Although born in the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche is arguably philosophy’s first postmodern thinker. By undermining objective truth with his theory of perspectivism, which draws attention to the inherent power interests at play when individuals assert knowledge, Nietzsche set the stage for the critical theory that followed. His willingness to attack humanity’s sacred cows and “reevaluate all values” — particularly Christianity, which he famously indicted as a theology of “slave morality” — inspired subsequent thinkers to emulate his irreverence. Foucault’s archaeology and Derrida’s deconstruction, to give but two examples, are unmistakable outgrowths of Nietzsche’s work.
Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Rocken, Germany. He shared both his October 15th birthday and his first and middle names with then Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm. His father Carl Ludwig, who passed away when Nietzsche was four, was a Lutheran minister. After Carl’s passing, Nietzsche was raised by his mother and his younger sister Elizabeth in Naumburg, Germany alongside his late father’s relatives.
Although Christian theology was Nietzsche’s best subject in primary school and his initial university major and career interest, Nietzsche lost his faith after reading David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which reduces Jesus’s miracles to myths. Also contributing to Nietzsche’s apostasy was Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, which relegates God to a projection of the human psyche. Writing to his sister in 1865 about his apostasy, Nietzsche declared:
“Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”
Thereafter, Nietzsche focused on philology, an academic discipline that analyzes history through language and literature. By his early 20s, Nietzsche was fluent in Greek and Latin and extremely well-read in the Western canon. Nietzsche also undertook a close study of Schopenhauer during this time. In 1869, in-between two insalubrious stints in the Prussian army, Nietzsche became the youngest-ever professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland at the age of 24.
Nietzsche held the post on and off for ten years until his poor health forced him to resign in 1879. Nietzsche suffered from a number of chronic illnesses throughout his life, including migraines, stomach issues, and problems with his vision. In an attempt to assuage his symptoms, Nietzsche sought out healthier climes and developed a routine of spending summers in Switzerland and winters in Italy or France.
As far as we know, Nietzsche never maintained a serious romantic relationship. The closest he got was in 1882, when he met the brilliant, free-spirited Lou Salome through his friend Paul Ree. Salome and Ree sought to establish an academic commune and invited Nietzsche to join them. Nietzsche instantly fell in love with Salome and proposed to her on three separate occasions but was rejected each time. Eventually, owing to this unrequited love, Ree and Salome had a falling out with Nietzsche and the two parted ways with him, never to reunite.
Nietzsche spent the remainder of his able life writing prolifically. Between 1878 and 1887, Nietzsche published one book per year. In 1888 — his final sane year — he produced five. Then, on the third day of January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a nervous breakdown in Turin, Italy from which he never recovered. One version of the story tells that Nietzsche witnessed a horse being flogged in the town square and ran over to protect it before collapsing to the ground.
Following the breakdown, Nietzsche issued a number of deranged correspondences to family and friends known as the “Madness Letters,” calling for war against Germany, the jailing of the Pope, and the murder of all anti-semites. His family and friends subsequently staged an emergency intervention. For the next eleven years, Nietzsche received both conventional and art therapy treatments for his condition, to no avail. Overtime, Nietzsche developed increasingly severe dementia. Finally, in 1900, he died of a stroke complicated by pneumonia. The true cause of his decline is a matter of speculation, attributed alternatively to syphilis, mercury poisoning, psychosis, and meningioma.
Tellingly, even premonitorily, Nietzsche wrote in Daybreak in 1881:
“All superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad.”
From his first published book, Nietzsche had already begun down this path. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche challenges the Enlightenment merits of rigid order and temperance personified by Apollo, the Greek god of light. While an ordering principle is valuable in giving form to a chaotic universe, its dry reason alone lacks the ability to affirm life. For that, Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, and ecstasy, is needed. The Greek tragic form, perfected by playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus, strikes a crucial balance between the Apollonian clarity of its instructive dialogues and the Dionysian revelry of its exuberant chorus music. The former teaches us about life while the latter rejoices in life’s joy and suffering alike. Nietzsche argues that it is only with the assistance of both Apollo and Dionysus that humanity may overcome the wisdom of Silenus, which contends that in light of life’s constant, inevitable sorrow, non-existence is preferable to existence.
This interest in overcoming philosophical pessimism is perhaps the central concern of Nietzsche’s work. Its most famous incarnation is the controversial statement first introduced in The Gay Science:
“God is dead.”
Nietzsche was convinced that modern historical and scientific discoveries had invalidated organized religion. As Nietzsche put it: “The belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable.” Importantly, Nietzsche affirmed this reality not with glee but deep concern. He recognized that the concept of God had hitherto “propped up” humanity, operating as its ethical authority and its source of meaning and purpose. Without God, humanity finds itself terrifyingly alone, lacking a moral compass, yea, lacking any sense of direction at all.
With its foundation destabilized, society risks falling into nihilism — the view that life and the universe are meaningless and without any inherent value. It is at this crucial point that humanity is faced with a choice. In a post-god world, people may opt for an ascetic existence, attempting to cope with existential void by renouncing life to the fullest extent possible. On the other hand, people may rise to the occasion of modern life and strive to create values and meaning anew. Nietzsche rejects the former approach, arguing that it promotes self-loathing and withdrawal from earthly endeavors — two activities that damage the psyche and prevent progress. Instead, he affirms the latter in an idea known as The Eternal Return:
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
With this thought experiment, Nietzsche dares us to imagine existence as a pointless, infinitely recurring loop and to embrace it anyway; to go through life over and over again, in all its misery, gladly. Nietzsche calls this attitude amor fati, or love of fate.
Nietzsche believes that it takes a special type of character to move beyond nihilism and welcome the Eternal Return. He uses his concept of the Ubermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra to describe such a character. The Ubermensch is a strong, fertile individual who recognizes humanity’s current limitations and works to transcend them. He is not afraid to break with tradition and question even the most sacred of values in service of this goal. The Ubermensch is said to regard humanity as “a rope over an abyss” that bridges the beasts of the past with the evolved beings of the future. Humanity as it exists today is not an end but a means to something better. As Nietzsche says, “Man is something that shall be overcome.”
Or ought to be overcome. Nietzsche warns of a force that could stymie this heroic progress: the “last man.” Such an individual is marked by complacency and passivity and possesses no ambition beyond subsistence living. The last man is the end result of, as Nietzsche says, unchecked “slave morality.”
To understand slave morality, one must first understand Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power. Nietzsche, a la Schopenhauer, theorized that all beings at their core seek to increase their power, to overcome obstacles in order to achieve their aims. This will to power is understood as the primary drive of all humans. Now, since values (in the absence of God) are human creations, and since all humans are subject to the will to power, Nietzsche contends that our truths and morals are not objective facts, but rather subjective perspectives that we adopt because they further our power interests. In other words, values come from self-interested individuals who assert values because they help them assert themselves in the world.
Nietzsche draws on this ethical relativism in On the Genealogy of Morality to explain how humanity’s morality has allegedly evolved, or rather devolved. For the Greeks and Romans, individual prosperity was the touchstone of moral uprightness. Attributes such as strength, health, and excellence were held in high regard for the wealth and power they begat. On the contrary, weakness, sickness, and mediocrity were considered base and pitied.
This system was turned on its head with the advent of Judeo-Christianity. Nietzsche argues that society’s slaves were envious of their masters’ superior looks, vigor, and intelligence. The slaves sought to neutralize their natural inferiority by enforcing an artificial equality. Nietzsche refers to this as ressentiment: when an individual or group is made to feel inferior by some object, they seek to destroy the object. The slaves thus began to extol former character flaws such as meekness, poverty, and charity as holy traits. Furthermore, they cast prior virtues as vices, shaming the successful for their alleged boastfulness, greed, and selfishness. Consequently, what was once bad became good, and what was once good became evil. By guilting the masters into submission, the slaves gradually dismantled master morality and replaced it with their own.
With this moral history, Nietzsche aims to expose the excesses of religiosity, which threaten to derail our development as a species. He argues that by vilifying exceptional individuals, slave morality impedes the well of innovation that moves humanity forward. Adding to the danger, Christianity teaches us to detach from this world and await a better life in heaven, breeding an apathetic populace and by extension a civilization in decline.
In promoting these ideas, Nietzsche did not assert the superiority of one nationality over another. On the contrary, Nietzsche was interested in abandoning the “small politics” of country versus country and embracing internationalism to move humanity forward as a whole. Unfortunately, Nietzsche gained the false reputation as a proto-Nazi due to his sister’s dishonest editing of Nietzsche’s unfinished work Will to Power to reflect her own anti-semitic ideology. The reality is that Nietzsche loathed both nationalism and antisemitism and frequently mocked his sister and her husband for their attempt to set up a Germanic colony in Paraguay. When Nietzsche was 24, he formally renounced his German citizenship in a letter that declared nationalism “a neurosis from which Europe is sick.” In 1886, he separated from his anti-semitic publisher Ernst Schmeitzner and called his operation an “anti-semitic dump.” He regarded anti-semitism as a “despicable” ideology born of Europeans’ resentment of Jewish success and a movement that should be “utterly rejected with cold contempt by every sensible mind.”
This language makes unequivocally clear that Nietzsche would have disavowed Hitler and his regime had he been alive to see it. Nietzsche was not a small-minded chauvinist but a secular humanist concerned with what he saw as humanity’s decadent trajectory. With his writings, he sought not to divide our species, but to uplift and unite it toward a common cause. More than anything, Nietzsche wished to show that adversity is something to be celebrated rather than condemned, as fulfillment lies in the act of overcoming.