Nietzsche, Friedrich W.

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Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844–1900) was born in Röcken, Prussia, on October 15. He attended the prestigious boarding school at Pforta, where he was educated in the classics, literature, poetry, and the arts. He went on to study classical philology, first at the University of Bonn, and later at the University of Leipzig. His scholarly promise was so great that he was appointed in 1869 as professor extraordinarius of classical philology at the University of Basel (Switzerland). Following a brief and debilitating tour of duty in the Franco-Prussian War, he returned to Basel and produced his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872). The book was so poorly received that its publication effectively signaled the end of his academic career. He finally resigned from the university in 1879 and lived on a small pension awarded him by the Swiss government.

Nietzsche's most influential work was Thus Spake Zarathustra, published in four parts between 1883 and 1891. In this ambitious work, he depicted the fictitious Zarathustra as a charismatic teacher whose appearance heralds the redemption of the modern world. Zarathustra is best known for his controversial teaching of the Übermensch (or "overman"), whom he proposes as "the meaning of the earth." Were his auditors to embrace this untimely teaching, Zarathustra insists, they would be prepared finally to emerge from the shadow of the dead God and take their rightful place as the legislators of the future. In doing so, they would shed the burden imposed on them by the resentful, ascetic morality that they have inherited from its twin sources, Christianity and Platonism. Zarathustra's teaching of the Übermensch thus conveys the promise of a life predicated on a love of the body and an aspiration to noble values.

Nietzsche intensifies his attack on conventional morality in his next two books, Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). In both works he rehearses his influential distinction between master (or noble) morality and slave morality. Whereas the master morality takes its shape and direction from an originating act of self-affirmation, by means of which the master deems "good" everything about and pertaining to him, the slave morality originates in the slave's designation of his tormentors as "evil." Only as an afterthought, and in contrast to his "evil" oppressors, does the slave deem himself "good." According to Nietzsche, the master morality celebrates passion, commitment, struggle, and immediacy, whereas the slave morality honors the virtues of suffering, deprivation, passivity, and psychological cunning.

In both books, Nietzsche advances the controversial thesis that contemporary European (or Christian) morality is in fact descended from a slave morality. Although freed from the material conditions of slavery, modern people have become habituated to serve as their own slave masters. Burdened by guilt and wearied by relentless self-surveillance, moderns impose upon themselves the defining values of slavery. Nietzsche further conjectures that protracted adherence to a descendant version of the slave morality may have crippled moderns beyond repair, such that a renaissance of nobility may no longer be possible.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche extends his critique of conventional morality to include the scholarly practice of science (Wissenschaft). Here he investigates the role of science in the reign of the ascetic ideal, hoping to expose contemporary practitioners of science as unwittingly honoring the values of declining life—even as they increasingly turn their research to matters related to health, evolution, leisure, and longevity. The problem with the contemporary practice of science, he explains, lies in its failure thus far to determine the actual value of truth; the scientific enterprise thus remains stubbornly unscientific with respect to itself. He consequently asserts that the otherwise unimpeachable "will to truth" masks a more basic expression of faith in truth. It is in this sense that science serves the ascetic ideal, for it proceeds under the uninterrogated assumption that possession of the truth will redeem humankind, which implies that humankind stands in need of redemption. Although science continues to sponsor exciting discoveries, its dependence on the ascetic ideal implicates all such discoveries in the ongoing assault on our beleaguered affects. This assault in turn hastens the advent of the "will to nothingness," which Nietzsche identifies as the will never to will again.

Nietzsche said little about emerging technologies, despite availing himself of railways, typewriters, experimental drugs, postal systems, and other innovations of the late nineteenth century. He was deeply suspicious, however, of the rise of technology in general, which he regarded as symptomatic of advancing cultural decay. He was particularly critical of the technologies marshaled in support of European imperial expansion. He regarded the aspiration to empire as an organized distraction from the crisis of European culture. In his view, the pursuit of imperial possessions would not solve the problem of European decadence but simply export it across the globe.

Nietzsche's productive philosophical career ended in 1888. At the beginning of the next year he suffered a nervous breakdown. After a brief stay in a Jena sanitarium, he was placed in the care of his mother, who relocated him to her home in Naumburg. He lived there in a state of catatonic silence, which was broken only by occasional piano improvisations and infrequent bursts of babble. Following the death of his mother in 1897, he was relocated to Weimar by his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the widow of a prominent anti-Semite and Aryan supremacist. Elisabeth succeeded not only in fashioning her now-famous brother into a kind of cult figure, but also in forging a connection between his philosophy and the rising tide of reactionary politics in Germany. Following his death in Weimar on August 25, his sister continued her appropriation of his philosophical teachings, eventually steering them into convergence with the ideology that soon would inform National Socialism. That Nietzsche would have repudiated any such alliance did not deter Elisabeth from presenting her brother's ideas as providing the philosophical inspiration for Hitler's Reich.


SEE ALSO Alienation; Existentialism.


Aschheim, Steven E. (2001). In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans, and Jews. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kaufmann, Walter. (1968). Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New York: Vintage Books.

Moore, Gregory. (2002). Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, Frederich. (1966). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1999). Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Common. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2000). Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library Classics.