Nietzsche: Superman of the 19th century

It is hard to overstate the importance and influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on 20th century thinking. Philosophical theories and approaches such as existentialism, postmodernism, deconstruction, and post-structuralism are all indebted to his work. He wrote about morality, language, art and aesthetics, truth, history, power, cultural theory, and other areas.

Born in Prussia (Germany) in 1844, Friedrich Nietzsche started his career as a scholar of classical languages. He then turned to philosophy, showing particular interest in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.


Among Nietzsche’s famous ideas are those of the Übermensch and that “God is dead”. He is best known for his uncompromising criticism, especially of traditional European morality and religion.

At 24, Nietzsche became the youngest ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at Basel. He published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872. On Truth and Lies and Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks followed in 1873. He published Untimely Meditations in 1876.

Unfortunately, by 1879 he had to resign due to ill health that would plague him the rest of his life. The resignation would also roughly coincide with one of his most productive periods which would last, approximately, another ten years. During this period, he would publish a book almost a year:

  • Human, All Too human (1878),
  • The Dawn (1881),
  • The Gay Science (1882),
  • Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883),
  • Beyond Good and Evil (1886),
  • On the Genealogy of Morality (1887),
  • The Case of Wagner (1888),
  • Twilight of the Idols (1888),
  • The Antichrist (1888),
  • Ecce Homo (1888), and
  • Nietzsche contra Wagner (1888).

In 1889, aged just 44, Nietzsche suffered a collapse and, afterwards, a complete loss of his mental faculties. He would live his remaining years cared for by his mother and, eventually, by his sister Elizabeth. He died in 1900.

Nietzsche’s influence on 20th-Century thinking

After his death, Elizabeth became the curator and editor of her bother’s manuscripts. She would rework his writings to fit her own German nationalist ideology, often contradicting Nietzsche’s stated opinions. Through her reworking, her bother’s writings became associated with fascism and Nazism. Hitler himself frequently visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar, while the Nazis made selective use of his philosophy.

This interpretation of his work would be contested by scholars who corrected and republished his writings. In the 1960s, his work saw a resurgence in popularity, with and profound impact on several fields. This was brought about thanks to meticulous translations by Walter Kaufman and RJ Hollingdale. The list of writers and intellectuals influenced by Nietzsche is extensive and looks like a list of who’s who. It includes such high-profile names as Carl Jung, Karl Jaspers, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida, Paul Tillich, Michel Foucault, Hemann Hesse, George Bernard Shaw, and WB Yeats.