“What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
“God is dead.”
Even if you don’t know much about philosophy, you’ve likely heard these terms and phrases before, as well as the name of their originator: Friedrich Nietzsche.
Few thinkers had as much of an influence on the culture and ideas of modernity than Nietzsche did. And yet few people — even if they throw around his quotes or his name — know very much about his philosophy.
Christians often have a knee-jerk revulsion to the man who referred to himself as an “immoralist” and the “anti-Christ,” and see his views as incompatible with faith, and thus not worth studying.
The less religious, who feel in Nietzsche they might find a sympathetic comrade, are yet frequently stymied in reading and understanding his sometimes seemingly inscrutable texts.
Yet both groups would be well served by giving Nietzsche another look. In fact, the study of his philosophy can be beneficial to men of any creed or background.
Nietzsche does challenge those of faith, but in a way that can prompt a hard, much-needed, and ultimately strengthening examination of the true depth of one’s professed commitment.
And he is undoubtedly difficult to understand, but those who make the effort to dig out his meaning are rewarded with insight on how life can be lived more fully.
So too, scholars of Nietzsche glean not just a richer understanding of his philosophy itself, but of the wider culture and the landscape of modernity (and postmodernity) as well.
Once you become aware of his ideas, you start seeing his influence everywhere. If you’re a fan of Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of the “strenuous life” and “daring mighty deeds,” then you have Nietzsche to thank. Roosevelt was a big fan of the Prussian philosopher’s writings, and scholars believe they greatly influenced TR’s worldview. The work of one of my favorite writers, Jack London, was also infused with Nietzschean axioms. London’s quest to uncover his own “philosophy towards life” and his love of the “spirit of romance and adventure” has Nietzsche’s fingerprints all over it.
If you’ve always wanted to understand more about Nietzsche and his philosophy, but haven’t known where to start or been too intimidated to dive in, this two-part series is for you. My goal with it is two-fold: First, to provide you with a very basic understanding of Nietzsche so that you have a reference point to start from whenever you encounter him in your literary or intellectual wanderings. And second, to inspire you to begin your own study of this regally-mustachioed philosopher.
In this first article, I will offer a short biography of Nietzsche’s life in a semi-bare-bones, timeline fashion; rest assured that concepts only mentioned here in passing will be fleshed out next time. Knowing a little about Nietzsche’s life helps to provide context for the development of his philosophy.
At the end of the article, I then outline a few reading notes that must be kept in mind whenever you study’s Nietzsche’s writings. Unless you approach his philosophy in a certain way, it’s easy to misunderstand him.
The background below will help you digest the content of the second post in this series, which offer a primer on Nietzsche’s big ideas.
A Brief Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche
For a man who wrote much about heroic and barbarian values, Nietzsche’s life was pretty quiet and uneventful. He was born in 1844 in a small village in Prussia (now part of Germany). His father was a Lutheran minister and died when Nietzsche was only four. Consequently, Friedrich was raised in a household of devoutly Christian women, including his mother, grandmother, sister, and aunts. As a boy, he plunged himself into studying the Bible and Christian theology, and his piety, coupled with a meek personality, acquired him the nickname “the little pastor.”
Nietzsche attended a boy’s school where he showed talent in both music and language. Consequently, at the age of fourteen, he transferred to the internationally prestigious Schulpforta school. After graduating in 1864, Nietzsche began studying theology and philology (a combination of literature, linguistics, and history) at the University of Bonn. It was during this time that Friedrich abandoned the Christian religion; in studying its historicity, he came to feel that the claims of his childhood faith weren’t sufficiently supported. Some scholars suggest that while Nietzsche stopped believing in Christianity, he didn’t become an outright atheist, either. Though the theory is premised on nuance and speculation (and would take a whole other article to unpack!), it indeed might be better to label Nietzsche as something of a “spiritual atheist.”
At any rate, the nascent skeptic stopped studying theology to focus his work completely on philology and transferred to the University of Leipzig to finish his studies. It was during this time that Nietzsche was introduced to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work would greatly influence Nietzsche’s ideas. He also developed a friendship with the composer Richard Wagner, whose music Nietzsche admired and would later draw intellectual inspiration from.
In 1867, Nietzsche volunteered for one year of service in the Prussian military, but an injury he sustained while trying to mount his horse prevented him from finishing out his enlistment. After this unsuccessful attempt at military service, he returned to his philological/philosophical studies, and at only the age of 24 (and without having earned a doctorate), Nietzsche showed so much scholarly promise that he was offered a professorship in 1868 to teach philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
In 1870, Nietzsche returned to the military and served as a medical orderly in the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War. During his service, Nietzsche contracted diphtheria and dysentery, and (as some scholars speculate) syphilis. His firsthand experience with war would later show up in his published works, which often employed military and battlefield imagery to make a point.
1872 kicked off Nietzsche’s production of his most famous works, beginning with the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, which discussed how the genre of Greek tragedy was created. Between 1873 and 1876, Nietzsche wrote four essays that were published together in the philology-centered book, The Untimely Meditations.
In 1878, Nietzsche began an experimental phase in his writing with Human, All Too Human. The book debuted what would become one of his stylistic trademarks — the use of short, pithy, and sometimes cryptic aphorisms to convey a larger and deeper message.
Debilitated by lingering pain from his horse injury, as well as diseases he had contracted during the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche retired from teaching in 1879 at the age of 35. From then until his death he moved around to different villages in Switzerland, France, and Italy in an unsuccessful bid to find a climate more congenial to his health. Through his travels, however, he continued writing and honing his ideas.
In 1881 and 1882, Nietzsche published Daybreak and The Gay Science, works which further showcased his love of aphorisms and his generally bombastic style. With these volumes, he began to flesh out his argument against modern bourgeoisie morality and introduced the idea that “God is dead.”
In 1882, Nietzsche fell in love with a woman named Lou Andreas Salomé, an incredibly intelligent psychoanalyst and author. However, Nietzsche’s love for her went unrequited. Rumor has it he proposed marriage, and that she not only turned him down, but ended their relationship completely. Nietzsche fell into a deep depression from which he never fully emerged. Salome was Nietzsche’s only known romantic interest.
Between bouts of severe sickness and depression in 1883 and 1885, Nietzsche wrote the philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he uses the Persian prophet Zarathustra to introduce his famous ideas of the Übermensch (Overman/Superman), eternal recurrence, and the will to power. After the book’s publication, Nietzsche tried to get a lecturing post at the University of Leipzig but was turned down because of his criticism of Christianity specifically, and of theism generally. Realizing he was past the point of being employable was freeing for Nietzsche, and he henceforth devoted himself to writing and publishing more polemical works.
The years between 1886 and 1889 constituted Nietzsche’s most productive and creative period. In 1886, he wrote and published perhaps his most famous work (along with Zarathustra) Beyond Good and Evil, in which he exhorted modern philosophers to take on an ethos of creativity, danger, risk, and originality in order to create new values in a world without God. With this book, he also introduced the idea of master morality and slave morality and critiqued Judeo-Christianity as an embodiment of the former and a breeder of weakness.
In 1887, Nietzsche published On the Genealogy of Morals in which he further fleshed out the differences between master and slave morality and argued that humanity should move beyond a moral code based on good and evil to one centered on the noble and ignoble.
In 1888, Nietzsche wrote three polemic and controversial books: Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo. Twilight of the Idols — which brought us the famous line “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” –was a critique of modernity’s decadence and nihilism. Nietzsche attacked the rational idealism that had guided the West since Socrates, arguing that it was a “life-denying” philosophy.
After Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote his most controversial book, The Antichrist, which was published in 1895. The book was a critique on Christianity (as Nietzsche saw it) in which he argues that the Christian focus on the afterlife was yet another life-denying philosophy, which bred a hatred and denial of the energies and powers of one’s mortal existence. Nietzsche believed that Christianity weakened individuals and that Christian piety and charity, though dressed up in the cloak of altruism, were in fact disguised attempts to exert power over others.
The interesting thing about The Antichrist is that while Nietzsche attacks Christianity, he has only praise for Jesus Christ himself, positing that “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Nietzsche argued that, contrary to his misguided followers who had corrupted Christ’s original teachings, Jesus had taught and embodied a life-affirming philosophy, exhorting his disciples to understand that the Kingdom of God is not some yet-to-be-after-this-life goal, but within each of us — that eternity is now.
Ecce Homo was Nietzsche’s last book, though it wasn’t published until eight years after his death. Scholar Walter Kaufman describes the work as “Nietzsche’s own interpretation of his development, his works, and his significance.” The chapters have titles like “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Am So Clever.” Some have pointed to these titles as proof that Nietzsche was a crazed egomaniac, but the more likely interpretation is that he was just using a bit humor and sarcasm.
In 1889, after years of mental and physical issues, Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse in Turin, Italy. The story goes that Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped in the streets, and was moved to overwhelming pity for it. He ran and threw his arms around the horse’s neck to protect it while its tears streamed into his bushy mustache. One apocryphal story states that Nietzsche yelled out “I understand you!” to the horse. After the whipping stopped, the despondent and disoriented philosopher collapsed to the ground, and friends took him home. After lying silent and motionless for two days on the couch, Nietzsche uttered “Mutter, ich bin dumm” (Mother, I am dumb).
In the following days and weeks, Nietzsche began writing unhinged and frightening letters to his friends, calling for the death of the Pope, Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, and “all the anti-Semites.” He signed most of his letters as Dionysus, but sometimes referred to himself as “the crucified one.” His family came to Turin and took him back to Basel where he was hospitalized and later moved in with his mother. He would never write again.
In 1893, Nietzsche’s sister returned from a failed experiment in forming a fascist community in Paraguay and took over Nietzsche’s literary estate. She began compiling notes he had written that were not meant for publication into a book called The Will to Power. Many scholars believe that Nietzsche’s sister heavily editorialized or even outright forged the notes so it would appear that her brother was sympathetic to fascism, when he likely was not. Nietzsche’s sister is thus responsible for the association between Nietzsche and Nazism that exists to this day. The irony is that Nietzsche abhorred both anti-Semitism and German nationalism.
After 11 years of functionally being a vegetable, Nietzsche finally died in 1900 at the age of 56.
Notes on Nietzsche’s Writing Style and Approach Towards Philosophy
To understand Nietzsche’s arguments, one must understand his unique philosophical style.
When I first delved into Nietzsche’s work, I was expecting “philosophy” as I had seen it done by other Western philosophers — straightforward, rational arguments that have clear premises and conclusions.
With Nietzsche, there is little, if any, of those traditional elements.
Instead, one will encounter bold pronouncements and cryptic aphorisms that often seem to contradict each other.
So when I first began reading Nietzsche’s writings, I felt rather lost, and it took me a while to get used to his writing style and approach to philosophy. To help understand our next post and for those of you who decide to dive deeper into Nietzsche’s work as well, here are a few things to keep in mind that will help you find your bearings more quickly:
He wants you to work for your knowledge. When you first read Nietzsche, it will make your brain hurt; this is especially true of his later works, which serve as definite cranium crushers. Nietzsche deliberately wrote in a style that made it hard for readers to comprehend him. Because he experimented with aphorisms, irony, sarcasm, and paradoxes, it’s easy to misunderstand what Nietzsche was trying to get at.
Nietzsche in fact took pride in the fact that not everyone “got” him, saying: “It is not by any means necessarily an objection to a book when anyone finds it impossible to understand: perhaps that was part of the author’s intention — he did not want to be understood by just ‘anybody.’”
Besides wanting to reach a certain audience with his hard-to-follow writing style, Nietzsche wrote the way he did because he wanted the reader to work for their understanding; he didn’t want to do all the thinking for you. Nietzsche demands his readers become fellow companions in thought.
He’s not a systematic philosopher. Unlike most Western philosophers who preceded him, Nietzsche rejected analytic philosophy in much of his writing. Except for The Birth of Tragedy and perhaps The Antichrist, you’re not going to see a well-organized Aristotelian-esque argument in Nietzsche’s work. In fact, you won’t see much of an argument at all. Instead, you’ll find bold statements, jokes, contradictions, and quick changes in topic. But, as you read an entire essay or book, you’ll come to understand the bigger picture that Nietzsche’s trying to get at. It’s weird, but it works.
Indeed, instead of seeing Nietzsche as purely a philosopher, it’s better to see him as a philosopher-psychologist. He even said as much: “I am the first philosopher to also be a psychologist.” Instead of trying to prove the “rightness” of a particular moral worldview, Nietzsche wanted to explain why certain moral views existed in the first place. To do so, he used psychoanalytic principles to uncover the human drives that would create a particular philosophy or outlook on life.
Analyzing the unconscious motives for why a person or culture would create a particular moral system often led Nietzsche to direct ad hominem attacks towards some pretty famous thinkers. He used these personal attacks as a way to uncover the reasons behind why a certain philosophy exists in the first place, for he saw many men’s chosen philosophies not as objective, rational, or lofty, but as attempts to justify and downplay their natural weaknesses. For example, Nietzsche argued that Socrates’ quest to uncover an otherworldly and perfect Truth was merely the rationalizations of a man who was not only ugly but hated his life.
In many ways, Nietzsche took the opposite approach. Constitutionally weak, timid, and anxious, he could have developed a philosophy that centered his ideals on soft virtues and the life of the mind — standards that flattered himself. Instead, he championed strength, vitality, risk-taking, and boldness, knowing he couldn’t live up to those values himself, but firmly believing they represented the pinnacle of human potential.
He uses irony, sarcasm, and bombast. Many of the lines people point out to demonstrate that Nietzsche was off his rocker are in fact his attempts at adding a bit of humor into his work; he sought not only to lighten things up but also to jolt the reader into seeing things in a different light. In that sense, Nietzsche often played a role similar to that of modern day comedians when they humorously send up the absurdities of life.
You’ll also notice as you read that Nietzsche loved exclamation points. He’d be a pariah on Facebook. But the excessive use of exclamation points is just the philosopher trying to be larger than life. They also help drive the tempo of his writing, which makes the reading all the more engaging.
He is very fond of using aphorisms that reward contemplation. Nietzsche adopted a famously aphoristic style, and did so deliberately. Serving up insight in short, pithy packages accomplished two of Nietzsche’s goals: it prevented the immature and impatient from understanding him, while rewarding those willing to spend time in reflection. In other words, those who thought the sayings were too simple to hold much meaning overlooked their significance, while those who persistently chewed on them continued to glean further insight. Here are a few examples of Nietzsche’s aphorisms:
Courageous, untroubled, mocking and violent — that is what Wisdom wants us to be. Wisdom is a woman, and loves only a warrior.
One has only seen little of life, if one hasn’t also seen the hand that mercifully — kills.
No one is such a liar as the indignant man.
Once the decision has been made, to shut your ears even to the best counterarguments: a sign of a strong character. Also an occasional will to stupidity.
Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
What were the bigger ideas behind Nietzsche’s punchy aphorisms? To that we will turn next week.
Listen to our podcast on Nietzsche’s life and work:
What Nietzsche Really Said by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins
Nietzche’s Noble Aims by Paul Kirkland