Friedrich Nietzsche: Biography, Theories & Philosophy

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  • 0:01 Friedrich Nietzsche
  • 0:32 Early Life
  • 1:59 Philosophy
  • 5:22 Decline & Death
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and theories of the German philosopher who is considered the founder of the modern nihilist movement, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Most of us at some point in our lives have lost someone very close to us. Whether it was a sudden death or one that you had time to prepare for, the pain is never easy to deal with. Though this pain may be hard, according to some 19th-century philosophers, this pain is actually a good thing. The pain and the feelings associated with that suffering assure us that we are alive, and those experiences are the only thing life is truly about. These ideas were first posited by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Early Life

Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken bei Lützen, a small town that was then part of the Prussian Empire in Saxony (modern-day Germany). Propitiously born on the same day as the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Nietzsche was named after his monarch.

Despite the good fortune that coincidence should have dictated, Nietzsche's early life was fraught with tragedy. His father, a local Protestant minister, died when Nietzsche was only five years old. His younger brother died six months later. Without his father's connection to Röcken as the town minister, Nietzsche and his mother moved in with Nietzsche's maternal grandmother and aunts in Naumberg an der Saale.

At 14, Nietzsche received a scholarship to attend a prestigious boarding school, originally intent on following his father and most of the men in the family by becoming a clergyman. He continued on this track after he graduated from boarding school, entering the University of Bonn in 1864 to study theology and philology. As his studies continued, however, he became more interested in philology and eventually dropped studying theology entirely.

As Nietzsche matured, he began writing papers and articles analyzing ancient texts. He became close friends with the composer Richard Wagner and entered into the elite intellectual circles of 19th-century Germany. He also spent an abortive year in the Prussian military where he gravely injured himself, allowing him to return to his university studies quicker than expected.


After Nietzsche completed his university studies, he grew increasingly disenchanted with his composer friend and Prussian society at large. He gave up his Prussian citizenship in 1869 and broke off his ties with Wagner in the 1870s. Rejecting the growing anti-Semitism in Prussian intellectual circles, Nietzsche spent most of his adult life as a traveling scholar, residing mainly in various residences in Italy or Switzerland.

From here, he published nine books in the 1870s and 1880s, and several others that were being prepared were published posthumously. Though he still wrote philological works analyzing ancient texts, most of his important works were philosophical in nature, attempting to grasp the essence of the human condition and life. In 1872, he published his first work: The Birth of Tragedy, Out of the Spirit of Music. In it, Nietzsche identified certain factors within the human personality which make it impossible for man to adequately enjoy himself in modern society.

These 'Dionysian' energies, as he termed them, are naturally self-destructive and usually unconscious impulses the person has little control over. Over time, according to Nietzsche, these impulses have been contained by a societal tendency to encourage sobriety and rational thinking. This attempt at control, Nietzsche claimed, was unhealthy for both the body and mind - a superficial order imposed upon a naturally chaotic existence.

Nietzsche continued this fight against what he considered unnatural order throughout his intellectual works. In his three-part 1883-1884 work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None, Nietzsche attacked the existing religious order and the values it had imposed upon contemporary society. According to Nietzsche, the ideal, virtuous man as preached by the Judeo-Christian world is irrelevant to reality as he is never found in the world.

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