Oct 152017

Today is the birthday (1844) of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who needs no introduction as a philosopher although I suspect that few people read much of what he wrote, but, instead, come up with his ideas (or their antithesis) “independently” because they are oblivious to the huge impact his philosophy has had on Western culture. I’ll give a small biography as background and then dribble on a bit about some salient points in his writing, followed by a few quotes for good measure. Nothing I can say here will be remotely comprehensive.  That’s your job to investigate.

Nietzsche grew up in the small town of Röcken, near Leipzig, in the Prussian Province of Saxony. He was named after King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who turned 49 on the day of Nietzsche’s birth. (Nietzsche later dropped his middle name, Wilhelm). Nietzsche’s father died from a brain ailment in 1849 and his younger brother, Ludwig Joseph, died six months later, at age 2. The family then moved to Naumburg, where they lived with Nietzsche’s maternal grandmother and his father’s two unmarried sisters. After the death of Nietzsche’s grandmother in 1856, the family moved into their own house, now Nietzsche-Haus, a museum and Nietzsche study center.

In 1854 Nietzsche started at Domgymnasium in Naumburg, but because his father had worked for the state (as a Lutheran pastor) the now-fatherless Nietzsche was offered a scholarship to study at the internationally recognized Schulpforta where he studied from 1858 to 1864 (the scholarship was not because he excelled at his studies, as is sometimes asserted – he did not).

While at Pforta, Nietzsche had decidedly odd tastes for the time.  For example, he favored the almost  unknown poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was considered mad by contemporaries. He also became personally acquainted with Ernst Ortlepp, an eccentric, blasphemous, and often drunken poet who was found dead in a ditch weeks after meeting the young Nietzsche but who may have introduced Nietzsche to the music and writing of Richard Wagner.

In 1864 Nietzsche Began studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn with a view to becoming a minister. After one term he lost his faith and stopped his theological studies. In June 1865, at the age of 20, Nietzsche wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, a letter regarding his loss of faith. This letter contains the following:

Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…

Nietzsche was a passionate, challenging, and complex writer. He evokes strong responses, positive and negative, many of which are fueled either by misunderstanding or a need to reduce his philosophy to simple terms.  Both are a disservice. I won’t continue such disservice, but merely point out how easy it is to go wrong in attempting to understand Nietzsche.

The idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian as philosophical, poetic, and dramatic concepts was famously expounded in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, but his favorite boyhood poet, Hölderlin, had already expounded on the idea. Nietzsche saw classical Athenian tragedy as an art form that transcended what he saw as the pessimism of its age in philosophy. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering depicted by characters on stage, passionately and joyously affirmed life, finding it worth living. A main theme in The Birth of Tragedy was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian Kunsttrieben (“artistic impulses”) forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved again since the ancient Greek tragedians. Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy.

The point of Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is the complex interplay of these two forces: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. Nietzsche argues that a Dionysian figure possesses knowledge to realize that his actions cannot change the eternal balance of things, and it disgusts him enough not to be able to make any act at all. Hamlet falls under this category—he has glimpsed the supernatural reality through the Ghost, he has gained true knowledge and knows that no action of his has the power to change this.

Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy. With Euripides, he believes that tragedy begins its Untergang (“going under”). Nietzsche objects to Euripides’ use of Socratic rationalism and morality in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Plato continued with this path in his dialogues, and the modern world eventually inherited reason at the expense of artistic impulses that could be found only in the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. This leads to his conclusion that European culture from the time of Socrates had always been only Apollonian and thus decadent and unhealthy.] He notes that whenever Apollonian culture dominates, the Dionysian lacks the structure to make a coherent art, and when Dionysian dominates, the Apollonian lacks the necessary passion.

Ruth Benedict, noted Boasian anthropologist, tried to elaborate on the Apollonian and Dionysian in her most enduring work, Patterns of Culture, where, in my very humble opinion, she rather misunderstood Nietzsche’s intent. Benedict uses the Apollonian and Dionysian as pure cultural ideals to explore bedrock values in cultures under observation. Thus, for her, traditional Puebloan cultures of the American southwest are Apollonian cultures because they value community, rules, and order, whereas the potlatch cultures of the American northwest Pacific coast are Dionysian because they value individualism, excess, and disorder. I think she’s wrong to characterize them that way at all, but also wrong to lay the analysis at Nietzsche’s doorstep. Nietzsche was interested in the Apollonian and Dionysian as intertwined and conflicting tendencies within a single culture or individuals, not as models of separate cultures. Benedict’s simplification of Nietzsche’s idea suited her need to reduce complex cultures to simple models. I won’t be too harsh on her, though. She was living in the early days of American anthropology when there was a drive towards finding the “rules” that drive culture. Hopefully, we are more mature these days.

Nietzsche was also famous for stating that God is dead, (and prelates in the Church of England eventually caught on: more accurately than most atheists, as it happens). What Nietzsche was saying was that absolutism (in the name of God) is dead. It is true that he had lost his faith in Christianity while studying theology, but that’s not what he is referring to here. Nietzsche believed that the Western world was losing its grip on any universal perspective on things, and along with it any coherent sense of objective truth. He rejected the idea of objective reality, arguing that knowledge is contingent and conditional, relative to various fluid perspectives or interests. This viewpoint meant that there had to be a constant reassessment of rules (including those of philosophy, the scientific method, etc.) according to the circumstances of individual perspectives. You can easily see how a German physicist could take this idea and come up with a theory of relativity, although Einstein challenged the orthodoxy of the scientific world of his day and not of the scientific method itself. That agenda is still in the making.

The cultural relativism of anthropology is also embedded in Nietzsche’s philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the values of one culture are no better or worse than any other culture. What makes a culture great (and unified) is not the nature of its particular values and beliefs, but in the collective will to see those values realized and achieved.

While Nietzsche attacked the principles of Judaism, he was not anti-Semitic. In On the Genealogy of Morality, he explicitly condemns antisemitism, and points out that his attack on Judaism was not an attack on contemporary Jewish people but specifically an attack upon the ancient Jewish priesthood whom he claims anti-Semitic Christians paradoxically based their views upon. Nietzsche felt that modern antisemitism was despicable and contrary to European ideals. Its cause, in his opinion, was the growth in European nationalism and the endemic “jealousy and hatred” of Jewish success.

Nietzsche held a pessimistic view on modern society and culture, especially mass/popular culture.  He believed the press and mass culture led to conformity and brought about mediocrity. Nietzsche saw a lack of intellectual progress, leading to the decline of humanity. According to Nietzsche, individuals needed to overcome this form of mass culture. He believed some people were able to become superior individuals through the use of will power. By rising above mass culture, society would produce higher, brighter and healthier human beings. The jury is still out on that one.

Here is a sprinkling of quotes to illustrate Nietzsche:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.

Success has always been a great liar.


Nietzsche had a complex relationship with food and diet much of his life. He was something of a pig in his younger days, but later had to be more circumspect because he was subject to constant nausea and indigestion. At one point he wrote, “If only I were master of my stomach once more!” in response to his endless digestive ailments. As a young man his main meal of the day was a late lunch, avoiding the midday crowds at restaurants, usually consisting of steak and gargantuan quantities of fruit. As his stomach ailments got worse he tried vegetarianism, living on milk and eggs alone, and eating hardly anything at all. At one point, he put his faith in Liebig’s meat extract, a thick paste that could be mixed with water to produce a beef broth which he thought was very nutritious — but wasn’t.

Nietzsche wrote copious notes on diet which were not well known for a long time but were eventually collected into a book translated into English by R. J. Hollingdale under the title Fat is Dead (2004). Hollingdale summarizes Nietzsche’s diet as follows:

The basics of the Nietzschean regimen are simple. The dieter exercises a painful amount of self-honesty in order to identify the primary object of his or her deepest human dread as personified by a wide-ranging group of foodstuffs. Once the dieter’s Fear has been identified, he eats that food exclusively, in unlimited amounts, until the food no longer appetizes or frightens him. Having completed his gorge and transcended his fear, the dieter fasts for 20 days on water and Simple Salad.

There is your recipe directive du jour. Eat copious quantities of the food you dread the most because of the fear it will make you fat. Or . . . look to Nietzsche’s boyhood home: Naumburg. Naumburg holds a famous cherry festival annually. If I had a kitchen I’d opt for a cherry crumble.