Nietzsche: Myths Dispelled

Nietzsche: A time to dispel myths.

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As Alice Miller (1990) returned to re-read Nietzsche’s works after thirty years, so did I as a result of her essay. (Any other popular culture publication may have served as well, but at least she can read German.) Ironically enough, it reminded me of the opening of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Als Zarathustra dreißig Jahre alt war, verließ er seine Heimat und den See seiner Heimat und gin in das Gebirge.” (Z, 303) (“When Zarathustra became thirty years old, he left his homeland, and the sea of his homeland, and went to the mountains.” This will be my last reference to Zarathustra for reasons mentioned in the bibliographical note.) Both Miller and I were surprised by what we learned in those mountains, but we learned quite different things. However, I am thankful to her for prodding me to re-read what may be the most powerful and influential writer for the twentieth century.

Most frustrating about Miller’s essay is not the apparent effect of reducing to pity the writings, but her tactic of dismissing aforehand any disagreement as character defects in the reader. “Experts,” those who cannot face the facts, those who do not take seriously the situation of the child, will disagree with her. Therefore, those who do not accept her “proof” ignore the plight of children.

Her explanation of his misogyny is characteristically biographical, but using the same approach we can see that he was ahead of his time and recognized potential greatness in specific women—those who do not allow their roles in life to be prescribed by men.

Basically, the disagreement can be reduced to a simple question: Who has better insight into Nietzsche’s work—Miller or Nietzsche? If we argue that perhaps Nietzsche did not have sufficient psychological insight to recognize the effects of his childhood in accordance with Miller’s interpretations, we either have to dismiss Freud’s (and later Frankl) view that Nietzsche knew himself better than any other man in history and that Nietzsche knew little about psychology, or we must assume that Miller knows more. Even his own autobiography is at odds with her interpretations, especially as they relate to his relationship with Wagner.

There is one other possibility: Miller is not writing about Nietzsche at all. She is writing about child abuse and its consequences and Nietzsche is “handy” for her. She thus would be employing a tactic that Nietzsche himself used—using a person as a symbol for something, as a magnifying glass. If I knew nothing about Nietzsche, I would have been convinced by her arguments. Knowing a bit about him proved a considerable handicap in understanding the essay. As it is, Miller simply chose the wrong figure for a case study to “prove” her thesis, at least to one reader.

Alice Miller, in “Friedrich Nietzsche: The Struggle Against the Truth,” The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 73-133) writes with a warm, caring, feeling for “little Fritz,” but does little to enlighten any reader on Nietzsche. In fact, she takes the corpus of his works (which she has at least read and understood on a basic level) and reduces them to the helpless rantings of a wounded child. While the years have seen a number of attacks on Nietzsche, none is so subtly pernicious. It does nothing to advance scholarship on Nietzsche (except perhaps in reaction) and could have the effect of misrepresenting him to those who have only heard of him or who have perhaps read a few passages here and there. I believe Nietzsche may have reacted to her essay by calling it an example of “the eternal feminine.” Just as today the intended humor of that last sentence would most likely be overlooked in a reaction to perceived misogyny, so the humor and light spirit of Nietzsche is overlooked by Miller throughout in favor of “understanding” poor little Fritz.

She early on (74) points out that anyone who is “expert” on the subject of Nietzsche will not agree with her because “they were not capable of recognizing such forbidden knowledge” because, unlike her, they never realize “how strongly I was clinging to my childhood idealization of my parents” (74). Therefore, those readers who do not recognizer the truth of what she is saying simply are idealizing their parents and thus are intellectually handicapped. She writes for people “who can face the facts. They need not be experts….” (74) Because of his early childhood, Nietzsche wrote in such a way that the Nazis could distort him—the corollary, of course, is that anyone the Nazis distorted had an unhappy childhood. This includes Christ, Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, Jack London, Bernard Shaw, etc. Perhaps all of these writers had an unhappy childhood, but Shaw, at least, constantly says that his was a happy one. Miller “witnessed the way the deadly marching of the National Socialists in the thirties and forties was indirectly spurred on by Nietzsche’s words ….” (75) Could we say, using the same approach Miller applies to Nietzsche, that therefore PTSD affects her reading of Nietzsche?

But she covers her bases. She knows ahead of time that “my thesis that Nietzsche’s works reflect the unlived feelings, needs, and tragedy of his childhood will probably meet with great resistance.” However, “my thesis is correct nevertheless, and I will offer proof in the pages that follow.” Now the reader must pay attention—we will get “proof.” However, this “proof can be understood … only by someone who is willing to temporarily abandon the adult perspective to gain insight into and take serious account of the situation of a child.” (76) So, there it is—if the reader does not accept her proof, it is an example of not being willing to take seriously the helplessness of children. Is it possible to say the contrary, that anyone who agrees with Miller simply has not read Nietzsche appropriately?

I am not sure how to interpret her remarks about his “madness” as a result of syphilis. (76-78) Suffice to say, I get the impression that she feels the illness, in reality, was a result of an unhappy childhood, the body reacting to repression, an example of society defending itself against Nietzsche by invoking some sort of divine retribution. Walter Kaufmann (1966), who remains the authority on Nietzsche, provides this account: “During his disease Nietzsche was almost invariably gentle and pleasant, and in lucid hours he engaged in conversation. Sometimes, however, he was wild and frenzied. At no time could he be induced to discuss any of his works or ideas. His last books and letters notwithstanding, his disease was not paranoia but almost certainly an atypical general paralysis. If this diagnosis is correct, it would follow that he must have had a syphilitic infection—but it cannot be [considered proven]. The certainty which can be achieved today by various tests can never be matched by posthumous conjectures on an atypical disease. All we can say is—and all sober and unsensational medical treatments of the subject seem agreed on this—that Nietzsche very probably contracted syphilis.” (58) Both are reacting to negative commentaries about Nietzsche’s work, commentaries that see his “madness” as a result of God’s retribution or as proof that his ideas are invalid, or as both. Kaufmann’s, however, seems to me more substantiated (but then, perhaps Kaufmann does not take the sufferings of children seriously?).  More importantly, in this 21st Century, it has been fairly definitively diagnosed as Brain Cancer, a diagnosis unknown to physicians in the 19th Century whereas Syphilis was a common complaint.


Nietzsche’s remarks about women generally do him little credit from today’s (2014) perspective. At the same time, perhaps we can gain some insight into his remarks by examining them in context rather than dismissing them, as does Miller: “Nietzsche’s misogyny becomes understandable, of course, if we consider how much distrust must have accumulated in someone who was whipped so frequently as a child.” (98) So, poor Fritz, so abused by these women particular women, came to hate all women. Let me add that Miller overlooks an incident that would tend to support her case: Nietzsche threw his arms around a horse that was being whipped, went home to write a few letters, and was confined to an asylum shortly after that.

In truth, Nietzsche’s remarks about women should be understood in context of this remark from The Gay Science: “…it is man who creates for himself the image of woman, and woman forms herself according to this image.” (GS, 126) As is usually the case with Nietzsche, any sentence, paragraph, even book, quoted out of context requires explication. The remark means that we live in a male-dominated society and it is the males in power who prescribe the roles played both by males and females. Those males are usually members of the clergy (the priestly caste). Women attempt to fit into these roles and it is the roles that are absurd, not the gender itself. In fact, throughout, Nietzsche’s remarks about women should be interpreted as attacking those women who are unable or unwilling to rise above those roles and act instead as human beings striving for an overcoming of mankind. Indeed, we still see this phenomenon—one need only consider televised beauty pageants (who watches them? To whom are the commercials targeted?)

Freud himself has been attacked as misogynistic and certainly the early hypotheses concerning hysteria (a wandering uterus) does little credit to those who accepted it, yet it is best seen as an attempt to understand a condition, not as an attempt to belittle women.

In the 20th Century, the O.J. Simpson trial, believe it or not, illustrated how dangerous this subject is today when discussed by males. (There is no need to discuss the validity of that verdict or to think of it as of serious importance here.) At one point, a defense attorney described the prosecution’s actions as hysterical. Marsha Clark, the lead prosecution attorney, pounced on this and described it as a blatantly sexist remark, demeaning to women and by implication to the prosecution, justifying spousal abuse, compounded by the fact that the judge, another male, allowed the remark to enter the record. Another defense attorney, one of Barry Sheck’s team (today well-known as the founder of the innocence Project which has uncovered hundreds of nefarious actions of the legal system in criminal proceedings), did a computer search on the term and documented the fact that the first use of the term in the trial was by Marsh Clark herself! Why was it permissible for the prosecution to use the term and not the defense? Johnnie Cochran, the lead defense attorney, with a wandering uterus seemed rather absurd under the circumstances. She dropped her objection.

If we wish, however, to see the historical context of Nietzsche’s above remarks, we can look to Schopenhaurer: “it is only the man whose intellect is clouded by his sexual impulses that could give the name of the fair sex to that undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race; for the whole beauty of the sex is bound up with this impulse” (SP, 440). He continues, complaining of “..the childish simplicity, for example, with which they keep on chattering during the finest passages in the greatest masterpieces.” (411) Today, presumably, we have improved as both men and women chatter during performances. Aristotle, somewhere, places women on step below man on the ladder of evolution and offers as partial proof the fact that they have less teeth. Aristotle was married three times as I remember reading, and apparently never bothered to count his spouses’ teeth.

In light of the above, Nietzsche’s remarks seem rather enlightened and forward looking. Certainly, his remarks on women, taken out of the context of late nineteenth century views are harsh, but placed in their context they seem insightful. On the other hand, Shaw and Ibsen held more feminist views during the same period or a decade later, but their attacks were on the same issue: the roles women found themselves forced to play. (Nietzsche referred to Ibsen as “…that typical old maid”). (EH, 863)

Moreover, it is on precisely this point that Nietzsche is most vulnerable today. His remarks on Christianity, Wagner, society, etc., are far more obviously lucid and accepted. However, if his remarks on women are interpreted as extending to all women and they way women are biologically and for all time, how does one explain his comment on “Madame Cosima Wagner, who had by far the most superior judgment in matters of taste that I have ever heard.”? (EH, 840)

The Psychologist

Rather than proceed to a discussion of all of Miller’s points, it may be more profitable to discuss Nietzsche as a psychologist, or as a precursor to psychology. After all, could Nietzsche have understood himself well enough to recognize how his philosophy was a reaction to his childhood?

It is fairly well known that Freud thought that Nietzsche knew himself far better than any man who ever lived (although I can not locate a specific reference). Certainly, one who knew himself this well in the opinion of the “father” of Psychoanalysis would have enough acumen to recognize how “poor little Fritz” contaminated his writings as a result of being abused as a child. Much more important, however, is this remark by Freud: “Nietzsche … whose premonitions and insights often agree in the most amazing manner with the laborious results of psychoanalysis, I have long avoided for this very reason. After all, I was less concerned about any priority than about the preservation of my open-mindedness [Unbefangenheit]” (Kaufmann, 382). In short, Nietzsche anticipated the findings and the discipline of Psychoanalysis so precisely and prematurely that Freud himself avoided reading him for fear of being unduly influenced. As Nietzsche said, he “was born posthumously.”

So what are these insights? Nietzsche’s attacks on the “Slave Morality,” are well known, but the basis for those attacks is not, especially since Christianity is the premiere example of that morality. The following passage is fairly explicit, however: “The slave revolt begins by rancor turning creative and giving birth to values—the rancor of beings who, deprived of the direct outlet of action, compensate by an imaginary vengeance. All truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an ‘outside,’ and ‘other,’ a non-self, and that no is its creative act.” And a few sentences later: “we should remember that the emotion of contempt, of looking down, provided that it falsifies at all, is as nothing compared with the falsification which suppressed hatred, impotent vindictiveness, effects upon its opponent, though only in effigy.” (GM, 171). Ironically enough, this is precisely what Miller accuses Nietzsche of doing in his writings, of reacting to his childhood, suppressing hatred, etc.

In Psychoanalytic terms, the above is fairly clear. The danger of suppression of libinous instincts in clearly expressed and anticipates Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Thanatos, the death wish, the turning inward of this violence negates any possibility of self-affirmation. It leads to or results in a lack of ego strength or identification makes one unable to identify boundaries between self and other. A strong ego may look upon others negatively, and at times erroneously, but it is “as nothing” compared to the violence done to the ego and others by the guilt caused by the turning inward of this energy. Perhaps this is the appropriate time to mention that Nietzsche used the term “das Ich”, not ego. I understand that the same was true for Freud. Curiously enough, both suffered from the biases of their early translators. Thomas Common’s translation of Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the main reasons for much misinterpretation of Nietzsche. Common understood the entire work as a parody of the Bible because of the use of the second person—in grammatical terms, this is common in German, but fairly unique to the Bible in English today. I could say much more on this, but Religion is best reserved for another forum.

Another passage on the Superego or guilt: “whereas the noble lives before his own conscience with confidence and frankness…, the rancorous person is neither truthful nor ingenious nor honest and forthright with himself. His soul squints; his mind loves hide-outs, secret paths, and back doors … he is expert in silence …, in provisional self-depreciation, and in self-humiliation. (GM, 172). He focuses “…nun auch noch einen ‘guten” ausdenkt—sich selbst!” (GMG, 334) I have not seen this translated acceptably, but it means that the thoughts concerning what is “good” become the self-concept of the “slave” (eg., Christian Clergy, the Monkish Caste) and those who are opposed are “den Bösen” (the Devil, the “bad,” the “evil” sort of all rolled up into one in the same way “spirit,” “ghost,” and “energy” and all rolled up into one are “Geist.”) Since the slave is self-hating, self-hatred forms the basis of slave-morality. Moreover, the slave does not recognize this in himself—he sublimates it to the point where is it unconscious (in “hide-outs, secret paths, and back doors”) and then projects this hatred onto the other to the extent it is recognized. (One wonders about the childhood of such people.)

And these values, the form that self-hatred takes, and consequently what is proper behavior and thought is dictated by the “herd instinct,” that is to say, contemporary norms: “Whenever we encounter a morality, we also encounter valuations and an order of rank of human impulses and actions. These valuations and orders of rank are always expressions of the needs of a community and herd: whatever benefits it more—and second most, and third most—that is also considered the first standard for the value of all individuals.” (GS, 174)) Another passage illustrates this more clearly, but I think Nietzsche is a bit too generous in assuming progress on the part of humanity in it. When he uses the past tense, he is referring to prehistoric times, assuming we (his readers) have “overcome” much of this. Nevertheless, the passage is as follows: “…nothing was more terrible that to feel that one stood by oneself…. Freedom of thought was considered discomfort itself. While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery. To be a self and to esteem oneself according to one’s own weight and measure—that offended taste in those days. An inclination to do this would have been considered madness; for being alone was associated with every misery and fear. In those days, “free will” was very closely associated with a bad conscience; and the more unfree one’s actions were and the more the herd instinct rather than any personal sense found expression in an action, the more moral one felt.” (GS,175).

It seems relatively safe to say that mental illness is usually defined using some sort of normative approach and measured against some code of socially acceptable behavior. It also seems clear that the Superego is the internalization of these moral norms and that transgression against them is experienced with guilt and shame, if not incarceration. Certainly, this is how I understand Freud’s concept of the Superego, at least in part. Perhaps some aphorisms make more clear Nietzsche’s attitude towards the debilitating effects of sublimation and the Superego: “Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts! Not to leave them in the lurch afterward! The bite of conscience is indecent.” (TI, 467) To put it another way, “How much conscience has had teeth to chew on in the past! And what excellent teeth it had! And today—what is lacking? A dentist’s question.” (TI, 470) (The answer, not given here, is “it needs to be rooted out.”)

Ecce Homo

Since this essay began as a response to someone who would interpret Nietzsche in light of his life, his childhood, perhaps we should allow Nietzsche himself to make some remarks on the subject. He wrote his book Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in 1888, but it was suppressed by his sister and not published until 1905 when she allowed its publication.

Miller (1990) seems to believe that Nietzsche’s attachment to Richard Wagner and subsequent vitriolic attacks on him were a result of Nietzsche’s idealization of a father he never really knew and the disappointment and finding him human, that he took Wagner’s Parsifal as a personal disappointment. In his description of what he meant by “war,” Nietzsche wrote “I never attack persons—I make use of a personality merely as a powerful magnifying glass, by means of which I render a general … evil more visible…. In this way I attacked Wagner, or more exactly the falsity of mongrel instincts of our ‘culture’ which confounds super-refinement with abundance, and decadence with greatness.” (EH, 829) And later, “in speaking of the recreations of my life, I must express a word or two of gratatitude for the one which has afforded me by far the greatest and heartiest refreshment. This was undoubtedly my intimate relationship with Richard Wagner…. I know not what Wagner may have been for others; but no cloud ever obscured our sky. … What is it that I have never forgiven Wagner? The fact that he condescended to the Germans—that he became a German Imperialist.” (EH, 843-845).

In other words, Nietzsche used Wagner as a symbol of negative characteristics that were in their ascendancy (he also only attacked caused which he felt were triumphant). He felt no ill-will toward him personally.

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche surveys his life and work, even early childhood, and there is not one hint of this “idealization.” He admits that his childhood was not happy, but attributes it to the bad climate. But perhaps his most salient point in this context is his remark that “I am one thing, my writings are another.” (EH, 854)


This brief essay began as a reaction to Miller (1990). A central difficulty in discussing her essay in the context of Nietzsche’s writings lies in the fact that her focus or interest is not on Nietzsche but on child abuse. She uses Nietzsche in much the same fashion Nietzsche used Wagner—as a vehicle for her ideas on the subject. The fact that one with the liability of being suspect as an “expert” on Nietzsche could react with ire is educational in itself as it explains to some extent why less educated Christians, Wagnerians, Feminists, etc., in short, all those who devoted to causes or beliefs that Nietzsche attacked, react so violently and emotionally to his attacks. It seems clear that Nietzsche did attack institutions and issues that were a part of his childhood, but then all of us have many of our characteristics formed in that period of life—perhaps not the particular view of those issues, but the approach to it. The fact that Nietzsche as a child was exposed to music by his father may have made him more sensitive to issues related to music and better able to appreciate and compose it (there is a relatively new two CD set of Nietzsche’s musical compositions available), but it in no way explains his attacks on Wagner. The fact that his father died when he was four was of great importance to Nietzsche, but not because he felt abandoned—it was because Nietzsche felt his energy and vigor at its lowest ebb when he was at the age his father was when he died. He felt it was hereditary that he should die young.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that Miller’s approach is somewhat demeaning and indirect if seen as an analysis of Nietzsche, but remarkably sensitive if seen as an attack on child abuse. The fact that she and Nietzsche (and most “experts”) disagree as to the effects of his early childhood on his later writings is quite irrelevant for her purpose.

Nietzsche’s Chronology
Nietzsche was born in Röchen, Germany on October 15, 1844. His father was a Lutheran Pastor and music teacher who died five years later, probably as a result of a head wound. From 1850-58, he lived in a household of women and in 1858 began attending a boarding school Schulpforta. Immediately afterwards, he bagan his studies of classical philology at Bonn University, met Richard Wagner in 1868, and became Professor Extraordinarius of Classical Philology at the University of Basel—full professor at the age of twenty-four without having finished his residency requirements. In 1870, a Swiss subject, he volunteers as a medical orderly and returns to Basel in very ill health. From this point on, his important work takes place.
1872: The Birth of Tragedy
1873: Untimely Meditations
1874: Schopenhaurer as Education, the third untimely meditation.
1875: Richard Wagner in Bayreuth
1878: Human, all-too-Human
1879: Resigns from the university as a result of ill-health with a pension. By this time, he had already published two books not directly related to philology and the one that was (1872) was far from conventional.
1880: The Wanderer and His Shadow
1881: The Dawn of Day
1882: The Gay Science (GS)
1883: The first two books of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, each written in ten days.
1884: The third book of Zarathustra
1885: The fourth book of Zarathustra—fourty copies are printed and only seven are distributed to close friends.
1886: Beyond Good and Evil
1887: The Case of Wagner—an attack on Wagner. Geneology of Morals. (GM) (GMG—German version). About this time, his fame begins to spread.
1888: The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Twilight of the Idols. (TI) Ecce Homo (EH) (suppressed by his sister until 1908).
1889: Throws his arms around a horse that is being whipped and writes a few letters. His friend Overbeck takes him to an asylum in Jena, but his mother moves him out to live with her.
1890 — Eventually, his sister obtains exclusive rights to all his publications and notes and zealously promotes the image of her brother as an insane genius as his fame grows. She is responsible for many misconceptions about him.
I have made no mention of the Will to Power. The book is a collection of Nietzsche’s notes, most of which he had revised and rewritten and used earlier, often revising them to indicate the opposite of what they say. His sister patched it together and promoted it is his Magnum Opus. It is worthy of consultation, but only after a thorough study of the works he actually saw to press himself.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1966. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New York: Meridian. This is the eleventh printing of this work. A reader interested in secondary material and facts should start with this volume.
Miller, Alice. 1990. The Untouched Key: tracing childhood trauma in creativity and destructiveness. New York: Doubleday. A well-meaning effort that makes the mistake of using Nietzsche as an example and thus endangers the reliability her entire effort.
Nietzsche, Frederich. (n.d., c. 1960). Herausgeber und Verfasser, Gerhard Stenzel. Nietzsches Werke in Zwei Bänden. Salzburg: R. Kiesel zu Salzburg. A handy collection of Nietzsche’s works in the original German. (Z, TI)
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy and The Geneology of Morals. tr., Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor. Kaufmann has subsequently translated this as he has all of Nietzsche’s works. Kaufmann does not like the use of “ego” to replace “THE I”.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1954. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library. (EH) I have use Clifton Fadiman’s translation of Ecce Home from this source. It has since been retranslated by Walter Kaufmann. The main defect of this translation is its use of the Thomas Common translation of Zarathustra in quotations. The volume also contains that translation in its entirety.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1967. The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner. tr., Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage. I had intended to use the Case of Wagner to point to the humor and the nature of Nietzsche’s attacks, but it became beyond the scope of this essay.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1976. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin. First published in 1954, this remarkable work has gone through thirty-eight printings as of 1976. It remains the definitive translation of Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols (TI), and excerpts. R. J. Hollingdale is also a reliable translator.
Nietzsche, Frederich. 1974. The Gay Science. New York: Vintage. This is the book I would recommend as an introduction to Nietzsche, not Zarathustra. (GS)
Schopenhauer, Arthur. nd. Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer. Tr. T. BAiley Saunders. New York: A.L. Burt.


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