Friedrich Nietzsche


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (Röcken, October 15, 1844 – Weimar, August 25, 1900) was a German philosopher, poet, essayist, composer and philologist. He was a Prussian citizen until 1869, then stateless (participated, however, the Franco-Prussian War as a nurse considered among the greatest philosophers and writers of all time, whose work influenced the ethical, literary, religious, political, psychological and epistemological thinking of the Western world in the twentieth century. His philosophy, partly traceable to the strand of the philosophies of life, was considered by some a watershed between traditional philosophy and a new model of reflection, informal and provocative. In any case, it is a unique thinker, who exercised an enormous influence on Western culture.

He wrote several essays and aphoristic works on morality, religion (especially Christianity), modern society, science, imbued with a deep lucidity and aversion to metaphysics and a strong critical charge, always on the edge of irony and parody with an accentuated stylistic reference derived from the French moralists and philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire. In his philosophy is distinguished a first “Wagnerian” phase, which includes The Birth of Tragedy and the Unattainable Considerations, in which the philosopher fights alongside Richard Wagner for a “mythical reform” of German culture.

This phase will then be abandoned and repudiated with the publication of Human, too human – in the so-called “enlightenment” season of his thought -, to culminate finally, a few years before the nervous breakdown of 1889 and the progressive paralysis that will end his activity in a third phase, dedicated to the transvaluation of values and active nihilism, characterized by the concepts of beyond man, eternal return and will to power, a phase that has its peak (and beginning) with the publication of the fundamental work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, followed by other important works such as Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist and The Twilight of the Idols. He died of pneumonia in 1900, after eleven and a half years of infirmity, paralyzed and in prey to dementia after having suffered numerous strokes.

Youthful years

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, a village in southern Prussia (it is called so in honor of King Frederick William IV of Prussia who turned forty-nine years old on the day of the birth of Nietzsche. Subsequently the philosopher abandoned his second name “Wilhelm”. The first name, Friedrich, was also a tribute to his grandfather Friedrich August Nietzsche, who died in 1826.

Belongs to a lineage of Protestant pastors, is the eldest son of Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, monarchical reactionary already preceptor at the court of Altenburg, and Franziska Oehler, daughter of a Lutheran pastor. In 1846 and 1848 born two other children, Elisabeth and Joseph (the latter died in 1850, for a sudden brain fever not better specified).

On July 27, 1849 his father dies, after a year of “cerebral apathy” (according to Elisabeth due to a fall, according to others probably a brain tumor, a stroke, epilepsy of the temporal lobe or the same brain disease that would later affect his son, whose first signs had appeared two years earlier). Following these misfortunes, the family moved to nearby Naumburg where he lived with his maternal grandmother of Nietzsche and two unmarried sisters of his father. After the death of the grandmother in 1856, the family moved to their own house, now Nietzsche-Haus, a museum and study center.

Here Friedrich begins his studies in classical literature and religion; he attends the boys” public school and then, later, a private school, where he makes friends with Gustav Krug and Wilhelm Pinder, his first friends, each of whom came from respectable families. At home he learns music and singing. He engages in vocal and instrumental musical compositions, composes poetry, reads Goethe and Byron.

In 1854 he started to attend the Domgymnasium in Naumburg, but already distinguished for his uncommon intellectual gifts, having shown particular talents both in music and in the language field, he was admitted as a student at Schulpforta, an internationally recognized collegiate complex. He thus begins to attend the Gymnasium Landesschule in Pforta as an internal recipient of an ecclesiastical scholarship. Here he studies between 1858-1864, experiencing for the first time the distance from the familiar environment, becoming first a friend of Paul Deussen (he will also find the time to work on his first original poetic and musical compositions.

In 1860 together with his friends Krug and Pinder, who had joined him to study also in Pforta, he founded the association Germania, with which he aimed to develop his literary and musical interests. For this association he writes some essays, such as Fate and Will and Freedom of Will and Fate, visibly inspired by the reading of Fate and other essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially those included in Conduct of Life (1860), a work that has recently been considered fundamental in the genesis of Nietzsche”s thought. At this time Nietzsche began to suffer from an ailment that would torment him throughout his life, migraines.

He also hangs out with the old bohemian poet Ernst Ortlepp, a former student of Pforta”s who now lives wandering around the area. Together with Ortlepp, eccentric, blasphemous and often drunk, he gets to know the work of the then almost unknown poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who will soon be considered the boy”s favorite; he even composes an essay in which he writes that the mad poet has raised his conscience to the most sublime ideality: the teacher who corrected his assignment, while giving him a good grade, however, strongly advises him to deal in the future with healthier, more lucid writers, ultimately “more German”. Ortlepp will finally be found dead in a ditch, where he had probably fallen, in a state of drunkenness, hitting his head.

The particularly accurate study conducted here of the classical languages and ancient Hebrew, put him in a position to read important primary sources; after the final examinations the now nineteen year old is given a final certificate that assigns him an excellent judgment in religion, German and Latin, a good in Greek and a sufficient in French and instead a poor in Hebrew, mathematics and drawing; in the concluding comment of the faculty reads: “the examining commission has issued him, now that he is leaving the royal territorial school to study philology and theology at the University of Bonn, the certificate of maturity and dismisses him in the hope that one day applying himself always with seriousness and conscientiousness he may achieve good results in his profession.”

After completing his secondary education in 1864, he began his studies in the theological faculty at the University of Bonn at his mother”s request, studies that he held for just one session, after which he enrolled with his friend and fellow student Deussen in the Burschenschaft (student guild) of Franconia. It is the latter to report the famous episode of the “house of ill repute” in Cologne as “contribution to the understanding of Nietzsche”s way of thinking. In February 1865, the philosopher told him that he had been surreptitiously led to that place by his local guide and, embarrassed, he ran away after playing a little piano to give himself an attitude in front of “half a dozen apparitions in sequins and veils. Already in his essays on the fate of the immediately preceding years he argued that historical research has now discredited the central teachings of religion. At the same time he read David Friedrich Strauß”s Life of Jesus, which seems to have had a profound effect on the young man. Writing a letter to his deeply devout sister about his own loss of faith, he says: “if you want to strive for peace of soul, you must believe; but if you want to be a devotee of the truth, then you must ask”.

In 1865 he enrolled at the University of Leipzig to continue to follow the lessons of classical philology of Friedrich Ritschl, already his teacher in Bonn. He studies Theognides and Suida, but he is more fascinated by Plato and especially by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Arthur Schopenhauer, who would have influenced all his production. Especially the latter, with his work The World as Will and Representation was to awaken a passionate and lasting philosophical interest.

In 1866 he also read Friedrich Albert Lange”s History of Materialism; here the descriptions of Immanuel Kant”s anti-materialistic philosophy, the rise of materialism on the European continent, the growing concern about Darwin”s evolutionism and finally the general atmosphere of rebellion against traditional authority intrigued Nietzsche considerably. Knows in 1867 Erwin Rohde, future author of Psyche and in the meantime deepens the study of the work of Diogenes Laertius, Homer, Democritus and the aforementioned Kant, while his essay on Teognide appears in the philological review Rheinisches Museum, directed by Ritschl.

On October 9 he begins his military service, having signed up for a year as a volunteer, in the Prussian Army”s horse artillery regiment stationed in Naumburg. In March of the following year he is seriously injured to the sternum; while it is sending its horse to the gallop strikes violently with the chest the pommel of the saddle, tearing two muscles of the left flank: after six months spent immobilized, in October he takes an early leave. Returned to Leipzig, the University rewards him for his essay on the sources of Diogenes Laertius and hires him as a private teacher. The 8 November 1868 knows Richard Wagner in the house of the orientalist Hermann Brockhaus.

Professor in Basel

Thanks to the support of Ritschl, on February 13, 1869 he obtained the chair of Greek language and literature at the University of Basel as a classical philologist, although he had not yet completed his doctorate nor received any certificate of qualification to teach; on May 28 he gave the inaugural lecture on Homer and classical philology, while the University of Leipzig granted him a degree on the basis of his publications in the Rheinisches Museum. At the age of 25 years Nietzsche asks for the cancellation of his previous Prussian citizenship and becomes stateless: it will remain officially for the rest of his days.

On May 17, he began to visit Richard and Cosima Wagner at their villa in Tribschen, on Lake Lucerne, and was greatly impressed: “What I learn there, what I see and hear and understand, is indescribable. Schopenhauer, Goethe, Aeschylus and Pindar still live on.” In the period between 1869 and 1870 collaborates, as proofreader (and more generally as an informal secretary-factotum), the drafting of an autobiography of Wagner, destined not to see the light before 1911, but to the knowledge of which the philosopher alludes openly, and ironically, in a writing of the 1880s:

Even after the ideological break with Wagner, will always retain high esteem for Cosima, considering it, among his acquaintances, the only person at his same intellectual level.At the beginning of 1870 Nietzsche held in Basel some conferences (“The Greek musical drama”, “Socrates and tragedy”), which anticipate his first volume, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). In Basel he met the already famous historian Jacob Burckhardt and befriended the neighbor of the boarding house where he lived, the professor of theology Franz Camille Overbeck, who will remain close to him until his death and will be a great admirer of his works, although his academic position made it rather embarrassing, given the views of Nietzsche on religion. He also knew the work of Afrikan Špir and was deeply influenced by it.

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) he asks to be temporarily exempted from teaching to participate, as a nurse in charge of transporting the wounded, in the war. After only two weeks spent at the front, however, contracted diphtheria and a principle of dysentery, so that it must be treated in turn and is therefore discharged October 21. It observes with calm skepticism and a certain detachment the birth of the German empire for work of Otto von Bismarck.

In his polemical response entitled Philology of the Future, the then still young but already established Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff strongly criticizes the lack of academic methodology used by Nietzsche to write the Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, to follow instead a much more speculative approach; only Rohde, already a teacher in Kiel, and Wagner defended the form by siding with him; observing the deep isolation in which he found himself on this occasion within the philological community, he tried unsuccessfully to change his position as professor of philosophy.

In the meantime he writes The Dionysian vision of the world, sketches The tragedy and the free spirits and a drama entitled Empedocle, in which are anticipated with great clarity many of the themes that will be later taken up in the works of maturity. Between 1873 and 1876 he wrote the four “Considerazioni inattuali” which represent an orientation increasingly aimed at a strong cultural criticism of his time: “David Strauss, the confessor and the writer”; “Sull”utile e il danno della storia per la vita”; “Schopenhauer come educatore” and finally “Richard Wagner a Bayreuth”. In 1873 he also began to accumulate the notes that would be published posthumously under the title of Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.

The “Inattuali” challenge the German culture then developing in the wake of the example given and the lines suggested by Schopenhauer and Wagner; he met at this time Malwida von Meysenbug and Hans von Bülow, and also began a close friendship and collaboration with Paul Rée, a scholar of philosophy of Jewish origin who from 1876 influenced him positively in rejecting the tragic pessimism that pervaded his early writings, and so directed him towards an “enlightenment” phase.

Deeply disappointed by the Bayreuth Festival of 1876, where the banality of the shows and the baseness of the audience intimately rejected him, Nietzsche begins to distance himself more and more from his old master Wagner, although the official break will be only with the publication of Human, Too Human (“A book for free spirits”).

I work as an independent philosopher

For health reasons (frequent migraines and eye pain, possible symptoms of the disease that would strike him later), but also undoubtedly to devote himself with uninterrupted assiduity to his philosophical activity, Nietzsche at the age of 34 years (about the same age at which his father was struck by his own disease, something that distressed Nietzsche) abandons teaching. He is recognized a modest pension that will constitute, from that moment on, his only income. He begins his existence as a perfect stateless person, with his pilgrimages as a wayfarer without home or country.

Nietzsche often moves from place to place to find climates that may be more favorable to his poor health and so lives until 1889 as an independent author in several cities. Spends many summers in mountain resorts or spa, especially in Sils Maria (where his home, the so-called House Nietzsche, is open to visits and stays), and in the Upper Engadine in Switzerland. He prefers to spend his winters in Italian cities, on the Ligurian Riviera in Genoa and Rapallo, and finally in Turin. His other frequent and beloved destinations are Venice and the French city of Nice.

In 1881, when France occupied Tunisia, he intended to travel to Tunis to see Europe from the outside, but shortly thereafter abandoned such an idea, probably for health reasons. He occasionally returned to Naumburg to visit his family, and, especially during this period, he and his sister continued to have periods of conflict and repeated reconciliations. During a short ferry trip to Messina and Taormina he attended the local “Arcadia” and began writing Così parlò Zarathustra.

During Easter 1882, through their mutual friend and noted feminist writer Malwida von Meysenbug, he met Lou von Salomé, a young Russian student on an educational trip through Europe, in Rome. They meet at St. Peter”s Basilica, and Nietzsche greets her with these words, “From what stars have we fallen to meet here?” In May, during a trip to Lake Orta, he spends a few hours of intimacy with this “very intelligent” 21-year-old girl. Afterwards, the Salome did not remember if she had kissed the philosopher, of whom, however, refused a proposal of marriage (as well as that of the friend of both Paul Rée who had introduced her to Nietzsche and with whom a sort of triadic philosophical-sentimental relationship had been formed).

This meeting, then continued through two years of intense emotional and cultural exchanges, is very special, as it is one of the rare sentimental-affective experiences of Nietzsche with a woman of which we have knowledge. Nietzsche continued to attend the two friends, reiterating marriage proposals to Salome and kissing her twice in a row in public, which caused the jealousy of his sister Elisabeth and the disappointment of his mother Franziska, who considered Lou a frivolous and unsuitable woman. Afterwards she moved away from Nietzsche and Ree, ending this sort of platonic love, marrying Carl Andreas and having many relationships, such as the one with Freud and with Rainer Maria Rilke. This disappointment pushed Nietzsche to continue his work on Zarathustra, which he finished in 1885.

Last period and mental collapse

In 1888, already having many publications behind him, Nietzsche moved to Turin, a city he particularly appreciated, and where he wrote The Antichrist, The Twilight of the Idols and Ecce Homo (published posthumously).

In 1889 Nietzsche”s famous mental breakdown occurred, probably due to a neurological pathology: the first public crisis of madness is dated January 3, 1889; while he was in Piazza Carignano, near his home in Turin, seeing the horse used to pull a carriage flogged to blood by the coachman, he embraced the animal, cried, ending up kissing it; then he fell to the ground screaming in spasm. For many people this is a legendary episode and Nietzsche would have limited himself to making showy protests and shouting for which he was stopped and warned by the municipal police. In the light of the testimonies reported by Davide Fino, owner of the lodging rented by Nietzsche, to Karl Strecker (at the end of 1888) and to the philosopher”s sister, Elisabeth (in 1889), the alleged episode of the “horse” should be distinguished from Nietzsche”s “collapse”. The first would date back to the end of ”88, while the second would consist in the fall from the steps of Piazza Carlo Alberto, after which he was accompanied home and “lay two days on the couch, always talking concisely alone or writing”.

The causes have never been clarified with certainty, but several possibilities have been suggested such as MELAS or a meningioma: neurosyphilis, a diagnosis at the time; manic-depressive psychosis; and chronic mercury poisoning (a series of strokes with paralysis and vascular dementia: e.g., genetic cerebral arteriopathy, or CADASIL, an inherited dementia caused by multiple subcortical brain micro-infarcts.

CADASIL is considered the accredited hypothesis since it is a syndrome inherited only through the paternal route, and it must be remembered that the maternal family was healthy, while both Nietzsche”s father and grandfather died of an unidentified brain disease.

According to some, in a less medical and more philosophical sphere, the concomitant cause that drove him to collapse was the enormous creative effort he underwent in the preceding years, despite his deteriorating health.

In the same period, Nietzsche writes letters to friends and acquaintances that are usually classified under the name of Tickets of madness: in them his mental crisis appears to be in an advanced state, although the style is not at all different from the classic one. One of the tickets is addressed to the king of Italy Umberto I of Savoy, his age (they will die the same year) that Nietzsche aprofrofa as “my son”, perhaps because of a slight physical similarity.

He is hospitalized by his friend Franz Camille Overbeck, Protestant theologian and his former teacher, because of his altered state, which passed from moments of exaltation to deep sadness, first in a psychiatric clinic in Basel (Switzerland) under the care of Dr. Wille, who diagnosed him with a “progressive paralysis” of uncertain origin and hypothesized for the first time syphilis, probably on the basis of erroneous anamnesic data (the confused Nietzsche”s affirmation that he had contracted lue “twice” in 1866, probably confused with cholera, and the pupillary anisocoria inherited from his mother and present since childhood, which doctors mistook for the syphilitic neurological sign called pupil of Argyll Robertson); is then transferred from his mother to Naumburg (Hesse, Germany), then to Jena, in the clinic of Dr. Otto Binswanger (expert in paralysis and dementia, which confirms the diagnosis of Wille) and in the house of his mother (1890), to be assisted by herself and two nurses. His sister Elisabeth will then try to hide the diagnosis assumed in the asylum attributing madness to the use of sleeping pills and other drugs, such as morphine, opium and chloral taken for migraine in previous years.

In the early days seems quite lucid, but irritable and no longer interested in philosophy and writing, which seems not to understand. After the suicide of her husband (June 1889), his sister Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche returns from Paraguay in 1893 and decides to take care of her brother and his work. Already since 1892 Nietzsche gradually loses his memory, and does not recognize people, except for certain moments of lucidity.

Nietzsche spends his time in an almost total mutism, walking with friends or playing the piano, until the worsening of physical conditions (numerous paralysis, perhaps accentuated by excessive doses of drugs to keep under control the attacks of madness); sometimes he speaks with guests, but is absent and his reasoning often confused. In 1893 he loses the use of his legs, and is forced to move with a wheelchair, while since 1894 he suffers from loss of speech, indications of widespread brain and spinal damage, although Sax tells of a visit of a friend to Nietzsche in 1899 in which, according to the testimony, the philosopher was still able to communicate, at certain times, and was not unconscious, although little responsive, at least until the last year of his life (although unaware of the great debate that his writings were beginning to arouse in Europe). After 1895 he lived in a semi-catatonic state, responding only when prompted by his sister or family members. In 1897 his mother died of cancer, and in 1898 and 1899 he was struck again by a stroke, as already years before.

Rudolf Steiner describes in My life the meeting with the philosopher that took place in 1896 and that he defined as “obscene”. In that meeting he affirmed to have been able to perceive “clairvoyantly”, according to his later theories of anthroposophical-theosophical matrix, the etheric body partially detached from the physical body in the area of the head.

Moved in 1897 with Elisabeth in the house of Weimar (Thuringia, Germany), where his sister has founded the Nietzsche-Archiv (which collaborates with a young Rudolf Steiner), there dies of pneumonia August 25, 1900. Despite his declared and deep atheism, by the will of relatives and friends is buried in a religious ceremony in the cemetery of Röcken.

How much the disease has influenced Nietzsche”s philosophical thought is a matter of discussion among scholars since ever. The nature of his madness still remains partially a mystery, given the plausibility of all hypotheses. In the fragments, he theorized the self-destruction of reputation through voluntary madness as a form of higher asceticism. As many have speculated, the cause of the nervous collapse, as also said before, was perhaps the enormous strain, unbearable for his mind, due to the creative and philosophical effort made in the previous years, as he himself mentions in a famous aphorism:

Nietzsche”s philosophy starts from his complex cultural background, especially as a classical philologist, admirer of Greek tragedy and then enthusiastic admirer of the new post-Romantic music of Wagner, which he promotes aesthetically and philosophically, seeing in it a drive for the rebirth of the German spirit. To this is strictly connected an intense study of the pre-Socratic philosophies, for example that of Heraclitus, and their affirmation compared to the traditional hegemony of the Socratic-Platonic system.

Fundamental to the formation of the young Nietzsche is also the reading, in 1866-67, of Schopenhauer”s The World as Will and Representation, an encounter defined by the philosopher as “divine chance”. Thus, in a reflection recorded in an autobiographical page, Nietzsche recalls his first reading of Schopenhauer”s masterpiece:

Tragic and Wagnerian phase

In his first real work of philosophical argument, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Greek tragedy is seen as the highest expression of the vital impulse or “Dionysian spirit”, instinctive and irrational, which is combined and at the same time opposed to the Apollonian one, which represents order and rationality. Apollonian and Dionysian thought are therefore defined as follows:

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche identifies for the first time in Socrates the corrupter of Attic tragedy, and in his influence on the tragedian Euripides the origin of the prevalence of the Apollonian spirit on the Dionysian one, expressed by the old tragedy of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The corruption of the tragic spirit is considered by Nietzsche as the original decadence to which we owe an abstract and intellectualizing vision of life and morality, determined by the Socratic “ethical intellectualism”.

Equally strong is Nietzsche”s aversion to Plato, whom he considers the author of a conception of the world based on metaphysical ideality and contempt for tangible reality. From Plato he believes to be born that ideological continuity that binds Parmenides to Plato and then Plotinus, Christianity (defined “Platonism for the people”) up to the nineteenth century German idealism.

Nietzsche attacks, therefore, the traditional fundamental values of society (of metaphysics, Christianity, democracy, nationalism and Socialism), claiming the merely metaphorical and prospective nature of any transcendent principle and of morality itself, as well as of any traditional conception. His aim was to unmask the falsehood and hypocrisy of the cultural system on which the Europe of his time was based and in particular the Germanic world, but the whole history of the West is seen as a long process of decadence of man, as a denial of life, when instead the affirmation of freedom should have been the destiny of man.

The great values of Western culture, such as truth, science, progress, religion, are thus to be unmasked in their lack of foundation and in their nature of mere fiction. There is in man a substantial fear towards the creativity of life and the will to power, which produces collective values under whose jurisdiction life is disciplined, regulated, schematized.

Such a nihilism is however subject, in Nietzsche”s works, to a deeper and more problematic characterization, which he comes to outline in two fundamental aspects. The first form of nihilism, passive nihilism (of which an example is found in Schopenhauer) coincides with the loss of confidence of European man towards the values of his own civilization; it coincides with the “vital diminution”, otherwise characterized as a perversion of the will to power. With active nihilism, however, Nietzsche means the attitude that, made strong of a demolition of metaphysical constraints that suppressed the vital force, it is proposed as a creator of new tables of values through their transvaluation.

It should be borne in mind that the determinations that lead Nietzsche to nihilism derive from the belief in the necessity of objective and relational detachment that lead on the one hand to the affirmation not of a determined value but of flowing values that are the basis of transvaluation and that on the other hand allow in the analysis of objectivity to disentangle the object and the other but at the same time to enclose the thought in itself to realize precisely through this detachment the will to power.

It is through this closure of thought in itself that Nietzsche”s nihilism is also determined insofar as it constitutes the splitting of the inner from the outer and through which the possibility of grasping the dichotomous opposition in thought between rational as systematic and irrational as nihilistic and destructive is realized, with respect to which dynamic one grasps a perspective of the distinction and equal operativism of outer nihilism and inner nihilism, process in which the inner nihilism correlated, through the Dionysian, to the instinct that is to the satisfaction poses at the same time the relationship to the will to power factors that relate to the exaltation of the Dionysian as irrational also as a factor not compressible and therefore fully enucleating the possibility of achieving the will to power.

From this fundamental aspect of Nietzsche connoting object detachment and the relationship with the other also derives his appreciation, on the one hand, of the characteristic of the absence of compassion, which is one of the foundations at the base of transvaluation and that if not so founded would contradict his nihilism and on the other hand his appreciation for the biblical passages and for Judaism that are based on divine justice and in particular on the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” which joins precisely that detachment at the base of which there is an absence of affectivity that allows the affirmation of the value of the moment in response to the will to power and the need for existence of the outside even as an other-subject.

Man, for Nietzsche, had to delude himself in order to make sense of existence, as he was afraid of the truth, not being able to accept the idea that “life has no meaning”, that there is no “beyond” it and that it must be lived with desire and free abandon full of “physicality”. If the world had a sense and if it was built according to criteria of rationality, justice and beauty, man would not need to self-delude in order to survive, building metaphysics, religions and morals. Western mankind, having passed through Christianity, now perceives a sense of emptiness, finds that “God is dead”, that is, that every metaphysical construction fails before the discovery that the world is an irrational chaos. Until the Beyond Man arises, that is a man able to bear the idea that the Universe has no sense, humanity will continue to seek absolute values that can replace the old god (intended as any kind of otherworldly reality and not as a simple entity as the Christian God could be); idolatrous substitutes such as, for example, the State, science and money.

The lack, however, of a metaphysical sense of life and the universe keeps man in passive nihilism, or nihilistic despair. However, it is possible to get out of such nihilism by understanding this vision and recognizing that man himself is the source of all values and virtues of the will to power (active nihilism). Man, by rising above the chaos of life, can generate his own meanings and impose his own will. Who is able to accomplish this feat is the Over-Man, i.e. the man who has understood that it is he himself who gives meaning to life. Through the three metamorphoses of the spirit, of which he speaks in the first speech of the text Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche shows how the motto “You must” should be transformed first in the “I want”, and finally in a sacred “Say yes”, expressed by the figure of the playful child.

Obviously, active nihilism does not justify the value models proposed over the centuries to give meaning to reality, since these are nothing more than the fruit of the Apollonian spirit and, therefore, do not correspond to the actual essence of man, who is Dionysian, that is inseparably linked to those “values” (vitality, power) intrinsic to his earthly nature:

In Nietzsche”s first philosophical text The Birth of Tragedy of 1872, which is also a focus on his classical culture and Greek mythology, he focuses his attention on the origins of theater in ancient Greece. He uses and theorizes therefore two basic concepts, which will then become “ideological” for the same author and bearers of many values, the Dionysian spirit and the Apollonian spirit. The Dionysian (from the god Dionysus) as “drunkenness” represents the element of affirmation of life, spontaneity, human instinct, playfulness and will represent in later works the will to power. It is the impulse that expresses the vital force of the beyond man in his total freedom, the intoxication that finds its most complete manifestation in music and dance.

The “Dionysian” plays dialectically with its counterpart, the “Apollonian”, or the harmony of forms and living. When Dionysus lives it is Apollo who sleeps, vice versa when Apollo represents himself and is on the surface, Dionysus is “underground”. The Dionysian is a continuous cycle “life-death-life”, through which all the arts were created and changed. The Apollonian is daylight rationalized in the plastic art of the sculptors of the classical era. The “Apollonian” also represents the human ratio that brings balance in man, that is able to conceive the essence of the world as order and that pushes him to produce reassuring and rational harmonious forms. Without it, in man there would be an explosion of uncontrolled emotions that need to be controlled.

Very complex is the study that the philologist Nietzsche makes of the Greek arts and tragedy in particular. In the “dithyramb” of the Greek tragic chorus was inherent the Dionysian spirit (Nietzsche calls it precisely “Dionysian dithyramb”). In the word, as always, Nietzsche searches for the key to the interpretation of reality and to bring to light what concepts have arcane inside. As a philologist, even before being a philosopher, it is always the “word” his first love. From the dithyramb, which is the core of the “chorus”, to the poetic text in which the drama is written, the continuous alternation of the two Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus takes place, until the supreme and sublime harmony.

The analysis of the origins of Greek tragedy, flows along the Nietzschean text through the entire history of this long journey, from Archilocus to Euripides, passing through Aeschylus and Sophocles until its very end: the death of tragedy occurred at the hands of Socrates, or rather of what the philosopher represented for Greekity and its artistic expressions.

But as tragedy originated from music, Nietzsche hopes that in the same way it can be reborn. Hence the deep and heartfelt criticism to the “Opera”, as an artistic genre in which live irreconcilable contradictions of aesthetic and philosophical character. Strong is the philosopher”s exhortation to the musician Richard Wagner – to whom the opera was dedicated – and to other unspecified contemporary artists to rediscover and reawaken the Dionysian intoxication inherent in music and on it, together with the tragic myth, to inaugurate a new tragic era:

Enlightenment phase

According to Nietzsche, decadence is the rejection of love for life and creativity, of the spontaneity of natural and at the same time “tragic” living, therefore of the Dionysian spirit. For him, the one who first negatively conditioned Western civilization towards this cancellation of life was Socrates: the error of Socrates is to have replaced life with thinking about life and the consequence of this is not living.

Socrates believes that reason is the essence of man and that the passions, residue of animality, can and must be dominated. For Socrates a life based on reason is a happy life, while a life dominated by the passions is destined to painful conflicts and disturbances. Even Plato has directed life towards an abstract and unreal world, and in this process of decadence is then inserted Christianity. The latter has produced a model of sick and repressed man, prey to continuous feelings of guilt that poison his existence, dictated by the Christian motto of continuous repentance and the pleaded request for salvation and forgiveness.

Therefore the Christian man, beyond his mask of serenity, is psychically tormented, hides within himself an angry aggression against life and is animated by resentment against his neighbor. Nietzsche creates in this period the metaphors of the warrior and the priest: the first represents the manifestation of the will to power, the second instead, fearful of his own means, is the “submissive” that to a morality of the strong, puts forward a morality of the weak, easily accessible, which is the real denial of the unconditional joy of living.

More than with the figure of Jesus (towards whom he shows sympathy, considering him a “holy anarchist, albeit a little ”idiot””) Nietzsche is polemic against Christianity, as a religion of the “poor in spirit”, based on resentment and bad conscience. The idiocy of Christ, however, should not be loaded with a single negative meaning: “idiot” is the individual who does not participate in the community, the shared modus intellegendi, and moves its attention to his inner self, abandoning reality. The philosopher accuses the Christian religion of creating this misunderstanding and of being a pseudo-humanism, guilty of “acting pitifully towards all the unfortunate and the weak”. Opposing true philanthropy and the natural aggressiveness of the struggle for existence, “The weak and the unfortunate must perish; this is the principle of our love for men.” He especially challenges the fact that “the individual was considered by Christianity to be so important, placed so absolutely, that he could no longer be sacrificed, but the species subsists only through human sacrifices.” In this regard he also affirms that “”Man is bad”, so speak with my comfort the wisest. Ah if it were also true today! Since evil is the best energy of man”. In spite of this, Nietzsche declares the concepts of good and evil relative and false, which will have to be overcome, since “what one does for love, is always beyond good and evil.”

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he declares instead:

Hence Nietzsche”s proposal for a transmutation or reversal of values. He proclaims himself the “first immoralist” of history; however, he does not intend to propose the abolition of every value or the affirmation of a type of man prey to the unrestrained play of instincts, but contrasts the antivital values of traditional pessimistic morality with a new table of values to measure the earthly character of man. For Nietzsche man was born to live on Earth, his existence is entirely body, sensible reality. In fact Zarathustra affirms: I am the whole body and nothing else. The soul, according to Nietzsche, is only a metaphorical and simplistic image of the rich variety of desires, inclinations and sensations that pass through the body at all times: this claim of the earthly nature of man is implicit in the total acceptance of life that is proper to the Dionysian spirit and the image of the beyond man. The Earth is no longer man”s exile and desert, but his joyful abode.

According to Eugen Fink, who first spoke of the “Nietzsche”s Enlightenment” this path, which begins with Human, too human (1878-1880), coincides with the advent of aphoristic writing, and is characterized by the repudiation of the old masters, such as Schopenhauer and, in particular, Wagner. Nietzsche repudiates the esteem and personal friendship with the musician, of which he had admired The Ring of the Nibelung and Tristan and Isolde, as symbols of the human struggle in the attempt to live with their impulses annihilating in the matter, outside of any religious concept. Now he accuses him to have become a typical decadent, that with Parsifal falls in the most boorish Christian mysticism, as a ridiculous representation of a fake and imaginary world.

In this period, the philosopher abandons the “metaphysics of the artist” (also a definition of the aforementioned Fink), to privilege science. He will consider art as the residue of a mythical culture. The redeemer of culture will no longer be the artist or the genius (as Wagner thought) but the philosopher educated “in the school of science”. He will be an Enlightenment philosopher, in the sense that he will be engaged in a critique of culture through science, which he believes is a method of thinking, rather than a collection of all the particular sciences. A critical method of historical and genealogical type, because there are no immutable and static realities, but everything is the result of a process that must be reconstructed.

The basic concepts of this period are the free spirit and the philosophy of the morning. The free spirit is identified with the wayfarer, that is, with the one who, thanks to science, is able to emancipate himself from the darkness of the past, inaugurating a philosophy of the morning that is based on the conception of life as transitory and as a free experiment without pre-established certainties.

Nihilistic phase

The last phase is characterized by the most famous concepts of his philosophy: active nihilism, relativism, beyond man, transvaluation of values, eternal return and will to power.

The affirmation of freedom and spontaneity presupposes the overcoming of conditioning, of rules, of obligations deriving from religious beliefs or in any case from reference to metaphysical entities. But it also implies a consequence that few have the strength to face: taking full and final responsibility for every decision, for every action. Every behavior is subject to an individual decision as there are no more transcendent values on which to conform. Nietzsche”s contemporaries demonstrate in a thousand circumstances that they are no longer guided by faith as could have happened to the men of the Middle Ages but, in order not to be forced to face their responsibilities, they do not want to acknowledge it even in front of themselves.

Famous is the figure of the “mad man” (“der tolle Mensch”) in The Gay Science, which runs in broad daylight with a lighted lantern, shouting “I seek God!”, thus attracting the mockery of those present. When asked for an explanation, the man states that God is dead, or that no one really believes anymore. But in the very act of making this affirmation he finds himself faced with skepticism and indifference, when not derision. He himself defines himself as the “witness” of a murder carried out by the whole of humanity. So: “I am coming too soon” he admits, because men are not yet ready to accept this epochal change. The traditional values are paler and paler, more and more alien to the conscience, but the new values, those of the joyful acceptance of life and fidelity to the earth, are still beyond the horizon: “This enormous event is still on its way.

The announcement of the death of God has an extraordinary rhetorical effectiveness and perhaps this is also why it has not always been fully understood: some interpreters have limited themselves to reading it as yet another attack on Christianity and have not perceived its depth and complexity. In fact Nietzsche with this statement intends to announce the end of any transcendent reality, regardless of the cult that preaches this reality. He considers this as the fulfillment of a necessary nihilistic process, whose roots are found in the act of omission and oblivion of the Dionysian, which allowed the Apollonian, in the course of secularization, to find reasonable metaphysical models, capable of justifying the “sense of being”, but that sooner or later, according to the German author, would have to come to terms with the true vital essence of human nature, which, precisely, the Dionysian, that is what binds to the earth and life.

Nietzsche is also considered, and not without good reason, as one of the forerunners of modern atheistic existentialism because of certain ethical elements that anticipate it, although this is characterized by aspects of existential pessimism that are largely absent in Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, radicalizing the Emersonian “plus man” and the Emersonian critique of Carlyle”s cult of heroes, but also drawing inspiration from Kierkegaard”s Single and Max Stirner”s Unique, advocates the advent of a new type of man, individualistic and able to free himself from prejudices and old patterns, to unmask with the genealogical method the too human origin of values, as well as to become a conscious creator of new values: the beyond man. It would not be correct to define a man of the superman genre: super means above, therefore “superman” means “he who is above men” and crushes them. According to the interpretation of Gianni Vattimo, introduced in his text Il soggetto e la maschera (The subject and the mask), the term oltre-uomo, “he who has surpassed man and has gone beyond his condition”, better reflects the concept expressed by the philosopher of Röcken, as well as being the literal translation of the German Übermensch, while super-man should be translated as Oben-Mensch.

The interpretation of Gianni Vattimo, however, is challenged by philosopher Domenico Losurdo, who disputes Nietzsche explicitly stating that he supported a slave society commanded by the aristocratic Superman, sometimes arguing that slaves were treated better than modern workers and also accusing him of supporting eugenics. This aristocratic morality of the writings of his later years, credited above all by Nazism, is instead often considered by most commentators as a metaphor for the superiority of the man-philosopher over the common man, rather than as a real proposal for traditional society, as understood both by left-wing philosophers, such as Losurdo himself, and by far-right thinkers such as Julius Evola and Alfred Baeumler, as well as by critical intellectuals such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who interpret Nietzsche in a literal way. The literal interpretation of texts that make such extensive use of metaphors, such as that of Nietzsche defending slavery, has instead been challenged by many scholars and thinkers who have defined themselves as “Nietzschean”, such as Michel Onfray. Rather than a precursor of Nazism and advocate of a society that subdues the weak, he is instead seen by many critics as an indifferent elitist and aristocrat.

The other man, according to the common interpretation (Vattimo, Colli, Montinari), does not crush others but proceeds beyond the conventions and prejudices that grip man. It has values that are different from those of the mass of men, that mass which has adhered to the philosophy of priests and barkers in order to make itself their slave. He alone is able not to replace the old idols with new ones, but to found the new world, and the current man is nothing but “a rope stretched between the ape and the overman” itself, in the words of Nietzsche. The beyond man is the one who has understood that it is he himself who gives meaning to life and makes his own the so-called “aristocratic morality” that “says yes” to life and the world. The other man is a disciple of Dionysus because he accepts life in all its manifestations, in the pleasure of becoming understood as the alternation of life and death, joy and pain. He faces life with “courageous pessimism”, he joins fatalism (amor fati) to trust and he has freed himself from the worn-out concepts of good and evil through an elitist indifference to ethical values that he considers dead.

Hence Nietzsche”s admiration both for Greek tragedy (particularly Aeschylus), as a means of education to the heroic tragedy of life, and for the Promethean instinct of Renaissance man (universal man), which in its theoretical and practical completeness knew how to tend beyond the “human too human”; with a creative, cultural and political magnificence, which that vital impulse, “beyond good and evil”, entails. For him, and in his time, still embodied in particular by Napoleon and Goethe.

For the “beyond man” every moment is the center of his time in which he is always the protagonist. The eternal return, that is the eternal repetition, is the doctrine that Nietzsche puts at the head of the new conception of the world and human action. For Nietzsche every moment of time, that is the present moment, must be lived in a spontaneous way, without continuity with past and future, because past and future are illusory: in fact every moment is repeated identically in the past and in the future, like a dice that, thrown to infinity (because time is infinite), will give an infinite number of times the same numbers, because its choices are a finite number. The true beyond man is, in conclusion, the one who dances – no longer in chains – freely and gracefully; he is the free spirit tout court.

Nietzsche elaborates his own way of understanding time, freeing it from the transcendent and therefore from the confidence in the future. In Così parlò Zarathustra (in the chapter Della visione e dell”enigma, §2), Zarathustra (protagonist of the work) tells to have had a vision while he was climbing a mountain. The eternal return of the same, more often called just eternal return, means that the universe is born again and dies according to fixed and necessary cycles of time, eternally repeating a certain course and always remaining itself.

In a more specific sense, eternal return is one of the cornerstones of Friedrich Nietzsche”s philosophy. The reasoning behind Nietzsche”s simple – but often misunderstood – concept is as follows: in a finite system, with infinite time, each combination will necessarily repeat itself infinite times. For example, by rolling three six-sided dice infinite times, each of the 216 combinations will appear infinite times. While it is explained in poetic terms in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he explains it in quasi-scientific terms in the posthumous Fragments, and this formulation has fascinated many later physicists and mathematicians:

In the chapter of Zarathustra entitled The Vision and the Enigma, Nietzsche introduces in the form of myth the thought of the eternal return of the same (already evoked in the chapter Of Redemption, when Zarathustra refuses to enunciate what he teaches to the will, that is, the will backwards), through the dialogue between the prophet and the dwarf, personification of the spirit of gravity: “All straight things lie. Every truth is curved, time itself is a circle” is the opinion of the dwarf. However, this first interpretation is judged as too superficial (“You, spirit of gravity! – reply in fact Zarathustra – do not take it too lightly!”) and bearer of a generic profession of faith in the circularity and meaninglessness of everything (passive nihilism). In the second part, however, Zarathustra exposes his counter-interpretation of the vision of the “carriage gate” – from which the two “infinite roads” depart, that of the past and that of the future – which adds essential characters to the first interpretation of the dwarf. The novelty of this counterinterpretation consists in the fact that Zarathustra goes deep and touches on the decisive argument that sets the turning point from passive nihilism to active nihilism. Not only must everything that becomes have already been experienced, but above all the door itself, the present moment, must already have been in the past. The plane of passage from passive nihilism to active nihilism has thus been reached, hence from the eternal return as paralyzing thought, to the eternal return as liberation from the symbolic (the first interpretation of the dwarf is partially refuted). The moment is included in the eternal circle of past and future.

Next, Zarathustra is as if awakened by the howling of a dog, which allows him to change the scene. He sees the dog almost calling for help next to a shepherd, who is as if suffocated by a snake, whose head comes out of its mouth. The snake, specifically, indicates the eternal return and it is as if the shepherd is suffocated by this conception of the eternal circle of time. A fundamental gesture brings a smile back to the shepherd”s lips, now no longer in pain (“never before in the world had a man laughed as he laughed!”): the latter had in fact bitten off the snake”s head, thus allegorically indicating the acceptance of the eternal return. It is important to underline how the acceptance of the eternal return is due to a decision of the shepherd: if he had never bitten the snake”s head off, he would never have been able to accept and establish it. Therefore, there is a moment in which the shepherd institutes, that is he wants, the eternal repetition of life and of the instant.

Only if the moment that man lives is immense, that is, if it encompasses in itself all its meaning, can he want it again and again. The man who can want the eternal return is a happy man, to whom life gives “immense” moments, as a full testimony of existence and meaning. In this work it is possible to see Nietzsche”s role as “defender” of a qualitative time, qualified in its density by the lived contents. Famous is Nietzsche”s definition of the “categorical imperative”: “to live in such a way that one can wish to relive this same life in eternal repetition”. Related to the theme of eternal return and therefore to the principle of movement is the transvaluation of values that by some has been understood as a reversal of values.

The reversal carries within itself the affirmation of a further value. While the transvaluation is linked to the flow of the value itself without preeminence of any in particular, and therefore to the overcoming of the value. Resuming Nietzsche when he speaks of Heraclitus, the only philosopher to whom he feels bound, he affirms that movement carries within itself the possibility of annihilation. Translated in philosophical terms and linked this concept to the one dear to Nietzsche of the transvaluation, there cannot be a moral nor an absolute value but instinctual values that are annihilated in the movement. If it were not so, Nietzsche would be considered a moralist or an idealist.

The particularity of Nietzsche”s thought, its uniqueness, has always generated questions in the criticism. One of the questions that have been asked in the history of criticism of Nietzsche is the consideration of what is the “real” Nietzsche or what was his real intent and what he wanted to communicate in his works or how much of what he left is filtered in a lucid way separating it from the descending parable of his mental illness.

His philosophy, in fact, is poised between the total negation of Western culture and thought (see his critique of rationalism, very important in Western philosophy) and the creation of a new system of values, centered on the figure of the Over-Man, the eternal return and the will to power. Nietzsche, in fact, undoubtedly wanted to eliminate the field from any “myth”, which belonged to religious morality (which he called “morality of the defeated”) or philosophy, with the secular myths of progress, rationalism, positivism and idealism. However, it is legitimate to wonder whether this will to destroy values is only an end in itself, the result of a nihilistic orientation, or is the necessary basis from which to start the creation of a new system of values.

Nietzsche”s philosophy offers considerable food for thought, which in part explains the difficulty of this author to be fully understood in his time, in the nineteenth century, and his subsequent rediscovery in the twentieth century. It is worth remembering that the twentieth century saw the arrival in the limelight of an existentialism very distant from that of Kierkegaard and that in many ways Nietzsche is an anti-Kierkegaard in open competition with his worldview. The Kierkegaardian “checkmate” for Nietzsche becomes the pretext for a way to a victory over destiny of which the Over-Man becomes the prophet.

Nietzsche”s thought, if on the one hand is the negation of those currents of thought based on metaphysical optimism and deterministic Hegelian idealism, is also against scientistic optimism. Positivism was its bearer, with its idea of continuity of progress. The former focuses on the “all is well” because “so it must go” necessarily, the ideal of progress of the latter sounds naive and false.

From another point of view, although The World as Will and Representation is one of the key texts for Nietzsche”s formation, he has little of the simple pessimistic consideration of reality proper to Schopenhauer. His philosophy, in fact, rejects any passive acceptance of reality, whether in the sense of the Hegelian “all is well” or the positivistic “all progresses” or even the “all is suffering” of Schopenhauer. It, rather reveals a kind of romantic titanism, but in a new Weltanschauung (Worldview) that is post-romantic.

In Italy

Of great importance for Nietzsche was the contact with the Italian culture and environment, which on more than one occasion stimulated his philosophical reflections. Nietzsche loved to stay in Italy, where he often went to cure his ailments and where he claimed to restore himself. He defined the Italian character as “the finest” for its ability to express itself wittily and with paradoxes, “the richest” for the creativity and variety of urban settings and “the freest” from metaphysical and religious conditioning. In Italy, God had already died earlier and more definitively than elsewhere. Of the Italic genius he said:

Nietzsche contrasted in particular the Italian culture to the German one, seeing in the latter an obscurantism and a moralism that, arising with Martin Luther and permeating the modern age, had come to prevail over Rome.

Nietzsche therefore believed that the Protestant theology was worse than the Catholic one, recognizing in the mentality of the southern peoples, from essentially Hellenic roots, a greater attitude to idleness, an openness to aphorisms and paradoxes, as well as an indulgence of passions and instincts. In Naples he experienced how beauty does not “fascinate all at once, but exerts a hold that creeps in slowly”; Genoa gave him “a melancholic happiness to live in the midst of this confusion of narrow streets, of voices: an intoxication of life”. Venice induced him so much to yearn for Richard Wagner”s music that “when I look for another word for music, I always find only the word Venice”. In Rome he identified with the sad and unfulfilled gesture of the Triton statue. In Florence, he noted how the “great style” of the Pitti Palace would remain unmatched by the successive epochs of the Counter-Reformation, while in Turin he praised the urban planning and the new emerging style of architecture.

Nietzsche also met, in Basel, during a trip in 1871, Giuseppe Mazzini, the leader of the Italian Republicans, who made an excellent impression on him. His admiration for Niccolò Machiavelli and his Prince was also well known. It is significant that the last creative Nietzsche, before the disease, will work in Turin until his crisis, which will take him in the Piedmontese city in January 1889, when he was returned to Germany (in Turin is still visible the plaque commemorating the stay of the philosopher in a house in the center during the writing of Ecce Homo).


Although basically uninterested in politics, Nietzsche also expressed opinions regarding the management of the state and society. Nietzsche often defends pagan-aristocratic values against Christian-democratic ones, as for him Christian values reflect a false and nihilistic view of life that leads to the corruption and disintegration of society. So he has sometimes been approached with nostalgic reactionary thinking. However, the fact that he detests any modern state organization, as well as his rejection of authority, made him considered an anti-political philosopher. Nietzsche more than making himself political denounces all political ideals of his time. He has also often been associated with anarchist and individualist thought.

Although the German philosopher criticized anarchism, his thought proved influential to many thinkers within what can be defined as the anarchist movement. “There were many things that attracted anarchists to Nietzsche: his hatred of the state, his distaste for the irrational social conduct of the “herd,” his anti-Christianity, his distrust of the effect of the market and the state on cultural production, his superhumanist desire, that is, his desire for a new human being who was to be neither master nor slave and the bearer of new values. This could be the result of the association in this period between the philosopher”s ideas and those of Max Stirner. The association between Nietzsche and anarchy endures to this day, in some philosophical circles, for example in Michel Onfray.

Much discussed, as mentioned, is the use made of Nietzsche”s writings by Fascism and Nazism, based on the interpolations and the works edited by his sister, Nazi and convinced anti-Semite. Nietzsche was the only true philosopher that Benito Mussolini studied in depth, being strongly fascinated by him (as well as by Stirner) in his youth. From his doctrine of the superman he drew the sense to be given to the “fascist revolution” that he was going to make soon. Adolf Hitler, on the other hand, often visited the museum in Weimar dedicated to Nietzsche, and had himself photographed while contemplating the bust of the philosopher and, in 1943, gave Mussolini a complete deluxe edition of Nietzsche”s complete works.

In the period between the two world wars, some Nazis intensively employed various devices to promote their ideology, most notably Alfred Baeumler in his interpretation of The Will to Power.

The wide popularity of Nietzsche among the Nazis stemmed in part from the deliberate efforts of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, sister of the philosopher who edited the publications after his mental breakdown, becoming at one point an open sympathizer of the National Socialist Party (so much so that, when he died in 1935, the Führer attended his funeral).

Moreover, Mazzino Montinari, in the course of the publication of Nietzsche”s posthumous works during the 1960s, discovered that Elisabeth, by “creating” – so to speak – The Will to Power through the activity of editorial revision of posthumous fragments, had cut extracts, changed the order, added titles of her own invention, inserted passages by other authors copied from Nietzsche as if they had been written by Nietzsche himself, and so on.

Ultimately we can say that the true thought of Nietzsche considers the state as an idol substitute for the old God (for this reason he does not formulate his own political proposal for his contemporaries, as did Karl Marx), then to be killed as well, so that finally rises the beyond man. Because of the association between Nazism and Nietzsche (arising also from some passages of The Antichrist in which exalts the strong over the weak), his works will be effectively banned in East Germany under the communist regime (1949-1990) and the tomb of the philosopher abandoned and forgotten, until the next restoration.

Nietzsche challenged the philosophical concept of free will and the re-educational function of punishment, considering the death of the criminal as the only act that restores dignity to his gesture (like suicide in Greek-Roman morality), absolving him from guilt and freeing him from the humiliation of repentance, imposed by Christian morality:

In the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche argued that the value of punishment should not be to arouse the sense of guilt nor to re-educate the criminal, but only to punish in an extramoral key “a causer of damage, an irresponsible fragment of fatality. Clearly separating law from morality, and reversing the perspective of Cesare Beccaria in a diametrically opposite key, Nietzsche considered positively the situation in which the criminal feels morally relieved from his act when he finds himself “unable to perceive as reprehensible his action, the species of his act in itself: he sees in fact exercised in the service of justice exactly the same species of acts and therefore approved, exercised with quiet conscience”.

However, at the moment of expressing a judgment on the practical application of capital punishment in the world contemporary to him, he seems to take sides against it, attacking what is not an indication of the spiritual energy of the overman, but a cold ritual of the bourgeois state, which he judges more guilty than the murderer himself:


For Hegel there is History, for Nietzsche there is genealogy. In the thought of Nietzsche, although his comparison with Hegel is rarely made explicit in the works, prevails a radical contestation of Hegelism: the most relevant points of distance between the two German philosophers can be identified in the different attitude towards the dialectic, the subject of an aggressive criticism by Nietzsche, being seen by him as a claim of thought to reduce the chaotic nature of life and the world within fixed and stable categories, and especially in a systematic view of philosophy, which was instead a central feature of the work of Hegel.

In his second inactual consideration Nietzsche explicitly refers to Hegelian philosophy as the major cause of a widespread idolatry of the fact in German culture. For Nietzsche, in fact, the attempt to categorize and at the same time divinize the historical process annihilates the vital force proper to every man and conveys an epigonal and justifying conception of history. Hegel”s philosophy is considered by Nietzsche a betrayal to the detriment of life, as an attempt to stop what cannot be stopped (life, dynamic par excellence) in a system of thought.

Similar is his judgement towards positivists: guilty of explaining reality through fixed mechanistic laws, they remain afflicted by the same error as Hegel and his followers. Nietzsche is distant from the thought of Hegel also in order to the Hegelian supposition that there is a purely rational force manifesting itself in history, which would treat men as mere instruments of their own cunning.

Nietzsche repudiates the “tyranny of reason over men” (to use his words), for which he blames Socrates, Plato, Descartes, the Enlightenment and even the positivists of his time. This attitude of profound questioning of the rationalistic-idealistic strand merged in Hegel and Immanuel Kant (idealism that for Nietzsche includes Christianity) of Western philosophy involves at the same time a total re-discussion of the metaphysical tradition, of which Hegel is considered the last developer.

Nevertheless, there are certain similarities with some aspects of the Enlightenment. Despite his clear anti-rationalist orientation, it is possible to compare Nietzsche”s thought to some Enlightenment authors – as well as to observe a deep rationalist, or rather rational, background in some of his convictions and reasoning – with regard to the general rejection of metaphysics and asceticism; it is also significant that he dedicated his work Human, Too Human to Voltaire. The ascetic ideal is seen in particular by Nietzsche as a threat to the vital force inherent in man. More than a rejection of rationalism, there is therefore a rejection of idealism.


Nietzsche can be compared to Søren Kierkegaard: both have a purely existential orientation and both are considered precursors of twentieth-century existentialism. Nietzsche, however, does not share the cynicism of life that inevitably leads to despair, and prevents man from joyfully accepting existence, in addition to not sharing Kierkegaard”s Christian beliefs.

Relationships with other authors

On the basis ut supra is focused the controversy against religion in general and Christianity in particular: even these instances deny the innate life force in each. The condemnation also affects Arthur Schopenhauer, although admired in his youth by Nietzsche. The latter blames his old master for having generated yet another moral, based on piety and, ultimately, on asceticism.

Nietzsche, however, is influenced by some of Schopenhauer”s concepts: he admits the idea of an irrational force, rejecting the sinister notion that Schopenhauer had envisaged, and renames the will to power, counting it as a benevolent force, essentially exemplified by his famous beyond man. The strong youthful interest in Schopenhauer, led Nietzsche to read the disciples of the latter, namely Eduard von Hartmann, Julius Bahnsen and Philipp Mainländer.

However, he did not think that these authors were authentic continuers of Schopenhauer”s message. In fact, he speaks of Mainländer, after having affirmed in an early writing “It is time to rediscover him!”, in La gaia scienza (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), in the following way: “Would it be possible to consider Mainländer, amateur and prematurely senile, sentimental thurifer and apostle of virginity, as a true German? Neither Bahnsen, nor Mainländer, nor, in particular, Eduard von Hartmann, give any security in the matter of handling the question whether Schopenhauer”s pessimism, his horror of looking at a private, stupid, blind, insane God and a questionable World, in short his honest look of horror, was not only an exceptional case among Germans, but can be, rather, regarded as a generally German theme” (§ 357).

However, it should be noted that Nietzsche himself borrowed from Mainländer, the famous expression “God is dead” (although with different intentions, meaning the death of God for Nietzsche a surplus of immanent vitalism): the progressive death of God – from the “unitary superessence” to the “phenomenal essence in the multiple”, present in the world today, until the “nullifying dissolution” – is, in fact, the heart of the philosophy of Mainländer. Of particular importance for Nietzsche was the discovery of Stendhal and Dostoevsky (the latter defined, in Twilight of the Idols, “the only psychologist from whom I would have something to learn”). In a letter addressed to Franz Overbeck (February 1887) writes:

The last Nietzsche, before his illness, was passionate about Tolstoy”s “conversion” (the same Tolstoy who defined him as “a lively German possessed by delusions of grandeur, with limited ideas, insane”). Nietzsche “read and compulsive avidly, recognizing in him the same myth to which he too felt forced: the consummation of the border between “art” and “life”, between “will” and “reality””. Other influences of Nietzsche were the mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson, Voltaire, Stirner. Nietzsche also read and esteemed the pessimistic and nihilistic poetry and philosophy of Giacomo Leopardi, who, like him, saw, at least in part, in the illusions of art and myths the means to escape a life of pain and the gray present.

Nietzsche, who can be said to be an opponent of positivism, is in partial agreement with Darwinism and more particularly with the categories of “struggle for life”, “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”. However, he expands this assumption beyond mere survival: according to Nietzsche there is a selective “Darwinism” even in human society: individuals aim to achieve dominance and supremacy, under the stimulus of the “will to power”. Darwin will be harshly criticized by Nietzsche for his progressive optimism. In addition, Nietzsche criticizes Darwin for the preponderance he gives to the external environment as the cause of evolution and survival as a fundamental vital instinct; – the “merchant philosophy of Mr. Spencer: absolute lack of an ideal, outside of that of the average man. Another criticism of Darwin was on the concepts of “individual” and “species” as they were believed: “The concepts of “individual” and “species” are equally false and due to the first impression. “Species” expresses only the fact that a number of similar beings occur at the same time and that the rate of further growth and change is for a long time slowed down, so that small continuations and increases in fact do not come into much consideration (a stage of development, in which the development does not become visible, so that it seems that an equilibrium has been reached, and the false representation is made possible that a purpose has been achieved here – and that there was a purpose in the development…).”

In his critique of idealism and Kant, of the alleged “metaphysical fantasies”, of the “immorality” of morality and of the academic philosophical rhetoric, Nietzsche can be considered the most influential precursor of ethology, of evolutionary epistemology, as well as of psychoanalysis, and his work contributed to make it possible: Nietzsche has produced influences of absolute importance in various environments and on numerous personalities of literature and politics of the twentieth century. It is inevitable, in this regard, to refer to Stefan George, as well as in Italy to Gabriele D”Annunzio, who in his work showed to have manifestly received the myth of the beyond man, with the consequent exaltation, to the limits of titanism, of pride and will. Nietzsche was sometimes considered among the precursors of National Socialism, even if the interpretation of his thought provided by the Nazi philosopher Alfred Baeumler was a work of careful biased distortion perpetrated in order to support the ideology of the National Socialist Party, made adulterating and exploiting the work of the intellectual.

As a result of the considerable ambiguity and lack of explicitness of the contents of his writings, Nietzsche”s opinions were and still are interpreted with the intention of placing the intellectual now as a reactionary, conservative and elitist, now as a progressive, non-conformist and individualist dedicated to the crushing of all mass culture. Among the various attempts to use the writings of the intellectual, who never sided with any political ideology during his life, it is worth mentioning the interpretation of the scholar Georges Bataille, who denied any association of the writer”s intellectual heritage with Nazi ideology. Evident influences of Nietzsche”s thought can also be found in the original concrete metaphysics of Pavel Aleksandrovič Florenskij; in the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and that of Carl Gustav Jung (in the “Heraclitean” philosophy of Alfred Baeumler, as well as more generally in the so-called Konservative Revolution of the German cultural sphere between the two wars, through, among others, Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Thomas Mann and Martin Heidegger himself; or even in Italian futurism, modern individualism, the objectivism of the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand, and more recently in transhumanism and critical postmodernism.

Among contemporary authors who openly claim their Nietzschean filiation we find, among others, Guillaume Faye, Alain de Benoist (founder of Nouvelle Droite) and the anarcho-hedonist Michel Onfray. It should be remembered, moreover, the well-known spiritual affinity that linked the painter Giorgio de Chirico to the thinker who is commented here. Nietzsche also influenced the Romanian writer Emil Cioran who took from him his pessimism and nihilism, radicalizing them.

Other criticisms to Nietzsche”s thought

Criticism of Nietzsche”s thought will come from the existentialist current of the twentieth century, in particular from Martin Heidegger for whom the center of philosophical reflection is a new metaphysical course on the meaning of being. In particular Heidegger will criticize the concepts of will to power and beyond man as loss of fundamental values by the individual; however Heidegger will take from Nietzsche some ideas, such as the analysis of nihilism.

Strong criticisms to Nietzsche will be pronounced by the spiritualist, idealist and religious currents, for example by the Catholic Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who will also support the non-newness of Nietzsche”s ideas in hard stances:

Collections of Nietzsche”s works

Conducted on the critical edition of the original texts established by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari:

The following volumes are published in the series of Adelphi, Milan, with yellow cover (in brackets the n. of the series):

Nietzsche radicalizes the concept of destiny of fatalist philosophies such as Stoicism and theorizes the absence of free will.

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  1. Friedrich Nietzsche
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche