Friedrich Nietzsche

It is my opinion that Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard were the first of The Existentialists. Other thinkers, Hegel andHusserl for example, contributed to existentialism but are not existentialists. Nietzsche does mark the outer edge of existentialism, but I consider no other writer as important to the school of thought.
Few other names in philosophy hold such deep meaning in Western society as Nietzsche. Variously linked by scholars to nihilism, existentialism, and the Nazis (though he died two decades before National Socialism took root in Germany) Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood philosophers in history. He embraced no formal school of philosophy; he was stridently independent. As for the misappropriation of his works by Nazi sympathizers and others... I believe people will find support for their ideals in any book.
Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche's contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Prussia, on 15 October 1844. This date was the same as the birth date of Prussian king Frederick William IV. Friedrich's father Karl Ludwig Nietzsche was a tutor in the royal court and was quite pleased by the timing of his son's birth.
There was at all events one advantage in the choice of this day to my birth; my birthday throughout the whole of my childhood was a day of public rejoicing.
- from Ecce Homo
Friedrich Nietzsche's life unquestionably trained him for his role as an "anti-Christian" philosopher. He descended from a long line of clergymen, including his father, giving him the theological background to challenge the familiar religious institutions. Biographers indicate there were at least 20 clergyman in the Nietzsche family within five generations. His paternal grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig Nietzsche, was even granted an honorary doctorate in 1796 for his work Gamaliel, a defense of Christianity. It was assumed Friedrich would be a minister. As a child, Nietzsche was called the "little minister" by schoolmates. He spent much of his time alone, reading the Bible. Nietzsche's father died in 1849. The young man withdrew deeper into religion.
Friedrich received a scholarship to Schulpforta, an elite prepatory school with only 200 students, in October 1858. The scholarship was intended to fund Nietzsche's training for the clergy. His mother, Franziska, and his young sister, Elisabeth, were dedicated to Friedrich's success, certain of his future.
At the age of 18, Nietzsche lost his faith in traditional religion. His faith received a fatal blow when he found philosophy. In 1865 Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea. The work forever changed Nietzsche's view of the world. Schopenhauer's philosophy was rather dark for its time; it became a part of Nietzsche's world-view as it was well-suited to his nature.
Nietzsche was conscripted into the military at the age of 23. While he had hoped to avoid the draft, he had no such luck. He was not destined to be in the military however, soon falling (or thrown) from a horse. Nietzsche's shoulder and chest were injured, possibly torn muscles, and he was released from service having not yet completed training. Curiously, Nietzsche continued to idealize the military and its orderly way of life despite not wanting to serve in the army. His respect for the individual gave way at times to a need for order.
The University of Basle appointed Nietzsche to a chair when he was 25 years old. As a professor of classical philology, Nietzsche spent his days lecturing and analyzing Latin and Greek works. He later recalled this as a most un-heroic contribution to mankind, wishing he had pursued a more active and socially valuable career, such as medicine. Nietzsche was never satisfied with his own value, always seeking to be more. It should be noted that war with Napoleon provided Nietzsche an opportunity to take leave of the University and join the medical corps. At the time, he stated (paraphrased), "Duty to Germany comes first," according to biographer Marc Sautet. Nietzsche had renounced his Prussian citizenship to teach at the University of Basle, which was in Switzerland.

Richard Wagner

In 1869, composer Richard Wagner invited Nietzsche to spend a winter holiday with him in Tribschen. Wagner was living with another man's wife and was not known for his conformity. Somehow, Wagner appealed to Nietzsche's sense of adventure. Nietzsche was so taken by Wagner that he decided his first book would be a tribute to Wagner's music. Unfortunately, the writing of this work was delayed by war in 1870, when Germany and France went to war.
Still romanticizing the life of soldiers, Nietzsche went to volunteer for military service. This time the army refused him due to his poor eyesight, in addition to his weak upper body. Nietzsche found it possible to serve as a medic, allowing him as close to medicine as his nature would ever allow. As he quickly learned, Nietzsche did not like the sight of blood, and the suffering of others made him ill. He eventually fell ill, possibly due to stress, and was sent home.
The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was published in 1872. With the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche returned to Baasle to lecture. The work became a subject of ridicule in academic circles, but the nobility and nationalists loved it. Nietzsche became a celebrity, a standing he put to work on behalf of his friend Wagner. The two men were able to convince the government to fund the construction of the Bayreuth theatre, which would feature Wagner's works.
The Bayreuth was completed in 1876. On 12 August 1876, the Emperor arrived to hear Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, a work Wagner considered his masterpiece. To his dismay, Nietzsche found he hated the work. He made an excuse to depart, and promptly took a vacation to reconsider his opinion of Wagner's music and Prussian culture in general. At least Nietzsche was not alone: the long, multi-day performance proved a failure financially and in terms of attendance. Wagner's public star faded... at least for a bit.

Ready to Die

Physically and mentally, Nietzsche collapsed in 1879. He was certain death was near and even arranged his funeral with his sister's assistance.
Promise me that when I die only my friends shall stand about my coffin, and no inquisitive crowd. See that no priest or anyone else utter falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer protect myself; and let me descend into my tomb as an honest pagan.
Nietzsche recovered from this primarily emotional collapse, but he knew he had come close to death. The experience changed Nietzsche for a time. He enjoyed life and the universe around him. For a time, he was happy. The books The Dawn of Day and The Joyful Wisdom were published in the early 1880s, reflecting Nietzsche's new optimism.
His mood came crashing down with a smash... the sound was that of his heart as it hit bottom. Nietzsche fell in love, but was rejected. The result was another emotional spiral downward. His only goal was to be completely alone with his misery. The result of Nietzsche's bitterness was Thus Spake Zarathustra, published in 1883. Written in anger, the work presents the ideal man as everything Nietzsche was not. It was the ultimate paradox of philosophy: the thinker never able to live according to his beliefs. Still,Zarathustra stood apart as a masterpiece. The author knew it was a great work.
This work stands alone. Do not let us mention the poets in the same breath; nothing perhaps had ever been produced out of such a superabundance of strength. If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create a single one of Zarathustra's discourses.
No matter what Nietzsche might have thought, the book was a failure. His publisher would not print the entire work, so the author paid for the printing. Forty copies were sold and seven were given away. Nietzsche's great work mattered only to the writer. It mattered a lot to Nietzsche -- the work would dominate his thoughts for the remainder of his career. Yet even his friends and supporters found the work odd, at best.
While pondering the ignorance of the critics, his sister left Nietzsche. She had been his friend and companion for most of his life, so the loss was very painful. Worse, she married an anti-Semite, a man Nietzsche despised. Contrary to popular myth, Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite -- just a nationalistic Prussian in his early years. His sister begged Nietzsche to move with her and her husband to Paraguay with the intention of forming a commune. Nietzsche would do nothing of the sort.

The Last Collapse

Nietzsche's final collapse came in 1889. On 3 January 1889, Nietzsche spotted a coach driver beating his horse. Nietzsche considered this cruel, and rushed the man. He did not reach the coach, collapsing. He was taken back to his apartment, but he had collapsed mentally. He was later found by friends, playing the piano with his elbows, singing wildly. Friedrich was taken to an asylum, but was quickly reprieved by his mother, who took him home. She did not agree with her son's works, but loved him nonetheless. She cared for him like a child, as he was incoherent and reduced to an infantile state. His mother died in 1897, and Nietzsche's care fell to his sister, now living in Weimar.
Elisabeth took it upon herself to get her brother's works published. She did an excellent job promoting him, and he rose again in public opinion. Near death and incoherent, Nietzsche became the leading German thinker. Finally, Nietzsche seemed oddly at peace, though not aware of his fate. On one occasion he found his sister crying. "Lisbeth, why do you cry? Are we not happy?" he is reported to have asked. His sister also recorded an incident when Nietzsche overheard a discussion of books. "I too have written some good books," Nietzsche told the room... then faded back into silence. Nietzsche died in 1900, apparently unaware of his former self.
1844 October 15Born in Röcken, Saxony, to Karl and Franziska Nietzsche. The family is important, with a long history in the church clergy.
1849Father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, dies. Friedrich Nietzsche later blames both himself and, to a greater degree, the Revolution of 1848.
1854The King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, tours Naumburg, where Nietzsche now lives. Nietzsche, raised to respect the power of the church, shows nearly equal respect for the king.
1858 OctoberReceives a scholarship to Schulpforta, an elite school with only 200 students. Nietzsche is expected to become a clergyman, as was his father, grandfather, numerous uncles, and other relatives.
1864Passes the Schulpforta exit exams and enrolls as a theology and classics (philology) student at the University of Bonn.
1869Forms close friendship with composer Richard Wagner.
1869Offered the chair of classics at University of Basel, in Switzerland, based upon published works.
1869Receives doctorate from a Leipzig university.
1871 January 18The German Empire is formed.
1872The Birth of Tragedy is published. Nietzsche is 27. Most scholars consider the work sloppy, while the nobility are impressed. The work is a promotion of Richard Wagner, some believe, more than a serious study of philology.
1873 AugustThe first volume of Untimely Meditations is published, a direct attack of Friedrich David Strauss.
1874Year of Crisis: European Economic Depression. Many banks failed, resulting in businesses closing and families loving all their money. Communism and socialism became increasingly popular ideas. Nietzsche steadfastly supports authoritarian power -- Otto von Bismark.
1874 FebruaryPublishes a second volume of Untimely Meditations.
1874 OctoberThe third volume of Untimely Meditations is published: Schopenhauer as Educator.
1876 August 12The Bayreuth theatre opens. Nietzsche and Wagner had convinced the German Reich to fund the theatre's construction. The guests include nobility, as well as Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky. This moment marks a break with Wagner... the concerts are a disappointment for Nietzsche -- and the Reich, which withdraws financial support.
1879Resigns teaching position in Basle due to poor health.
1879Publishes Assorted Opinions and Maxims: Against Illusion. This work marks Nietzsche's break from Birth of Tragedy, a work he admits was, at least in part, too idealistic.
1881 AugustDeclared "everything recurs" while at Sils Maria, Switzerland. This idea is not original, but Nietzsche receives accolades for this recycled theory.
1882Publishes The Gay Science.
1883Starts work on Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
1883 February 13Richard Wagner dies.
1885Completes draft of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
1886Publishes Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche considers the book a companion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Only 114 copies are sold in six months.
1887The Genealogy of Morals is published, a sequel to Beyond Good and Evil.
1888Writes The Case of WagnerTwilight of the Idols, and The Anti-Christ.
1888 September 30Formulates the "Law Against Christianity" for The Anti-Christ.
1889 January 3Suffers a mental breakdown after seeing a coachman beat his horse. Nietzsche rushed to challenge the man, but collapsed.
1890 MayNietzsche joins his mother in Naumburg, where she cares for him for the next seven years.
1897Nietzsche's mother, Franziska, dies. His sister Elizabeth becomes his caregiver. Elizabeth sees that her brothers works are collected and published. Amazingly, they are a success!
1900 August 25Dies famous. His sister's efforts made his a celebrity in Germany shortly before his death.


  • The Birth of Tragedy, Essay: 1872 (English, 1968)
  • Human, All Too Human, Essay: 1878
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Essays: 1883-1892 (English, 1961)
  • Beyond Good and Evil, Essay: 1886
  • On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay: 1887
  • Ecce Homo, Essay: 1888
  • Twilight of the Idols, Essay: 1889
  • The Anti-Christ, Essay: 1895
  • The Will to Power, Essay: 1901 (English, 1967)

1 comment:

  1. It's important to add that his sister exploited him at the end, putting him on display precisely like he wished not to be in the quote you reprinted. She also changed his works to be anti-Semitic, which is why it appealed to the Nazis.

    I have to disagree with your definition of nihilism and the subsequent implication that Nietzsche was somehow spiritual or held a god belief. Nihilism is a rejection of the establishment, of laws and order. His fear was that with people relying on religion for their rules and guidance, that as religion waned, so too would order. His works represent both a challenge to the value of religion as a guide and as a guide in its own right for humanity, supplanting and filling the void left by religion and god belief. It's also important to note that he wasn't telling humanity what to do, but how to live and figure out what to do.

    Although he often used demons and gods as subject matter, he most assuredly had no belief in their existence.