Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Rocken, Prussia. His father, who was a Lutheran pastor, died when Friedrich was only 5, and the boy was raised by his mother in a home that included his grandmother, two aunts, and a sister.
He studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig and was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of only 24. But he was plagued throughout his life by unreliable health (including poor eyesight and a tendency towards frequent headaches) and these problems contributed to him taking retirement in 1879 (at less than 40 years old). Ten years later he suffered a very serious mental breakdown from which he never recovered.
Nietzsche was interested in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and influenced by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but one of his strongest influences was Darwin's Theory of Evolution which he wholeheartedly accepted. He later also developed a friendship with the German composer Richard Wagner, but he later broke with Wagner over the composer's anti-Semitism and over Wagner's acceptance of noble religiosity as displayed in the opera Parsifal. For Nietzsche, religion could never be noble.
An enthusiastic writer, he wrote several major works, among them The Birth of Tragedy (1872; trans. 1966), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885; trans. 1954), Beyond Good and Evil (1886; trans. 1966), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887; trans. 1966), The Antichrist (1888; trans. 1954), Ecce Homo (1889; trans. 1966), and The Will to Power (1901; trans. 1910). One of Nietszche's major philosophical concepts was that Christianity had lost it's power in the lives of thousands of individuals. He expressed this in his famous proclamation "God is dead." This was never meant to be a metaphysical/ontological statement but a statement of what he believed to be the approaching death of a widespread philosophical belief, that of Christianity and of the Christian religion. He believed that Christian values had been used by powerful but resentful forces to develop a 'slave morality,' which he saw as a morality purposely created in order to encourage such behavior as meekness, compliance and kindness because such behavior served the interests of these forces. But Nietzsche claimed that new values could be created to replace the traditional ones, and his discussion of that possibility led to his concept of the 'overman' or 'superman.'
Friedrich Nietzsche challenged the foundations of traditional morality and of Christianity. He believed in the creativity and realities of the world in which we live, rather than any contemplation of a world beyond. In The Twilight of the Gods (Götzen-Dämmerung, 1888) he wrote,
'I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind. ... The only excuse for God is that he doesn't exist.'
Nietzsche developed the concept of "life-affirmation," which involved holding an inquiry of all beliefs and doctrines which (he believed) drained one's life energies, however socially-acceptable those views might be. He has sometimes been called the first "existentialist" philosopher, whether or not this is an accurate assessment he was certainly a major influence on the existentialist philosophers.
His concept of 'overman' or 'superman' is as the bold creator of new values, or, a creator of a "master morality," that might properly reflect the strength and independence of one who is able to finally become liberated from all more traditional values, except those that he (personally and individually) deems to be valid. Nietzsche maintained that all human behavior is motivated by the will to power. In its positive sense, this will to power is not simply power over others, but the power over oneself that is necessary for creativity. Such power is manifested in the overman's independence, creativity, and originality. Nietzsche believed that no 'overmen' had yet arisen, although he mentions several figures of history who might serve as models. He suggests Socrates, Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Goethe, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. Nietzsche also professed himself to be “a follower of Dionysus, the god of life’s exuberance”, and declared that he hoped Dionysus would replace Jesus as the primary cultural standard for future millennia.
This concept of the overman has often been interpreted as one of a master-slave society and has been readily identified with totalitarian philosophies. There is no doubt that Adolf Hitler and Nazism, for instance, were strongly influenced by Nietzsche's call for the rejection of traditional values and for the leadership of one bold and daring enough to have gone through a 'life-affirmation' of all influences culminating in the rejection of weak influences and a final affirmation of only positive, man-centred influences leading to a new and all-powerful 'superman' (more on the fully-deserved association of Nietzscheism with Nazism later in this article).
His General Influence
Here are some concepts very prevalent today which are at least strongly influenced by Nietzsche (not that he ever expressed such things quite this simply!) Please notice how some of these Nietzschean concepts later became merged and enmeshed with Freudism and are now very prevalent in modern psychology! Also note the inherent selfishness in these concepts. Any such a list must necessarily be arbitrary and selective to some degree yet the points seem quite fair and justifiable.
- The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering oneself - not helping others!
- The highest virtue is to be true to oneself.
- People should not hate or be embarrassed about their bodies but need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds - the mind and body make up our entire selves.
- When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; just stop and listen to the wisdom of your own body.
- Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission. Humility and submission should be rejected. If people are weak and submit easily they deserve to be strongly dominated!
- Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life. Sexuality is a virtue in its own right.
- Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
- Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health. Guilt feelings must be eradicated!
- You can't love someone else if you don't love yourself. First love yourself, then you may love others.
- Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can otherwise it is wasted. Reject the voice of caution!
- People's values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values. It is simply idiotic to attempt to live by the values of another age or society!
The irony in all this, of course, is that though Nietzsche claimed that his recommended path would lead to good mental health, he spent the last ten years of his life suffering from serious mental illness from which he never recovered! Does this not suggest that the man himself did not know and understand the path to good mental health?
His Influence On Individuals/Movements
Nietzsche's teachings led directly to the atheistic existentialism of Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). His relativism also has had a powerful influence on two of the most important modern French Deconstructionist philosophers, Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) also had a deep admiration for Nietzsche.
Two existentialist theologians, Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, plus the Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kerkegaard also show some influence from Nietzsche, especially Tillich. Obviously, Barth and Kierkegaard did not absorb Nietzsche's atheism.
Many regarded Nietzsche as having helped cause German militarism during two world wars. Nietzsche was popular among left-wing Germans in the 1890s. Many Germans read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and were influenced by Nietzsche's appeal of unlimited individualism, the development of a personality and the need to cast off the "moral influences" from another age and society. The enormous popularity of Nietzsche led to the subversion debate in German politics in 1894/1895. Conservatives initially wanted to ban the work of Nietzsche. Nietzsche influenced the Social-democratic revisionists, anarchists, feminists and the left-wing German youth movement. But later, mainly during the 1930s, Nietzsche also became a darling of right wing politicians (this had taken much longer) and Nietzscheism came to be absolutely endemic in the 'master race' concept of the Nazis. Aspects of Nietzsche's thought were embraced by the Nazis and the Italian Fascists, partly due to the encouragement of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche through her connections with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It proved possible for the Nazi interpreters to assemble, albeit quite selectively, certain passages from Nietzsche's writings which could be employed to justify war, aggression and domination for the sake of nationalistic and even racial self-glorification.
The Outcome of His Theories and the Man Himself...
Nobody can deny that Nietzsche's writings have been used as justification for attempting to rid the world of certain ethnic groups since they were seen as degenerate and/or non-Superman material. Within Nietzsche's theories, willing reliance on an ancient religion and a refusal to consider a man-centred 'life-affirmation' tended to denote a degenerate people and this was 'meat and drink' to those who would seek to eliminate certain ethnic groups from society. This happened in Nazi Germany on a truly horrendous scale (six million Jews before we even start considering other racial groups whose only misfortune was that they happened to be living in Europe during the late 30s and early 40s) and even more recently in the Balkans. This man was also one of the chief influences in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Nietzsche was widely-read in the universities of the 50s and 60s and the sexual revolution certainly developed from there. Neither can anybody deny that elements of this German's philosophy have even filtered through into some of the more worrying aspects of modern psychology, i.e., those elements which encourage what we can only refer to as 'the new self' (please note the bulleted points under the section entitled 'His General Influence'). 'The new self' (in true Nietzschean style) places the individual right at the centre of the universe and insists that the individual has a perfect right to not only happiness and contentment, but even total self-aggrandizement, moreover modern psychology encourages the challenging of all previously accepted traditions and accepted standards of behaviour.
Nietzsche has his apologists, those who claim that he was a great writer and a great intellect who should not be wholly associated with such things as the justification for war, or for gross immorality or gross cruelty, but I maintain that they are utterly wrong in offering such a defence. Nietzsche actively set out - not only to challenge but even to overturn - all previously accepted standards of decent and upright behaviour - this man knew what he was doing! He hated the concept of God (despite his Father having been a Christian pastor), he hated the concept of morality and of decent family values, he hated the spectre of human weakness apparently preferring the cause of the bully and the tyrant. No! No excuses can be made for this apparently hate-filled and despicable gentleman who formulated a philosophy of hatred, usurpation, opposition for its own sake, and, perhaps more than anything, for the aggrandizement of the self above the needs of all others. But what can be said in his defence is that he was undoubtedly quite seriously mentally ill from a much earlier point in his life than is generally suggested.
In January 1889 Nietzsche suffered a final and tragically complete mental breakdown in Turin, Italy. He had been discovered in a street, weeping and apparently embracing a horse. Nietzsche spent the rest of his days, first of all in an asylum, and later in his family's care. His insanity is often said to be due to an early syphilitic infection, but nobody can be sure about this and it is certainly true that a large amount of 18th-19th century illness was blamed on venereal disease and such disease could not possibly be responsible for all of it! Having said all of that, a man who rejected all standards of sexual morality could well have been such a victim. During his disease (it has been claimed) Nietzsche was almost invariably quite pleasant, and could still engage in intelligent conversation on his better days. Yet he spent much of his final decade in utter mental darkness and confusion and finally died in Weimar on August 25, 1900. Sadly, there is no record of any final repentance and of making his peace with God. After his death, his sister Elisabeth secured the rights to his literary remains and edited them for publication - although (it has been claimed) sometimes in an arbitrary and distorted form. In 1885 Elisabeth had married Bernhard Förster, a prominent leader of the German anti-Semitic movement (which Nietzsche, in fairness, had loathed). In later life Elisabeth was openly friendly to Hitler and seemed to encourage the association of Nazism with her brother's philosophy. She turned the philosopher's old house into a sort of shrine which Hitler visited on one occasion.
Conclusion: Nietzscheism Greatly Increased the Suffering of the Human Race and is an Abject and Total Failure
Though his influence has been widespread I maintain that all the evidence points to the fact that Nietzsche and his philosophy are an utter and abject failure in common with the abject failure of all the 19th-20th century atheistic icons. Why a failure? Have not many of his theories become popular? Sure they have, but let us face this: The man died in a black despair of complete failure - he knew - at the last - the truth about himself even while some still foolishly continue to revere his confused and sometimes contradictory ramblings. God is not dead as this man proclaimed (many thousands have embraced Christianity since the philosopher's death) but Nietzsche certainly did die. His writings have increased - not reduced - human despair, suffering and dissatisfaction. Millions have perished in agony in ugly and inhuman concentration camps as a result of his rather foolish concept of 'superman,' more millions have suffered unbelievable moral degradation after his sexual theories took root in the universities of the late 50s and early 60s and spread out from there. 'The new self' concept now to be found almost everywhere (having become quite deeply established in modern psychology) owes more to Nietzsche than anybody else and is combining with other influences from Nietzsche, Freud and others to increase the dissatisfaction and frustration of life to new levels as it becomes increasingly obvious that the aggrandizement of self only leads to hedonism and to even more moral failure, and even more suffering....
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
(Please note: A bibliography is rarely, if ever, a list of 'recommended books.')
Aschheim, Steven E, 1992, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Babich, Babette E, 1994, Nietzsche's Philosophy of Science. Albany: State University of New York Press. Bataille, Georges, 1992, On Nietzsche. trans. Bruce Boone. London: Athlone Press.
Clark, Maudemarie, 1990, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Danto, Arthur C, 1965, Nietzsche as Philosopher: An Original Study. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hayman, Ronald, 1980, Nietzsche, a Critical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macintyre, Ben, 1992, Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche. London: Macmillan.
Magnus, Bernd, Stanley Stewart, and Jean-Pierre Mileur, 1993, Nietzsche's Case: Philosophy as/and Literature. New York and London: Routledge
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968 version. The Antichrist. translated by Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967 version. Beyond Good and Evil. translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1966.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy. translated by Walter Kaufmann, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Random House.
Rosen, Stanley, 1995, The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, Julian, 1992, Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.