Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously wrote that "God is dead," suffered a fate much worse than death. He spent his final decade in mental darkness, unable to prevent his sister from twisting his words and tarnishing his legacy.
Our vanity is hardest to wound precisely when our pride has just been wounded.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Rocken bei Lutzen, Prussia, to Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor, and Franziska Oehler. He was named after King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, but he later dropped his middle name.
His father died of a brain aliment when Nietzsche was only four. His childhood after that was spent primarily with strict Lutheran women - his mother, his younger sister, his maternal grandmother, and two aunts. In 1850, the family moved to Naumburg, Prussia, where Nietzsche enrolled first in the Domgymnasium, a private prep school, then in the Schulpforta, a Protestant boarding school. He wrote an essay in 1862, "Fate and History," in which he stated that the teachings of Christianity could not stand up to the scrutiny of historical research.
Nietzsche graduated in 1864, then he briefly attended the University of Bonn. After one semester of studying theology and classical philology, Nietzsche lost his faith and ended his studies. One of his professors at Bonn, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, accepted a new position at the University of Leipzig, and Nietzsche followed him there. Nietzsche was the only student to publish in Ritschl's journal, "Rheinisches Museum."
In 1867, Nietzsche entered military service. He sustained a painful injury in the following year - he struck a pommel with his chest while jumping onto a horse's saddle. He was unable to walk for several months afterward. He obtained leave from the military and returned to study at the University of Leipzig, where he began a friendship with the composer, Richard Wagner.
Nietzsche's tutor, Ritschl, recommended him to fill a vacant professorship in philology in Basel, Switzerland, in 1869, even though Nietzsche had not yet completed his thesis or his dissertation. Based on Ritschl's endorsements and Nietzsche's published work, the University of Leipzig waived their requirements and awarded Nietzsche his doctorate. Nietzsche then became the youngest man to ever occupy the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, at the age of 24. Before long, he was promoted to ordinary professor.
Nietzsche renounced his Prussian or German citizenship in 1869, in favor of his Polish ancestry. He announced, "I am a pure-blooded Polish nobleman, without a single drop of bad blood, certainly not German blood." He also said, "Germany is a great nation only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins."
In 1870, Nietzsche left his professorship to volunteer as a medical orderly in the Franco-German War. Unfortunately, he contracted dysentery and diphtheria in short order, so he was forced once again to abandon his duties. He returned to his professorship at the University of Basel, but prolonged illness forced him to step down.
Nietzsche published his first book, "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music," in 1872. He wrote about the birth and death of Greek tragedy, then credited the composer Wagner with inspiring the rebirth of tragedy.
Nietzsche visited Wagner and his wife at their home many times. They enjoyed long conversations on many topics, but over the years their differing opinions about Christianity and anti-semitism brought an end to their friendship. Nietzsche later wrote, "Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches - he has made music sick."
In June of 1879, due to declining health, Nietzsche resigned his professorship and was awarded a six-year pension of 3,000 Swiss francs per year. During this time he wrote a few books, but he suffered greatly. He once wrote, "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." He lived in various boarding houses in Switzerland, the French Riviera, and Italy, but he spent most of his time alone. He had trouble sleeping and sometimes wrote prescriptions for himself, for sedatives, signed "Dr. Nietzsche."
Nietzsche published his masterpiece, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," in four parts, between 1833 and 1885. He published the fourth part at his own expense, with money from his pension. In this work Nietzsche discussed the idea of the Ubermensch, or Superhuman. The ideal Ubermensch is centered on the physical body, not the soul. He is earth-oriented, not other-worldly. The creation of the Ubermensch is a meaningful goal for ordinary humans. Nietzsche wrote, "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."
This concept - focusing on earthly matters rather than spiritual ones - would later be twisted for the purposes of Nazis and fascists in the twentieth century.
"Thus Spoke Zarathustra" received little attention, so he followed up with other works in a simplified style - "Beyond Good and Evil" and "On the Genealogy of Morals." These books were also generally ignored.
Nietzsche made this bold declarative statement in more than one of his works, including "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and "The Antichrist." In "The Gay Science," he expanded upon his most famous quote, as follows: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?"
Nietzsche was not making a grand atheistic statement when he proclaimed the death of God. He believed that reason and divinity should not be combined or confused. Reason, not faith, should guide the individual's actions, according to Nietzsche, and the individual must not blame God for his misfortunes.
1888 was Nietzsche's final year of competency and lucidity, and in that year he published a number of important works. In "Twilight of the Idols," he wrote two of his frequently-repeated quotes - "Without music, life would be a mistake" and "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." In "The Antichrist," he wrote, "The word 'Christianity' is already a misunderstanding - in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross."
Nietzsche collapsed in Turin, Italy, in January of 1889. The cause of his collapse is unknown, although a popular story is that he saw a horse being flogged, ran to its rescue, threw his arms around its neck, then fell to the ground.
In the days following his collapse, Nietzsche sent short notes - later known as his madness letters - to many of his friends. He signed some as "Dionysos," some as "the Crucified One." One note read, "Sing me a new song; the world is transfigured; all the Heavens are rejoicing."
For the final eleven years of his life, Nietzsche had no grasp on reality. He spent time in a Basel asylum, then his mother cared for him until her death in 1897. Nietzsche's sister, Elizabeth, cared for him in Weimar from 1897 until his death, on August 25, 1900. His cause of death may have been tertiary syphilis, a stroke, or brain cancer.
Nietzsche's sister, Elizabeth, who was the widow of a well-known German anti-semite, Bernhard Forster, gained control of Nietzsche's work after his death. She reworked some of his unpublished work to fit her philosophies rather than his. As a result, Nietzsche came to be unfairly associated with the Nazi cause during the middle of the twentieth century.
Nietzsche was prophetic when he stated, "All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth." Little did he know that his entire body of work would be subject to such cruel interpretation.