Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most renowned philosophers in history, was a 19th-century German philosopher who wrote on existentialism and promoted of atheism. One of his masterworks, Beyond Good and Evil, is a fundamental text of philosophical thought that many scholars consider to be truly ahead of its time. Published in 1886, it challenges many preconceived notions of philosophy that had been in place for millennia.

As the title suggests, Beyond Good and Evil encourages readers to ponder life's greatest questions outside the constraints of commonly accepted morality. Nietzsche takes aim, in particular, at Christian morality, which he considered outdated, abused, and misinformed. Since the vast majority of continental European philosophy in previous centuries had been written in a Christian framework, Beyond Good and Evil was truly a groundbreaking work.

1. Although he was German, Nietzsche thought the French were more culturally advanced than Germans.

Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Prussia (part of modern-day Germany), and spent most of his life on German soil. Despite his background—and his work's powerful influence on the German people—Nietzsche believed France to be a more advanced nation and culture. Nietzsche once candidly described France as the "place of the most spiritual and sophisticated culture in Europe." Nietzsche was fluent in French, spent time living in the city of Nice, and respected a group of 17th-century French writers and philosophers including François de La Rochefoucauld and Luc de Clapiers.

2. Nietzsche believed alcohol and Christianity were both equally harmful to society.

Although Nietzsche shunned the moral obligations that Christianity had led Europe to embrace for centuries, he was also a notorious teetotaler, refusing to drink alcoholic beverages. Nietzsche never consumed alcohol and also encouraged others to avoid it. Instead, he drank only water, enjoying milk as a "special treat" on occasion. The philosopher once famously declared: "There have been two great narcotics in European civilization: Christianity and alcohol." He believed Christianity was harmful because it encouraged repression, which he thought led to moral cowardice and stifled creativity. Nietzsche's disdain for alcohol and religion apparently didn't extend to opium, an actual narcotic, which he used to relieve migraine headaches.

3. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche showed contempt for the British.

While Nietzsche was open about his admiration for French culture, Beyond Good and Evil makes it clear he did not feel the same respect toward the British. Nietzsche never visited the British Isles during his lifetime and regarded British culture as "the great danger on Earth" due to their "small-spiritedness."

In Beyond Good and Evil he took aim at famous British philosophers, claiming that the British

are no philosophical race ... [Francis] Bacon signifies an attack on the philosophical spirit in general, [Thomas] Hobbes, [David] Hume, and [John] Locke a debasement and devaluation of the concept 'philosopher' for more than a century.

4. Beyond Good and Evil contains a particularly prophetic statement about the 20th century.

Although Beyond Good and Evil was written over a decade before the turn of the century, Nietzsche included a statement that scholars view as particularly prophetic of the troubles of the 20th century. Nietzsche viewed the rapid democratization of European states as a void in which tyrants (such as German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) could easily rise to power. He also viewed it as a potential source for an increase in the disparity between rich and poor classes. Nietzsche explains:

The democratization of Europe will lead to the production of a type prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense: in individual and exceptional cases the strong man will be found to turn out stronger and richer than has perhaps ever happened before ... What I mean to say is that the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the breeding of tyrants—in every sense of that word, including the most spiritual.

5. As a youth, Nietzsche had a strange relationship with a drunken poet.

When he was an adolescent, Nietzsche developed a friendship with Ernst Ortlepp, a poet who translated Shakespeare as a profession. Ortlepp became a father figure to Nietzsche, helping him develop his writing. However, Ortlepp was also a notorious drunk and would stumble around town singing blasphemous tunes, occasionally spending his nights in the drunk tank, where authorities placed intoxicated people found to be disturbing the peace. Scholars have speculated on the strange relationship between Nietzsche and his mentor. Reflecting on Ortlepp's role in his upbringing, Nietzsche once stated, "When I was young, I made contact with a dangerous deity, and I would not like to repeat what things scarred my consciousness—good things as well as bad."

6. Famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted a portrait of Nietzsche.

Edvard Munch, famous for his 1893 painting The Scream, painted a portrait of Nietzsche in 1906. The portrait features a similar background to The Scream: a vibrant orange sky. Munch never met Nietzsche, but the artist reportedly became enthralled with the philosopher's writings. A wealthy Nietzsche fan and translator, Ernest Thiel, commissioned the portrait from Munch in order to fund a Nietzsche archive in Weimar, Germany—a plan that never came to fruition.

7. Nietzsche had a mental breakdown after seeing a horse being whipped.

In 1889 Nietzsche experienced a severe mental collapse in Turin, Italy. This breakdown would mark the end of his philosophical and literary career. The source of his sudden insanity was allegedly the sight of a horse being whipped by a coach driver in the city square. Nietzsche was apprehended by police in a state of utter confusion and madness, from which he never recovered. Nietzsche wrapped his arms around the horse's neck in sympathy for the abused animal, refusing to let go.

Some scholars speculate that the source for his insanity was actually an infection of syphilis and that the incident in Turin was symptomatic of his mental decay. Others argue that drug use or an inherited mental illness caused his mental breakdown.

8. Nietzsche's sister falsely proclaimed him to be a fascist.

One of the most controversial outcomes of Nietzsche's philosophical thought was its use in the rise of fascism in Germany. However, Nietzsche's writings actually don't provide support for fascist ideology. Their misuse can be attributed to his sister's meddling. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was an ardent anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, even going so far as to start an Aryan colony in the jungles of South America. Nietzsche's sister has been blamed for editing his writings after his mental breakdown in 1889, removing passages that actually condemned anti-Semitism in German culture and portraying her brother as fundamentally fascist in letters to friends and officials. This led to Nietzsche's German moniker as "the godfather of fascism"—a title he would have detested.

9. Nietzsche praised Judaism in Beyond Good and Evil—and condemned German anti-Semitism.

The role of Nietzsche's sister in the manipulation of his writing is made clear by the support he offers for the Jewish people in Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche condemned German anti-Semites as "weak," viewing their prejudice as a symptom of fear. He also wrote that "the Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today. They know how to thrive in even the worst conditions." This has led scholars to completely reconsider and reanalyze Nietzsche's alleged role in the ideological shaping of German fascist movements.

10. Nietzsche reportedly had an obsession with fruit.

Nietzsche was an eccentric figure—and a rather sickly man. This led to the philosopher's obsession with eating fruit, which he believed would be the appropriate diet to combat his chronic headaches. While Nietzsche was staying at an inn, the innkeeper was puzzled by his habit of eating steak for breakfast and nothing but fruit for the rest of the day. This peculiar meal pattern did nothing to improve his health and may have actually been responsible for worsening his digestive problems later in life.

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