A Note on the Life and Work of Friedrich Nietzsche

[A short note prepared by Ian Johnston as a postscript to the translation of Beyond Good and Evil]

Friedrich Nietzsche died in 1900, at the dawn of the new century, and since then many people have seen something significant in the date.  For as the century progressed, Nietzsche’s work, largely ignored in his own day, became increasingly well known. Indeed, in the past fifty years (at least) Nietzsche’s work has grown so influential that it is associated with many of the most important trends of modern thought, not merely in philosophy but in a very wide range of subjects, so much so that it is almost impossible to participate in modern intellectual discussions without some familiarity with his writings.

Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken bei Lützen, in Prussia. After graduating from school, he studied classical philology at universities in Bonn and Leipzig, and in 1869 took up a position as professor of Classical Philology at Basel. After serving as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), he began to suffer from a number of serious ailments, which a few years later became so serious he had to resign his position at Basel.

For most of the rest of his life Nietzsche lived as an independent writer, travelling a great deal throughout Europe, mainly in Italy and Switzerland, publishing several books, including Beyond Good and Evil in 1886, and republishing some of the writings from his university days. His work, however, received relatively little attention.

In 1889 Nietzsche began to suffer from a serious mental deterioration.  His friends and family took charge of him, especially his sister Elizabeth, but he never fully regained his sanity and died after a bout of pneumonia ten years later.

Interpreting Nietzsche makes special demands, mainly because he presents his ideas, not in the rational systematic way traditionally associated with philosophical writing, but often as a series of aphorisms combined with energetic and frequently very sweeping assertions.  And he is very fond of poetical images and enigmatic questions. He typically offers his thoughts in sequences of numbered paragraphs, but the connections between these are frequently difficult to understand. As a result his argument is often ambiguous and requires further interpretation, as he himself points out.

In addition Nietzsche has a unique style, by turns serious, sarcastic, scathing, friendly, humorous, assertive, self-deprecating, candid, secretive, admiring, cryptic, and dismissive. Given this shifting and frequently ambiguous tone, it is often difficult to tell just how one is supposed to take a particular statement or interpret a particular image.

The central thrust of Nietzsche’s thinking in Beyond Good and Evil is, however, clear enough. He is launching an assault on traditional European thinking about morality. In his view, past attempts to define the truth about morality have been superficial because the philosophers proposing various systems have all started by assuming the essential points which need to be explored at the outset and because they have been seduced into error by the nature of language, by their own unconscious motivation, and by their limited understanding of the history of moral thinking.

Nietzsche insists that human beings are, first and foremost, biological creatures driven by their instincts, their wills, among which the will to power is the most important. In order to understand and to discuss human morality, we need to have a much better understanding of human psychology and of human history so that we can “unmask” the ways in which traditional philosophers have deceived us into thinking that what they have to offer is anything more than their own personal interpretations and so that we all have a clear idea about some of their most cherished assumptions, for example, that we understand what “thinking” and “willing” are, that we are confident in our knowledge of the “soul,” and so on.        

As a result of our subservience to traditional ways of thinking, Nietzsche claims, we have demeaned human beings. Under centuries of Christianity and now under the rule of science and “modern ideas” (especially the faith in democracy and a morality of pity) we have developed a herd mentality, a culture of mediocrity in which the greatest and most creative human spirits cannot flourish.

Nietzsche believes the time is right for the emergence of new philosophers, “free spirits,” who will recognize the fictional nature of all accounts of the truth and the biological nature of human life and who will, nonetheless, take delight in exploring new directions and subjecting the received tradition to ruthless criticism. They will do this, not in order to offer new truths, but in order to create their own personal languages and their own values in a spirit of creative play.  Hence, they will be able to move “beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche’s ideas, especially his view of the poetical, fictional nature of all accounts of the truth (including science) and his psychological acuity in dealing with the human “soul” or “ego,” have been immensely influential, helping to promote all sorts of later philosophical movements, including existentialism, pragmatism, and various forms of antifoundationalism. His name is frequently invoked in critiques of science and in discussions of role of the artist in modern society.

[For a much more detailed treatment of Nietzsche’s thinking, particularly with reference to Beyond Good and Evil, click here]  


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