German philosopher and critic of culture, who influenced a number of the major writers and philosophers of the 20th century Germany and France. Nietzsche’s most popular book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), went ignored at the time of its appearance. Full of provocative ideas, Nietzsche was a master of aphoristic form and use of contradictions. Before and after the rise and fall of the Nazis, he was widely misrepresented as an anti-Semite and a woman hater, and many philosophers found it difficult to take his writings seriously. Like the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Nietzsche often contradicted himself.
“All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes. “
(from Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Friedrich Nietzsche born as 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 25 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 was he served briefly as a medical orderly with the Prussian army. Nietzsche’s military career was short: he contracted dysentery and diphtheria.
“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 in 1885 Bernhard Förster, 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 1880s 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 for him 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 he 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 labelled 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.