Throughout the course of my three year academic journey, the life and works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche have been a continuous subject of study and interpretation. His influence goes beyond just philosophy, reaching the limits of mainstream popular culture much in the same lines of fascination and admiration of historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Goth, and John Cleese. Films and television programs like The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Parasite, and The Lighthouse among others owe much of their themes and explorations to the works of the 19th Century German philologist-turned-philosopher.
If we expand further, we may discover he may very well be the catalyst for what would ultimately become the nihilistic outlook the modern world has come to view reality. From this perspective, it is quite apt to say Nietzsche developed the foundation of what would later become postmodernism and deconstructionism.
However, it is rather unwise to categorize Nietzsche as just the precursor of these moments. His body of work demonstrates he was intensely interested in touching upon all that can be encompassed as art. This central theme found in most of his work can be used to distinguish it from the works of other philosophers. Some have used this distinction to assert how this in turn makes him a mere theorist undeserving of the title of philosopher. I look at this extreme with much pity; to question Nietzsche as a philosopher not only misses the mark but completely denigrates the immense density and complexity behind his most fundamental ideas.
Reading Nietzsche is not an easy task. This is mainly due to the difficulty of translating his texts and unpublished manuscripts. The horrible smears and distortions of his manuscripts at the hands of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, were also of influence to the lack of respect paid to his work. Over time, the translations were improved and the world began to view him on a much different light.
The best English translators of his books are Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Kaufmann’s translations can be found in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, which have been my primary source. Most of the selections are incomplete, with the exception of The Birth of Tragedy. Despite the missing chapters, the book is a perfect introduction to Nietzsche up to his most fundamentals. In it one may find a deep, provocative, and occasionally arrogant but firm and tormented individual trying to find meaning and beauty at the face of the debilitating conditions of existence.
Existentialism is the school of thought most associated with Nietzsche’s writings. Despite this reputation, and his influence on Camus and Sartre, his works were never explicitly existential, mostly due in large part for the lack united thinkers in the academic world on the subject. It has been through the re-discovery and re-interpretation of his work that this label was been bestowed upon him.
Nietzsche’s philosophy fundamentally deals with the conditions and implications of our existence from both a scientific and metaphysical perspective. With this in mind, he concludes that only through the arts can man find peace for his condition. This sentiment is vividly expressed in the third chapter of The Birth of Tragedy:
The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. That he might endure this terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant birth of the Olympians. That overwhelming dismay in the face of the titanic powers of nature… all this was again and again overcome by the Greeks with the aid of the Olympian middle world of art. (48)
This dichotomy between art and existence can not only be extrapolated with Aristotle’s postulations in Poetics, but tie the underlying knot with all of Nietzsche’s philosophy. It is similarly present in his most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which intended to create a separation between religion, philosophy, and art. The way Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra serves as an indicator to the dual intentions of the work. The religious language it invokes adds an element of artistic merit and irony to the text, further demonstrating his commitment to the breach in art and existence.
Part of the reason Nietzsche is a captivating figure relates to the way he met his demise. On the 3rd of January 1889, he suffered a massive mental breakdown of which he never recovered from. He remained in a state of madness until suffering from two massive strokes in 1898 and 1899. These strokes left him in a paralyzed state where his sister and mother became their main caregivers. He died on the 25th of August 1900 at the age of 55.
It is almost impossible to separate Nietzsche’s philosophy from his personal life. Both are indicators into his thoughts on a profound level. In one of the last letters he ever sent before his nervous breakdown, he concluded by expressing his full understanding of the anguish of existence. The letter highlights a glimpse into his condition close to insanity. The presence of pessimism and optimism follows his thoughts like a magnetic pulse uncontrollable through his will despite his most valiant efforts. He became a victim of his own impulses, succumbing to the abyss he so fervently warned people about. It is this tragic irony that has led Nietzsche to the important statue he has been elevated to today.
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