Nietzsche, Friedrich
(1844–1900)
Born in Prussia, the son of a Lutheran minister who died insane four years later, Nietzsche spent the years of childhood with his mother, sister, grandmother, and two maiden aunts. In 1858 he entered boarding school, and in spite of poor health went on to study theology and classical philology at the university of Bonn, and then removed to Leipzig, where he became influenced by Kant, Schopenhauer, and the composer Richard Wagner. A year in the army in 1868 was cut short by illness, but his intellectual distinction was such that in 1869 he was appointed to the chair in philology at Basel, although at the time he was only 24 years old, and had none of the formal qualifications usually required (Leipzig happily gave him his doctorate without requiring any examination or thesis). Nietzsche's first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872, trs. as The Birth of Tragedy ) introduces the famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian spirit in Greek life and thought. The work is, amongst other things, a challenge to the Buddhist resignation of Schopenhauer, since creating the Apollonian response to the terrors of Dionysius is something positive, active, and heroic rather than apathetic and passive. Nietzsche's next writings, from 1873 to 1876, are the four ‘Untimely Meditations’ (Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen ); the last of these is especially significant as signalling Nietzsche's break with the composer Richard Wagner, partly because of the latter's nationalism and anti-Semitism, partly because of what Nietzsche saw as the soggy Christianity of the opera Parsifal, and partly because Wagner was not appreciative of Nietzsche's own flirtation with the French Enlightenment . In 1879, Nietzsche resigned from the university because of his chronic ill health, and on a modest pension devoted the rest of his time to writing. Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (1878–80, trs. as Human, All too Human ) was the first of the aphoristic books, followed by Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879, trs. as Mixed Opinions and Aphorisms ), and Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880, trs. as The Wanderer and His Shadow ). Morgenröte. Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile (1881, trs. as The Dawn: Reflections on Moral Prejudices ) and Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882, trs. as The Gay Science ) begin the crucial exploration of self-mastery, the relations between reason and power, and the revelation of the unconscious strivings after power that provide the actual energy for the apparent self-denial of the ascetic and the martyr. It was during this period that Nietzsche's failed relationship with Lou Salomé precipitated the emotional crisis from which Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–5, trs. as Thus Spake Zarathustra ) signals a recovery. This work is frequently regarded as Nietzsche's masterpiece. It was followed by Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1887, trs. as Beyond Good and Evil ), Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887, trs. as The Genealogy of Morals ), and other minor works. In 1889 Nietzsche collapsed on a street in Turin, unable to bear the sight of a horse being flogged, and for the remaining years of his life was clinically insane. It is generally accepted that during the years towards his death (and after it) his sister and guardian or nurse, Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche, played a role in muddying the channels of Nietzsche's influence on German life.
Nietzsche is unchallenged as the most insightful and powerful critic of the moral climate of the 19th century (and of what of it remains in ours). His exploration of unconscious motivations anticipated Freud . He is notorious for stressing the ‘will to power’ that is the basis of human nature, the ‘resentment’ that comes when it is denied its basis in action, and the corruptions of human nature encouraged by religions, such as Christianity, that feed on such resentment. But the powerful human being who escapes all this, the ‘ Übermensch ’, is not the ‘blond beast’ of later fascism ; it is a human being who has mastered passion, risen above the senseless flux, and given creative style to his or her character. Nietzsche's free spirits recognize themselves by their joyful attitude to eternal return . He frequently presents the creative artist rather than the warlord as his best exemplar of the type, but the disquieting fact remains that he seems to leave himself no words to condemn any uncaged beasts of prey who best find their style by exerting repulsive power over others. This problem is not helped by Nietzsche's frequently expressed misogyny, although in such matters the interpretation of his many-layered and ironic writings is not always straightforward. Similarly, such anti-Semitism as has been found in his work is balanced by an equally vehement denunciation of anti-Semitism, and an equal or greater dislike of the German character of his time.
Nietzsche's current influence derives not only from his celebration of the will, but more deeply from his scepticism about the notions of truth and fact. In particular, he anticipated many of the central tenets of postmodernism : an aesthetic attitude towards the world that sees it as a ‘text’; the denial of facts; the denial of essences; the celebration of the plurality of interpretations and of the fragmented self; as well as the downgrading of reason and the politicization of discourse. All awaited rediscovery in the late 20th century. Nietzsche also has the incomparable advantage over his followers of being a wonderful stylist, and his perspectivism is echoed in the shifting array of literary devices—humour, irony, exaggeration, aphorisms, verse, dialogue, parody—with which he explores human life and history.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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