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Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th Century Philosopher

Friedrich Nietzscheís philosophic quotations have been heard, and perhaps quoted, by many of us. 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger', is just one of many.

A completely different example, 'A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love', is perhaps less known nevertheless equally timeless, but how much do we know about the complicated man behind the quotations, Friedrich Nietzsche.

A German born philosopher whose diverse fans have included Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Charles De Gaulle, Jean-Paul Satre, Hitler and Jim Morrison, Friedrich Nietzscheís influence on 20th and 21st philosophy is irrefutable.

He was born on October 15 in 1844 near Leipzig in Saxony, Prussia, a part of the German Federation of States. The first born son of a Lutheran pastor, with both parents descended from long lines of Lutheran clergymen.

Aged five when his father died, a year later after his younger brother had also died the family moved to the paternal family home, in the wine growing region of Naumburg an der Saale, where he had a strongly religious childhood.

Continuing the family tradition Nietzsche, (pronounced Nee tcha), began theological studies combined with classical philology at Bonn University, however after his initial term in 1864, having lost his faith, he focused on philology, the interpretation of biblical and classical texts.

The first of his many and varied manuscripts was published during his time at Leipzig University where he had followed his former Bonn philology professor, and, as Europe was going through one of its periodical questionings of authority, tradition and beliefs, he was inspired to further his studies into the sphere of philosophy.

Without a completed PhD and aged only 24 Nietzsche accepted tenure as Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel and moved to Switzerland, from where, despite having renounced his Prussian statehood, he became a medical orderly volunteer with the Naumburg division of the Prussian artillery during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war.

While in Basel he resumed contact with the composer Richard Wagner, whose music he had admired as a boy at school and had met while in Leipzig. Wagner became a close friend and had a strong influence upon Nietzsche and his way of thinking.

Something that Nietzsche acknowledged even after their friendship had ended, as he had become disenchanted with the composerís antisemitism, idealism of suffering, and the poor quality of both the performances and audiences of the 1876 Bayreuth Festival.

Nietzsche's always fragile health was further weakened by illnesses during his year as a medical orderly, and by 1879 had declined to such an extent that keeping his Basel professorship was impossible. He became a traveler, living and writing profusely wherever in Europe there was a climate to improve his health, it was while staying in Venice that the ex-theology studentís first real criticisms of Christianity began, "God is dead" being a well documented and often repeated phrase.

Although certainly anti-Christian his thoughts appear to be more that modern science was at the time questioning everything so the world needed new thought and interpretations, and in addition his viewpoint was "people always talk of their 'faith', but act according only to their instincts", and this was something he could not accept.

He writes in his book 'The Antichrist', "there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross". In his opinion it was Christ, an imperfect human being, who had shown mankind how to live, whereas religion supported instead only doctrines and unquestioning commitment.

Perhaps due to his challenging style of writing, common agreement regarding the analysis, understanding and importance of Nietzsche's books, studies and essays, which were mainly unread in his life time, remains limited.

Despite his academic reputation, and because of his anti-Christian attitude, his application for a post with the University of Leipzig was rejected, and it was made clear to him that as his opinions were considered unacceptable there was no future for him within Germany.

It is said that in January 1889, in Turin, Nietzsche saw a coachman whipping a horse and ran to protect the animal. While throwing his arms around its neck he fell down to the ground and suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

For the last years of his life Nietzsche lived with his mother Franziska until her death in 1897 then with his sister Elizabeth, and although he probably understood little about it it was during this time that his reputation began to rise.

After a series of strokes had left him unable to speak or walk he died from pneumonia on August 25th 1900, aged 56.

Paradoxically, although Nietzsche had openly and continually attacked Christianity for a great deal of his adult life, Elizabeth arranged a Christian funeral at the church in the town where he had been born, and it was there in the family grave and alongside the father who had died 51 years previously that he was buried.


Some of Friedrich Nietzsche's quotations


Photo of Nietzsche in 1882 by Gustav-Adolf Schultze via Wikimedia

The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) - A brilliant introduction to the insightful, witty, and sometimes cynical, writings of Nietzsche, which explore a wide range of subjects, ranging from friendship and Christianity to dancing and war. Walter Kaufmann, who edited and translated the book, has also added interesting extra background information as well as analyzing many of the pieces. An excellent way to become familiar with Nietzsche, his life, philosophy and writing.


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