―Preface―

 

 

This book is written for beginners. That is, it is not assumed that you, good reader, are a philosophy student; it is possible that you have no familiarity whatever with Nietzsche's work. What is assumed, however, is that you are possessed of a curious mind and are interested in applying that curiosity to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche: a name fraught with historical significance, dark shadows, and, perhaps, just a shiver of intimidation. After all, you know― Nietzsche . . .

 

Nietzsche's ideas are exciting, and learning about them can be exhilarating, and even transformative. To effectively engage his philosophy, however, some background will be helpful. In the first section of the book, you'll learn some very basic details about Nietzsche's life, and about the world of ideas in which he lived and wrote― ideas that inevitably conditioned his thinking.

 

A conventional introduction to Nietzsche's thinking will never do. Better, at the very outset, to convey something of both the spirit of Nietzsche and of his philosophical impact through an introductory icon: 


Plate-glass Window Smashed by a Brick

 

This image of a brick thrown through a plate-glass window provides a glimpse, an iconic snapshot, of the impact Nietzsche's writings had on the European cultural establishment. The year was 1882. Nietzsche was at a peak-moment of his creative life when he made this surreal proclamation:

 

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter . . . 

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances. "Whither is God" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him— you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?"

              The Gay Science. 125

 

This is our opening image: the moment when Nietzsche issued his challenge that "God is dead." And now that the glass has stopped falling, let's freeze-frame this iconic image (of course we'll be coming back to it again and again), and move on to a less dramatic presentation― this time not of his philosophy and its impact, but to Nietzsche himself. We turn now to his life, and we'll do that by beginning with another image, this one far more sedate:


Nietzsche at age 27― posing as a Dude
This photo is a pose― and nothing more. Nietzsche was many things, but he was never a dude. Never.

 

A good place to start is with some details of Nietzsche's life. Nietzsche's philosophy is more than interesting; it is, or can be, to say it again, transformative. But caution: while we want to get to know Nietzsche, we would never, but never, want to be Nietzsche. He lived a dreadfully unhappy life, and, for some, that fact is a case against his philosophy. Is it? I'll leave that question for you to decide.

 

But for now― you probably have friends. You get together with them; they ask you what you've been doing lately. You admit to them that you've been reading this book. If you are not met with blank silence, you will likely be confronted with one of two questions, maybe both:
 

1. But the man was insane, right?
2. But the man was a Nazi, right?

 

People who know almost nothing about Nietzsche typically know enough to ask just these questions. And that's why some preliminary information about Nietzsche's life is indispensable. That's what we'll deal with first― material extracted from Nietzsche's biography that is relevant to the two questions that so many people know to ask. So we begin.

 

The Life of Nietzsche: A Selective Sketch

 

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken bei Lützen, near the city of Leipzig, in what is now the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. When he was four, his father died from what was called "softening of the brain." Six months later, Nietzsche's two-year old brother died. That left young Fritz, for so he was called by his family, living in a household with his paternal grandmother, two aunts, and his younger sister Elizabeth― who plays a significant role in the story. But for the moment, consider the situation: little Fritz in a home with a mother, a grandmother, two aunts, and a sister― all doting on him. The words "psychological suffocation" come readily to mind.

 

The family moved to the nearby town of Naumberg. Between the ages of 14 to 19, Nietzsche attended an elite school, Schulpforta― again, not far from Naumberg, where he was prepared for university work. And in 1864, Nietzsche entered the University of Bonn. He matriculated in philology and theology, but his growing interests in the classics and philosophy soon brought him to lose interest in theology.

 

His focus on the ancient Greek classics was augmented by a passion for music, a passion not restricted to listening; Nietzsche was an accomplished pianist. In addition, he composed music for the piano. Were his compositions good? In fact, they were given a powerful endorsement, and from the highest musical authority in Germany at the time― Richard Wagner.

 

While he was a student at the University of Bonn, in 1868, Nietzsche was a sometime visitor in the home of Herman Brockhaus. He shared his compositions with the family, playing them on the household piano, where, not surprisingly, he left some sheets of his compositions. Now, as it turned out, the brother in law of Herman Brockhaus was the composer Richard Wagner, an acknowledged doyen of culture and of the Germanic spirit. Playing Nietzsche's music for himself, Wagner was impressed― impressed enough to request a meeting with the composer who, he was informed, was a student at the local University. The meeting was arranged, and thus was born an intense and ultimately tempestuous relationship between Richard Wagner and the brilliant young Nietzsche.

 

In the meantime, Nietzsche was recommended for a position in classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of 24― a remarkably young age for a university appointment. He began his career as a professor in May, 1869. All the while, his relation to Wagner was developing. In addition to their mutual interest in music, Nietzsche and Wagner shared an attraction to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1871) presented influential ideas on ancient Greek culture, but also included lavish praise for Wagner and his work.

 

It might fairly be said that Nietzsche became a part not only of the Wagner circle, but of the Wagner family. Wagner was the age that Nietzsche's father would have been had he lived (recall that he died when Nietzsche was four), and in addition, Nietzsche developed a strong fantasy-attraction to Wagner's wife, Cosima. One need not be a psychologist to sense that here was an ambience drenched with potent and explosive emotions.

 

And explode they did. The trigger was rooted in a passion that the Wagners and Nietzsche did not share― anti-Semitism. Both Wagner and his wife Cosima were staunch anti-Semites. And therein lay the seeds of discord. Nietzsche detested anti-Semitism. The pivotal orientation of his philosophy was based on a direct refutation of what he took to be the resentment and small-mindedness endemic to anti-Semitism. He often referred to himself as an "anti-anti-Semite."

 

But again: he was insane, right?

 

In a word, yes: Nietzsche had descended, at the end of his life, into a state that can only be described as insane. As was Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf― to name only some of the better known. But a one-word answer, "yes," is never adequate in characterizing the mentality of a human being, much less a recognized genius.

 

So let's go back to the beginning― to Nietzsche's beginning. His birthdate is easy: October 15, 1844. But the date of his death is controversial: he was pronounced dead on August 25, 1900, when he was 55 years old. Another version of Nietzsche's death, equally plausible in its own way, is that it occurred in the months following his breakdown in Turin, Italy, on January 3, 1889, when he was 44 years old.

 

The story surrounding this breakdown is subject to a variety of interpretations. The story goes that, on seeing a horse being cruelly whipped in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, Nietzsche knocked aside the coachman wielding the whip and embraced the horse, throwing his arms around its neck. He had to be physically pulled off the horse. That's the story, but it isn't entirely trustworthy, because for over a decade it was passed on by word of mouth― only after 13 years did an Italian newspaper published an account of the incident. But according to the received account, after he was pulled from the horse, Nietzsche was taken to a clinic in Turin. His condition there is reported by his biographer, Curtis Cate. On receiving news of the incident, Nietzsche's close friend, Franz Overbeck, rushed to Turin. What he saw Nietzsche there was not encouraging:

 

"By the time Overbeck reached Turin several days later, il professore's behavior had grown increasingly irrational. Not satisfied with playing for hours on the piano, he had taken to singing in his bedroom and to ordering bottles of Barbera wine, which the doctor had immediately forbidden. At one point, when Overbeck went upstairs to his bedroom to calm him, he was confronted by an appalling spectacle. A totally naked Nietzsche was leaping and whirling around in a dance of Dionysian frenzy."

Cate, C., Friedrich Nietzsche, 2002, p.550-1.

 

And Nietzsche was not just having a bad day, or a few bad days, in Turin. Some five years later, in the Easter season of 1894, he was visited by another friend, Erwin Rohde, at the invitation of Nietzsche's sister Elizabeth. Rohde's account of what he saw was as follows:

 

"He [Nietzsche] is completely apathetic, recognizes no one but his mother and sister, speaks scarcely a single sentence for a month at a stretch. His body is shriveled and weak, though his complexion is healthy . . . But obviously he no longer feels anything― neither happiness nor unhappiness."

Cited in Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (1980), p.347.

 

We turn again to Franz Overbeck. In September of 1895 he saw Nietzsche for the last time, and gave this dispiriting account:

 

"I saw him only in his room, half-crouching like a wild animal mortally wounded and wanting only to be left in peace. He made literally not one sound while I was there. He did not appear to be suffering or in pain except perhaps for the expression of profound distaste visible in his lifeless eyes . . . He had been living for weeks in a state of alternation between days of dreadful excitability, rising to a pitch of roaring in shouting, and days of complete prostration."

Cited in Hayman, p.348.

 

After having been treated at clinics in Basel, Switzerland, and in Jena, Germany. In March of 1890 his mother took him home to Naumburg, where he lived under her care for the next seven years. After his mother's death in 1897, his sister Elisabeth took charge of the body and the scattered fragments that remained of the mind of "Nietzsche." We'll come back to this distressing story soon. For now, recall the moment when we left Nietzsche in Turin, being pulled off the neck of a whipped horse, and hauled off by his friends to hospitalization. What brought him to this tragic moment? 

 

One theory is rooted in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1870 war between France and Prussia. Nietzsche found himself in the Prussian army; he served as a medic, which brought him into close contact with wounded soldiers and their blood― an experience through which he contracted diphtheria and dysentery. And also, it has seemed likely to many, syphilis.

 

Syphilis was a scourge in Europe before the days of antibiotics― and antibiotics didn't arrive until after World War II. The disease ravaged the general population and, of course, elite intellectuals were in no way immune. Prominent figures believed to have endured syphilis include Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Henry VIII. And on almost every list of famous syphilitics, Nietzsche's name is included. It has become accepted as common knowledge among most scholars that Nietzsche's dreadful incident in Turin was the result of tertiary (=third stage) syphilis. Indeed, Nietzsche's own testimony gives the syphilis hypothesis a degree of plausibility. His biographer Ronald Hayman tells us:

 

In February 1865, while visiting Cologne to see the sights, Nietzsche told the Street Porter to take him to a restaurant. Instead the man led him into a brothel. As he afterwards told [his friend Peter Gast in a letter dated November 24, 1885], "I found myself suddenly surrounded by half a dozen apparitions and tinsel and God was, looking at me expectantly. For a short space of time I was speechless. Then I made instinctively for the piano as being the only soulful thing present. I struck a few chords, which freed me from my paralysis, and I escaped . . . In an essay on Nietzsche, [Thomas] Mann suggested that he went back to the brothel. In 1889, answering questions in the asylum, Nietzsche said that he had infected himself twice in 1866, but it is also possible that he misunderstood what was being asked."

Hayman, p.64.

 

Hayman, more than most who write on Nietzsche, recommends against easy assumptions regarding the role of syphilis in Nietzsche's life. Nietzsche himself is hardly a reliable guide― his claims about deliberately infecting himself were made after his catastrophic breakdown. And so, Hayman suggests:

 

The etiology of Nietzsche's illness and his madness are especially problematic because contemporary diagnoses are unreliable and the surviving evidence is exiguous. We cannot be certain that his father's epileptic attacks (probably petit mal) were syphilitic, or that Nietzsche's childhood illnesses or hereditary.

Hayman, p.10.

 

In support of such critical skepticism, the diagnosis of syphilis as the source of Nietzsche's terminal dementia has recently come into question by neuroscientists. A paper published in 2006 in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica reconsiders the insanity and death of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is commonly thought to have died of neuro-syphilis. In contrast, the authors of the new study suggest that Nietzsche died of fronto-temporal dementia – a type of dementia that specifically affects the frontal and temporal lobes. While many people have "diagnosed’ historical figures in retrospect, this study is different, in that the authors reviewed Nietzsche’s actual medical notes in light of what is known about the progression of syphilis and dementia today.   http://mindhacks.com/2006/12/01/what-caused-nietzsches-insanity-and-death/

 


Nietzsche, photographed in mid-1899, eleven years after his mental breakdown in Turin, six months after two strokes,
and perhaps a year before his physical death. His mind, anything that could meaningfully be called "Nietzsche," was gone.

This image is a part of the series "The Ill Nietzsche," photographed by Hans Olde.

 

If not syphilis, then what? Another candidate for Nietzsche's disastrous end centers on a danger for many in the 21st century― overuse of what we today call "prescription drugs." Walter Kauffman, in the important collection of his own translations of Nietzsche titled The Portable Nietzsche, presents a fragment from Stefan's Zwieg's essay titled "Friedrich Nietzsche," in which Nietzsche's desperate medical condition is all-too-vividly described:

 

"No devilish torture is lacking in this dreadful pandemonium of sickness: headaches, deafening, hammering headaches, which knockout the reeling Nietzsche four days and prostrate him on the sofa and bed . . . In addition, there are his "three-quarters blind eyes," which, at the least exertion, begin immediately to swell and fill with tears and grant the intellectual worker only an hour and a half of vision the day. But Nietzsche despises this hygiene of his body and works at his desk for ten hours, and for this access, his overheated brain takes revenge with a raging headaches and a nervous overcharge; at night, when the body has long become weary, it does not permit itself to be turned off suddenly, but continues to burrow in visions and ideas until it is forcibly knocked out by opiates. But ever greater quantities are needed (in two months Nietzsche uses up some 50 grams of choral hydrate to purchase this handful of sleep) . . ."

Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche,  (1954) p.116-7. Italics supplied.

 

And so, another contender for the cause of Nietzsche's madness is prodigious use of chloral hydrate: using about 50 grams of chloral hydrate in a two month period; that's almost a full gram a day. How many such two-month periods did he endure? And what would be the cumulative effects of such a dosage; what was the potency of chloral hydrate in the mid-19th century? We cannot know with any certainty. We've seen that Nietzsche's father was said to have died from "softening of the brain." Might a modern description of that condition be "fronto-temporal dementia"?And even if so, could that condition be transmitted genetically from father to son? It is unlikely that we will know for certain in the near future. And the syphilis hypothesis, although it is now very much in question, remains a possibility.

 

It cannot be denied that Nietzsche ended his life in abject madness. The historical documentation is overwhelming in support of that claim. But what conclusions may be sensibly drawn from that fact? No matter if it was brain pathology by way of "fronto-temporal dementia" or by way of "tertiary syphilis," or by way of "chronic choral hydrate overuse"― what does Nietzsche's final madness have to do with our reading of his philosophy? How should in reasonably impact our assessment of that philosophy here in the 21st century?

 

Yes, the end of Nietzsche's life is a tragic tale. Sometimes, alas, geniuses go mad; there it is. But― are we to simply dismiss Nietzsche's philosophy on that ground? Does an affirmative answer to the question asked above― "But the guy was insane, right?"― signal the end of a serious consideration of his philosophy? And if so, are we to do the same with Isaac Newton's "natural philosophy"― his physics?  Newton, too, stunned the world with his insights. He gave mathematical precision to the revolutions of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. His laws of motion, and especially his theory of universal gravitation, demonstrated that the earth and the heavens followed the very same laws― the traditional distinctions between the secular and the sacred domains had been abolished. But more important: Newton's theories yielded practical applications that remain the basis of the NASA space programs. Newton was a wonder of the world.

 

And Newton, too, was, at various stages of his life, quite insane. And as in the case of Nietzsche, there are multiple accounts for his condition. His journals, his own correspondence, and the observations of those who knew him give this diagnosis a high degree of plausibility. In his readable essay, titled "Newton's Madness," the neurologist Harold L. Klawans records a letter written by Newton to the eminent philosopher John Locke, who was a close friend:

 

Newton wrote to Locke: "being of the opinion that you endeavor to embroil me with women and by other means I was so much affected with it as that when one told me that you are sickly and would not live I answered t'were better you were dead. I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness" . . . Locke recognized that Newton's mind was deranged, and in other letters it is clear that his [Newton's] memory was also impaired. These symptoms are reminiscent of those of his first episode of madness, which also resulted in Newton's withdrawing from society: suspiciousness of others, accusations, and withdrawal. (Klawans, p.33)

Klawans, H. L. Newton's Madness: Further Tales of Clinical Neurology.  HarperPerennial, 1991.

 

What caused these symptoms, this madness on the part of one of the greatest scientists in history? One theory was put forward in 2003 by Cambridge University neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen:
 

Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton may have suffered from a type of autism, according to experts. Researchers at Cambridge and Oxford universities believe both scientists displayed signs of Asperger's Syndrome. Many people with Asperger's are often regarded as being eccentric. They sometimes lack social skills, are obsessed with complex topics and can have problems communicating.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2988647.stm

 

By now, I suspect, my suggestion is clear: the subsequent madness of a genius― whether induced by congenital or infectious disease, or by toxic agents― does not compromise the relevance and value of his intellectual contributions. So with Newton; so with Nietzsche. And so also, I propose that there is no relevant causal connection between Nietzsche's madness, on the one hand, and his philosophical vision, on the other. Certainly his tone and his locutions in his later works can be shrill. But this is not cogent evidence that his ideas were generated by his madness. Or that his madness was caused by his ideas. No connection; none. That is what I suggest. But not everyone agrees.

 

One of the most formidable among those who disagree is the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung. Jung is a major figure in modern Western thought. He is the founding force behind many important concepts that have become commonplace in contemporary life― most prominently, concepts popularized in the Star Wars series of films by George Lucas. These films, especially the earliest three, reflect the strong influence of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, himself a student and advocate of Jung. Indeed, some of Jung's central concepts have become iconic in popular culture: the collective unconscious, the psychological reality of archetypes, and the most famous archetype of all, the Shadow (think Darth Vader and his dreaded disclosure to Luke: "I am your father!").

 

In addition, Jung is a respected commentator on the philosophy of Nietzsche. A two-volume work, Nietzsche's Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934―1939, is a transcript of his now-famous seminar on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And throughout his writings, Jung regularly makes reference both to Nietzsche the man and to his philosophy. Our concern at the moment, however, is that Jung disagrees entirely with my suggestion that there is no connection whatever between Nietzsche's philosophy and his madness. Such a proposal is, for Jung, not merely wrong, but dangerous. Dangerous? How could that be?

 

According to Jung, the root of Nietzsche's madness is to be found in his incautious engagement of primordial truths that are too powerful for the mind of the average person― truths that are arrheton (truths that are sacred, dangerous, not to be profaned and desecrated through being spoken; Jung invokes this concept from the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece). Jung believed that because Nietzsche encountered this dark wisdom later in life, in middle-age, that he was reckless― disastrously reckless― in his engagement of it. Jung himself was braced against such dangers through having lived with such dread knowledge since he was a boy. By contrast:

 

Nietzsche had spoken naively and incautiously about this arrheton, this thing not to be named, as though it were quite in order. But I had noticed in time that this only leads to trouble. He was so brilliant that he was able to come to Basel as a professor when still young man, not suspecting what lay ahead of him. Because of his very brilliance he should have noticed in time that something was amiss. That, I thought, was his morbid misunderstanding: that he fearlessly and unsuspectingly let his [unconscious] loose upon a world that knew and understood nothing about such things. He was moved by the childish hope of finding people who would be able to share his ecstasies and could grasp his "transvaluation of all values." But he found only educated Philistines― tragi-comically, he was one himself. Like the rest of them, he did not understand himself when he fell head first into the unutterable mystery and wanted to sing its praises to the dull, godforsaken masses . . . And he fell― tightrope-walker that he proclaimed himself to be― into depths far beyond himself. He did not know his way about in this world and would like a man possessed, one who could be handled only with the utmost caution.

     Memories, Dreams and Reflections, p.102-3

 

Jung is speaking here from his favorite persona― the mystagogue, the guide and initiator, the Sage and seasoned veteran of the soul and its depths. And Nietzsche, poor fellow, is portrayed as a gifted young man who had stumbled onto psychic realities vastly beyond his depths. And the experience drove him mad. And, good reader, you may be suspecting that perhaps this serves as a cautionary tale for you. Is a Beginner's Guide to Nietzsche's philosophy an invitation out onto thin ice? To psychological disaster? Just that seems to be the take-home lesson implicit in Jung's assessment of Nietzsche's catastrophe. Jung's message: philosophy is dangerous; it is emphatically not for beginners. Do not attempt to do this on your own; do not try this at home. We are in the territory of arrheton― that wisdom which must not be spoken. Dr. Jung is a professional, an experienced mystic, a Sage and also a psychologist, a psychologist personally trained by none other than Sigmund Freud. And not only that, but then . . . And on― and yet further on . . .

 

Balderdash!  Piffle, plain and simple. Nietzsche's philosophy is not some third-rate opera that begins with a choral line "It was a dark and stormy night." At issue in engaging Nietzsche's ideas is a candid willingness to think over, and assess for yourself, ideas that may be new to you, but that are not incomprehensible. At issue is having the self-confidence that you are able to engage the unfamiliar and not be undone by the experience. Nietzsche's ideas are unlikely to tip you into insanity. Some of those ideas might make you angry, but they will not make you mad; they will not unhinge your reason.

 

Yes, to the unstable mind, Nietzsche's writings can, no doubt, precipitate a slide into irrationality. But if that is to be the criterion, then a book that should be kept permanently under lock and key is none other than the Bible. There is historical and contemporary evidence aplenty that that potent book (and especially the final book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation) can bring people capable of holding jobs and drivers' licenses to a state of derangement. Confirm this for yourself; go online and Google "The Rapture" and explore one or two websites.

To reassert the point: Nietzsche was indisputably insane at the end of his life. We cannot be certain whether that insanity was caused by a congenital condition (the "softening of the brain" believed to have killed his father), or by infectious syphilis, or by overuse of choral hydrate. But we can be certain, I urge, that his insanity was not caused by his philosophy― because philosophy does not, pacé Dr. Jung, drive people insane. Unless those people are deeply imbalanced, and are predisposed to madness.