Durant 1926: Finale (Nietzsche)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IX Section 10 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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X. Finale

“I love him who willeth the creation of something beyond himself, and then perisheth,” said Zarathustra.

Undoubtedly Nietzsche’s intensity of thought consumed him prematurely. His battle against his time unbalanced his mind; “it has always been found a terrible thing to war with the moral system of one’s age; it will have its revenge … from within and from without.” Towards the end Nietzsche’s work grew in bitterness; he attacked persons as well as ideas,—Wagner, Christ, etc. “Growth in wisdom,” he wrote, “may be exactly measured by decrease in bitterness”: but he could not convince his pen. Even his laughter became neurotic as his mind broke down; nothing could better reveal the poison that was corroding him than the reflection: “Perhaps I know best why man is the only animal that laughs: he alone suffers so excruciatingly that he was compelled to invent laughter.” Disease and increasing blindness were the physiological side of his breakdown. He began to give way to paranoiac delusions of grandeur and persecution; he sent one of his books to Taine with a note assuring the great critic that it was the most marvelous book ever written; and he filled his last book, Ecce Homo, with such mad self-praise as we have seen. Ecce homo!—alas, we behold the man here only too well!

Undoubtedly Nietzsche’s intensity of thought consumed him prematurely. His battle against his time unbalanced his mind. Towards the end Nietzsche’s work grew in bitterness; he attacked persons as well as ideas. Disease and increasing blindness were the physiological side of his breakdown.

Perhaps a little more appreciation by others would have forestalled this compensatory egotism, and given Nietzsche a better hold upon perspective and sanity. But appreciation came too late. Taine sent him a generous word of praise when almost all others ignored or reviled him; Brandes wrote to tell him that he was giving a course of lectures on the “aristocratic radicalism” of Nietzsche at the University of Copenhagen; Strindberg wrote to say that he was turning Nietzsche’s ideas to dramatic use; perhaps best of all, an anonymous admirer sent a check for $400. But when these bits of light came, Nietzsche was almost blind in sight and soul; and he had abandoned hope. “My time is not yet,” he wrote; “only the day after tomorrow belongs to me.”

Perhaps a little more appreciation by others would have forestalled this compensatory egotism, and given Nietzsche a better hold upon perspective and sanity. But appreciation came too late.

The last blow came at Turin in January, 1889, in the form of a stroke of apoplexy. He stumbled blindly back to his attic room, and dashed off mad letters: to Cosima Wagner four words-“Ariadne, I love you”; to Brandes a longer message signed “The Crucified”; and to Burckhardt and Overbeck such fantastic missives that the latter hurried to his aid. He found Nietzsche ploughing the piano with his elbows, singing and crying his Dionysian ecstasy.

They took him at first to an asylum, but soon his old mother came to claim him and take him under her own forglving care. What a picture!—the pious woman who had borne sensitively but patiently the shock of her son’s apostasy from all that she held dear, and who, loving him none the less, received him now into her arms, like another Pieta. She died in 1897, and Nietzsche was taken by his sister to live in Weimar. There a statue of him was made by Kramer—a pitiful thing, showing the once powerful mind broken, helpless, and resigned. Yet he was not all unhappy; the peace and quiet which he had never had when sane were his now; Nature had had mercy on him when she made him mad. He caught his sister once weeping as she looked at him, and he could not understand her tears: “Lisbeth,” he asked, “why do you cry? Are we not happy?” On one occasion he heard talk of books; his pale face lit up: “Ah!” he said, brightening, “I too have written some good books”—and the lucid moment passed. 

The last blow came at Turin in January, 1889, in the form of a stroke of apoplexy. They took him at first to an asylum, but soon his old mother came to claim him and take him under her own forgiving care. It was a once powerful mind broken, helpless, and resigned. 

He died in 1900. Seldom has a man paid so great a price for genius.

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