Who Was Friedrich Nietzsche?

Friedrich Nietzsche was a leading philosopher of the 19th century, whose radical developments continue to shape modern thought today.

Jul 30, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

who was friedrich nietzsche


Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century, and his work is regarded as being of near unparalleled significance for the formation of modern thought at large. Today Nietzsche’s philosophy remains one of the most important lodestars for contemporary philosophers across a wide range of traditions and disciplines. But who was Friedrich Nietzsche, what did he think, and how revolutionary was his philosophy? We explore his life, his influence, and his conceptions of morality and truth. 


Nietzsche’s Life and Influence

Photograph of Leipzig, 2013, via Wikimedia Commons


Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Röcken, which today lies in the eastern part of Germany. His father was a Lutheran priest, and so his background was notably religious, even by the standards of the time. Nietzsche showed remarkable intellectual abilities from a young age and pursued classical studies at the University of Bonn, then at the University of Leipzig. Nietzsche and became a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland at the age of 24: famously, the youngest full professor in history.


He gained some (limited) recognition for his scholarly work on ancient Greek literature, particularly on the works of tragedy. However, his main work on the subject, The Birth of Tragedy, was baffling to colleagues and seen by many as a failure. While teaching at Basel, Nietzsche began to develop an interest in philosophy proper, eventually leading him to focus his work in that direction. Nietzsche spent the vast majority of his career outside of a formal academic institution. In 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown (possibly caused by an onset of syphilis), and spent the last years of his life in battling various health issues, including dementia. 


Nietzsche on Morality and Religion

The Crucifixion, Fra Angelico, 1423


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Many aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy involve extravagant attempts to throw some of the dearest held concepts of Western culture, religion and philosophy into disarray. His approach to morality is particularly famous. For Nietzsche, morality is to be understood through the lens of culture and historical formation, rather than through that of purely rational necessity or divine revelation. The prevailing moral paradigm of the 19th century, which was substantially Christian, was for Nietzsche the consequence of a particular kind of person pursuing their interests.


Whereas the aristocratic version of morality, which Nietzsche associates with people in the ancient world, emphasized independent action and the right of the powerful to do as they please, the so-called ‘slave revolt’ in morality weaponized such concepts as pity and regard for others in order to create a moral system in which the best human being were suppressed and the worst supported. This genealogical approach to our beliefs is one of the first and most vivid attempts to historicize whole systems of thought, and it left a (seemingly permanent) mark on our self-consciousness about our beliefs. 


Nietzsche on Truth 

Statue of Friedrich Nietzsche in Saale


Nietzsche’s iconoclasm extends to other areas of philosophy. In the context of truth, one of the most persistently held philosophical ideals (albeit one prone to qualification from many different sides), Nietzsche again holds that it is a concept fulfilling a practical need rather than an intellectual one. Nietzsche, in one of his more provocative passages (at the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil) demands to know what it is that makes truth preferable from falsehood. This is a characteristically Nietzschean question, not least because it tempts one to answer (incoherently) that preferability doesn’t come into it, that what’s true is true and what’s false is false.


Indeed, an attempt to answer Nietzsche’s question leads one onto all kinds of difficult and troubling terrain. Nietzsche’s own answer is simply that the idea of truth has been of necessity for human beings as a species, but that necessity has now largely run its course. What we need now, from Nietzsche’s point of view (and from any point of view) is far less certain, but it remains one of the central problematics of modern thought.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.