Friedrich Nietzsche was born near Rocken a small town in the Prussian province of Saxony, on October 15, 1844. Ironically the philosopher who rejected religion and coined the phrase "god is dead" was descended from a line of respected clergymen.
Nietzsche completed his secondary education at the exacting boarding school of Pforta. A brilliant student, he received rigorous training in Latin, Greek, and German. In 1864 the young man entered the University of Bonn to study theology and classical philology. A year later, however, he abandoned theology and transferred to the University of Leipzig to pursue a doctorate in philology. At Leipzig Nietzsche became an ardent admirer of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work he accidentally discovered in a secondhand bookstore, and the composer Richard Wagner, whom he met in 1868 and came to regard as a second father.
In 1869, at the age of twenty-four, Nietzsche was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, where he taught for the next ten years. The publication in 1872 of his first major book, The Birth of Tragedy, brought him immediate notoriety. Dedicated to Wagner, it exploded the nineteenth century conception of Greek culture and sounded themes later developed by twentieth-century philosophers, psychoanalysts, and novelists. Nietzsche's next work, four essays collectively titled Untimely Meditations (1873-76), focused on contemporary issues and criticism. Two attacked German "cultural philistinism" and challenged the value of historical knowledge, while tributes to Schopenhauer and Wagner were at once reflections on philosophy and art.
Indeed, Human All-too-Human (1878) represented an entirely new direction in his thought. Written in an aphoristic style perfectly suited to Nietzsche's multifaceted, iconoclastic beliefs, the work contains piercing observations that lay bare the hidden motivations underlying many aspects of human behavior. Subtitled "A Book for Free Spirits," Human All-too-Human also signaled the beginning of Nietzsche's break with Wagner.
Nietzsche resigned from his professorship in 1879 owing to chronic ill health; he had long suffered from paralyzing migraine headaches, and brief military service in the Franco-Prussian War left him shattered. Afterward he existed on a university pension as an unassuming gentleman lodger at resorts in Italy, France, and Switzerland. Yet his intellectual revolt continued unabated over the next decade. Though almost constantly in pain he produced, to quote Thomas Mann, "stylistically dazzling books -- works sparkling with audacious insults to his age, venturing into more and more radical psychology, radiating a more and more glaring white light." The Gay Science (1882), which Nietzsche regarded as his most personal book, includes sustained discussions of truth, art, and knowledge.
Then, in 1883 and 1884, Nietzsche published the first three sections of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; the fourth part, completed...