Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, on the forty-ninth birthday of his namesake, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, in the small German village of Röcken bei Lützen, southwest of Leipzig. Nietzsche was descended from Lutheran ministers; his paternal grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig Nietzsche, was a distinguished Protestant scholar. When Nietzsche was five years old, his father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813–49), died, and his two-year- old brother, Ludwig Joseph, died six months later. Upon their death, the family moved to Naumberg an der Saale, where Nietzsche lived with his mother, Franziska, his grandmother, Erdmuthe, his father’s two sisters, Auguste and Rosalie, and his younger sister, Therese Elisabeth Alexandria. Near Naumberg, from the ages of 14 to 19 (1858–64), Nietzsche prepared for university as a student at the esteemed boarding school Schulpforta. Its alumni include Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) and Nietzsche’s lifelong friend Paul Deussen (1845–1919), who became a famous Orientalist. In his student years, Nietzsche was known for his dedication to music and literature. He came to know Richard Wagner’s music from the pages of the Zeitschrift für Musik. His reading in those years included the poetry and romantic writings of Friedrich Hölderlin and Jean-Paul Richter, and the controversial Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet, 1835) by David Strauss.
After graduation, Nietzsche matriculated at the University of Bonn (1864) to pursue studies in theology and philology, eventually settling on a course of philological studies centering on classical and biblical texts. At Bonn he followed the lectures of Otto Jahn, known for his biography of Mozart and a student of Karl Lachmann, who was famous for his studies of Lucretius. In addition, Nietzsche attended the lectures of the classics scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who was known for his work on the Roman comic Plautus. Nietzsche followed Ritschl to the University of Leipzig in 1865, where he befriended his fellow philologist Erwin Rohde.
While in Leipzig, Nietzsche began to establish his own academic reputation with essays on the sixth-century Greek poets Theognis and Simonides, as well as on Aristotle. In 1865 Nietzsche discovered Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818). In addition to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche studied F. A. Lange’s History of Materialism and Critique of Its Present Significance (1866).
Nietzsche began his mandatory military service in 1867. Assigned to an equestrian field artillery regimen near Naumberg, he suffered a serious chest injury while attempting to leap-mount the saddle. While he was on sick leave, his chest wound festered, so he returned to the University of Leipzig. Never in outstanding health, further complications arose from Nietzsche’s August-October 1870 service as a 25-year-old hospital attendant during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). He witnessed the traumatic effects of battle, took close care of wounded soldiers, and contracted diphtheria and dysentery.
In 1868, he met the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) at the house of the composer’s sister. Wagner’s sister was married to Hermann Brockhaus, who had published an edition of the Zoroastrian text, Vendidad Sade, whose prophet was Zarathustra (Zoroaster). Wagner, like Nietzsche, was a great Schopenhauer enthusiast. Nietzsche, who had been composing piano, choral and orchestral music since he was a teen, was drawn to the musical genius and magnetic personality of the already influential Wagner. The Wagner-Nietzsche relationship had a profound effect on Nietzsche. In 1869, he noted that the friendship with Wagner was “the greatest achievement” of his life. Nietzsche reminisced in 1882 that the days with Wagner were the best in his life.
Ritschl recommended the 24-year-old Nietzsche for a position in classical philology at the University of Basel, which he assumed in 1869. While there, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Wagner loved it and lavished admiring praise on it, but the great German philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff was not so generous. He penned the authoritative critical review, which had an adverse effect both on the reception of the book and on Nietzsche. Wilamowitz-Möllendorff went so far as to refer to Nietzsche as a disgrace to their alma mater, Schulpforta, and memorably recommended that rather than philology, Nietzsche should instead “gather tigers and panthers about his knees, but not the youth of Germany,” so prone to prophecy, soothsaying, exaggeration and histrionics free of any historical sense was his writing. (Nietzsche would later repay the “compliment” thirteen years later, in the final scene of his great prose-poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with its lion warmly nuzzling Zarathustra’s knees: his audience was not the already lost university professoriat.)
During his Swiss period, between 1872 and 1879, Nietzsche frequented Wagner’s new Bayreuth home and published a series of four studies critical of modern German culture: the Untimely Meditations (1873–76). The series was devoted to David Strauss, the historian of religion; the problem of historicism and historiography; Schopenhauer; and Wagner.
In 1878 Nietzsche broke with Wagner and published Human, All-Too-Human, which marked a turn in style and analysis and powerfully attacked his former friend, whom he identified in the work only as “the artist.” By June 1879, Nietzsche’s deteriorating health led to his resignation from the university post—which he had held for ten years—at the age of 34. From 1880 until his collapse in 1889, Nietzsche led the nomadic life of a stateless person. His peregrinations circled between his mother’s home in Naumberg, winters in Nice, and summers in Sils-Maria, as well as Leipzig, Turin, Genoa, Recoaro, Messina, Rapallo, Florence, Venice, and Rome. He never stayed in one place for more than several months at a time. In 1882, while in Rome, Nietzsche met and fell in love with Lou von Salomé, a 21-year-old Russian woman who was studying philosophy and theology in Zurich. She rejected Nietzsche’s advances in favor of those of his friend Paul Rée.
It was during this wandering period that Nietzsche composed his greatest works: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882/1887), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). And in his final year: The Case of Wagner (1888), Twilight of the Idols (1888), The Antichrist (1888), Ecce Homo (1888), and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888). On January 3, 1889, while in Turin, Nietzsche had a breakdown, which left him incapacitated for the rest of his life. According to legend, upon witnessing the whipping of a horse at the Piazza Carlo Alberto, Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse’s neck and collapsed into insanity.
Throughout his productive life Nietzsche struggled to have his work published, confident that his books would have culturally transformative effects. While he did not live long enough to witness his fame, he did learn that his work was the subject of a series of lectures by Georg Morris Cohen Brandes, delivered at the University of Copenhagen in 1888.
Upon the death of his mother in 1897, under whose care Nietzsche was living, his sister Elisabeth—having just returned from Paraguay where she had labored with her husband, Bernhard Förster, to found an Aryan, anti-Semitic German colony called “Nueva Germania”—assumed responsibility for her brother. She moved both Nietzsche and his collected manuscripts to a large house in Weimar—the “Villa Silberblick”—where she received guests to study the Nietzsche archives, and to observe the now mad philosopher.
Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900, just shy of his fifty-sixth birthday, from pneumonia and a stroke. His body was buried in the family gravesite at the church in Röcken bei Lützen. The Nietzsche manuscripts were eventually moved to the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar.
For more biographical information, see:
Robert Pippin’s Introductions to Nietzsche, Cambridge: 2012.