The Tortured, Fascinating Life of Friedrich Nietzsche

The life of Friedrich Nietzsche belies his status as a proponent of existentialist philosophy, which emphasized personal evolution, mental clarity, and musings on power and free will. Small in stature, half-blind, plagued by headaches and other ailments, Nietzsche's biography is filled with strange and bizarre incidents that contrast with the image we see of him today as one of the true giants in the history of philosophy and literature. 

Nietzsche lived a solitary and lonely existence, grinding out manuscripts that went mostly unread and unappreciated until the final years of his life. He would also be betrayed by a family member who took advantage of his progressing infirmity, distorting Nietzsche's philosophy into something unrecognizably totalitarian. Adolf Hitler would later exploit his connection to Nietzsche 's works in an attempt to apply an intellectual gloss over his crude and hateful Nazi philosophy - a development that historically jeopardized the philosopher's reputation until the late 20th century renaissance. As fascinating as the philosopher's body of work is, so are the incredibly bizarre and strange details of the life of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

  • Nietzsche Became A Professor At The Age Of 25 - An Unheard Of Achievement

    Nietzsche Became A Professor At The Age Of 25 - An Unheard Of Achievement
    Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

    Friedrich Nietzsche was appointed as a full professor of philology at the University of Basel at the age of 25. In the fall of 1868, Nietzsche's professor and mentor at the University of Leipzig, Friedrich Ritschl, had recommended Nietzsche for a vacancy at the University of Basel, despite the fact that Nietzsche had not yet finished his doctoral studies. 

    The University of Basel conferred the degree sight unseen based on Ritschl's glowing review; Nietzsche began teaching right away in the summer of 1869 and was quickly promoted to a full professorship - a rather remarkable accomplishment.

  • Nietzsche Had Only One Romantic Relationship, Which Remained Disastrously Platonic

    Nietzsche Had Only One Romantic Relationship, Which Remained Disastrously Platonic
    Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

    It is ironic that Nietzsche once famously stated, "Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent," as he never married and experienced only one platonic romance that went utterly unrequited. On April 25, 1882, he was introduced by a former student and philosopher, Paul Ree, to 21-year-old Lou-Andreas Salome at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Nietzsche greeted the attractive woman with the phrase, "From what stars have we fallen together here?" Salome, a bit more grounded, replied, "I came from Zurich." Within one week, the socially inept Nietzsche not only proposed marriage, but did so through Paul Ree, who was also interested in Salome. Salome tactfully declined, but the hapless Nietzsche would propose two more times before finally catching on that Lou really wasn't interested.

    Nietzsche initially had a sense of humor about the situation and naively clung to the original notion of the threesome's association - a philosophical commune. He arranged the famous photograph of Ree and himself tethered to a cart being symbolically lead by Lou Salome. Throughout the summer and fall of 1882, Nietzsche would continue this hapless courtship until Ree and Salome moved in together in Berlin. By the following year, Nietzsche was bitterly denouncing the couple to anyone who would listen.      

  • Nietzsche Retired In His Thirties And Lived Out Of A Suitcase

    Nietzsche Retired In His Thirties And Lived Out Of A Suitcase
    Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

    For most of his life, Nietzsche was plagued by various maladies, both real and possibly imagined. He was most profoundly affected by incapacitating headaches, poor digestion, and nausea. The fact that he had extremely poor eyesight to the point of veritable blindness also did not help his constitution. These afflictions would frequently interrupt his professional life, and led to days of bed rest and isolation.

    Finally, these chronic conditions forced Nietzsche to resign from his professor's chair on May 2, 1879. Through an intervention by the department chairman, he would go on to receive a pension equal to roughly two thirds of his annual salary for a period of six years. This would eventually be extended and would be paid to him up until 1897, when his sister Elizabeth requested it be halted. Nietzsche used this stipend to travel in a perpetual circle between southern France and Italy in the winter and Switzerland and Germany in the summer, living in rented rooms and boarding houses while working on a succession of manuscripts.

  • In 1889, Nietzsche Had A Psychotic Break And Never Wrote Anything Again

    On January 3, 1889, two policemen in the city of Turin, Italy approached a disturbance in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. They apprehended a man who had allegedly broken down after witnessing the flogging of a horse.  The man was so overcome at witnessing this brutality that he ran up and threw his arms around the animal, attempting to stop the beating. He subsequently collapsed unconscious onto the pavement.

    Identified as Friedrich Nietzsche, a German living in a nearby rooming house, his landlord was located and the afflicted man was carried back to his room. Although it would take days for Nietzsche's friends and relatives to become aware of his condition, the philosopher's mental prognosis would remain unchanged until his death in 1900, and he would not say or write anything intelligible for the rest of his life.

  • After Nietzsche's Breakdown, He Lived In His Mother's Attic

    In his apartment, Nietzsche was sedated but continued to behave erratically, sending grandiose letters to Richard Wagner's wife, Cosima - with whom he had not communicated in years - and to his former teaching associates at the University of Basel, Franz Oberbeck and Jacob Burckhardt, and even to German chancellor, Otto von Bizmarck. These letters, known as the "Madness Letters" clearly indicated an unhinged mind. Prior to his breakdown, his landlady had heard him loudly playing the piano at night while dancing erratically in the nude.

    Familiar with his professional contacts in Basel, Nietzsche's landlord contacted Franz Oberbeck, who came and managed to get Nietzsche back to Basel after a harrowing train ride. Nietzsche's mother, Franziska, then took custody of him and committed her son to an asylum at Jena, but eventually it was acknowledged that nothing could be done. Mute and with no ability to write coherently, Nietzsche lived in his hometown of Naumburg, Germany, on the third floor of his mother's home until her death in 1897.

  • Nietzsche's Breakdown Was Diagnosed As Syphilis, Probably Contracted During The Franco-Prussian War

    Nietzsche's Breakdown Was Diagnosed As Syphilis, Probably Contracted During The Franco-Prussian War
    Photo: Public Domain / wikimedia commons

    Although revisionist historians have sought out other explanations, at the time of his confinement in a mental asylum in 1890 after his mental breakdown, Nietzsche was diagnosed with third stage syphilis. This explains why, following his release into his mother's custody in 1890, nothing further was done to try to improve Nietzsche's condition, which was believed to be incurable and degenerative.

    It is believed that the disease was contracted while Nietzsche served as a cavalryman during the Franco-Prussian War. Modern historians have attempted to explain Nietzsche's condition as the result of cancer or even various extremely rare neurological disorders.