themselves to diverse philosophical purposes that often stand in a rather problematical relation to his own.

The common association of Nietzsche with existential philosophy, for example, is owing to his appropriation (in different ways) first by such German existential philosophers as Heidegger and Jaspers and then by French existentialists, notably Sartre and Camus. For others, he was a leading representative of Lebensphilosophie; as such he influenced the philosophical-anthropological movement that developed out of this school in central Europe. He was also one of the sources upon which members of the Frankfurt School drew in their attempts to develop a critical theory of society and culture. More recently still, he has been warmly embraced by post-structuralist French philosophers, who derive much of their inspiration from their reading of him. Certain recent Anglo-American analytical philosophers have discovered in him a kindred spirit as well.

Nietzsche and Religion

Unlike most philosophers of importance before him, Nietzsche was openly and profoundly hostile to most forms of religious thought (with the notable exception of that of the early Greeks). He declared "war" upon the major world religions and their theologies, contending not only that they perpetuate superstitions and errors for which there is no longer any excuse but also that they are deeply objectionable owing to their detrimental impact upon human life. It was above all their purported "crimes against life" for which he attacked them, arguing that they have fed upon and fostered weakness, sickliness, life-weariness, and ressentiment, and that they have poisoned the wellsprings of human health, strength, and vitality by "devaluing" all "naturalistic values."

Thus Nietzsche undertook to "revalue" religious values, to expose the "all-too-human" origins and motivations of religious ways of thinking, and to undermine all otherworldly theologies, seeking to deprive them of any appearance of legitimacy they might still retain. He intended both to make their emergence and continuing acceptance understandable as human phenomena and at the same time to render them unacceptable to those capable of doing without them and of thinking clearly and honestly. He had some respect for a religion like Christianity as a form of life answering to a certain (interesting but flawed) configuration of human traits, and associated Jesus with this human possibility, but he contended that historical Christianity represented a perversion of it, fostering life-endangering attitudes and seducing potentially healthier human types into stunted or self-destructive forms of existence.

Although Nietzsche may have done religion in general and Christianity in particular a considerable injustice, he compelled their advocates to consider whether and how various forms of religion could be exonerated of his charges against them. He also gave strong impetus to attempts to develop new theologies that dispensed with traditional conceptions of God and the soul in favor of alternative ways of conceiving of the divine and the spiritual nature of mankind. In other quarters, his attack upon traditional religious ways of thinking prompted their defiant defense, thereby contributing indirectly to the resurgence of neo-orthodoxy in opposition to the liberal-theological and naturalistic secular currents of modern thought. Finally, Nietzsche helped to stimulate a reconsideration of the relation between religion and theology. The idea that the most important thing about a religion is the difference it makes in the lives of those who embrace it, rather than the belief system it elaborates, owes much to him, even though most religious thinkers who have followed him in this have tended to assess the effects of religion on the lives of believers very differently than he did.

Nietzsche may not have subverted religion as decisively as he desired and claimed to have done, for his criticisms do not leave all its forms without any means of defense. His critique cannot be lightly dismissed, however, and if it is accorded the serious consideration by religious thinkers it deserves, then the religious issue of this confrontation will be arguably more deserving of respect than most of religion as he knew and conceived it. In any case, anyone well disposed toward religion would do well to make the experiment of attempting to view it through Nietzsche's eyes. This may not lead one to abandon religion, but it is almost certain to alter one's view of it to good effect.


Works by Nietzsche

The definitive new German edition of Nietzsche's writings is the thirty-volume Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin, 19671978). The best English translations of most of his writings have been made by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (sometimes in collaboration). These include The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner (New York, 1967); The Gay Science (New York, 1974); Beyond Good and Evil (New York, 1966; Harmondsworth, 1973); On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (New York, 1968); The Will to Power (New York, 1967); Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Harmondsworth, 1961); and Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist (Harmondsworth, 1968). The last three, with Nietzsche Contra Wagner, are also contained in The Portable Nietzsche (New York, 1954). See also A Nietzsche Reader (Harmondsworth, 1977).

Works on Nietzsche

Danto, Arthur. Nietzsche as Philosopher. New York, 1965.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. Oxford, 1980.

Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche. London, 1973.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, 1974.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche's Existential Imperative. Bloomington, Ind., 1978.

Morgan, George A. What Nietzsche Means. Cambridge, Mass., 1941.

Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche. London, 1983.

Wilcox, John T. Truth and Value in Nietzsche. Ann Arbor, 1974.

Richard Schacht (1987)

Nietzsche, Friedrich

views updated May 14 2018

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1844-1900




Friedrich Nietzsche was born into a family of Lutheran pastors but later repudiated the Christian faith. He entered Bonn University in 1864 as a theology and philology student. His interests turned more to the latter, concentrating on classical and biblical texts. He read David Strausss skeptical Life of Jesus (18351836), discovered Arthur Schopenhaurs atheistic philosophy, and became friends with Richard Wagner, leading to a stormy relationship.

Nietzsche became a professor in classical philology in Basel, Switzerland, in 1869. His university career lasted ten years. He resigned in 1879 for health reasons. His final decade of sanity produced his major works, including his attacks on Christianity, Wagner, traditional morality, and most aspects of the European philosophical tradition and its greatest icons, such as Socrates, Plato, and Immanuel Kant (strangely, he said little about Aristotle).

While he despised Christianity, Nietzsche admired Jesus himself, or at least the historical Jesus who, Nietzsche thought, the church had distorted. As a classical philologist he developed theories about the origin of tragedy (from music) and of ethics in ancient Greece. The latter led him to contrast Apollonian and Dionysian lifestyles, aristocratic and slave moralities, and life-affirming, ascending values versus life-denying, descending values. He shares with Max Weber the credit (or blame perhaps) for switching ethical discourse from virtues to values. Nietzsche went mad in 1889 and died in 1900.


Nietzsches philosophy is mostly based on three components: his ontology, his theory of ethics, and his views on intellectual history. His ontology includes his best known saying, God is dead; truth is subjective; the will to power; and eternal recurrence. His ethics involve a preference for aristocratic values over slave morality, the Übermensch, and the claim that we create our values. Contrary to traditional religious and philosophical ideas, we do not discover them or receive them from God or nature, reason, conscience, intuition, or a moral sense. The last point leads to the problem of nihilism. Nihilism (from nihil, Latin for nothing) can be defined as consisting of three main components, atheism, moral skepticism, and the claim that life has no meaning.

From this one might conclude that therefore anything goes. While Nietzsche clearly endorsed all three of the above, he is best classified as an aesthetic, amoral atheist. He did not accept the apparent corollary of nihilism that Fyodor Dostoyevsky (among others) claimed followed from its premises. Instead, it is our task to create or invent our own values and also to create the meaning of life for ourselves, a view repeated in the twentieth century by philosophers as diverse as Karl Popper and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Nietzsches first book proposed an instinctual, amoral, Dionysian creative energy that has been submerged and repressed by an Apollonian force of logic and sobriety (an anticipation perhaps of subsequent work on the left brain versus the right brain). He rejected several ideas he saw as intrinsic to European philosophy, such as self-consciousness, free will, and either/or thinking. However, some may claim that his own thinking often exhibits either/or thinking: life-affirming or life-denying, ascending or descending, Apollonian or Dionysian, slave versus master morality.

Nietzsche certainly went counter to the main trends of both nineteenth-century and twentieth-century political thought, making it rather curious why so many left-wing thinkers were so enthused about him. He challenged the moral idea that exploitation, domination, injury to the weak, destruction, and appropriation are universally evil behaviors.

Nietzsche argued in The Anti-Christ (1895) that noble values in Roman society were corrupted by the rise of Christianity, and he discussed many of its main figures, concluding that Christianity is a religion for the weak and unhealthy whose effect has been to undermine the healthy qualities of more noble peoples. This is in striking contrast to Karl Marxs opposite argument (made by many leftist thinkers) that the real problem is that the church has taken the side of the powers that be, sanctifying their exploitation of the weak and vulnerable members of society.

Nietzsches Übermensch idea can be misunderstood if it is taken in a collectivist rather than a radical individualist sense. It has been translated as both superman and overman. The former is highly misleading and the latter unclear. The best term might seem to be superior man. But this also is misleading. It is neither racist nor nationalist nor class nor genetically based. Nietzsche had ambiguous attitudes toward Charles Darwin and definitely was not a social Darwinist. It is arguable that everyone, or at least anyone, could be an Übermensch, a person who mastered her or his passions and became a creator rather than a creature. It is used basically as a this-worldly alternative to traditional piety.

Übermensch is related to both the weakest points in Nietzsches philosophy, lack of systematic, logical argument, and the strongest point, his brilliant critique of egalitarianism, especially anarchism, socialism, and democracy. But again this must not be confused with later Nazi or other racial, anti-Semitic, nationalist, genetic based theories of group superiority. While it is unfair to see him as a precursor of National Socialism, he can be seen as a precursor of postmodernism and theories of social construction with their subjectivist theories of truth. In addition nothing in his theories seems to rule out racist, fascist, or even Communist ideologies (unlike Kant, utility, that is, all the theories he despises).


Many Nietzsche scholars respond to criticism about the unsystematic and even contradictory nature of his ideas by claiming he was not propounding a system but proposing ideas and hypotheses. This would explain his method of aphorisms, bald assertions, and diatribes without argument and also why his twentieth-century appeal was to such a wide variety of literary and philosophical figures of differing views, from far right to far left. Many would say the same about Plato, who is also contentiously associated with twentieth-century totalitarian ideologies.

However, it can then still be asked, If it is true that we invent our values then we invented the perverse one such as slave morality, human equality, Platonism. Thus, one can ask of preferences for affirming life versus denying life, why is the former preferable? What is the basis for this other than Nietzsches own opinions? Why cannot revenge, resentment, and hatred be noble under some circumstances if people create their own values? This is a problem not unique to Nietzsche because it rests on the fact-value distinction Weber and Nietzsche helped formulate.

There is also a question of the coherence of his critique of Christianity. In his ultimate critique of Christianity, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), he argues that Christian morals have emerged from revenge, resentment, hatred, impotence, and cowardice. He may well be correct about this and claims that Paul or the church or someone else distorted the original message of Jesus, but perspectivism and subjectivism regarding truth rule out any argument that this is correct. Finally, it is arguable that his compatriot, Gottlob Frege, father of modern mathematical logic, had an effective critique of subjectivist theories of truth.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Christianity; Epistemology; Ethics; Knowledge; Morality; Philosophy; Plato; Popper, Karl; Subjectivity: Overview; Weber, Max


Allison, David B. 2001. Reading the New Nietzsche. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Babich, Babette E. 1994. Nietzsches Philosophy of Science. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Danto, Arthur C. 1965. Nietzsche as Philosopher: An Original Study. New York: Macmillan.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. 1950. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mandel, Siegfried. 1998. Nietzsche and the Jews. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Viking. Contains major works such as The Antichrist, Nietzsche contra Wagner, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Twilight of the Idols.

Calvin Hayes

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

views updated May 29 2018


German philosopher and poet; b. Röcken (Prussian Saxony), Oct. 15, 1844; d. Weimar, Germany, Aug. 25, 1900.

Life. The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche was reared in a strictly religious atmosphere. After his father's death (1849), his mother moved to Naumburg; Nietzsche then attended the humanistic Gymnasium and the renowned Fürstenschule of neighboring Pforta (185864). He studied classical philology under F. W. Ritschl at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig (186267) and discovered the philosophy of A. schopenhauer. Though never endorsing Schopenhauer's metaphysical pessimism, Nietzsche sensed in the emphasis on the supremacy of will as a universal principle a dynamism that appealed to his thirst for life in its plenitude. To Nietzsche's faltering Christian faith Schopenhauer seemed to offer a possibility of self-redemption.

On Ritschl's recommendation, Nietzsche, aged 24, was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, a chair he held from 1869 to 1879, when his steadily declining health forced his resignation. Of considerable consequence was Nietzsche's meeting and short-lived friendship with Richard wagner. Until 1872 Nietzsche's life was actually centered in Wagner's villa near Lucerne. He expected of Wagner's music drama a rebirth of the ancient Greek tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles. In defense of Wagner and attacking the "Socratic rationalism" of Euripides, Nietzsche wrote Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (Leipzig 1872). But the ambivalent love-hatred attitude that marked his relationship with Wagner led to disillusionment and eventual total estrangement.

From 1879 to 1889 Nietzsche lived alternately at Sils-Maria in the Swiss Engadine Alps, at Nice, and at Genoa, suffering from multiple physical ailments. His final mental collapse occurred in Turin in January 1889. His remaining 11 years Nietzsche lived in Jena and Weimar under the care of his sister Elisabeth. His mental disease was never accurately diagnosed, and the assumption that Nietzsche was suffering from progressive paralysis induced by syphilis remains unsubstantiated.

Thought. Nietzsche was a Lebensphilosoph, castigating the separation of philosophy and science from life. In his sensitive mind the spiritual crisis of the modern age appeared focalized. He was among the first to diagnose historicism and scientism as symptoms of decadence and of a nihilism that threatened the foundations of Western civilization. He called for a new beginning and a "transvaluation of all values" in order to stop such threats.

The development of Nietzsche's thought proceeded in three stages. The study of antiquity and the influence of Schopenhauer and Wagner first made Nietzsche experience the "ground of being" as a dialectic of opposites, of "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" life principles. His vision of a synthesis in Greek tragedy and in Wagnerian music was short-lived. The four Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Leipzig 187376) characterize this period.

Then, after the break with Wagner and the emancipation from Schopenhauer's "pessimism of weakness," Nietzsche applied psychological "experimentalism" to an examination of man and his world, launching a radical attack on traditional theology, metaphysics, and morality. With L. feuerbach, Nietzsche saw the idea of God and of absolute Truth as nothing but "projections" of man's most precious qualities into an illusory "beyond"; they must be reclaimed, he argued, for the enrichment of man and his "this-worldly" existence. The "death of God" he solemnly proclaimed and dramatically analyzed in the story of the "madman" in section 125 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (Chemnitz 188286). See also Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Chemnitz 187880) and Morgenröte (Chemnitz 1881).

Nietzsche finally implemented his early thinking with the "deadly gospel" of biological and social Darwinism. The "world-ground" he now saw as Wille zur Macht, a "will-to-power" that by "sublimation" would generate the "Super-Man" (Übermensch ). Christian "slave morality," born of the ressentiment of weaklings, was to be superseded by a "master morality, beyond good and evil." The future "lords of the world" were to rise above brute animality by ascetic self-discipline seasoned by suffering. See Also sprach Zarathustra (Chemnitz 188384), Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Leipzig 1886), Zur Genealogie der Moral (Leipzig 1887), Der Fall Wagners (Leipzig 1888), Ecce Homo (1888; publ. Leipzig 1908), Der Antichrist (Leipzig 1888), and Die Götzendämmerung (Leipzig 1889). The "vision" that inspired Nietzsche's doctrine of "the eternal recurrence" he interpreted as the revelation of a cosmological law functioning without a divine lawgiver. An eternal cyclical movement of existence was seen as a substitute for the creative activity of a personal Deity. The certainty of the "eternal return" was to justify a joyous affirmation of all existence, signalizing a final victory over nihilism.

Appreciation. The ambivalences and self-contradictory theses in Nietzsche's thinking account for some gross misinterpretations of his philosophy. However, Nietzsche's distorted idea of Christianity bears the imprint of Luther's pessimism regarding the corruption of fallen human nature and of Schopenhauer's Buddhist-tainted view of Christian doctrine. Nietzsche's alleged anti-Semitism and chauvinismeagerly propagated by the National Socialistsare refuted by his scathing denunciation of racism and his condemnation of the power politics and crude materialism of the German Empire. A distorted Nietzsche image was created also by his sister, who was bigoted and proved unreliable as executrix of Nietzsche's literary remains. But Nietzsche's philosophy did foster the rise of irrationalism, subjectivism, voluntarism, and a biologism based on the élan vital of a naturalistic Lebensphilosophie. Nietzsche's philosophical influence is most conspicuous in secular humanism and in existentialism. The hymnal musicality of his prose and poetry also influenced several literary and artistic schools and movements.

See Also: life philosophies.

Bibliography: Works. Gesammelte Werke, 20 v. (Leipzig 19011926); Gesammelte Werke: Musarionausgabe, 23 v. (Munich 192029); Werke und Briefe: Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe (Munich 1933), in progress; The Complete Works, ed. o. levy, 18 v. (London 190913); The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York 1937), contains four major works; The Portable Nietzsche, comp., ed., and tr. w. kaufmann (New York 1954); The Use and Abuse of History, tr. a. collins (2d rev. ed. New York 1957); Joyful Wisdom, tr. t. common (New York 1960). Literature. f. copleston, Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture (London 1942). h. a. reyburn et al., Nietzsche The Story of a Human Philosopher (London 1948). w. kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton 1950). f. a. lea, The Tragic Philosopher: A Study of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York 1957). m. heidegger, Nietzsche, 2 v. (Pfullingen 1961). r. j. hollingdale, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (New York 1999). m. clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge 1990). j. richardson, Nietzsche's System (Oxford 1996).

[k. f. reinhardt]

Friedrich Nietzsche

views updated Jun 08 2018

Friedrich Nietzsche

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) foresaw a European collapse into nihilism. In works of powerful and beautiful prose and poetry he struggled to head off the catastrophe.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on Oct. 15, 1844, in Röcken, a village in Saxony where his father served as a Lutheran pastor. The father's death, when the child was 4 years old, was a shattering blow to which Nietzsche often referred in his later writings. This death left Nietzsche in a household of women: his mother, grandmother, several aunts, and a sister, Elizabeth.

After attending local schools in Naumburg, 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. At the end of this period of schooling, Nietzsche, who had earlier fully shared the genuine piety of his family, found that he had 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 Friedrich Ritschl, and when the latter, within the year, moved to Leipzig, Nietzsche followed him. Nietzsche attempted to enter into the social life of the students, even joining a dueling fraternity, but he soon discovered that his sense of his own mission in life had isolated him from the pursuits and interests most students shared. At this time, too, Nietzsche apparently contracted syphilis in a Leipzig brothel. The incurable disease gradually undermined his strong constitution. In middle life he suffered almost constantly from migraine and gastric upsets. Loneliness and physical pain were thus the constant background of his life—though Nietzsche later came to interpret them as the necessary conditions for his work.

Nietzsche's early publications in classical philology so impressed his teacher that when a chair of philology opened up at Basel, Ritschl was able to secure it for Nietzsche, then only 24 years old and still without his degree. This the University of Leipzig gave him on the strength of his writings without requiring an examination, and Nietzsche entered upon a teaching career. Important for Nietzsche's intellectual development was his discovery in these Leipzig years of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Lange and the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

When Nietzsche took up residence in Basel, Wagner was nearby at Tribschen, and Nietzsche was soon drawn into his circle. Wagner was then at work on the Ringcycle and on the great festival at Bayreuth that would be inaugurated for its premiere. The project needed publicity and financial support, and many German intellectuals were backing it. Nietzsche entered into the cause with enthusiasm and for several years was a frequent house-guest at Tribschen. Friendship with the charismatic but egocentric Wagner was, however, incompatible with independence of thought, the quality Nietzsche most valued. Before long he began to reassert his own ideas and plans. This led finally to a break, followed by some bitter polemics.

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's book ends with a rousing advocacy of Wagner's music drama as a revival of Hellenic tragedy. But no sooner had it been published than Nietzsche began to perceive the difference between Wagner's musical genius and the shabby pseudophilosophy of the Wagnerian cult. From then on, though he still felt affection for Wagner's person, Nietzsche attacked ever more vigorously the "decadence" of Wagner's political and philosophical ideas. Two works of his last year of writing deal with the subject: The Wagner Case (1888) and Nietzsche contra Wagner (1888).

Nietzsche's teaching at Basel was interrupted frequently by prolonged bouts of sickness and by several months of service as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which further aggravated his illness. In April 1879 his health had deteriorated so much that he was driven to resign. He was given a small pension, and he now began a 10-year period of wandering in search of a tolerable climate. Though racked by increasing pain from the relentless progress of his disease, Nietzsche managed to produce 10 substantial books before his final collapse. They belong to the first rank of German literature and contain a provocative set of philosophical ideas.

His Philosophy

Nietzsche believed that European man was standing at a critical turning point. The advance of scientific enlightenment, in particular the Darwinian theory, had destroyed the old religious and metaphysical underpinnings for the idea of human dignity. "God is dead," declares 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, Nietzsche predicted a rapid decline into nihilism and barbarity.

Nietzsche aimed in all his work to provide a new meaning for human existence in a meaningless world. In the absence of any transcendent sanction, men must create their own values. Nietzsche's writings are either analyses and criticisms of the old system of values or attempts to formulate a new system. For European man, the Judeo-Christian tradition was the source of the old values. Nietzsche attacked it head on in such works as A Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Antichrist (1888).

In his constructive works Nietzsche sought to find in life itself a force that would serve to set human existence apart. He found it in the hypothesis of the will to power— the urge to dominate and master. All creatures desire this, but only man has achieved sufficient power to turn the force back upon himself. Self-mastery, self-overcoming: these are the qualities that give a unique value to human life. The ideal man, the "superman," will achieve a fierce joy in mastering his own existence, ordering his passions, and giving style to his character. The sublimation of passion and of life's circumstances that the ideal man achieves in his self-overcoming will release in him a flood of creative energy. The lives of such men will be the justification of reality; their preferences will constitute the standard of value.

All morality is thus the result of self-overcoming, but Nietzsche discerned a criterion by which to distinguish the morality of the superman from the "decadent" morality of Christianity. The latter undercuts earthly life in favor of an illusory afterlife, condemns self-assertion as pride, and perverts bodily functions with guilt and fear. Its tendency is toward nihilism and the denial of life. The new morality, on the other hand, will affirm life, encourage self-assertion, and eliminate guilt consciousness. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) Nietzsche formulated the ultimate test of the superman's affirmations. Confronted with the hypothesis of eternal recurrence, the notion that the world process is cyclical and eternal, the superman still affirms life. Let it be—again and again—with all its joys and sorrows.

On Jan. 3, 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on a street in Turin, Italy. When he regained consciousness, his sanity was gone. He began to send off wild letters to friends and strangers signed "Dionysus—the Crucified." He was taken to his mother's home and lived on in a twilight condition, sinking ever further from the real world until his death on Aug. 25, 1900.

Further Reading

Nietzsche's last work, Ecce Homo (trans. 1911), is an autobiographical review of his published works; although fascinating and illuminating, it shows signs of megalomania and incipient madness. The best biography of Nietzsche is R. J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (1965). Of the numerous recent critical works on Nietzsche, the best is Walter Kaufmann's provocative Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist and Antichrist (1950; 3d rev. ed. 1968). □

Nietzsche, Friedrich

views updated May 09 2018

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900) A German philosopher, one of the great (if not the greatest of) modern iconoclasts, Nietzsche has been read as the precursor of such varied phenomena as Nazism and post-modernism. Essentially, he appears to have been outraged by the lack of reflexivity (see ETHNOMETHODOLOGY) among philosophers and scientists who failed to apply to their own thoughts the rigorous questioning they applied to those of others, a reaction which led him to dispute the supposed rationalism, scientism, and humanism of modern Western societies. Against this, he upheld the ideals of individualism, self-reliance, competition, and élitism. The three terms that summarize both the reasons for the continuing controversy over his thought, and the results of his own self-questioning, are ‘nihilism’, ‘will to power’, and ‘superman’. Among those said to have been influenced by his works are Max Weber and Michel Foucault. Most of his books are available in good modern translations. Amongst the best-known are The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–92), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo (1908).

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

views updated May 23 2018

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1844–1900) German philosopher who rejected Christianity and the prevailing morality of his time and emphasized people's freedom to create their own values. He studied classical philology and taught Greek. In 1879 he abandoned philology for philosophy and worked out his view of the freedom of the individual over the next decade. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–91), Nietzsche presented his notion of the Übermensch (‘Superman’), the idealized man, strong, positive, and able to impose his wishes upon the weak and worthless. Other works include Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). In 1889 Nietzsche was declared insane.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

views updated May 21 2018

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1844–1900). Philosopher and literary figure who, although German, preferred to be called a ‘European’. He indicted Christianity as ‘the one great curse, the one intrinsic depravity, the one immortal blemish upon humankind’. He attacked on several fronts: (i) like all religions, it is a narcotic to protect people from fear of unknown forces; (ii) theistic explanation has been made unnecessary by the rise of science, and theistic belief has become ‘unbelievable’; (iii) Christian values are anti-human and hostile to life, being fit only for slaves or the weak and inadequate. I will say to Death, “Right on! The same again!”’ His major works are The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Human, All Too Human (1878), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

views updated May 21 2018

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (b Röcken, 1844; d Weimar, 1900). Ger. philosopher, poet, and amateur composer. Prof. of classical philology, Basle Univ. 1869–79. Distinguished between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Dionysian’ in music. Friend and ardent disciple of Wagner from 1868 but turned against him and denounced his influence in 3 pamphlets, the last and most effective of them being Der Fall Wagner (1888). Instead, championed Bizet. Wrote songs, pf. pieces, and choral mus. His epic prose-poem Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–5) inspired mus. from R. Strauss, Mahler, and Delius.

About this article

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic