Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche | Biography


Family and Early Education

The son and grandson of Lutheran clergymen, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born October 15, 1844, in the small Prussian village of Röcken, southwest of modern Leipzig, Germany. Karl Ludwig, Nietzsche's father, died before the philosopher was five, and his younger brother Ludwig Joseph died shortly after. After Karl Ludwig's death, the family left the church pastor's house and moved to Naumburg, a town on the river Saale in rural Saxony. Nietzsche grew up in a household of women that included his mother, grandmother, two of his father's sisters, and his younger sister Elisabeth. He attended a private preparatory school and in 1858 was admitted to Schulpforta, a prestigious Protestant boarding school. There he met his lifelong friend Paul Deussen, who would later become a historian of philosophy and religion. From Deussen, Nietzsche would later learn Indian Vedanta, a philosophy based on the sacred Hindu Veda texts, and then critique it as a nihilist philosophy based on a denial of objective truth, along with Platonism and Christianity.

University Education

In 1864 Nietzsche graduated from Schulpforta and entered the University of Bonn, majoring in theology and classical philology, which is the study of language in historical texts, combining literary criticism, history, and linguistics. As a student of classical philology, Nietzsche studied Greek, Latin, and biblical texts. In 1865 he transferred to the University of Leipzig and discovered the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Nietzsche became a disciple of this atheist German philosopher for a time but later repudiated him. Nonetheless, Schopenhauer's philosophy certainly had an impact on Nietzsche's thinking, particularly on his theory of the "will to power."

Nietzsche's education was briefly interrupted by mandatory military service, beginning in October 1867. Assigned to an equestrian artillery unit, Nietzsche seriously injured himself while trying to run and mount a horse. A chest injury that would not heal allowed him to return to school in 1868. He met the great German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) in that same year, and the two became close friends. Wagner was something of a father figure to Nietzsche, coincidentally born in the same year as Nietzsche's late father, and they shared a passion for Schopenhauer as well as music. Nietzsche was an amateur composer.

Professor of Philology

In 1869 Nietzsche's classics professor and mentor Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (1806–76) recommended him for a professorship in Basel, Switzerland, even though he had not completed his doctoral dissertation. The school in Basel asked Nietzsche to renounce his Prussian citizenship, and he did so, although he never became a Swiss national. Thus, he was a man without a country from 1869 until the end of his life. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig that same year, based on his published writings, and was appointed to the University of Basel as a professor in classical philology. Despite renouncing his Prussian citizenship, Nietzsche served briefly as a volunteer medic when the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) broke out, but he got sick almost immediately with dysentery and diphtheria and was sent back to Basel, where he resumed teaching. There, Nietzsche met historian Franz Overbeck (1837–1905), who became a lifelong friend. Although an excellent teacher, Nietzsche was already tired of philology and university life and had turned toward philosophy by 1871.

Beginning in 1871 Nietzsche began to suffer serious, debilitating illnesses. He had suffered from severe headaches since childhood, but now they kept him in bed for days and caused him to be absent from the university. Nonetheless, he completed his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. This work was poorly received by academia, because it did not meet traditional standards of academic rigor and was a philosophical rather than philological work. Some 40 years later, this early foray into philosophy was called "a work of profound imaginative insight" by the British classicist F.M. Cornford. Nonetheless, The Birth of Tragedy was condemned by a leading philologist of Nietzsche's era, and others followed suit. This did not help Nietzsche's career as either a writer or teacher. At the same time, he was spending less and less time at his job because of illness. From 1873–76, Nietzsche published a series of essays that came to be known as the Untimely Meditations. By 1876, his relationship with Wagner and his family had run its course. Nietzsche became disillusioned with Wagner's nationalism, embrace of Christianity, and perhaps his anti-Semitism, and they grew further apart philosophically because Nietzsche had turned his back on Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche's Decade of Genius

Nietzsche was granted sick leave from the university in 1877 and wrote a second volume, Human, All-Too-Human, in 1878. His health continued to deteriorate, and he ended up resigning his chair at the university in 1879 and was granted a pension. For the next decade, he suffered continuous pain caused by his various illnesses and lived as an intellectual vagabond, moving from place to place in Switzerland, southern France, and Italy, in search of a hospitable climate. He lived alone for the most part, and although he had friends, he spent most of his time in his own company. During this period, he was introduced to Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861–1937), a brilliant young Russian woman, by his Swiss friend Paul Rée. Nietzsche fell madly in love with her, and although she appreciated Nietzsche's intellect, Salomé did not return his romantic feelings. In any case, Rée was already in love with her, and the younger couple ended up moving away together, leaving Nietzsche alone.

In this decade Nietzsche produced The Dawn of Day (1881), The Gay Science (1882), and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), a masterpiece cast in four volumes. Thus Spoke Zarathustra imitates sacred texts and waxes poetic, parodic, and satirical while laying out all the philosopher's major ideas. Nietzsche also rewrote The Gay Science in 1887 and provided new introductions for some of his older books as his philosophical thought evolved. He produced Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morality (1887) as alternative texts presenting the key concepts in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in a more straightforward and accessible format. Nonetheless, his works continued to go unread and were largely unappreciated in his own lifetime. In his last year before his descent into madness in 1889, he produced Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche contra Wagner, and Ecce Homo, an intellectual autobiography.

Descent into Madness

Nietzsche collapsed in Turin, Italy, in 1889, and his friend Overbeck took him back to Basel after his complete mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. He lived first in an asylum and then moved back to Naumburg with his mother. When she died in 1897, he was moved to Weimar to live with his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Until recently, Nietzsche's loss of his mental faculties during the last 11 years of his life has been attributed to an atypical paralysis caused by a dormant form of syphilis. It was assumed he had picked up this sexually transmitted disease from a prostitute in a brothel during his student days, which added to his other illnesses and became active in the last part of his life. However, more recently it has been argued he likely had retro-orbital meningioma, or a slow-growing tumor on the brain surface behind his right eye, which might account for his partial blindness and headaches.

When Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth assumed care of her brother, she gained control over his literary works and began publishing sections from his voluminous unpublished notes and materials—called nachlass. These were writings from Nietzsche's notebooks, and Elisabeth compiled one volume titled The Will to Power. She further fostered misleading ideas about the content of the rest of his unpublished works and even produced some minor forgeries. In fact, Elisabeth excised portions of his work and deliberately linked her brother with her own anti-Semitic views. She established an archive of Nietzsche's work in Naumburg, the town where they had grown up. This place became a sort of museum in which the mad philosopher himself was shown as an exhibit to certain important visitors. Elisabeth, who had married an anti-Semite who killed himself in 1889, grew rich on her brother's writings and misrepresented them by plundering and publishing work he never meant to share with the public. She even gave him a Lutheran funeral when he died on August 25, 1900, something that would have horrified the man who had charged religion—particularly Christianity—with creating a slave morality. He had, in fact, asked for a pagan burial.

Nietzsche's influence on philosophy, psychology, and the arts has been incalculable, and it is not an exaggeration to say he has influenced—both directly and indirectly—most of the important thinkers and artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some of the towering figures of the 19th and 20th centuries influenced by his ideas include the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud; the father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung; Prussian philosopher Karl Marx; the early existentialist philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Hannah Arendt; literary and social critic Jacques Derrida; theologians Martin Buber and Paul Tillich; and literary giants such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. The majority of Nietzsche's ideas remain fresh and startling today despite the passage of time and the corrections that have been made to parts of his philosophy by those who followed him.

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