The 15th October was a day to celebrate. On that day 170 years ago, the great philosopher, critic, poet and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche was born. His ideas, revolutionary in his days, are still relevant, surprising and shocking today.
Nietzsche was a revolutionary. He published a book called The Antichrist and another called ‘The Gay Science”. He created the figure of Superman, and has been accused of founding Nazi ideology. Of course, this little summary is out of context. Allow me to explain how all of these are very much connected with one another, and outline the work of one of history’s greatest philosophers.
There are many things to remember Nietzsche for, including quotes such as ´That which does not kill us makes us stronger´, ´In heaven, all the interesting people are missing’ or ‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering´. He’s also known for devising the madman who runs around with a lantern, crying “I am looking for God! I am looking for God! Where has God gone?” He then proceeds to answer himself, exclaiming “I shall tell you. We have killed him”.
Nietzsche was trying to prove a point here. He didn’t think that God was dead because he was an atheist. He was talking about the ‘death’ of old, oppressive values. And by pronouncing God’s death, he embraced a new set of values, away from the fear of sin and hell. And the Superman (or Übermensch, as he calls him) was anyone who created these new values.
This scene with the Madman appears in Nietzsche’s poem, ‘Parable of the Madman’, published in 1882, in ‘The Gay Science’ (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft). Of course ‘gay’ here means joyous, wisdom, and the poems within often talk about power, eternal recurrence, faith and metaphysics.
Nietzsche also surprised the world with the publication of The Antichrist: a critique of Christianity, its values, its diffusers, and its institutions. His references to Judaism caused some to associate Nietzsche with anti-Semitism. As previously mentioned, some go as far as saying he’s the founder of Nazi ideology. This, added to some characteristics of the Superman (strong, cruel, compassion-less) seems to lend credence to this theory. However, Nietzsche’s discourse is actually directed towards the institutions, not Jews themselves. He actually criticised Germans and their culture, and he didn’t believe in the Nation in the first place.
Lastly, here are some curiosities you might not know. He was named after Prussia’s King at the time. From a young age, Nietzsche was very talented with languages and music, and he wrote several poems and compositions. He went on to study philology, literature, linguistics and history at the University of Leipzig and University of Bonn, becoming friends with the great composer Richard Wagner at the former. By the time he graduated, Nietzsche could speak five languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and German. After his studies, he became a professor at the University of Basel, and started writing scholarly articles. But he soon became uninterested in traditional conventions, and distinguished himself by focusing on the most contemporary way of life. He wrote anti-religious pieces, which is probably what he is most famous for. He suffered a serious physical and mental collapse in 1889, and spent the last years of his life in a state of mental incapacitation. Friedrich Nietzsche left this world on the 25th August 1900, at the age of 55.
Nietzsche has influenced many areas of thought, throughout history and today. Freud deeply admired him and his ideas about human character. Many contemporary poets, playwrights and novelists have also drawn on the philosopher, such as Tomas Mann and Hermann Hess. Many principles by which people live nowadays can also be traced back to this great man, such as ‘Challenge yourself; don’t live passively’ and ‘You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.’ Suffice to say, his legacy lives on.