Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Rocken, a small
town in the Prussian province of Saxony, on
October 15, 1844, into circumstances that offer
a striking contrast to his later thought. Ironically,
the philosopher who rejected religion and coined
the phrase "God is dead" was descended
from a line of respected clergymen.
Nietzsche completed his secondary education
at the exacting boarding school of Pforta.
A brilliant student, he received rigorous training
in Latin, Greek, and German. In 1864 the young
man entered the University of Bonn to study
theology and classical philology. A year later,
however, he abandoned theology and transferred
to the University of Leipzig to pursue a doctorate
in philology. At Leipzig Nietzsche became an
ardent admirer of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,
whose work he accidentally discovered in a
secondhand bookstore, and the composer Richard
Wagner, whom he met in 1868 and came to regard
as a second father.
In 1869, at the age of twenty-four,
Nietzsche was appointed professor of classical
philology at the University of Basel, where
he taught for the next ten years. The publication
in 1872 of his first major book, The Birth
of Tragedy, brought him immediate notoriety.
Dedicated to Wagner, it exploded the nineteenth
century conception of Greek culture and sounded
themes later developed by twentieth-century
philosophers, psychoanalysts, and novelists.
Nietzsche's next work, four essays collectively
titled Untimely Meditations (1873-76),
focused on contemporary issues and criticism.
Two attacked German "cultural philistinism"
and challenged the value of historical knowledge,
while tributes to Schopenhauer and Wagner were
at once reflections on philosophy and art.
"[I am] a man who wishes nothing more
than daily to lose some reassuring belief,
who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily
greater liberation of the mind," wrote
Nietzsche during this period. "It may
be that I want to be even more of a freethinker
than I can be." Indeed, Human All-too-Human
(1878) represented an entirely new direction
in his thought. Written in an aphoristic style
perfectly suited to Nietzsche's multifaceted,
iconoclastic beliefs, the work contains piercing
observations that lay bare the hidden motivations
underlying many aspects of human behavior.
(Freud remarked that Nietzsche's "premonitions
and insights often agree in the most amazing
manner with the laborious results of psychoanalysis.")
Subtitled "A Book for Free Spirits,"
Human All-too-Human also signaled the
beginning of Nietzsche's break with Wagner.
Two sequels, Mixed Opinions and Maxims
(1879) and The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880),
presented further investigations of psychological
Nietzsche resigned from his professorship in
1879 owing to chronic ill health; he had long
suffered from paralyzing migraine headaches,
and brief military service in the Franco-Prussian
War left him shattered. Afterward he existed
on a university pension as an unassuming gentleman
lodger at resorts in Italy, France, and Switzerland.
Yet his intellectual revolt continued unabated
over the next decade. Though almost constantly
in pain he produced, to quote Thomas Mann,
"stylistically dazzling books -- works
sparkling with audacious insults to his age,
venturing into more and more radical psychology,
radiating a more and more glaring white light."
In The Dawn (1881), another collection
of aphorisms, he exposed the prejudices of
European morality. The Gay Science (1882),
which Nietzsche regarded as his most personal
book, includes sustained discussions of truth,
art, and knowledge.
Then, in 1883 and 1884,
Nietzsche published the first three sections
of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; the fourth
part, completed in 1885, did not appear until
1892. Cast as a series of parables about a
prophet who proclaims the death of God and
challenges mankind to face its destiny, Zarathustra
is a mine of ideas and perhaps Nietzsche's
most popular work. "Zarathustra is in
a way a document of our time, and it surely
has much to do with our own psychological condition,"
noted Jung. "It is like a dream in its
representation of events. It expresses renewal
and self-destruction, the death of a god and
the birth of a god, the end of an epoch and
the beginning of a new one.... It is so paradoxical
that without the help of the whole equipment
of our modern psychology of the unconscious,
I would not know how to deal with it."
In his last productive years
Nietzsche turned out a number of landmark works.
Beyond Good and Evil, subtitled "Prelude
to a Philosophy of the Future," appeared
in 1886. The epitome of his prophetic, independent
thought, it remains "one of the great
books of the nineteenth century, indeed of
any century," according to Walter Kaufmann.
Nietzsche's sober, single-minded study on ethics,
On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), was
followed by The Case of Wagner (1888),
a brilliantly sarcastic polemic that endures
as one of his wittiest books. In 1888 he wrote
The Anti-christ, a final assault on
institutional Christianity, and compiled Nietzsche
contra Wagner; a brief selection of passages
from earlier works. (Both were brought out
in 1895.) Twilight of the Idols (1889),
a grand declaration of war on many ideas of
the age, is a final formulation of Nietzsche's
opinions that underscores his inherent optimism.
In January 1889 Nietzsche collapsed on a street
in Turin, Italy, and from that moment he rapidly
descended into insanity. He remained in a condition
of mental and physical paralysis until his
death in Weimar on August 25, 1900. The following
year Nietzsche's sister published The Will
to Power; which he had abandoned in 1888.
Ecce Homo, the philosopher's exuberant,
passionate analysis of his life and work, came
out in 1908.