Nietzsche: Robert Pearce Introduces One of the Most Important-And Misunderstood-Thinkers of the 19th Century

By Pearce, Robert | History Review, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Nietzsche: Robert Pearce Introduces One of the Most Important-And Misunderstood-Thinkers of the 19th Century


Pearce, Robert, History Review


No one studying modern European history can avoid Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Events that marked and marred the modern world, including the First World War and the Nazi tyranny, and important social developments, like the secularisation of society, are closely associated with him. No philosopher, perhaps, has ever been considered so inseparable from politics, and few philosophers have ever influenced so profoundly the way people think about their lives. Many of his phrases--'the superman', 'the will to power', 'God is dead', 'live dangerously', 'blond beast'--have become part of the currency of educated people's language. According to J.P. Stern, had Nietzsche not lived 'the life of modern Europe would be different'. Yet many of us know very little about the substance of this enigmatic figure--who once said we should philosophise with a hammer and write books in blood.

Was Nietzsche really a warmonger whose militarism caused war to break out in people's minds even before the physical battles were joined in August 1914? What of his influence on Hitler and the Nazis? In a popular book, Fascism for Beginners, Nietzsche is described as an 'ultraconservative' thinker; and we see spouting from the mouth of a cartoon of this unmistakable, walrus-moustached figure the words: 'Our ideal is to achieve the superman by collective experiments in discipline and breeding'. There is clearly a real danger that we may accept half-baked, even preposterous, notions about Nietzsche's ideas and their influence.

The Man and his Work

Nietzsche certainly came from a conservative family. He was born in 1844 at Rocken, near Leipzig, in rural Prussian Saxony, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Indeed both his grandfathers were Lutheran ministers. His father, a convinced royalist who was proud of having once tutored royal princes, called him Friedrich Wilhelm after the King of Prussia, whose birthday, 15 October, he shared. Inevitably, this background of religion and support for state power marked the young boy.

Nietzsche stood out first because of his educational success. After his father's death in 1849 (from what was diagnosed as 'softening of the brain'), he was educated in Naumburg, at the prestigious Pforta boarding school and at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. Then, at the remarkably early age of 24, he became Professor of Philology (specialising in classical Greek language and culture) at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Secondly, he stood out because he was anything but conventional.

Nietzsche tried very hard to be normal. At Bonn he did all that could reasonably be expected of a typical student, including boozing, duelling and whoring. He duly took part in long beery drinking bouts, and suffered the consequences without complaint. He acquired the obligatory duelling scar to his face, though apparently without the skill to inflict the same mark of honour on his opponent. If he turned tail and ran away from his first brothel, it seems that he returned (and, so most biographers suspect, contracted the syphilis which eventually killed him). But in the end he admitted that it was all too much. 'Become who you are', he was soon to advise: in other words, have the courage to rebel against the pressures that seek to mould and limit you--instead, find your true self.

Nietzsche was no ultraconservative but a rebel. 'Strife is the perpetual food of the soul', he had written as early as 1862. His own strife would not be in the realm of action. He had suffered migraine headaches and poor eyesight from early years, and though he volunteered to serve as a nursing orderly in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he soon collapsed from dysentery and diphtheria. He was never really well again. Instead, he would do battle in the realm of ideas. In particular, having lost his faith, he would take on religion. 'If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe,' he wrote to his sister; 'if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire. …

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