Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

2. Writings and development

During the sixteen years between his first book and his last productive year, Nietzsche’s thinking underwent remarkable development, usually with little notification to his readers. The traditional grouping of his writings into three major periods is followed here, although there is significant development within each period. In addition to The Birth of Tragedy his early work consists of four essays of cultural criticism - on David Strauss, history, Schopenhauer, and Wagner - published separately but linked together as Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen (Unfashionable Observations) (1873–6), plus a number of largely finished essays and fragments that belong to the Nachlaß of the period. The most important of the essays are ‘Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne’ (‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’), ‘Homer’s Wettkampf’ ‘Homer’s Contest’), and ‘Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen’ (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks’).

These early writings sound a note of great dissatisfaction with European (Enlightenment) culture, of which Socrates is taken as the earliest representative and continuing inspiration. At the base of Socratic culture Nietzsche finds the belief that life’s highest goal is the theoretical grasp of truth at which science and philosophy aim. Theory’s claim to provide truth has been undermined, he thinks, by the doctrine of Kant and Schopenhauer that discursive thought gives access not to things-in-themselves but only to ‘appearance’ (see Kant, I. §5; Schopenhauer, A. §§2, 4). Nietzsche’s suggestion for saving European culture is that art should replace theory as the most valued, the ‘truly metaphysical’, human activity. At first, his main argument for elevating art is that it is more truthful than theory. But he also suggests a very different argument: that theory is destructive of culture unless it is guided and limited by the needs of life which art serves. In his essay on history, the second argument has largely replaced the first. He argues that when practised as autonomous theory, devoted solely to truth, history destroys the limited and mythical horizons required by life and action. And if we emphasize for another generation the naturalistic understanding of human beings at which Socratic culture has now arrived (for example, the denial of a cardinal distinction between humans and other animals), we will only further our culture’s disintegration into chaotic systems of individual and group egoism. Nietzsche suggests that history can be harnessed to serve the needs of life, for instance when it is written to emphasize great lives and other aspects that encourage individuals to set lofty and noble goals for themselves. Such history is as much art as it is theory or science.

Nietzsche turns decisively away from such criticism of pure theory in the writings of his middle period, Human, All Too Human (1878–80) and Morgenröte (Daybreak) (1881). He here celebrates as a sign of high culture an appreciation of the little truths won by rigorous method, and presents his own philosophy as a form of natural science that serves only truth. He also commits himself to the truth of the naturalism he earlier considered so dangerous: there is no cardinal distinction between humans and other animals; everything about human beings, including their values, can be explained as a development from characteristics found among other animals. At the beginning of this period Nietzsche struggles with how naturalism can be compatible with a commitment to values, for he sees it as exposing and thereby undermining the illusions that are needed in order to find value in life. In Human, his hope is that knowledge will gradually purify ‘the old motives of violent desire’ until one can live ‘as in nature’, without preferring or evaluating, but ‘gazing contentedly, as though at a spectacle’ ( Human §34 [ Werke IV.2: 50]). Nietzsche later has Zarathustra mock this spectator conception of knowledge and life as ‘immaculate perception’ ( Zarathustra II: §15 [ Werke V.1: 152–5]).

Nietzsche’s final period begins with Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) (1882), which replaces the spectator conception with one in which the ‘knower’ belongs to the dance of existence and is one of its ‘masters of ceremony’ ( The Gay Science §54 [ Werke V.2: 90]). This formulation expresses his new confidence that naturalism, which he often calls ‘knowledge’, is compatible with commitment to values. In this period, Nietzsche once again celebrates art, criticizes Socrates and denies the autonomy of theory, suggesting to some that he has reverted to the viewpoint of his early period. Evidence is provided throughout this entry for an alternative interpretation: the later Nietzsche does not deny that theory can provide truth, and he remains as committed to the pursuit of truth as he was in his middle period. The difference is that he now recognizes in even the apparently autonomous theory of his middle period a commitment to an ideal that is external to and served by theory, namely, the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche returns to the suggestion of his first book, that theory is not autonomous; however, he now objects not to theory, but only to the ideal that theory has served (see §§6 and 7 of this entry). The works of Nietzsche’s final period are largely devoted to uncovering, criticizing and offering an alternative to that ideal.

Gay Science was followed by Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) (1883–5), a fictional tale used as a vehicle for Nietzsche’s most puzzling and infamous doctrines, including the overhuman (Übermensch), will to power and eternal recurrence. He considered this to be the deepest work in the German language and suggested that chairs of philosophy might one day be devoted to its interpretation. Our surest guides to it at present are the other books of his final period, especially the two that followed it: Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) (1886) and Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morality) (1887). These masterpieces show Nietzsche at the height of his powers as a thinker, an organizer and an artist of ideas. Yet some prefer his last five books. At the beginning of 1888, Nietzsche published Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner) and then composed four short books before the year was out: Die Götzen-Dämmerung (The Twilight of the Idols), an obvious play on Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), puts the finishing touches to his accounts of knowledge and philosophy and offers his final critique of Socrates; Der Antichrist (The Antichrist), a critique of Pauline Christianity, offers a relatively sympathetic portrait of Jesus; and Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s own portrait of his life and work under such chapter headings as ‘Why I write such good books’. It is easy to hear signs of his impending insanity in the shrill tone and self-promotion that sometimes takes over in these books (although not in the very funny and brilliantly anti-Socratic chapter headings of Ecce Homo), and perhaps also in the fall-off in organizational and artistic power from the masterpieces of the previous two years. Nietzsche Contra Wagner, which he dated Christmas 1888, leaves a different impression. Nietzsche’s shortest and perhaps most beautiful book, it is a compilation of passages from earlier works, with a few small improvements, as if aiming at perfection. He collapsed nine days later.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Writings and development. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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