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Friedrich Nietzsche was the most fearlessly provocative and original thinker in Western history. The protean diversity of his writings make him one of the most influential of modern philosophers, yet his often paradoxical statements can be properly understood only within the context of his restless, tragic life. Physically handicapped by weak eyesight, violent headaches and bouts of nausea, this Nietzsche made short shrift of self-pity and ostentatious displays of compassion. The son of a Lutheran clergyman, whom he adored, he became a fearless agnostic who proclaimed, in Thus Spake Zarathustra that “God is dead!”
Curtis Cate’s refreshingly accessible new biography brilliantly distills and clarifies Nietzsche’s ideas and the reactions they elicited. This book explores the musical and philosophical influences that inspired his thought, the subtle workings of his creative process, and the acute physical suffering he combated from his adolescence until his final mental collapse of January 1889.
Cutting through the academic jargon and clearing away the prejudices that have become associated with Nietzsche’s name, Cate reveals a man whose ideas continue to have prophetic relevance and incredible vibrancy today.
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A Strongly Pastoral Tradition
– 'Ah, our good, pure Protestant air!'
History, and not least of all the history of philosophy, is full of subtle ironies. One of the strangest is the fact that the most iconoclastic of modern philosophers, the one who did more than anyone since Martin Luther to challenge the established Church, should have been born in a village of Saxon Thuringia, in the Lutheran heartland of Germany – a mere seventy kilometres from the great Reformer's birthplace at Eisleben, eighty kilometres from Erfurt, where he began his university studies, and less than 120 kilometres from the castle of Wittenberg, on whose chapel door the anti-papal rebel posted up his ninety-five theses in October 1517, 327 years before Friedrich Nietzsche's appearance on the scene.
Even if, as the familiar dictum has it, no one is more apt to become an ardent atheist than a once ardent believer, no one can reasonably claim that Luther's most uncompromising modern critic could have been born only in this particular part of Germany, and that he should necessarily have been a Protestant vicar's son. Nietzsche himself regarded these 'accidents' as due to 'blind' chance or fortune, or what he later called 'Fatum'. He will always remain an enigma for neo-Freudians, since contrary to the standard X-pattern of attraction, he adored and idolized his father and never suffered from a mother complex. His rebellion against Christianity and all anthropomorphic religions was an intellectual, not a psychological phenomenon.
Geography may, however, have played a role in Friedrich Nietzsche's intellectual development in a more subtle way. The Saale river valley, where he spent fourteen decisive years of youth and adolescence, happens to be the northernmost wine-growing region of Germany. Konrad Adenauer, a man of dry wit, once remarked that there were three distinct Germanies: the Germany of the schnapps-drinkers of Prussia, the Germany of the beer-drinkers of Bavaria, the Germany of the wine-drinkers of the Rhineland. Of the three, only the wine-drinkers were sober enough to rule the country. Would Nietzsche have agreed? Possibly. At the age of twenty this disillusioned scholar decided that beer-drinking was an uncouth, mind-clouding, ego-inflating pastime collectively indulged in by raucous super-patriots and an impediment to clear thinking. It was thus perhaps not altogether an accident that thisabstemious devotee of Dionysos, who developed an admirable clarity of style, should have been brought up in a pleasant valley whose relatively sober, thrifty, hard-working inhabitants paid temperate homage to Bacchus.
With its vaguely Japanese sound and its distinctly un-Japanese spelling, the name Nietzsche strikes us as a bit exotic. The letter combination ietz, which links it to other Middle-German or Saxon names like Leibniz, Choltitz, Tirpitz, suggests a Slavic origin (comparable to the ice – pronounced itze – combination one finds in Czech names), while the final sche is unmistakably Teutonic. The most illustrious bearer of the name was proudly persuaded that his was not only a hybrid but also an aristocratic genealogy. During the winter of 1883–4, when the thirty-nine-year-old philosopher was hibernating on the French Riviera, he met a Pole who showed him a document entitled, 'L'Origine de la famille seigneuriale de Nietzke'. Nietzsche, who had by then developed a virulent abhorrence of many aspects of German life and culture, needed no further persuading that his father's family was of Polish origin. His cousin, Max Oehler, who later investigated his parental genealogy, clambered back 200 years without finding a trace of Polish ancestry in the family tree, but this in itself means little; for, like neighbouring Silesia, this part of Saxony was inhabited by indigenous Slavs long before the Germanic tribes began their colonizing Drang nach Osten (push towards the east) in the ninth and tenth centuries AD. The name is anything but rare; and variations like Nitsche, Nitzke or Nitze abound all over central Germany.
Far from being of noble stock, Friedrich Nietzsche's ancestors on his father's side were modest Saxon townsfolk – butchers and cottagers who lived in and around Bibra, some eleven miles north-west of the cathedral city of Naumburg. The first to achieve any prominence was Christoph Nietzsche (1675–1739), a public notary who got himself appointed tax inspector for the Kurfürstentum (elector-principality) of Saxony. The decisive step in this slow social ascension was taken by his son, Friedrich August Ludwig, who was Nietzsche's grandfather. Instead of serving the state, he decided to serve God, an even surer way for a person of humble origin to move up in the world. In Protestant Germany the pastor was usually the most important person in any village community, having to act as teacher for the young as well as spiritual guide for adults. Those who displayed unusual promise could even climb out of their rural rut. By publishing several dissertations on moral and religious subjects,
Friedrich August Nietzsche earned himself an honorary degree in theology from the university of Koenigsberg and, a little later, a promotion to the rank of Superintendent for Eilenburg, an important town situated some fifteen miles north-east of Leipzig, on the main high road towards the Elbe. Friedrich August Nietzsche's first wife died in 1805, seven weeks before the battle of Austerlitz, which put a final end to the first Germanic Reich (or Holy Roman Empire). She left seven children behind her, as well as a husband who was in no mood to remain single for the rest of his days. Four years later he married a widow named Erdmuthe Krause. The ecclesiastical connection was thus notably strengthened; for her father had been an archdeacon, while her eldest brother, after occupying a chair in theology at Koenigsberg, succeeded the celebrated philologist-philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder as Superintendent of the Stadtkirche in Weimar.
The times were not propitious for peaceful family life, for Saxony, in 1812–13, was again invaded by foreign troops, who emptied the wine-cellars and lecherously fondled the womenfolk, as first Prussian and then French soldiers had done in Goethe's Weimar before and after the Battle of Jena, seven years before. Erdmuthe Nietzsche, who had already given birth to two daughters (Rosalie and Auguste), was pregnant once again in October 1813, when the great Battle of the Nations near Leipzig sealed Napoleon's doom. A few days before this historic clash, she gave birth to her third child, an infant son named Karl Ludwig. The father was already a ripe fifty-seven, whereas the mother was only thirty-three and destined to live long enough to be able to tell her grandson Friedrich many dramatic stories about those tumultuous times.
Like his father, Friedrich August, the young Ludwig Nietzsche was brought up to be a clergyman. At the age of seventeen he was sent to Halle, an old salt-mining town situated twenty-one miles north-west of Leipzig which had made a name for itself as a seat of religious learning. Most German priests, in the early nineteenth century, could boast a rigorous intellectual training, and German universities were second to none in Europe in the thorough grounding they offered in theology, Greek and Hebrew history, classical philology and biblical exegesis. Although not as famous as Jena, where Fichte, Hegel and Schelling had taught philosophy during the twelve golden years (1794–1806) which had preceded the Napoleonic invasion, Halle's university had also known a period of greatness at the turn of the century thanks to Germany's foremost theologian, Schleiermacher, and to two extraordinary scholars,Friedrich August Wolf and his disciple Philipp August Boeck, who between them had founded the science of classical philology.
At Halle Ludwig Nietzsche was a pious, hard-working student who won a prize for eloquence after preaching an inspiring sermon. His subsequent career might well have been nondescript but for a stroke of luck which later greatly impressed his son, the future philosopher. After her husband's death in 1826, Ludwig's mother went to live with one of her brothers at Altenburg, some twenty miles south of Leipzig. The town's most notable landmark, aside from a Renaissance town hall, was a fortress perched on top of a mass of outjutting porphyry rock which had long belonged to the Wettin family, the hereditary rulers and Prince-Electors of (Upper) Saxony. The forbidding castle had received a baroque facelift in the 1720s, enabling its princely owners to assume the gracious mode de vie of an eighteenth-century court – one of the umpteen princely courts which made the map of Germany resemble a harlequin patchwork costume of proud, semi-independent sovereignties.
When the twenty-one-year-old Ludwig Nietzsche returned from Halle to Altenburg, the little principality had officially ceased to be Saxon and had been incorporated into the powerful kingdom of Prussia, along with most of Saxon Thuringia. This was the punishment that the victorious Prussians, at the Congress of Vienna, had imposed on the irresolute Saxon ruler, Frederick Augustus III, who had rashly sought to aid Napoleon during the Leipzig campaign of 1813. Too small to pose a threat, the diminutive duchy of Altenburg was allowed to retain its ducal court and its Landwehr (local militia). Asked to tutor the children of a Landwehr captain, Ludwig Nietzsche soon attracted the attention of the reigning Duke Joseph, who decided that this accomplished young man who knew Latin, Greek, some French, and played the piano well was ideally suited to supervise the education of his three daughters, Therese, Elisabeth and Alexandra.
After seven years of princely tutoring, Ludwig Nietzsche decided to strike out on his own. In 1842 he was appointed by the Royal Chancellery in Berlin to be parish priest for Röcken, Michlitz and Bothfeld, three villages situated about fifteen miles south-west of Leipzig near the site of the historic battle of Lützen, where the Swedish warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus had met his death in 1632. The Röcken parsonage, a large three-storey house with a tall tiled roof and small, crocodile-lidded dormer windows, was big enough to accommodate a family, enabling the twenty-nine-yearold pastor to move into it with his mother, Erdmuthe, and his two unmarried sisters, Rosalie and Auguste.
On one of his routine visits to the parsonages in nearby villages, Ludwig Nietzsche drove his mother and two sisters down the Leipzig highway as far as the village of Pobles, where they called on the local priest. Still a robust, red-cheeked, energetic man for all his sixty-five years, David Ernst Oehler inhabited a hilltop house from which, looking out over fruit and vegetable gardens, one could view the rolling hills and plains across which had been fought the memorable Thirty Years War clash of Lützen and the more recent and even bloodier battles of Gross Görschen and Leipzig (May and October 1813). The front courtyard, framed by coach-houses, horse-stalls, cowbarns and a kiln for baking bread, looked more like a farm than a vicarage. For to feed his brood of eleven children the rural pastor of Pobles spent as much time hunting game, ploughing fields, milking cows and tending hogs as he did leading services, preaching sermons and giving Bible lessons to his flock.
The son of a master-weaver from the nearby town of Zeitz, David Ernst Oehler had improved his social status by marrying the well-to-do daughter of a landed squire, Wilhelmine Hahn, thanks to whose solid dowry the household could include a coachman and a cook. A spartan upbringing had kept the children in good health, and none more so than the seventeen-year-old Franziska. Why she, rather than one of her three older and still unmarried sisters, caught Ludwig Nietzsche's fancy is not clear. She later told her mother that she reminded him of the Princess Elisabeth he had tutored at Altenburg. She was a pretty, dark-haired girl, with a somewhat angular forehead, protruding brows and large brown eyes. There was a disarming air of innocence about her which was enhanced by the unaffected liveliness of her speech. Her education, compared to that of the Altenburg princesses, was distinctly spotty. She had picked up some rudiments of Latin, geometry and logic, but her father's efforts to teach her French – an 'indispensable' language, he kept repeating – had been conspicuously unsuccessful. She was a healthy, outdoor kind of girl who liked to get up early in the morning, who took her prayers and religious duties seriously, and who, as Ludwig Nietzsche soon discovered, had a sweet-sounding voice for poetry recitations and quite a good ear for music.
If the twenty-nine-year-old Ludwig Nietzsche was attracted by the seventeen-year-old Franziska Oehler, she was no less impressed by the visiting pastor and the unrustic elegance of his black attire. His years spent at the princely court of Altenburg had clearly left their mark – on his manners as on his mode of dress.
The Oehlers – and particularly the father, David Ernst, who liked to liven up the evenings with song-fests – were also impressed by the visiting pastor's musical talents, which he exhibited by playing piano pieces and by fanciful improvisations on the keyboard. This too was a gift Friedrich Nietzsche was to inherit, and even to develop into an audience-astounding art.
Three months after their betrothal, Ludwig Nietzsche and Franziska Oehler were married at Pobles. The date chosen was his thirtieth birthday: 10 October 1843. At the Röcken parsonage it took the shy young bride some time to feel at home in her new surroundings. She felt awed in the presence of Ludwig's mother Erdmuthe, a somewhat frail, quiet-mannered lady of sixty-three, whose pallid features were strikingly offset by handsome dark eyes and coal-black hair, two locks of which were curled over her temples under the rim of the ruffled bonnet she always wore. Although her word was law in all domestic matters, she left the daily chores to her daughter Auguste, who was assisted by a kitchen maid named Mine. This arrangement suited Ludwig's other, slightly older sister, Rosalie, who, being of a more high-strung and intellectual cast of mind, preferred to devote her time to charitable causes, Church problems, and even politics, which she followed by subscribing to the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung.
Franziska had not been in Röcken for more than five months when she realized that she was pregnant. She came close to presenting her husband with a rare birthday gift, but five days later she was finally delivered of an infant son. There was much rejoicing in the village, for the date – 15 October – was also the birthday of their sovereign, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. In honour of this auspicious coincidence, the newborn child was named Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
The young Fritz, or 'Fritzschen', as he was called, showed no early signs of being an infant prodigy. He had fair hair, was wilful, and, when thwarted in his desires, would roll over on his back and kick his little legs in the air. He was even slow to learn to speak. His most remarkable characteristic was an acute sensitivity to music. Whenever his father began to play the piano, little Fritz would drop whatever he was playing with and listen with rapt attention. That his father was the only person in the community able to extract such lovely sounds from this wondrous instrument raised him above ordinary mortals and enveloped him in a celestial aura of infant adoration.
In July 1846, twenty-one months after her first delivery, Franziska Nietzsche gave birth to a daughter. She was given three first names – Therese Elisabeth Alexandra – in honour of the three Altenburg princesses her father had tutored. The middle name – Elisabeth, or its diminutives, Lisbeth and Lieschen – quickly eclipsed the others, doubtless because Elisabeth von Altenburg had been Ludwig Nietzsche's favourite charge.
The young Fritz does not seem to have been affected by the jealous ill-will many firstborn children show to the 'invasion' of a newcomer. Friedrich Nietzsche's adolescent recollections of these golden years at Röcken dwell on other matters. He fondly recalls the old moss-covered church, the powerful impression made on him by the sound of Easter bells, the fright that overcame him each time he crept into the sacristy and was confronted by the superhuman figure of Saint George with his terrible spear, as portrayed in a wall-carving of the dimly lit chamber. He describes the elms and poplars, shading the neighbouring farmsteads and the grass-covered orchard, which, like the cellar, was often flooded when the winter snows began to melt. Inside the parsonage, the one room mentioned is the upstairs study with its rows of books, illustrated albums and learned tomes, where the little Fritz liked to tarry. Its principal occupant, his father, is portrayed in the stilted language of an adolescent as a model priest, 'arrayed in all the virtues of a Christian ... and respected and beloved by all who knew him. His fine manners and lively mind embellished the many social gatherings to which he was invited and made him everywhere liked at his very first appearance.' About his mother and sister there is hardly a word. Yet we know, from a letter written to him on the occasion of Fritz's seventh birthday, that his sister Elisabeth – who had been nicknamed 'Plapperlieschen' ('Prattle-lisbeth') by her godfather – grew up to be as garrulous as her slightly older brother tended to be fitful, meditative and withdrawn.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Friedrich Nietzsche"
Copyright © 2002 Curtis Cate.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 A Strongly Pastoral Tradition,
Chapter 2 Naumburg,
Chapter 3 A Formidable Scholastic Fortress,
Chapter 4 Three Naumburg Bards,
Chapter 5 The Final Years at Pforta,
Chapter 6 With the Beer-drinkers of the Rhine,
Chapter 7 Arthur Schopenhauer's Fateful Spell,
Chapter 8 Philologist and Cannoneer,
Chapter 9 A Momentous Encounter,
Chapter 10 From Leipzig to Basel,
Chapter 11 Tribschen,
Chapter 12 An Intoxicating Friendship,
Chapter 13 A Bitter Taste of Warfare,
Chapter 14 Wild Hopes and Fantasies,
Chapter 15 The Birth of Tragedy,
Chapter 16 The End of an Idyll,
Chapter 17 Future-Philosophy and After-Philology,
Chapter 18 A First Essay in Polemics,
Chapter 19 The Uses and Abuses of History,
Chapter 20 Forging a Philosophical Hammer,
Chapter 21 A Tense Apotheosis,
Chapter 22 Winter in Sorrento,
Chapter 23 A Book for Free Spirits,
Chapter 24 The Wanderer and His Shadow,
Chapter 25 From Morgenröte to Messina,
Chapter 26 Lou Salomé,
Chapter 27 Incipit tragoedia,
Chapter 28 Storm and Stress,
Chapter 29 Finita è la commedia,
Chapter 30 The Birth of Zarathustra,
Chapter 31 'Oh, My Son Zarathustra!',
Chapter 32 'Midday and Eternity!',
Chapter 33 Knights and Ladies of the Gaya Scienza,
Chapter 34 'Very Black and Squid-like',
Chapter 35 The Genealogy of Morals,
Chapter 36 The Marvels of Turin,
Chapter 37 The 'Cave-bear' of Sils-Maria,
Chapter 38 The Collapse,
Chapter 39 The Aftermath,
About Friedrich Nietzsche,