The First Immoralist



Friedrich Nietzsche never wrote an autobiography, but in 1888 left a more or less incoherent sketch of his psychology and life’s work, published as Ecce Homo: How one becomes what one is. The chapter of Ecco Homo dealing exclusively with an earlier work, Human, All Too Human, is independently translated here, mainly for its illustration of Nietzsche’s style and mental state. The references to Richard Wagner and Bayreuth are irresistible, especially to born Wagnerians like The Europeans: we are too convinced to take umbrage.

One envies Nietzsche for his membership of Richard and Cosima Wagner’s innermost circle at Tribschen, a neat villa on the lake at Lucerne. The building now houses the Wagner Museum, having paradoxically been stripped of all feeling for the Master or his milieu. Not the least flickering spirit remains. To compensate for this, the visitor can watch tourists from distant lands tinker with the educational gadgets thoughtfully provided.

This Friedrich is of course the same Nietzsche whom Michel Houellebecq would like to see off from the contemporary intellectual horizon, after Marx and Freud (Houellebecq in Berlin). Clearly, he, Nietzsche, must be interfering with Houellebecq’s liberation of French intellectuals from the grip of the leftist media. But how so, when both men share the same detestation for the ‘ideal’?



Friedrich Nietzsche

Ecce Homo
How One Becomes What One Is

Extract relating to Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human)


Human, All too Human is the memorial to a crisis. It calls itself a book for free spirits: almost every sentence is the expression of a victory – with this book I freed myself from everything foreign to my nature. Idealism is foreign to me: the title says, “where you see ideal things, I see only – human, alas all-too-human things!” …I know humanity better…. The expression ‘free spirit’ is not here to be understood in any other sense than as a spirit that has become free, that has again taken possession of itself. The very sound, the tone of voice, have completely changed: one finds the book at once clever, cool, at times hard and mocking.

❝ One error after another is abandoned on the ice, the ideal is not refuted – it freezes to death…..❞

A certain spirituality of noble taste appears constantly to hold itself above a more passionate undercurrent. In this context, it is significant that it is precisely the centenary of Voltaire’s death with which the publication of my book in 1878, as it were, excused itself. For it is Voltaire, in contrast to all who wrote after him, who is the pre-eminent master of the spirit: which is precisely what I am also. – The name of Voltaire on a work of mine – that really was progress, – towards myself. On closer inspection, one finds a merciless spirit that knows every bolt-hole where the Ideal is at home – where it has its fastness and, as it were, its last refuge. With torch in hand, that gives no flickering light, I illuminate with a searing brightness the underworld of the Ideal. It is war, but a war without powder and smoke, without warlike posturing, without pathos or twisted limbs – that would itself also be ‘Idealism’. One error after another is abandoned on the ice, the ideal is not refuted – it freezes to death….. Here for example ‘the genius’ freezes; in the next corner ‘the saint’ freezes: ‘the hero’ freezes into a thick icicle; in the end, ‘faith’ freezes, so-called ‘conviction’, also ‘pity’ cools off considerably – almost everywhere ‘the thing-in-itself’ freezes…..


The beginnings of this book belong to the weeks of the first Bayreuth Festival. A deep alienation from everything that surrounded me there was one of its preconditions. Whoever has some idea of what sort of travesties had crossed my path in those days can readily guess how I felt when one day I came to my senses at Bayreuth. Quite as though I had been dreaming…. Where was I? I recognised nothing, I hardly recognised Wagner. In vain, I leafed through my recollections. Tribschen – a distant isle of blessedness: not the shadow of resemblance. The incomparable days of the foundation-stone laying, the little band of initiates who celebrated it, and in whom an elevated taste was not wanting: not the shadow of resemblance. What had happened? – Wagner had been translated into German! The Wagnerian had become master of Wagner! – German art! The German Master! German beer!…. We others who know only too well to what heights of artistic refinement and cosmopolitan taste Wagner’s art alone speaks, were beside ourselves to discover Wagner decked out in German ‘virtues’. I think I know the Wagnerian – I have ‘experienced’ three generations of them, from the blessed Brendel, who confused Wagner with Hegel, up to the ‘Idealists’ of the Bayreuther Blätter, who confused Wagner with themselves –

❝ A genuine Bayreuther should be stuffed for the proper instruction of posterity — better, preserved in spirit, for it is precisely spirit that they lack.❞

I have heard every kind of avowal from ‘beautiful souls’ about Wagner. A kingdom for one sane word! In truth, a hair-raising crew! Nohl, Pohl, Kohl, by the grace of God, in endless procession. Not an abortion was missing amongst them, not even the anti-Semite. – Poor Wagner! What had he come to! – If only he had instead fallen amongst swine! But amongst Germans!…… In the end, a genuine Bayreuther should be stuffed for the proper instruction of posterity — better, preserved in spirit, for it is precisely spirit that they lack — with the legend: such was the ‘spirit’ on which the ‘Reich’ was founded…. Enough, I left in the middle of all this for a few weeks, very suddenly, even though a charming Parisienne tried to console me; I excused myself to Wagner merely with a fatalistic telegram. At a place hidden deep in the Bohemian forest, Klingenbrunn, I hauled my melancholy and contempt for Germans about with me like an illness – and wrote a sentence from time to time in my pocket-book, under the general title The Ploughshare, most of it hard psychological insights, which can still perhaps be detected in Human, All-Too-Human.


What resolved itself within me at that time was not exactly a break with Wagner — I experienced a general disturbance of the instincts, of which the particular error — whether one calls it Wagner or my Chair at Basel — was merely a symptom. Impatience with myself overwhelmed me; I realised that it was high time for me to think back to myself. In an instant, it became clear to me in a dreadful way how much time I had already wasted – how useless, how undisciplined had been my whole existence as a philologist, to the exclusion of my Task. I was ashamed of this false modesty…. In the ten wasted years in which the nourishment of my spirit had stalled, I had added nothing useful to my knowledge, I had forgotten absurdly much over a mess of dusty scholarship. Creeping meticulously and with bad eyes over antique metrists – that’s what I had come to! – I saw myself pitiably drawn with hunger: my knowledge of realities was sadly lacking, and as for the ‘idealities’, – they could go to the devil!

❝ These people crave Wagner as for an opiate – they become free of themselves for a moment…. What am I saying! for five or six hours!

A downright raging thirst seized me: from then on I pursued only physiology, medicine and the natural sciences – returning to actual historical studies only when my Task imperiously commanded it. It was then that I first guessed at the connection between an occupation chosen against one’s instincts, a so-called ‘vocation’, to which one is called least of all – and that need for a numbing of the sense of isolation and hunger through a narcotic art — for example, through Wagnerian art. I discovered on more careful review, that for the great majority of young men the same predicament obtains: one unnatural situation demands another. In Germany, in ‘The Reich’, to speak without ambiguity, all too many are condemned to make untimely decisions and then, under a burden that has become impossible to shed, waste away…. These people crave Wagner as for an opiate – they forget themselves, they become free of themselves for a moment…. What am I saying! for five or six hours!


At that time, my instinct set itself relentlessly against any further accommodation or complicity, any further taking of myself for what I was not. Any kind of life, the most unfavourable conditions, illness, poverty – all seemed preferable to that unworthy ‘selflessness’ into which I had first drifted out of ignorance, out of youth, and in which I had later persisted out of lethargy, out of so-called ‘sense of duty’. – I cannot sufficiently express my awe at the manner and timeliness with which that fatal inheritance from my father’s side – fundamentally, a predestination to an early death – came to my aid. The illness set me free slowly: it spared me any breach, any violent or offensive step. I forfeited no goodwill and gained much at that time. Illness likewise gave me a right to a complete reversal of my habits; it permitted, it required me to forget; it bestowed upon me the compulsion to lie still, to be idle, to wait and be patient… Perchance to think!… My eyes alone put an end to all bookwormishness, in plain language, philology: I was freed from the ‘book’, I read nothing more for years at a time – the greatest favour I have ever done myself! – That innermost self, as it were submerged, become still, under the constant pressure to hear other voices (-and that is what reading is!) awoke slowly, diffidently, dubiously – but at last it spoke again. I have never in my life been happier than when at my sickest, my body at its most painful: one has only to look at Daybreak or perhaps The Wanderer and His Shadow to grasp what this ‘return’ to myself was: the very highest kind of convalescence itself!… The other kind merely followed as a matter of course. –


❝ I grasped for what it had been high time. – Unbelievable! Wagner had become pious….❞

Human, All Too Human, this memorial of a rigorous self-discipline, with which I abruptly cured myself of every kind of assimilated ‘higher swindle’, ‘idealism’, ‘finer feelings’, and other feminine frippery – was in all essentials written down in Sorrento; with the addition of its conclusion, it achieved its final form during a Basel winter, under far less favourable conditions than those in Sorrento. In reality, it is Mr. Peter Gast, then studying at Basel University and much attached to me, who has the book on his conscience. I dictated, my head bound and painful, he wrote it down and corrected – he was in reality the actual writer, I merely the author. When the finished book at length came into my hands – to the deep wonderment of the invalid -, I despatched, amongst others, two copies to Bayreuth. By a wondrously telling coincidence, I received the same day a beautiful copy of the Parsifal text, with Wagner’s dedication to me, “to his dear friend Friedrich Nietzsche; Richard Wagner, Religious Advisor“. – This crossing of the two books – to me it was as though I had heard an ominous sound. Did it not sound as though two swords had crossed? At any rate, we both felt it to be so: for we both kept our silence. – About this time, the first Bayreuther Blätter appeared: I grasped for what it had been high time. – Unbelievable! Wagner had become pious….


❝ A proposition of the gravest consequences, one both fecund and fearful, and resting that ambiguous gaze on the world that all great insights have…❞

How I then (1876) thought about myself, with what tremendous certainty I took to my task and what was world-historic in it, to this the whole book bears witness, above all one very expressive passage: but here as always, with my instinctive guile, I skirted the little word “I”, and this time it was not Schopenhauer or Wagner, but one of my friends, the excellent Dr. Paul Rée whom I bathed in world-historic glory – happily far too refined a creature as to… Others were less refined: I have always recognized the hopeless cases amongst my readers, for example the typical German professor, in that on a reading of this single passage they believed that they must then understand the whole book as higher ‘Réealism’… In truth, it contains a contradiction of five or six propositions of my friend: one may skim the preface to “The Genealogy of Morals” for references. – The passage reads: But what is the principal conclusion reached by one of the boldest and coldest of thinkers, the author of the book “On the Origin of the Moral Sensations” (read: Nietzsche, the first immoralist) in his incisive and penetrating analysis of human behaviour? ‘Moral man stands no closer to the intelligible world than does natural man–for there is no intelligible world…’ This proposition, fashioned hard and sharp under the hammer-blow of historical insight (read: Revaluation of All Values), can perhaps at some future time – 1890! – serve as an axe to lay at the root of the ‘metaphysical need’ of mankind – whether more as blessing or curse, who would be qualified to say? But in any event, as a proposition of the gravest consequences, one both fecund and fearful, and resting that ambiguous gaze on the world that all great insights have…