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The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

by Friedrich Nietzsche, Dennis Sweet, Anthony M.. Ludovici

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The Antichrist is the most powerful criticism ever offered against modern values and beliefs. In earlier books Nietzsche had announced, “God is dead,” and in The Antichrist he seethes with contempt for Christianity’s imposition, upon humanity, of its perverse and unnatural vision.


Nietzsche contends that


The Antichrist is the most powerful criticism ever offered against modern values and beliefs. In earlier books Nietzsche had announced, “God is dead,” and in The Antichrist he seethes with contempt for Christianity’s imposition, upon humanity, of its perverse and unnatural vision.


Nietzsche contends that values offered by Christianity are created by people who are not qualified to create such values and ideals. These meanings and goals are unnatural distortions of reality provided by people who are themselves divorced from reality, and who seek to instill in others the same dissatisfaction with this world which infects them.


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“This book belongs to the very few.” So begins The Antichrist—the most powerful and most bellicose criticism ever offered against modern values and beliefs. The objects of these critiques are the Christian Church and the Christian belief system. The “very few” to whom the book is addressed are those “hyperboreans” who possess “the courage for the forbidden;” those who “thirst for thunderbolts and great deeds.” The author and critic is Friedrich Nietzsche: philosopher, psychologist, poet, and “the last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysus.” In earlier books Nietzsche had made that most profound announcement: “God is dead.” In other words, there are no absolute, unconditional, or objective values in the world. Whatever meanings that exist in life are put there by us, by human beings, by “value-creators.” The Antichrist was intended as the first part of a four-part work to be titled The Revaluation of All Values—Nietzsche’s desire to lay bare the psychological, social, and cultural weaknesses that humanity has imposed upon itself over the past two thousand years, and to point to a higher sense of health and creative development and responsibility for the future. An outline of this proposed work provides the following scheme: (1) The Antichrist: Attempt at a Critique of Christianity; (2) The Free Spirit: Critique of Philosophy as a Nihilistic Movement; (3) The Immoralist: Critique of the Most Fatal Kind of Ignorance, Morality; and (4) Dionysus: Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence. The Antichrist is all that we have of this ambitious enterprise, which was the last flash of creative frenzy before Nietzsche’s mind was dimmed by madness.


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken in Saxony on October 15, 1844. His father, Karl Ludwig, was a Lutheran pastor who passed away when his son was only four years old, owing to “softening of the brain.” Nietzsche and his younger sister, Elisabeth, were raised by their mother, Franziska, and their two maiden aunts. In 1858, he was admitted to the Pfortaschule, the most prestigious boarding school in Germany. After six years of the regimented life there, he spent a year as a theology student at the University of Bonn, then in 1865, he began the study of classical philology at the University of Leipzig. Nietzsche’s literary career began with the publication in 1872 of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. The book’s characterization of the creative impetus behind Greek drama in terms of a synthesis of the destructive “Dionysian” and the constructive “Apollinian” impulses, and its description of the Socratic attitude of reason over instinct as one of decadence, represents a seminal moment for the subsequent development of Nietzsche’s thought. However, with its hyperbolic praise of his friend, the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83), the book did little to further Nietzsche’s budding career as a professor of classical philology at Basel University in Switzerland. His friendship with Wagner, though, soon soured, and by 1878, they had become openly antagonistic toward one another. The following year Nietzsche resigned his teaching position at Basel, owing to the recurring health problems that plagued him throughout his life. These included severe eye pain and vision problems, intense headaches that would last for days, stomach and intestinal distress resulting in prolonged fits of vomiting, and chronic insomnia. 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. From 1883 to 1885, he published the four parts of his most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he introduced his idea of the “overman” (Übermensch) and developed his conception of “the will to power” and his doctrine of “the eternal recurrence of the same.” During the fall of 1888, in a flurry of energy and euphoria, Nietzsche wrote or completed four books: Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner. 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.


Nietzsche’s task, as he described it in Ecce Homo, his intellectual autobiography, was to uncover “the greatest uncleanliness that humanity has on its conscience; a self-deception become instinctive…. Blindness to Christianity is the crime par excellence—the crime against life.” (Ecce Homo, IV, 7.)  This was a task that he took very seriously.


I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite. (Ecce Homo, IV, 1.)


The full force of this man made dynamite was Nietzsche’s last and greatest undertaking: The Revaluation of All Values. In a letter dated October 18, 1888, to his friend Franz Overbeck Nietzsche writes:


It’s my greatest harvest time. Everything comes easy now, everything I do thrives, although I think hardly anyone has ever undertaken such momentous things. That the first volume of the Revaluation of All Values is finished, ready for printing [i.e., The Antichrist]—I tell you this with a feeling I can’t put into words. There’ll be four books, appearing separately. This time, old artilleryman that I am, I’m moving in my big guns. I fear I’ll be blasting the history of mankind into two halves…. (Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters, 126.)


The Antichrist is not intended for the timid or the faint of heart. It seethes with contempt for what Nietzsche regards as mankind’s greatest crime—Christianity’s imposition, upon humanity, of its perverse and unnatural vision. Thematically the book stands with Daybreak, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, and Twilight of the Idols. In each of these books Nietzsche had diagnosed Christian morality and values as the sources of our modern social and psychological maladies. Yet it is important to keep in mind that Nietzsche’s criticisms are aimed at Christianity, understood as “organized religion,” “the Christian Church,” or, to use Kierkegaard’s idiom, “Christiandom.” Nietzsche makes this point in his notebooks: “What did Christ deny? Everything that is today called Christian” (The Will to Power, § 158.).  In The Antichrist the point is made with a more pithy sentiment: “truth to tell, there never was more than one Christian, and he died on the Cross” (§ 39).


An analysis of the corrupting character of Christianity is the modus operandi of The Antichrist. Overall, the book is a negative, critical work. It was intended to clear the ground for the more positive discussions in the subsequent parts of The Revaluation of All Values. Nietzsche contends that the corruption here is manifold. First, the natural world and our instincts are sacrificed for a fantastic apparition dredged up by unhealthy imaginations. Second, the values offered, the ideals to which we aspire, are created by people who are not qualified to create such values and ideals. These meanings and goals are unnatural distortions of reality provided by people who are themselves divorced from reality, and who seek to instill in others the same dissatisfaction with this world which infects them. Thus, the priests and theologians create in others the same psychological distress and dis-integration from which they themselves suffer, and then proffer the cure. Third, the so-called source of the values and meanings of reality, the Christian God, represents, for Nietzsche, the low watermark in divine types. In the past, a people or culture created gods as expressions of its will to power, as manifestations of its abundance of creative energy. The Jewish God, Jehovah, was such an expression in its original conception as rainmaker and helper of the Jewish people. According to Nietzsche, later, after internal turmoil and external invasions, the Jewish priests “denaturalized” Jehovah, turning him into a moral world-orderer and judge.


In this context we find one of the great ironies that Nietzsche expresses so well. It has to do with the relationship between the God represented in Judaism and the God of Christianity. Despite his intolerance of anti-Jewish prejudices, some of Nietzsche’s friends and acquaintances counted among the most notable anti-Semites of the period. These included Nietzsche’s brother-in-law, Bernhard Förster, and, of course, Richard Wagner. Much of their rhetoric was spent in dissociating the “primitive” Jewish God of the Old Testament from the enlightened Christian God of the New Testament. Nietzsche contends that the Christian conception of God grew from the same soil as the Jewish conception, and that both are grounded in the same anti-natural attitudes of herd resentment. The difference consists in the fact that Judaism remained more or less exclusive to a single culture while Christianity opened the doors to every kind of disenfranchised group or belief system in the vastly diverse Roman Empire. Thus, Christianity “had to become as morbid, base and vulgar as the needs to which it had to minister were morbid, base and vulgar” (The Antichrist, § 37).


Despite its negative, critical tone, its thunder and its lightning, a rainbow does appear in The Antichrist. Here and elsewhere in his writings, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the Christian dis-ease is both an indictment of past crimes and an inducement for future virtues. Consider, for example, the virtue of pity. According to Nietzsche, the Christian conception of pity functions to drain the strength and the power of those who pity, and it serves to preserve the existence of those whom nature has, in many cases, written off. But there is another, healthier kind of pity, one that is grounded in an altogether different motive. In Beyond Good and Evil, he states the matter the following way:


Our pity is a higher and more farsighted pity: we see how man makes himself smaller, how you make him smaller…. You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever…. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (§ 225)


In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche draws a distinction between degenerative virtues and motives, and the generative or gift-giving motivation or virtue. While the former motives are grounded in a kind of neurotic lack or need in a person’s psyche, the latter expresses itself in terms of an over-abundance of goodwill. It was the gift-giving virtue that compelled Zarathustra to leave his cave after ten years of solitary reflection and to  “go under,” i.e., to return to the realm of human beings to share his wisdom: “like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands out-stretched to receive it…. Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of your delight” (Zarathustra’s Prologue, 1). It is the gift-giving virtue that expresses the love that the higher human has for his or her fellow human beings:


Remain faithful to the earth, my brothers, with the power of your virtue. Let your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth. Thus I beg and beseech you. Do not let them fly away from earthly things and beat with their wings against eternal walls…. Lead back to the earth the virtue that flew away, as I do—back to the body, back to life, that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, 22, ii) 


In The Antichrist, the motive is the same even if the voice is shriller and the palliative is more caustic:


Nothing is more unhealthy in the midst of our unhealthy modernity, than Christian pity. To be doctors here, to be inexorable here, to wield the knife effectively here—all this is our business, all this is our kind of love to our fellows, this is what makes us philosophers, us hyperboreans! (§ 7)


In Greek mythology, the Hyperboreans were separated from the world of men by a vast distance of space: they dwelled far to the north in an unknown realm of the world. Nietzsche’s new Hyperboreans are (or will be) separated from his world by a vast distance of time. They are the philosophers of the future. His audience was, as yet, unborn. And as for the author himself: “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously” (The Antichrist, preface).


While some are born posthumously, Nietzsche’s arrival in the twentieth century may be seen as a posthumous miscarriage. It is one of the saddest ironies in the history of ideas that his works were so misrepresented and misused by anti-Semites and by German nationalist organizations after his mental collapse. Nietzsche’s position regarding the “German” nation, spirit, people, etc., is clear from his many reference to these subjects. After a moment of patriotic fervor during the Franco-Prussian War, he completely rejected Bismarck’s expansionist policies and the attitudes that characterized the ‘new Germany’ of the zweite Reich, as well as the idealized conception of the “good German.” These views were clearly expressed, for example, in Daybreak, book 3; in Beyond Good and Evil, part 8, “Peoples and Fatherlands”; and in Twilight of the Idols, part 8, “What the Germans Lack.” His criticism of the Germans is essentially criticism of the kind of sentimental, narrow-minded shallowness which he regarded as prevalent characteristics of German Kultur during the 1870s and 1880s. But there was a more sinister poison at work here as well, one that went hand in hand with the rise of German nationalism. This was the poison of anti-Semitism.


Nietzsche’s views concerning the place and contribution of the Jews to German culture and to European culture in general were stated very well in his early aphoristic work, Human, All Too Human. These views never really changed.


Incidentally, the whole problem of the Jews exists only within national states, inasmuch as their energy and higher intelligence, their capital of spirit and will, which accumulated from generation to generation in the long school of their suffering, must predominate to a degree that awakens envy and hatred; and so, in the literature of nearly all present-day nations … there is an increase in the literary misconduct that leads the Jews to the slaughter-house, as scapegoats for every possible public and private misfortune. As soon as it is no longer a matter of preserving nations, but rather of producing the strongest possible mixed European race, the Jew becomes as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national quantity (§ 475).        

In this passage he continues to praise the Jewish people for having produced the noblest human being (Christ), the purest philosopher (Spinoza), the mightiest book (the Old Testament), and “the most effective moral code in the world.” He further credits the Jews with having maintained the link between the world of antiquity and the world of the Enlightenment through the Dark Ages, via the Jewish educational system and the independent work of the Jewish academics. Even at the end of his career, at the onset of his madness, Nietzsche maintains his anti-anti-Semitism. In his last letter to his friend Jacob Burckhardt, dated January 5, 1889, he writes: “I’ve had Caiphas put in chains; I too was crucified last year in a long, drawn-out way by German doctors. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites done away with!” (Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters, 144).

Given this situation, it is indeed one of the most bizarre episodes of literary chicanery that Nietzsche’s name would become associated with the Nazis; that he would become the philosopher of the Third Reich. How could such a thing happen? Certainly volumes have been written trying to shed light on this question. The short answer is this: Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. For most of her life Elisabeth was her brother’s intimate confidant and supporter. However, in 1885, she married Bernhard Förster—a Berlin school teacher whose concerns about the influences of “international Jewry” led him to petition for the expulsion of Jews from the German stock exchange and, with Elisabeth, to found a “racially pure Aryan” colony, the “New Germany,” in Paraguay. Although the colony failed and her husband committed suicide, Elisabeth’s marriage and her right-wing politics appalled her brother and put a strain on their relationship that was never really reconciled. Sadly the recognition that Nietzsche pursued throughout his life only came after his mental breakdown. Subsequently, Elisabeth divided her time between attending to the colonists in Paraguay and taking care of her brother’s business affairs, which included the publication in 1892 of a cheap collected edition of his works. In 1894, she established a Nietzsche Archive, which, in 1896, was moved to Weimar, where it is today.


As Walter Kaufmann makes clear in his seminal work on Nietzsche, in preparing her brother’s manuscripts for publication in the various editions following his breakdown, Elisabeth was not averse to altering his manuscripts to suit her own social bias and political agenda. This included deleting passages as well as adding her own. She even completely withheld the publication of works until she thought that “the time was right” (e.g., The Antichrist [1895] and Ecce Homo [1908]). This is the beginning of the answer to the question, How did Nietzsche, who was so un-German and anti-anti-Semitic, become the philosophical poster boy for National Socialism? The version of Nietzsche that was presented to the public was distorted by the blatantly anti-Semitic, nationalistic predilections of his editor, his sister, Elisabeth. But she was not operating in a vacuum. By the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism had been rehearsed by the historian J. A. Gobineau, espoused by Richard Wagner, and proclaimed as irrefutable truth by the political writer H. S. Chamberlain. Through the first few decades of the twentieth century the specter of anti-Jewish hatred was fermenting in much of Europe (and America). So too was the popularity of Nietzsche’s thought. During World War I, for example, it was said that a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra was as essential as a shaving kit for the German soldier’s rucksack.


With the advent of National Socialism, the lines regarding “the Jewish question” had been clearly drawn. But what the movement needed was some “objective” grounding. Dr. Hans F.K. Günther became the “scientific” foundation for the claims of Aryan superiority and Jewish decadence in the fields of history and anthropology. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was the indisputable last word on the sociological aspects of “the Jewish question.” What was needed was a bonafide philosophical foundation. Some of Hitler’s more intellectually able cronies, including Alfred Rosenberg, thought that Nietzsche would be the obvious candidate. A second-rate writer and third-rate philosopher, Alfred Bäumler, was hired to interpret Nietzsche according to Nazi doctrine. At the entreaties of Elisabeth, Hitler visited the Nietzsche Archives in Weimar and posed with a bust of the philosopher. Thus was born the myth of Nietzsche as philosopher of the Third Reich.


Still, if Nietzsche was so vehemently against the German nationalistic spirit, and was so opposed to anti-Semitism, how is it possible, even with Elisabeth and her editor’s red pencil, to so distort and modify his works such that even today many still regard him as a proto-Nazi racist? Certainly some of his doctrines, at first blush, do lend themselves to misinterpretation. This is partly a function of Nietzsche’s intentionally unsystematic style, and partly a function of the intention to misrepresent him because of a political agenda. The discussions that come to mind here are (1) the will to power; (2) the master-slave moralities; and (3) the “blond beast” as mentioned here and there. As the “official” interpreter of Nietzsche’s philosophy for the Third Reich, Bäumler’s hermeneutic principles were fairly straightforward. First, one should ignore most of what Nietzsche said in his published works regarding Germans, Germany, and the Jews. Most of his bad feelings about Germany were said to be motivated by his disillusionment with Bismarck’s politics, and should be overlooked. Most of his positive comments about the Jews were simply examples of his having been hoodwinked and deceived by these clever people. Second, to truly understand Nietzsche, we should, according to Bäumler, pay attention more or less exclusively to The Will to Power (1901–11)—Nietzsche’s notes and drafts dating from 1883 to 1888, which his sister arranged and published after his death. These notes were never intended for publication; yet, according to Bäumler, they comprise a systematic presentation of views which are to be preferred over the views which the author published.


Bäumler’s overall approach is too ludicrous to evoke criticism. However, with respect to the specific discussions mentioned above, the situation is much more complicated. (1) Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power is about overcoming obstacles, about the strong dominating the weak, about power discharging itself and exploiting its environment. Yet to use this as a philosophical justification for invading Poland or for utilizing Einsatzgruppen to rid Ukrainian villages of undesirables is hardly justifiable. The expression of the will to power in the higher human being should be the expression of the domination of what is weakest in our nature by what is stronger; all under the eye of moderation and self-control and even benevolence to those weaker than ourselves. (2) The master-slave moralities were distinctions made in the second essay of Nietzsche’s book, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). It was a historical distinction having to do with the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and Romans. For the Nazis it seemed to imply that the Aryan/German civilization is intrinsically superior to other peoples/civilizations; and that, as the “master race,” the Germans have the moral and legal sanctions to do whatever is necessary to maintain and flourish, regardless of the consequences for the “slave races.” This kind of thinking was at the heart of Hitler’s Lebensraum policy—his plan to invade the East, enslave the (employable) population, and colonize the land with Germans. However, Nietzsche’s notion of master morality has nothing to do with any of this. For him, a master morality is one in which the individual creates his or her own values, and takes responsibility for them. Nothing could be further from this ideal than the automaton created by National Socialism. Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing racial in Nietzsche’s conception of the master. Finally, (3) his occasional references to “the blond beast,” were taken as clear evidence of his view of an ideal, blond-haired Nordic type. Yet when Nietzsche refers to “the blond beast,” he employs the term as a metaphor to represent the unrestrained, unsublimated human instincts: a lion-like image that knows no racial bounds.


One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings—they all shared this need. (On the Genealogy of Morals, I, 11)


A final issue of interest and importance has to do with the eruption of Nietzsche’s own “hidden core,” i.e., with his fall into insanity. There are two questions here: First, what caused Nietzsche’s madness? Second, how did it begin to affect him? If such important works as Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo were written or completed within only a few months of his complete mental breakdown, might we not suppose that these works show evidence of mental incompetence?


The cause of Nietzsche’s insanity will, no doubt, always be a source of speculation. Elisabeth, his sister, attributed his breakdown to an over-indulgence in the various drugs he took for his plethora of ailments (particularly his dependence upon chloral hydrate as a sleep-inducer). Nietzsche’s ex-confidant and “love” interest, Lou Salomé, saw his condition as the inevitable outcome of his philosophical and psychological questioning.  Given the progressive nature of the loss of his mental capacities, as well as the corresponding physical paralysis that followed, the doctors who attended him during the final years of his life described his condition as dementia paralytica. This is the standard interpretation of Nietzsche’s illness, the one that is prevalent today—that Nietzsche’s madness was the result of the tertiary stage of syphilis. One suggestion is that it was congenital syphilis, contracted from his father, who had suffered from occasional seizures and whose death was caused by “softening of the brain.” This might explain Nietzsche’s own perpetual ill health from an early age, his headaches that persisted for days, and his eye problems. Another suggestion was provided by Nietzsche himself, immediately after the inception of his madness. He informed his doctors that he had twice infected himself at a brothel in 1866, while a student. The third suggestion was that, in 1870, during his service as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche had occasion to come into contact with the blood of wounded soldiers, some of which may have been infected with the syphilis bacteria.


Even though the syphilis explanation is the most widely accepted, it is not without its problems and its critics. The first suggestion, that Nietzsche contracted the disease from his father, has some time-frame problems. The second has a problem regarding the reliability of the source. He had, in a more lucid moment years earlier, described an “accidental” visit to a brothel. But he insisted that he sat and played the piano and did nothing more. The third option is usually entertained as the least implausible. But there are other possibilities. Over a year after his collapse, two of Nietzsche’s closest friends, Peter Gast and Franz Overbeck, visited him on separate occasions and both came to the same conclusion regarding his condition: “it seemed—horrible though this is—as if Nietzsche were merely feigning madness, as if he were glad for it to have ended in this way” (Letter from Peter Gast to Carl Fuchs, January, 1890, quoted in Hayman, 341); “I cannot escape the ghastly suspicion … that his madness is simulated. This impression can be explained only by the experiences I have had of Nietzsche’s self-concealments, of his spiritual masks” (letter from Franz Overbeck to his wife, 24 February, 1890, Ibid.).  Interestingly, nine years earlier Nietzsche had written:


[A]ll superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad…. Who would venture to take a look into the wilderness of bitterest and most superfluous agonies of soul in which probably the most fruitful men of all times have languished! To listen to the sighs of these solitary and agitated minds: ‘Ah, give me madness, you heavenly powers!  Madness, that I may at last believe in myself! Give deliriums and convulsions, sudden lights and darkness, terrify me with frost and fire such as no mortal has ever felt, with deafening din and prowling figures, make me howl and whine and crawl like a beast: so that I may only come to believe in myself! I am consumed by doubt, I have killed the law, the law anguishes me as a corpse does a living man: if I am not more than the law I am the vilest of men.’ (Daybreak, § 14)


Given the descriptions of Nietzsche’s increasingly pathetic mental and physical deterioration over an eleven-year period, it seems completely absurd to regard Nietzsche’s madness, as some have, as a conscious choice that he made in light of the overwhelming burden he assumed with the “revaluation of all values.” It seems equally absurd to think that his madness was affected by him, and that he was not affected by the madness. But when and to what extent was he affected?


There were clear indications of what might be termed a profound lack of modesty in many of Nietzsche’s correspondences beginning early in 1888; e.g., “Confidentially, it is not impossible that I am the foremost philosopher of this era, and perhaps even a little more, something decisive and ominous standing between two millennia.” (Letter to Reinhard von Seydlitz, 12 February, 1888. Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters, 106.) Such self-evaluation prefigures much of what he has to say of himself in his literary autobiography written later that year, Ecce Homo. That book is divided into four parts: “Why I Am So Wise”; “Why I Am So Clever”; “Why I Write Such Good Books”; and “Why I am A Destiny.” Are such pronouncements indications of Nietzsche’s unbalanced mind? Certainly not, if one understands his contempt for the so-called “virtue” of modesty, and if one appreciates the scope of the task that he has undertaken.


Yet there are other indications that things are changing for Nietzsche. In his letters from October and November 1888, he speaks of how intensely he senses the world around him—of how spectacularly beautiful the streets of Turin are, of how tender the veal is, how succulent the grapes are, of how he eats four times as much as he used to. By December the intensity becomes delusional. He tells of how women stare at him in the streets, and of how he is treated as an exceptional person everywhere he goes (perhaps owing to the fact that he has given way to wearing, in public, a broad smirk or a tearful grimace). He insists that there is no longer any element of chance in his life, no coincidence. In a letter of 18 December to Carl Fuchs, he notes that “Everything is completed!” and that, “Since the old God has abdicated, I shall rule from now on” (Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters, 137.). By this time he was signing his letters “Phoenix,” “the Monster,” and “Nietzsche Caesar.”


On January 3, 1889, Nietzsche was walking down the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin when he observed a cab driver beating a horse. Tearfully, Nietzsche rushed over, embraced the horse around the neck, and collapsed in the street. This event is usually seen as the unambiguous inception of Nietzsche’s madness. On the following day he wrote to his friend, Peter Gast: “To My Maestro Pietro—Sing me a new song: The world is transfigured and all the heavens are joyous. (Signed) The Crucified One” (Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters, 141).  The other letters and notes that follow have no real coherence whatsoever.


To condemn or to ignore any of Nietzsche’s publications on the basis of the claim that they were the products of an unbalanced mind is to shortchange oneself of many valuable and interesting insights. His last works, including The Antichrist, were sometimes unpolished, occasionally vitriolic, and undeniably powerful. But a familiarity with his earlier works reveals an obvious organic development of the material and of Nietzsche’s evaluation of his own value as a thinker and as a writer. Inhibitions are breaking down; not mental capacities.   


Dennis Sweet holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Iowa.  He writes frequently on Kant, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche, and teaches philosophy and history at several colleges in Pittsburgh. 


Meet the Author

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, 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.

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