In the Alps I am unconquerable, that is, when I am alone and have no enemy other than myself. — Nietzsche, letter to Malwida von Meysenburg
Friedrich Nietzsche remains the most enigmatic of philosophers. Claimed by both the political Left and Right over the 121 years since his death (by which time he had been incurably insane for 11 years), the Lutheran pastor’s son left a philosophical legacy which remains mysterious, and yet to the “philosophers of the future” for whom Nietzsche wrote, ultimately uplifting even in its ominous predictions for the Western culture to which he felt he was a physician.
Students and critics of Nietzsche have tended to concentrate on his later works: the bombastic Thus Spake Zarathustra, the iconoclastic The Antichrist, the riddle of Beyond Good and Evil. But even though Nietzsche himself wrote in the autobiographical Ecce Homo, in the wonderfully-titled chapter “Why I Write Such Excellent Books,” that “I am one thing, my writings another,” it is hard to think of a philosopher whose later work was so much a product of his early life, his reading, his diarizing and juvenilia, his love of music, his spiritual loneliness, and his devotion to, among others, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Hölderlin, Byron, and of course Richard Wagner.
Here, then, I will concentrate on Nietzsche’s early work: his first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music; the early “academic” essays, including Nietzsche’s inaugural presentation at the University of Basel, “Homer and Classical Philology,” and the four essays that comprise Untimely Meditations (also translated as Thoughts out of Season). I will also draw on Julian Young’s peerless Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography.
I. Leaving Father’s House: The Young Nietzsche
That which arrives in time arrives not to abide, but to pass on. — Martin Heidegger, “Who is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?”
Stressing the importance of Nietzsche’s youth and early manhood risks falling into the error Young finds in Ronald Hayman’s biography, that of being too eager to get the philosopher onto the psychoanalyst’s couch. But the loss of Nietzsche’s father when he was only six and the leaving of the familial home — Der Vaterhaus — at Röcken, followed by his relocation to Pforta — the German equivalent of Eton College in England — and a chain of educational institutions, combined with a religious belief he would famously renounce, combine to show a boy constantly leaving the scenes of his life. The figure of the wanderer would become a trope for Nietzsche as he later wandered stateless around Europe.
Nietzsche’s youth was exemplary, and he was a supreme student. Many of his juvenile writings and diaries remain, along with letters, and show the type of questioning of the world that could never be satisfied by his chosen subject: philology. When Nietzsche underwent his short but impactful military service as a medic in the Franco-Prussian war, he wondered aloud what would happen to philologists if they trained them as hard as soldiers. The contrast between action and the dryness of academic study would never leave him.
When he found his surrogate parents, Richard and Cosima Wagner, he was spellbound, and Wagner’s attempts to re-found Greek culture in the total work of art gave Nietzsche the father’s blessing his own father never lived to bestow, and inspired him to write his first major work.
II. Hunting Silenus: The Birth of Tragedy
An artist of union, is what we should welcome in every province of the universe. — Goethe, Elective Affinities
Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, was written in 1872 under the spell of Richard Wagner, and may be read in concert with The Wagner Case, the first essay in the Untimely Meditations of 1876, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism,” a retrospective look at Birth written in 1886, and Nietzsche contra Wagner, one of Nietzsche’s last works before his descent into madness in 1889, and the essay which details Nietzsche’s disillusion with the composer.
The Birth of Tragedy concerns Greek tragedy considered as a result of the Greeks’ worldview and the complementary opposition between the gods Apollo and Dionysus, the former representing the plastic arts and the latter music: “the Apollonian dream artist [and] the Dionysian ecstatic artist.” In order to manage the “terrors and horrors of existence,” the Greeks had to “place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians.” Death was everywhere for the Greeks, and its terrible shadow needed to be chased away with bright sunlight. Nietzsche was always fascinated by the myth of Silenus, the satyr hunted by Midas in the wood and questioned as to the greatest good in life. The goat-man answers that never to have been born is best, or at least to die as soon as possible.
Having warned against psychoanalytic interpretations of Nietzsche’s early life, I will not dwell on a Freudian reading of Birth except to say that there is a clear analogue between consciousness and the Apollonian, and the unconscious and the Dionysiac. Thus, Nietzsche writes that “we have come to interpret Greek tragedy as a Dionysian chorus which again and again discharges itself in Apollonian images.” We are reminded of Freud’s insistence that the unconscious stratum of the mind can only be accessed by reading the presentation of its activity in the conscious mind.
Nietzsche, however, is writing not only psychologically and culturally, but also metaphysically. Birth introduces one of his most consistent themes: that of the fallacious belief in the existence of another world “behind” the real one, with Kant and the otherwise sainted Schopenhauer being his main targets. There are two worlds posited by man — largely due to dreams (Nietzsche will expand on this in Dawn) — and this may be one of the greatest of philosophy’s historical errors, Nietzsche believes. It also leads, in Birth, to Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates as the destroyer of myth and promoter of a ruinous positivism, a curse which he will expand on in Human, All-Too-Human and Beyond Good and Evil, and elsewhere in his later work.
But Birth also sets up the great phenomenological project Nietzsche bequeaths to Husserl and Heidegger. If there are two worlds posited, and this is a metaphysical blunder, what can Nietzsche formulate that would be reductive enough to mend the rift in the lute? What is Nietzsche’s ground-note for the work ahead?
The key text for understanding Nietzsche’s apparent idealism, and his later turn to positivism, came to him in a manner appropriate for a thinker who made his motto amor fati: a love of chance.
III. A Different Language: Schopenhauer
Now, taking philosophy first, we find that it is like a monster with many heads, each of which speaks a different language. — Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea
While at university in Leipzig in 1865, Nietzsche entered a second-hand bookstore, and what he found there was to have a profound effect on both his life and his work. He bought a book unknown to him, The World as Will and Representation (also translated as The World as Will and Idea) by Arthur Schopenhauer. Years later, Nietzsche was to write that “I don’t know what daimon whispered to me, ‘Take this home . . .’” But take it home he did, where he “threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dismal genius work on me.”
It is clear that Schopenhauer’s central notion of “will to life” (Wille zum Leben) is intimately related to Nietzsche’s central concept of “will to power” (Wille zur Machen). Schopenhauer, for all Nietzsche’s disagreements with him, remained a crucial influence throughout his life after the momentous visit to the bookshop. Nietzsche would go on to write an essay praising his intellectual mentor, “Schopenhauer as Educator.”
The essay is one of the Untimely Meditations, and it is the first work in which Nietzsche fully engages with what philosophy is and therefore what the philosopher is — and could be, should be. It is the first real instance of Nietzsche’s belief that he himself was a valid area of inquiry, that the philosopher should be neither the antiquarian specialist nor the skeptics he sees around him. But there is a cost to the self-examined life, although not set at the price Socrates paid: “Also this digging into one’s self, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being, is a troublesome and dangerous business to start.”
So Nietzsche becomes what he is: the subject of his own enquiries, and at the same time a psychologist of himself whose work — as summed up in Ecce Homo — will not be without cost.
It is the dissenting Schopenhauer that fascinated the 21-year-old Nietzsche. If he places him in a triumvirate of heroes along with Hölderlin and Goethe, it is as much due to Schopenhauer’s swimming against the Kantian currents of the time. Also, Schopenhauer’s tendencies toward mysticism and Orientalism cannot be discounted in their effect on Nietzsche, whose own later work took on Buddhist undertones and an attraction for the collection of ancient Sanskrit hymns, the Rig Veda.
Nietzsche, despite his basic disagreement with Schopenhauer’s pessimism, had found a philosopher for whom “philosophy offers an asylum to mankind where no tyranny can penetrate, the inner sanctuary, the center of the heart’s labyrinth: and the tyrants are galled at it.”
Philosophy, for Nietzsche, was always personal, cultural, and political. Whatever life embraces for Nietzsche, there you will find will to power and the lifelong influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. The curmudgeonly German was also an introductory link with the other great influence on the young Nietzsche: Richard Wagner.
IV. Meeting the Meistersinger: Wagner
Wagner’s philosophical thinking focuses on four interconnected topics: society, politics, art and religion. — Julian Young, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography
Whether or not Richard and Cosima Wagner were surrogate parents and family for Nietzsche, he walked into a cultured bohemianism which must have shocked and thrilled him. Wagner joined Goethe and Schopenhauer among Nietzsche’s personal pantheon. Appropriately, the Renaissance historian Jakob Burkhardt was a mutual friend of both men. Nietzsche certainly experienced a rebirth the effects of which stayed with him throughout his life.
Nietzsche’s essay in Untimely Meditations, “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” is hagiography, and the very fact that Nietzsche was so open about his feelings would have added bile to the eventual irreconcilable rift in the two men’s friendship. Nietzsche called Wagner “the master” and declared many times that he wished Bayreuth to be his life’s mission. Wagner enjoyed the attention from the up-and-coming academic and was incensed when the exhausted Nietzsche failed to appear at the Wagner home, Tribschen, one Christmas. Nietzsche was to experience from Wagner what he had himself diagnosed in “Bayreuth”: “[T]he two sides of his nature remained faithful to each other, that out of free and unselfish love, the creative, ingenuous and brilliant side kept loyally abreast of the dark, the intractable, and the tyrannical side.”
But at the time of “Bayreuth,” Goethe and Schopenhauer laid the foundation of the past for Nietzsche, while Wagner was the future. More, he was the harbinger of that future, announcing its imminent fall via artistic philosophy. Wagner’s mission becomes messianic:
[T]his new art is a clairvoyante that sees ruin approaching — not for art alone. Her warning voice must strike the whole of our prevailing civilization with terror the instant the laughter which its parodies have provoked subsides.
The aftermath of the end of the affair included Nietzsche’s claim that Wagner had precisely become a parody of himself, when Nietzsche had wanted so much more than the all-too-human:
“Wagner is most philosophical where he is most powerfully active and heroic.”
The superman, Zarathustra, Richard Wagner: These were Nietzsche’s three graces. Even after Nietzsche’s disillusionment, he was clearly still in love with Cosima, to whom he addressed some of his crazed letters during his final lapse into insanity. But the Tribschen years left a lasting mood within Nietzsche and inspired his early work, which continued with four academic essays focusing aims Nietzsche would return to throughout his work.
V. The Accidental Philosopher: The Four “Academic” Essays
[M]any disapprove of all philosophers, because their aims are not ours; they are those whom I called “strangers to us.” — Nietzsche, “Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks”
The “academic” essays continue and sum up Nietzsche’s fascination with the classical world of the Greeks. “Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks” (circa 1874) introduces the idea of philosophy as both an antidote to failing culture and as exception to the rule:
In other ages the philosopher is an accidental solitary wanderer in the most hostile environment, either slinking through or pushing through with clenched fists. With the Greek however the philosopher is not accidental . . .
Nietzsche sees the philosopher more as Socrates’ gadfly than Plato’s philosopher-king.
“On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” is the seed from which Nietzsche’s epistemological theory later grows, and also provides one of his most famous quotes:
What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical and binding.
Another Nietzschean theme is present here, one which will travel all the way to The Genealogy of Morals: What seems to mankind to be truths are in fact the products of gradual evolution dependent on cultural attitudes.
“Homer and Classical Philology” was Nietzsche’s inaugural address at the University of Basel, where he was offered the Chair of Philology at the astonishingly young age of 24 on the basis of a half-finished doctoral thesis. Homer was the cultural backbone of classical Greece, and “Philology” partly deals with the intense debate concerning whether Homer was one poet or the result of many transmitting an oral tradition. For Nietzsche, this academic battlefield is largely irrelevant, and he intimates that academic time is better spent on understanding the culture that both produced and assimilated the name of Homeros:
The name of Homer, from the very beginning, has no connection either with the conception of aesthetic perfection or yet with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer as the composer of the Iliad and the Odyssey is not a historical tradition, but an aesthetic judgement.
Finally, “On Words and Music” is a specialist piece on rhetoric, using the writer of Tonbilden – “tone poems” –, Gerber. The connection between, for example, operatic music and its attendant libretto is the same as symbolic representation: “[T]he song-text is just a symbol and stands to music in the same relation as the Egyptian hieroglyph of bravery did to the brave warrior himself.”
The “academic essays,” as I have called them, are important to remind the student of Nietzsche that he was a brilliant and accomplished scholar. His reputation throughout his life as a first-rate teacher can be seen, as well as the foreshadowings of the later corpus.
For Nietzsche’s next work, he moved from the Hellenic world he loved so much into one for which he had a far more skeptical and critical eye, as shown by an essay collection in which the “physician of culture” took the temperature of German culture.
VI. Siding against the State: Untimely Meditations
The state obviously has a special fear of philosophy, and will try to attract more philosophers, to create the impression it has philosophy on its side . . . Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator”
The first of Nietzsche’s essays in this collection was a savage critique of David Strauss, a fairly innocuous theologian who had attacked Wagner, causing the philosopher to react like a guard-dog. Strauss — who was puzzled to find himself under such vehement attack — was for Nietzsche a philistine, and the catalyst for one of Nietzsche’s most succinct definitions of culture:
Culture is, before all things, the unity of artistic style, in every expression of the life of a people. Abundant knowledge and learning, however, are not essential to it, nor are they a sign of its existence; and, at a pinch, they might coexist much more harmoniously with the very opposite of culture — with barbarity: that is to say, with a complete lack of style, or with a riotous jumble of all styles.
The last sentence has much to say about our own “culture.”
“Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” has been addressed above, as has “Schopenhauer as Educator,” but the third Meditation, “The Use and Abuse of History for Life,” also has much to say to us, living as we are in a dangerous time of historical revisionism. Nietzsche is concerned to examine different critical approaches to history, recognizing as he does its importance to a culture which wishes to thrive. Famously — and necessitated as much as any stylistic concerns by his lifelong weakness of vision — Nietzsche wrote much of his later work in aphorisms, and “History” contains one dazzling sentence to correct any academic temptation to see later generations as being wiser than their predecessors, and to emphasize that the student of history should not seek to judge the past: “As judges, you must stand higher than that which is to be judged: as it is, you have only come later.”
These writings, then, lay the foundation for Nietzsche’s later work. The lonely wanderer, once his schooldays were behind him, became more reclusive and withdrew more and more into himself, not — or not only — as a defense mechanism against a world in which he believed he was “untimely,” but because he knew that the grail of philosophy, the philosopher’s stone, lay within. And yet he longed to be a part of the world, and a heart-rending note from the 13-year-old Nietzsche’s diary shows a boy who, like all little boys, loved Christmas, the celebration of a god he would walk away from — as he walked away from everyone and everything else, including his sanity –, but also the man he would become, who longed to unite himself with and take part in a world he was in but not of:
Christmas is the most blessed festival of the year because it doesn’t concern us alone, but rather the whole of mankind, rich and poor, humble and great, low and high. And it is precisely this universal joy which intensifies our own mood.
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