An Introduction to the Work of Nietzsche

Early Writings, 1872–76

Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, in 1872. The book questions the dominant eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portrait of Greek culture, rooted in Johann Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art (1764). Winckelmann portrayed ancient Greece as rational, noble, and serene. Nietzsche, by contrast, defines ancient Greek culture by the opposition between the Apollonian dream and Dionysian intoxication, which he develops into the pairs “individual and community,” “family and city,” “law-convention and nature,” “image and music,” and “appearance and illusion.” He discerns the tension between the beauty of the Olympian gods and the terror of tragedy but finds terror to be the more fundamental and original source, even of the Apollonian. The Apollonian and Dionysian pair become transformed into the oppositions between thought and affects, reason and passion, and from there the discussion moves from Euripides to Socrates, and the problem he represents.

The Birth of Tragedy contains the germ of much of Nietzsche’s later thought, in which the relation of knowledge of the true and the question of its goodness or benefit becomes the primary question, a question first raised by Socrates and raised again by Nietzsche.

From 1873 to 1876 Nietzsche wrote his Untimely Meditations. While intending to write thirteen studies, Nietzsche completed only four, devoted to the decline of contemporary European, especially, German culture: David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer, (1873); On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874); Schopenhauer as Educator (1874); Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876).

In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche deepens his treatment of the question, Why science?, or the question of the disproportion between the pursuit of truth and the goodness of that pursuit. Nietzsche discusses how the scientific pursuit of the historical schools issues in a new phenomenon, “historicism,” or the relativity of all horizons and values, and the potential harmful implications of that discovery. For how can humanity live without closed horizons once the scientific pursuit of history has pierced all such myths and illusory veils and revealed only arbitrary values? Nietzsche also makes clear that his generation is the first to find itself in the position of knowing that it does not know. This situation is the result of the probity celebrated by millennia of Christianity, now refined into science and the democratic movement and turned against God and its Christian origins, in which Christian morality persists despite the death of the Christian god. The final two essays, on Schopenhauer and Wagner, look to them as heroic potential redeemer types of German culture and the West.

Middle Writings, 1881–83

In 1878 Nietzsche completed Human, All-Too-Human. The following year he added a second part, Mixed Opinions and Maxims, which he followed with a third part—The Wanderer and His Shadow (Der Wanderer und sein Schatten) —in 1880. In 1886 the three parts were published together as Human, All-Too-Human, A Book for Free Spirits. Eschewing any philosophical “system,” and sensitive to the question of form and style in philosophical writing, Nietzsche composed these works as a series of several hundred aphorisms. Throughout, he reflects upon—and subjects to rigorous critique—myriad cultural, political, and psychological phenomena and theological and metaphysical opinions. The idea of power—for which he would later gain notoriety—appears here as an explanatory principle, but at this stage of his thinking Nietzsche emphasizes hedonistic considerations rooted in biological or instinctual forces. From the standpoint of his later dismissive criticisms of all hedonistic and utilitarian accounts, Human, All-Too-Human thus appears to some readers as an uncharacteristic work, inspired by positivist science.

In his next work, Daybreak: Reflections on Moral Prejudices, (1881), Nietzsche continues and deepens his aphoristic style and his focus on the body, instinct, and the question of nature or the natural, but the accent falls now on the importance of “power” and “the feeling of power” in his understanding of so-called “moral” consciousness.

With Daybreak, the critique of morality and religion and their interrelation with psychological motives moves into focus. The question of the nature of health, and the secret of the ancient Greeks’ outstanding health and cheerfulness in opposition to Christianity’s lack thereof (themes dominant since his 1872 essay, “Homer’s Contest,” as well as in The Birth of Tragedy) are now approached in a new way and with a new emphasis. Daybreak is also one of Nietzsche’s clearest, most serene, and most intimate volumes, replete with many social-psychological insights. In this book, as he remarks retrospectively in Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche begins his “crusade against morality.”

In the next work from this period, The Gay Science (1882) Nietzsche sets forth two of the ideas for which he became famous, the proclamation that “God is dead” and the doctrine of “eternal recurrence.” Nietzsche presents his account of “God’s murder” (section 125) in a complex rhetorical parable about the fate of Western humanity.

Nietzsche first announces that “God is dead” in the third book of The Gay Science. Hegel had already written at the end of his treatise Faith and Knowledge in 1802 of “the feeling on which rests the religion of the modern period – the feeling that God himself is dead…” Nietzsche’s pronouncement is not restricted to the Christian God; the words “God” and “Christian God” refer to the supra-sensory world in general, the realm of Ideas that since Plato and Christianity has designated the true and genuine world that transcends material things as opposed to the sensory world, the changeable, merely apparent, unreal world. Nietzsche writes that “…God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. – And we – we have still to overcome his shadow!” (Gay Science aph. 108).

Nietzsche’s doctrine of “eternal recurrence” means to draw attention away from anything thought to transcend this world, because it precludes the possibility of any final escape from the present world. The doctrine also functions to measure someone’s overall psychological strength and mental health, because Nietzsche believed that the doctrine of “eternal recurrence” was the hardest doctrine to affirm.

Scholars debate whether Nietzsche intends “eternal recurrence” to describe a serious metaphysical theory, or whether he is merely offering what he believes is a healthy way to interpret the world. In any event, the death of God and the teachings of eternal recurrence and power are meant to be compatible with the view he states in “The Gay Science” that nature is valueless.

Late Writings, 1883–88

Nietzsche composed his most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None  from 1883–85. It is at once a manifesto of personal self-overcoming and a guide for others. 150,000 copies of the work were printed by the German government and issued with the Bible to young soldiers during WWI. And this, despite the fact that Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s complex rhetorical, poetic and prophetic style was meant to supplant all older teachings. The book is full of rich and suggestive metaphors of nature often redolent of “pre-Socratic” (a term we owe to Nietzsche) naturalist philosophy, which invoke animals, earth, air, fire, water, celestial bodies, and plants, all in the service of characterizing the spiritual growth of Zarathustra, a solitary, reflective, exceedingly strong-willed, sage-like, laughing and dancing voice of heroic self-mastery who, accompanied by a proud, sharp-eyed eagle and a wise snake, envisions a mode of psychologically-healthier being, beyond what has been known as the human condition hitherto. Nietzsche refers to this higher mode of being as “superhuman” (übermenschlich) and associates it with the doctrine of “eternal recurrence”—a doctrine only for the healthiest who can love life in its entirety.

Nietzsche believes that the choice for the future is clear: Western humanity will either sink into the nihilism of “the last man” or “overcome” itself in the direction of the superhuman, who is capable of opposing nihilism through affirmation. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an especially difficult work to interpret because in it Nietzsche speaks in riddles, puns, and parables. He presents short narratives populated by fictional characters: “the hunchback,” “the ugliest man,” “the soothsayer,” “the saint,” “the tightrope walker,” “the jester,” and “the Last Man,” to name but a few.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886) Nietzsche engages in broad discussions of philosophy, religion, morality, virtue, politics, and nobility. It is his most visibly comprehensive book. Especially noteworthy is his discussion of the great theme, long virtually absent in modern thought, of the philosopher himself. He identifies imagination, self-assertion, danger, originality, and the “creation of values” as qualities of a genuine philosopher—qualities far from those professional laborers who engage in dusty scholarship and make up the professoriat. The great philosophers of the past also do not escape Nietzsche’s hammer.

Nietzsche asserts in Beyond Good and Evil that all knowledge is perspectival and belongs to a specific perspective: there is no pure mind that grasps supersensuous, eternal truths. All knowledge is a function of life, i.e., of historically specified life. The perspective of man as man does not exist: there are a variety of perspectives. The world as understood by anyone is the apparent world, and the true world is a meaningless term. All knowledge is interpretation and therefore creation. All previous philosophers were mistaken; in the final analysis knowledge must be understood as creative, driven by unique, individual instincts, or will to power.

On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic (1887) is composed of three essays that advance the critiques of morality and religion expressed in Beyond Good and Evil. The first essay discusses master morality versus slavish morality and argues that what is set forth as “holy” and “morally good” within Judeo-Christian morality is a product of self-deception, forged in the bad air of revenge, resentment, hatred, impotence, and cowardice. Nietzsche advocates valuations that issue from strength—a self-confident, self-reinforcing, self-governing, creative, and commanding attitude—as opposed to those that issue from weakness and resentment of the powerful. For Nietzsche, those who think in terms of “good vs. bad” exemplify the superior mentality, and those who think in terms of “good vs. evil,” exemplify the inferior, subservient ones. All the key presuppositions of the moral consciousness are, in the Genealogy, subjected to rigorous critique: “intention,” “free will,” “guilt,” “conscience,” “anger,” “vengeance,” “punishment,” “desert,” “the good in itself,” and “altruism.”

The Works of 1888

The Case of Wagner, A Musician’s Problem (May–August 1888) is a far cry from Nietzsche’s 1872 portrayal of Wagner in The Birth of Tragedy. With The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche “declares war” upon Richard Wagner, whose music he characterizes as sickly and decadent, albeit the epitome of nihilistic modern cultural achievement. Nietzsche’s remarks are replete with an unforgettable skewering of Wagner’s overly theatrical style, critical reflection on the longing for redemption via art, and a novel “physiology of art,” centered on body, instinct, and ascending and descending energies.

Nietzsche seeks an antidote to Wagner’s heavy and overwrought pretensions in the music of Georges Bizet (1838–75), in whose music he finds refinement, light-hearted playfulness, good cheer, and something revitalizing.

In Twilight of the Idols, or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer (1888) Nietzsche reiterates and deepens some of his original themes: the problem of Socrates, examinations of Plato, Kant, and the possibility of philosophy, and the moral, political and psychological origins of Christianity. Nietzsche also takes aim at a number of famous French, British, and Italian cultural figures such as Rousseau, Hugo, Carlyle, Mill, Eliot, Darwin, and Dante. In contrast to all these alleged carriers of cultural decadence, Nietzsche holds up the hardness and strength of Caesar, Napoleon, Goethe, Thucydides, and the Sophists.

The Antichrist, Curse on Christianity (September 1888 [published 1895]) explores the meaning of redemption and how noble values in Rome were corrupted by Christianity’s rise. Nietzsche also revisits several questions that he had examined in other works: What is Truth? What is God? What is Justice?, and examines Buddha, Jesus/the Redeemer, Paul, and Manu.

Nietzsche’s final book is Ecce Homo, How One Becomes What One Is. Nietzsche examines his own genesis as a philosopher by means of a retrospective discussion of his entire corpus, offering critical remarks, details of how the works were inspired, and explanatory observations regarding their philosophical contents. He begins his intellectual autobiography with three sections, “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.” His wisdom is said to flow from his acute aesthetic sensitivity to nuances of health and sickness in people’s attitudes and characters. His cleverness shows itself in his knowledge of how to choose the right nutrition, climate, residence, and recreation for himself. And he writes such good books because they adventurously open up, at least for a select few, a new series of noble and delicate experiences. If Nietzsche is successful, one will be able to overcome “disgust with man” and affirm the whole.

Unpublished Notebooks

Nietzsche’s unpublished writings have inspired much controversy because they include tentative and speculative ideas sometimes in conflict with the published work. The heart of the disagreement regarding the notebooks, or Nachlass, concerns whether they or the published works best represent his true understanding. Nietzsche did not edit or organize them himself. His 1880s notebooks were edited, organized topically, and entitled by his (anti-Semitic) sister, The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values. In these writings, Nietzsche experiments with a more visibly metaphysical orientation regarding the doctrines of the “Eternal Recurrence” and the “Will to Power.”

Nietzsche’s Influence

Nietzsche’s influence has been deep and abiding: one need consider only the ubiquity of the terms he made current: “creativity,” “values,” “power,” “self-expression,” “historicism,” “genealogy,” etc. He first had a powerful effect on avant-garde artists and writers, but he continued to affect many other areas of thought and action, from Freud’s psychoanalysis and Heidegger’s radical historicism, to the Italian Fascists and Nazis, to postmodernists of the late twentieth century One concrete example of his influence can be seen in O’Neil’s play, The Great God Brown, which makes extensive use of masks – a clear echo of Nietzsche’s discussion of masks, for example in Beyond Good and Evil, section 40: “Whatever is profound loves masks.” Thomas Mann also based the character Adrian Leverkühn in his novel Dr. Faustus on Nietzsche; bot contract syphilis, which Mann was sure caused Nietzsche’s madness. Nietzsche would have abhorred the Nazis, but their attraction to a thinker who celebrated will, power, and the superman is not simply accidental.

For further introductory reading, see:

Werner Dannhauser, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Chicago: 1987.

 The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Eds. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins, Cambridge: 1996.