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Nietzsche: The thinker who exploded the philosophy world

Sven Töniges
August 25, 2020

When Friedrich Nietzsche died 120 years ago, he missed the chance to enjoy fame — and notoriety — that was just beginning to grow. His radical thinking continues to influence the intellectual world to this day.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Image: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

"I am not a human being, I am dynamite," Friedrich Nietzsche boastfully wrote in his autobiography Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. The philosopher did, in fact, forcefully impact Western thought. "God is dead … and we have killed him": While shortened, this is one of the many quotations that earned Nietzsche fame and notoriety among the ranks of philosophic thinkers.

Ironically, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born to a Lutheran minister in 1844 in Röcken, a village in Saxony-Anhalt near the Saxon city of Leipzig. He began studying Protestant theology in Bonn but soon switched to classical philology, later moving to Leipzig to continue his studies. At age 24, he took up a post as a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel. After a marked decline in health, Nietzsche was forced to take leave and in 1879, he resigned his professorship at Basel altogether. From then on, he was free to focus on developing his philosophical ideas and writing.

Nietzsche's own signature
Nietzsche's own signatureImage: imago images/Design Pics

His first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), united his deep respect for the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer with the music of composer Richard Wagner. Nietzsche had met Wagner while studying in Leipzig and was profoundly influenced by him, viewing the composer as somewhat of a redeemer. 

Nietzsche's radical critique of religion

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche was already sketching out the core of his thinking. In the slender book of 25 concise chapters, he formulated his view of the world, drawing on his studies of Greek thought, his love of music and his appreciation of Schopenhauer and Wagner. He expressed a deep mistrust in the reliability of words and texts: "There are no facts, only interpretations" is a famous Nietzsche quote. This fundamental critique of language, among other things, was later enthusiastically taken up by postmodern thinkers.

A close-up of a 'Nietzsche duck' pointing the way to a special section in the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar
The Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar is home to a 'Nietzsche duck'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Reichel

Nietzsche also scrutinized Christianity. His critique of religion culminated in the biting polemic The Antichrist (1888), in which Nietzsche — in short — makes Christianity and theology responsible for all the evils of the Western world.

However, Nietzsche experts warn against regarding the author himself as anti-Christian. Instead, there is much to suggest that Nietzsche wanted to redeem Christianity through his deduction. This is another example of the bold approach on the part of the thinker, who, according to his own statements, "took no prisoners" in his writings — so much so that he even titled one of his works How to Philosophize with a Hammer (otherwise known as Twilight of the Idols, 1888).

A variety of ailments

Was the radicalism of Nietzsche's writings a product of progressive mental and neurological decline? The philosopher suffered from severe migraines for many years; a stomach ailment caused him trouble and later, he went nearly blind.

After he increasingly began sending letters and slips of paper that indicated madness, he was institutionalized in psychiatric clinics, first in Basel and later in Jena. From 1889 onward, he suffered from mental illness that rendered him unfit to work and legally incompetent. He spent the rest of his life under the care of his mother and then his sister, dying on August 25, 1900, at the age of 55.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as painted by Edvard Munch in 1906
Friedrich Nietzsche, as painted by Edvard Munch in 1906Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Nietzsche was not able to consciously enjoy his fame, which had begun to spread in the early 1890s. As sole heir, Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche administered her brother's writings and estate. Perhaps partly out of ignorance and partly deliberately, she published a rather selective collection of his writings, compiling and taking liberties where she saw fit.

Expressionists discovered Nietzsche's power of speech, particularly celebrating his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85). Later, German Nazis and fascists, such as Italian dictator and Nietzsche fan Benito Mussolini, usurped Nietzsche terms like "the will to power," thereby leading to the perception of the philosopher in post-war Germany as being ideologically linked to totalitarianism. 

Nietzsche was rediscovered by Italian and French philosophers such as existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Later, thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze referred to Nietzsche in their own work. "Every type of metal can be found in the mine of this thinker," warned Giorgio Colli, an Italian philosopher and co-editor of Nietzsche's works. He also cautioned against carelessly appropriating the work of the famous philosopher: "Nietzsche said everything — and the opposite of everything!"


Adaptation: Louisa Schaefer