Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (b. 15 October 1844 in Röcken near Leipzig, Kingdom of Saxony, German Confederation; d. 25 August 1900 in Weimar, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, German Empire) was a German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, philologist, as well as and Latin and Greek scholar, whose work has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history, who published intensively in the 1870s and 1880s.
He is famous for uncompromising criticisms of traditional European morality and religion, as well as of conventional philosophical ideas and social and political pieties associated with modernity. Many of these criticisms rely on psychological diagnoses that expose false consciousness infecting people’s received ideas; for that reason, he is often associated with a group of late modern thinkers who advanced a “hermeneutics of suspicion” against traditional values. Nietzsche also used his psychological analyses to support original theories about the nature of the self and provocative proposals suggesting new values that he thought would promote cultural renewal and improve social and psychological life by comparison to life under the traditional values he criticized.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, named after King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, was born into, and largely remained within, the Bildungsbürgertum, a sort of highly cultivated middleclass. By the time he was a teenager, he had been writing music and poetry. His aunt Rosalie gave him a biography of Alexander von Humboldt (de) for his 15th birthday, and reading this inspired a love of learning "for its own sake". The schools he attended, the books he read, and his general milieu fostered and inculcated his interests in Bildung, or self-development. Nietzsche attended a boys' school and then a private school, where he became friends with Gustav Krug and Wilhelm Pinder, all three of whom came from highly respected families. Academic records from one of the schools attended by Nietzsche noted that he excelled in Christian theology. In 1854, he began to attend Dom-Gymnasium in Naumburg. Because his father had worked for the state (as a pastor) the now-fatherless Nietzsche was offered a scholarship to study at the internationally recognized Schulpforta. He studied there from 1858 to 1864, becoming friends with Paul Deussen and Carl von Gersdorff. He also found time to work on poems and musical compositions. Nietzsche led "Germania", a patriotic music and literature club, during his summers in Naumburg. At Schulpforta, Nietzsche received an important grounding in languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French—so as to be able to read important primary sources; he also experienced for the first time being away from his family life in a small-town conservative environment.
He began military service (Einjährig-Freiwilliger) in October 1867 in the cavalry company of an artillery regiment, sustained a serious chest injury while mounting a horse in March 1868, and resumed his studies in Leipzig in October 1868 while on extended sick leave from the military. During the years in Leipzig, Nietzsche discovered Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, met the great operatic composer Richard Wagner, and began his lifelong friendship with fellow classicist Erwin Rohde (author of Psyche).
Nietzsche sought refuge in music, writing a number of compositions strongly influenced by Robert Schumann, the German Romantic composer. Nietzsche began his career as a philologist before turning to philosophy. At the age of 24. he became Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. He resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life; he completed much of his core writing in the following decade. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Leipzig University in March 1869. Nietzsche's 1870 projected doctoral thesis, "Contribution toward the Study and the Critique of the Sources of Diogenes Laertius" ("Beiträge zur Quellenkunde und Kritik des Laertius Diogenes"), examined the origins of the ideas of Diogenes Laërtius. Though never submitted, it was later published as a Gratulationsschrift ('congratulatory publication') in Basel.
In 1870, the patriotic Nietzsche volunteered as a Krankenpfleger (nurse) in the Franco-Prussian War. In addition, after the founding of the Reich on January 18, 1871, Nietzsche complained about the lack of intellectual unity in Germany alongside the political unity that had just been achieved. In 1889, at age 45, he suffered a collapse and afterward a complete loss of his mental faculties, with paralysis and probably vascular dementia. He lived his remaining years in the care of his mother until her death in 1897 and then with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche.
- Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken (near Leipzig), where his father was a Lutheran minister. His father died in 1849, and the family relocated to Naumburg, where he grew up in a household comprising his mother, grandmother, two aunts, and his younger sister, Elisabeth. Nietzsche had a brilliant school and university career, culminating in May 1869 when he was called to a chair in classical philology at Basel. At age 24, he was the youngest ever appointed to that post. His teacher Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl wrote in his letter of reference that Nietzsche was so promising that “He will simply be able to do anything he wants to do” (Kaufmann 1954: 8). Most of Nietzsche’s university work and his early publications were in philology, but he was already interested in philosophy, particularly the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Albert Lange. Before the opportunity at Basel arose, Nietzsche had planned to pursue a second Ph.D. in philosophy, with a project about theories of teleology in the time since Kant.
- When he was a student in Leipzig, Nietzsche met Richard Wagner, and after his move to Basel, he became a frequent guest in the Wagner household at Villa Tribschen in Lucerne. Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner (and Cosima Liszt Wagner) lasted into the mid-1870s, and that friendship—together with their ultimate break—were key touchstones in his personal and professional life. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), was not the careful work of classical scholarship the field might have expected, but a controversial polemic combining speculations about the collapse of the tragic culture of fifth-century Athens with a proposal that Wagnerian music-drama might become the source of a renewed tragic culture for contemporary Germany. The work was generally ill-received within classical studies—and savagely reviewed by Ulrich Wilamovitz-Möllendorff, who went on to become one of the leading classicists of the generation—even though it contained some striking interpretive insights (e.g., about the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy). Following the first book, Nietzsche continued his efforts to influence the broader direction of German intellectual culture, publishing essays intended for a wide public on David Friedrich Strauss, on the “use of history for life”, on Schopenhauer, and on Wagner. These essays are known collectively as the Untimely Meditations.
- Although he assisted in early planning for Wagner’s Bayreuth project and attended the first festival, Nietzsche was not favorably impressed by the cultural atmosphere there, and his relationship with the Wagners soured after 1876. Nietzsche’s health, always fragile, forced him to take leave from Basel in 1876–77. He used the time to explore a broadly naturalistic critique of traditional morality and culture—an interest encouraged by his friendship with Paul Rée, who was with Nietzsche in Sorrento working on his Origin of Moral Sensations (see Janaway 2007: 74–89; Small 2005). Nietzsche’s research resulted in Human, All-too-human (1878), which introduced his readers to the corrosive attacks on conventional pieties for which he became famous, as well as to a style of writing in short, numbered paragraphs and pithy aphorisms to which he often returned in later work. When he sent the book to the Wagners early in 1878, it effectively ended their friendship: Nietzsche later wrote that his book and Wagner’s Parsifal libretto crossed in the mail “as if two swords had crossed” (EH III, HH, 5).
- Nietzsche’s health did not measurably improve during the leave, and by 1879, he was forced to resign his professorship altogether. As a result, he was freed to write and to develop the style that suited him. He published a book almost every year thereafter. These works began with Daybreak (1881), which collected critical observations on morality and its underlying psychology, and there followed the mature works for which Nietzsche is best known: The Gay Science (1882, second expanded edition 1887), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–5), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and in the last year of his productive life Twilight of the Idols (1888) and The Wagner Case (1888), along with The Antichrist and his intellectual biography, Ecce Homo, which were published only later. At the beginning of this period, Nietzsche enjoyed an intense but ultimately painful friendship with Rée and Lou Salomé, a brilliant young Russian student. The three initially planned to live together in a kind of intellectual commune, but Nietzsche and Rée both developed romantic interest in Salomé, and after Nietzsche unsuccessfully proposed marriage, Salomé and Rée departed for Berlin. Salomé later wrote an illuminating book about Nietzsche (Salomé  2001), which first proposed an influential periodization of his philosophical development.
- In later years, Nietzsche moved frequently in the effort to find a climate that would improve his health, settling into a pattern of spending winters near the Mediterranean (usually in Italy) and summers in Sils Maria, Switzerland. His symptoms included intense headaches, nausea, and trouble with his eyesight. Recent work (Huenemann 2013) has convincingly argued that he probably suffered from a retro-orbital meningioma, a slow-growing tumor on the brain surface behind his right eye. In January 1889, Nietzsche collapsed in the street in Turin, and when he regained consciousness he wrote a series of increasingly deranged letters. His close Basel friend Franz Overbeck was gravely concerned and travelled to Turin, where he found Nietzsche suffering from dementia. After unsuccessful treatment in Basel and Jena, he was released into the care of his mother, and later his sister, eventually lapsing entirely into silence. He lived on until 1900, when he died of a stroke complicated by pneumonia.
- During his illness, his sister Elisabeth assumed control of his literary legacy, and she eventually published The Antichrist and Ecce Homo, as well as a selection of writing from his notebooks for which she used the title The Will to Power, following Nietzsche’s remark in the Genealogy (GM III, 27) that he planned a major work under that title. The editorial work was not well founded in Nietzsche’s surviving plans for the book and was also marred by Elisabeth’s strong anti-Semitic commitments, which had been extremely distressing to Nietzsche himself. As a result, The Will to Power leaves a somewhat misleading impression of the general character and content of the writings left in Nietzsche’s notebooks. That writing is now available in an outstanding critical edition (KGA, more widely available in KSA; English translations of selections are available in WEN and WLN.)
- Nietzsche’s life has been the subject of several full-length biographies (Hayman 1980, Cate 2002, Safranski 2003, Young 2010, Prideaux 2018), as well as speculative fictional reconstructions (Yalom 1992); readers can find more details about his life and particular works in the entry on Nietzsche’s Life and Works and in the articles comprising the first three parts of Gemes and Richardson (2013), as well as in Meyer (2019), which treats the publication strategy of Nietzsche’s “middle period” works (HH, D, GS).
Nietzsche died in 1900, after many strokes and pneumonia. After his death, his sister Elisabeth became the curator and editor of Nietzsche's manuscripts.
- Nietzsche once wrote that some men are born posthumously, and that is certainly true in his case. The history of philosophy, theology, and psychology since the early 20th century is unintelligible without him. The German philosophers Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger laboured in his debt, for example, as did the French philosophers Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Existentialism and deconstruction, a movement in philosophy and literary criticism, owe much to him. The theologians Paul Tillich and Lev Shestov acknowledged their debt, as did the “God is dead” theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer; Martin Buber, Judaism’s greatest 20th-century thinker, counted Nietzsche among the three most-important influences in his life and translated the first part of Zarathustra into Polish. The psychologists Alfred Adler and Carl Jung were deeply influenced, as was Sigmund Freud, who said of Nietzsche that he had a more-penetrating understanding of himself than any man who ever lived or was ever likely to live. Novelists like Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, André Malraux, André Gide, and John Gardner were inspired by him and wrote about him, as did the poets and playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and William Butler Yeats, among others. Nietzsche’s great influence is due not only to his originality but also to the fact that he was one of the German language’s most-brilliant prose writers.
Nietzsche's parents, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813–1849), a Lutheran pastor and former teacher, and Franziska, née Oehler (1826–1897), married in 1843, the year before their son's birth. They had two other children: a daughter, Therese Elisabeth Alexandra Förster-Nietzsche (10 July 1846 – 8 November 1935); and a second son, Ludwig Joseph, born in 1848. Nietzsche's father died from a brain ailment in 1849; Ludwig Joseph died six months later at age two. The family then moved to Naumburg, where they lived with Nietzsche's maternal grandmother and his father's two unmarried sisters. After the death of Nietzsche's grandmother in 1856, the family moved into their own house, now Nietzsche-Haus, a museum and Nietzsche study center.
Quotes (small selection)
- “Behold, I bring you the Superman! The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beg of you my brothers, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!”
- Übermensch: In his 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also sprach Zarathustra), Nietzsche has his character Zarathustra posit the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself. The Übermensch represents a shift from otherworldly Christian values and manifests the grounded human ideal. In 1896, Alexander Tille made the first English translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, rendering Übermensch as "Beyond-Man". In 1909, Thomas Common translated it as "Superman", following the terminology of George Bernard Shaw's 1903 stage play Man and Superman. Walter Kaufmann lambasted this translation in the 1950s for two reasons: first, the failure of the English prefix "super" to capture the nuance of the German über (though in Latin, its meaning of "above" or "beyond" is closer to the German); and second, for promoting misidentification of Nietzsche's concept with the comic-book character Superman. Kaufmann and others preferred to translate Übermensch as "overman". A translation like "superior humans" might better fit the concept of Nietzsche as he unfolds his narrative. Scholars continue to employ both terms, some simply opting to reproduce the German word.
- “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time. [...] I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance.”
- "Is man one of God's blunders? Or is God one of man's blunders?"
- “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
- “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
- “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
- “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
- “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”
- “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
- “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”
- “Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.”
- “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
- “In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”
- “Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed.”
- “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”
- “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.”
- “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
- "God is dead, but considering the state the species man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown."
- "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"
- Kritische Gesamtausgabe Briefwechsel, G. Colli and M. Montinari (ed.), 24 volumes in 4 parts, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975.
- The Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann (ed.), New York: Viking Press, 1968.
- Beyond Good and Evil, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House, 1966.
- The Birth of Tragedy, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Random House, 1967.
- The Case of Wagner, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), inThe Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Random House, 1967.
- Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, R. J. Hollingdale (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, New York: Random House, 1967.
- The Gay [Happy] Science, with a Prelude of Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft; The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding), Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House, 1974.
- Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, R. J. Hollingdale (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: Viking Press, 1968.
- On the Genealogy of Morals, Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, New York: Random House, 1967.
- Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, Daniel Breazeale (trans. and ed.), Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979.
- Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Marianne Cowan (trans.), Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1962.
- Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: Viking Press, 1968.
- Twilight of the Idols, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: Viking Press, 1968.
- Untimely Meditations, R. J. Hollingdale (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- The Will to Power, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House, 1967.
- Review: Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem 1
- Review: Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem 2
- Nietzsche on the Jews
- Nietzsche on Religion
- Nietzsche and the Origins of Christianity 1
- Nietzsche and the Origins of Christianity 2
- The Hegel–Nietzsche debate
- "Hegel is a systematic philosopher who places his faith in the rigorous and methodical unfolding of dialectical reason, whereas Nietzsche is an unsystematic, highly literary writer, the champion of brilliant isolated perceptions and colourful, arresting metaphors."
- Nietzsche’s Hatred of “Jew Hatred” By BRIAN LEITER, Review of Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism by Robert C. Holub
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (archive)
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Encyclopædia Britannica