The Life of Nietzsche
It was a propitious day: October 15, 1844. As if the family blood line could no
longer endure another pastor, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the firstborn son of Carl
Ludwig Nietzsche and Franziska Oehler, was at last born; it was in the presbytery of Röcken,
a region of Saxony annexed by Prussia. When Friedrich was baptized on the 24th of October,
his father read aloud from Luke 1:66: “Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking,
‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.” The church bells surely rang out in
honor of him, though they could not know whom they were honoring . . .
It seems fittingly paradoxical that the man who would announce the death of God, and later refer to himself as the
anti-Christ and pose as Dionysus in opposition to the Crucified, would come forth from a lineage of devout believers.
The church, in a sense, gave birth to its fiercest opponent and one of the most influential and dynamic philosophers of
the modern age. “The Protestant pastor is the grandfather of German philosophy . . .” (The Antichrist, s. 10).
On Nietzsche's father's side, the men had been pastors since the early 17th century, and only one born of such a spiritual
lineage would have the coruscating insight which Nietzsche had into the nature of religion; even several men on the
maternal side of the family were pastors, too. In 1849, when Nietzsche was but five, his father died of softening of the brain
(encephalitis or apoplexy).
Speculations have been made that he had syphilis, which the philosopher may have acquired congenitally, or later in a brothel,
while other scholars dispute this claim. The loss of his father in his youth and his own physical sufferings, whatever their origin,
would have an effect on the development of his philosophy and the manner in which he endured suffering, loss, and death.
Shortly after this death, his younger brother died, leaving him and his sister Elisabeth as the sole children of the family.
In his youth, aside from the expected religious instruction, Nietzsche began studying Latin, Greek, German literature, and
classical works at Pforta. He composed music and poetry, and wrote essays on philology and literature for Germania. During
this time, he developed a passion for writing, a mode of self-discipline, a fervor for music, and while suffering from severe if
not excruciating headaches and vision problems (he had been diagnosed with myopia of varying grades and aniscoria when he was only
four years of age), struggled for self-mastery while learning to overcome many deaths (in his youth, his Aunt Auguste and his grandmother,
Erdmuthe, both of whom lived with the family, died). Hölderlin, who was not well-known or revered at the time, was one of Nietzsche's favorite poets
(Byron was another); he had written on essay on him, revealing even in his youth a certain iconoclasm; his professor found this essay disconcerting,
and encouraged the young Nietzsche to develop interest in less fevered and saner writers. Paul Deussen, who later became a renown scholar of Sanskrit and with whom
it is probable Nietzsche frequently discussed Buddhism, was one of Nietzsche's few close friends during this period. Deussen was also the son of a pastor,
and as Nietzsche, expected to follow in the footsteps of his father; however, though they were confirmed together in March of 1861, they had more of an
enthusiasm for ancient Greece and poets such as Anacreon.
While engaged at Pforta, Nietzsche, along with his friends Wilhelm Pinder and Gustav Krug, formed Germania, a club devoted to poetry, music, and
scholarship. During their monthly meetings, they would each contribute a work. Nietzsche's early contributions concerned music and later poetry,
and it was here where he would have the first audience for his thoughts. In the meantime, Nietzsche's headaches and eye condition intensified,
and beginning roughly in the spring of 1862, a spiritual crisis erupted due to religious doubts. In a later letter to his sister Elisabeth, Nietzsche remarked, “If you wish to strive for peace of
soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire” (June 11, 1865). Nietzsche later claimed that while at Pforta he ceased to utter the blessing at meals
(in spring of 1865 he chose to forgo attending church services) and was seriously considering a musical career, as his passion for music remained a primary force.
In 1864, he would leave Pforta, his last literary act there being an essay on the Greek poet Theognis; by this time, Nietzsche chose to become a philologist.
In the fall of 1864, Nietzsche, along with Deussen, began
studying classical philology first in Bonn, then in Leipzig.
With his background in Greek and Latin literature, Nietzsche
already had a firm foundation on which to base his commitment
to this discipline. One of his professors, Friedrich Ritschl,
who would be a mentor to Nietzsche, was an established scholar
in Latin literature and was the world expert on Plautus.
At the University of Bonn, Nietzsche attended both theology
and philology classes; though he had not abandoned the study
of theology altogether, he pursued with great interest Greek
literature, art and philosophy, history, and history of art,
focusing in particular on Greek tragedies and Theognis. During
this time he continued to compose songs and music, and encountered
Strauss's controversial book, The Life of Jesus, Reworked
for the German People; his religious crisis was on the
verge of a turning point, from which many conflicts arose
at home, especially with his mother.
The legendary Cologne brothel episode dates from this period,
which many find to be proof for Nietzsche’s contraction of syphilis. Nietzsche,
who claimed he was dumbstruck before the women (a street
porter brought him there mistakenly after Nietzsche asked
to be taken to ‘interesting sights’), thought only the piano
had any spirit, and approaching it, struck a few improvisatory
chords, which freed him from his paralysis, and left the establishment
at once. Some might expect the “disciple of Dionysis” to have freely indulged himself, but that perhaps is a distorted view of the Dionysian philosopher for whom self-mastery is just as vital. At the year’s end, he left Bonn for Leipzig, a move
encouraged by Ritschl’s own move to Leipzig
In Leipzig, Nietzsche continued his work on Theognis,
worked closely with Ritschl, and was part of a student philological
club initiated by Ritschl. Nietzsche worked closely on Aeschylus’
texts, wrote an essay on Diogenes Laertius, and many other
articles and reviews which make up the Philologica. During
the Leipzig years, Nietzsche's first, or major philosophical
awakening came with his discovery of Schopenhauer, whose philosophy
would present entire new perspectives of viewing the world
and leave him with many striking questions. He read The World
as Will and Representation carefully and enthusiastically,
internally debating with the philosopher while blending his
knowledge of classical literature with his own lived experiences
of philosophical issues; Erwin Rohde, a colleague and friend
of Nietzsche's, also shared his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer.
Another significant influence on Nietzsche's philosophical
evolution during this period was F.A. Lange’s History of Materialism
(1866), and in the midst of these intellectual developments,
Nietzsche began to consider teaching, encouraged by the encomiums
of his professors, who said he had great pedagogical talents.
Moreover, he was making efforts to improve his prose style
and, under the influence of Lichtenberg and Schopenhauer,
began to write aphorisms.
In 1867, Nietzsche was compelled to join the Prussian Army, interrupting his philological work for one year. During his time in the military, he injured himself while mounting a horse and was eventually declared ‘unfit for service’ and released from further duties. Nietzsche became familiar with Kantian philosophy while in the army through Kuno Fischer, a neo-Kantian. He started writing a philosophical essay, “Teleology since Kant,” which he thought would be his doctoral dissertation, but this project did not materialize. Shortly after his return to Leipzig, he gave a lecture to the philological society, but his loyalty was suddenly split between philology and philosophy. In this last year in Leipzig,
two great events took place in Nietzsche's life. In the beginning of the academic year, he met and became friends with Richard Wagner, whose works he had been familiar with. And in the beginning of 1869 Nietzsche was chosen to be Professor Extraordinarius at Basel University through the influence of Ritschl, who recommended him with great accolades.
At twenty-four, he would become an associate professor before completing his doctorate.
In his youth, Nietzsche had aspired to be a musician prior to taking up the path of philology; he composed lieder and solo piano works, but did not develop his musical talent as would a professional musician. Thus to meet Wagner, one of the eminent cultural figures of his time, was an exhilarating experience; two weeks prior to his first encounter with Wagner in Leipzig in November of 1868, Nietzsche, who had been familiar with the composer’s music since his youth, said that in particular the Overture to Die Meistersinger and the Prelude to Tristan created and sustained in him “the feeling of being carried away.” Wagner was also the same age as Nietzsche’s long deceased father, to whom the musician bore a striking resemblance; they also shared common interest in Schopenhauer, whom Wagner said was the only philosopher who understood the essence of music. Wagner also wrote works on art, religion, and politics, and their mutual interest in Greek tragedy led to many fruitful discussions on the significance of art and its place in life. These would have a great impact on Nietzsche’s first book. However, their relationship, which started so amicably, would end in a rupture due to artistic, philosophical,
and personal conflicts and differences.
On April 13, 1869, Nietzsche left Naumburg for Basel and renounced
his German citizenship. Though he lived in Switzerland for
some time, residency requirements kept Nietzsche from actually
becoming a Swiss citizen, thus he remained stateless, living
the very life of one separate from state, nation, and politics
as he exemplified in his philosophy. It was not only spiritually,
but physically that he would and always be a “Good
as a professor (he would remain an ‘academic’ for but ten
years), Nietzsche presented his inaugural lecture, which was
on “Homer and Classical Philology.” During his time there,
he taught classical Greek, continued to present public lectures,
engaged in dialogue with colleagues and met frequently with
Wagner and his wife Cosima, who lived not far from him at
Tribschen, which he referred to as the “Isle of the Blessed.”
Nietzsche also met Jacob Burckhardt, the well-known historian
of culture, who taught history of ancient Greek culture at
Basel (his work was published posthumously as Die Griechische
Kulturgeschichte). Burckhardt had the keen sense of a
historian and an astute understanding of the inner dynamics
of ancient cultures, and this complemented Nietzsche's attempt
at an interpretation of ancient Greek civilization. Nietzsche
and Burckhardt attended each other’s lectures and had long
discussions on Greek culture, which also surely influenced
Nietzsche’s first work. While at Basel, Nietzsche also befriended
Franz Overbeck, the Christian theologian, and Heinrich Köselitz,
a student of Nietzsche's, who later became an opera composer
under the pseudonym Peter Gast. He functioned as Nietzsche’s
amanuensis, editing his writings and proofreading galleys;
towards the end of Nietzsche’s life, it was said that Gast
was the only person capable of deciphering the philosopher’s
hand-writing. During his time as a professor, Nietzsche taught
Greek tragedies, Greek poetry, and Plato and the pre-Platonic
philosophers. In the meantime, he was working towards a major
publication and writing essays to that end; these essays would
later form the bulk of Nietzsche's first book, The
Birth of Tragedy, whose original title was Ursprung
und Ziel der Tragödie [Origin and Goal of Tragedy], published