Nietzsche (1844-1900): a Mini Biography

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken bei Lützen, South of Leipzig, Prussia (Germany), in October 15 1844. Since his father was a Protestant minister, the family lived in the house provided by the church. At age five, Nietzsche’s father (Karl Ludwig) died from a brain ailment and with his mother (Franziska), and his younger sister (Therese Elizabeth Alexandra) he went to live with the paternal grandmother and two great-aunts. It has been suggested that the lack of male role models in Nietzsche’s life had an effect on his personality, somewhat different from that of other boys.

Between the ages of 14 and 19, Nietzsche attended Schulpforta, a highly rated boarding school in Naumburg, the same school attended by the German Idealist philosopher Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). During this period, Nietzsche met his lifetime friend Paul Dessen (1845-1919) who later became an Orientalist and historian of philosophy. Nietzsche was a music lover who even contemplated a career in music. Through a magazine called the Zeitschrift für Musik, which one of his school’s club subscribed, Nietzsche became acquainted with the music of Richard Wagner.

In 1864, after graduating from Schulpforta, Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Bonn to study theology and philology, which at the time were taught for their connections with the classical texts and the Bible. Of these two, it was in philology that Nietzsche had the greatest interest, something that was going to have an indelible effect in his future writings. Nietzsche immersed in philosophy at age twenty one, when he discovered the book The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). From then on he continued to read Schopenhauer and to rethink his arguments. While Schopenhauer sought ways in the aesthetics of art to raise the human condition, Nietzsche took those further by stating that it is man’s responsibility to give meaning to life. Another book that left a mark on Nietzsche was F A Lange’s History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Significance (1866). The essays that Nietzsche wrote while an undergraduate singled him out by the maturity of his thought.

After graduating from the University of Bonn, Nietzsche enrolled himself at the University of Leipzig as a post-graduate student in philology, supervised by Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl. However, soon afterwards he had to take a break from academic life to comply with the military conscription. He worked as a hospital attendant during the Franco-Prussian War and returned to the University of Leipzig after he was discharged. In November of 1868, Nietzsche met the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) at the home of Hermann Brockhaus (1806–1877), an Orientalist who was married to Wagner’s sister, Ottilie. In the following Christmas of 1869 Nietzsche was invited to spend Christmas at the home of Wagner and his wife Cosima, daughter of the composer Franz Liszt, in Bayreuth, Central Germany.

Although Nietzsche had not yet completed his doctorate, with good recommendations from his supervisor Ritschl and others, in December 1868 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Classic Philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. In March 1869, however, the University of Leipzig issued him the rank of doctor, without examination, based on his publications in the journal of the Rheinisches Museum. After moving to Switzerland, Nietzsche renounced his Prussian citizenship, due to a sense of duty to the university that hired him, but since he never met the criteria for Swiss citizenship, he became stateless.

During the time he was a professor in Basel, between 1872 and 1879, Nietzsche maintained his friendship with Wagner and visited the composer several times. Nietzsche’s first book – The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872)–, as well as ideas spread about in other books and essays, attest the impression that Wagner made on Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy was trashed by the philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff (1848-1931), also a former student of Schulpforta. To Wilamowitz-Möllendorff only ignorance, lack of love for truth or naivety could explain Nietzsche’s claims that with the use of Greek tragedy he embodied Dionysius and solved the riddle of the orchestra. When weighting out this bad review it is important to recall the ongoing academic dispute between Nietzsche’s supervisor, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (1806-1876), and Otto Jahn (1813-1869), in which Wilamowitz-Möllendorff sided with Jahn, who was a friend of his best friend Hermann Sauppe.

In January 1879 Nietzsche had his first nervous breakdown, from which he never quite recovered. His health continued to deteriorate and in June of the same year he resigned from the university of Basel, after a career that lasted only ten years. Afterwards Nietzsche had just under ten years of productive life left. He lived in a series of places in Switzerland as well as in Venice, Genoa, Nice and Trim. However, the visible signs of his madness such as his unkempt appearance and delusional outbursts began to be noticed in the Summer of 1888. Nietzsche’s last breakdown occurred in Turin, on 3rd January 1889 when he collapsed and succumbed to madness. The alleged cause of this breakdown was his witnessing of a cabman flogging viciously a stubborn horse, to which Nietzsche reacted by throwing himself to embrace the horse’s neck in order to prevent any further flogging. Nietzsche received constant care from his mother until her death and thereafter he was cared on and off by his sister Elizabeth. On August 25, 1900, just before completing his 56th birthday, Nietzsche died, of pneumonia and a stroke.

Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese speakers: http://www.portvitoria.com/

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