The Birth of Tragedy; or, Hellenism and Pessimism

The Birth of Tragedy; or, Hellenism and Pessimism
Title: The Birth of Tragedy; or, Hellenism and Pessimism
Release Date: 2016-03-04
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche

The First Complete and Authorised English Translation

Edited by Dr Oscar Levy

Volume One




Frederick Nietzsche was born at Röcken near Lützen, in the Prussianprovince of Saxony, on the 15th of October 1844, at 10 a.m. The dayhappened to be the anniversary of the birth of Frederick-William IV.,then King of Prussia, and the peal of the local church-bells which wasintended to celebrate this event, was, by a happy coincidence, justtimed to greet my brother on his entrance into the world. In 1841,at the time when our father was tutor to the Altenburg Princesses,Theresa of Saxe-Altenburg, Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Olden-burg, andAlexandra, Grand Duchess Constantine of Russia, he had had the honourof being presented to his witty and pious sovereign. The meeting seemsto have impressed both parties very favourably; for, very shortlyafter it had taken place, our father received his living at Röcken "bysupreme command." His joy may well be imagined, therefore, when a firstson was born to him on his beloved[Pg i] and august patron's birthday, andat the christening ceremony he spoke as follows:—"Thou blessed monthof October!—for many years the most decisive events in my life haveoccurred within thy thirty-one days, and now I celebrate the greatestand most glorious of them all by baptising my little boy! O blissfulmoment! O exquisite festival! O unspeakably holy duty! In the Lord'sname I bless thee!—With all my heart I utter these words: Bring methis, my beloved child, that I may consecrate it unto the Lord. My son,Frederick William, thus shalt thou be named on earth, as a memento ofmy royal benefactor on whose birthday thou wast born!"

Our father was thirty-one years of age, and our mother not quitenineteen, when my brother was born. Our mother, who was the daughterof a clergyman, was good-looking and healthy, and was one of a verylarge family of sons and daughters. Our paternal grandparents, theRev. Oehler and his wife, in Pobles, were typically healthy people.Strength, robustness, lively dispositions, and a cheerful outlook onlife, were among the qualities which every one was pleased to observein them. Our grandfather Oehler was a bright, clever man, and quitethe old style of comfortable country parson, who thought it no sin togo hunting. He scarcely had a day's illness in his life, and wouldcertainly not have met with his end as early as he did—that is to say,before his seventieth year—if his careless disregard of all caution,where his health was concerned, had not led to his catching a severeand fatal cold. In regard to our[Pg ii] grand-mother Oehler, who died in hereighty-second year, all that can be said is, that if all German womenwere possessed of the health she enjoyed, the German nation would excelall others from the standpoint of vitality. She bore our grandfathereleven children; gave each of them the breast for nearly the whole ofits first year, and reared them all It is said that the sight of theseeleven children, at ages varying from nineteen years to one month, withtheir powerful build, rosy cheeks, beaming eyes, and wealth of curlylocks, provoked the admiration of all visitors. Of course, despitetheir extraordinarily good health, the life of this family was notby any means all sunshine. Each of the children was very spirited,wilful, and obstinate, and it was therefore no simple matter to keepthem in order. Moreover, though they always showed the utmost respectand most implicit obedience to their parents—even as middle-agedmen and women—misunderstandings between themselves were of constantoccurrence. Our Oehler grandparents were fairly well-to-do; for ourgrandmother hailed from a very old family, who had been extensiveland-owners in the neighbourhood of Zeitz for centuries, and her fatherowned the baronial estate of Wehlitz and a magnificent seat near Zeitzin Pacht. When she married, her father gave her carriages and horses,a coachman, a cook, and a kitchenmaid, which for the wife of a Germanminister was then, and is still, something quite exceptional. As aresult of the wars in the beginning of the nineteenth century, however,our great-grandfather lost the greater part of his property.

[Pg iii]

Our father's family was also in fairly comfortable circumstances,and likewise very large. Our grandfather Dr. Nietzsche (D.D. andSuperintendent) married twice, and had in all twelve children, of whomthree died young. Our grandfather on this side, whom I never knew,must certainly have been a distinguished, dignified, very learnedand reserved man; his second wife—our beloved grandmother—was anactive-minded, intelligent, and exceptionally good-natured woman.The whole of our father's family, which I only got to know when theywere very advanced in years, were remarkable for their great power ofself-control, their lively interest in intellectual matters, and astrong sense of family unity, which manifested itself both in theirsplendid readiness to help one another and in their very excellentrelations with each other. Our father was the youngest son, and, thanksto his uncommonly lovable disposition, together with other gifts, whichonly tended to become more marked as he grew older, he was quite thefavourite of the family. Blessed with a thoroughly sound constitution,as all averred who knew him at the convent-school in Rossleben, atthe University, or later at the ducal court of Altenburg, he was talland slender, possessed an undoubted gift for poetry and real musicaltalent, and was moreover a man of delicate sensibilities, full ofconsideration for his whole family, and distinguished in his manners.

My brother often refers to his Polish descent, and in later yearshe even instituted research-work with the view of establishing it,which met with partial success. I know nothing definite concerningthese[Pg iv] investigations, because a large number of valuable documentswere unfortunately destroyed after his breakdown in Turin. The familytradition was that a certain Polish nobleman Nicki (pronounced Nietzky)had obtained the special favour of Augustus the Strong, King ofPoland, and had received the rank of Earl from him. When, however,Stanislas Leszcysski the Pole became king, our supposed ancestor becameinvolved in a conspiracy in favour of the Saxons and Protestants. Hewas sentenced to death; but, taking flight, according to the evidenceof the documents, he was ultimately befriended by a certain Earl ofBrühl, who gave him a small post in an obscure little provincial town.Occasionally our aged aunts would speak of our great-grandfatherNietzsche, who was said to have died in his ninety-first year, andwords always seemed to fail them when they attempted to describe hishandsome appearance, good breeding, and vigour. Our ancestors, both onthe Nietzsche and the Oehler side, were very long-lived. Of the fourpairs of great-grandparents, one great-grandfather reached the age ofninety, five great-grandmothers and-fathers died between eighty-two andeighty-six years of age, and two only failed to reach their seventiethyear.

The sorrow which hung as a cloud over our branch of the familywas our father's death, as the result of a heavy fall, at the ageof thirty-eight. One night, upon leaving some friends whom he hadaccompanied home, he was met at the door of the vicarage by our littledog. The little animal must have got between his feet, for he stumbledand fell[Pg v] backwards down seven stone steps on to the paving-stonesof the vicarage courtyard. As a result of this fall, he was laid upwith concussion of the brain, and, after a lingering illness, whichlasted eleven months, he died on the 30th of July 1849. The earlydeath of our beloved and highly-gifted father spread gloom overthe whole of our childhood. In 1850 our mother withdrew with us toNaumburg on the Saale, where she took up her abode with our widowedgrandmother Nietzsche; and there she brought us up with Spartanseverity and simplicity, which, besides being typical of the period,was quite de rigeur in her family. Of course, Grand-mamma Nietzschehelped somewhat to temper her daughter-in-law's severity, and in thisrespect our Oehler grandparents, who were less rigorous with us,their eldest grandchildren, than with their own children, were alsovery influential. Grandfather Oehler was the first who seems to haverecognised the extraordinary talents of his eldest grandchild.

From his earliest childhood upwards, my brother was always strongand healthy; he often declared that he must have been taken for apeasant-boy throughout his childhood and youth, as he was so plump,brown, and rosy. The thick fair hair which fell picturesquely over hisshoulders tended somewhat to modify his robust appearance. Had he notpossessed those wonderfully beautiful, large, and expressive eyes,however, and had he not been so very ceremonious in his manner, neitherhis teachers nor his relatives would ever have noticed anything at allremarkable about the boy; for he was both modest and reserved.

[Pg vi]

He received his early schooling at a preparatory school, and laterat a grammar school in Naumburg. In the autumn of 1858, when he wasfourteen years of age, he entered the Pforta school, so famous for thescholars it has produced. There, too, very severe discipline prevailed,and much was exacted from the pupils, with the view of inuring themto great mental and physical exertions. Thus, if my brother seemsto lay particular stress upon the value of rigorous training, freefrom all sentimentality, it should be remembered that he speaks fromexperience in this respect. At Pforta he followed the regular schoolcourse, and he did not enter a university until the comparatively lateage of twenty. His extraordinary gifts manifested themselves chieflyin his independent and private studies and artistic efforts. As a boyhis musical talent had already been so noticeable, that he himselfand other competent judges were doubtful as to whether he ought notperhaps to devote himself altogether to music. It is, however, worthnoting that everything he did in his later years, whether in Latin,Greek, or German work, bore the stamp of perfection—subject of courseto the limitation imposed upon him by his years. His talents came verysuddenly to the fore, because he had allowed them to grow for such along time in concealment. His very first performance in philology,executed while he was a student under Ritschl, the famous philologist,was also typical of him in this respect, seeing that it was orderedto be printed for the Rheinische Museum. Of course this was doneamid general and grave expressions of doubt; for, as Dr. Ritschl oftendeclared,[Pg vii] it was an unheard-of occurrence for a student in his thirdterm to prepare such an excellent treatise.

Being a great lover of out-door exercise, such as swimming, skating,and walking, he developed into a very sturdy lad. Rohde gives thefollowing description of him as a student: with his healthy complexion,his outward and inner cleanliness, his austere chastity and his solemnaspect, he was the image of that delightful youth described by AdalbertStifter.

Though as a child he was always rather serious, as a lad and a man hewas ever inclined to see the humorous side of things, while his wholebeing, and everything he said or did, was permeated by an extraordinaryharmony. He belonged to the very few who could control even a bad moodand conceal it from others. All his friends are unanimous in theirpraise of his exceptional evenness of temper and behaviour, and hiswarm, hearty, and pleasant laugh that seemed to come from the verydepths of his benevolent and affectionate nature. In him it mighttherefore be said, nature had produced a being who in body and spiritwas a harmonious whole: his unusual intellect was fully in keeping withhis uncommon bodily strength.

The only abnormal thing about him, and something which we bothinherited from our father, was short-sightedness, and this wasvery much aggravated in my brother's case, even in his earliestschooldays, owing to that indescribable anxiety to learn which alwayscharacterised him. When one listens to accounts given by his friendsand schoolfellows, one is startled by the multiplicity of his studieseven in his schooldays.

[Pg viii]

In the autumn of 1864, he began his university life in Bonn, andstudied philology and theology; at the end of six months he gave uptheology, and in the autumn of 1865 followed his famous teacher

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