Out of the Darkness: The Life of Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve never been acquainted with the existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I had friends in school who liked him a lot but I was never attracted to him. He was dark and hopeless.

“Face life as you find it–defiantly and unafraid.
Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment.”

The darkness can be alluring but I can’t delve into it because I’d never find my way out.

Yet I realized I misjudged Nietzsche. I ran across one of his quotes the other day and I have thought about it ever since.

“They muddy the water to make it seem deep.”

Don’t we see that everywhere? Politics, relationships, business?

It seems the more I read, the more preoccupied I get. He’s fascinating! He was very good at boiling complex thoughts down to a single sentence.

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences
what others say in a whole book.”

Here’s what I’ve discovered about his life:

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on Oct 15, 1844 near Leipzig. He was the first of three children born to Carl Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife Franziska. Friedrich was followed by their daughter Elizabeth and son Ludwig. Carl Nietzsche died when Friedrich was five years old. Two months later, little Ludwig died.

Franziska moved back in with her mother, bringing Friedrich and Elisabeth with her. Later she purchased a home. Her son, Franziska noticed, was sickly. He was prone to migraines and severe indigestion. But he was very bright. In school, Friedrich enjoyed Christian theology. He studied at Schulpforta from 1858 to 1864, learning languages–Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew–and Religion, History, and Physics. He did poorly in math.

In September 1864, Nietzsche began studying theology and classical philology at University of Bonn. (I had to look up philology. It’s the study of structure and development of languages.) He had intended to be a minister but soon Nietzsche questioned his faith. The following year, he renounced his faith altogether. Nietzsche moved to the University of Leipzig and began to study philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Albert Lange.

Nietzsche joined the Prussian artillery division. Despite a promising start, he soon injured himself. His forced inactivity led him back to philosophy.

Nietzsche started his career as a scholar of the classics in 1869, serving as the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. He published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872.

Nietzsche composed music as well. He must have been confident in his ability: he gave a piece he composed to Cosima Wagner, wife of Richard Wagner. The famed composer and his friends didn’t view Nietzsche as a serious musician, with one describing his work as “undelightful.”

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Nietzsche resigned from the university in 1879, after ten years in the role, due to his health. For the next decade, he wrote. He could live independently, thanks to his pension from the university.

Lou Andreas Salomé


In 1882, Nietzsche met Lou Andreas-Salomé and fell in love with her. He proposed to her three times but she refused him each time. She was only interested in working with him to set up an academic commune. Nietzsche agreed to it. He would have agreed to whatever Salomé wanted.

There was also Sister Elisabeth to contend with. She found Salomé to be “immoral“ and interfered with Friedrich’s plans in hopes of disrupting her brother’s relationship. You can see how an extremely religious woman might disapprove of a woman called Salomé but her intrusion was unconscionable. Nietzsche later confessed he developed a “genuine hatred” for Elisabeth.

Nietzsche and Salomé parted. He was terribly bitter and now estranged from his sister and mother. He went to Rapallo in Genoa.

With his health failing and his heart broken, Nietzsche succumbed to his misery. He wrote and took copious amounts of opium and chloral hydrate. His books were not selling. He tried and failed to get another university post. He broke with his publisher and printed his book Beyond Good and Evil at his own expense.

Nietzsche had a brief respite from his emotional and physical troubles in the fall of 1888, when he turned 44. Perhaps he accepted Salomé’s rejection.

“Ultimately, it is the desire,
not the desired, that we love.”

Nietzsche always had to follow his star. As fall gave way to winter in 1888, it seemed to be on the verge of rising at last. Finally, his stormy life and contentious work would be known. Celebrated.

Nietzsche’s star burned out on January 3, 1889 when he had a nervous breakdown in Turin. The legend is that he witnessed a cab driver mercilessly flogging a horse. Nietzsche ran to the animal and threw his arms around it to protect it. Then he collapsed.



A neighbor took him home where he lay silently on a sofa for two days before uttering the words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm.” Mother, I am dumb.

In the days that followed, friends received frightening, rambling notes. “I have had Caiaphas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner.”

His madness was generally attributed to tertiary syphilis contracted at a brothel. The cause of Nietzsche’s insanity is disputed now. Some maintain the original diagnosis was correct. Some argue it was mercury poisoning. It’s possible: mercury was used to treat syphilis. Some say his philosophy drove him mad, or that it was manic depression and psychosis. Does it matter? He was insane.

Nietzsche in his final years


Nietzsche’s friends brought him to a psychiatric clinic in Basel but his mind was gone, utterly gone. Franziska eventually brought her son home and cared for him for the next eight years. It was then—when it no longer mattered to him—that Nietzsche’s reputation began to soar.

A portrait of Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch, 1906

When Franziska passed away, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth assumed care of her brother. He had his first stroke in 1898, leaving him unable to walk or talk. Friedrich remained with Elisabeth until his death from pneumonia in August 1900. He was 55 years old.