Friedrich Nietzsche was born 15 October 1844, in Saxony, which was by this time a province of the increasingly powerful kingdom of Prussia. Nietzsche was descended from a long line of tradesmen, including hatters and butchers, but his grandfather and father were both Lutheran pastors. Nietzsche’s father was a patriotic Prussian who held his king, Friedrich
Wilhelm IV, in high esteem. When Ludwig Nietzsche’s first son was born on the king’s birthday, it was obvious that he had little chance of being named Otto. By an utterly meaningless coincidence, all three men were to die insane.
Nietzsche was now brought up in Naumburg in a house full of “holy women,” which included a mother, a younger sister, a maternal grandmother, and two slightly loopy maiden aunts. This appears to have affected Nietzsche’s attitude toward women in later life. At the age of thirteen he went to boarding school at nearby Pforta, one of the top private boarding schools in Germany.
Nietzsche, very much the product of his pious, mollycoddled upbringing, became known as “the little pastor” and carried off all the prizes. But he was so brilliant that eventually he couldn’t help thinking for himself. By the age of eighteen he was beginning to doubt his faith. The clear–sighted thinker couldn’t help noticing the square pegs in the round holes of the world about him. Typically this thinking appears to have been done in complete isolation. Throughout his life Nietzsche was to be influenced in his thought by very few living people (and not many dead ones either).
God is dead
At the age of nineteen Nietzsche went to the University of Bonn to study theology and classical philology, with the aim of becoming a pastor. His destiny had been mapped out long beforehand by the “holy women”; but already he was beginning to experience an unconscious urge to rebellion, which resulted in a transformation of his character. On arriving at Bonn the solitary schoolboy unexpectedly became a typical gregarious student. He joined a smart fraternity, took to drinking with his fellows, and even fought a duel (the usual artificial affair, which was stopped as soon as he had received his honourable scar – a slight nick on the nose, unfortunately later obscured by the bridge of his spectacles). But this was only a necessary phase. By now Nietzsche had decided “God is dead.” (This remark, now so closely associated with Nietzsche and his philosophy, was also made by Georg Hegel some twenty years before Nietzsche was born.)
At home during the holidays he refused to take communion and announced that he would not be entering the church. The next year he decided to switch to Leipzig University, where he would drop theology and concentrate on classical philology. Nietzsche arrived in Leipzig in October 1865, in the same month that he celebrated his twenty-first birthday.
Around this time two events took place which were to transform his life. While on a sight-seeing trip to Cologne, he visited a brothel. According to Nietzsche this visit was inadvertent. On arrival he had asked a street porter to lead him to a restaurant; instead the porter took him to a brothel. The way Nietzsche later related it to a friend: “All at once I found myself surrounded by half a dozen apparitions in tinsel and gauze, gazing at me expectantly. For a brief moment I was speechless. Then I made instinctively for the only soulful thing present in the place: the piano. I played a few chords, which freed me from my paralysis, and I escaped.”
Inevitably, we only have Nietzsche’s evidence regarding this unlikely episode. Whether or not the visit was quite so accidental, and whether or not Nietzsche ended up only fondling the keys of the piano, it is impossible to tell. Nietzsche was almost certainly still a virgin at the time. He was an extremely intense young man as well as being inexperienced and gauche in the ways of the world. (Yet this didn’t stop him from making pronouncements about such matters. Despite his sexual status, he earnestly informed a friend that he would need to keep three women to satisfy him.)
On later consideration Nietzsche must have decided that he had been attracted by something more than the piano. He went back to the brothel and almost certainly paid a few visits to similar establishments when he returned to Leipzig. Not long after this he discovered that he was infected. The doctor who treated him wouldn’t have told him that he had syphilis (they didn’t in those days, because it was incurable). Even so, as a result of this incident Nietzsche appears to have abstained from sexual activity with women.
Despite this he continued throughout his life to make embarrassingly self-revealing remarks about them in his philosophy. “You are going to see a woman? Do not forget your whip.”(Although it’s possible that, owing to the type of bordello, he had visited in Leipzig, he thought it only fair that men should be equally armed for the fray.)
The second-hand book
The second life-changing incident took place when he entered a secondhand bookshop and came across a copy of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. “I took the unfamiliar book in my hands and began leafing through the pages. I don’t know what demon it was that whispered in my ear: ‘Take this book home.’ So, breaking my principle of never buying a book too quickly, I did just that. Back home, I threw myself into the corner of the sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic gloomy genius work on my mind…. I found myself looking into a mirror which reflected the world, life and my own nature with terrifying grandeur…. Here I saw sickness and health, exile and refuge, Hell and Heaven.”
Read more in Nietzsche: Philosophy In An Hour by Paul Strathern, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60.