Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for On the Genealogy of Morals

Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906. (Wikimedia Commons)  Nietzsche’s work anticipated and explored the psychological burdens of the 20th Century. Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906. (Wikimedia Commons) Nietzsche’s work anticipated and explored the psychological burdens of the 20th Century. Named for the Prussian King, Friedrich Wihelm IV, Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Germany on Tuesday October 15th, 1844, to Karl Ludwig (1813-1849) and Franziska (née Oehler, 1826-1897). It is perhaps significant, in the light of later events, that he arrived in the same year that Arthur Schopenhauer published the second edition of his work The World as Will and Representation, and that he was born to a mother who was related to the composer, Richard Wagner. Both men would go on to have a profound influence on Nietzsche’s developing thought and subsequent career.

After Pastor Karl Ludwig’s head injury and subsequent death in 1849, the Nietzsche family moved to Naumburg, where Friedrich entered the local Domgymnasium in 1854. Undergoing an arduous process of education, within two years Nietzsche was troubled by the eyestrain and headaches that would incapacitate him for long periods throughout his life. Regardless of his ailments, he proceeded to the highly prestigious and rigorous boarding school at Pforta in 1858. The training in the classics, the time spent reading poetry, perfecting writing styles and indulging his fascination with music during his time at Pforta remained characteristic of Nietzsche’s interests throughout the remainder of his life.

Moving first to University in Bonn (1864) to study theology, Nietzsche changed his studies to philology. Despite having fully switched his degree to the study of philology upon entering Leipzig, over the course of his time at the university Nietzsche undertook a close study of Schopenhauer’s philosophical works, conceiving a particular admiration for The World as Will and Representation.

In 1867, Nietzsche volunteered for a year’s attachment to a division of the Prussian artillery, a project cut short when he was involved in a riding accident. Returning to the University, Nietzsche completed his studies in 1868, publishing a prize-winning essay on Diogenes Laertius, and compiling detailed notes on philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer. By February of 1869, Nietzsche’s growing academic reputation, along with the enthusiastic patronage of his teacher was sufficient to secure him the Professorship in Greek language and literature at the University of Basel, despite Nietzsche having become ambivalent about the study of philology. Philology, though, had long been a means for Nietzsche to interrogate and interpret the abiding philosophical problems of Western thought, and so his apparent willingness to accept the chair may be speculated to conceal an entirely different motivation than was at first obvious. This speculation is perhaps borne out by Nietzsche’s admission, at the end of his inaugural Basel lecture, that his approach to philology was upon the premise “that each and every philological activity should be surrounded and limited by a philosophical world view”.

Nietzsche remained at Basel for only 10 years; his deteriorating health eventually led him to resign his professorship in 1879. The decade at Basel was, though, the period in which the characteristic trajectory of his eventual career was determined. He not only became an intimate of Wagner and his circle, but also of Paul Rée, who was influential enough to bring about Nietzsche’s eventual rejection of the pessimistic position found in both Schopenhauer and Wagner’s work. Initially, being devoted enough to Wagner that he dedicated the manuscript of his essay The Genesis of the Tragic Idea (1870) to his wife, Cosima, Nietzsche remained a close confident of the composer and his wife through the publication of his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Departing from the traditional philological method and favoring instead of a more speculative style, the work was initially given a muted reception by the philological community, progressing to one of disdain by the time his former teacher dismissed the work as “ingenious inebriation."  The Wagners, on the other hand, received the book with considerable enthusiasm.

Brünnhilde the Valkyrie, from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by Arthur Rackham,1910. (Wikimedia Commons) Nietzsche was an early adherent and friend of Wagner’s but later broke with him over the latter’s nationalism and anti-Semitism.Brünnhilde the Valkyrie, from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by Arthur Rackham,1910. (Wikimedia Commons) Nietzsche was an early adherent and friend of Wagner’s but later broke with him over the latter’s nationalism and anti-Semitism. Between 1873 and 1876 Nietzsche published four long essays that would go on to form the basis of his work Untimely Meditations. By the publication of the final essay, Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), his friendship with the composer and his wife was all but finished. The underwhelming performances at Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival, Wagner’s crude delight in his own fame, his increasingly obvious anti-semitism and celebration of ‘German Culture’ – which Nietzsche conceived as a contradiction in terms – brought about a tension in the relationship. This tension was then, with the publication of Human, All Too Human (1878), allowed to develop into an outright rift, with the book of aphorisms indicating a distinct rupture with the Romantic tradition of which Wagner considered himself a vital part. Centered on the notion that philosophy and scientific or positivistic knowledge are a means to diagnosing and understanding the problems that beset both culture and human psychology, the book’s resulting concept of culture also enacts a critique of the romantic-artistic project, finding it to rest on unwarranted religious, moral and metaphysical assumptions.  This text is also notable for introducing such concepts as the will-to-power, which would later occupy a central role in Nietzsche’s mature philosophical thought.

In 1879 Nietzsche's health declined making it difficult for him to meet his academic obligations; he was forced to resign his chair and take up a modest pension.  Between 1879 and 1888, in his search of seasonal climates conducive to health, Nietzsche led a largely itinerant life, travelling between his regular summer base in the Swiss town of Sils Maria and several European cities such as Turin, Genoa, Rapin and Nice.

Despite the debilitating onset of ill-health, the decade of peripatetic travel  in sheer terms of published output  was Nietzsche’s most productive. Indeed, the space of six years alone saw the publication of the texts that would come to establish his reputation as one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century. In 1882 he published The Gay Science; between 1883 and 1885 he composed the four parts of what would become Thus Spake Zarathustra and produced Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and, in 1888, finished the manuscript of what was eventually published as Ecce Homo (1908).

In 1888, Nietzsche’s health and mind finally arrived at a state of imminent collapse. In October of that year he began styling himself in his letters "a genius of the truth" and "the first spirit of the age," such attributions reaching the level of megalomania by the end of November. In January of the following year, he collapsed in a Turin street, reputedly throwing his arms around the neck of a horse he had witnessed being whipped. His subsequent letters manifested a level of insanity sufficient to have compelled his remaining friends Jacob Burkhardt and Franz Overbeck to arrange for his return to Basel, the latter eventually travelling to Turin to bring him back to a medical clinic. Upon witnessing Nietzsche’s condition even when back in Basel, Overbeck was clear about the consequences being moved by letter to remark simply, “Nietzsche is finished."

Nietzsche lived out the final years in an uncomprehending mental state, being cared for largely by his sister, Elizabeth Forster Nietzsche. On the 25th of August, 1900, at a house in Weimar, he died after suffering complications from a stroke.


Works Cited

Brown, Malcolm. Nietzsche Chronicle. Dartmouth College

Cooper, David E. "Nietzsche," The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. Bunnin, Nicholas and E. P. Tsui-James (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Blackwell Reference Online. Consulted 16 November 2011

"Nietzsche, Friedrich,"  A Dictionary of Critical Theory, by Ian Buchanan. Oxford University Press 2010. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Columbia University.  Consulted 15 November 2011