Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, to give his full baptismal name, was born in the little village of Rocken, October 15, 1844. His father, a Lutheran clergyman of scholarly and musical tastes, suffered a severe fall when the child was four years old, and died after a short period of mental aberration. In 1850 the widow went with her son and her daughter Elisabeth to live with her husband's mother and sister in Naumburg-an-der-Saale. There Friedrich grew to be a solemn, thoughtful boy, nicknamed by his comrades "the little pastor." "With his sister and one or two friends he raised about himself a fantastic world of the imagination, in which he played many heroic roles. Yet always he felt himself alone and set apart. "From childhood," he wrote in his boyish journal, "I sought solitude, and found my happiness there where undisturbed I could retire into myself."
At the age of fourteen he received a scholarship at the school of Pforta, situated on the Saale about five miles from Naumburg. In this cloistered institution, where the ancient discipline of the Cistercian founders still prevailed over its Protestant curriculum, Nietzsche acquired that thorough grounding in the classics which served him later in his philological studies; and for a while he felt in his heart the influence of the religious, almost monastic life. But the spirit of weariness and rebellion soon supervened. "The existence of God," he wrote in an exercise for a literary society, "immortality, the authority of the Bible, Revelation, and the like, will forever remain problems. I have attempted to deny everything: ah, to destroy is easy, but to build up!" And further: "Very often submission to the will of God and humility are but a covering mantle for cowardly hesitation to face our destiny with determination." -- So early was the boy preluding to the life-work of the man.
At Pforta, Nietzsche had become intimate with Paul Deussen (afterwards the eminent Oriental scholar and disciple of Schopenhauer), and with Deussen and another friend he began his university career at Bonn. But from his comrades there he soon fled, "like a fugitive," he says, and went to Leipzig. These were his days of Sturm und Drang. Here he came under the influence that was to shape his whole literary career. Chancing one day at a bookshop on a copy of The World as Will and Representation, he heard as it were a daemon whispering in his ear: "Take the book home with you." This was his Tolle, lege; the message had found him. Rebel as he might in later years against Schopenhauer's pessimistic doctrine of blind, unmeaning will; try as he might to construct a positive doctrine out of that blank negation, he never got the poison out of his blood. Much of the pose and lyric misanthropy of Zarathustra is really an echo of what he read in his room on that fateful day. It is probable, too, that his careful use of language is partly due to the influence of Schopenhauer. In Leipzig also he met the man who was to be the great joy and the great torment of his life. One memorable evening, at the house of a friend, he was introduced to Wagner, heard him play from the Meistersinger, and learnt that the "musician of the future" was a disciple of Schopenhauer.
Meanwhile he had not neglected his classical studies and had already published several philological essays in the Rheinisches Museum. In 1869, through the recommendation of his master and friend, Ritschl, he was appointed Professor of Philology in the University of Basle, and took up his residence in the Swiss town, not without misgivings over his youth and his unfitness for the routine of teaching. Nevertheless, he threw himself into the task with zeal and was, in the beginning at least, successful with the students.
At that time Richard and Cosima Wagner were living in seclusion at Triebschen on the lake of the Four Cantons, not far from Lucerne, while the master was completing his great tetralogy. Here Nietzsche renewed the acquaintance which had been begun at Leipzig, and was soon deeply absorbed in Wagner's ideas and ambitions. "I have found a man," he wrote in a letter after his first visit to Triebschen, "who more than any other reveals to me the image of what Schopenhauer calls 'genius,' and who is quite penetrated with that wonderful, fervent philosophy.... No one knows him and can judge him, because all the world stands on another basis and is not at home in his atmosphere. In him rules an ideality so absolute, a humanity so profound and moving, an earnestness of life so exalted, that in his presence I feel myself as in the presence of the divine." Under the sway of this admiration Nietzsche wrote and published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he broke lance with the pedantic routine of philology as then taught in the universities, and held up the Wagnerian opera as a reincarnation of the spirit of Greek tragedy and as the art of the future. "Anything more beautiful than your book I have never read! all is noble!" was the comment of the complaisant master. Nietzsche always maintained that those were the happiest days of his life; for a little while he was excited out of imprisoning egotism and caught up into another egotism greater than his own. But the cause of his happiness was also the cause of its instability. No doubt the scandalous rupture between the two friends was due in part to philosophical differences, for in the Wagnerian opera Nietzsche came later to see all the elements of romantic idealism which were most abhorrent to him. But deeper yet lay the inevitable necessity that two personalities, each of which sought to absorb the world into itself, should separate with fire and thunder. In his last days Nietzsche insinuated that there had been love between him and Cosima, but this was no doubt a delusion of madness. The friendship and quarrel are easily explained as a tragic and humorous incident of romanticism.
But to return to Basle. The routine of university life soon became irksome to Nietzsche. He felt within himself the stirring of a new philosophy, to develop which he needed leisure and independence. His health, too, began to alarm him. In one of the recesses of his Leipzig years he had been drafted into a Prussian regiment of artillery, despite his exemption due to short sight, and had served reluctantly but faithfully, until released on account of an injury caused by falling from his horse. His strength was never the same after that, though the seat of his disease was deeper than any accidental hurt. At Basle he began to suffer severely from insomnia and various nervous ailments, and at last, in 1879, he broke his connection with the university, and went out into the world to seek health and to publish his new gospel.
For a while he lived with his sister, and projected with her great schemes for a kind of monastic seminary, wherein a few noble spirits, dissatisfied with the world and, needless to add, devoted to himself, should dwell together and from their studious seclusion pour out a stream of philosophy to regenerate society. After his sister left him -- they parted not on the best of terms -- he passed his time in Italy and Switzerland. He was always a lover of the mountains, and especially in the pure air of the Engadine he found temporary relief for the ills of the body and refreshment of spirit after contact with unsympathetic mankind. He walked much, and his later books -- with the exception of Zarathustra, which possesses some thread of composition -- are not much more than miscellaneous collections of pensees jotted down as they came to him by the way. A flattering portrait of him in these lonelier years was drawn by his enthusiastic disciple, Fraulein Meta von Salis-Marschlins, in her Philosoph und Edelmensch. Not all was yet cloud and gloom about his brooding soul, and the Superman was still capable of gay comradeship and of the most approved German revery over the beauties of nature. His conversation, when he felt at ease, was copious and brilliant But he was slipping more and more into bitter, self-consuming solitude. "I have forty-three years behind me," he wrote one day, "and am as alone as if I were a child."
The end was unrelieved darkness. With the neglect or vilification of his books, with the alienation of one friend after another, and with the growth of the taint in his blood, his self-absorption developed into fitful illusions and downright megalomania. His last work he called Ecce Homo, and to Brandes, the well-known critic, he wrote:
Friend George,-- Since you have discovered me, it is not wonderful to find me: what is now difficult is to lose me.
Revised February 3, 2001