On this day 170 years ago, the brilliant, contrarian German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born. He is much more famous now, in death, than he ever was in life.
Nietzsche was one of a kind, an iconoclast, a lone wolf. As a young man, he fell under the sway of the highly charismatic (and highly anti-semitic) composer Richard Wagner and was thrilled by his flamboyant, colourful lifestyle. Nietzsche similarly wanted to break free of the shackles of stifling polite society and go his own way. It was a way that led to ridicule, isolation, syphilis, madness and death. Today he is a flawed role model for those of a certain kind of disaffected, angst-ridden, adolescent outlook; a friend to existentialists, postmodernists and those of us who feel like outsiders. He is the Holden Caulfield of philosophers.
Nietzsche is perhaps most famous for his declaration that “God is dead." He shunned the dogmatic rules of the church. Life for him wasn't about humbly conforming—dutifully submitting to higher powers, being meek and mild in the hope of some dull reward, whether in this life or the next. Life was for living, to the full, here and now! Turn up the volume! He believed that we all have a responsibility to be who we are and to live by our own rules, the consequences be damned. He became increasingly strident. He seemed to become motivated less by a desire to invent his own way to live and more by a need to deride everyone else's and be different. Nietzsche didn't just want to kick over all the tables in the saloon, it seemed. He wanted to burn it down, too.
But whether we believe or don't believe, or something in between, an important message remains. So many of us have internalized so many injunctions—from our parents, our community, our society, our religion, our culture. We are enslaved by so many “shoulds" that are impossible to live up to (and often mutually exclusive). We forget our desires, our dreams, our freedoms. It takes a certain radical, fierce Nietzschean courage to live your life your way—to “come out" as you, without apology, in all your glory.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself."