Friedrich Nietzsche was, doubtless, one of modern philosophy’s most influential thinkers.
His philosophical touchstone, also motifs, albeit warped with fantasy, not only provide the precepts and percepts to unmasking the root motives that contextualise conventional Western religion, morality, including theology, but they have had more than something in them to deeply influence generations of intellectuals: from philosophers, poets, novelists, and playwrights to psychologists.
Nietzsche’s raison d’etre of his own brand, or verve, of philosophical certitude and thought underscored his expression that ‘God is dead’ — the fulcrum that determines intellectual agenda, long after he had imprinted his name in letters of gold… on the sands of time.
For an unrelenting foe of nationalism, anti-semitism, including power politics, it was a travesty of history that Nietzsche’s philosophical genius, and name, were invoked by Fascists, most notably the perfidiously digressive Nazi propaganda machine, to foster the ideologies, or fanatical appui, he had detested with all his mind, heart and soul.
Born on October 15, 1844, in a small hamlet in Prussian Saxony, Nietzsche’s early childhood was focused on imbibing the essentials of Lutheran piety. His paternal grandfather, a publisher in his own right, had published books defending Protestant values. So, it was not without reason, that, the Nietzsche household was influential.
Nietzsche’s father was pastor at Rocken, under the order of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, after whom Nietzsche was named. Sadly, Nietzsche Senior died when his brilliant son was but just five summers old. Which was precisely the reason why Nietzsche had to spend most of his early childhood among women. Yet, in the final analysis, not exactly in tune with Freudian belief, Nietzsche didn’t fancy feminism — or, its primary foundation.
Ever an inveterate, skilful learner, Nietzsche was destined for fame from an early age. He went to a boarding school, on a scholarship and, from there, to the prestigious University of Bonn. His electives? No prizes for guessing: theology, and classical philology. Not all was hunky-dory for Nietzsche though, notwithstanding Bonn’s academically stimulating milieu.
Ever the eternal rebel, Nietzsche got himself sandwiched between his two leading classics professors, and their famous, acrimonious quarrels. He felt lost, desolate. Naturally, his fertile mind thought of a way out. Music. Nietzsche wrote a host of compositions, under the prosilient influence of the noted German composer, Robert Schumann. And, soon after, in 1865, he successfully ‘sought’ his transfer to that great place of learning, University of Leipzig, where he joined his old classics professor, from Bonn, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who had accepted an appointment there.
It was just the right time for Nietzsche’s classy revelation of mind and matter to blossom forth. He prospered under Ritschl’s temporal tutelage, and, in the process, became the only student ever to publish in Ritschl’s journal. Two years later, Nietzsche began his military service. However, within six months after he had enrolled, he had to take sick leave. Reason? He sustained a serious chest injury while mounting a horse. A blessing in disguise, perhaps. He resumed his studies, in Liepzig, and discovered Arthur Schopenhauer’s classical philosophy. Schopenhauer’s wisdom was to Nietzsche what penicillin was to Fleming. That’s not all. Nietzsche was soon to meet the great operatic composer, Richard Wagner. He also began his lifelong friendship with another fellow classicist, Erwin Rohde, the acclaimed author of Psyche.
In 1869, Nietzsche became a professor in classical philology, in Basel. Which was paradoxical, because he had not completed his doctoral thesis or the basic proviso of a German degree. What won him that exalted chair was Ritschl’s unparalleled praise, a deep respect for his ward’s limitless talents. That wasn’t all. Nietzsche was soon conferred the doctorate without examination, and appointed extraordinary professor. He became a Swiss citizen.
Then the turbulence, in his life, began.
In 1870, after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche contracted dysentery and diphtheria, while accompanying a transport of wounded: a combined scourge. It enfeebled his health permanently. His friendship with Wagner, though ambivalent, began to wobble. It came to a pass when Nietzsche could no longer bear with the composer’s redundant exploitation of Christian themes, juxtaposed with his own medley of chauvinism and anti-semitism. The two genii broke off finally, come 1878.
If 1872 marked Nietzsche’s emancipation from the trappings of classical scholarship, by way of the publication of his debut work, The Birth of Tragedy from Thy Spirit of Music, a book of profound imaginative insight, and fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian elements. Nietzsche’s appalling health only brought in its wake both isolation and creativity. In 1877, Nietzsche gave up his professorial duties, and set up house with his sister, Elizabeth. A year later, his aphoristic work, Human, All Too Human, appeared, all right, but his failing physical attributes began to hold doubts whether Nietzsche himself had any intrinsic interest in his life per se.
The genii cannot accept quarantine. Nietzsche was no exception. His magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was published between 1883 and 1885, in four parts. A literary and philosophical masterpiece, in biblical narrative form, it celebrates the essential of the essentials, the sentient of the sentients of Nietzsche’s monumental mental chemistry, and alchemy of thought, analyses, and mature philosophy. It was also the fount, the well-spring of Nietzsche’s vision. It was the design, and flow, that urged him to write, and write prolifically, with a new-found iota of sublime understanding of the origin and function of values in human life.
Nietzsche believed in X-raying expressions of the ascetic ideal — the analyses and evaluation of the fundamental cultural values of Western philosophy, religion, and morality. The ascetic ideal, according to Nietzsche, is born when suffering becomes endowed with ultimate significance. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, Nietzsche noted, made suffering tolerable by interpreting it as god’s intention, and as a framework of atonement.
Nietzsche’s etymological approach to the interpretation of morality was centred on the distinction between good and bad — of something descriptive in terms of a historical genealogy of master and slave morality. Nietzsche called the devaluation of the highest values posited by the ascetic ideal, ‘Nihilism.’ He often thought of his writings as struggles with nihilism, religion, philosophy, and morality, from which he developed his original theses vis-à-vis perspectivism, the will to power, eternal recurrence, and the superman.
It goes without saying that Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth, who had enormous control over her brother’s literary estate, was instrumental in refashioning Nietzsche’s works, thanks — ironically — to her greedy psyche. She committed perfidy, and forgeries, and misled generations of commentators and scholars. With her fanatical enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler, Elizabeth also linked Nietzsche’s name with that of the Fuhrer in the public mind and imagination. Which, in more ways than one, fulfilled, rather unscrupulously, Nietzsche’s paramount, and polemical, credo in his writings, that castigated, refuted, wanton acts or purposes: that knowledge from no point of view is as incoherent a notion as seeing from no vantage point.
Nietzsche ridiculed Darwinism, and German nationalism, yes. But, denouncing ideals, even Christian, or people, that had influenced him most, was also a habit with him. Yes, Nietzsche, for most part of his tragic life, what with his shunts to mental asylums, and back, was overwhelmed by madness. For one primal reason: he did not retain a strong enough impression of the disparity between the external world and his own fantasies. Nietzsche also carried his own sense of ‘psychic inflation’ with Zarathustra, and produced delusions of grandeur and psychosis. However, what was so special about Nietzsche was his psychological perceptualisation, including his first rustings of the savage god in the primaeval forests of the unconscious. A signal ‘spark,’ which appealed to none other than psychologist extraordinaire, Carl Gustav Jung.
THE PYRAMID CREDO
A simple man, said Nietzsche, has his place; but, not on the throne. His virtues are, therefore, necessary to society, as those of the leader. Nietzsche laid emphasis on industriousness, thrift, regularity, strong conviction etc., So, he opined that a finer man has a divine right to rule. This need not necessarily mean that a mediocre man cannot become ‘perfect:’ of perfection only as an instrument. “A high civilisation,” Nietzsche observed, “is a pyramid; it can stand only upon a broad base; its prerequisite is a strongly and soundly consolidated mediocrity.” Rings a bell. Right?
Nietzsche was far ahead of his time. He once wrote: “My time is not yet; only the day after tomorrow belongs to me.” Quite true. For one inescapable reason: he had the audacity, and voice, to question conventional, even traditional, wisdom. He sat alone, on lonely heights, and from there came his inspiration. As he himself wrote, in his brilliant, poetically licenced, literary prose:
I sat there waiting — waiting for nothing,
Enjoying, beyond good and evil, now
The light, now the shade; there was only
The day, the lake, the noon, time without end.
Then, my friend, suddenly one became two,
And Zarathustra passed by me.
Nietzsche believed that without good birth, nobility was impossible. He argued that passions will become powers only when they are selected and unified by some great purpose which moulds a bedlam of desires into the power of a personality. He wrote: “Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but the soil of his plants.” Nietzsche underlined that energy, intellect, and pride, made the superman. The final patent of nobility, he argued, was a purpose: a purpose for which one will do almost anything except betray a friend.
When the last blow came, on January 3, 1889, in the form of a stroke, Nietzsche went into a rage. He regressed into a state of quietude, peace, and also a web of composure. So, in one lucid moment, he even said: “Ah! books… I too have written some good books.” A year-and-a-half later, Nietzsche was no more. All Nietzsche carried with him, to a world beyond, was his originality — not the presages of his awesome thoughts that were more than misunderstood by most; even confused, by some others.
It sums up Nietzsche — philosopher supreme — who paid the ultimate price for being a genius.