December 3, 2009

Tonight the wind swept through with a spattering of snow carried from some far arctic region. Ten of us bundled in close to the spitting fire. Jerry announced that the discussion tonight would be about Nietzsche. So it was. Mark, a professor of educational philosophy at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, told us about the life of Nietzsche. Following is a greatly truncated, though I hope not mangled account of a little of what was said. I am relying on memory and some help from a few external sources to piece together the strands I offer here.

Born in 1844, Nietzsche first taught philology (the study of language and its development) before turning to philosophy at the University of Basel, in Germany. At 24 years of age and without a doctorate, he was and continues to be one of the youngest tenured professors at the University. In 1872 he published The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, but received little acceptance for the work.  Plagued by illness for most of his life, he struggled with such poor eyesight that he eventually had to give up reading. He was friends with the composer Richard Wagner as well as Wagner’s wife Cosima. Though initially influenced by the pessimistic philosophy of Wagner and Arthur Schopenhauer (a German philosopher), Nietzsche reacted against it with the publication of Human, All Too Human in 1878.

In 1882 Nietzsche met the young Russian intellectual Lou Andreas Salomé, through his friend, psychologist Paul Rée. Ree was already in love with Salome and apparently Nietzsche became so quickly for he asked Salomé to marry him and she refused. However the three of them remained together for a time in a sort of intellectual menage a trois. Nietzsche’s relationship with Rée and Salomé ended in the winter of 1882/1883, partially because of Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth and the increased involvement of Salome with Ree. During this time he began writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche was a fairly prolific author during the times when illness did not make work impossible. Beginning with Human, All Too Human in 1878, he published one book every year until 1888, his final year of writing, during which he wrote five.

In 1889, Nietzsche had a mental breakdown. It is speculated that he saw a horse being whipped and threw his arms around its neck to protect it, then collapsed to the ground. During this time, his insanity was manifested in the unintelligible letters he sent to many people. It is thought the insanity was caused by syphilis, perhaps contracted during the one occasion he visited a brothel.

In 1893, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth returned from Paraguay (where she had moved with her now- dead anti-Semitic husband to found Nueva Germania, a Germanic colony) and began to publish Nietzsche’s unpublished work, taking liberties with the material, deleting and adding things that did not reflect his intent.

Throughout his life, his writings, though published, were not widely read. His acerbic critiques of Christianity and other philosophers delivered in an offensive (for that time) manner, helped to alienate him from the reading public.

Nietzsche’s final years were spent in the care of his sister. He died in 1900. His goal was not to destroy morality, but rather to re-evaluate the values of the Judeo-Christian world. His famous phrase “God is dead” has led many to believe he was an atheist, but his view was that modern science and increasing secularization had ‘killed’ the Christian God, who had remained the basis for meaning and value in the West for millenia. He claimed the death of God would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective on things, as well as any coherent sense of objective truth. He abhorred traditional pity and defined real pity as that which is motivated to empower people.

Someone asked what book of Nietzsche’s they should read first to begin exploring his ideas. Birth of Tragedy was agreed upon. Somewhere in the ensuing discussion, Jerry told Mark he should write a primer on Nietzsche “for peons like us who don’t understand him.” In an undertone heard only by a few, Jerry’s nephew Greg said of his uncle, “If he’s a peon, I don’t know what I am.”

We drank the unpronounceable yet smooth Auchentoshan single malt scotch tonight.


~ by Mark Neal on December 5, 2009.

3 Responses to “December 3, 2009”

  1. Congratulations on bloggery. It’s pretty interesting to me to hear the emanation from a fireside discussion, and it is interesting to hear more about Nietzsche. It reminds me that I’m supposed to make another blog post today for and it has helped to inspire me to bite the bullet.

  2. Thank you Sir, for informing us all who are scattered abroad on the tantalizing discussion that still happens around that magical fire. Now, I must say that I have particular interest in the above topic due to my undergraduate degree in philosophy and the graduate course I took entitled, “Nietzsche’s view of Jesus”. It’s been far too long since I reflected on the pithy and sharp wit and insight of Nietzsche. He was, by far the most bold intellectual that has ever existed in my opinion. He actually embraced what he thought was true and refused to back down to those who disagreed. In my opinion, he was and is by a long shot, the most honest philosopher and accurate prophet of the last century. Though he died on the heels of the 20th century, his prognostication of its outcome would be unavoidably accurate. To paraphrase, he said that the 20th century would be the bloodiest century to date since the traditional belief in God had lost its footing with the public due to the tangible and empirical evidence of science. Unfortunately, he was right. However, when reading his work, one will find many outdated arguments and outdated evidence that he uses that has been addressed since then and debunked. However, his paasion to seek what “is” was most admirable. As for him contracting syphilis… that is questionable though not totally outlandish. He was a piano player and it was noted in some research that he frequented a brothel to play piano there. Who knows. To note, it was documented at his fathers death that he died of a “soft brain”. So it could have been a genetic thing. Some researchers have also questioned the reality of the horse in the street incident. Nevertheless, his philosophy was unusually forthright, void of verbal acrobatics and mental confusion. He sought to question conventional wisdom and did so with every part of his being. However, I believe that his passion, though admirable. was not totally grounded in complete fact. He began his philosophy with a denunciation with anything that is non-physical. He assumed that all that exists does so in the physical realm, and therefore eradicates all other types of existence on any other realm. So, he operated like many do; with a strong pre-supposition that the existence of God is untenable on the basis that He is not empirically verifiable. As a result of this, morality (traditional) is farcical because it is not based on true reality but on a fictitious reality concocted by the people. Thus, he said the “superman” or the “overman” was the only answer to the new emerging human to overcome these weaknesses in humanity. Nietzsche’s works were passed to Stalin and Mussolini by Hitler himself. Who knows how he would have felt about that had he been alive. I guess that will be better left to the next epoch in time or to a brilliant historical-fiction writer. Nevertheless, well done on bringing up a very important philosopher!

  3. Thanks for the comment. You mention that Nietzsche’s works were passed to Stalin and Mussolini by Hitler. I think he would have hated that. From the little I know, he was very much against anti-Semites; he broke with one of his publishers because of his anti-Semite leanings. He is even quoted as saying that such a movement should be “utterly rejected with cold contempt by every sensible mind.” So, I wonder just how happy he would have been to have Hitler championing his writings. He also hated how his friend Wagner, the famous composer, championed German culture.

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