Friedrich Nitzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher whose work is surrounded by a major controversy. His critical texts on morality, religion, science and culture are a collection of often contradictory ideas and hypotheses rather than a systematic theory. Nevertheless, Nitzsche was without a doubt one of the most influential Western philosophers who had a major influence on the future generations of scholars both within and outside philosophy.
Nitzsche’s influence is particularly obvious in the concepts of existentialism, post-modernism and post-structuralism. His concept of Übermensch (“superman”) is also thought to have a major influence outside philosophy, most notably in German Nazism. Scholars, however, reject the connection between Nitzsche’s thought and Nazism as “perverse” because the philosopher openly criticised anti-Semitism and pan-Germanism. He even laid off his editor for his anti-Semitic position and got into an open conflict with his former friend Richard Wagner due to the latter’s pan-Germanic ideas and anti-Semitism.
Nitzsche was born in 1844 in the town of Röcken in what was then Prussia (the later Germany). He was the oldest child of Lutheran pastor Carl Ludwig Nitzsche and his wife Franziska Oehler. They also had a daughter, Elizabeth Förster-Nitzsche who was born in 1846 and another son, Ludwig Joseph who was born in 1848. Nitzsche’s father died when he was 5 years old and one year later, he also lost his young brother. His mother took him and his sister to her mother-in-law and two unmarried sisters-in-law in the town of Naumburg. They lived with them until Nitzsche’s grandmother’s death in 1856 when they moved to their own house (today Nitzsche museum and learning centre).
In 1858, young Nitzsche was accepted to Pforta in Naumburg which was one of the best boarding schools in mid-19th century Germany. There, he was introduced to classic literature and philosophy as well as gained several lifelong friends. After graduation, he enrolled in the University of Bonn to study theology and classical philology. But after the first semester, he discontinued to attend his theological classes and wrote to his deeply religious sister that he had lost his faith. Nitzsche focused on studying philology under Professor Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl whom he followed to the University of Leipzig in 1865.
Professorship in Basel
In 1869, Nitzsche was offered position of a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland despite the fact that he did yet have a doctorate or teaching certificate. He accepted and gave up Prussian citizenship before moving to Switzerland. He later claimed that his ancestors are of Polish origin and that he his proud of his Polish blood. The scholars, however, are sceptical about his claims to be of Polish descent. They emphasised that Nitzsche is a relatively common German surname and that all Nitzsche’s ancestor had German names. Why he claimed his family is of Polish origin remains unknown but according to some scholars, it was perhaps a part of his criticism of pan-Germanism.
Although Nitzsche opposed pan-Germanism and to a lesser extent, the concept of nationality, he joined the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 as a medical orderly. This aggravated his illness – bouts of sickness that are thought to be related to syphilis which he allegedly contracted in a brothel while studying in Leipzig. But despite worsening of his health, he entered the most productive period of his life during which he created his most famous and influential works.
Later Life and Death
In 1879, Nitzsche’s health deteriorated to such extent that he was forced to give up his position at the Basel University. He spent the next decade travelling in the search for a climate that would help him alleviate symptoms of his disease. He occasionally also came to Naumburg to visit his mother and sister Elizabeth. The latter was married to a German nationalist and antisemite Bernhard Förster and as a result, Nitzsche’s relationship with his sister was marked by frequent conflicts and make-ups.
In 1889, Nitzsche suffered a mental breakdown while he was in Turin, Italy. His friends took him to Basel to a psychiatric clinic but his mental condition was rapidly worsening. On the initiative of his mother, he was transferred to a hospital in Jena. One year later, she took him to her home in Naumburg and took care of him until her death in 1897. After his mother’s death, Nitzsche was cared for by his sister Elizabeth who also took care of publication of his yet unpublished works. And it was her editions that played the key role in the later association of Nitzsche’s works with Nazi ideology. The later discovery of unedited writings undoubtedly rejects the existence of any connection between Nitzsche’s ideas and their interpretation by the Nazis.
After suffering at least two strokes in the late 1890s, Nitzsche was unable to walk and speak. In 1900, he contracted pneumonia and died after suffering another stroke. According to most scholar, Nitzsche’s health problems including mental illness and early death were caused by tertiary syphilis but other conditions have been proposed as well such as manic depression, dementia and CADASIL syndrome.
Nitzsche never married and did not have any children. He had a brief relationship with Lou Andreas Salome, a Russian born psychoanalyst and author. She said he proposed a marriage and that she refused him but her report about the course of events is according to some questionable.
Nitzsche’s Philosophy and Works
Nitzsche’s philosophy bases on three concepts – “God is dead” or the will to power, master-slave morality and Übermensch (“superman”) which has nothing to do with the Nazi interpretation of the term. Instead, Nitzsche connects Übermensch with the ability to create own values. He also introduces the term nihilism or the claim that life has no meaning.
Some of the most famous and influential Nitzsche’s works include:
- The Birth of Tragedy
- On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
- Human, All Too Human
- Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Beyond Good and Evil
- Ecce Homo
- The Will to Power