Key Thinker: Friedrich Nietzsche

Key thinker: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)


Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, near Leipzig (Germany), where his father worked as a Lutheran minister ( His father, Karl Ludwig, died in 1849 when Nietzsche was only four years old. After Karl Ludwig’s death, the family moved to Naumburg, Saxony, where Nietzsche grew up in a household consisting of his mother, his younger sister, his grandmother, and two aunts (his infant brother died shortly after his father) ( In 1858, Nietzsche was admitted to a prestigious Protestant boarding school where he received a classical education (

In 1864, Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Bonn to study Theology and Philology. But only a year later Nietzsche followed his professor Friedrich Ritschl to the University of Leipzig where he excelled academically ( Ritschl was so impressed with Nietzsche’s work that he wrote him a glowing letter of reference and in May 1869, Nietzsche took up the chair in Classical Philology at the University of Basel. At 24 years old, was the youngest ever person appointed to the post (

In Basel, Nietzsche befriended the composer and theatre director Richard Wagner, and became a frequent guest at his house in Lucerne ( Nietzsche even made Wagnerian music-drama the theme of his 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. The two developed a close friendship that lasted until the late 1870s when Wagner’s chauvinism and antisemitism became too much for Nietzsche to bear ( In 1878, Nietzsche published Human, All-Too Human, a pragmatic text which decisively broke with Wagner’s Romanticism ( The book’s publication effectively ended Nietzsche’s personal friendship with Wagner.

In the following years, Nietzsche repeatedly suffered from bad health; in 1879, he was even forced to resign his professorship ( During this period, he dedicated himself to writing and published some of his most famous books including The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). In 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on the streets of Turin, Italy, having lost all consciousness. He spent the final years of his life in an asylum and in the care of his mother and sister ( Nietzsche succumbed to illness in 1900. He was 55 years old.


The idea of the ‘will to power’ is central to Nietzsche’s philosophy (see 14.3. Will to Power). He argues that human beings are driven by their will to power, which he defines as a fundamental instinct to assimilate and incorporate other forces to increase their own power (Nietzsche, 1974:291). While human beings experience a variety of different forces and drives, these are all held together and balanced by the will to power. Because the will to power is agonistic (see Key Concept: Agon), meaning it is determined by conflict and competition, it is a process that is constantly being redefined as the balance of forces shifts. For Nietzsche, the will to power governs all human life, including culture and society. If oppressed individuals like enslaved people, for example, (see 14.3. Slave and master moralities) are prevented from exercising their will to power, it is instead expressed in a repressed desire for revenge (see Key Concept: Ressentiment). Some Nietzsche commentators, like the German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, have argued that the will to power constitutes a foundational metaphysics ( But vague definitions of key concepts in Nietzsche’s philosophy make it difficult to discern precisely what kind of doctrine the will to power is.

Nietzsche considered himself a ‘physician of culture’ (see 14.2. Physician of culture), whose task it was to diagnose and remedy the cultural malaise of modern European society. As modern European society moved away from religion, Nietzsche argues, it could no longer look to God as the ultimate authority. In absence of a higher order to dictate or justify their values, Europeans had become afflicted with nihilism (see Key Concept: Nihilism), i.e., a general sense that life has lost its meaning. For Nietzsche, there are two types of nihilist: passive and active. Most people are passive nihilists, who engage in escapist activities to temporarily forget about the hopelessness of the world. Active nihilists, however, set out to destroy the old value system and build something entirely new. Nietzsche hoped that his books would inspire his individual readers to become aware of the crisis of European culture and to seek out a cure. Like Marx (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx) and Freud (see Key thinker: Sigmund Freud in Chapter 34 on Shulamith Firestone), Nietzsche argues that his writing frees his readers from ‘false consciousness; it reveals the deceptions of modern society to that individuals can see the ‘real’ that is hidden beneath the apparent.

A key aspect of Nietzsche’s thought is his claim that morality has no rational foundations (see 14.3.3. Morality has no rational foundations). He illustrates this point by employing a genealogical method (see Key Concept: Genealogy) to examine how our common sense understanding of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ came to be. Nietzsche’s perspectivism (see 14.2.1. Perspectivism) has become an important point of reference for postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault (see Chapter 32 on Michel Foucault). Nietzsche argues that no such thing as ‘objective knowledge’ exists; all knowledge, he argues, is situated and must be countered by other viewpoints to eradicate any bias. His own opinions, too, should be subject to such challenges, Nietzsche insists. But this does not mean that he is a relativist who considers all beliefs as equally true. His perspectivism instead questions the assumptions behind the Enlightenment idea of the unbiased subject of knowledge who rationally determines what is true or not. Platonic idealism (see Chapter 2 on Plato) ignores the fact that our opinions on what is true or good are shaped by a situated perspective that reflects our social position.

Nietzsche has been the subject of much controversy, owing partly to the publication of The Antichrist (1895), Ecce Homo (1908), and his notebooks (The Will to Power), which were compiled and edited by his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche ( Elizabeth, an antisemite and Nazi sympathizer, let some of her own convictions permeate the texts, leading to confusion over whether Nietzsche, who detested antisemitism, was a far-right thinker ( But some Nietzsche scholars like Domenico Losurdo have argued that we should read Nietzsche’s anti-democratic thinking, as well as his support for slavery, colonialism, and eugenics, within nineteenth-century context. Losurdo casts doubt on the association between Nietzsche and Nazism by presenting the philosopher’s dismissal of equality as an important political and social value (see 14.4. Democracy and the problem of equality) as the product of his elitist, or perhaps aristocratic, perspective (Losurdo, 2021).

Feminist thinkers, too, have had a complicated relationship with Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche criticizes other philosophers for projecting an idealistic image of ‘woman’ onto women, for example, that prevents us from understanding the actual experiences of real women (see 14.2.2. ‘Woman’ and ‘truth’). While this aspect of Nietzsche’s critique has been picked up by feminist thinkers like Luce Irigaray (see Key thinker: Luce Irigaray), who have nonetheless argued that Nietzsche is himself guilty of perpetuating the false representation of ‘woman’. Yet, despite such ambiguities, political thinkers ranging from Huey P. Newton (see Huey P. Newton), or Frantz Fanon (see Chapter 28 on Frantz Fanon), to the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (see Chapter 25 on Emma Goldman) have found inspiration in his writing (see 14.1. Introduction). Nietzsche’s reputation as a controversial figure in the history of philosophy has made him the perfect subject for scholarly monographs and biographical studies.

Further Reading

Losurdo, D., Fluss, H., & Benton, G. (2021). Nietzsche, the aristocratic rebel: Intellectual biography and critical balance-sheet. Haymarket Books.

Prideaux, S. (2019). I am dynamite!: A life of Friedrich Nietzsche. Faber & Faber.

Jenny Dinski, “It wasn’t him it was her”, London Review of Books, 26 July 2003. 

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1974) The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage.

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