Which famous philosopher wrote, ‘I have experienced so much, happy and sad, enlivening and dispiriting, but God has led me safely through it all as does a father his weak little child’? The words are taken from the autobiography of the profoundly religious thirteen-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was given to writing autobiographies. The most famous of these, Ecce Homo, was penned in 1888, shortly before, or perhaps during, his descent into madness. You might have heard of that one because it contains chapters such as ‘Why I am So Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’. From 1858 to the end of the 1860s, Nietzsche wrote at least six autobiographies. These take centre stage in Daniel Blue’s new book on Nietzsche, covering the years 1844–69. We might be tempted to think of this as ‘Nietzsche: The Early Years’, but that would have misleading connotations. ‘Early Nietzsche’ customarily refers to the period 1868–76, when he was overtly under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Richard Wagner’s personality. In Blue’s 320 page account, Nietzsche buys Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation on page 216 and meets Wagner on page 300. This is ‘Nietzsche: Before the Early Years’. Eight years old on page 58, eighteen halfway through, we leave him aged twenty-four, arriving in Basel to take up his first university position in philology: employed, financially independent and no longer asking his mother to do his washing.
Nietzsche was born in the Prussian village of Röcken, near Leipzig, in 1844. His father, a Prussian cleric, died when he was not yet five. The family moved to the nearby town of Naumburg. At thirteen, he had sufficiently good grades, and a sufficiently dead father, to gain entry to a famous and excellent school, Schulpforte, which had a mission to look after the sons of deceased Prussian civil servants. He studied in Bonn and Leipzig, before being offered a position at Basel. If you haven’t studied Nietzsche in some detail, then everything you’ve read by him was written after that.
A good deal of Blue’s focus lies in providing an accurate English-language account of the facts of Nietzsche’s early life, building on and correcting previous versions. Here, his success is unquestionable. There may be some minor errors – Nietzsche’s maternal grandfather, one supposes, did not both die in December 1859 and then celebrate his birthday in August 1860 – but Blue is a sensitive, careful and reliable narrator. He is also frank. Nietzsche would become a world-famous atheist, losing his faith during the period in question. We might wonder why. Ultimately, Blue thinks, we can’t know. Blue also resists the temptation to relate Nietzsche’s early experiences to his later, famous ideas – a common vice of philosophical biography.
In truth, you should already have a pretty good idea if you are the sort of person who should read three hundred clearly written and accurate pages about Nietzsche’s youth: it will depend on whether you have strong interests in Nietzsche’s life and works. Things could be different. If Nietzsche had had a surprisingly interesting youth, or had come of age in fascinating times, or had produced important, underappreciated work during this time, then such a book might have a wider appeal. But it would be hard to make a case for any of these and, with the partial exception of the third, Blue does not try – which is not to say he ought to.
As regards Nietzsche’s life, there are no major surprises. Academically, he was brilliant, especially at classics and literature, though not before his teenage years, never in mathematics, and not without occasional shameless plagiarism. His poems, letters and essays are pretentious, though not all that pretentious for a teenage Nietzsche. Indeed, the future author of ‘Why I am a Destiny’ succumbed to bouts of humility: describing a photograph of himself, he noted: ‘My stance is hunched, my feet somewhat crooked, and my hand looks like a dumpling.’ It seems the Dionysian barely made an appearance in Nietzsche’s youth. He got drunk at school and afterwards apologised to his mother, calling it ‘one of the most unpleasant and saddest incidents I have ever been responsible for’. There is no mention of romantic or sexual stirrings of any kind. As he chooses which university to attend, childhood friends write to encourage him to join them at Heidelberg, where there are great parties with beautiful women. Nietzsche goes to Bonn.
If not his life, what about his times? Blue and Nietzsche both suggest that the 1850s were dull years in which to come of age. The 1860s saw the birth pangs of the German nation. The associated upheavals certainly did touch the young Nietzsche, who was drafted into a Prussian cavalry artillery unit. But Nietzsche saw no fighting during the period covered by the book and, while serving, he lived at home with his mother. A serious but unglamorous injury interrupted the military service of the man who idolised Caesar and Napoleon: he tried to jump onto a horse and missed.
Where Blue attempts to provoke interest beyond the antiquarian is in Nietzsche’s works of the period, specifically in his attempts at understanding his own life and the extent to which the individual is shaped by, or is independent from, his or her context. For Blue, the autobiographies reveal a change in Nietzsche’s attitudes. Sometimes his emphasis is on the individual as the driving force, with the environment as mere scenic background. Elsewhere, Nietzsche worries that environmental influences shape the individual, undermining any meaningful project of self-development. An attempted resolution lies in the idea of a fit between character and environment: the environment influences you in some respects, but only when you have the sort of character that can be influenced in just these respects. Character is in charge after all. It is doubtful whether this – and the related twists and turns sketched by Blue – adds much to the question of whether and how self-authorship is possible. I might still experience the fact that my character is susceptible to influence in some respects as just one more ‘environmental’ factor restricting my self-authorship. I might, for example, wish I weren’t the kind of person who is so responsive to peer pressure or who becomes so easily addicted to drink, much as I might wish I was born in a different time or place. I might even wish I weren’t the kind of person who was so self-critical regarding my own malleability and addictive personality.
Drawing a clear line between ‘me’, my ‘character’ and my ‘environment’ is never going to be easy. It would certainly bother Nietzsche throughout his writing career, so it is enlightening to see his interest emerge so early on. One could hardly criticise the teenage Nietzsche, or his biographer, for not clearing up the mess. It is worth saying, though, that Blue appears to have a horse in the race. For him, Nietzsche ‘did not become the Nietzsche known today “naturally,” through the graceful maturation of some inborn character. He engaged rather in a self-conducted and self-conscious campaign to follow his own guidance’, in part through his autobiographies, which resulted in a successful act of self-authorship. Thus, Blue’s Nietzsche is engaged in the activity of self-authoring, the very possibility of which he is questioning in some of his self-authoring writings. Indeed, Blue’s Nietzsche eventually abandons autobiography, perhaps precisely because of the dangers he comes to think are inherent in self-conscious self-authorship – the sort of thing Blue says Nietzsche was successfully doing all along. To my knowledge, this fourth wall is never explicitly broken in Blue’s text. One is left with the intriguing question: what would Nietzsche – pre-early, early, or late – have made of Blue’s account?