Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

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Nietzsche, Friedrich (Wilhelm) (1844-1900), German philosopher, poet, and classical philologist, who became one of the most provocative and influential thinkers of the 19th century.

Life and Works

Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, Prussia. His father, a Lutheran minister, died when Nietzsche was five, and Nietzsche was raised by his mother in a home that included his grandmother, two aunts, and a sister. He studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig and was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of 24. Ill health (he was plagued throughout his life by poor eyesight and migraine headaches) forced his retirement in 1879. Ten years later he suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He died in Weimar on August 25, 1900. In addition to the influence of Greek culture, particularly the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Nietzsche was influenced by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, by the theory of evolution, and by his friendship with the German composer Richard Wagner.

A prolific writer, he wrote several major works, among them The Birth of Tragedy (1872; trans. 1966), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85; trans. 1954), Beyond Good and Evil (1886; trans. 1966), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887; trans. 1966), The Antichrist (1888; trans. 1954), Ecce Homo (1889; trans. 1966), and The Will to Power (1901; trans. 1910).

One of Nietszche's fundamental contentions was that traditional values (represented primarily by Christianity) had lost their power in the lives of individuals. He expressed this in his proclamation “God is dead.” He was convinced that traditional values represented a “slave morality,” a morality created by weak and resentful individuals who encouraged such behavior as gentleness and kindness because the behavior served their interests. Nietzsche claimed that new values could be created to replace the traditional ones, and his discussion of the possibility led to his concept of the overman or superman.

According to Nietzsche, the masses, whom he termed the herd or mob, conform to tradition, whereas his ideal overman is secure, independent, and highly individualistic. The overman feels deeply, but his passions are rationally controlled. Concentrating on the real world, rather than on the rewards of the next world promised by religion, the overman affirms life, including the suffering and pain that accompany human existence. His overman is a creator of values, a creator of a “master morality” that reflects the strength and independence of one who is liberated from all values, except those that he deems valid.

Nietzsche maintained that all human behavior is motivated by the will to power. In its positive sense, the will to power is not simply power over others, but the power over oneself that is necessary for creativity. Such power is manifested in the overman's independence, creativity, and originality. Although Nietzsche explicitly denied that any overmen had yet arisen, he mentions several individuals who could serve as models. Among these models he lists Socrates, Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon.

The concept of the overman has often been interpreted as one that postulates a master-slave society and has been identified with totalitarian philosophies. Many scholars deny the connection and attribute it to misinterpretation of Nietzsche's work.


An acclaimed poet, Nietzsche exerted much influence on German literature, as well as on French literature and theology. His concepts have been discussed and elaborated upon by such individuals as the German philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, and the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the German-American theologian Paul Tillich, and the French writers Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Nietzsche's proclamation “God is dead” was seized upon by the post-World War II radical theologians, the Americans Thomas J. J. Altizer and Paul Van Buren, in their attempt to make Christianity relevant to its believers in the 1960's and '70s.

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