Friedrich Nietzsche, Nineteenth Century Iconoclast
Friedrich Nietzsche, in addition to being a classical scholar and cultural critic, is now regarded as among the greatest of modern philosophers. Though he followed in the German idealism tradition he often attacked idealism—for he was in the habit of biting the hand that fed him. Many have mistaken him for a racist, anti-Semite, and a harbinger of Nazism, but these accusations essentially stem from misrepresentations of his writings brought about by his younger sister Elisabeth and by Nazi polemicists years after his death. What he actually accomplished was to analyze the significance of the victory of Enlightenment secularism, which he expressed by his statement that “God is dead,” in a manner that set the agenda for countless European scholars after his death. His efforts to expose the ideologies that underlie Western morality, religion, and philosophy profoundly influenced generations of philosophers, psychologists, theologians, and creative writers.
Nietzsche was born on Oct. 15, 1844, in Röcken, Saxony, outside Leipzig, Germany. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, after whom Friedrich’s parents named him, appointed Carl Ludwig Nietzsche to be pastor at Röcken. Carl Ludwig died in 1849, before his son’s fifth birthday, and he was raised in a household comprising five related women that included his mother Franziska and Elisabeth. He excelled scholastically and obtained an excellent classical education. After graduating in 1864, he attended the University of Bonn to study theology and classical philology. Although he tried to participate in the university’s social life, his two semesters at Bonn were a disappointment chiefly due to the ongoing disputes between Otto Jahn and Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, his two foremost classics professors. During this time, he found a haven in music; he wrote compositions heavily influenced by Robert Schumann.
The next year he transferred to the University of Leipzig and united with Ritschl who had accepted an appointment there. Nietzsche flourished under Ritschl’s guidance becoming the only pupil to write for his journal Rheinisches Museum. During his years in Leipzig, Nietzsche discovered Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, began a lasting friendship with a classicist colleague named Erwin Rohde, and met the famous composer Richard Wagner.
Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner had fully developed by 1869 and he seized every chance he could to call on him. Wagner respected Nietzsche as a gifted disciple, but Wagner’s growing use of Christian themes, as in Parsifal (1882), combined with his bigotry and anti-Semitism turned out to be more than Nietzsche could tolerate. They had terminated their relationship by 1878, but it haunted Nietzsche for the rest of his life.
Nietzsche began military service in October 1867 and it damaged his health irreparably. He started in a cavalry company that was part of an artillery regiment. He suffered a significant chest wound while attempting to straddle a horse in March 1868, and then resumed his education in Leipzig the following October while on prolonged sick leave from the army. In August 1870, he took a leave of absence from his teaching duties to volunteer as a medical orderly following the eruption of the Franco-German War. Less than a month later, while attending a transport of the injured, he caught dysentery and diphtheria damaging his health permanently.
When a chair in classical philology opened in 1869 in Basel, Switzerland, Ritschl (gushing with admiration) recommended Nietzsche for the position. Nietzsche hadn’t satisfied the requirement for either the doctoral thesis or the requisite additional dissertation necessary to receive a German degree, yet Ritschl assured the authorities that he had never observed someone like Nietzsche in his forty years of instruction and that his abilities were boundless. That year the University of Leipzig bestowed the doctorate on him without examination or dissertation on the strength of his published works, and the University of Basel selected him to fill their chair of classical philology. In October 1870, after he had left the military, he undertook an arduous teaching schedule, which as early as 1871 prompted him to seek relief for the sake of his health from these tiresome chores; he then applied for the unoccupied professorship in philosophy but to no avail. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s health progressively declined. He became very ill, half-blind, and essentially lived in unremitting pain; he asked for and obtained sick leave in 1877, and stepped down from his professorship on June 14, 1879. He was given a pension of 3,000 Swiss francs per year for six years. Subsequently he resided in boarding houses in Switzerland, the French Riviera, and Italy with little human contact.
Meanwhile, he had begun to write, and these works can be categorized into three distinct periods.
A romantic perspective inspired by Schopenhauer and Wagner influenced his early works, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Thoughts out of Season (1873). His first book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) offered an original theory on the birth of classical Greek culture. He thought that scholars could better understand it as resulting from a struggle between two fundamental human drives, the “Apollonian,” exemplified by Apollo god of the sun, and the “Dionysian,” exemplified by Dionysus god of wine and religious ecstasy. The Apollonian is the urge to establish clarity, order, restraint, and harmony. It is a longing for a world in which all things retain a distinctive uniqueness and is differentiated from everything else. This inclination finds representation in the visual arts, where every figure stands out unmistakably from all others. The Apollonian urge attempts to release us from the terrors of reality by providing the chimera of order and beauty, thus rendering it bearable. Nietzsche maintained that reality in fact lacks any apparent differences, instead it is disordered, confused, and pitiless. The Dionysian urge embodies uninhibited passion, which attempts to tear apart Apollonian mirages and expose the truth that rests beneath them. This takes place only in extraordinary situations: those produced by ecstasy or religious frenzy, intoxication, riotous music, and sexual abandon. For Nietzsche the culmination of Socratic rationalism and optimism signified the demise of Greek tragedy. In the last ten sections of the book, he waxes lyrical about the reawakening of tragedy because of Wagner’s music. Silence met the book’s publication and it became the center of impassioned debate by those who misjudged it for an orthodox work of classical scholarship. Today scholars consider it a magnum opus in the history of esthetics.
The middle phase, from Human All Too Human (1878) to The Joyful Wisdom (1882), suggests an influence from the French aphorists. This period exalts reason and science, plays with various literary genres, and demonstrates Nietzsche’s liberation from romanticism, Schopenhauer, and Wagner.
Nietzsche’s mature philosophy began with his composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)—his generally acknowledged masterpiece. He composed it in a biblical-narrative style, and like most of his books it went largely unnoticed at the time. Here he honed his philosophy. His core psychological theory asserted that the entirety of human behavior is motivated by a will to power i.e. an instinct to grow, gain strength, and achieve mastery. This theory attempted to refute and supplant the doctrine of hedonism. He argued that people are often prepared to raise the level of their discomfort, burden, or unease to achieve tasks that permit them to acquire power, achievement, or strength. He did not suggest that people desired merely to control others, or that they were solely attracted to acquiring physical or political supremacy. He believed that we desire to wield power over our own disorderly drives and instincts (our will). He thought that the self-discipline displayed by artists and ascetics who perform religiously motivated acts of abstinence showed a greater type of power than did the brute oppression of the weak by the strong. It was his assertion “that values which are symptomatic of decline, nihilistic values, are lording it under the holiest names.”
Consequently, conventional morality, religion, and philosophy have been so many guises a deficient will to power assumes. The underlying nihilistic morals of Western civilization have been the effects of decadence, for the Judeo-Christian ideal considered existence as pain and suffering only made bearable by explaining it as part of God’s plan and as an opportunity for atonement. He argued that the Judeo-Christian ideal is created when suffering is bestowed with fundamental importance. Christianity was indebted to the creed of personal immortality for its victory, i.e. to the concept that each person’s life and death has a universal significance. He rebutted this by announcing that “God is dead,” for this was his harsh way of stating that most people had stopped believing in God. Therefore, religion was no longer capable of serving as the basis for a moral code.
The doctrine of eternal recurrence, the concept that all things will return—in precise detail—an infinite number of times, forms the fundamental idea behind the book. Eternal recurrence asks a question: what kind of person would find the thought of repeating one’s life without variation an infinite number of times exhilarating, perhaps even fervently craving it, as opposed to finding such a thought horrifying? The person who could honestly consent to it would be an übermensch, a superman whose separation from the average man surpasses the gulf between man and ape. This superman would be a zealous individual who acquires restraint over his or her passions and exercises them in a creative fashion. He or she channels instinctual drives into loftier, more creative and productive outlets. Nietzsche thought that such a “sublimation” of our vitality is much more beneficial than the repression of our instincts exhorted by religion.
Nietzsche went on to scrutinize Judeo-Christian values analytically. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887), he claimed that it was the warriors who had subjugated past cultures who identified their own power as “good” and the frailty of the masses they conquered as “bad.” He referred to this as “master morality” since it embodied the ideals of the masters, and political rule ought to belong only to them. Afterwards the priests and commoners, who wished to seize power, identified their own feebleness and timidity as “good,” and termed the aggressive strength of the warriors “evil.” Nietzsche classified these values, which he named “slave morality,” with the Judeo-Christian tenets that govern Western culture. He disparaged them as being manifestations of the anxiety and antipathy of the weak against the strong. By analyzing the etymology of three German words, gut (“good”), schlecht (“bad”), and böse (“evil”), Nietzsche argued that the difference concerning good and bad was initially descriptive, i.e. a non-moral reference of those who were the advantaged masters versus those who were the lowly slaves. If the privileged, the “good,” were dominant, then the meek would inherit the earth. Modesty, submission, and generosity supplanted rivalry, pride (which became a sin), and independence. Vital to the victory of slave morality was the assertion of it being the only true morality. Persistence on absoluteness is as indispensable to philosophical as to religious morality. Even though he provided a historical pedigree of master and slave morality, he argued that it was a mixture of traits found in everyone.
Nietzsche’s last coherent year, 1888, was a time of unparalleled output. He composed The Case of Wagner (1888), a summary of his philosophy, Twilight of the Idols (1889), The Antichrist (1895), Nietzsche contra Wagner (1895), and Ecce Homo (1908), a contemplation on his own works and importance.
Scholars consider Nietzsche and Kierkegaard the principal forefathers of existentialism. Nietzsche employed the word “nihilism” to illustrate the devaluation of the highest values brought about by the Judeo-Christian ideal. He considered the late nineteenth century an age of passive nihilism, i.e. an age that was not yet cognizant that religious and philosophical “truths” had disappeared with the emergence of positivism. With the breakdown of the theological and metaphysical underpinnings and injunctions of traditional morality only an inescapable sense of meaninglessness would persist. And the victory of meaninglessness is the victory of nihilism. He believed that the majority of people could not acknowledge the eclipse of the Judeo-Christian ideal and the inherent meaninglessness of existence but would substitute other absolutes to endow life with meaning. He believed the developing ultra-nationalism of his time symbolized one such menacing substitute, whereupon nations would become endowed with supernatural significance and purpose. Precisely as absoluteness of dogma had found representation in religion and philosophy, people would then affix absoluteness to their nations with fanatical zeal. The massacre of rival states would continue under the banners of democracy, socialism, and brotherhood. His foresight in this regard was exceptionally accurate, and the exploitation of his name to promote nationalism especially repellent.
People often erroneously classify Nietzsche’s thought with relativism and skepticism. Nevertheless, it brings up the problem of how we must judge his own arguments that the Judeo-Christian ideal has propped up the prevailing values of Western culture. Is his theory unquestionably true or only from a particular viewpoint? Questions such as these have created much productive analysis of Nietzsche’s work in addition to valuable work in epistemology.
His end came suddenly. In January 1889 in Turin, Italy, he had a mental breakdown and collapsed on the street. He mailed several “madness letters” right after his breakdown, which hurried his friend Franz Overbeck to Italy to return him to Basel. He mostly lived the final eleven years of his life in a psychic fog beginning in a Basel asylum, then in Naumburg with his mother, and following her death in 1897, under his sister’s care in Weimar. While the reason for his collapse remains in doubt, he most likely died from CADASIL i.e. “cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy” on August 25, 1900.
The linkage of his name with that of Adolf Hitler and with fascism in general resulted from his sister Elisabeth’s distortion of his philosophy. She had married Bernhard Förster, a prominent bigot and anti-Semite, and following his suicide in 1889 she worked to transform Nietzsche into a reflection of Förster. Elisabeth retained unyielding jurisdiction over his literary estate and, controlled by greed, assembled compilations of his “works” containing thrown out notes, such as The Will to Power (1901). She also perpetrated some minor forgeries. Just as importantly, her fervor for Hitler connected Nietzsche’s name in the public mind with that of the Nazi founder.
To regain our admiration for Nietzsche we need only remind ourselves that he profoundly influenced many philosophers, artists, and psychologists of the twentieth century. In fact, the history of philosophy, psychology, and theology since his death is incomprehensible without considering his impact. As an example, the philosophic and literary criticism movement known as deconstructionism is greatly indebted to him. Finally, his immense influence not only results from his own remarkable creativity but because he was among the German language’s most talented prose writers.