On October 15th of 1844, one of the most controversial and influential philosophers of all time was born in Rocken, Prussia — which is now Germany. It was none other than Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who would go on to become a world-renowned atheist, futurist, existentialist, evolutionary psychologist, humanist and much, much more. He was the son of a devout Lutheran pastor, but Nietzsche ultimately came to despise Christianity. The radical philosopher felt that life was to be celebrated in the here-and-now, not merely endured in pious obedience until the afterlife. He was so convinced of this that at one point he even accurately predicted that modernity would come to replace spirituality in contemporary society. Nietzsche also knew that this would cause people to become mediocre so he developed methods of self-actualization and motivation to help everyone become who they were always meant to be. As such, throughout the years his brilliant words have influenced countless lives in nearly every conceivable way. Of course, it all came from a rocky start and eventually ended in disaster.
Nietzsche suffered from severe nearsightedness and bipolar disorder, which brought him great distress throughout the sane years of his life, until age 44 when he finally went mad like his father before him. Nietzsche’s father had gone crazy in the fall of 1848 when the boy was only just four years old. Then, within a year of that, his father had died. This severely traumatized Nietzsche at a very young age. So, having turned his back on his family’s faith, he searched desperately to find purpose in an otherwise meaningless existence. He struggled with how to cope with suffering, and how to be a good person. Nietzsche wanted to unlock the secret mysteries of personal empowerment. However, being manic-depressive, he read and wrote frantically when he was in periods of mania but did very little when he was in periods of depression. The rebellious young man became very antagonistic to authority, rejecting everything from divine command theory to democracy. Regardless, Nietzsche became an expert philologist in no time at all. In fact, he became the youngest person to ever hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869, when he was only 24 years old.
Years later, in 1881, Nietzsche retired from teaching and used his pension to become a full-time author in a small mountain retreat in Switzerland. The thing was that he could only write in short bursts punctuated by long breaks, for twenty minutes at a time during manic phases. The year after he retired, Nietzsche fell in love. He met a 21-year-old Russian girl named Lou Salome. He found her to be quite beautiful and very clever. They used to walk together for hours on end discussing every different kind of philosophy known to man. Friedrich Nietzsche liked her so much that he even asked his friend Paul Ree to propose to her on his behalf. Lou refused the offer from Friedrich by way of Paul, so Nietzsche became very distraught. Later, Nietzsche proposed to her yet again, only to be rejected once more. Lou Salome just wasn’t interested in being constrained in a conventional relationship, and Friedrich Nietzsche actually respected that in many ways. So, she became a muse for some of his ideas regarding individuality. All in all, he still loved her, although she drove a wedge between Nietzsche and his mother.
By 1883 Nietzsche’s suicidal thoughts began to get the best of him. It was at this time, during the deepest depression that he wrote what many consider to be his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Three years after that he published Beyond Good and Evil, then The Genealogy of Morals the year after that. Following this, he began what would have become The Transvaluation of Values only to realize the concept was flawed. In 1888 he became a highly introverted narcissistic megalomaniac. Then, following a lifetime of deconstructing and discrediting the notion of universal truth, Nietzsche started twitching and grimacing uncontrollably and the condition eventually gave way to full-blown dementia. Although his father was a blind invalid for 1 year before finally passing on, Nietzsche lasted 11 years after the affliction first took hold of him in 1889. Both men endured a terminal brain disease which caused them to experience rapid onset long-term declines in their physical and mental health. After having a total mental breakdown Nietzsche inevitably entered a vegetative state and had to be cared for by his mother back home. Then, in 1897 he was brought to live with his sister. It was as if the great philosopher had been driven mad by his own genius, but in reality, his brain just gradually deteriorated for about a decade. To make matters worse he started to become rather famous at the very end of his life, but he wasn’t even aware of that fact. Nietzsche never knew that he finally got the kind of recognition he had always wanted.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also got a lot of unwanted attention. After Nietzsche died from a stroke on August 25th of 1900, his sister Elisabeth became his literary executor. So, she took his old notebooks and began to edit them to better suit her own personal agenda as a sympathizer of the National-Socialists. In particular, she reworked some of the material from his failed meta-ethics project, The Transvaluation of Values. Elisabeth went against Friedrich’s original wishes and published disparate parts of the discarded work calling it The Will to Power. It was his last sane act not to circulate the ideas but she did anyway, and rather inaccurately at that. Along with this, propagandists also cherry-picked Nietzsche’s entire catalog of texts to create slogans in both WWI and WWII Germany. In this way, different takes on his philosophies have been used to destroy so many lives in so many different ways. This is quite unfortunate because, for one thing, in reality, Nietzsche was very much opposed to nationalism and antisemitism. So he would have loathed the Nazis. Not to mention what happened in WWI or the serial killers he inadvertently inspired. There are just far too many people who have twisted Nietzsche’s words for me to possibly mention them all.
In spite of the life that his work took on after his death, when you get right down to it, Nietzsche was a very important historical figure that has done a lot of good for the world in many different ways. Throughout his life, Nietzsche was influenced by a number of great thinkers, including but not limited to Heraclitus, Spinoza, Emerson, Darwin, and Schopenhauer. Then, after having stood on the shoulders of those giants he became one himself. Just as a few examples of who he has inspired throughout the years there was Heidegger, Jung, Derrida, Sartre, and Camus, to name but a few. It’s impossible to know just how much impact that Nietzsche has had on everything, for better or worse, but either way, the thing to remember is that he was a very significant writer. Nietzsche was one of the most famous thinkers in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries, and will likely continue on into the 22nd and beyond. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was one of the most intriguing philosophers to ever live, whether I agree with all the things he thought or not.
There is just so much of what Nietzsche wrote that is simply invaluable to humanity as a whole, but there is far too much of it to adequately describe in a short essay like this. So, I will just let the work speak for itself. Just to give but a few examples of Nietzsche’s statements, following is a brief sampling of quotes from his more prominent books.
The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
“Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.”
“Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art.”
Human, All Too Human (1878)
“It is not conflict of opinions that has made history so violent but conflict of belief in opinions, that is to say conflict of convictions.”
“He who cannot put his thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of dispute.”
The Gay Science (1882)
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”
“Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)
“Become who you are!”
“And once you are awake, you shall remain awake eternally. ”
Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.”
“The noble soul reveres itself.”
The Genealogy of Morals (1887)
“Man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.”
“We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers, and with good reason. We have never looked at ourselves.”
Of course, if you ask me, Nietzsche’s greatest contribution to the world would have to be what he called “eternal recurrence”. This is what he referred to very late in life as his “most abysmal thought”, but I think it was his most magnificent. It centers around a famous philosophical thought experiment in which Nietzsche basically just asks us to imagine that the afterlife is a continuous replay of life over and over again. In essence, the question he poses is this. When you die would everything you ever did altogether be worth repeating forever? When you think about it, that simple statement can actually help us understand what a life well lived is, and there couldn’t be anything more important than that. After all, finding out what to do and who to be is the ultimate aim of philosophy, isn’t it?