Last reviewed: June 2018
October 15, 1844
Röcken, Saxony, Prussia (now in Germany)
August 25, 1900
Friedrich Nietzsche (NEE-chuh), who proclaimed in his philosophy that human beings could rise beyond good and evil and leave behind the slave morality of Christianity, was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Saxony. He was christened Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche to honor the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, on whose birthday, October 15, he was born in 1844. Friedrich Nietzsche
When Nietzsche was four years old, his father injured himself falling on some stone steps and died after a year of mental and physical illness. For years Friedrich was disturbed by the idea that he might inherit insanity from his father. Although he did become mentally ill in 1889, it seems more likely that his madness was the result of a syphilitic infection.
After his father’s death, Nietzsche was taken, with his sister Elizabeth, to Naumburg to the home of his mother’s family, the Oehlers. There he was brought up by five women: his mother, his grandmother, two aunts, and his sister, by whom he was overprotected, overcaressed, and overruled. It is not surprising that in later life some of his most bitter language was directed against women: In Thus Spake Zarathustra he advised: “Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip.”
As a young boy, Nietzsche was well behaved and conscientious. When he was fourteen he attended a school in Pforta, five miles from Naumburg. Until he was eighteen he was a bright, regular student, but then he began to miss classes, to get drunk in beer halls, and to spend more time listening to music than studying. Later, music became a powerful metaphor in his philosophy. He did graduate from Pforta, however, and entered the University of Bonn in October, 1864, to study theology and philosophy. Apparently he spent a considerable amount of time carousing, with the result that he came to regard his year there as a “lost year” and student life as coarse and expensive. During this time he managed, however, to study the mythological heroes of the Greeks and Romans, who became the models for his definition of the Übermensch, or superman.
He then undertook the study of philology at the University of Leipzig under Professor Albrecht Ritschl. He found in Arthur Schopenhauer a philosopher worthy of serious study and avidly read The World as Will and Idea (1818). The notion that everything is a manifestation of the will to live appealed to Nietzsche, and he was emotionally in accord with Schopenhauer’s pessimism. However, as he reflected on Schopenhauer’s philosophy, he concluded that will to power is the basic force in the universe and that to exist means to become strong. He defined the superman as one who is beyond good and evil, whose new, heroic morality would consciously affirm life and set him apart from inferior members of humanity.
In 1867 Nietzsche was compelled to serve in the Prussian cavalry despite his claims that his health was poor and he had a widowed mother to support. He was released after a fall from a horse tore his chest muscles and fractured his ribs. Soon thereafter he enjoyed two triumphs: An article of his was published in a philological journal and won critical acceptance from professional scholars, and in 1869 he accepted a chair in philology at the University of Basel, his doctorate in philosophy having been awarded despite the lack of a thesis. His academic career was interrupted, however, by the Franco-Prussian War. He served in the German ambulance corps for a short time until he was discharged after an attack of dysentery and diphtheria.
Nietzsche had met the composer Richard Wagner during his Leipzig time. He reintroduced himself when Wagner, with his mistress Cosima von Bülow, settled in Triebschen, Switzerland, and a strong friendship developed. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, was a defense of the thesis that Wagner represented the triumph of the emotional, irrational Dionysian spirit over the rational Apollonian. The book was dismissed by philologists, and Nietzsche’s reputation as a scholar was fatally damaged. In ill health and with few students, he continued at Basel until 1879, when he was pensioned at the age of thirty-four. His friendship with Wagner declined as Wagner’s fame increased, and Nietzsche later charged Wagner with having succumbed to the destructive influence of Christianity.
Nietzsche traveled to France, to Italy, to Germany, and then back to Switzerland in a vain effort to improve his health. During the next ten years he produced his greatest works, among them Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which he urged that human beings assert their natural power against the slave morality and decadence of Christianity. His ideas were more carefully developed in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals. As these works show, he was not a systematic philosopher but rather a passionate moralist who rejected the Western bourgeoisie and Christian civilization.
In 1882 he had a disillusioning experience with a young Finnish woman, Lou Salomé, who was willing to join him in the search for truth but not in marriage. His friendships were never of long duration; although he was often regarded as a genius, social interaction with him could be difficult. He was often in poor health, suffering headaches, nausea, nervous disturbances, and eye trouble.
In December, 1888, or January, 1889, he became mentally ill and was taken to a hospital in Basel. Later his mother moved him to Jena, and in 1897 his sister Elizabeth took him to Weimar, where he died on August 25, 1900. His last ten years were spent in a state of complete, although not violent, mental darkness.
Nietzsche’s works and thinking had widespread influence. Nazi supporters seized on much of his writing as philosophical justification for their program of national and racial superiority and for their contempt of democracy and political equality. Most scholars, however, regard this as a perversion of Nietzsche’s philosophy, for he admired individualism and rejected the state.