Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900), a German philosopher, occupies a position of immense influence in the history of Western thought, often mentioned alongside giants like Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel. He was born in Röcken, a small town near Leipzig, Germany. His father, a former teacher turned Lutheran pastor, instilled in Nietzsche a deeply religious upbringing. He grew up with a younger sister and brother, with his sister, Elisabeth, later becoming a controversial figure in Nietzsche studies due to her role in selectively editing and distorting Nietzsche’s final unfinished manuscript, “Der Wille zur Macht” (The Will to Power). Her alterations made it appear vehemently anti-Semitic, an unfortunate twist that led some to interpret Nietzsche’s philosophy as compatible with the core ideological values of Nazism. However, archival research in the 1960s by Italian philologists, Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, preparing materials for a comprehensive translation of Nietzsche’s complete works, conclusively debunked the notion, exposing “Der Wille zur Macht” as a fabrication that Nietzsche himself never intended for publication. In fact, Nietzsche viewed the project as an attempt to revalue all values, a concept central to his philosophical work.
Nietzsche’s life took a turn in 1849 when his father passed away, prompting a move to Naumberg, where he resided with his father’s unmarried sisters. There, he attended seminary school, showcasing aptitude in various subjects, including music. In 1864, Nietzsche commenced theological studies at the University of Bonn but left after just one semester to pursue philosophy at the University of Leipzig. Astonishingly, even before completing his studies, he received a professorship offer in philosophy from the University of Basel in 1869, making him one of the youngest scholars ever to receive such an appointment. A year later, in 1870, Nietzsche served as a medical orderly in the Prussian army for a brief period before returning to his post at Basel, where he observed with some distaste the formation of the German State under Bismarck. During his early years in Basel, Nietzsche enjoyed an intimate friendship with the renowned musician Richard Wagner, frequently visiting him and his family at their house on Lake Lucerne.
Nietzsche’s literary journey began in 1872 with the publication of “Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik” (The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music), which was later translated in 1993. However, like many of his subsequent works, “The Birth of Tragedy” received mixed reception, mainly due to its departure from the classical model of presenting philosophical arguments in favor of a more speculative and unconventional style. Nietzsche’s defense of Wagner formed a significant part of the book, but he later disavowed it, finding its binary construction between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in art too simplistic. His next work, “Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen” (Untimely Meditations), published in 1876 and translated in 1997, consisted of four essays exploring various aspects of German culture, history, Wagner, and Schopenhauer. Although this work remains largely overlooked, it has been recommended as a counterbalance to Matthew Arnold’s nearly contemporary work, “Culture and Anarchy,” as an antidote to Arnold’s views.
In 1876, Nietzsche attended Wagner’s music festival in Bayreuth, an experience that left him disillusioned with its populist atmosphere and ultimately led to a complete break with Wagner. This rupture, which Nietzsche described as personally shattering, triggered a prolific outpouring of writing from him. Over the next decade, he produced almost a book each year, including “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister” (Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits), published in 1878 and translated in 1996, “Morgenröte. Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile” (Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality), published in 1881 and translated in 1997, and “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft” (The Gay Science), published in 1882 and translated in 1974. Despite this impressive productivity, Nietzsche resigned from his position at the University of Basel in 1879 due to deteriorating health, rendering him unable to continue his academic work. Subsequently, for the next ten years, he adopted a peripatetic lifestyle, traveling between Germany, Austria, and Italy, seeking a climate conducive to both his well-being and writing endeavors.
Then, in January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a devastating psychotic breakdown while in Turin. According to legend, he witnessed a horse being whipped in the Piazza Carlo Alberto and rushed to protect the animal by placing his arms around its neck, only to collapse on the ground, weeping. In the following days, he composed a series of postcard-length letters to close friends, known as the “Wahnbriefe” (Madness Letters) for their incomprehensible content. These letters marked the final burst of Nietzsche’s creative expression, as he never wrote again after that episode. Alarmed by the letters’ content, the recipients arranged for Nietzsche’s return to Basel and his placement in an asylum. In 1893, his sister Elisabeth, who had been involved in a utopian group attempting to create a new Germany in Patagonia, returned to assume care of her brother and his unpublished writings, which she then reworked to align with her own ideology. The exact cause of Nietzsche’s breakdown remains a subject of debate, as the once widely assumed connection to syphilis has come into question in recent times.
Nietzsche’s philosophy embraced a complex stance on religion. Though he held an anti-religious position, he argued that it was better to believe in God than to believe in nothing. However, he observed that the belief in God had become an empty gesture over time, akin to believing in nothing. Nietzsche sought to trans-value or re-value “old” values to steer humanity away from nihilism, which he staunchly opposed. He saw the notion of “ressentiment” as a hindrance to humanity’s leap towards revaluing values, referring to the sense of entitlement and victimhood that inhibits individuals from achieving progress. Nietzsche proposed the concept of the eternal return as a remedy, suggesting that if life were to be repeated endlessly, one should live it in such a way that it could be embraced fully. In essence, Nietzsche advocated for a life lived to its maximum potential without judgment or attempts to control it.