This Day In Writing History
On October 15th, 1844, the legendary German writer and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was born. He was born in Rocken bei Lutzen, Prussia, the son of a Lutheran pastor and teacher. The oldest of three children, Nietzsche's brother Ludwig died at the age of two, a year after their father died of a brain ailment at the age of 33. Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth would later figure in the controversy that still surrounds his philosophy and writings.
As a boy, Friedrich Nietzsche attended a boys' school, then a private school. In 1858, the 14-year-old Nietzsche displayed particular talent for both music and language, so the world famous school at Schulpforta accepted him as a student. While studying there, he received his first important introduction to literature, especially ancient Greek and Roman literature.
After graduating in 1864, Nietzsche entered the University of Bonn, where he studied theology and classical philology. After his first semester, he lost his faith and ended his theological studies. Around this time, he had read David Strauss' famous book, The Life of Jesus, a debunking of the Bible as mythology. However, two years earlier, in an essay titled Fate and History, Nietzsche had already argued that the central beliefs of Christianity had been discredited by historical research.
Deciding to become a classical philologist, Nietzsche followed his favorite professor to the University of Leipzig. At this time, he began delving into philosophy, studying the works of the thinkers of the day, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Albert Lange. In 1869, although he was only 24 years old and had neither a doctorate nor a teaching certificate, Nietzsche was offered a professorship in classical philology by the University of Basel in Switzerland. He accepted the offer and served for ten years. Today, he is still one of their youngest tenured Classics professors on record.
During this time, Nietzsche struck up a close friendship with legendary composer Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima. He had met Richard first in 1868. Nietzsche admired the Wagners greatly, and they introduced him to their inner circle of friends. His friendship with the Wagners would sour after Richard began to champion "German culture," which Nietzsche considered to be a contradiction in terms. He would later blast Wagner in his 1888 book, The Case Of Wagner.
In 1872, Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, where he argued that ancient Greek tragedy was the highest form of art. This was because its blending of Apollonian and Dionysian elements into a whole allowed the viewer to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Apollonian impulse is detached, rational, sober, and emphasizes superficial appearance, whereas the Dionysian impulse is immersion in the whole of nature, intoxication, irrationality, and inhumanity. Nietzsche argues that it's not healthy for the individual or society to be ruled by either impulse. Instead, they should be combined to create a healthy whole.
Nietzsche's 1878 book, Human, All Too Human, was a reaction to the pessimism of Wagner and Schopenhauer. It was a book of aphorisms on subjects including metaphysics, religion, the sexes, and morality. It was the first of Nietzsche's writings that would be taken out of context by the Nazis to build the foundation of their own philosophy - despite the fact that Nietzsche was the same man who had said, "Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins."
In 1879, Nietzsche resigned his professorship due to a severe decline in his health. While serving as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, he contracted several diseases, including diphtheria, dysentery, and some believe, syphilis, which would eventually cause his mental illness and death. After leaving the university, he continued to write, and in 1881, he began using a typewriter, as his eyesight started to fail.
In his 1881 book Daybreak, Nietzsche began his "campaign against morality," criticizing the moral schemes of such institutions as Christianity and utilitarianism. His aim was not to destroy morality, but to replace the moral schemes of the aforementioned institutions with a new moral code. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all morality, and exceptional people should no longer be ashamed of their uniqueness. The old style of morality is best suited to unexceptional people who are satisfied with their mediocrity. Thus, Nietzsche's motto is "become what you are."
The Gay Science (1882) was a mixture of philosophy and poetry. It contained Nietzsche's famous axiom "God is dead" and its explanation, "Whither is God? he cried; I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers."
Nietzsche's most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in four parts between 1883 and 1885, was a philosophical novel. It incorporated all of Nietzsche's ideas into a prose narrative. It told the story of Zarathustra, a wandering prophet who seeks to teach people how to live a fulfilling life in a world without meaning. Although Zarathustra was based on the Persian prophet Zoroaster, he seems more like Jesus Christ - or rather, an anti-Christ. Ironically, Nietzsche's prose mimics that of the Bible, in a clever parody.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not a traditional novel by any means. It's a very deep and dense treatise on philosophy and morality. It explores Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch, or overman, better known in English as the superman. It would be another concept bastardized by the Nazis after Nietzsche's death to justify their racist beliefs. Whereas Hitler's idea of a superman was a physically strong Aryan warrior, Nietzsche's ubermensch was mentally as well as physically strong - a well-rounded superman - and could be of any race.
On January 3rd, 1889, Nietzsche collapsed after witnessing the whipping of a horse and throwing his arms around the animal's neck to protect it. This event triggered in Nietzsche a severe psychotic episode from which he would not recover, as it was believed that he was in the final stages of syphilis. He started sending incoherent letters to friends. Claiming to have been crucified by German doctors, he called for the abolishment of anti-Semitism, the execution of the German emperor, and for all European powers to declare war on Germany.
Nietzsche's mother had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Later, his sister Elisabeth returned from Paraguay following the suicide of her husband, a notorious anti-Semite. While she cared for her brother, Elisabeth studied his works and read through all of his unpublished manuscripts. She hired writer and philosopher Rudolf Steiner to tutor her so she could understand her brother's writings. After a few months, Steiner gave up, declaring that it was impossible to teach her anything about philosophy.
Following a series of strokes and a bout with pneumonia, Friedrich Nietzsche died on August 25th, 1900 at the age of 55. His sister Elisabeth took control of his literary legacy. The following year, she had his last book published posthumously. The Will to Power (1901) was actually a patchwork quilt of bits and pieces of previously unpublished manuscripts cobbled together by Elisabeth Nietzsche, who took great liberties with the material, and most of it out of context. The final product was a hodgepodge of Nietzschean philosophy distorted and slanted to suit Elisabeth's anti-Semitic, nationalistic beliefs.
When Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, the eightysomething year old Elisabeth Nietzsche became enamored with the Nazi dictator, who was equally enamored with Elisabeth's bastardization of her brother's work. Hitler made Friedrich Nietzsche the official philosopher of the Third Reich. In life, Nietzsche was no anti-Semite; he broke ties with his editor, Ernst Schmeitzner, because he was disgusted by Schmeitzner's anti-Semitism. His relationship with his sister was on again-off again, a seemingly never ending pattern of conflict and reconciliation, as Nietzsche was also disgusted by her anti-Semitism and that of her husband. And, as previously mentioned, Neitzche had a low opinion of German culture. He also despised the concept of nationalism.
Today, over a hundred years after his death, Friedrich Nietzsche still remains one of the world's most influential and most controversial philosophers.
Quote Of The Day
"Good prose is written only face to face with poetry." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Today's video features a reading from Friedrich Nietzsche's classic book, The Antichrist. Enjoy!