Friedrich Nietzsche:

A vital precursor to existentialism

The life of Friedrich Nietzsche was seemingly planned out even before his birth on October 15, 1844. His father, a Lutheran pastor who believed in the ideas of Calvinism and predestination, was certain that his gifted son would follow in his footsteps. This, however, was not the case. In Nietzsche’s book, Ecce Homo, written in 1888, he stated: “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.” He is regarded as a fearlessly provocative philosopher who regularly criticized religion, namely Christianity, and morality. Nietzsche was destined to live a life free from his parents’ ideals and pre-conceived notions. His brilliant mind would grant him access to a world filled with criticisms and misinterpretations and, ultimately, his own insane demise.

To understand the essence of Nietzsche it is vital to uncover the details of his genealogy, growth, and development as a master thinker. His paternal ancestors were modest Saxon townsfolk who lived in the small city of Bibra, just outside of Naumburg, in what is now the country of Germany. They were butchers, tradesmen, and cottagers who kept to the land and didn’t imagine much outside of their rural context.
Nietzsche’s grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig, was the first in the family to desire social status. Instead of serving the state, he chose to serve God as a pastor and began his slow social ascension. In Protestant Germany, the pastor was undoubtedly the most important person in any village; he was to act as a teacher for the young and a spiritual guide for the adults within the community (Cate 2-3). Nietzsche’s father, Carl Ludwig, was similarly brought up as a clergyman and later became a highly regarded pastor and teacher in his community. Priests in the nineteenth century were subject to rigorous intellectual training, and Germany was home to some of the best and brightest. Needless to say, Nietzsche was expected to adhere to a comparable plan.

Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska Oehler, came from a modest background and was easily wooed by Ludwig. They married on Ludwig’s thirtieth birthday on October 10, 1843. A little more than a year later, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, affectionately known as “Fritz,” was born in a small town outside of Leipzig Saxony, “which was by this time a province of the increasingly powerful kingdom of Prussia” (Strathern 11). He shared his birthday with the king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who was held in high esteem by Nietzsche’s father. The patriotic pastor could think of no better way to honor the king than to name his first son after him. Franziska and Ludwig gave birth to a daughter, Elisabeth, 21-months after Nietzsche, and another son, Joseph Ludwig, two years after that.
Young Nietzsche showed no signs of being a prodigy. However, with his father one of the most talented piano players in the community, Nietzsche displayed his unique sensitivity to music early in his childhood. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father was diagnosed with a brain abnormality, which led to his death in1849, followed by his younger brother in 1850. This altering of the family dynamic forced the young Nietzsche, his sister, and his mother to move to Naumburg with his paternal grandmother and two maiden aunts. Some say Nietzsche’s attitude towards women later in life was seriously impacted by this living arrangement (Strathern 12).

By the age of thirteen, Nietzsche was already proficient in his studies of music and poetry and sent off to one of the top private boarding schools at nearby Pforta. His reputation proceeded him, however, as he was quickly regarded as “the little pastor” (Strathern 13). It didn’t take long for Nietzsche’s exceptional rigor and intelligence to show through, especially in music and language. He was introduced to ancient Greek and Roman literature, which perhaps acted as a catalyst to his philosophical journey. Nietzsche studied hard and typically found himself in solitude where he began to doubt the pious and religious life that would undoubtedly exist in his future unless he did something about it (Strathern 13).

After six years at Pforta, Nietzsche was admitted to the University of Bonn to pursue more studies of theology and classical philology, still with the intention of becoming a pastor and ignoring his subconscious urge to rebel. At Bonn, he participated in archetypal activities with his comrades; he joined an academic fraternity, drank with his friends, and focused on his schoolwork. It was during his years at Bonn that Nietzsche allegedly lost his faith. He decided to leave the University of Bonn and transfer back home to Leipzig University where he would concentrate on classical philology.

In 1867 Nietzsche was called up for a year’s national service in the Prussian army. His stint was short due to a serious riding incident, but was widely recognized upon returning to Leipzig by his professors as being one of the finest students in forty years (Strathern 18-19). Through a series of classes and introductions to intellectuals, Nietzsche was beginning to cultivate his own ideology and path far from that of a pastor. One of the most notable was the relationship that bloomed between him and composer Richard Wagner. Nietzsche immediately related to the man as a father figure and viewed Wagner’s ideas in accord with his own. The relationship between the two would develop throughout Nietzsche’s life.

At only 24 years old and without a doctorate, Nietzsche was offered the job of professor of philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Here Nietzsche was able to teach and fuse together philology and philosophy, “welding together an instrument for analyzing the faults of our civilization” (Cate 86). Nietzsche is to this day one of the youngest professors of the classic disciplines, but this is where his career of philosophizing began. Nietzsche volunteered in the Franco-Prussian War, flooded his mind with teachings from Wagner and other influential cohorts, and continued to teach philosophy at Basel before writing his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1871. At this point, Nietzsche was gaining recognition in the larger geographical realm and his investigations only continued.

It was during this time that Nietzsche attacked “compassion, the repression of true feelings and the sublimation of desire involved in Christianity, in favor of a stronger ethic closer to the origins of our feelings” (Strathern 26). Nietzsche published four essays from 1873-1876 all on this subject matter. He was accumulating notes and eager to challenge the cultural norms of Germany. It was also during this time that the relationship between he and Wagner was depleting as Nietzsche began to see through Wagner’s intellectual disguise. In 1876, Nietzsche fell victim to his first acknowledged bout of mental illness on a visit to Bayreuth, but he essentially ignored the event (Strathern 27-28). To finalize his departure from Wagner, Nietzsche published a collection of aphorisms in his work, Human, All Too Human, in 1878. This work was successful in alienating some of his more genuine philosophical admirers who had accumulated in Germany and beyond. Nietzsche was emerging as the “finest psychologist of his age” (Strathern 31).

Nietzsche was a frail man from the start, both physically and mentally. In 1879 he was forced to resign from his teaching post at Basel because of his continuing illness. With a small pension, Nietzsche roamed climates more conducive to his illnesses and traveled around Italy, the south of France, and Switzerland. His body seemed to be failing him: first his eyesight, then intense headaches, and various other physical ailments that would incapacitate him for days at a time (Cate 232). As one author put it, “his desktop collection of elixirs, medicaments, pills, tonics, powders, and potions put him in a class of his own, even among the great hypochondriacal philosophers” (Strathern 33-34). Despite his health, Nietzsche was introduced to a Russian woman by the name of Lou Salome whom he thought he would marry, but these plans never took action.
For the most part, Nietzsche led a life of isolation, renting inexpensive rooms, working continuously, and eating at cheap restaurants. Even with the difficult task of dealing with his blinding headaches and debilitating ailments, Nietzsche was able to create and publish unprecedented philosophical works. Throughout the 1880s, he continued to work in solitude until the cracks in his works began to show. January 1889 marked the sharp decline of Nietzsche’s mental decline. As the story goes, he tearfully threw his arms around a horse that had just been whipped in the streets of Turin. He was escorted to his room where he proceeded to write cards to various comrades and acquaintances since “his was a great mind and he knew it: it was imperative that the world should know this too” (Strathern 40). At this point, Nietzsche was clinically insane and never recovered. Brought on by overwork, solitude, suffering, and a case of syphilis he picked up from a brothel in his young adulthood. He found brief refuge at an asylum, but was released to the care of his mother. Nietzsche was harmless, existing most of the time in a catatonic trance.

Nietzsche’s mother passed away in 1897, and his younger sister, Elisabeth, was put in charge of his care after her husband’s suicide. Elisabeth had married a failed schoolmaster turned notorious anti-Semite. Before his insanity hit, Nietzsche abhorred the man for his ideas. Throughout their relationship, the Nietzsche and his sister had a history of bickering and this was the last person who should have been in charge of caring for Nietzsche. After suffering from two strokes in 1898 and 1899, he contracted pneumonia in 1900, and suffered from his last stroke on August 25th. This was the end of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his sister took it in her own power to publish some of his works after his death. She took some great liberties with some of his material, which is often regarded as the source of much of his misinterpretation.

Nietzsche was a much debated philosopher whose influence is wide-spread. His was a philosophy of penetrating insight, yet certain words and concepts appear again and again in his work (Strathern 49).

Will to Power
The will to power is a major concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche concluded that humanity was driven by a will to power (Strathern 50). All acts of human beings can be traced back to this will, and even though at times this will might not be visible, it is always there. This became a very useful tool when he came to analyzing human motives. He says, “the manner of this lust for power has changed through the centuries, but its source is still the same volcano...what we once did ‘for the sake of God’ we now do for the sake of money…this is what at present gives the highest feeling of power” (Die Morgenrote 204).

Eternal Recurrence
Another theme of Nietzsche is that of eternal recurrence. According to Nietzsche, we should act as thought the life we are living will go on recurring forever and each moment we have lived through we will have to relive again and again for eternity (Strathern 52). He says,

What, if someday or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sign and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?...or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more feverently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

Nietzsche believed in this concept and called it his “formula for the greatness of a human being” (Strathern 52). The emphasis that he puts on each moment of life intends to challenge individuals to live their life to the full.

The Superman
A final philosophical point to be addressed here is Nietzsche’s concept of “the superman”. This is not the cloaked figure that flies and saves the world from evil. Nietzsche’s superman, Zarathustra’s, main driving force was the will to power, also being an impossibly earnest person. The parable of Zarathustra is childishly simple, but the message is profound. Nietzsche preaches nothing less than the overthrow of Christian values: each individual must take absolute responsibility for his own actions in a godless world (Strathern 54). He demands that humans make their own values in freedom because there is no divine sanction for his or her actions. The “supermen” were those who had been liberated from the condition of looking to higher powers for their values, but rather manifested their power through independence, originally, and creativity, or other values that the person themselves deemed valid (Pickett). Nietzsche foresaw this disengagement from Christian values as the twentieth century condition, and those who followed this prescription would become supermen (54). This overthrow of traditional Christian values prompted Nietzsche to write his famous words “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. This is one of the famous and misunderstood statements of Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche claims that we have come to an age where God has been outgrown, and the true way to live and become “supermen” is to not look to a higher being for values, but rather to create our own that we deem valid.


Nietzsche’s philosophy, although unique and innovative, owes much of its formation to many predecessors as well as his own personal life experiences. Nietzsche’s philosophical writings can be traced back to personal things and experiences within his own life. “Few philosophers have been so self-involved as he was; the emphatic subjectivity of his assertions and predictions recalls that of prophets or founders of religions. Anyone reading Nietzsche will constantly and unavoidably be confronted with highly personal and private ideas of the author’s, which can be grasped only within the context of a particular situation” (Frenzel 8). During his first semester at the university at Leipzig, Nietzsche began reading Arthur Schopenhauer which stirred up and gave wings to his genius (26). He considered Schopenhauer’s work to be the best utterance of a modern view of the world. Nietzsche says, “I was at that time suspended in air, helpless, all alone with a few painful experiences and disappointments, without principles, without hope, without a single friendly memory. Now just imagine the effect of reading Schopenhauer’s major work in such a situation” (27). Schopenhauer’s works developed Nietzsche’s ideas of the will to power. Schopenhauer stressed that reason is not the real essence of things, but rather is a vehicle that can help man to attain goals set by his will. Egoism is the natural attitude of man, and therefore determines his moral behavior. Man does not rely on a higher being for salvation, but is responsible for his own salvation by moral actions and renunciation by the will, and through the contemplation of beauty (29).
Nietzsche was also heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks; where in his study of them spent time formulating his theory on power. Throughout the course of his study of the ancient Greeks, he concluded that the driving force of their civilization had been the search for power rather than anything useful or immediately beneficial. Marrying this with his reading from Schopenhauer, as well as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Fyodor Dostoyoyevsky, Nietzsche developed his philosophy on the will to power, superman, eternal recurrence as well as several others.

Although Nietzsche was a well-respected colleague and man, his ideas did not find wide readership during his writing career. However, in 1888, Georg Brandes aroused talk about Nietzsche during a series of lectures he gave at the University of Copenhagen. A friend and colleague of Nietzsche, Lou Andreas-Salome, published in 1894 a book entitled Friedrich Nietzsche in His Works in which she detailed her relationship with Nietzsche and his philosophical views (Brinton 55).

In the years after 1900, Nietzsche’s work began to gain reputation and following, with many people responding to them in controversial ways. His ideas were often times associated with anarchist movements and appear to have influenced them especially within the United States and France (Ewald). Much controversy comes with Nietzsche’s influence on German Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler himself probably never fully read Nietzsche, he did use expressions like “lords of the earth” coined by Nietzsche in Mein Kampf (Ewald). Justification for acts performed by German Nazis including Adolf Hitler can be found in such phrases of Nietzsche’s such as, “All ‘evil’ deeds are motivated by the instinct of self-preservation, or more precisely, by the individual’s desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, much motivation is not evil” (Frenzel 82). Although it is difficult to imagine Nietzsche agreeing with the destruction that Adolf Hitler and his ideology caused, it is not difficult to connect where Nietzsche’s ideas like this one can become twisted into a mantra for Hitler.
Nietzsche was influenced by many and influenced many 20th century thinkers, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus with Heidegger producing a four volume set of books on Nietzsche (Everdell).

A frequent criticism of Nietzsche is the difficulty of understanding his frequently-used aphorisms. His work is intense and moves quickly but rather than using long-winded arguments he preferred to present his ideas in a series of penetrating insights, swiftly passing from topic to topic (Strathern 29). His use of aphorisms comes from his habit of jotting down thoughts in a notebook while he was on the move. His writing style challenged the traditional writing styles of the times, and he was one of the first to predict this linguistic revolution (30). The criticism of Nietzsche’s aphorisms comes from there being too many of them too frequently within his writings. “The fantasist denies reality to himself; the liar does so only to others.” “The mother of excess if not joy but joylessness.” “A witticism is an epigram on the death of a feeling.” In reading, it all becomes too much (30). Many of Nietzsche’s readers claim he is not writing philosophy but rather psychology, and often times the mixture of aphorisms and psychology doesn’t make for a coherent, extended work. Nietzsche’s work was branded unsystematic and it has never lost this tag (30).

The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
Human, All Too Human (1880)
The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880)
The Gay Science (1882)
Thus Spake Zarathustra (1884)
Beyond Good and Evil (1885)
Genealogy of Morals (1887)
The Antichrist: Attempt at a Critique of Christianity (1888)
Twighlight of the Idols (1889)

Related Links:
Beyond Good and Evil
Will to Power

Works Cited
Brinton, Crane. Nietzsche. Harper and Row. USA: 1965.
Cate, Curtis. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Overlook Press. New York: 2002.
Frenzel, Ivo. Friedrich Nietzsche: An Illustrated Biography. Pegasus Publishing. New York: 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Originally published in 1908.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Die Morgenrote. Originally published in 1881.
Strathern. Paul. Nietzsche in 90 Minutes. Ivan. R. Dee Inc. Chicago: 1996.

Brought to you by:
Meaghan Fanning and Alexa Huston