Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th Century Philosopher

By Francine McKenna on Email

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophic quotations have been heard, and perhaps quoted, by many of us. ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’, is just one of many. A completely different example, ‘A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love’, is perhaps less known nevertheless equally timeless, but how much do we know about the complicated man behind the quotations, Friedrich Nietzsche?  A German born philosopher whose diverse fans have included Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Charles De Gaulle, Jean-Paul Satre, Hitler and Jim Morrison.  Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on 20th and 21st philosophy is irrefutable.

October 15 is the anniversary of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s (pronounced Nee tcha) birth, in 1844 near Leipzig, Saxony, in Prussia part of the German Federation of States. The first-born son of a Lutheran pastor, with both parents descended from long lines of Lutheran clergymen.  Aged five when his father died a year later, after his younger brother had also died, the family moved to the paternal family home in the wine growing region of Naumburg an der Saale where he had a strongly religious childhood.

Continuing the family tradition Nietzsche began theological studies combined with classical philology at Bonn University in 1864 however, having lost his faith, after his initial term he focused on philology, the interpretation of biblical and classical texts.

The first of his many and varied manuscripts was published during his time at Leipzig University where he had followed his Bonn philology professor, and as Europe was going through one of its periodical questionings of authority, tradition and beliefs at this point it inspired him to further his studies into the sphere of philosophy.

Without a completed PhD and aged only 24 Nietzsche accepted tenure as Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel and moved to Switzerland, from where, despite having renounced his Prussian statehood, he became a medical orderly volunteer with the Naumburg division of the Prussian artillery during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war.  While in Basel he resumed contact with the composer Richard Wagner, whose music he had admired as a boy at school and had met while in Leipzig, and who, until he became disenchanted with the composer’s anti-Semitism, idealism of suffering and the poor quality of both the performances and audiences of the 1876 Bayreuth Festival, became a close friend and had a strong influence upon Nietzsche and his way of thinking. Something that Nietzsche acknowledged even after their friendship had ended.

Nietzsche’s always fragile health was further weakened by illnesses during his year as a medical orderly, and by 1879 had declined to such an extent that keeping his Basel professorship was impossible. He became a traveler, living and writing profusely wherever in Europe there was a climate to improve his health, it was while staying in Venice that the ex-theology student’s first real criticisms of Christianity began, ‘God is dead’ being a well documented and often repeated phrase.

Although certainly anti-Christian his thoughts appear to be more that modern science was at the time questioning everything so the world needed new thought and interpretations, and in addition his viewpoint was “people always talk of their ‘faith’, but act according only to their instincts”, and this was something he could not accept.  He writes in his book ‘The Antichrist’, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”. In his opinion it was Christ, an imperfect human being, who had shown mankind how to live, whereas religion supported instead only doctrines and unquestioning commitment.

However, perhaps due to his challenging style of writing, common agreement regarding the analysis, understanding and importance of Nietzsche’s, mainly unread in his life time, books, studies and essays remains limited.  Despite his academic reputation and because of his anti-Christian attitude his application for a post with the University of Leipzig was rejected, and it was made clear to him that his opinions were considered unacceptable so there was no future for him within Germany.

It is said that in January 1889, in Turin, Nietzsche saw a coachman whipping a horse so ran to protect the animal, and throwing his arms around its neck fell down to the ground, experiencing a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

For the last years of his life Nietzsche lived with his mother Franziska until her death in 1897 then with his sister Elizabeth, and, although he probably understood little about it, it was during this time that his reputation began to rise.  After a series of strokes had left him unable to speak or walk he died from pneumonia on August 25th 1900, aged 56. Paradoxically, although Nietzsche had openly attacked Christianity for a great deal of his adult life, Elizabeth arranged a Christian funeral at the church in the town where he had been born, and it was there in the family grave and alongside the father who had died 51 years previously that he was buried.


Top photo by SPDP via flickr

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Francine McKenna