Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, born near Leipzig, Germany, was one of the 19th century's most influential philosophers, and his work continues to influence modern existential and postmodern philosophy. Nietzsche's father was a Lutheran minister who died in 1849 from a brain disorder. The death of his father, followed by the death of a younger brother a year later, had a profound impact on the young Nietzsche. The family then went to live with several different family members over the course of Friedrich's childhood. As a teenager, Nietzsche attended a prominent boarding school where he read widely the popular romantic literature of the time, as well as volumes of historical biblical criticism. He also became an enthusiast of the music of Richard Wagner and started a music club.

Initially, Nietzsche studied to follow his father into a Lutheran pastorate. But, as a student of theology and philology at the University of Bonn, Nietzsche's interests gravitated toward textual criticism of the Bible. In 1865 Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he began studying the works of Schopenhauer, a philosopher and rigorous atheist. After being wounded during his mandatory military service, Nietzsche returned to the university where he finished his studies.

At the age of 24, Nietzsche was offered a position on the faculty at the University of Basel, one of the youngest men to ever be offered such a job. At 28, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. The book was not well received, however, among his friends at the university, including his mentor Friedrich Ritschl. Nietzsche continued to write, however, and later published many works that would only become popular after his death, including Human, All to Human, Daybreak, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Anti-Christ, among many others.

In 1879, Nietzsche was forced to resign his position at Basel. He had suffered from various illnesses throughout his life, compounded by the disease and wounds he contracted as a soldier in the Prussian army. Work simply became too unbearable and he instead retired to various cities around Europe with more favorable climates for his illnesses. His time away from the University began the most productive writing period of his life, and he further separated his philosophy from that of his teachers, Schopenhauer and Ritschl.

In 1889, Nietzsche began to exhibit the signs of madness that would eventually force him into an institution just as his work was gaining respect among the academic communities of Europe. In 1893 his sister, Elisabeth, began to read and study her brother's work. She took control of Friedrich's writings while he was institutionalized. He spent the final years of his life in the care of his sister, uncommunicative with the rest of the world. He died of pneumonia in 1900.

There has been much debate about the cause of Nietzsche's insanity. Some have argued that many of his symptoms were characteristic of an onset of syphilis, though others have rejected this theory. Many, including several famous philosophers, claim Nietzsche's philosophy itself drove him into madness. After his death, his sister published pieces of his final manuscript, The Will to Power, though many commentators do not see this as a complete work, believing that his true intention was not realized in the fractured manuscript.


Study Guides on Works by Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche regarded Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be one of his most important works. Ultimately, it is a work about overcoming the self. It combines inverted allusions to the Bible with Greek mythology and ancient Persian religion.

Nietzsche composed...