The son of a pastor, he was very pious as a child. A brilliant student, he became professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869, but retired in 1879 due to poor health. From 1880 until his collapse in January 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering, gypsy-like existence as a "stateless" person, writing most of his major works during this period. His fame and influence came later, with the help of his sister. She has been associated with the Nazis in the 1930s, and is responsible for selective quoting and abuse of his philosophy in Nazi ideology.
Nietzsche is famous for his rejection of what he calls "slave morality" (which he felt reflected the inverse of the "will to power" and a perversion of useful altruism); his attacks on Christianity (a character in one of his works declared that "God is dead"); his origination of the Übermensch concept (translated as "Overman" or "Superman") in only one of his books; his embrace of a sort of a-rationalism; and something he called "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht), possibly best regarded as an early attempt at psychology. Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live". H.L. Mencken's book on Nietzsche described his work as an early effort to reconcile the philosophical implications of Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" evolutionary theory with contemporary moral and ethical systems. He greatly disliked Darwin and his idea of "the survival of the fittest". In many respects his thinking anticipated the "heredity" side of the ongoing debate about which has more influence on human behavior: learning vs. heredity in the modern discipline of psychology. ("Irrationalism" in human behavior typically stems from genetic/instinctively-derived impulses). Nietzsche's thoughts also anticipated the "biological world view" and genetic interpretation of social behavior in the modern discipline of sociobiology (c.f. one can find updated "Nietzsche" in A New Morality From Science: Beyondism by Dr. Raymond Cattell, which draws from concepts elucidated in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by Harvard professor Dr. Edward Wilson as well as other emergent disciplines such as "medical anthropology." Nietzsche's concept of breeding upwards towards the "higher man" is indirectly addressed in biological interpretations of human history, such as Dr. Elmer Pendell's Why Civilizations Self-Destruct or Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West).
Every human action, according to Nietzsche, is born of a basic instinct to exercise one's own power in some way. Gift-giving, love, praise, or harmful acts such as physical violence, carrying tales, etc. all stem from the same unconscious motive: to exert the will. The theory of the will to power is not limited to the psychology of human beings. Instead, it is the essential nature of the living universe, manifest in all things. Growth, survival, dominance in business or physical competition, all are seen as elements of this will.
Some see Nietzsche's "will to power" or, as he famously put it, the ability to "say yes! to life" as life-affirming. Creatures affirm instinct in exerting power and dominance. The suffering born of conflict between competing wills and the efforts to overcome one's environment is not evil, but a part of existence to be embraced in that it signifies the healthy expression of the natural order. Enduring satisfaction and pleasure result from living by instinct and successfully exerting the will to power. This 'will to power' has some affinities with Hegel's theory of history, but an even greater similarity to Crowley's "Law of Thelema (the Law of Willpower--"Do what thou wilt"). This philosophy also bears some resemblence to the principle of Tao in Chinese philosophy--particularly, Taoism, which holds that to follow one's own natural wills will bring about a happier existence.
Nietzsche pointed out that in order to smooth over conflict between disparate interest groups, opinion leaders of civilizations start to tell white lies. Future generations often take white lies at face value, and add their own white lies, so that over time so many white lies get built on top of each other so that moral, ethical, and religious theological systems become Byzantine, convoluted, and even inverted (or to use a more modern term "Orwellian") compared to "common sense" morality that would be obvious in a primitive setting. Particularly dangerous is "slave morality" which is actually a two way street: the lies a master or oppressor tells his slaves or the oppressed to keep them in a place unfairly beneath their real talents and abilities, and the lies the slaves (or otherwise oppressed or expoited) tell their masters (or more powerful people) to avoid incurring their ill favor. Nietzsche then tried to dissect the elements of "slave morality" embedded within ethical and religious systems. Theologically, "slave morality" can include promoting mysticism instead of hard-headed pragmatism, and glorifying weak and unproductive people over strong and efficient producers. An American population expert, Dr. Elmer Pendell, took this theme further with a biological intepretation of history in his classic work Why Civilizations Self-Destruct.
To the extent that the study of ethics can be broadly lumped into three categories (obedience-oriented, contractual, and utilitarian), Nietzsche clearly rejected obediance-oriented philosophies (one either obeys or does not obey a higher authority) in favor of a utilitarian approach (one weighs costs and benefits on ones own to determine the ethical implications of an action). According to Dr. Norman Ravitch, professor of history at U.C. Riverside, "What Spengler, Toynbee, and Nietzsche can teach us is how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite superficial differences, were all forged and/or altered by a religious revolution in ancient Iran associated with the name Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The central notions of dualism between Good and Evil, Salvation through an Expected Messiah, and the Final Battle between St Michael and Satan animate these world religions and their devotees. Pragmatism, reason, and common sense have little place in these primitive Semitic world views. All conflict is interpreted as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil and there is no room for compromise or tolerance."
Nietzsche's assessment, of both the antiquity and resultant impedements presented by the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's mono-theistic religions, eventually led him to his own dualistic epiphany. Resulting in his work Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Nietzsche is important as a precursor of existentialism and an inspiration for post-structuralism and an influence on postmodernism. However, dry academic summaries of his thought cannot capture the liveliness of his writing, and his extraordinary sense of humor, as in the famous exchange: "God is dead" - Nietzsche; "Nietzsche is dead" - God, and the riposte, "Some are born posthumously!" - Nietzsche. In many respects his writings today appear "romantic" relative to modern sociobiological and medical anthropological theory in the same sense that the Wright Brothers' flying machines appear quaint relative to modern high performance jets.
Nietzsche may have contracted syphilis as a student (some think this was the cause of his madness) and endured periods of illness during his adult life, which forced him to resign from the University of Basel. After the completion of Ecce Homo his health rapidly declined until he collapsed: in Italy, wearing only underwear, he tearfully embraced a horse because it had been beaten by its owner. From that moment on he never recovered. Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane and unaware of the immense success of his works.
The cause of Nietzsche's condition has to be regarded as undetermined, as doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis, since he lacked typical symptoms. Other possibilities could be a tumor or an endogenous illness, possibly paranoia.
In his important work "The Anti-Christ[ian]" Nietzsche frontally attacked German scholarly Christianity for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. He went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment who felt that Christianity may simply be an untrue religion to claiming it may have been deliberately propagated as an inherently bad and subversive religion (or in late 20th century parlance: a "psychological warfare weapon" or "ideological computer virus") within the Roman Empire by the Apostle Paul as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish War. However, in the Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a remarkably high view of Jesus, claiming the scholars of the day fail to pay any attention to the man, Jesus, and only look to their construction, Christ. According to the American writer H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche felt that the religion of the ancient Greeks of the heroic and classical era was superior to Christianity because it portrayed strong, heroic, smart, and muscular men as role models and did not try to demonize healthy natural desires, such as creativity and writing poetry.
Nietzsche made it acceptable to view one's pre-Christian ancestors as "noble savages". His works have also been valued as a religious "deprogramming tool", such as in the large tome Which Way Western Man? by former American Christian minister and co-founder of the ACLU William Gayley Simpson in which he recounts in great theological detail how Nietzsche's works allowed him to see the light of Darwin and overcome the dysfunctional "slave morality" that had been programmed into him by society and co-religionists.
Nietzsche's works helped to reinforce not only agnostic trends that followed Enlightenment thinkers, and the biological worldview gaining currency from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (which also later found expression in the "medical" and "instinctive" interpretations of human behavior by Sigmund Freud), but also the "romantic nationalist" political movements in the late 19th century when various peoples of Europe began to celebrate archeological finds and literature related to pagan ancestors, such as the uncovered Viking burial mounds in Scandinavia, Wagnerian interpretations of Norse mythology stemming from the Eddas of Iceland, Italian nationalist celebrations of the glories of a unified, pre-Christian Roman peninsula, French examination of Celtic Gaul of the pre-Roman era, and Irish nationalist interest in revitalizing Gaelic. The English character "Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle" represented a fantasy in which Victorians who were becoming increasingly industrialized and alienated from their rural and small village roots could show that they still retain the innate "right stuff" to make it under primitive, savage, and one might appropriately add, "Nietzschean" circumstances. A lot of early American heroes, such as Meriwether Lewis and Davy Crockett, who could simultaneously serve as a learned aid to President Thomas Jefferson or as a U.S. Congressman (respectively), and also hold their own in close combat with Indians in the wildest parts of the frontier, carry obvious Nietzschean overtones and even became folk heroes in their own time. (The Tarzan, Lewis, and Crockett examples are ones that come to mind to the author of this Wikipedia article and are not ones that were specifically made by Nietzsche himself, in fact Nietzsche's examples are all of poets, philosophers, thinkers, and strategist, NOT barbarians).
Apart from "noble savage" and "religious deprogramming" themes, in his brazen work "The Anti-Christ" Nietzsche wrestled with a major tragic issue that remains very much with us today. The politics of urbanized society may tend to reverse the evolutionary processes that bred for various strengths and nobility in primitive man. Ugly, physically weak, and inadequate men who would never make it in a frontier environment nevertheless through low cunning and mafia-like behavior might through financial manipulation acquire control of society. This fear was reflected in the hostility by frontiersmen in the era of Jacksonian Democracy towards creation of a U.S. central bank, for fear that "Eastern Establishment" financial manipulators would take over the society. In "The Anti-Christ" Nietzsche said that while it was necessary for Jews at points in their history to affect "slave morality" as an oppressed minority as a means to get their oppressors off their backs by deceiving them while hiding their own strengths, the
deception practiced by Saul of Tarsus in spreading Christianity went too far in its social destructiveness. Hence a paradox: a person who practices "slave morality" shows true inferiority if he really believes in it, but one can show strength and superiority if one uses it as sheep's clothing to disguise the stalking wolf. (As Sun Tzu put it: "All war is based on deception.") The question remains: at what point do men who amass great power through cunning and deception reflect a Darwinian hero, or do they instead reflect a different trait that goes by the chapter title "parasitism" in Dr. Wilsons' book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. ("Parasitism" is typically called "criminality" in human societies; a vivid example is the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel "Crime and Punishment" who thinks he is so superior he can take morality into his own hands and winds up a guilt-ridden criminal convicted of murder; some scholars think that Dostoevsky may have specifically created his plot as a
Christian rebuttal to Nietzsche). Nietzsche's own life reflected the possible perversity of selective factors in congested, complex, modern, urban environments. Sexual promiscuity within a primitive tribe might be "eugenic" (i.e. it can increases stronger traits within the gene pool) to the extent that it may enable more fit men to disproportionately spread their seed compared to less fit men, but in a modern urban society, this behavior can be the undoing of great men through the spread of syphilis, as was the case with Nietzsche himself. Getting back to the aforementioned American frontier icons, the apparant suicide of Meriwether Lewis in a probable effort to protect his legend after becoming ruined in business dealings as Governor of the Louisiana Territories (and also after possibly contracting syphilis from the Mandan Indians), may reflect how a "Nietzschean hero" in one context can become a failure and a tragedy in another. As another example, after Davy Crockett's principles cost him his
Congressional seat in the face of intrigue by fellow Jacksonian Democrats (a "failure" or "weakness" from one viewpoint), he redeemed his legend by returning to the frontier and making a heroic last stand at the Alamo.