Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most compelling and provocative
figure in German philosophy. Worshiped by some as the savior of humanity
and damned by others as its virulent foe, he has exerted a profound, volatile
influence on contemporary thought. His far-reaching, controversial concepts
such as eternal recurrence and the overman marked him as an insignificant
eccentric during much of his career, but though he labored in obscurity
he anticipated the day when his ideas would be realized in all their power
and magnitude. "I know my fate," he wrote in 1888 before succumbing to
insanity. "One day my name will be associated with the memory of something
tremendous--a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision
of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that
had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man. I am dynamite."
Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the Prussian province of Saxony. He was descended from a long line of clergymen--both of his grandfathers were ministers, and his father was pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Roecken, Nietzsche's birth-place. As an infant Nietzsche enjoyed great intimacy with his father, who even kept his son nearby while writing sermons and often serenaded him at the piano. Unfortunately, their bond proved short-lived, for by 1846 Pastor Nietzsche, still in his mid-thirties, began suffering blackouts and extreme neurological distress. Three years later he died, and an autopsy supposedly revealed a medical condition described as "softening" of the brain.
For young Nietzsche, the father's death was shattering. Nietzsche later reported a particularly disturbing nightmare in which his father rose from the grave and abducted a child. Within hours after disclosing this dream to his mother, Nietzsche learned of his younger brother's death. Biographer Ronald Hayman wrote in his Nietzsche: A Critical Life that Nietzsche was haunted by the threat of his father returning from the grave to capture him, too, andHayman even suggests that this fear may account for Nietzsche's lifelong preference for mountainous altitudes that kept him from his dead father's clutches. The death of Nietzsche's father meant upheaval for the remaining family. In the spring of 1850 they moved to Naumberg to live with relatives. There young Nietzsche studied for the ministry and wrote his first poems and plays. His admiring sister, Elisabeth, joined him in enacting some of these works, which sometimes concerned a regal squirrel, and she kept many of the writings.
After enrolling in school Nietzsche became increasingly interested in music.He studied piano and, like his father, showed promise as an improviser. But in school Nietzsche was already suffering the headaches and myopia that debilitated him throughout his adult life. The headaches were particularly painful, leaving him bedridden for weeks when he was age ten, while the myopia sometimes resulted in burning sensations and blurred vision. The presence of both headaches and myopia in young Nietzsche has led to speculation that he had syphilis and that his father, who also suffered from both ailments, was the infecting party. Some scholars, however, discount the evidence as inconclusive and even unlikely, although the father's final brain trauma could have derived from venereal disease.
Ill health continued to plague Nietzsche during his years at the prestigious Pforta boarding school, where he enrolled in 1858. In early January, 1860, he entered the school sanatorium for treatment of a severe cough, and in June he fell ill with rheumatism. He also experienced more headaches, and in the spring of 1863 he returned to the school sanatorium with complaints of excruciating throat and chest pain. Leeches were set on his neck to ease this discomfort.
When relatively healthy, Nietzsche performed superbly at Pforta and frequently scored first in his classes. He acquitted himself with particular distinction in the classics--Latin and Greek studies--and even helped form a group, Germania, devoted to further study of intellectual subjects. Before this small group the precocious, strong-willed Nietzsche delivered impressive lectures on subjects such as Nordic legends and German poetry, and he supplemented these interests with readings of Sophocles and Theognis. At Pforta, Nietzsche also pursued his interest in music by participating in the school choir and attempting composition. He eventually abandoned aspirations for the ministry and began anticipating a career in music. Shortly before graduation, however, he decided to continue his academic work by studying philology, an academic field about which he professed enthusiasm for its emphasis on analysis and logic.
In 1864, Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Bonn with intentions of studying both classical philology and, as a concession to his family, theology. At Bonn he underwent many of the experiences then associated with the transition from youth to adult. He obtained a dueling scar--long considered a social necessity--though his acquisition came comically: he simply negotiated with a prospective opponent and fought him with sabre until sustaining a slight wound across the bridge of the nose, whereupon both sides pronounced themselves satisfied. He also joined a fraternity, the Franconia, in a conscious attempt at comradery. This commitment to revelry was largely restricted to excessive beer drinking and harmless carousing, and Nietzsche disclosed in his letters that he actually enjoyed his more reckless life.
From his extracurricular activities at Bonn, Nietzsche incurred unmanageable debts, and within one year he was compelled to seek a more affordable school. In 1865, he departed for Leipzig, and shortly after his arrival there, Nietzsche discovered a copy of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. In this work, Schopenhauer defined thought as a manifestation of will, and he defined will as the motivating force of human action. The clash of people's wills results in conflict, Schopenhauer declared, and conflict causes suffering, which Schopehauer concluded was the purpose of life. For the lonely, perpetually ailing Nietzsche, this pessimistic perspective proved inspirational. He adopted a rigorous personal regime of minimal rest, increased study, and intense introspection. Among his few social outlets was Leipzig's philology club, whose ten members convened weekly with Professor Ritschl. At one such meeting, Nietzsche impressed Ritschl with an analysis of Theognis's verse. After the presentation Nietzsche received exceptional praise for his exacting work, and he later declared that the incident signaled his arrival as a philologist.
With Ritschl's encouragement Nietzsche began compiling an edition of Theognis's poetry and commenced an essay on the poet for Ritschl's philology journal. Though Nietzsche was sincere in his aspirations regarding philology, he differed sharply with Ritschl on its relation to philosophy, a discipline that Ritschl discounted. Nietzsche began neglecting Ritschl's lectures, preferring instead to read Schopenhauer or wander in the nearby hills. While dividing his time with Schopenhauer and philology, he found his life disrupted by war between Prussia and Austria.
In 1867, despite extreme myopia, Nietzsche entered the Prussian Army and joined the artillery division. His training proceeded with surprising smoothness until he misjudged distances while mounting a horse and slammed his chest into the saddle's pommel. Medical examination revealed ripped muscles and internal bleeding, and for several days Nietzsche remained bedridden under morphine sedation. Eventually physicians sliced into his chest and drained the wound. Nietzsche then recovered sufficiently and obtained a discharge as temporarily unsuitable for military service.
Upon returning to Leipzig Nietzsche augmented his studies by delivering lectures to fellow students. These lectures, which were often extemporaneous, gained him sizable audiences, and to his peers he seemed destined to become a scholar. Nietzsche was also confident of his worth and began writing philosophical--not philological--essays, one of which questioned theological constructs. But it was as a philologist that he earned greatest respect at Leipzig, and in 1868, when a professorship opened in Basel, Switzerland, Ritschl nominated him for it. Although Nietzsche had not yet fulfilled his scholastic obligations, he was hired, whereupon Leipzig officials quickly accepted an earlier essay as his dissertation and conferred his degree. Thus at age twenty-four, Nietzsche became professor extraordinarius of classical philology.
Shortly before leaving for Basel, Nietzsche met composer Richard Wagner, who became a central figure in Nietzsche's life. As a schoolboy Nietzsche had favored a piano transcription of Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, and in Leipzig he discovered Wagner's other operas, including Die Meistersinger von Nurmberg, which became his personal favorite. On their initial meeting Wagner serenaded Nietzsche with passages from Die Meistersinger and together they favorably discussed Schopenhauer's work. Throughout the spring of 1869 Nietzsche met Wagner at the composer's home in Switzerland. Nietzsche became convinced that Wagner's operas, with their profoundly suffering characters, embodied the ideals of Greek tragedy, and that Wagner himself epitomized Schopenhauer's philosophy of personal strife. Furthermore, Nietzsche adopted Schopenhauer's contention that music was the truest art and concluded that Wagner, whom he considered music's greatest composer, was thus the world's greatest artist. Wagner concurred.
Nietzsche showed uncharacteristic self-abasement in worshiping Wagner as his superior on all matters. But this behavior is explained, perhaps, by Nietzsche's own musical aspirations and his apparently overwhelming compulsion to legitimize his effusive reaction to Wagner's music. For Nietzsche, Wagner was a focal point for interests in music and philosophy, and their friendship afforded Nietzsche opportunities for discussing such topics with an actual artist. For Wagner, however, the friendship was more practical than inspirational. In Nietzsche he saw an avid admirer whose scholarship might prove useful in propagating Wagner's own causes and works.
Away from Wagner, Nietzsche devoted himself to Schopenhauer, Greek tragedy, and Wagner's music. Nietzsche quickly grew dissatisfied addressing strictly philological issues at Basel and began introducing elements of Schopenhauer's philosophy into lectures on art. He also compaigned for greater appreciation of Wagner's music, and in public lectures he managed to include the composer in otherwise philological and philosophical commentaries. In a particular lecture, Nietzsche attributed the decline in Greek tragedy to the gradual prevalence of rationalism as advocated by Socrates and his followers. Logic, Nietzsche claimed, was the antithesis of art, and he added that the Socratic pursuit of knowledge was entirely refuted by Schopenhauer's pessimism, which declared that life's purpose was in suffering, not learning. Replacing the tragic hero's anguish with knowledge effectively undermined the profundity of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche concluded, and that profundity could only be restored to the arts by Richard Wagner.
In 1870 Nietzsche's intellectual pursuits were interrupted by another call to military service. Although he had become a Swiss citizen specifically to avoid such duties, he nonetheless joined Prussia's medical corps when war against France began. Nietzsche's responsibilities included tending wounded soldiers, and scholars have suggested that he may have contracted syphilis at this time, though the allegations are again mere conjecture and speculation.
While working as a medical orderly Nietzsche fell ill with dysentery and diphtheria. He was once again confined to bed, then sent home to his family in Naumberg for convalescence. Upon recovering he returned to Basel and resumed teaching. He also renewed ties with Wagner, even spending Christmas holidays with the composer and his family. Inspired by his revered friend, Nietzsche organized his many notes on Greek drama, and in 1872 he published his first major philosophical work, Die Geburt der Tragoedie aus dem Geiste der Musik (The Birth of Tragedy).
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche analyzed the decline of Greek culture from an anti-logic perspective. He contended that pre-Socratic Greek culture was either Apollonian (formal, deliberate) or Dionysian (passionate, instinctual), and that the synthesis of these elements resulted in Hellenic tragedy, with individual characters adopting Apollonian aspects while the chorus conformed to the Dionysian ideal. With the advent of Socratic thought, however, Dionysian elements slowly diminished in Greek culture, or so Nietzsche claimed. For him this decline is evident in Greek drama's thematic shift from man-against-god conflict to man-against-man. This seeming deification of humanity, Nietzsche declared, had eradicated tragedy's profound sense of illusion and reduced Greek drama to reflections of merely human considerations.
Nietzsche closed The Birth of Tragedy with several sections hailing Wagner's music as a return to the ideals of Greek tragedy. He extolled the exemplification of redemption in Wagner's operas, particularly Tristan and Isolde, and claimed that through feeling Wagner's expressions of suffering the listener shares the singer's redemption. Music should inspire the emotions as well as the intellect, Nietzsche argued, and the harmony of music with drama was the means to that inspiration. He exhorted Germans everywhere to subject themselves to this new harmony, one that would revive German mythology as the essence of tragedy and invigorate people to a greater appreciation of truth and beauty. "My friends, you who believe in Dionysian music, you also know what tragedy means to us," he contended. "There we have tragic myth reborn from music--and in this painful myth we can hope for everything and forget what is most painful."
Wagner was, understandably, thrilled with The Birth of Tragedy, which he considered unmatched in its supreme truth and beauty. In a letter to Nietzsche he further disclosed that the book had inspired him to complete the opera Goetterdaemmerung and that he read the book each morning before composing. Nietzsche was, in turn, exhilarated by Wagner's response, and he wholeheartedly pledged his services. Indeed Nietzsche was so awed by Wagner that he overlooked the composer's anti-Semitic tendencies and even declined a vacation with history professor Karl Mendelssohn Bartholdy--son of composer Felix Mendelssohn--for fear of offending Wagner's bigotry. In 1872, Nietzsche resorted to paying Wagner musical homage by composing the Manfred Meditation, in which he parodied a score by Robert Schumann. For appraisal Nietzsche nervously solicited the opinion of conductor Hans von Buelow, who was unflinching in counseling Nietzsche to quit writing music.
Further disappointment awaited Nietzsche from his fellow academicians, who largely ignored The Birth of Tragedy until a favorable review from a friend sparked derogatory debate. Particularly vehement was philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, who denounced Nietzsche's work as slipshod and misleading. Prompted by Nietzsche, Erwin Rhode--a friend who had written the original, favorable notice--responded by exposing Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's inaccurate citations of Nietzsche's work. Wagner also issued a response to Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's critique, but his action only served to characterize Nietzsche as the composer's lackey.
Nietzsche's reaction to the unfavorable reviews was one of obvious dissatisfaction, though he tried to bolster Wagner's spirits by claiming that the work would be better understood in the future. But in 1886, fourteen years after the book's initial publication, Neitzsche offered his own views in "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," a preface added to unsold volumes of The Birth of Tragedy. Here Nietzsche dismissed his first book as "badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, [and] without the will to logical cleanliness." Still, he defended the "arrogant and rhapsodic book" for inspiring "fellow-rhapsodizers and for luring them on to new secret paths and dancing places."
With the dismal reception accorded The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche's reputation as a philologist waned and enrollment in his classes at Basel diminished. Undaunted, he further occupied himself with philosophical issues, including a series of essays on topics ranging from the nature of truth to the implications of Schopenhauer's philosophy on contemporary Germany. In the spring of 1873, while visiting Wagner at his new home in Bayreuth, Nietzsche was encouraged by his host to read philosopher David Strauss's recent volume on optimism. Like Wagner, Nietzsche was appalled by what he considered Strauss's crude and simplistic analysis and patriotic fervor. Nietzsche responded with David Strauss, der Bekenner und der Schriftsteller (David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer), the first of four volumes collectively known as Unzeitgemaesse Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations, or Thoughts Out of Season).
In the Strauss essay, Nietzsche argued that culture was a reflection of artistic--not political--styles, and that Strauss's smug demeanor exemplified philistinism. He denounced Strauss's assumption of German superiority by arguing that national discipline and pride--as evidenced in Germany's recent military triumph over France--were hardly indicative of a nation's superiority, and he criticized Strauss's disavowal of Christianity for Darwinism as an action inexplicably grounded in faith, not rational understanding.
Nietzsche followed the Strauss polemic with "On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-Moral Sense," in which he explored the tenuous relationship between language and reality. Evolving from Schopenhauerian pessimism towards skepticism, Nietzsche argued that language is essentially a designation of reality, but not precisely reality, and that truth is merely the acceptance of illusion. Reality, he concluded, is undeterminable. He reasoned similarly in Vom Nuetzen und Nachtel der Historie fuer das Leben (The Use and Abuse of History or On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History), which became the second of the Untimely Meditations. In History, Nietzsche assaulted the notion of truth by refuting the concept of historical objectivity. He explained that the past was always understood through the present, and that extensive awareness of the historical past was even detrimental to a perception of the present. Furthermore, the quality of life was not to be determined by assessing a standard of living but by acknowledging the achievements of a historical period's greatest members. Two more years of Goethe's life, Nietzsche reasoned, would have proved more beneficial to humanity than would numerous, relatively unimportant lives.
In 1873, owing to increased illness, Nietzsche refrained from vacationing with Wagner. This offended the composer, as did the discovery that he had not been cited in Nietzsche's recent essays. Wagner was further irritated when Nietzsche declined--for reasons of health--an invitation to Wagner's new Bayreuth home, and the composer responded by parodying Nietzsche's effusive stammering. Nietzsche, meanwhile, had grown increasingly critical of his former hero, whom he characterized in a 1874 notebook as an anti-Semitic tyrant.
When Nietzsche finally visited Wagner in August, 1874, he angered his host by praising a score by rival composer Johannes Brahms. Nietzsche then departed for the Swiss Alps, where he adopted a milk diet in a vain effort to remedy his chronic stomach distress. Later that year he published Schopenhauer als Erzieher (Schopenhauer as Educator), the third of the Untimely Mediations, in which he commended the philosopher's ethic of suffering as life's true meaning. Another bout of poor health followed, and Nietzsche eventually went to a physician, who diagnosed his troubles as vascular, prescribed a heavy diet and administered leeches to relieve Nietzsche's headaches.
Surprisingly, Nietzsche's health showed some improvement. But when he left the doctor's clinic to share living quarters with Elisabeth, he was once again stricken with nerve-wracking headaches and vomiting. Returning to his mother's home in Naumberg, Nietzsche met with a doctor who advised ice treatments. These methods proved futile, and in early 1876 Nietzsche withdrew from his teaching commitment in Basel. By spring, however, he was sufficiently recovered to resume work on an essay about Wagner, and he eventually produced Richard Wagner in Bayreuth as the final meditation. Unlike the notes of 1874, the Wagner essay was respectful and even flattering, and negative criticism was restricted to an explication of Wagner's ambition, which Nietzsche considered tyrannical but consistent with artistic aspirations.
After reading the essay, Wagner commended Nietzsche for his insights and invited him to Bayreuth for the first production of Wagner's complete, four-opera Ring of the Nibelung. Nietzsche accepted, although he had grown increasingly intolerant of Bayreuth audiences' indiscriminate and smug worship of Wagner and his music. Nietzsche arrived early and attended a rehearsal of The Valkyrie--The Ring's second opera--but exhaustion and disdain for the Bayreuth throngs drove him to leave without attending the actual performances.
Accompanying Nietzsche was Paul Ree, a Jewish psychologist whose ancestry would certainly have disturbed the anti-Semitic Wagner. But Nietzsche was no longer so considerate of Wagner's disagreeable opinions, and a meeting with the composer in late 1876 was destined to be their last. They convened at the seaside vacation home of Malwida von Meysenbug, an admirer of both Wagner and Nietzsche. On this occasion Wagner spoke disparagingly of Ree and talked constantly about a forthcoming musical work, Parsifal, which he described as a religious work but not as an opera. Nietzsche was disgusted by the bigoted, pessimistic Wagner's facile appropriation of Christian symbols and themes and refused to praise his former friend. Wagner left soon afterwards.
His break with Wagner freed him from humiliating subservience, and now doubts about Schopenhauer's pessimism liberated him from associating reality with strictly human considerations. Truth, Neitzsche now believed, was not related to the human will but was completely independent. He considered Schopenhauer's philosophy retrogressive and dismissed his notion of suffering as repressive.
Nietzsche unfolded his new perspective in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch fuer freie Geister (Human, All Too Human), the first of several aphoristic volumes. Here he renounced Schopenhauerian and Wagnerian ideals as effeminacies and declared that the will to idealization was merely a failure of perception. Nietzsche argued instead that good and evil were not opposites but extremes of one motivating force, which he later articulated as The Will to Power. The will, Nietzsche contended, is actually rooted in survival and pleasure, and he believed that scientific analysis of the will would yield an explication of its force. Human, All Too Human, with its merciless self-criticism, was a pivotal work in Nietzsche's career. In Ecce Homo he called it "a monument of a crisis," for it signified his development from pessimist to skeptic. He had not yet become a nihilist. After writing Human, All Too Human Nietzsche quickly produced two sequels: Anhang: Vermischte Meinungen und Sprueche (Appendix: Assorted Opinions and Sayings or Mixed Opinions and Maxims) and Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (The Wanderer and His Shadow). In these volumes he continued his denunciation of former values and offered shocking appraisals of such revered figures as Socrates and Christ, who were both characterized as suicidal martyrs. In addition Nietzsche condemned romanticism as the exemplification of a culture's weaknesses, and he rejected German philosophy as inseparable from futile idealism and moralism. But Nietzsche occasionally undermined his own authority by adopting a moralistic tone, and he had not yet freed himself from the restrictive method of metaphysical inquiry.
Perhaps the most prophetic aspect of Human, All Too Human and its two sequels is Nietzsche's initial exploration of the will to power. Throughout the volumes power is generally considered corrupting, but in assessing the similarities of good and evil Nietzsche discovered that The Will to Power is the sole motivating force of human behavior ranging from conformity to humiliation to independence. In Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann noted Nietzsche's various considerations of The Will to Power and stated that in the aphoristic works only the striving towards independence was apparently approved by Nietzsche as a positive aspect of the will.
While writing these works Nietzsche experienced great turmoil in his private life. His relationship with Wagner had ended with the composer clumsily denouncing Human, All Too Human in the Bayreuth press and charging that Nietzsche had been contaminated by close association with Jews, specifically Paul Ree. Wagner further sought to embarrass his former friend by alleging that Nietzsche's myopia was a symptom of chronic masturbation. Nietzsche was too ill to respond. Vomit attacks ravaged him for days at a time, and severe headaches crippled his efforts to read his own books. His perspective grew increasingly masochistic and he became convinced that suffering actually strengthened him. "That which does not kill me makes me stronger," he later wrote. In 1879 he formally ended his association with the University of Basel pleading ill health, whereupon physicians there advised him to seek a more moderate climate. But after living in Naumberg with his sister, Nietzsche returned to Basel and endured further anguish. Nearly blind, he feared death and sought to alleviate his pains with cold baths and bizarre deprivations. After Christmas, 1879, his health declined drastically and he lapsed into a brief coma.
Following his recovery Nietzsche traveled to Venice, where he found the humid climate especially invigorating. In Venice he conceived another aphoristic volume, Die Morgenroete: Gedanken ueber die moralischen Vorurteile (The Dawn: Thoughts on Moral Prejudice, or The Dawn of Day), in which he vehemently denounced Christian doctrine. Neitzsche reduced Christian fundaments to morality, which he defined as selflessness used as a repressive tool for establishing social conformity. "The surest way to corrupt a youth," he charged, "is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." He called for humanity to overcome conventional morality--which he related, through Christianity, to superstition--and to acknowledge base thoughts and actions as aspects of The Will to Power. In advocating selfishness Nietzsche was thus committing what was, for him, a truly altruistic act.
He followed The Dawn with the equally volatile Die froehliche Wissenschaft (Gay Science or The Joyful Wisdom), where he first proclaimed the death of the Christian god. In making the proclamation, Nietzsche predicted that it would spark madness among the masses but added that they could surmount their plight by aspiring to greater fulfillment than that afforded by Christianity, to which he attributed the indignities and ills of the world. "The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad," he contended.
Nietzsche's vehemence was directed at Christianity but not at Christ, whom he respected. "In truth there was only one Christian," Nietzsche later claimed in Der Antichrist (The Antichrist), "and he died on the cross." For him it was Christianity that had twisted Christ's teachings into a repressive and implicitly humiliating code and had spawned masses of docile, conformist lackies. One actually helps one's neighbor by helping oneself, Nietzsche offered as an alternative to Christian doctrine. For him, The Will to Power displaced the will to congenial obedience.
In The Gay Science Nietzsche also conceived of eternal recurrence, which he ranked above The Will to Power and the overman--concepts developed more fully in the later Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch fuer Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)--as the principal tenet of his entire philosophy. Derived from scientific formulations regarding the conservation of energy, eternal recurrence was defined by Nietzsche as a recycling of everything in endless repetition throughout time. In later volumes, notably Zarathustra, Nietzsche elaborated on this theory and shaped it into an integral part of The Will to Power. But in The Gay Science Nietzsche's conception is nearly theological--instead of philosophical--with The Will to Power revealed by a devil who is hailed as a god for his disclosure.
In late spring, 1882, while awaiting publication of The Gay Science, Nietzsche vacationed with Paul Ree in Italy. There Nietzsche me Lou Salome, a young, independent woman who had already impressed Ree during philosophical discussions at Meysenbug's villa. Nietzsche also responded immediately to Salome's independent demeanor, and he was soon confiding his thoughts on religion and morality while hiking with her in the mountains and fields. Eventually, Nietzsche, Salome, and Ree formed plans to platonically share living quarters. Nietzsche greatly anticipated this arrangement as his first possibility for steady companionship in many years. But first the three friends had to fulfill immediate obligations.
When Salome and Nietzsche met again in July, Nietzsche had been traveling with Elisabeth, who was already resentful of Salome's importance. When the two women met and professed their mutual animosity, Nietzsche was forced to intercede and defend Elisabeth. But soon Salome and he were once again sharing thoughts during long hikes, and they resumed intentions of living together. Then Salome and Elisabeth quarreled again. Nietzsche regretted that this efforts to unite his friends and family were resulting in disaster. His relations with Salome flourished yet again while Elisabeth occupied herself with supervising publication of her brother's Gay Science. But when Nietzsche, increasingly giddy from Salome's friendship, professed to Salome sensual desires for her, she fled with Ree. Subsequent correspondence was minimal, and Nietzsche soon found himself alone and ignored. Scholars have since cited this painful break with Salome as a possible explanation for the cruel misogyny of Nietzsche's subsequent works.
Melancholy from his sudden return to solitude, Nietzsche nonetheless resumed working, and in 1883 he produced the first volume of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is considered one of his greatest works. In this verse epic--it developed into four volumes over the next two years--Nietzsche altered his theories of The Will to Power and eternal recurrence and introduced his most popular, and most misunderstood, concept: the overman. In earlier works Nietzsche had only hinted at The Will to Power, describing it in largely psychological terms and even deriving it by establishing its antithesis, fear, which he considered the greatest contributing factor to conformity. Fear, for Nietzsche, was thus the negative expression of The Will to Power, which compelled the individual to conquer fear and defy conformity. In Zarathustra Nietzsche pronounced The Will to Power as the basic motivating force of human action. The Will to Power is characterized in this volume as the will to overcome one's weaknesses and embrace difficulties, both moral and social. To overcome one's failings is to become, according to Nietzsche, the overman.
Constructed in Bible-like verse, Zarathustra tells of a thirty-year-old hermit who abandons his solitude to preach the will to power to the masses. "God is dead," Zarathustra announces. "I teach you the overman." Zarathustra proclaimed man a mere bridge to the overman, who is superior for having overcome weaknesses and inhibitions. For Nietzsche, the overman is the supreme exaltation of the individual who becomes fully realized. And for the overman, eternal recurrence--the endless repetition of all events--is the apotheosis of that triumphant overcoming. In Zarathustra Nietzsche emphasized the essence of each individual moment as the overman's joy of self-discovery and totality within the infinite cosmos. Eternal recurrence confirms the overman's purpose: he is an infinity within the greater infinity of space and time.
Most scholars consider eternal recurrence a weakness in Nietzsche's philosophy and deem it unprovable. But Walter Kaufmann, who concedes in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist that eternal recurrence is a "dubious doctrine," relates Nietzsche's enthusiasm for it as an attempt to justify a life of anguish. Kaufmann contends that "eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience--the supreme example of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain, and agony." Kaufmann also notes that Nietzsche attempted various validations of his favored concept but abandoned them all as futile.
Zarathustra, with its explication of The Will to Power and characterization of the overman, is probably Nietzsche's most popular work. Its poetry alone renders it a classic of German literature, and its far-reaching philosophy establishes it as a seminal work in nihilism and existentialism. In 1888, Nietzsche expressed the belief of many contemporary scholars when he said that Zarathustra was his finest achievement. "Among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself," he wrote in the preface to Ecce Homo. "With that I have given mankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far." He added that Zarathustra, which he had conceived as an alternative to the Christian Bible's New Testament, was "the highest book there is."
After publishing the fourth volume of Zarathustra Nietzsche undertook revision of Human, All Too Human and its sequels. But following these aphoristic works and the verse parable Zarathustra he also felt compelled to articulate his beliefs in straightforward prose, and from the summer of 1885 to early 1886 he wrote with this purpose. The result was Jenseits von Gut und Boese: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft (Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future), a caustic condemnation of conventional morality. In this nine-part volume, Nietzsche applied the concept of The Will to Power to specific philosophical issues, including the will to truth and the will to morality. Objective truth, Nietzsche had already proclaimed in Untimely Meditations, was unprovable, and in Beyond Good and Evil he applied the same logic to refuting notions of the self, thus reducing even human existence to The Will to Power. He also exposed conventional morality as slavery derived from Christianity, which he described, in turn, as a repressive code that reinforced conformity by fostering stupidity and humility. German culture was found similarly detrimental by Nietzsche. He dismissed new-found socialism as retrogressive and decried society as unfocused and prone to all things superficial. "Madness is rare in individuals," he contended, "but in groups, parties, and ages it is the rule."
With its searing criticisms of conventional morality and German culture, Beyond Good and Evil ranks among Nietzsche's most vehement and vicious diatribes. In Ecce Homo he described it as a book that "one has to have guts merely to endure" and added that it was "devoid of any good-natured word." But with its exposition of The Will to Power and its stirring criticisms of Christianity, Beyond Good and Evil must also be considered one of Nietzsche's most profound and disturbing works, and some critics have even cited it among the most important works of Nietzsche's era. Kaufmann was especially enthusiastic, calling it "one of the great books of the nineteenth-century."
The period in which Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil was rife with personal anguish. His health was constantly poor, with chronic vomiting and diarrhea, piercing headaches, and pained eyes. Conflict with his publisher, who was bankrupt from promoting anti-Semitic literature, further aggravated the already bedeviled Nietzsche, and when he learned of Wagner's death in early 1883 he promptly lapsed into still another bout of physical distress. He also experienced strained relations with his sister, Elisabeth, who had overcome her slavish devotion to her brother and married--on Wagner's birthday--notorious anti-Semite Bernhard Foerster. For Nietzsche, the prospect of relations with the bigoted Foerster were immensely distasteful, and he even missed the wedding to avoid introductions.
But Nietzsche was not to evade Foerster much longer, for in 1886 the anti-Semite announced plans to depart for Paraguay and establish an Aryan colony, New Germany. Before leaving with her husband, Elisabeth insisted that he meet her brother, and on Nietzsche's birthday they all convened at his mother's home in Naumberg. Events proceeded without incident, though Nietzsche later confided to his mother that he found his new brother-in-law offensively stupid. Nietzsche was, however, relieved that Elisabeth would henceforth be unable to meddle in his affairs.
In the summer of 1886, Nietzsche traveled throughout Italy and France. He moved briefly to Venice, but found that city dull and departed shortly before it was engulfed by a cholera epidemic. He then lived in Nice, where he continued his work on new editions of the aphoristic volumes despite experiencing prolonged attacks of coughing and vomiting. That winter Nietzsche was unable to afford heat in still another residence, and he endured terrible cold during Christmas time. His anguish continued into spring, when he found the glaring sunlight painful to his sensitive, nearly powerless eyes.
By mid-1887, Nietzsche was prepared to resume writing. He had already published aphorisms, poems, and sequential diatribes, but with his next work, Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals), he attempted a more formal polemic. Here he addressed three specific philosophical issues--the nature of good and evil, the essence of guilt, and the meaning of asceticism--and related each subject to the failings of Christian morality. In the first essay Nietzsche traced the history of moralism and argued that it derived from systematic repression, not altruism. The concept of goodness, Nietzsche declared, was deliberately promulgated by Christian morality as a means of encouraging conformity and selflessness. Christian goodness was thus, for Nietzsche, antithetical to The Will to Power. In the second essay Nietzsche analyzed guilt as an obviously manipulative tool of repressive Christianity. He called guilt a dictating force towards conformity and inhibition and alleged that it was even destructive within its Christian context, for it caused the internalization of supposedly negative feelings--cruelty, aggression--and thus congested the soul. For Nietzsche, guilt was an almost tangible liability.
Nietzsche concluded On the Genealogy of Morals with an analysis of asceticism in which he portrayed Christianity as a sado-masochistic, ultimately self-destructive order. He had already stated in The Gay Science that the will to truth was a will to nothingness, and he now added that the will to morality would prove similarly futile for Christianity. "All great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming," he contended. "In this way Christianity as a dogma was destroyed by its own morality; in the same way Christianity as morality must now perish too; we stand on the threshold of this event." Nietzsche called the decline of Christian morality "the great spectacle" of his age.
After completing On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche traveled again to Venice. He stayed there nearly one month before departing in agony with another excruciating headache. Returning to Nice, he resumed writing. In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche had stated that he would address specific aspects of asceticism and nihilism in a work to be entitled The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values. His next work, however, was Der Fall Wagner: Ein Musikanten Problem (The Case of Wagner), a relentless attack on the composer and his operas. Wagner, whom Nietzsche had once hailed as the salvation of German art and culture, was now considered by Nietzsche to be a cultural polluter who cynically pandered to his philistine public. Nietzsche called Wagner "the artist of decadence" and blamed the composer for corrupting public health with his operas. "Is Wagner a human at all?" Nietzsche asked. "Isn't he rather a sickness? He makes sick whatever he touches--he has made music sick." This malicious, occasionally obscure diatribe signaled the final creative burst of Nietzsche's life.
In 1888 Nietzsche wrote Die Goetzendaemmerung; oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert (Twilight of the Idols; or, How One Philosophizes With a Hammer), a vitriolic anti-Christian, anti-German work full of irony and biting sarcasm. Here Nietzsche blasted Christianity as humanity's blunder into conformity and stupidity. "Is man merely a mistake of God's?" he asked. "Or God merely a mistake of man's?" And he mocked humanity's seemingly limitless capacity for self-abasement through inhibitive social constructs. "I mistrust all systematizers," he asserted. "The will to a system is a lack of integrity." But Nietzsche unleashed much of his greatest fury against German culture and Aryanism. "German spirit," he scoffed in one aphorism: "for the past eighteen years a contradiction in terms." He condemned German philosophy and art as hopelessly mediocre and mocked the nation's alleged mania for cleanliness and obedience. Furthermore, Nietzsche railed against Germany's aspirations to revive the Reich, which he dismissed as another force towards conformity, and he ridiculed the notion of Aryan racial purity. The history of Aryan humanity, Nietzsche charged, was already rife with "sanitary police measures" leading to "murderous epidemics, ghastly venereal disease," and mutilating circumcision. For Nietzsche, the German people's will to such a vile state proved that the country had "deliberately made itself stupid."
Nietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in Turin, Italy, where he had been living since the spring of 1888. He found his new surroundings refreshing and spoke of moving his mother there too. But his optimism was soon undermined by a disastrous trip to Switzerland, where he endured days of vomiting, and a return to his suddenly chilly home. Already impoverished from a lack of steady income, Nietzsche aggravated his financial troubles by paying for publication of his recent works. He was, therefore, without means to keep warm during a cold spell that extended into June and July. In late summer he vacationed with friends, and when he returned to Turin he postponed plans to begin The Will to Power, choosing instead to address key relationships of Christianity to Judaism.
Nietzsche's efforts resulted in The Antichrist, an alternately analytical and unreasoning account of Christianity and its destructive impact on humanity. In The Antichrist Nietzsche largely reiterated his definition of Christianity as an oppressive, exploitative religion deriving from superstition and thriving on stupidity and weakness. He particularly directed his disgust at the Christian Bible's New Testament, deeming it a chronicle of low-lifes and opportunists, and he cited the work's Gospels as an introduction into a "queer and sick world." Responding to the prevalence of anti-Semites among European Christians, Nietzsche gleefully delineated Christianity's Judaic ties and emphasized Christ's Jewish ancestry. And as an alternative to the humiliating experience of Christianity, Nietzsche proffered The Will to Power and called for all humanity to overcome the degradation of organized religion. He ended The Antichrist with further vilification of Christian faith, cursing it as "the one great innermost corruption,... the one immortal blemish of mankind."
Although in The Antichrist Nietzsche essentially elaborated his previously expounded thoughts on Christianity, the book is notorious as a demonic tract. This unwarranted reputation, perhaps perpetuated by individuals unfamiliar with the work, is doubtless exacerbated by the provocative title, though it is unclear whether Nietzsche meant to imply opposition to Christ or opposition to Christianity. In his introduction to The Antichrist in The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann even suggests that Nietzsche may have intended the title as a "parallel to `anti-Semite." What is certain is that Nietzsche nowhere represented himself as the actual Antichrist of the New Testament's apocalyptic book Revelations.
Nietzsche enjoyed a final euphoria after completing The Antichrist. In Turin he believed that citizens there basked in his presence and that merchants and proprietors afforded him preferential treatment. He also felt that his physique was more youthful, and he wrote to friends about bright, sunny Turin and its tree-lined boulevards. Biographer Ronald Hayman notes evidence of delusion in Nietzsche's character here, for Turin's climate is actually rainy and Nietzsche's own home was particularly drab. Hayman reports that Nietzsche's landlord later recalled Nietzsche spending many hours alone and at the piano improvising Wagnerian music.
On October 15, 1888, Nietzsche celebrated his forty-fourth birthday by beginning Ecce Homo, a flamboyant account of his life and work. In this volume, which Walter Kaufmann calls "one of the great treasures of world literature," Nietzsche presented stunning, if often brazen, insights into his own life and work. In chapters such as "Why I Am So Wise" and "Why I Am So Clever," he interspersed biographical material with opinions and reflections on topics ranging from war to urban life and from nutrition to Wagner. In Ecce Homo's longest chapter, "Why I Write Such Good Books," Nietzsche analyzed all his major works, with particular emphasis on Zarathustra, for which Nietzsche presented a fairly detailed account of its conception and purpose, as well as its excellence. "This work stands alone," Nietzsche alleged. "Leaving aside the poets: perhaps nothing has even been done from an equal excess of strength." And in Ecce Homo's final chapter, "Why I Am a Destiny," Nietzsche prophesied that he would someday be associated with the obliteration of Christianity and the rise of the overman. He called himself "the first immoralist" and the "annihilator par excellence" and declared, "I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far; this does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial." Elsewhere in Ecce Homo he asked, "Have I been understood?"
Nietzsche completed Ecce Homo within weeks and quickly assembled Nietzsche contra Wagner, a collection of anti-Wagner passages from previous volumes. In this brief book, Nietzsche established his opposition to Wagner as an antagonism developed through considerable debate and deliberation, and thus proved that The Case of Wagner was not simply rash apostasy from a previously ardent Wagnerian. Some scholars have charged that Nietzsche's disdain for Wagner was rooted in a will-to-power overcoming of Nietzsche's weakness for the composer's operas. But other critics, notably Frederick R. Love, insist that Wagner's importance in Nietzsche's development has been exaggerated, and that Nietzsche's disavowal of Wagnerian music was an overt refutation of aberrant enthusiasm. In Young Nietzsche and the Wagnerian Experience, Love argues that even Nietzsche's own compositions show little Wagnerian influence. But Love also concedes that "Wagner's music remained for Nietzsche an unsolved problem from first to last."
As Nietzsche completed work on Nietzsche contra Wagner his euphoria had already developed into delirium. In letters he remarked that his facial features were difficult to control and that he would often smile for long periods. Everything seemed to be achieved with the greatest ease, Nietzsche noted. He eventually assumed that he was destined to rule the world. On January 3, 1889, as he was walking through Turin, Nietzsche discovered a coach driver whipping his horse. In tears Nietzsche rushed to protect the animal and lost consciousness. When he revived his behavior was unusually rowdy--he shouted and joked in a seeming frenzy--and insanity was evident.
Nietzsche was eventually taken to a clinic, where he alternately strolled the halls and muttered to himself or remained in bed. When his mother arrived from Naumberg, Nietzsche recognized her and evinced relatively stable behavior before proclaiming himself a tyrant and degenerating into lunacy. After staying in an asylum, where he believed someone was trying to shoot him, Nietzsche moved to Naumberg under his mother's care. In 1897 his mother died, whereupon Nietzsche was tended by his sister Elisabeth, who had returned to Europe following her husband's suicide.
Nietzsche was too insane to appreciate that since his breakdown he had become famous through the efforts of scholars such as Georg Brandes. Elisabeth, however, realized that the family still possessed several volumes of unpublished material, including Ecce Homo and many notebooks, and she exploited her brother's newfound prominence. Elisabeth hired anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner to instruct her on the fundaments of her brother's philosophy, and she cultivated a new image as a social benefactor. Her new lifestyle was entirely supported by Nietzsche's now lucrative writings, which she augmented in new editions with her own comments. Among her most notorious literary enterprises was the suppression of Ecce Homo, which she pillaged for her own literary purposes, and an entirely forged work, My Sister and I, attributed to Nietzsche.
By 1900, Nietzsche had suffered two strokes and was consequently immobile and somewhat inarticulate. In the summer he incurred a respiratory infection, and on August 24, following another stroke, he died. Elisabeth seized the occasion of her brother's death as further opportunity for shameless self-promotion. Showing profound ignorance of her brother's work, she arranged a Christian burial replete with a solemn benediction that included the phrase, "Hallowed be the name for future generations." Nietzsche, who had written in Ecce Homo: "I don't want to be a holy man," would doubtless have been enraged by the spectacle.
Following Nietzsche's death, Elisabeth received further commendation as the guardian of her brother's writings. She supervised an edition of his collected works--of which she possessed only a vague, distorted notion--and became such an effective proponent that on two occasions she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. But if Elisabeth was propounding her brother's work she was also effectively misrepresenting it. Most flagrant of her many violations was her organizing Nietzsche's notes and publishing them as Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power), which she contended was her brother's systematic exposition of his philosophy. Actually Nietzsche never wrote such a work, though he had once considered using such a title, and The Will to Power was largely Elisabeth's achievement. Nonetheless, upon its publication in 1901, it was hailed as Nietzsche's crowning work and a great addition to German philosophy.
In her remaining years Elisabeth devoted herself to the Nietzsche Archives, which she had established in Weimar as a major cultural center. In the 1930's, when the National Socialist Party--the Nazis--rose to power in Germany, Elisabeth redoubled her efforts to propagate her brother's work, or at least her perception of that work. After befriending Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at a 1933 performance of Tristan and Isolde, Elisabeth turned the Nietzsche Archives into a major source of Nazi propaganda and personally promoted the Nazis' anti-Semitic, pro-Aryan ideology, which she somehow found consistent with Nietzsche's philosophy. Elisabeth died in 1935 before further tainting her brother's reputation and work, but Hitler continued the task by appointing a team of German scholars, including philosopher Martin Heidegger, to render Nietzsche's philosophy compatible with Nazi bigotry.
Ultimately, the efforts of Elisabeth and the Nazis exerted a profoundly devastating influence on the popular conception of Nietzsche's work, misleading the uninformed into associating anti-Semitism and Aryanism with The Will to Power and the overman concept. Since World War II countless scholars have worked to repair the damage to Nietzsche's reputation. Notable among these writers are Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, both of whose translations have provided readers with concise, accurate editions of Nietzsche's works. Kaufmann's achievements are particularly important, for he has translated all Nietzsche's major works and published them in the two collections The Portable Nietzsche and Basic Writings of Nietzsche. In addition, Kaufmann exposed My Sister and I as Elisabeth's own work, and he translated, edited, and annotated an edition of The Will to Power. Occasionally bigots still appropriate Nietzsche's philosophy, but these advocates of racism and anti-Semitism hopelessly distort his work. More discerning readers--ranging from scholars such as Kaufmann to pivotal thinkers, such as philosopher Albert Camus and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud--hail Nietzsche as an ambitious, provocative figure whose thought still exerts considerable influence in Western culture.