Ecce Homo-"Behold the man" -were the words Pilate used to refer to Jesus when presenting the masses with a choice between saving him or saving Barabbas. They are also the words Friedrich Nietzsche chose as the title for his literary self-portrait, his statement of how he sees himself and wants others to see him. Ecce Homo constitutes a reflection upon Nietzsche's life and career, but also forcefully repudiates those interpretations of his previous works purporting to find support there for imperialism, ...
Ecce Homo-"Behold the man" -were the words Pilate used to refer to Jesus when presenting the masses with a choice between saving him or saving Barabbas. They are also the words Friedrich Nietzsche chose as the title for his literary self-portrait, his statement of how he sees himself and wants others to see him. Ecce Homo constitutes a reflection upon Nietzsche's life and career, but also forcefully repudiates those interpretations of his previous works purporting to find support there for imperialism, anti-Semitism, militarism, and Social Darwinism. It will be of great interest to anyone concerned with ethics, nihilism, psychology, and the meaning and cultural significance of religion.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken in Saxony on October 15, 1844. Nietzsche, whose father was a Lutheran pastor, spent a year as a theology student at the University of Bonn, then in 1865, before studying classical philology at the University of Leipzig. Despite poor health and desperate loneliness, Nietzsche managed to produce a book (or a book-length supplement to an earlier publication) every year from 1878 to 1887. In early January 1889, he collapsed in the street in Turin, Italy, confused and incoherent. He spent the last eleven years of his life institutionalized or under the care of his family.
Ecce Homo-"Behold the man" (John 19:5). These were the words Pilate used to refer to Jesus when presenting the masses with a choice between saving him or saving Barabbas, and these are the words Friedrich Nietzsche chose as the title for his literary self-portrait, his statement of how he sees himself and wants others to see him. Nietzsche is one of the most widely read and most consistently misrepresented of all philosophers. His work provides the foundations for both existentialism and postmodernism, and his critique of Christianity and the moral values lying at the heart of Western culture and philosophy offers a challenge to the prevailing morality that still reverberates today. Many readers have confused his indictment of traditional morality and his championing of the independence of strong individuals with support for German nationalism. Nietzsche was well aware of the ways in which his ideas were mischaracterized. Ecce Homo, his most autobiographical work, constitutes a reflection upon his life and career, but also forcefully repudiates those interpretations of his work purporting to find support there for imperialism, anti-Semitism, militarism, and the Social Darwinist view that it is natural and right for the strong to conquer those who are weaker. Nietzsche was one of the master stylists of the German language; many critics rank his books The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra among the finest pieces of German prose and see the expressionist creation of a literary personality in Ecce Homo as a true artistic achievement. Ecce Homo will be of great interest to anyone concerned with ethics, nihilism, psychology, and the meaning and cultural significance of religion. It also is fascinating for being a great philosopher's reflections upon his own development and work.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Prussian Saxony. His father, a Lutheran pastor who had worked as a tutor to the three daughters of the Duke of Saxe-Altenburg, died when Nietzsche was five years old. Nietzsche was precocious. As a child, he composed poems, plays, and music, and in 1858 he was invited to attend Pforta, the most prestigious classical school in Germany. The great German thinkers and writers Novalis, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and the Schlegel brothers had been students at Pforta, and Nietzsche received an extremely rigorous education in ancient languages and culture. He was often first in his class (one of his teachers thought Nietzsche was the best student he had ever taught), but was not extremely popular, typically preferring to read and drink hot chocolate over carousing with his classmates. In 1864, Nietzsche matriculated at the University of Bonn, where he studied philology and, to appease his pious family, theology. He joined a dueling fraternity and received a scar on his face, but quickly came to think of himself as superior to the shallow materialism of fraternity social life. He was forced to leave Bonn in part for financial reasons after a year, and went to the University of Leipzig planning to study music and philology. In 1865, he discovered the works of Arthur Schopenhauer in a secondhand bookstore owned by his landlord and turned to philosophy. Nietzsche began his military service in an artillery regiment in 1867 and proved to be an excellent horseman, but soon sustained a serious chest injury while riding, was discharged, and returned to Leipzig. He won a prestigious university prize for an essay on the Greek philosopher Diogenes while still away for his military service, and in 1869 at the unusually young age of twenty-four he was offered a position as Chair of Classical Theology at the University of Basel.
In 1868, Nietzsche was invited to meet the great composer and political figure Richard Wagner, and immediately became his disciple and friend. Once in Basel, he was close enough to Tribschen, Wagner's home overlooking Lake Lucerne, to visit regularly; he frequently was invited for Christmas and was present for the birth of Wagner's first son. Most likely Nietzsche was in love with Wagner's wife, Cosima, who before marrying Wagner had lived with him for some years while she was still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow, and Nietzsche dedicated some of his own musical compositions to her. Large portions of Nietzsche's first published book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), champion Wagner's operas as a revitalization of the spirit of classical Greek art. As Nietzsche was coming into his own as an independent thinker, he became unwilling to play the role of uncritical devotee that the older and more famous man expected of him and grew disillusioned by what he took to be the composer's pandering to the philistinism and nationalism of the German political elite. He famously broke with Wagner in the late 1870s. Much later, in 1888, Nietzsche explored some of the reasons behind his break in The Case of Wagner; and in Nietzsche contra Wagner; he reflects upon the importance his relationship with Wagner had for him in Ecce Homo.
Serious health problems afflicted Nietzsche throughout his life. As a child, he suffered from what were diagnosed as epileptic seizures, he endured digestive and bronchial problems, and as a twelve-year-old boy he already began experiencing the eye problems and debilitating headaches that would plague him until he died. In 1879, recurring illness forced him to resign his teaching post, and Nietzsche spent much of the rest of his life writing while traveling to places such as Florence, Venice, the Italian and French Riviera, and the Swiss Alps in search of a climate that would prove conducive to his physical well being. In January 1889, after a month or so of increasing mental instability, he experienced a mental breakdown. For the next eleven years, he enjoyed increasingly infrequent periods of lucidity, and was never again willing to talk about his philosophical work. Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900.
Nietzsche's influence has been immense. His work and life inspired writers and thinkers as diverse as W. B Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Franz Kafka, Georges Bataille, and George Bernard Shaw. He has had enormous influence on philosophy, theology, sociology, literary theory, and on art critics and artists. Richard Strauss' symphony Also sprach Zarathustra was inspired by Nietzsche's book of the same title (1887), and Gustav Mahler intended originally to name his third symphony after Nietzsche's The Gay Science (1882). The main character of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is in part modeled after Nietzsche's life. Art movements such as expressionism, Dadaism, and symbolism were heavily indebted to his work. The Birth of Tragedy revolutionized the way in which Western scholars understood ancient Greek culture, and set forth the concepts of the Apollinian and the Dionysian, which he took to be psychological drives that find expression in art, and which have informed aesthetic theory ever since. He associates the Apollinian with dreams, cognitive activity, the contemplation of form, emotional restraint, and the urgent psychological need to find order in and thus tame a wild, chaotic world; he connects the Dionysian with irrationality, music, sexuality, loss of individuality, and intoxication. The Greek genius, Nietzsche tells us, was to harness the Dionysian, which left alone threatens to become a destructive force, by integrating it with the Apollinian. This sublimation is the achievement of the art form of tragedy.
Nietzsche's thought also anticipates Ludwig Wittgenstein's turn to the philosophy of language as well as many of the ideas of the American pragmatists. His exploration of the idea that we are not fully aware of our own motivations and his analyses of sublimation, the origin of the belief in God, and the psychological and cultural roots of the feeling of guilt were of decisive influence on Sigmund Freud. Freud marveled at the extent to which Nietzsche's theories anticipated the results of his psychoanalytical research, and claimed that Nietzsche had a "more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived…." Indeed, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society held a discussion of Ecce Homo attended by Freud and Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung conducted a famous seminar on the book. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, told his wife that his gift to her of Nietzsche's work was the finest gift he could give her.
Distortions of Nietzsche's views were influential on National Socialist thought. Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth was prominent in anti-Semitic circles (in the late 1880s she helped to manage a racially pure Teutonic colony in Paraguay that her husband had founded), and after her brother's breakdown she acquired the rights to his writings. Because of her exclusive access to his unpublished notes and her willingness to publish forgeries and corrupt versions of her brother's works, she established herself as the leading authority over the meaning of her brother's thought and was able to characterize his thinking as providing a philosophical basis for an anti-Semitic German nationalism. Prominent Nazi thinkers such as Alfred Bäumler made great use of these corrupt texts. Since authentic texts appeared in the 1950s, however, there has been no question of Nietzsche's hostility toward German chauvinism and anti-Semitism. He suggests exiling anti-Semites from the country in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and, in 1887, Nietzsche wrote to Elisabeth that her "association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me ever again with ire… It is a matter of honor to me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal regarding anti-Semitism, namely opposed, as I am in my writings." Ecce Homo, written in 1888, contains Nietzsche's most vehement published renunciation of the attempt to align his work with the glorification of the German Reich and anti-Semitism (in it he refers to anti-Semites as abortions and to nationalism as a neurosis), but Elisabeth compounded the misunderstandings of her brother's ideas by withholding its publication until 1908. In general, Nietzsche considers anti-Semitism to be a strategy utilized by mediocre people to blame others for their own weaknesses and sees nationalism as a petty and vulgar attitude lying in the way of a European unity that would promote real cultural greatness. He was well aware of the ways in which an overly strong state depends upon conformity and works against the existence of creative and independent individuals.
Nihilism is the view that the world is indifferent, meaninglessness, or absurd, and human endeavor ultimately pointless. Nietzsche was the first to recognize fully the devastating impact of nihilism on the modern European consciousness, and he was the first European thinker to develop a systematic attack on traditional Western moral values as hostile to the vitality of human life. Throughout his life, his thinking was devoted to the struggle against nihilism, and his larger project became what he referred to as the "revaluation of all values." Ecce Homo discusses a wide range of his most important ideas. It discusses the importance of solitude and struggle in the development of an independent thinker, the courage required by the pursuit of knowledge, the idea that a refined taste is useful as defense against the temptation to react against the vulgar and common, and Nietzsche's core concept of self-overcoming-the notion that real strength consists in the struggle against and mastery over one's own passions and drives (whereas the will to subdue those who are weaker is a sign of weakness and generally arises as compensation for the incapacity to impose self-discipline). At the heart of Ecce Homo are the concepts of the Dionysian and amor fati, or love of fate. (At this point in his career, the concept of the Dionysian takes on a different meaning than it had in The Birth of Tragedy.) He calls Dionysian the attitude of passionate, joyous affirmation of the entirety of existence, including its pain and distress. Nietzsche is unremittingly disdainful of what he sees as the weakness and cowardice of those who, when faced with the disappointments and suffering of life, turn to religion for comfort and are able to render their lives endurable only through hope in a redemptive afterlife. The Dionysian craving for the whole of life arises from an abundance of creativity and psychological strength and expresses itself in amor fati: the desire that nothing in existence should have happened differently. Indeed, Ecce Homo itself should be read as Nietzsche's celebration of his own life. He makes a point of expressing gratitude to those friends who disappointed him most, such as Wagner, and he recognizes the importance of his excruciating illnesses for the development of his own attitude toward life-he affirms even his many years of illness as a stimulus to life and thus as a condition for his philosophy.
Ecce Homo closes by quoting the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire's motto, "Crush the infamy!" Thus Nietzsche suggests his own project of revaluation is the culmination of the Enlightenment's resistance to the Christian church. Ecce Homo includes a succinct account of his attack on Christianity, which he pursues on two main fronts: he indicts Christian values both in their psychological origin and their content. Nietzsche thinks that what portrays itself as Christian love all too often is a mask concealing impotent hatred and desire for revenge and control, a festering resentment that consecrates its own incapacity as virtue while waiting for the opportunity to throw the first stone. Through his literary alter-ego Zarathustra, Nietzsche says, "You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue… Mistrust all who talk much of their justice… And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be Pharisees, if only they had-power." The desire for revenge is a sign of weakness and psychological sickness; truly strong individuals are beyond that. Nietzsche rejects the content of Christian values as "anti-nature" or hostile to life. He claims that Christianity has taught humanity to feel guilty for our own natural instincts; we have learned to be suspicious of our very bodies as sources of moral transgression and spiritual distraction. Christianity's emphasis on chastity, poverty, fasting, and selflessness, its distrust of "worldliness," its idea that our desires are the roots of moral temptation, its exhortation to deny oneself "impure" "animal" pleasures in favor of "spiritual" satisfactions and supposedly eternal rewards, and its frequent denigration of the natural world as a base theater of corruption and sin, are tantamount to an assault on the very conditions of life. Thus Nietzsche claims that Christian values slander the earth, and in Ecce Homo he decries traditional morality as a denial of the self and thus as the nihilistic will to non-existence. Yet this world and this life themselves are worthy of reverence and should not be disvalued when compared to an imaginary transcendent world of ideals or in the hope of achieving some kind of afterlife. Zarathustra urges us to remain "faithful to the earth… Lead back to the earth the virtue that flew away … back to the body, back to life, that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning."
Not least among the genuine pleasures of Ecce Homo is the opportunity it affords the reader to learn something about the preferences and predilections of a brilliant thinker. We learn, for instance, that his literary tastes drew him to Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Baptiste Molière, Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron, and Stendhal. He preferred the cuisine of northern Italy to that of Germany. He also took the opportunity in this book to reflect upon his friendships with remarkable people such as Wagner and Lou Salomé, a woman with whom Nietzsche was in love and who later became Rilke's lover and Freud's friend. And Nietzsche writes about his enthusiasm for hiking, remarking that one's best thoughts are born while moving about outdoors.
Nietzsche is the most literary of Western philosophers, and his work offers genuine reading pleasure. His work is also exceptionally provocative and intellectually stimulating. His ambitious attempt to overturn the entire Western philosophical and theological traditions of morality has inspired artists and philosophers and aroused intense controversy for more than a hundred years. Nietzsche's exploration of the nihilistic dimensions of religious belief is particularly worthy of consideration at a time when increasing numbers of people turn to religion as a way of investing their lives with meaning.