Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate

Overlook Press 2005  689 pp. 37.50

 Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: a name to conjure with.  He was either a virulent atheist, best known for proclaiming the death of God, or the philosophical father to warlike, anti-Semitic Nazism, or the most influential voice in modern Continental philosophy, whose works force us to confront the seemingly insoluble complexities of what it means to be human.  For biographer Curtis Cate, Nietzsche produced a philosophy that “is with little doubt the least objective, the most intensely personal, the most egotistically subjective … that the Western world has so far seen.”

Born near Leipzig, Germany in 1844, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche led a peripatetic childhood, owing to his father’s death from “softening of the brain” at 36 (Nietzsche was aged four).  Nietzsche was fortunate to be placed in good schools, and was an outstanding student.  By the age of 13, however, Nietzsche began to suffer from blinding headaches, which, along with severe eye trouble, became some of the many organic and self-induced maladies plaguing him throughout his life.

By his early twenties, he came under the influence of two towering figures, the philosopher Schopenhauer and the composer Richard Wagner, both of whom he was to reject in later years as his intellectual development outstripped the boundaries of the pessimistic Schopenhauer and the bombastic Wagner.  At the astonishing age of 24, the intellectually precocious Nietzsche was appointed professor of philology at the Swiss University of Basel.

Nietzsche’s first major publication was a book on classical tragedy and its relation to music, The Birth of Tragedy (from which we get his famous distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian), in part an implicit tribute to his idol, Richard Wagner, whom he often visited at his Swiss lakeside home.

However, as Wagner’s ambitions and self-aggrandizing tendencies grew (symbolized by his founding of a music center in Bayreuth), Nietzsche struck out on an intellectual path unlike any modern philosopher.  Owing to his increasing ill-health he was released from his teaching duties at Basel, and put on a meager but reasonable stipend that enabled him to travel, publish, and socialize.

Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book which, as Cate notes, is “something unique in the history of modern philosophy: a prose poem rising and descending to lyrical heights and depths, full of anger and sweetness, light and somber darkness, joyful gaiety and sadness.” Its purpose “was to proclaim that, even in a godless world, life is worth living.”

For most Americans, it is his “godlessness” that singles him out.  However, his critique of religion grew out of a philosophy that was, in his mind, positive and joyous.  The very core of his philosophy is that “it is not what assists Man that strengthens and ennobles him, but, quite the contrary, what resists his slothful inclinations and prejudices.”  He saw Christianity as “overly emotional and histrionic, ostentatiously mawkish and sentimental.”

Nietzsche saw Christianity as embodying what he called “slave morality … a form of negative reaction against a reigning system of values, an expression of a deep-seated [resentment], … harboured by jealous human beings consumed by the repressed hatred and desire for revenge of the impotent.”

Another feature of Nietzsche’s “Resistentialist philosophy” was a thoroughgoing opposition to democracy.  As Cate explains, “in an absolutely egalitarian society, in which all human beings enjoy the same status, there is no inner incentive for the individual to strive to ‘improve himself’ and to attain a higher level of ‘manhood’, since the longed-for ‘goal’, for the ‘common man’, has, at any rate in theory, already been reached.”

Cate’s biography proves conclusively, once again, that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic, and his supposed support of nascent Nazism resulted from an ignorant misinterpretation of his views.  His views on women were no doubt sexist, but he vacillates between considering them subordinate by nature, and arguing that they should be given more opportunities for education and professional success.

Like so many other profound thinkers, Nietzsche experienced poor book sales during his lifetime.  His lack of professional success did not help his health.

“Nietzsche’s stomach upsets, headaches and insomnia were, once again, psychosomatic symptoms of the nervous stress that invariably gripped him from between the moment when he had sent off a manuscript and the moment when he received the first bound copies from the printer.”  His maladies were truly crippling: his eyes couldn’t endure direct sunlight, he found himself with severe intestinal discomfort during bumpy train rides, and noted that in 1879 he had “118 serious nervous-attack days.”

Still, this lonely soul longed for company.  In one of his more bizarre relationships, he sought to have an ill-defined three-way intellectual “marriage” with the writer Dr. Paul Rée, and the brilliant, bewitching, liberated Lou Andreas Salome (16 years Nietzsche’s junior).  Lust, jealousy, and illness doomed this romance, but the parties involved pursued it across Europe, infuriating his scandalized mother, Franziska, and sister, Elizabeth.

By 1884 symptoms of mental disease were becoming manifest.  Letters to friends were full of “self-infatuation and rampant megalomania.”  Always hypersensitive, he became subject to inexplicable rages.  Following a complete mental breakdown, he was cared for by his “pig-headed” sister Elizabeth, who originated the Nietzsche Archive, more dedicated to her personal self-aggrandizement than the furthering of Nietzsche’s reputation.  He died in 1900.

Cate claims that his biography was written for the non-specialist, and this is true: endnotes and bibliographies occur discretely at the end.  At 576 pages of text, however, the book will appeal to those readers serious about learning of Nietzsche’s life and work.