Absurd Being

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Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

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Recommended Reading

The Portable Nietzsche   Basic Writings of Nietzsche   The Gay Science


->  Thus Spoke Zarathustra

->  The Antichrist

->  Twilight of the Idols

->  The Birth of Tragedy

->  Beyond Good and Evil

->  On the Genealogy of Morals

->  The Gay Science

The Man

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in a small village southwest of Leipzig, Prussia, in which Nietzsche’s father was the Lutheran minister. His uncle and grandfathers were also Lutheran ministers. Nietzsche’s father died when he was five and his two year old brother would die six months later. From then on, Nietzsche would live with his mother, grandmother, sister, and two maiden aunts.

When Nietzsche was fourteen, he won a scholarship to attend the first rate boarding school, Schulpforta, where he studied with the intent of joining the clergy. Nietzsche excelled in religious studies, German literature, and classical studies and graduated in 1864 before heading directly to the University of Bonn to study theology and philology.

Nietzsche transferred to the University of Leipzig the following year where he continued his studies focusing exclusively on philology. He quickly earned an academic reputation for himself through essays he published on two 6th century poets and Aristotle. It was while at Leipzig that the 21 year old discovered Kant and, particularly important for his future philosophy, stumbled across Schopenhauer’s recently published, The World as Will and Representation, in a bookstore.

In 1867, Nietzsche entered his mandatory military service, but the following year suffered a chest injury which refused to heal and was discharged. He returned to the University of Leipzig where he met Richard Wagner. Nietzsche respected Wagner for his musical genius but they also shared a deeper connection and became very good friends.

In 1869, Nietzsche was recommended for a professorial position in classical philology at the University of Basel, which he accepted. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872 and was heavily endorsed by Richard Wagner. Unfortunately, both the book and Nietzsche himself were scathingly criticised by the influential philology scholar, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff.

In 1876, after Nietzsche and Wagner together convinced the government to fund construction of the Bayreuth theatre, Wagner’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung, was performed. It was not to Nietzsche’s liking and would mark the beginning of rising tensions between the two, eventually culminating in a split in 1878 as Nietzsche found himself rejecting the Wagnerian cult and the anti-Semitism that stemmed from it.

Nietzsche would resign from his post at Basel in 1879 due to poor health, which included failing eyesight, migraines, and vomiting. Since he had given up his Prussian citizenship and failed to acquire a Swiss one, the next ten years saw Nietzsche living life as a state-less wanderer drifting between various Swiss, French, German, and Italian cities, never staying at one place for more than a few months. During this period, despite his severely deteriorating health, he would publish nine books.

In 1882, the 37 year old Nietzsche met and fell in love with Lou von Salomé, a 21 year old Russian student of philosophy and theology. She would later reject his marriage proposal and leave for Berlin with a friend of Nietzsche’s, Paul Ree.

In January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown which would incapacitate him for the remainder of his life. It is said that upon seeing a coachman violently whipping his horse, the already physically frail Nietzsche threw his arms around its neck and collapsed, although this may be apocryphal. The exact reason behind Nietzsche’s precipitous descent into insanity remains unclear, although his shockingly poor physical health and the vast number of medications he was taking are both well-documented facts.

Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900 in Weimar, where he was living with his sister, Elisabeth.

The Timeline

1844: Born in Röcken, Saxony on Oct 15

1849: Nietzsche’s father dies of a brain tumour

1858: Enrols as a student at the elite school, Schulpforta

1864: Graduates from Schulpforta

           Enrols as a student of philology and theology at the University of Bonn

1865: Changes his major to philology

           Continues his studies at the University of Leipzig

           Discovers and is influenced by Schopenhauer

1867: Enters military service

1868: Meets Richard Wagner

1869: Appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel

1870: Serves as voluntary medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian war

1872: Publishes The Birth of Tragedy

1873: Publishes the first Untimely Meditation: David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer

1874: Publishes the second Untimely Meditation: On the Use and Abuse of History for Life

           Publishes the third Untimely Meditation: Schopenhauer as Educator

1876: Publishes the fourth and final Untimely Meditation: Richard Wagner in Bayreuth

           Attends the first Bayreuth festival

1878: Publishes Human, All Too Human

1878: Breaks with Wagner

1879: Resigns from the University of Basel due to ill health

1882: Meets Lou von Salomé

           Publishes The Gay Science

1883: Richard Wagner dies

           Publishes Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Parts 1 and 2

1884: Publishes Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 3

1885: Publishes Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 4

1886: Publishes Beyond Good and Evil

1887: Publishes On the Genealogy of Morals

1889: Mental breakdown in Turin

1897: Death of Nietzsche’s mother

1900: Nietzsche dies in Weimar

The Philosophy

Nietzsche was captured early on by Schopenhauer’s atheism and his anti-rational conception of the will, not reason (as had been argued by and large since the time of Socrates), as the driving force in the universe. Although Nietzsche would carry his philosophy far from the pessimistic, ascetic denial of the will that Schopenhauer advanced, Schopenhauer’s primal, driving will would remain a central element in Nietzsche’s thought. He envisaged this will specifically as the will to power and from this idea, derived a philosophy that was elitist and egoistic to the extreme.

Nietzsche’s will to power is embodied in one of the notions he is most famous for, the ubermensch (usually translated as ‘superman’ or ‘overman’), whom he sees as being a future, stronger generation of humans (he often refers to them as a new species) unafflicted by weakness such as pity, kindness, or equality. On the other hand, cruelty, violence, and war are to be valued as things which force the individual to test himself (Nietzsche didn’t have a particularly high opinion of women) and encourage competition to weed out those who are weak and sick, and therefore unfit to continue the species.

Nietzsche is well-known for his conceptions of master and slave morality, the former belonging to the noble, knightly-aristocratic warrior who creates (another key theme in Nietzsche) his own morals, defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or ‘noble’ and ‘contemptible’) by what pleases him, rather than being held hostage to the latter, which finds perfect instantiation (according to Nietzsche) in the Judaeo-Christian religion.

Curiously, despite Nietzsche’s insistence on unadulterated, raw strength and power as the noblest of traits, a key and recurring theme in all of his books is gaity, lightheartedness, joy, dancing, and cheerfulness. In this aspect, more than any other he turned away from Schopenhauer’s pessimism and assertion that the will be snuffed out. Rather, Nietzsche advocated a carefree, Dionysian, abandon that revels in life. It is from this state of mind that he sees his ubermensch as being free to inflict cruelty and suffering on those weaker than them; not because they are trying to ‘get even’ or exact punishment for some grievance, but just because they can. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Nietzsche would say their cruelty is an ‘honest’ or even ‘innocent’ expression of their natural, exuberance as opposed to the scheming, manipulative duplicity that the priests in particular, peddle in, relying on concepts like guilt and sin, that directly inhibit the pure zest for life. The ubermensch take what they want in plain sight just because they can (think of a wild lion), whereas the priests get what they want through sneakily undermining their noble ‘betters,’ often out of a repugnant motive like revenge.

Nietzsche was fiercely atheistic and vocally criticised religions as promoting values that are in effect a denial of life. On the topic of religion, he is perhaps most famous for declaring that God is dead… and we are his murderers. With this, Nietzsche was highlighting what he saw as an impending crisis of morality which would hit as our increasingly secular society found the grounds of its morality, which he believed were founded on Christianity, undermined. In short, losing our belief in God means also losing the foundations of our morality.

Nietzsche is often criticised as promoting a stark, value-less world that inevitably leads to nihilism but in truth, he was anything but a nihilist. What he did was reject any school of thought that proposed absolute values we are all beholden to, as with Christianity, where becoming the perfect servant to God was perversely considered the ideal. His philosophy is not nihilistic because, rather than saying there are no values, he merely insists that they don’t come ready-made, instead we need to make our own.

I will mention one final feature in this brief outline of Nietzsche’s philosophy which, in my opinion, is often misunderstood. I am referring to his doctrine of eternal recurrence which first arises in The Gay Science and is posed as a test of one’s passion for life. He asks what you would say if you had to live your whole life again; all the joy and pain, the same events in the same sequence, for all eternity. Would you consider this a blessing or a curse? Only if you can affirm this doctrine have you lived life as Nietzsche feels it was supposed to be lived. Some commentators have interpreted this as a metaphysical reality that maybe Nietzsche believed was true. I can’t see any reason for suspecting this to be the case. He uses this doctrine to test one’s commitment to and thirst for life; the extent of the pure, primal relishing of life that Nietzsche valued so highly.