Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial figures in German philosophical thought, was born in Rocken, Prussia, and studied theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn. One year later, he gave up theology, having lost his faith, and moved to the University of Leipzig, where he discovered the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (q.v.) and the German composer Richard Wagner. These two figures, as well as Greek tragedians like Aeschylus, represented the most important influences on Nietzsche’s early thought. At age 24, Nietzsche became a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, where he continued to utilize pagan themes in developing his philosophy. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), these influences coalesce in his theory of Greek literature, which asserts that the two opposing forces in life, the Apollonian or rational, and the Dionysian or passionate, must come into momentary harmony with the “Primordial Mystery.”
In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), Nietzsche develops many of the philosophical tenets central to his thought. Other significant works by Nietzsche include Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche’s views have been seen as influencing German attitudes in World War I and in providing the philosophical underpinnings for the Third Reich, even though Nietzsche was severely critical of German culture (a view that had undermined his friendship with Wagner) and would have considered the ways in which Nazism co-opted his views a complete distortion. Nietzsche suffered from poor health for most of his life; in 1889, he experienced a severe mental breakdown, perhaps associated with syphilis, from which he never recovered. He died on August 25, 1900.
In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduced his concepts of the “superman” (Übermensch), “the will to power,” and “the death of God.” One must find value in life without the hope of a future reward in Heaven. The new science of Darwinism had done away with the notion of a watchful Creator; hence, a new order of supermen was needed to create value for themselves through the will to power, a fearless love for every aspect of life and fate, free from self-delusion or life-denying morality. In the following excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra, written in poetic prose, and The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explores the notion of voluntary death within the new ethics of the Übermensch: Death should not so much be something that happens to us beyond our control as a matter of chance or surprise, but something we choose freely and deliberately, a choice that becomes a defining act of our lives. Entirely in contrast to Christianity, Nietzsche sees suicide as a positive act: “The man who does away with himself,” Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols, “performs the most estimable of deeds.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ch. 21, “Voluntary Death.” tr. Thomas Common. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 11, ed. Oscar Levy. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1909-11, 1964, pp. 82-85; also available from Project Gutenberg Release #1998. The Twilight of the Idols, tr. Anthony M. Ludovici. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 16, ed. Oscar Levy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 88-91.
from THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA
Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: “Die at the right time!
Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.
To be sure, he who never liveth at the right time, how could he ever die at the right time? Would that he might never be born!—Thus do I advise the superfluous ones.
But even the superfluous ones make much ado about their death, and even the hollowest nut wanteth to be cracked.
Every one regardeth dying as a great matter: but as yet death is not a festival. Not yet have people learned to inaugurate the finest festivals.
The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living.
His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones.
Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!
Thus to die is best; the next best, however, is to die in battle, and
sacrifice a great soul.
But to the fighter equally hateful as to the victor, is your grinning death which stealeth nigh like a thief—and yet cometh as master.
My death, praise I unto you, the voluntary death, which cometh unto me
because I want it.
And when shall I want it?—He that hath a goal and an heir, wanteth death at the right time for the goal and the heir.
And out of reverence for the goal and the heir, he will hang up no more
withered wreaths in the sanctuary of life.
Verily, not the rope-makers will I resemble: they lengthen out their cord, and thereby go ever backward.
Many a one, also, waxeth too old for his truths and triumphs; a toothless mouth hath no longer the right to every truth.
And whoever wanteth to have fame, must take leave of honour betimes, and practise the difficult art of—going at the right time.
One must discontinue being feasted upon when one tasteth best: that is
known by those who want to be long loved.
Sour apples are there, no doubt, whose lot is to wait until the last day of autumn: and at the same time they become ripe, yellow, and shrivelled.
In some ageth the heart first, and in others the spirit. And some are
hoary in youth, but the late young keep long young.
To many men life is a failure; a poison-worm gnaweth at their heart. Then let them see to it that their dying is all the more a success.
Many never become sweet; they rot even in the summer. It is cowardice that holdeth them fast to their branches.
Far too many live, and far too long hang they on their branches. Would
that a storm came and shook all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!
Would that there came preachers of SPEEDY death! Those would be the appropriate storms and agitators of the trees of life! But I hear only
slow death preached, and patience with all that is “earthly.”
Ah! ye preach patience with what is earthly? This earthly is it that hath too much patience with you, ye blasphemers!
Verily, too early died that Hebrew whom the preachers of slow death honour: and to many hath it proved a calamity that he died too early.
As yet had he known only tears, and the melancholy of the Hebrews, together with the hatred of the good and just—the Hebrew Jesus: then was he seized with the longing for death.
Had he but remained in the wilderness, and far from the good and just!
Then, perhaps, would he have learned to live, and love the earth—and laughter also!
Believe it, my brethren! He died too early; he himself would have disavowed his doctrine had he attained to my age! Noble enough was he to disavow!
But he was still immature. Immaturely loveth the youth, and immaturely also hateth he man and earth. Confined and awkward are still his soul and the wings of his spirit.
But in man there is more of the child than in the youth, and less of melancholy: better understandeth he about life and death.
Free for death, and free in death; a holy Naysayer, when there is no longer time for Yea: thus understandeth he about death and life.
That your dying may not be a reproach to man and the earth, my friends: that do I solicit from the honey of your soul.
In your dying shall your spirit and your virtue still shine like an evening after-glow around the earth: otherwise your dying hath been unsatisfactory.
Thus will I die myself, that ye friends may love the earth more for my sake; and earth will I again become, to have rest in her that bore me.
Verily, a goal had Zarathustra; he threw his ball. Now be ye friends the heirs of my goal; to you throw I the golden ball.
Best of all, do I see you, my friends, throw the golden ball! And so tarry I still a little while on the earth—pardon me for it!
Thus spake Zarathustra.
from THE TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS
A MORAL FOR DOCTORS
The sick man is a parasite of society. In certain cases it is indecent to go on living. To continue to vegetate in a state of cowardly dependence upon doctors and special treatments, once the meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, ought to be regarded with the greatest contempt by society. The doctors, for their part, should be the agents for imparting this contempt—they should no longer prepare prescriptions, but should every day administer a fresh dose of disgust to their patients. A new responsibility of ruthlessly suppressing and eliminating degenerate Life, in all cases in which the highest interests of life itself, of ascending life, demand such a course—for instance in favour of the right of procreation, in favour of the right of the right of being born, in favour of the right to live. One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death should be chosen freely,—death at the right time, faced clearly and joyfully and embraced while one is surrounded by one’s children and other witnesses. It should be affected in such a way that a proper farewell is still possible, that he who is about to take leave of us is still himself, and really capable not only of valuing what he has achieved and willed in life, but also of summing-up the value of life itself. Everything precisely the opposite of the ghastly comedy which Christianity has made of the hour of death. We should never forgive Christianity for having so abused the weakness of the dying man as to do violence to his conscience, or for having used his manner of dying as a means of valuing both man and his past!—In spite of all cowardly prejudices, it is our duty, in this respect, above all to reinstate the proper—that is to say, the physiological, aspect of so-called Natural death, which after all is perfectly “unnatural” and nothing else than suicide. One never perishes through anybody’s fault but one’s own. The only thing is that the death which takes place in the most contemptible circumstances, the death that is not free, the death which occurs at the wrong time, is the death of a coward. Out of the very love one bears to life, one should wish death to be different from this—that is to say, free, deliberate, and neither a matter of chance nor of surprise. Finally let me whisper a word of advice to our friends the pessimists and all other decadents. We have not the power to prevent ourselves from being born: but this error—for sometimes it is an error—can be rectified if we choose. The man who does away with himself, performs the most estimable of deeds: he almost deserves to live for having done so. Society—nay, life itself, derives more profit from such a deed than from any sort of life spent in renunciation, anæmia and other virtues,—at least the suicide frees others from the sight of him, at least he removes one objection against life. Pessimism pur et vert, can be proved only by the self refutation of the pessimists themselves: one should go a step further in one’s consistency; one should not merely deny life with “The World as Will and Idea,” as Schopenhauer did; one should in the first place deny Schopenhauer…. Incidentally, Pessimism, however infectious it may be, does not increase the morbidness of an age or of a whole species; it is rather the expression of that morbidness. One falls a victim to it in the same way as one falls a victim to cholera; one must already be predisposed to the disease. Pessimism in itself does not increase the number of the world’s decadents by a single unit. Let me remind you of the statistical fact that in those years in which cholera rages, the total number of deaths does not exceed that of other years.