The Polemical Philosopher

Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits

by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, introduction by Erich Heller
Cambridge University Press, 395 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries

edited by Sander L. Gilman
Oxford University Press, 296 pp., $26.00

Postponements: Women, Sensuality, and Death in Nietzsche

by David Farrell Krell
Indiana University Press, 117 pp., $22.50

Nietzsche, "the Last Antipolitical German"

by Peter Bergmann
Indiana University Press, 239 pp., $27.50

Nietzsche: Life as Literature

by Alexander Nehamas
Harvard University Press, 261 pp., $17.50


In an early, autobiographical essay, written for school, Friedrich Nietzsche recalled that he found Naumburg overly busy—dusty and indifferent as well as bewilderingly various—after the close, quiet, neighborly life of Röcken, the tiny country village in Saxony where he was born. Naumburg would shrink as his own mind woke and widened, of course, but the boy could not immediately realize in what sleepy surroundings he would endure his early dreams. A decidedly Pietist community, peopled in large part by pensioners with their defensive pretentions, Naumburg over the years had lost its economic position to Leipzig, its cultural eminence to Dresden, its political boldness to repeated disappointment (even the intellectual center of the Pietist movement had shifted to Halle), and was now so reluctant to grow or change that its thirteen thousand seemed to increase significantly when the three Nietzsches arrived.

Nietzsche’s mother, having lost her husband and an infant close together, and somewhat at a loss herself, accepted the life of a widowed Frau Pastor with a readiness to turn from any risk unusual in one still an attractive twenty-three; although, outside her husband’s house-hold, which continued to include his mother and two sisters, she had little chance to obtain a decent livelihood. Pastor Nietzsche, who suffered from Socratic fits of abstraction and debilitating glooms, was as devoted a royalist as he was a Lutheran, recognizing, according to doctrine, the descent of divinity from God to kings. He was outraged and humiliated by the revolution of 1848, when the namesake of his son, Frederick Wilhelm IV, bowed to the demands of an upstart rabble and, as a sign of submission, put on their rebellion’s cockade. The pastor’s brain softened, as they described such things then, and he died blind, in madness and despair, the next year, at the age of thirty-six.

In death, Nietzsche’s father became what he only might have been in life: the simple good man, loved by all who knew him, whose shoes his son’s small feet would grow to fill, and whose virtuous path those feet would faithfully follow. At the age of four, his future with his father was complete, but his future with his father’s eulogistic figure had just begun. Peter Bergmann reports that in the alley behind his new home Nietzsche more than once heard, as though in a play he had yet to read, his father’s ghostly warning voice.1 Of what did it warn him? Of disobedience, no doubt, although it would be more romantic to imagine that it warned him of his fate. “You are the image of your father,” his grandaunt wrote upon the occasion of his confirmation, willing the resemblance, for at sixteen he was already beginning to doubt his vocation and smudge the family likeness. Nevertheless, Nietzsche would return to Naumburg with his own madness forty years later, and there, nursed by his mother as his father had been, he would affright visitors with the hoarse howls of his increasingly ravenous and unkempt death.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.