Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th-century German philosopher, is renowned for his radical ideas about morality, religion, and culture. His writings have profoundly influenced generations of thinkers, writers, and artists. The depth and complexity of his work have made him one of the most well-known and influential philosophers of modern times. In this blog post, we will explore the life and work of Friedrich Nietzsche, delving into the essential concepts and themes that set him apart from other philosophers.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, a small village in the Kingdom of Prussia (now part of Germany). His father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a Lutheran pastor, and his mother, Franziska Oehler, came from a family of farmers. Tragically, Nietzsche’s father passed away when he was only four years old, and his younger brother, Ludwig, died just two years later. These early losses greatly impacted Nietzsche, who was raised by his mother, grandmother, and two aunts in a devoutly religious household.
Nietzsche showed promise as a scholar at an early age, excelling in ancient languages and theology. In 1864, he began his studies in theology and philology at the University of Bonn. However, Nietzsche’s growing interest in philosophy and skepticism towards religious teachings led him to abandon his theological studies.
Academic Career and Close Relationship with Richard Wagner
In 1869, at the age of 24, Nietzsche became the youngest professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, thanks to his impressive academic achievements. During his time in Basel, Nietzsche formed a close friendship with the famous composer Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima. Nietzsche saw Wagner as a genius and a kindred spirit, and they both shared an interest in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
However, as Nietzsche’s own philosophy began to evolve, he distanced himself from Wagner and Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Their relationship deteriorated, culminating in Nietzsche’s 1878 publication of Human, All Too Human, which marked the beginning of his break from the Romantic and idealistic influences of Wagner and Schopenhauer. To learn more about the differences between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, read our comparative analysis.
The Birth of Tragedy and Major Philosophical Works
Nietzsche’s first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872, was an exploration of the role of tragedy in ancient Greek culture. The book combines philosophy, art, and cultural criticism, setting the stage for the themes that would dominate Nietzsche’s later works.
In his subsequent writings, Nietzsche focuses on the notion of the will to power—the driving force behind human ambition and achievement. He is critical of traditional morality and believes that the Christian values prevalent in Western society stifle individual growth. Discover how to apply Nietzsche’s will to power for personal growth in our practical guide.
Nietzsche’s most famous works include Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he introduces the iconic concept of the Übermensch or Overman, an ideal human being who can transcend conventional morality to create new values. Learn more about this concept in our explainer on Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals further explore his critiques of traditional morality, emphasizing the importance of individualism and self-determination.
The Madman and Nietzsche’s Tragic Demise
Perhaps Nietzsche’s most infamous idea is his proclamation that “God is dead”- a metaphor for the decline of religious faith in modern society. This concept appears in his work The Gay Science, within a parable called ‘The Madman’. Nietzsche’s philosophy often critiques the decline of religion and champions the necessity of creating new values to fill the void left by its absence.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s mental health deteriorated in the late 1880s, and in January 1889, he suffered a breakdown in Turin, Italy. The exact cause of his collapse is still debated, with possibilities ranging from syphilis to a hereditary brain condition. Nietzsche spent the last decade of his life in seclusion, cared for by his mother and sister. He passed away on August 25, 1900.
Although Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings were controversial during his lifetime and remain so today, his ideas continue to inspire and provoke thought in various fields, including philosophy, psychology, and literature. His unique perspectives and bold assertions ensure that his work remains a crucial part of philosophical discourse and our understanding of human nature. For more on Nietzsche’s impact on modern thought, read our article on the controversial philosopher.