Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Nietzsche

Contemporary philosophy

Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the 19th century (1844-1900). A professor of philology at the University of Basel, he published several works such as The Twilight of the Idols, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra... He attacked the underlying nihilism he detected in religion or morality. He became friends with Wagner, but soon fell out with him. In the last ten years of his life, he was plunged into a quasi-vegetative state following a bout of dementia.


The works of Nietzsche summarised on this site

coming soon

Twilight of the Idols

In this work, Nietzsche shows that at the root of morality and religion is an underlying nihilism that must be resisted.


Bibliography

Here are the essential books if you wish to gain a better understanding of this author's thought:

Sedgwick, Peter R. (2009). Nietzsche: the key concepts. Routledge, Oxon, England: Routledge.
Porter, James I. (2000). The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy. Stanford University Press.
Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer (2011), American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gemes, Ken; May, Simon, eds. (2002). Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy. Oxford University Press.
Higgins, Kathleen (2000). What Nietzsche Really Said. University of Texas; Random House.

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Biography: life of Nietzsche

Youth

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken, a village in the heart of Germany.

His father, a pastor, teaches theology, like his grandfather; he is responsible for the education of a member of the royal family.

He died of the ill effects of a fall on his head, and a year later Nietzsche's brother also died, when Friedrich was just 6.


The family then left the village of their birth and moved to a small town, Naumburg. Nietzsche wanted to continue the family tradition by becoming a clergyman. He learnt to play the piano.

At the age of ten, he entered Naumburg grammar school, but was so brilliant that in 1858 he was sent to continue his education at Pforta, a boarding school reserved for the country's most gifted pupils. Fichte, among others, studied at this monastic school.

Early in life, he kept a notebook recounting the details of his childhood. A tireless reader, he was thirsty for knowledge. However, he was not sure which field of study to focus on.

At seventeen, he discovered the works of Schiller and Hölderlin and enjoyed improvising at the piano in the evenings. He had a plan, soon abandoned, to give up theology and become a musician. His faith wavered, and he began to suffer from headaches.


After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Bonn in 1864 to study philology.

He took part in student life, despite his reserved nature, but ultimately remained a fairly solitary figure. Although he had little interest in his studies, this brilliant student nevertheless worked intensively.

He only stayed for a year, following his professor Ritschl to the University of Leipzig. Ritschl was his mentor, but regarded him as a genius in the making.

This is where he discovered Schopenhauer, a reading that would have a profound effect on him. He also met Wagner, another decisive encounter.

The Basel professor

Photo of Friedrich Nietzsche
Photo of F. Nietzsche

Having completed his studies, he was appointed professor of philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, in 1869. He was twenty-four years old at the time.

In the course of his work, for ten years he developed his thinking in contact with the many works of Greek antiquity, but also took an interest in the philosophical current events of his time.


He forged closer links with Richard Wagner, of whom he was said to be a distant relative. In 1872, he wrote his first work, The Birth of Tragedy, which won Wagner's enthusiastic support, but discredited him with some of his fellow philologists.

He voluntarily joined the army to serve as a medic in the First Franco-Prussian War.


This period was overshadowed by several failures or problems.


He writes the Untimely Meditations; this work does not meet with success and goes unnoticed.

He sent a conductor one of his compositions, which he rejected.

His former teacher Ritschl expressed his disappointment that he had not become a recognised professor of philology.

Especially in 1875, he fell seriously ill: headaches that left him almost blind, malaise, paralysis, nausea... his relatives were very worried.


Following these health problems, a certain cynicism also took hold of him. He began to criticise morality and its hypocrisies. He discussed this at length with his friend Paul Rée, who had himself written a book on the subject: The Origin of the Moral Sensations.

He wrote a small opuscule entitled Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in which he began to distance himself from the composer. The estrangement soon became final, and the latter did not reply when Nietzsche sent him the manuscript of Human, All Too Human.


His state of health prevented him from working properly as a teacher. In 1879, he resigned, but received a pension, which enabled him to travel in order to find a climate more conducive to his recovery.

Nietzsche therefore travelled to Italy (Venice, Turin, Genoa), and France (Nice) to enjoy the benefits of the Mediterranean climate.

The philosopher on a journey

In Genoa, he wrote Aurore, and heard Bizet's opera Carmen, which had a profound effect on him.

In 1882, he met Lou Salomé in Rome. She was remarkably intelligent and later became a friend of Freud and Rilke.

Nietzsche travelled with her and his friend Paul Rée to Switzerland, but relations with them deteriorated and they fell out. In love with the young girl, he allegedly asked Paul Rée to pass on his request, even though he was in love himself. His sister also played a negative role, advising against the union.

He fell into a chronic depression.

That same year, he heard the news of Wagner's death, and sent a letter to his wife, despite their dispute.

He completes writing The Gay Science.


He then began a monumental project: the writing of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This lasted from 1882 to 1885: it began in Rapallo, near Genoa, continued in Sils Maria, Switzerland, and ended in the Nice region, in Eze and Menton.

Only a hundred copies of this book were sold, but he considered it to be the masterpiece of his life.


Relations with his family were difficult: already at odds with his mother, who blamed him for "killing Christ", he broke with his sister, because of her and her husband's anti-Semitism.


From 1886 to 1888, as if sensing his impending madness, the pace of his writing accelerated. Nietzsche wrote no less than five masterpieces: Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morality, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist and Ecce Homo.

At this very moment, he was forty-four years old, and starting to become famous.

He began to draw up plans for a new work, The Will to Power, which would remain unfinished.

The tipping point into madness

After a stay in Sils Maria, where his health deteriorated again, he returned to Turin and was seized by a fit of folia: on 3 January 1889, he threw himself at the neck of a horse that was being whipped and burst into tears, then fell unconscious.

On his return home, he had delusions of being Napoleon's successor, Dionysus or Christ. He wrote meaningless letters to friends and strangers.


Conducted to an insane asylum, he talks a lot, sings constantly, then sings less and less. He seemed to have lost all memory of his past life, although certain events occasionally came back to him. One day he asked his sister, "Didn't I write some beautiful books?".

Then he sinks into a vegetative state and almost complete silence until his death.

It is not known whether his illness was the result of syphilis, a brain tumour, hereditary nervous disorders or dangerous drugs taken to relieve his headaches.


Cared for by his mother and then his sister, he died in Weimar at the turn of the century, in 1900, unaware of his fame.

Main works

The Birth of Tragedy
Untimely Meditations
Human, All Too Human
The Dawn
The Gay Science
Thus Spoke Zarathustra