N is for Nietzsche (and Nazis, Neuroses, Nihilism and the Nature of the universe)

To mark the 100th anniversary of his death, we present the A-Z of the philosopher who became one of the most reviled figures of the 20th century. Could it be that he was just a little misunderstood?
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A is for Antichrist

A is for Antichrist

Born in 1844 to a Lutheran clergyman, Friedrich Nietzsche tore himself away from his pious roots to become a startlingly vehement and searching enemy of Christian civilization. One of his last completed works, bluntly entitled The Anti-Christ, declares that "The Christian Church has left nothing untouched by its depravity..." And who or what, in the Nietzschean view, was the Antichrist himself? The answer can be found in his short autobiography Ecce Homo (III, 2): " Ich bin... der Antichrist." Eat your heart out, Johnny Rotten.

B is for Beyond Good and Evil

"That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil": one of the more pregnant sayings from Nietzsche's last book of aphorisms, and a maxim which goes some way towards suggesting what its provocative title, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), might fully signify.

C is for Classics

At the age of 24, Nietzsche was appointed to the chair of classical philology at Basel University, and he remained a professor for the next 10 years. His very first publication, in 1867, was a textual essay on Theognis. It was an inauspiciously dry overture to such an iconoclastic career, and yet one of the foundations for all Nietzsche's later thought was his reinterpretation of the Greek culture of the sixth century BC: he was especially keen on the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus, Thales and Empedocles. Note, too, his lifelong fascination for:

D is for Dionysus

The Greek deity who meant many things to Nietzsche at different times of his life. In The Birth of Tragedy, his first major publication (much derided by his academic colleagues, who thought it at best fanciful, at worst nutty), the emotional Dionysian force is opposed to the Apollonian form-creating principle; in his middle years, "Dionysus" stands for the sublimated "Will to Power" and becomes synonymous with the Ãœbermensch; and with the onset of his madness, he begins to sign his ranting letters "Dionysus".

E is for Eternal Recurrence

The mystical doctrine preached in Thus Spake Zarathustra and elsewhere: life - existence, time, the universe, what have you - repeats itself over and over again, without cease. There are signs that Nietzsche really believed that this was the nature of the universe, and that modern science bore him out, but most of his commentators have charitably assumed that "Eternal Recurrence" is in fact a sort of metaphor or moral injunction: live your life in such a way that you would be content for every moment of it to be repeated again and again and again into infinity. In either case, Nietzsche's message is clear: be a man or, rather, a Superman - just accept it.

F is for Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche

Nietzsche's sister: by turns a neurotically protective and vengeful guardian of his sexual purity; a wife to one of the men Nietzsche most despised, a co-founder of a bizarre proto-fascist colony in Paraguay; a nurse of her now-deranged brother; and the High Priestess of the Nietzsche cult, which began in the last decade of his life and was later adopted by Hitler's gang.

G is for Gay Science

Or, in German, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Nietzsche's translation of la gaya scienza or gai saber, meaning the art of the Provençal Troubadours, "those splendid, inventive men... to whom Europe owes so much and, indeed, almost itself". It has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality. At any rate, that's what you should tell those ill-mannered people who give you funny looks when they catch you reading The Gay Science on the bus.

H is for Heine

Nietzsche admired the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) with an unflagging passion. "The highest conception of the lyric poet was given me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of the millennia for an equally sweet and passionate music... One day it will be said that Heine and I have been by far the foremost artists of the German language - at an incalculable distance from anything mere Germans have done with it..." ( Ecce Homo). (The "mere Germans" crack needs a footnote: Nietzsche managed to persuade himself, on exceptionally skimpy evidence, that he was descended from Polish noblemen. He was not.)

I is for Insanity

On the morning of 3 January 1889, Nietzsche leaves his lodgings in Turin, sees a cabman beating his horse, rushes to save the poor beast, throws his arms around its neck and passes out. When he revives, he is uncontrollable, and starts firing off megalomanical letters to the crowned heads of Europe. His sanity is gone for ever, and he spends the remaining 11 years of his life as a withdrawn invalid, unaware that he has in the meantime become one of the most famous writers in the world. Likely cause of his insanity: syphilis, contracted from a prostitute in one of his rare, youthful debauches.

J is for Jews

"Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are Jewish": traditional mating call of the anti-Semite. Well, some of his best friends were indeed Jewish, notably his fellow philosopher, Paul Ree; but it's a lot more revealing to note that one of his worst enemies - his brother-in-law, the professional bigot Bernhard Forster - was a rabid anti-Semite, and that he despised the man's views ("This accursed anti-Semitism") as much as his person. It's true that Nietzsche did write some weirdly disparaging things about the Jews, but then he wrote weirdly disparaging things about almost everyone except the Ancient Greeks, including the Germans and the English. The rumour that Nietzsche was vilely anti-Semitic owes more to the editorial jiggery-pokery of his sister and the unsavoury nature of some of his fans than it does to the printed record. If anything, the characteristic Nietzschean note is markedly philo-Semitic: "What a blessing a Jew is among Germans!" ( The Will to Power, I, 49).

K is for Kant

That is, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804); Nietzsche seldom passed up the opportunity to point out that he was utterly wrong about almost everything.

L is for Lou Salome

When they make the Nietzsche biopic, Lou Salome will be the major romantic interest: Nietzsche fell for the 21-year-old in 1882, proposed to her and was rejected twice, and ended up briefly in a ménage à trois with Miss Lou and Paul Ree. (Probably sexless, at least on Nietzsche's part.) When the ménage dissolved, he left in a rage; the later part of his life remained as loveless as the earlier.

M is for Maxims

Aphorisms, maxims, apopthegms and dicta are the essence of Nietzsche's literary genius. "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger" ( Twilight of the Idols, aphorism 8); or "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you" ( Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146).

N is for Nazis

They revered him as a prophet, they built him a museum in Weimar, they poisoned his name for generations. And there are extremely strong grounds for saying that they got him dead wrong. He derided Germans and Germany, held racism in lofty contempt, scorned ideas of racial purity...

O is for Overcoming

A key term of his later writings: it refers chiefly to self-overcoming, and the route towards the superhuman: see U is for Ãœbermensch.

P is for Power

The Will to Power is a keystone of Nietzsche's psychology and cosmology, the constant theme of his mature thought: the whole universe is a battleground of contending wills, he believed, and the fight for supremacy visible in every manifestation of life (he developed the idea from a radical re-reading of the work of Schopenhauer, the first writer to wake him up to his vocation as a philosopher); The Will to Power is a posthumous collection of his notes and jottings, authorised by Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche ,and variously regarded as (a) the pinnacle of his philosophical career, (b) a hopeless mess and (c) neither of the above. Sample extract:

Q is for Quality

"Qualities are an idiosyncrasy peculiar to man; to demand that our human interpretations and values should be universal and perhaps constitutive values is one of the hereditary madnesses of human pride" ( The Will to Power, section 565).

R is for Ressentiment

Roughly: the feelings of rancour, hatred and envy inevitably experienced by the rabble when they confront the noble, the true and the great; and, then, the system of life-hating ethics created by the herd in revenge. For Nietzsche, the "herd religion" of Christianity is the most triumphant, and so disastrous, historical flower of ressentiment.

S is for Socrates

A casual reading of Nietzsche leaves one with the impression that he despised the Greek philosopher: "Socrates was rabble." But more subtle readers have argued that Nietzsche identified with him strongly, modelled some of his style on the mocking Socratic method, and that in arguing against Socrates he was really arguing with himself.

T is for Twilight of the Idols

Sub-titled "How to Philosophise with a Hammer", this is the late work which "says in 10 sentences what everyone else says in a book - what everyone else does not say in a book". It's not a bad place for the interested beginner to start - certainly better than the work most often recommended, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which can be dull and repetitive.

U is for Ãœbermensch

"I teach you the Superman. Man is a thing to be surmounted. What have ye done to surmount him?... What is the ape to man? A jest or a thing of shame. So shall man be to Superman - a thing of jest or shame..."( Thus Spake Zarathustra, Introductory Discourse). The Superman is at once Nietzsche's best-known and most variously interpreted idea, and it hasn't done his reputation a lot of good. As the wording of Zarathustra suggests, though, there is at least one clear thing about it: Nietzsche had been reading his Darwin.

V is for Values

"One knows my demand of philosophers that they place themselves beyond good and evil - that they have the illusion of moral judgement beneath them. This demand follows from an insight first formulated by me: that there are no moral facts whatever..." ( Twilight of the Idols)

W is for Wagner

The most intense relationship of Nietzsche's life was that which he enjoyed and suffered with the composer Richard Wagner: it went through all the classic stages of infatuation, discipleship, disillusion and repudiation, and left the fragments of a fascinating oedipal narrative in a series of books from The Birth of Tragedy (1870-1) to The Wagner Case (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888-9).

X is for Xymphora

The Greek word for "misfortune": in the Genealogy of Morals (I, ii), Nietzsche observes that it was a word applied by the sublimely confident nobility to the wretched lower orders. A study of etymology, he asserted, will teach the same lesson again and again: that all the words for "good" ultimately derive from the nobility and that all the words for "bad" originally signify "common" or "plebeian." Discuss.

Y is for Yea-Saying

If forced to condense Nietzsche's ethical doctrine into a single slogan, one could do a lot worse than: "Just say Yes."

Z is for Zarathustra

Of course. Let him have the last word: "I say unto you: a man must have chaos yet within him to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: ye have chaos yet within you..."

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