Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Germany in 1844 the son of a Lutheran clergyman. Precocious as a student, he attended the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig, where he read and was deeply influenced by the work of the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche once claimed that he felt Schopenhauer was writing directly to him. Nietzsche was made professor of Philology at the University of Basel at the incredibly young age of 24 (he had not yet completed his dissertation). It is unclear exactly when Nietzsche lost faith – his gymnasium (high school) teachers describe him as devout and highly engaged with the topic of religion – but the break would come.
Within a decade of teaching, Nietzsche became disillusioned with academia, which he saw as pedantic, and began to conceive of himself as the harbinger of a new consciousness – one that was unfettered from the constraints of religion, one that was “beyond good and evil.” What may have seemed sheer arrogance at the time proved to be prophetic in its significance, because Nietzsche ushered in, or at least saw the emergence of, an atheistic era. In fact, Americans today likely donʻt realize just how atheist (or agnostic) the rest of the developed world is. In Britain, only six percent of citizens attend religious services and the majority of those are Muslim. But unlike most contemporary atheism which trusts science to guide us, Nietzsche’s put its faith in the arts, and in particular that of the great German composer Richard Wagner.
His close, but later strained, relationship with Wagner seemed to encourage this sense of superiority, and coincided with a campaign to unify the German identity and national consciousness. This superhuman self-concept was expressed most clearly in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra (chosen because he represents the beginning of the monotheistic religions he saw as glorifying the weak) proclaims the true doctrines of the death of God and the rise of the übermench – the “superman” or “overman:”
Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:
I teach you the superman. Man is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … What is the ape to men? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. So shall man be to the superman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment.
Nietzsche left Germany and travelled, in particular Italy and Switzerland held appeal for him. He spent many summers in a small Swiss hamlet hiking the peaks of Sils-Maria. The walks kept him relatively vigorous (his health was in a constant fragile state), but climbing the peaks was a metaphor for his transcending of normal human consciousness.
Perhaps unknowingly, Nietzsche became a pioneer in the field of methodology, developing a view later carried on by Michel Foucault called “genealogy.”
Nietzsche had a nervous breakdown in 1889 in Turin, Italy, likely the result of syphilis he contracted in his youth. He was said to have reacted to the beating of a horse in the street and never recovered. He lived 11 more years as a catatonic invalid and died in 1900. Some of his collected works were published as The Will to Power in 1901 and Ecce Homo was published in 1908.