“Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (Preface, 1)
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) was born in Rocken in Prussian Saxony. Nietzsche’s father died in 1849, leaving the young Friedrich to be raised by his mother, aunts and older sister. In 1864, Nietzsche left for university in Bonn, and in 1865, he left Bonn for Leipzig, changing his focus from theology to classical philology. In 1869, Nietzsche accepted an appointment in classical philology at the University of Basel. For the next ten years, until his retirement due to disability in 1879; Nietzsche taught at Basel. After leaving Basel, Nietzsche lived on his own, publishing at a steady rate until he suffered a mental breakdown in 1889 in Turin, Italy that left him completely incapacitated. From 1889 until his death in 1900, Nietzsche remained an invalid, dependent on his mother and then sister to care for him as he moved from clinic to clinic before settling finally under his sister’s care in Weimar in 1897.
It has been said that Nietzsche is one of the best known and yet least understood of philosophers, and the reaction to his best known work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, amply illustrates this point. Often read by itself, without a firm grasp of Nietzsche’s other works, Zarathustra’s religious imagery and metaphor leave many with the impression that Nietzsche is not a thinker, but a prophet. While Nietzsche consciously chose the style of Zarathustra for a purpose, it was not to found a new religion, even an atheistic one. Rather, Nietzsche, who begged not to be made holy in his self-assessment Ecce Homo (the title itself being a tongue-in-cheek reference to the New Testament), uses the language of religion in an attempt to undermine religion. Zarathustra epitomises Nietzsche’s plight, as what he saw as his finest, most subtle expression of his thought is misunderstood and interpreted to mean the opposite of what he intended.
Nietzsche’s work is a struggle for the reader and that is often his intent. The short aphorism, which Nietzsche favoured so much, makes it easy for the reader to misjudge the complexity and depth of meaning, almost inviting one to leaf through a copy of Beyond Good and Evil while in waiting in line. To do so, though, is to court misunderstanding and miss what Nietzsche purports to say. To truly read Nietzsche, one must read and struggle with his works as a whole, cover to cover.
While reading Nietzsche is a struggle, it is not a hopeless one. Though his method and language are often oblique, Nietzsche is not a negative thinker: he has a positive direction to his thought, and that direction is nothing less than the realisation of the genius of humanity. Nietzsche’s works can be seen as an ongoing struggle within himself of the fundamental question of what it is to be human, and how that humanity can strive to be greater, and realise its potential. In this way, his writing is not deliberately obscurantist, but reflects the tensions and difficulties humans face in grappling with a world that is increasingly devoid of external meaning.
For Nietzsche, the genius of humanity is the ability to create ex nihilo values and beliefs and, in so doing, to propel ourselves to greater heights than would be possible in an anarchic state of nature. While Nietzsche does not believe in Christianity, he sees in it an expression of the creation of values that impel us to greater achievements than would otherwise be possible. Unfortunately, this does not happen in a historical vacuum. In Nietzsche’s opinion, Christianity has expended its last benefits and no longer carries us to the heights, but weighs us down, preventing us from newer, greater achievements. This is one of the subtexts behind his pronouncement that “God is dead”. For humanity to flourish, it must cast off that which no longer fits, and move on.
How to move on, though? What next? That is really the question at the heart of Nietzsche, and that is why it is not enough to casually read one or two of his works in isolation from the rest of his corpus. Nietzsche’s works mirror the struggle to create meaning. When one has read and struggled with Nietzsche, one will not have the answers, but one will understand where to begin to formulate an answer for oneself. Nietzsche never wanted disciples, indeed even Zarathustra hopes to see his followers repudiate him in the end. Nietzsche wants thinkers, able and willing to form their own answers for themselves. In this way, Nietzsche is not so much telling his readers what to think, but rather how to think. His works are meant to convey not a product but a process, and that process is at the heart of what it is to be human.