Friedrich Nietzsche – The New York Times

Posted: October 8, 2017 at 5:58 am

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By Julian Young

In both style and content, Friedrich Nietzsche's works mark the end of the 19th century. His short, punchy aphorisms What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, Man does not pursue pleasure, only the Englishman does signal a departure from the florid, German prose of the Victorian era. His recognition of the death of God and of the will to power as a dominant human motive, as well as his anticipation of World War I, of the rise of dictatorships, and even of global warming, speak to the troubled realism of the 20th century. Apart from this, however, there is little agreement as to the character of Nietzsche's significance or indeed about his primary message.

Everyone democrats, fascists, feminists, antifeminists, Christians, atheists, analytic philosophers, anti-analytic deconstructionist philosophers has found Nietzsches work to contain precisely their message.

For some he is an authoritarian antidemocrat who believes that only the wellbeing of the superman, that exceptional individual such as Goethe, Shakespeare or Socrates, is of any value. Many who read him this way find it unsurprising that (notwithstanding his vociferous anti-anti-Semitism) the Nazis adopted him as their intellectual forerunner. For other readers, however, he is the father of postmodernism who discovered that there are no truths, only interpretations (except, perhaps, this truth), a believer in playfulness, dance, and individual free-spiritedness.

Largely unknown during his life, Nietzsche was a world star at the time of his death.


Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the village of Rcken, near Leipzig, in Prussian Saxony. His father was a Lutheran pastor, as were both his grandfathers. Following the death of his father in 1849, the family he, his mother and his sister Elizabeth, two years younger than himself moved to nearby Naumburg. In 1858 he won a scholarship to Pforta, the best boarding school in Germany, about a two-hour walk from his home. At Pforta, he received a superb training in Greek and Latin. As a graduate student in Leipzig, he was regarded as the most gifted classicist of his generation, which resulted, in 1869, in his becoming a professor of Greek literature at the University of Basel in Switzerland at age 24. During Nietzsche's first three years in Basel, he paid 23 visits on the German composer, Richard Wagner, and his wife, Cosima (ne Liszt), who lived in Tribschen, Lucerne, three hours away by train. (Wagner was in political exile from Germany, having played a leading role in the failed socialist revolution of 1848.)


At Tribschen, Nietzsche wrote his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), as his contribution to Wagner's project of building his own opera house in Bayreuth. In the book, he argued that Greek culture, the highest point of Western civilization, survived and thrived on account of the community-gathering effect of the Greek tragic festival. Wagner's music-dramas are a rebirth of Greek tragedy. Increasingly, though, Nietzsche became disillusioned by what he considered Wagners jingoistic anti-Semitism and cheap showmanship. In 1876, his objections to Wagner led him to walk out of the first of the Bayreuth Festivals, an annual event devoted to Wagners operas. Simultaneously his philosophy took a dramatic turn towards the positivist spirit of the age. The Birth of Tragedy had been based on a romantic idealism which Nietzsche inherited from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: since the natural world is ultimately merely a dream, science is superficial and the only route to reality is through art. Two years later, however, in Human, All-too-Human, Nietzsche asserted that only matter is real so that science alone can deliver knowledge of reality.

Human, All-too-Human was written in close collaboration with Nietzsche's then best friend, Paul Re, with whom he developed the practice of psychological observation based on the idea that human beings habitually deceive themselves as to the true motives of their actions, and that their real motives typically fall far short of what their morality says they should be. One prefers, Nietzsche observes, to save a drowning man when there is someone on hand to applaud the action. People give money to beggars because they enjoy displaying their superior status and power the first glimmering of the 'will to power' thesis.

In 1879 Nietzsche resigned his position at the University of Basel. For years he had struggled with deteriorating eyesight and bouts of headaches and vomiting that often lasted for days. In addition he had become ever more alienated from the life of a classics professor and wanted to devote himself entirely to the philosophical work he considered his life task. The university granted him a small pension from which he was (just) able to live for the rest of his life. For the next decade he led a nomadic existence. Believing that his health required permanent, mild winter he would spend the summers in the Swiss Alps Sils Maria, a village above St. Moritz, became his spiritual homeland and the winters on the Mediterranean, mainly in Genoa and later Nice.

It was in Sils Maria that what he considered his greatest thought came to him: the idea that if one were in perfect mental health and were to be told that one's exact life, down to the very last detail no matter how painful or shameful, was destined to return again and again throughout endless time, one would embrace this fact with ecstatic joy. He published this thought of the eternal return of the same in The Gay Science (probably his single most brilliant, comprehensive and delightful work) in 1882.


In April 1882, in Rome, Nietzsche met Lou Salom, an emancipated, beautiful and brilliant 20-year-old Russian. (She would later become the lover and friend of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, qualify as a psychoanalyst, and become a member of Freud's inner circle.) Lou was profoundly impressed by, and had a precocious grasp of, Nietzsche's philosophy. He, not surprisingly, fell in love. Unfortunately so, too, did Re, his best friend. The whole affair turned into a poisonous custard with both men seeking to undermine the other, while Nietzsches sister, Elizabeth, pathologically jealous of any women who threatened to become closer to her brother than herself, stirred the pot with lies and half-truths. Lou had no sexual interest in either man but in the end she went off to live (unbeknownst to Nietzsche, platonically) with Re, leaving Nietzsche to realize by the end of the year that he had been dumped. Traumatized, he retreated to Rapallo, a town near Genoa, to lick his wounds. Nietzsches romantic pursuits ended after the Salom affair. He became absorbed in his writing. It was in Rapallo that he completed Part I of Thus Spoke Zarathustra which was published in 1883. (In the course of the next two years it would acquire three further Parts. As a totality it is an exposition of his entire philosophy in poetic, allegorical form, the language often imitating that of the Bible.)

The first Part of Zarathustra is notable for its infamous remarks about women: A man should be brought up for war, a woman for the recreation of the warrior, Are you going to women? Then don't forget the whip,, and so on. Since prior to the Salom affair Nietzsche had been something of a supporter of the women's emancipation movement that was gathering strength around him - as dean of Humanities at the University of Basel in 1874 he had fought (unsuccessfully) for the admission of women - it is likely that his antifeminism, indeed misogyny, can be traced to the Salom trauma. Later on he more or less admits that his views on women, though an indelible part of his personality, are pathological and are not to be regarded as an intrinsic part of his philosophy. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886) he calls his views on women a great stupidity..


Though all of his books are polemical, Beyond Good and Evil is Nietzsche's most deliberately shocking. In it he postulates that the world is will to power - and nothing besides a proposition he took to be an improved version of Darwinism: creatures, he claims, often risk life for the sake of an increase in power, so the drive to power, rather than the drive to survive, must be the fundamental one. The point of the work's deliberately lurid language life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing exploiting is to force his age to wake up to the desperate need for a revaluation of all values.

The Genealogy of Morals, which appeared in 1887, provides a clue as to how one is to revalue values, what alternative morality should be adopted. The first moralities were 'master moralities': feeling good about themselves, the successful warrior bands, the Vikings for instance, elevated to the status of virtues those qualities which facilitated their success: self-confidence, lust for war, courage, resoluteness, intelligence, strength, and so on. Graeco-Roman antiquity valued these same qualities, primarily, however, not in their crude expression but in a 'spiritualised', sublimated, form. The greatness of Greece was based on agon, the sublimation of warfare into 'competition'. No less than the Olympic Games, the great Greek tragedies were the product of intense competition between playwrights. But then, during the Roman Empire, a new form of morality grew up, the morality of the underclass, slave morality. Experiencing intense ressentiment against their oppressive masters, the slaves invented the new morality of Christian (so-called) love. This was the product of 'spin', a transformation of the virtues of the masters into vices: self-confidence became 'arrogance', resoluteness 'cruelty', courage 'aggression' and so on. And the characteristics which the slaves, as slaves, had to exhibit--timidity, fawning friendliness, self-effacement became, under new names, virtues: peacefulness, love and humility. And so one arrived at the morality of the present, the morality which leads inexorably to self-hatred and nihilism. The solution to the problem, the way to bring morality into line with what is known to be the nature of reality, is to return to a master morality, to the sublimated master morality of the Greeks, updated, of course, so as to make sense in the current context.


For much of 1888, Nietzsche struggled to complete The Will to Power: a Revaluation of all Values, the vast and systematic masterwork designed to gain him entry into the pantheon of truly great German philosophers. But eventually he gave up, realizing the implausibility of claiming the will to power as the only human motive and the even greater implausibility of extending the idea to non-human nature. Much of the material, however, he was able to recycle in a final flourish of creative genius: in the closing months of the year he completed Twilight of the Idols (a distillation of his philosophy into his most sublime aphorisms), The Wagner Case (an assassination of Wagner as man and artist, The Antichrist (subtitled A Curse on Christianity) and Ecce Homo, his spiritual autobiography.

These final months of 1888 were spent in Turin in a state of almost constant euphoria. By December, however, he was exhibiting unmistakable sighs of mental derangement. In a series of crazy letters he expressed the belief he had deposed both the German Emperor and the Pope, had arranged for all anti-Semites to be shot, and that he was, in fact, 'God'. At the beginning of January 1889 he flung his arms around a horse being beaten by a coachman in a Turin piazza, collapsed into tears, and was taken to an asylum, first in Basel then in Jena. Though he did not die until 1900 his final years were spent in a vegetative state. Among doctors who have taken an interest in the question of why, at age 44, Nietzsche went mad, the traditional diagnosis of syphilis is now largely discredited. Though there is speculation that he had a slow-developing brain-tumor, it is more likely he suffered from a bi-polar disorder that eventually developed schizophrenia-like symptoms. ( He saw rifles pointing at him through windows in Jena.)

For most of his life, Nietzsche's work was largely unknown. In 1888, however, lectures in Copenhagen by Georg Brandes, the Danish literary critic, brought Nietzsches work to a wider public. By the mid-1890s the comatose Nietzsche was a world star. His sister moved him and his huge collection of unpublished notebooks and letters to Weimar which, as Goethe's city and the home of the Goethe-Schiller Archive, was the seat of German Kultur. People came from far and wide, among them Richard Strauss, Rudolf Steiner, and Isadora Duncan, to pay homage to the silent philosopher who, many felt, was not mad but rather ascended. Elizabeth's shrewd commercial sense encouraged Nietzsche's transformation into guru and saint. Her control and manipulation often involving outright forgery of his writings, both published and unpublished, enabled her to present him as sympathetic to her own nationalistic and anti-Semitic outlook, to turn him into a forerunner of Nazism. Hitler was one of those who visited the shrine in Weimar and when Elizabeth died in 1935 he attended her funeral. It has taken 60 years of patient work by scholars to overcome the perverted image of Nietzsche that she presented to the world.

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Friedrich Nietzsche - The New York Times

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