Nietzsche Biography

Updated Monday 21st November 2005

Jonathan Rée summarizes the life and work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche - Image:Mary Evans Picture Library Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library

by Jonathan Rée

Friedrich Nietzsche was appointed Professor of Classics at the University of Basel in 1869, at the age of 24. He taught there, and at an associated grammar school, for ten years. After that he spent a further ten years as a wandering writer in France, Italy and Switzerland before collapsing in Turin. For the remaining decade of his life he was helplessly insane.

Nietzsche's Basel period was relatively happy and peaceful, and it throws an interesting light on his thought as a whole, including the most celebrated themes of his later work: Man, Superman and the death of God. Apart from his duties as a teacher, Nietzsche's thoughts in these years were dominated by his intense relationship with the composer-reformer Richard Wagner. Nietzsche's father had died when he was only four, and it is perhaps significant that Wagner was exactly the same age that Nietzsche's father would have been.

Ever since his schooldays in Germany, Nietzsche had been fascinated by Wagner's attempts to rehabilitate the mythical and irrational elements in culture – elements which Wagner thought had been repressed by Christianity and by artistic neo-classicism. In 1868 – just before his move to Switzerland – Nietzsche was overwhelmed by Wagner's Meistersinger, an opera which explored questions of cultural continuity through a rather idealised portrayal of the master-apprentice relationship in medieval Germany . No doubt Nietzsche hoped that his own relationship to Wagner might follow the same noble pattern of struggle followed by reconciliation.

It was in this context that Nietzsche wrote his first book – The Birth of Tragedy (1872) – which attempted to re-assert the role of passion and instinct in ancient Greek culture. Nietzsche's argument was that the best of the Greek tragic authors – Aeschylus and Sophocles – had managed to combine two opposite forces: Apollonian measure on the one hand, and Dionysian delirium on the other; in addition he implied that Wagner had been the first to unify them effectively again. At the same time he launched a powerful onslaught on philosophy as a whole, and specifically on philosophy in the manner of Socrates, which he condemned for its fussy insistence on making everything as clear and explicit as possible. It was Socratic rationalism, he argued, that had sapped the energy of ancient tragedy. The book could almost have been called "how philosophy murdered tragedy."

Meanwhile in some public lectures on education at the Basel City Museum, Nietzsche dug a little deeper into the very idea of mastery, apprenticeship, and cultural progress, coming to the conclusion that the kind of mutual understanding that Wagner celebrated in Meistersinger was an illusion, and that it is a sign of success rather than failure when students disagree with their teachers – as indeed he was beginning to disagree with Wagner.

1844 15 October - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche born at Röcken, a small village in Prussian Saxony

1849 death of his father, the village pastor

1850 moves with mother and sister to Naumburg, Thuringia

1858 scholarship to the Pforta school, celebrated for its classical studies

1864 enters Bonn University to study theology and philology

1865 transfers to Leipzig University

1868 publishes his dissertation on the ancient historian of philosophy, Diogenes Laertius; is befriended by Richard Wagner (1813-83)

1869 receives doctoral degree from Leipzig; attends two performances of Wagner's Meistersinger, moves to Basel, Switzerland as Professor of Classical Philology and grammar-school teacher of Greek; renounces Prussian citizenship; pays first of 23 visits to Wagner and his family at Tribschen, near Lucerne . Christmas at Tribschen.

1870 public lectures in the Aula of the City Museum on "Greek Music Drama" and "Socrates and Tragedy"; on the outbreak of Franco-Prussian war, volunteers as medical orderly with Prussian army but collapses with diphtheria after a couple of weeks; second Christmas at Tribschen, witnessing first performance of Siegfried Idyll.

1871 leave of absence on account of illness; travels and works on The Birth of Tragedy

1872 Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music published; public lectures "On the future of our educational institutions"; Wagner family leave Tribschen for Bayreuth; meets Paul Rée

1873 publication of Untimely Meditations I: David Strauss

1874 publication of Untimely Meditations II: The Uses and Disadvantages of History and III: Schopenhauer as Educator; estrangement from Wagner

1875 illness; joined in Basel by his sister Elizabeth

1876 extended leave from Basel on grounds of poor health; publishes Untimely Meditations IV: Richard Wagner at Bayreuth; attends the first public cycle of Wagner's Ring operas but avoids Wagner; winter in Sorrento with Paul Rée

1877 returns to teaching in Basel

1878 publication of Human, All Too Human (Wagner: "I have done him the kindness of not reading this book")

1879 retires from University, with pension

1883 publication of Thus Spake Zarathustra, parts one and two

1886 publication of Beyond Good and Evil

1887 publication of The Genealogy of Morals

1888 publication of The Case of Wagner

1889 collapses in Turin

1890 moves in with his mother in Naumburg

1893 Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche starts a "Nietzsche Archiv" at Naumburg

1896 Archive moves to Weimar

1897 death of Nietzsche's mother (aged 70); Nietzsche transferred to Weimar

1900 25th August - death of Nietzsche

READING

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (with The Case of Wagner ), translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, New York

Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How one becomes what one is, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin

Andrea Bollinger and Franziska Trenkle, Nietzsche in Basel, Schwabe Verlag, Basel, 2000

 

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