Friedrich Nietzsche

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Western Philosophers
19th-century philosophy
Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882
Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882
Basic Information
Name Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Dates October 15, 1844August 25, 1900
Place of Birth Röcken bei Lützen, Saxony, Prussia
Place of Death Weimar, Germany
School/Tradition Existentialism
Major Works The Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Ecce Homo, The Gay Science, The Will to Power
Main Interests Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Aesthetics, Language
Influences Schopenhauer, Machiavelli
Influenced Jaspers, Iqbal, Heidegger, Sartre
Famous Ideas God is dead ("Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I." -The Gay Science §126)
Quote Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature - nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present - and it was we who gave and bestowed it.
-The Gay Science, §302
Philosophers By Era
Pre-Socratic, Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance
1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s

Postmodern, Contemporary

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844August 25, 1900) was a German philosopher and cultural critic (and - at least in his own estimation - a 'psychologist') who was by training and academic profession a classical philologist. Largely overlooked during his short working life (which ended with a mental collapse at the age of 44) - and frequently misunderstood and misrepresented thereafter - Nietzsche emerged during the second half of the 20th century as a highly significant figure in modern philosophy, and a thinker whose unconventional and often discomfiting ideas are still hotly debated.

Among the general public, Nietzsche is probably most well known for an often-heard, but less often attributed, quote which comes from his Twilight of the Idols: "Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."

As a philosopher, Nietzsche sought 'the transvaluation of all values' (i.e. their re-assessment in terms of their actual 'value for life'); claimed that he philosophised 'with a hammer' (to strike - and thus 'sound out' - hollow idols and empty pieties); and once declared 'I am not a man - I am dynamite. As part of his project, he would voice severe criticisms of Utilitarianism, contemporary Materialism, German Idealism, German Romanticism, many social and political aspects of contemporary modernity, and — perhaps most infamously — conventional (and especially 'Christian') morality. In fact. as Bertrand Russell points out in his History of Western Philosophy, Heraclitus may be the only philosopher Nietzsche discusses but does not criticise.

His championing of the struggle of the unique, autonomous, fully realised individual over the 'herd-values' of the allegedly anonymous, conformist and comfort-loving masses led him to the concept of the Übermensch; and his concern with the 'life-affirming' or 'life-denying' effects of the 'table of values' that 'hangs over every culture' produced the lurid - and, in its time, even shocking - declaration that 'God is dead!'. His central work is perhaps the influential as well as unclassifiable (novel? poem? treatise? religious text?) Also Sprach Zarathustra ('Thus Spoke Zarathustra'), in which philosophy is dispensed - and even preached - through the tale of a wandering sage (whose name is taken from the founder of ancient Zoroastrianism) and his encounters with various individuals and situations.

The undeniable brilliance and even virtuosity of Nietzsche's prose style (which abounds in the kind of aphorisms that have made him one of the most frequently quoted of all philosophical thinkers) has not prevented the spawning of radically incompatible, mutually contradictory interpretations of his meaning and of the conclusions that are to be drawn from it. Thus his work has been identified with Romanticism; with Nihilism; with anti-Semitism; and even with National Socialism - as well as with the vehement and specific opposition to each of these. In contemporary philosophy and literature, he is often cited, along with Søren Kierkegaard, as an inspiration for existentialism and postmodernism. His lifelong love of Michel de Montaigne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his constant referencing of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and his intense focus on human greatness (Grösse) have suggested to some that he can only be best and most properly understood in light of classical humanism.

In biographical terms, Nietzsche is of interest in view of his personal and ideological relationship (originally 'pro-'; later 'anti-') with the composer and activist Richard Wagner. His discussions of music are of significance in view of the fact that he was an amateur composer of some ability.


His Life

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864.
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1864.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in the small town of Röcken, which is not far from Lützen and Leipzig, within what was then the Prussian province of Saxony. He was born on the 49th birthday of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and was thus named after him. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a Lutheran pastor, who died of encephalomalacia in 1849, when Nietzsche was four years old. In 1850, Nietzsche's mother moved the family to Naumburg, where he lived for the next eight years before heading off to boarding school, the famous and demanding Schulpforta. Nietzsche was now the only male in the house, living with his mother, his grandmother, two paternal aunts, and his sister Elisabeth. As a young man, he was particularly vigorous and energetic. In addition, his early piety for Christianity is born out by the choir Miserere which was dedicated to Schulpforta while he attended.

After graduation, in 1864, he commenced his studies in classical philology and theology at the University of Bonn. After one year, he moved to the University of Leipzig, following Professor Friedrich Ritschl who soon became aware of Nietzsche's capabilities. Meanwhile, he had become a close friend of fellow student Erwin Rohde. Both of them were also admirers of Arthur Schopenhauer and the composer Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche first met in November, 1868. A brilliant scholar, he became special professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869, at the uncommon age of 24. Ritschl recommended to the faculty board that Nietzsche be given his doctorate without the typically required dissertation.

Friedrich Nietzsche in Basel, ca. 1875.
Friedrich Nietzsche in Basel, ca. 1875.

At Basel, Nietzsche found little satisfaction in life among his philology colleagues. He established closer intellectual ties with the historian Jakob Burckhardt, whose lectures he attended, and the atheist theologian Franz Overbeck, who remained his friend throughout his life. His inaugural lecture at Basel was Über die Persönlichkeit Homers (On Homer's Personality). He made frequent visits to the Wagners at Tribschen.

When the Franco-Prussian war erupted in 1870, Nietzsche left Basel and, being disqualified for other services due to his citizenship status, volunteered as a medical orderly on active duty. His time in the military was short, but he experienced much, witnessing the traumatic effects of battle and taking close care of wounded soldiers. He soon contracted diphtheria and dysentery and subsequently experienced a painful variety of health difficulties for the remainder of his life.

Upon returning to Basel, instead of waiting to heal, he pushed headlong into a more fervent schedule of study than ever before. In 1870, he gave Cosima Wagner the manuscript of The Genesis of the Tragic Idea as a birthday gift. In 1872, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy in which he denied Schopenhauer's influence upon his thought and sought a "philology of the future" (Zukunftsphilologie). A biting critical reaction by the young and promising philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, as well as its innovative views of the ancient Greeks, dampened the book's reception and increased its notoriety, initially. After it settled into the philological community, it found many rings of approval and exultations of Nietzsche's perspicacity. To this day, it is widely regarded as a classic piece.

In April, 1873, Wagner incited Nietzsche to take on David Friedrich Strauss. Wagner had found his book, Der alte und der neue Glaube, to be shallow. Strauss had also offended him by siding with the composer and conductor Franz Lachner, who had been dismissed on account of Wagner. In 1879, Nietzsche retired from his position at Basel. This was due either to his declining health or in order to devote himself fully toward the ramification of his philosophy which found further expression in Human, All-Too-Human. This book revealed the philosophic distance between Nietzsche and Wagner; this, together with the latter's virulent Anti-Semitism, spelled the end of their friendship.

From 1880, until his collapse in January, 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering existence as a stateless person, spending most of the summers in Sils-Maria (Engadin) and the winters in French and Italian cities like Nice, Rapallo, Genua and, finally, Turin.

After his mental breakdown, both his sister Elisabeth and mother Franziska cared for him. His fame and influence came later, despite (or due to) the interference of Elisabeth, who published selections from his notebooks with the title The Will to Power, in 1901, and maintained her authority over Nietzsche's literary estate after Franziska's death in 1897.

His mental breakdown

Nietzsche endured periods of illness during much of his adult life. In 1889, after the completion of Ecce Homo, his health rapidly declined until he collapsed in Turin. Shortly before his collapse, according to one account, he embraced a horse in the streets of Turin because it had been flogged by its owner. Thereafter, he was brought to his room and spent several days in a state of ecstasy writing letters to various friends, signing them "Dionysus" and "The Crucified." He gradually became less and less coherent and almost entirely uncommunicative. His close friend Peter Gast, who was also an apt composer, observed that he retained the ability to improvise beautifully on the piano for some months after his breakdown, but this too eventually left him.

The initial emotional symptoms of Nietzsche's breakdown, as evidenced in the letters he sent to his friends in the few days of lucidity remaining to him, bear many similarities to the ecstatic writings of religious mystics insofar as they proclaim his identification with the godhead. These letters remain the best evidence available for Nietzsche's own opinion on the nature of his breakdown. Nietzsche's letters describe his experience as a radical breakthrough in which he rejoices, rather than laments. Most Nietzsche commentators find the issue of Nietzsche's breakdown and "insanity" irrelevant to his work as a philosopher, for the tenability of arguments and ideas are more important than the author. There are some, however, including Georges Bataille, who insist that Nietzsche's mental breakdown be considered.

Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane and in the care of his sister Elisabeth. He was completely unaware of the growing success of his works. The cause of Nietzsche's condition has to be regarded as undetermined. Doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis because he lacked the typical symptoms. While the story of syphilis indeed became generally accepted in the twentieth century, recent research in the Journal of Medical Biography shows that syphilis is not consistent with Nietzsche's symptoms and that the contention that he had the disease originated in anti-Nietzschean tracts. Brain cancer was the likely culprit, according to Dr. Leonard Sax, director of the Montgomery Centre for Research in Child Development. Another strong argument against the syphilis theory is summarized by Claudia Crawford in the book To Nietzsche: Dionysus, I Love You! Ariadne. The diagnosis of syphilis is supported, however, in Deborah Hayden's Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. His handwriting in all the letters that he had written around the period of the final breakdown showed no sign of deterioration.

His Works and Ideas

Nietzsche is important as a precursor of 20th-century existentialism, an inspiration for post-structuralism and an influence on postmodernism. Much of Nietzsche's writings were either inspired by or in protest of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche's works helped to reinforce not only agnostic trends that followed Enlightenment thinkers, and the biological worldview gaining currency from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (which also later found expression in the "medical" and "instinctive" interpretations of human behaviour by Sigmund Freud), but also the "romantic nationalist" political movements in the late 19th century when various peoples of Europe began to celebrate archaeological finds and literature related to pagan ancestors, such as the uncovered Viking burial mounds in Scandinavia, Wagnerian interpretations of Norse mythology stemming from the Eddas of Iceland, Italian nationalist celebrations of the glories of a unified, pre-Christian Roman peninsula, French examination of Celtic Gaul of the pre-Roman era, and Irish nationalist interest in revitalizing the Irish language. Anthropological discoveries about India, particularly by Germany, also contributed to Nietzsche's broad religious and cultural sense.

Some people have suggested that Fyodor Dostoevsky may have specifically created the plot of his Crime and Punishment as a Christian rebuttal to Nietzsche, though this cannot be correct as Dostoevsky finished Crime and Punishment well before Nietzsche published any of his works. Nietzsche admired Dostoevsky and read several of his works in French translation. In an 1887 letter Nietzsche says that he read Notes from Underground (translated 1886) first, and two years later makes reference to a stage production of Crime and Punishment, which he calls Dostoevsky's "main novel" insofar as it followed the internal torment of its protagonist. In Twilight of the Idols, he calls Dostoevsky the only psychologist from whom he had something to learn: encountering him was "the most beautiful accident of my life, more so than even my discovery of Stendhal" (KSA 6:147).

Nietzsche is famous for:

  • his embrace of a sort of a-rationalism which found expression in the idea he called "the Will to Power" (der Wille zur Macht);
  • his rejection of morality, in which he felt partly reflected the inverse of the "will to power" and a perversion of useful altruism;
  • his attacks on Christianity: the most well-known and frequently misunderstood of his doctrines occurs with the phrase "god is dead" from a passage in The Gay Science titled "The Madman", and similarly is The Antichrist;
  • his belief that Christianity planted the seeds of its own eventual demise: Christian notions of truth and the absolute paved the way for rationalism, the Enlightenment and the scientific method, which make blind faith unthinkable for any educated person. Since Martin Luther and Kant, continuing through the Enlightenment, analytical and secular thinking had, he said, significantly replaced Christian theology as a social force and hence the statement "God is dead";
  • his origination of the Übermensch concept: translated as "overman", sometimes as "superman", which finally means "over-man" or "through-man" or, in German, "Hindurch-Mensch". There is no adequate English translation, and so each option also doubles as an interpretation of what Nietzsche meant by it. German über is identical with the Latin super;
  • his important early concept of "free spirit" that began in Human, All-Too-Human, which may be a starting point for the Übermensch concept;
  • his writings on the Eternal Recurrence, while he maintained a philosophical animosity toward its "paralyzing" and nihilistic nature, as a touchstone for the highest possible affirmation of life, of which his Zarathustra embodies.
  • his radical critique of 'truth' or more precisely the 'will to truth' led him to reject the stultifying and degenerating dogma of Socratism and Christianity, and to embrace perspectivism.

Nietzsche's Style

Nietzsche is unique among philosophers for what is widely regarded as the remarkable power and effectiveness of his prose style - particularly as manifested in Zarathustra. The indigestible 'heaviness' long associated with German-language philosophy is eschewed, with puns and paradoxes abounding, and aphoristic brevity rubbing shoulders with parable and even poem in his rhetoric. The end result is a manner of philosophical writing which, being "pitched half-way between metaphor and literal statement" is "something quite extraordinary" (J.P. Stern).

His work has been described as 'half philosophic, half poetic'; the fact that it can thus manage to convince the reader emotionally as well as intellectually is no doubt one reason for its appeal (especially among creative artists) - but it also means that the theory behind the metaphors is never fully or clearly written out.

One problem inevitably caused by this is that the boundaries of his thinking are not easily discerned: for example, many people not only feel that Nietzsche's term Übermensch conjures up the 'pure Aryan', but further assume that it must have been accompanied by the complementary lesser human or sub-human 'Untermensch' - whereas this latter term is in fact a creation of Nazi racial ideology.

Another vulnerability entailed by Nietzsche's style is that nuances and shades of meaning are very easily lost - and all too easily gained - in translation. Here the Übermensch is a case in point: the equivalent 'Superman' found in dictionaries and in the translations by Thomas Common and R.J. Hollingdale may create an unfortunate association with the heroic comic-character 'Superman' - while other logical alternatives which one might propose ('Over-human?' 'Above-human?' 'Super-human?' 'Beyond-human?') are either uselessly clumsy or smack of a 'political correctness' foreign to Nietzsche's outlook. Walter Kaufmann's 'Overman' would perhaps be more serviceable - were it not for the overtone of hierarchical authoritarianism which it introduces.

The "Will to Power"

One of Nietzsche's central concepts is the will to power. One possible interpretation of "will to power" is that it is a process of expansion and venting of creative energy that he believed was the basic driving force of nature. This interpretation would suggest that he believed it to be the fundamental causal power in the world, the driving force of all natural phenomena and the dynamic to which all other causal powers could be reduced. That is, according to this theory. Nietzsche in part hoped will to power could be a "theory of everything," providing the ultimate foundations for explanations of everything from whole societies, to individual organisms, down to mere lumps of matter. In contrast to the "theories of everything" attempted in physics, Nietzsche's was teleological in nature. However, Nietzsche's disavowal of teleology in general suggests that this might not be the best way to interpret what he meant by "will to power."

Nietzsche perhaps developed the will to power concept furthest with regard to living organisms, and it is there where the concept is perhaps easiest to understand. There, the will to power is taken as an animal's most fundamental instinct or drive, even more fundamental than the act of self-preservation; the latter is but an epiphenomenon of the former. This interpretation would align itself with a Neo-Kantian epistemology. That is, will to power, in this view, is the basic means through which living things "interpret" or interact with the world, and, in this sense, the world would be "will to power, and nothing else besides," not in metaphysical terms, but epistemological.

Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.Beyond Good and Evil

The will to power is something like the desire to exert one's will in self-overcoming, although this "willing" may be unconscious. Indeed, it is unconscious in all non-human beings; it was the frustration of this will that first caused man to become conscious at all. The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto says that "aggression" is at least sometimes an approximate synonym. However, Nietzsche's ideas of aggression are almost always meant as aggression toward oneself — a sublimation of the brute's aggression — as the energy a person motivates toward self-mastery. In any case, since the will to power is fundamental, any other drives are to be reduced to it; the "will to survive" (i.e. the survival instinct) that biologists (at least in Nietzsche's day) thought to be fundamental, for example, was in this light a manifestation of the will to power.

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.Beyond Good and Evil s.636, Walter Kaufmann translation.

Not just instincts but also higher level behaviors (even in humans) were to be reduced to the will to power. This includes both such apparently harmful acts as physical violence, lying, and domination, on one hand, and such apparently non-harmful acts as gift-giving, love, and praise on the other. In Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that philosophers' "will to truth" (i.e., their apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective truth) is actually nothing more than a manifestation of their will to power; this will can be life-affirming or a manifestation of nihilism, but it is will to power all the same.

[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power... 'Exploitation'... belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.Beyond Good and Evil s.259, Walter Kaufmann translation.

As indicated above, the will to power is meant to explain more than just the behavior of an individual person or animal. The will to power can also be the explanation for why water flows as it does, why plants grow, and why various societies, enclaves, and civilizations behave as they do.

It should be noted, however, that a biological interpretation of Will to Power such as this is but one of many possible - indeed, Nietzsche scholarship is replete with interpretations, largely due to Nietzsche's elusive style. Others might suggest that will to power is not really as central a concept in Nietzsche's thought. Indeed, it appears that Nietzsche himself might have agreed, when he suggests, in Ecce Homo, that his notion of eternal recurrence of the same is his most central thought, and the central theme of his magnum opus, Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Similar ideas in others' thought

With respect to the will to power, Nietzsche was influenced early on by Arthur Schopenhauer's concept of the "will to life" ('Wille zum Leben' - a kind of blind striving, underlying conscious thought and action, and of which the body itself is a manifestation), but he explicitly denied the identity of the two ideas and renounced Schopenhauer's influence in The Birth of Tragedy (his first book), where he stated his view that Schopenhauer's ideas were pessimistic and will-negating. Nietzsche also believed that the will to life is only one expression of the will to power.

Defense of the idea

Although the idea may seem harsh to some, Nietzsche saw the will to power — or, as he famously put it, the ability to "say yes! to life" — as life-affirming. Creatures affirm the instinct in exerting their energy, in venting their strength. The suffering borne of conflict between competing wills and the efforts to overcome one's environment are not evil (good & evil, for him, was a false dichotomy anyway), but a part of existence to be embraced. It signifies the healthy expression of the natural order, whereas failing to act in one's self-interest is seen as a type of illness. Enduring satisfaction and pleasure result from living creatively, overcoming oneself, and successfully exerting the will to power.


Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives; in today's terms, we might say his remarks pertain to meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.

As far as meta-ethics is concerned, Nietzsche can perhaps most usefully be classified as a moral skeptic; that is, he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" is illusory. (This is part of a more general claim that there is no universally true fact, roughly because none of them more than "appear" to correspond to reality). Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) are mere "interpretations."

Sometimes, Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what is moral or immoral. Note, however, that Nietzsche's moral opinions may be explained without attributing to him the claim that they are "true." For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it is false. On the contrary, he often claims that falsehood is essential for "life." Interestingly enough, he mentions a 'dishonest lie,' discussing Wagner in The Case of Wagner, as opposed to an 'honest' one, saying further, to consult Plato with regards to the latter, which should give some idea of the layers of paradox in his work.

In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality." Although he recognises that not everyone holds either scheme in a clearly delineated fashion without some syncretism, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality:

  • "good" and "bad" interpretations vs. "good" and "evil" interpretations
  • "aristocratic" vs. "part of the 'herd'"
  • determines values independently of predetermined foundations (nature) vs. determines values on predetermined, unquestioned foundations (Christianity).

These ideas were elaborated in his book On the Genealogy of Morals in which he also introduced the key concept of ressentiment as the basis for the slave morality.

The revolt of the slave in morals begins in the very principle of ressentiment becoming creative and giving birth to values — a ressentiment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge. While every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands, the slave morality says 'no' from the very outset to what is 'outside itself,' 'different from itself,' and 'not itself'; and this 'no' is its creative deed. (On the Genealogy of Morals)

Nietzsche's assessment of both the antiquity and resultant impediments presented by the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's monotheistic religions eventually led him to his own epiphany about the nature of God and morality, resulting in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche is also well-known for the statement "God is dead". While in popular belief it is Nietzsche himself who blatantly made this declaration, it was actually placed into the mouth of a character, a "madman," in The Gay Science. It was also later proclaimed by Nietzsche's Zarathustra. This largely misunderstood statement does not proclaim a physical death, but a natural end to the belief in God being the foundation of the western mind. It is also widely misunderstood as a kind of gloating declaration, when it is actually described as a tragic lament by the character Zarathustra.

"God is Dead" is more of an observation than a declaration, and it is noteworthy that Nietzsche never felt the need to advance any arguments for atheism, but merely observed that, for all practical purposes, his contemporaries lived "as if" God were dead. Nietzsche believed this "death" would eventually undermine the foundations of morality and lead to moral relativism and moral nihilism. To avoid this, he believed in re-evaluating the foundations of morality and placing them not on a pre-determined, but a natural foundation through comparative analysis.


In The Antichrist, Nietzsche attacked Christian pedagogy for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. He went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, who felt that Christianity was simply untrue. He claimed that it may have been deliberately propagated as a subversive religion (a "psychological warfare weapon" or what some would call a "memetic virus") within the Roman Empire by the Apostle Paul as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish War. However, in The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a remarkably high view of Jesus, claiming the scholars of the day fail to pay any attention to the man, Jesus, and only look to their construction, Christ. Nietzsche made the cryptic claim that "there was only one true Christian, and he died on the cross." According to the American writer H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche felt that the religion of the ancient Greeks of the heroic and classical era was superior to Christianity because it portrayed strong, heroic, and smart men as role models and did not try to demonize healthy natural desires such as eroticism, thirst for revenge, creativity and independence from social mores. According to at least one authority, the Slovenian scholar Anton Strle, Nietzsche lost his faith in the time he was reading the book Leben Jesu ('The Life of Jesus Critically Examined'), written by the German theologian David Strauss ('the incomparable Strauss', as Nietzsche later described him).


What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is Bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome. Not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness. The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle is our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance. What is more Harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity. —Nietzsche, The Antichrist.

During the First World War and after 1945, many regarded Nietzsche as having helped to cause the German militarism. The German right-wing didn't like Nietzsche's thought until the nazis. Nietzsche was popular among left-wing Germans in the 1890s. Many Germans read Thus Spake Zarathustra and were influenced by Nietzsche's appeal of unlimited individualism and the development of a personality. The enormous popularity of Nietzsche led to the Subversion debate in German politics in 1894/1895. Conservatives wanted to ban the work of Nietzsche. Nietzsche influenced the Social-democratic revisionists, anarchists, feminists and the left-wing German youth movement.

During the interbellum, various fragments of Nietzsche's work were appropriated by National Socialists, notably Alfred Bäumler in his reading of The Will to Power. During the period of Nazi rule, Nietzsche's work was widely studied in German (and, after 1938, Austrian) schools and universities. The Nazis viewed Nietzsche as one of their "founding fathers." They incorporated much of his ideology and thoughts about power into their own political philosophy (without consideration to its contextual meaning). Although there exists some significant differences between Nietzsche and Nazism, his ideas of power, weakness, women, and religion became axioms of Nazi society. The wide popularity of Nietzsche among Nazis was due partly to Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a Nazi sympathizer who edited much of Nietzsche's works.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche's thought largely stands opposed to Nazism. In particular, Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism (which partially led to his falling out with composer Richard Wagner) and nationalism. He took a dim view of German culture as it was in his time, and derided both the state and populism. As the joke goes: "Nietzsche detested Nationalism, Socialism, Germans and mass movements, so naturally he was adopted as the intellectual mascot of the National Socialist German Workers' Party." He was also far from being a racist, believing that the "vigour" of any population could only be increased by mixing with others. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says, "...the concept of 'pure blood' is the opposite of a harmless concept."

As for the idea of the "blond beast," Walter Kaufmann has this to say in The Will to Power: "The 'blond beast' is not a racial concept and does not refer to the 'Nordic race' of which the Nazis later made so much. Nietzsche specifically refers to Arabs and Japanese, Romans and Greeks, no less than ancient Teutonic tribes when he first introduces the term... and the 'blondness' obviously refers to the beast, the lion, rather than the kind of man."

While some of his writings on "the Jewish question" were critical of the Jewish population in Europe, he also praised the strength of the Jewish people, and this criticism was equally, if not more strongly, applied to the English, the Germans, and the rest of Europe. He also valorised strong leadership, and it was this last tendency that the Nazis took up.

While his use by the Nazis was inaccurate, it should not be supposed that he was strongly liberal either. One of the things that he seems to have detested the most about Christianity was its emphasis on pity and how this leads to the elevation of the weak-minded. Nietzsche believed that it was wrong to deprive people of their pain, because it was this very pain that stirred them to improve themselves, to grow and become stronger. It would overstate the matter to say that he disbelieved in helping people; but he was persuaded that much Christian pity robbed people of necessary painful life experiences, and robbing a person of his necessary pain, for Nietzsche, was wrong. He once noted in his Ecce Homo: "pain is not an objection to life."

Nietzsche often referred to the common people who participated in mass movements and shared a common mass psychology as "the rabble", and "the herd." He valued individualism above all else. While he had a dislike of the state in general, he also spoke negatively of anarchists and made it clear that only certain individuals should attempt to break away from the herd mentality. This theme is common throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

While it will thus be appreciated that a political 'flavour' is easy to discern in Nietzsche's writings, one must stress that his work does not in any sense propose or outline a 'political project'. The man who stated that 'The will to a system is a lack of integrity' was consistent in never devising or advocating a specific 'system' of governance - just as, being a champion of individual struggle and self-realisation, he never concerned himself with 'mass movements' or with the organisation of 'groups' and 'political parties' that bartered and haggled for political power. In this sense, Nietzsche could almost be called an anti-political thinker.

Nor can one easily speculate about what might have been his 'everyday' political preferences or reactions, since little documentation exists and he eschewed any political affiliation or label. There are some liberal tendencies in his beliefs, such as his distrust of strong punishment for criminals and even a criticism of the death penalty can be found in his early work. However, Nietzsche had much disdain for liberalism, and spent much of his writing contesting the thoughts of Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche believed that "Democracy has in all ages been the form under which organizing strength has perished," that "Liberalism [is] the transformation of mankind into cattle," and that "Modern democracy is the historic form of decay of the state"(Nietzsche, der Antichrist). Ironically, since World War II, Nietzsche's influence has generally been clustered on the political left, particularly in France by way of post-structuralist thought (Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Klossowski are often credited for writing the earliest monographs to draw new attention to his work, and a 1972 conference at Cérisy-la-Salle is similarly regarded as the most important event in France for a generation's reception of Nietzsche). However, in the United States, Nietzsche appears to have exercised some influence upon certain conservative academics (see, for example, Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom).

Nietzsche and women

Nietzsche's comments on women have provoked a great deal of discussion. Given modern sensitivities regarding the sexes and the rise of feminism, Walter Kaufmann has gone so far as to call these remarks an embarrassment. The fact that Nietzsche also mocked men and manliness has not saved him from the charge of sexism. However, the women he came into contact with typically reported that he was amiable and treated their ideas with much more respect and consideration than they generally expected from educated men in that period of time, amidst various sociological circumstances that continue to this day (e.g., patriarchy). Much of Nietzsche's commentary on women (and men) should be read in light of his revaluation of values and his continuing encouragements for humanity to reach for something higher - why, for example, push for women's involvement in politics when women can direct their energies toward something more? Moreover, some of his statements on women seem to prefigure the criticisms of postfeminism against prior feminisms, particularly those that claim prior feminisms do violence to women by positing and privileging Woman in their place.

Moreover, in this connection, Nietzsche was acquainted with the work On Women by Schopenhauer and was probably influenced by it to some degree. As such, some statements scattered throughout his works seem to attack women in a similar vein.

And, indeed, Nietzsche believed there were radical differences between the mind of men as such and the mind of women as such. "Thus," said Nietzsche through the mouth of his Zarathustra, "would I have man and woman: the one fit for warfare, the other fit for giving birth; and both fit for dancing with head and legs" (Zarathustra III. [56, "Old and New Tables," sect. 23.])—that is to say: both are capable of doing their share of humanity's work, with their respective physiological conditions granted and therewith elucidating, each individually, their potentialities. Of course, it is contentious whether Nietzsche here adequately or accurately identifies the "potentialities" of women and men.

There have been several scholarly attempts to address the woman question in Nietzsche's writing. Peter J. Burgard's Nietzsche and the Feminine and Frances Nesbitt Oppel's Nietzsche on Gender: Beyond Man and Woman both read Nietzsche's statements on women as being yet another series of word-games amongst word-games, meant to challenge the reader and incite inspection of the concepts involved. French post-structuralist theorist Jacques Derrida made a similar argument in his 'Spurs'.

Chronological List of Works

Writings and philosophy


  • De fontibus Laertii Diogenii
  • Über die alten hexametrischen Nomen
  • Über die Apophthegmata und ihre Sammler
  • Über die literarhistorischen Quellen des Suidas
  • Über die Quellen der Lexikographen



Note: This is not a complete list. A title not dated was composed during the same year as the title preceding it. Further information for many of the below listed works may be found at this site annotated within the time of their composition and this site (both depict Nietzsche's musical thought and development). Most songs available for listening are excerpts.

  • Allegretto, for piano, before 1858, listen
  • Hoch tut euch auf, chorus, December 1858
  • Einleitung (trans: Introduction), piano duet
  • Phantasie, piano duet, December 1859
  • Miserere, chorus for 5 voices, summer 1860
  • Einleitung (or: Entwürfe zu einem Weihnachtsoratorium), oratorio on piano, December 1861
  • Huter, ist die Nacht bald hin?, chorus (in fragments)
  • Presto, piano duet
  • Overture for Strings (?)
  • Aus der Tiefe rufe ich (?)
  • String Quartet Piece (?)
  • Schmerz ist der Grundton der Natur (?)
  • Einleitung, orchestral overture for piano
  • Mein Platz vor der Tur, NWV 1, solo voice and piano, autumn 1861, listen
  • Heldenklage, piano, 1862
  • Klavierstuck, piano
  • Ungarischer Marsch, piano
  • Zigeunertanz, piano
  • Edes titok (or: Still und ergeben), piano
  • Aus der Jugendzeit, NWV 8, solo voice and piano, summer 1862, listen
  • So lach doch mal, piano, August 1862
  • Da geht ein Bach, NWV 10b, listen
  • Im Mondschein auf der Puszta, piano, September 1862
  • Ermanarich, piano, September 1862
  • Mazurka, piano, November 1862
  • Aus der Czarda, piano, November 1862, listen
  • Das zerbrochene Ringlein, NWV 14, May 1863, listen
  • Albumblatt, piano, August 1863
  • Wie sich Rebenranken schwingen, NWV 16, summer 1863, voice and piano, listen
  • Nachlang einer Sylvestenacht, duet for violin and piano, January 2 1864, listen
  • Beschwörung, NWV 20, listen
  • Nachspiel, NWV 21, listen
  • Ständchen, NWV 22
  • Unendlich, NWV 23, listen
  • Verwelkt, NWV 24, listen
  • Ungewitter, NWV 25, 1864, listen
  • Gern und gerner, NWV 26, listen
  • Das Kind an die erloschene Kerze, NWV 27, listen
  • Es winkt und neigt sich, NWV 28, listen
  • Die junge Fischerin, NWV 29, voice and piano, June 1865, listen
  • O weint um sie, choir and piano, December 1865
  • Herbstlich sonnige Tage, piano and 4 voices, April 1867
  • Adel Ich muss nun gehen, 4 voices, August 1870
  • Das "Fragment an sich", piano, October 1871
  • Kirchengeschichtliches Responsorium, chorus and piano, November 1871
  • Manfred-Meditation, 1872, final ver. 1877, listen
  • Monodie à deux (or: Lob der Barmherzigkeit), piano, February 1873
  • Hymnus an die Freundschaft (trans: Hymn to Friendship; also: Festzug der Freunde zum Tempel der Freundschaft, trans: Festival of Friends at the Tempel of Friendship), piano, December 29 1874, listen
  • Gebet an das Leben (trans: Prayer to Life), NWV 41, solo voice and piano, 1882, text by Lou Andreas-Salome, listen
  • Hymnus an das Leben (trans: Hymn to Life), chorus and orchestra, summer 1887

On Hymn to Life

Oft-regarded to be idiosyncratic for a philosopher, Nietzsche accorded to his music that it played a role in the understanding of his philosophical thought. In particular, this was laden upon Hymn to Life and its circumstance is treated here in the following below. Parts of this song's melody were also used earlier in Hymn to Friendship. Friendship was conducted by Nietzsche at Bayreuth to the Wagners and, according to Cosima, had led to the first sign of a break with his friend Richard, in 1874.

Nietzsche states, after communicating the main idea of Zarathustra along with an aspect of his “gaya scienza,” in Ecce Homo: ...that Hymn to Life... —a scarcely trivial symptom of my condition during that year when the Yes-saying pathos par excellence, which I call the tragic pathos, was alive in me to the highest degree. The time will come when it will be sung in my memory (Walter Kaufmann). The composition Hymn to Life was partly done by Nietzsche in August/September 1882, supported by the second stanza of the poem Lebensgebet by Lou Andreas-Salome. During 1884, Nietzsche wrote to Gast: This time, 'music' will reach you. I want to have a song made that could also be performed in public in order to seduce people to my philosophy.

With this request the lied underwent substantial revision by “maestro Pietro Gasti” (Ecce Homo) to such an extent that it may be considered his own but he modestly denied all ownership. Thereafter, it was published under Nietzsche's name by E. W. Fritzsch in Leipzig as a first edition amid the summer of 1887, disregarding Hymn to Friendship. In October, Nietzsche wrote a letter to the German conductor Felix Motti, to whom he expresses about his composition Hymn to Life that which pertains to its high aesthetical import for his philosophical oeuvre: I wish that this piece of music may stand as a complement to the word of the philosopher which, in the manner of words, must remain by necessity unclear. The affect of my philosophy finds its expression in this hymn. :)

See also

God is dead | Arthur Schopenhauer | Emil Cioran | Franz Kafka | Gilles Deleuze | Heraclitus | Jacques Derrida | Jean-Paul Sartre | Johann Wolfgang von Goethe | Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach | Martin Heidegger | Max Stirner | Michel Foucault | Philipp Mainländer | Richard Wagner | Socrates | Søren Kierkegaard | Walter Kaufmann, Menno ter Braak


Criticism of Nietzsche

  • "Santayana's Criticism of Nietzsche." According to George Santayana, Nietzsche was "the belated prophet of romanticism" who preferred "the bracing atmosphere of falsehood, passion, and subjective perspectives" to truth.

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