Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, b. Oct. 15, 1844, d. Aug. 25, 1900, was a German philosopher who, together with Soren Kierkegaard, shares the distinction of being a precursor of EXISTENTIALISM. He studied classics at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig, receiving his doctorate from the latter in 1869. Because he had already published some philological articles, he was offered the chair of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland before the doctorate was officially conferred on him.

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872; Eng. trans., 1968), Nietzsche presented a theory of Greek drama and of the foundations of art that has had profound effects on both literary theory and philosophy. In this book he introduced his famous distinction between the Apollonian, or rational, element in human nature and the Dionysian, or passionate, element, as exemplified in the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. When the two principles are blended, either in art or in life, humanity achieves a momentary harmony with the Primordial Mystery. This work, like his later ones, shows the strong influence of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as Nietzsche’s affinity for the music of his close friend Richard Wagner. What Nietzsche presented in this work was a pagan mythology for those who could accept neither the traditional values of Christianity nor those of Social Darwinism.

After resigning (1879) from his teaching position because of ill health, Nietzsche lived in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany for the next two decades, writing extensively. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85; Eng. trans., 1954), his most celebrated book, he introduced in eloquent poetic prose the concepts of the death of God, the superman, and the will to power. Vigorously attacking Christianity and democracy as moralities for the “weak herd,” he argued for the “natural aristocracy” of the superman who, driven by the “will to power,” celebrates life on Earth rather than sanctifying it for some heavenly reward. Such a heroic man of merit has the courage to “live dangerously” and thus rise above the masses, developing his natural capacity for the creative use of passion.

Although these ideas were distorted by the Nazis in order to justify their conception of the master race, to regard Nietzsche’s philosophy as a prototype of Nazism is erroneous. His criticism of the mediocrity and smugness of German culture led to a disintegration of his friendship with Richard Wagner as well as to a disassociation from his beloved Germany. To correct any misconceptions concerning the superman, Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil (1886; Eng. trans., 1967) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887; Eng. trans., 1968).

Nietzsche became increasingly deranged in his later years. In 1889 he suffered a severe breakdown, from which he never recovered. His later writings are particularly strident. Although more forceful than his earlier essays and books, they retain clear continuity with his earlier ideas. In the collection of essays published posthumously under the title The Will to Power (1901; Eng. trans., 1967), Nietzsche further developed his ideas of the superman and the will to power, asserting that humans must learn to live without their gods or any other metaphysical consolations. Like Goethe’s Faust, humans must incorporate their devil and evolve “beyond good and evil.”

Thomas E. Wren

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