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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)

Nietzsche, Friedrich

Friedrich Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor and a devout hausfrau. His father died - mad - in 1849. Rejecting his father's faith, Nietzsche became a lifelong rebel against Christianity. "In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross", he wrote in Der Antichrist (1888). Nietzsche was brought up by pious female relatives. He studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn (1864-65) and Leipzig (1864-68) and became, at the age of twenty-five, a professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Among his acquaintances was Jakob Burckhardt, the writer of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). During the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzche served briefly as a medical orderly with the Prussian army. Nietzsche's military career was short: he contracted dysentery and diphtheria.

In 1872 Nietzsche published his first book, Die Geburt De Tragoedie Aus Dem Geist Der Musik (The Birth of Tragedy). In it, he diagnosed human beings as subject to unconscious, involuntary, overwhelmingly self-destructive Dionysian instincts. According to Nietzsche, the Greeks went against this tendency and erected the sober, rational, and active Apollonian principle.

Nietzsche considered reality as an endless Becoming (Werden). Apollinian power is associated with the creation of illusion - the plastic arts deny the actuality of becoming with the illusion of timeless beauty. Dionysian frenzy threatens to destroy all forms and codes. Only the Apollinian power of the Greeks was able to control the Dionysian flood. But all illusions are temporary, and in his "experimentalist phase" (1878-1882) Nietzsche saw that the loss of the Apollinian spell will make the return to Dionysian actuality even more painful. But it must be noted, that the Dionysus whom Nietzsche celebrated in his later writings was the synthesis of the two forces and represented controlled passion. In the earlier work he favored Apollo. His thesis, however, was that it took both to make the birth of tragedy possible. Later in life Nietzsche addressed Cosima Wagner as "Princess Ariadne" in his letters to her and declared that the author of them is the god Dionysus.

At Basel, Nietzsche had become a close friend of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and the second part of The Birth of Tragedy deals with Wagner's music. Nietzsche called the composer "Old Minotaur." In History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell remarked: "Nietzsche's superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek." By the end of the decade, Nietzsche became interested in the French enlightenment, which ended his friendship with Wagner in 1878. The composer despised the French and searched acceptance in Germany. Also Nietzsche did not accept the rising Wagnerian cult at Bayreuth, especially with its anti-Semitism. The religiosity of Parsifal was too much for him. "What did I never forgive Wagner?... that he became reichdeutsch," Nietzsche wrote, disillusioned.

Nietzsche gave up Prussian citizenship in 1869 and remained stateless for the rest of his life. In 1879 Nietzsche resigned his professorship - or was forced to give up his chair - due to his headaches and poor health. He wandered about Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, living in boardinghouses, and producing most of his famous books.

"When thou goest to woman, take thy whip."

Nietzsche respected that sincere and "genuine Christianity" that he considered "possible in all ages" - but Wagner's Parsifal, with its sickly Christianity, clearly did not seem to him to belong in that category. In Bayreuth Nietzsche had became increasingly aware of the impossibility of serving both Wagner and his own call. Rejected by Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937), to whom he had proposed marriage, Nietzsche withdrew into the existence of a tourist-scholar. He spent summers in Switzerland and winters in Italy, and published his major works in a period of ten years. Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) appeared first in three parts in 1883-1884 and was formally published in 1892. Among his other works were Jenseits Von Gut Und Böse (1886), Zur Genealogie Der Moral (1887), Götzen-Dämmerung (1889), and Ecce Homo (pub. in 1908, written in 1888).

Thus Spoke Zarathustra centered around the notions of the will to power, radical nihilism, and the eternal recurrence. Pain, suffering, and contradictions are no longer seen as objections to existence but as an expression of its actual tensions. In a note, 'Anti-Darwin', Nietzsche stated that "man as a species is not progressing." He substituted the ordinary conception of progress for a doctrine of eternal recurrence, and stressed the positive power of heroic suffering.

"I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty - I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind." (from The Twilight of the Idols, 1888)

In January 1889 Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown in Turin, Italy. He was found in a street, weeping and embracing a horse. Nietzsche lived first in an asylum and then in his family's care. His insanity was probably due to an early syphilitic infection. During his disease Nietzsche was almost invariably gentle and pleasant, and in lucid hours he engaged in conversation. Nietzsche spent his last decade in mental darkness and died in Weimar on August 25, 1900. After his death, his sister, Elisabeth, secured the rights to his literary remains and edited them for publication - sometimes in arbitrary and distorted form.

Elisabeth had married Bernhard Förster in 1885. Förster was a prominent leader of the German anti-Semitic movement which Nietzsche loathed. "For my personal taste such an agitator is something impossible for closer acquaintance," he wrote in a letter to his mother. In 1880’s Elisabeth founded with Förster a German colony in Paraguay, which was meant for the "Aryans only." Förster killed himself 1889 when his hand was caught in the till.

How much Nietzsche's illness - dementia paralytica or syphilis - affected his thinking and writing is open to speculations. During the second period of brain syphilis, the patient often acts manic-depressively and has megalomaniac visions. During his manic period in the 1880s Nietzsche produced Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Gay Science, and Beyond Good and Evil.

Nietzsche believed that all life evidences a will to power. Hopes for a higher state of being after death are explained as compensations for failures in this life. The famous view about the "death of God" resulted from his observations of the movement from traditional beliefs to a trust of science and commerce. Nietzsche dissected Christianity and Socialism as faiths of the "little men," where excuses for weakness paraded as moral principles. John Stuart Mill's liberal democratic humanism was a target for scorn, and he called Mill "that blockhead." His announcement of the death of God can be interpreted religiously or atheistically: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him... What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?..." (in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882)

According to Nietzsche, the other world is an illusion, and instead of worshipping gods, man should concentrate on his own elevation, which Nietzsche symbolizes in the Übermench. The contrast of "good and evil" as opposed to that of "good and bad," Nietzsche associated with slave morality. He argued that no single morality can be appropriate to all men. The meaning of history was the appearance, at rare moments, of the exceptional individual. And by creating the figure of Zarathustra, Nietzsche presented the teacher of the coming superman.

"My first dose of Nietzsche shocked me profoundly. In black and white he had had the audacity to affirm: 'God is dead!' What? I had just learned that God did not exist, and now someone was informing me that he had died." (Salvador Dali in Diary of a Genius, 1966)

First Nietzsche's works began to gain significant public notice by Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes, who lectured on Nietzsche at the University of Copenhagen in 1888. The philosophers’ thoughts influenced, among others, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, André Malraux, André Gide, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Paul Sartre. Although the Nazis used some of the philosopher's ideas, Nietzsche was deeply opposed to the collective tendencies that labeled National Socialism. He rejected biological racism and German nationalism, writing "every great crime against culture for the last four hundred years lies on their conscience." Nazis, on the other hand, welcomed Nietzsche's view of "Herrenmensch," a new type of man who with his robber instincts was able to manipulate the masses and who was a law unto himself. Adolf Hitler kept a bust of him and in 1943 gave his works to Mussolini, who did not read them. When Elisabeth Nietzsche died in 1935, Hitler participated in the funeral ceremony. The Nazis built three years later a monument for Nietzsche.

Famous quotations by Friedrich Nietzsche:

  • Women can form a friendship with a man very well; but to preserve it--to that end a slight physical antipathy must probably help.

  • We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

  • The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.

  • Hope in reality is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.

  • There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

  • When marrying, one should ask oneself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this woman into your old age?

  • When one has finished building one's house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way--before one began.

  • One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed.

  • A woman may very well form a friendship with a man, but for this to endure, it must be assisted by a little physical antipathy.

  • Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.

  • All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.

  • Suggested sites for Friedrich Nietzsche:

    Encyclopedia article about Friedrich Nietzsche
    Texts by Nietzsche
    Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book For All And None
    Details Nietzsche's views and philosophies as told through Zarathustra, who has come down from a mountain in order to offer his wisdom to the world.

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