Beyond Good and Evil
Friedrich Nietzsche, renowned for declaring “The God is dead!” ranks among the most influential modern philosophers. His innovative ideas, such as the “will to power” as the primary driving force of humanity, the concept of the “Übermensch” as the ultimate human aspiration, and “eternal return” as a framework for life assessment, have sparked extensive scholarly discourse. He was a fervent opponent of nationalism and anti-Semitism, marking him as a thinker deeply engaged with the societal issues of his time.
Friedrich Nietzsche, photographed in Basel, Switzerland, 1875
Born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, Germany, Nietzsche experienced significant loss early in his life. When he was just five, his father passed away after a long and painful illness, followed shortly by the death of his younger brother. These tragedies prompted the family to move to Naumburg, where young Friedrich grew up in a household dominated by women, including his mother, grandmother, two aunts, and his younger sister, Elisabeth. The suffering and death of his loved ones led Nietzsche to question the fairness of a God who would allow good people to suffer so much, planting the seeds of his early doubts about Christianity.
Nietzsche’s academic career was outstanding, culminating in his appointment as a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Impressively, he achieved this at the young age of 24, making him the youngest ever to hold such a position. His teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, highlighted his extraordinary potential in a letter of reference, asserting that Nietzsche was so promising that “he will simply be able to do anything he wants to do.”
During his student days, Nietzsche crossed paths with Richard Wagner, later becoming a regular at Wagner’s household. Wagner, a firm advocate of Schopenhauer’s belief that great art is the antidote to life’s inherent misery, became a surrogate father figure to Nietzsche. Their friendship, and eventual parting of ways, were pivotal moments in Nietzsche’s personal and professional development.
The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.
At the age of 28, Friedrich Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. This work, steeped in profound pessimism, notably asserted that the best thing was not to have been born and the second best was to die young. Over time, Nietzsche’s growing friendship with Paul Rée led him to move away from the pessimism of his early writings. Additionally, he decisively ended his relationship with Richard Wagner, repelled by Wagner’s increasing nationalism.
Failing health, including severe headaches, nausea, and eyesight problems—likely caused by a slow-growing brain tumor—forced Nietzsche to resign from his professorship. He then entered a highly productive phase, frequently relocating to find comfort for his health issues and solitude for his work, spending summers in the Swiss Alps and winters on the Mediterranean coast. During this period, he wrote his most famous works, including Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morality.
At the start of this phase, Nietzsche had a close and intense friendship with Paul Rée and Lou Salomé, a brilliant young student. They initially planned to live together in an intellectual commune, but things got complicated when Nietzsche and Rée both fell in love with Salomé. Nietzsche even proposed marriage to her, but she declined, and eventually, Salomé and Rée left for Berlin.
Lou Salomé, Paul Rée, and Friedrich Nietzsche during their travels through Italy in 1882
Nietzsche believed that hardship and effort are essential for achieving anything meaningful. He even wished suffering, sickness, and setbacks upon those he cared about, wanting them to experience the benefits of overcoming challenges. Nietzsche thought sorrows and troubles shouldn’t be avoided; instead, they should be embraced and used to one’s benefit. He summed it up in his book Ecce Homo with the famous quote:
What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.
The central idea in Nietzsche’s philosophy is the “will to power,” which explains why people do what they do. He believed that the desire to gain power was more important than just surviving, for both animals and humans. According to Nietzsche, the will to power is a source of strength and a positive force.
Another crucial concept was the “Übermensch,” introduced in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s often translated as “superhuman” or “overhuman,” someone who rises above pleasure and suffering, seeing them as equally important because they can’t be separated. The Übermensch lives life fully according to their own values, being a free spirit, confident, and generous at heart.
Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal return” means picturing your life happening over and over, exactly the same way, forever. Those who can welcome this thought are living life well. But those who fear it haven’t fully learned to love and appreciate life yet.
Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906
In his final years, Nietzsche had dementia. Despite trying to treat it, he ended up in his mother’s and later his sister’s care, eventually becoming completely silent. Sadly, at 55, he passed away due to a stroke complicated by pneumonia.
Nietzsche once said some people are born only after they’re gone, and that’s certainly true for him. Philosophy, theology, and psychology since the early 20th century would be hard to grasp without his influence. Existentialism owes a lot to his ideas. Psychologists like Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and even Sigmund Freud were deeply impacted by his works. Freud even thought Nietzsche understood himself better than anyone else ever could.
Words of wisdom
“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” —Friedrich Nietzsche