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Friedrich Nietzsche

Who was Friedrich Nietzsche?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a brilliant philosophical iconoclast whose devastatingly direct critical writing style might in itself have qualified him as an existentialist. More substantively, though, was how he developed critiques of bourgeois culture, Christianity, empirical reason, and altruistic morality from the standpoint of a protesting individual who was grander, smarter, more creative, and in odd ways for a much later readership, "hipper" than those who championed accepted values of the time. While Dostoyevsky and others had criticized modernity in the hope of a return to more conservative religious values, Nietzsche looked ahead to coming generations, who would use science as an art to transcend the dreariness of Western history.

How did Friedrich Nietzsche's life presage his philosophy?

The great irony is that in life Nietzsche was very unlike his heroes, either those of the aristocratic past that he so admired, or of the new age of knowledge and courage that he heralded. His life began in a somewhat sheltered way in Prussia. His father, a Lutheran minister and the son of a Lutheran minister, died when he was four of what the doctors called "softening of the brain." His mother, Franziska, was only 18 when Friedrich was born; she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Contrary to Nietzsche's belief that his forebears were Polish noblemen, many of them were butchers.

Friedrich Nietzsche was more forward thinking than many of his contemporaries, rejecting many of the values of his time (BigStock Photos).

Friedrich Nietzsche was more forward thinking than many of his contemporaries, rejecting many of the values of his time (BigStock Photos).

When Nietzsche was six, his younger brother died, and he, his mother, and his sister moved to Naumburg. Nietzsche grew up in a household consisting of his mother and sister, his paternal grandmother, and two unmarried aunts. Biographers have remarked that this allfemale environment was detrimental to his psychological health as an adult. They have referred to this environment in trying to make sense of the hostility Nietzsche displayed toward women in some of his writings, such as this from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885): "When thou goest to woman, take thy whip."

At boarding school, Nietzsche suffered from migraines. He was inspired by the poetry of Johann Hölderlin, who had gone insane, so this was not considered a "healthy" subject by Nietzsche's teachers.

Nietzsche studied theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn, but only philology at the University of Leipzig. He served briefly in the army from 1867 to 1868, and was discharged after a chest injury, which was incurred when he landed on the pommel of his saddle while mounting. When he was only 24, his teachers considered him so promising that he was appointed associate professor of classical philology at Basel. Nietzsche moved to Basel, became a Swiss subject, and, in 1869, a full professor.

In 1870 he received leave to serve as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, returning to Basel with both dysentery and diphtheria. He received his doctorate in 1873 and resigned from his academic position in 1879 for health reasons. After that, he continued to write and to travel for nine years.

What are some of Friedrich Nietzsche's important works?

Nietzsche's principal works consist of 10 books, which are universally held to be a major achievement. His most famous works include The Birth of Tragedy (1872), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (released in four parts from 1883 to 1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and The Anti-Christ (1888). Not to be forgotten is Ecce Homo, or Behold the Man (1888),

What was the nature of Nietzsche's disability?

Much controversy swirls around this question. There is evidence that he was treated for syphilis at Leipzig, while being kept ignorant of the diagnosis. He is believed to have had tertiary syphilis when he died. It is not clear when Nietzsche might have caught this disease, since he lived an ascetic life, but it was perhaps the result of visiting a brothel only once or twice while he was a student.

Nietzsche's health was poor throughout his life. His eyesight was weak and he had gastro-intestinal pains that he treated himself by walking and by taking a plethora of pills. In January 1889, Nietzsche broke down in a street in Turin, his arms around a horse that had been beaten. Over the next few days, he wrote demented letters to his friends, claiming to have been "crucified by German doctors in a very drawn-out manner," and ordering the Emperor of Germany to report to Rome so that he could be shot. His friends brought him back from Italy, and his mother put him in a clinic in Jena. The treatment was unsuccessful, though, and his mother brought him home.

In 1893, his sister, Elisabeth, returned from Paraguay, where her husband had committed suicide. She took charge of the editing and publication of Nietzsche's manuscripts and isolated him from his friends. When their mother died in 1897, Elisabeth brought Nietzsche to Weimar, where she allowed people to see him. Nietzsche was not communicative, but she had him dressed up anyway, so that she could display him. He was by then very famous.

which he dedicated to Voltaire and in which Nietzsche included his own endearing essay about his own works, "Why I Write Such Good Books" (1888).

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