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Julian Young, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 649 pages. ISBN:978-0-521-87117-4. $45 (cloth)

Reviewed by Daniel Blue

Four years ago Julian Young published Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion, a book in which he argued that the standard view of Nietzsche as a staunch individualist and atheist was incorrect. From The Birth of Tragedy onward, Young claimed, Nietzsche had written from a communitarian standpoint that embraced religion as a source of inspiriting myth, uniting groups into a folk. Heretical as this view was in the academy, there was considerable evidence for Young’s position, and it is noteworthy that the individualistic side of Nietzsche excites more interest in the English-speaking countries (and particularly the United States with its heritage of Emerson and Thoreau) than on the European continent. If Young’s thesis was new and piquant, however, it seemed of secondary importance. While Nietzsche certainly celebrated a communitarian outlook in the works before Human, All Too Human, any such tendencies seem comparatively vestigial in the later books, where (when they surface at all) they appear rather as reflexive memories of earlier views than living ideas still generative of consequences. There were few, if any, converts to the new point of view.

Young has apparently not yet conceded. In his new book, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, he returns to the fray, arguing for the same views that had proved unconvincing before. But there is a difference. Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion was plainly polemical and tilted toward the academic community. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography presents itself as a non-partisan work of scholarship, a magisterial survey of the life and works of Friedrich Nietzsche that attempts to do justice to both. Young not only discusses all the books Nietzsche himself prepared for publication (as well as some of the juvenilia and Nachlaß), but he embeds these in an account of the man’s life that is clearly intended to compete with the comprehensive biographies of Ronald Hayman and Curtis Cate. He further presents these in racy language and with a disarming informality that will appeal to students. Behind the appearance of judicious authority and sage command of facts, however, he disseminates the same views that raised so many eyebrows in the past. Young is presenting as authoritative ideas that almost no one believes except him.

This bias is enabled by the unusual way Young structures his book. One might expect that a work purporting to present both biography and philosophy (and which is moreover subtitled “A Philosophical Biography”) would explore the interplay between those two. Young does attempt this occasionally. He observes, for example, that dislike of Wagner the man preceded Nietzsche’s criticism of Wagner’s music and that the Lou Salomé incident led to a new ferocity toward women in Nietzsche’s books. Less mechanically and more resonantly, he argues that Nietzsche came to admire Epicurus partly because he found in the latter’s teachings the “philosophical ‘self-doctoring’” (280) needed to address his own health issues.

Such observations prove to be exceptions in this book, and necessarily so, for Young segregates most discussions of Nietzsche’s philosophy into discrete sections separate from the narrative. (He even distinguishes the two by assigning them different type styles: italic headers for the philosophic sections and roman for the biographic.) There are clear advantages to this formal decision. It allows Young to analyze Nietzsche’s works at length without concern that he has veered too far from the biographical narrative. It also makes navigation of the text convenient for those who want to read just the life or just his analyses. Nonetheless, by literally segregating action and thought, Young has removed from Nietzsche’s life the very activities that gave it meaning, those that he called his “task.” When these intellectual and moral tensions are shelved off, the “life” is reduced to inglorious struggles with ill health and Nietzsche’s sometimes maladroit relationships with women. These are aspects he would hardly want stressed, and they are rarely central to his attempt “to become who one is.”

This problem is compounded by Young’s almost total neglect of Nietzsche’s reading of contemporary writers, that is, the intellectual society with which he consorted almost daily. Young discusses Strauss, Schopenhauer, and Lange, but mentions Emerson only once. He cites Spir only as a social reformer and says nothing about Hartmann, Zöllner, Dühring, Spencer, Mill, Teichmüller, or the medical, anthropological, and scientific authors that Nietzsche consumed so avidly. (The French moralists are conspicuously absent as well.) A biographer cannot include everything, and one sympathizes with Young’s omissions. By not examining the intellectual stimulation that Nietzsche prized, however, he closes off yet another dimension of the man’s activities, diminishing the life in the process.

Whatever the sacrifices, by shelving the philosophical presentations separately, Young is able to repeat and expand the same thematics that he espoused in his earlier book. Whether he is discussing BT or The Gay Science, he is sure to bring in religion, myth, community, and festivals. The predictability of these interpretations actually does Young a disservice, for he is in fact an inventive and lively thinker, and behind the surface arguments he has much fresh and new to offer. Aside from its communitarian dimensions, he proposes a novel interpretation of BT in which he presents it as an attempt to reconcile apparently inconsistent stances taken by Wagner. He offers bracing, if sometimes elementary, guides to all Nietzsche’s books, many of which will be of heuristic value in the classroom. He makes interesting claims concerning shifts in the late Nietzsche's psychological views, arguing that in the works of 1888 the philosopher withdrew the will-to-power monism presented in Beyond Good and Evil and replaced it with a dualism in which a “will to death” represented the competing drive.

It must be acknowledged that none of these interpretations—and they are a small sampling of the many fresh suggestions that Young makes—require the biography as context or complement. He could just as well have written a third book, similar to the Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art and Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion, in which he presented his ideas without any narrative accompaniment. That he did not do so is something of a liability, for in those earlier works the organizing topic (art, religion) offered both a focus which inspired Young to offer a unified approach to Nietzsche’s texts and a sieve which permitted him to omit works not immediately relevant to his topic. Without these informing restrictions, Young’s discussions seem uneven in quality and miscellaneous in form. In the current work, for example, he has no choice but to cover all Nietzsche's published works, and while this causes no problems in books of interest to him, he seems somewhat at a loss when discussing, for example, Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Ecce Homo.

On a side note one might observe that Young does not limit himself to Nietzsche’s literary productions but gives welcome prominence to the philosopher’s musical compositions. As a supplement to the text he has posted recordings on a web site ( and he directs the reader’s attention there when appropriate. He also offers a defense of Nietzsche’s music as an extension of his philosophic enterprise, arguing that although Nietzsche’s books provide his message, his music was meant to communicate the emotion that inspired and underwrote those works. Young appears to be the first biographer to accord the compositions such respect, and it is a decision that Nietzsche himself would probably have appreciated.

When turning from the analytical sections of this book to the biographical, we find that that Young has written an entertaining and spirited narrative, full of colorful quotations from Nietzsche’s letters and replete with interesting highlights on the characters in his life. Of necessity, he tells the same story as Hayman and Cate, although with his own emphases. Again we observe the philosopher’s childhood in Röcken and Naumburg, his education at Schulpforta, Bonn, and Leipzig; and his unexpected appointment as professor at the University of Basel. Young rightly stresses the social successes Nietzsche enjoyed both in Leipzig and Basel, and he offers interesting views of his subject’s relationship with the Wagners, suggesting, for example, that had the couple not relocated from Tribschen to Bayreuth, Nietzsche’s writings might have taken a different turn. Instead, illness put a halt to Nietzsche’s academic career, and he led a nomadic existence for the remaining years of his sanity, his life now largely solitary and devoted to his work. Young, of course, recounts Nietzsche’s romantic adventure with Lou Salomé, and he finds himself quite sympathetic to Lou, less so with Nietzsche, and rather stern with regard to Paul Rée. After the philosopher’s mental collapse, Young considers the causes of Nietzsche’s illness and opts for a variant of Richard Schain’s hypothesis that Nietzsche’s malady was more psychological than physical. (Young stresses the bipolar aspect of Nietzsche’s behavior.)

Nonetheless, the controversial views of Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion reappear, and Young may have tweaked the biography to illustrate them. The discussions of Nietzsche’s religious background are both vague and unwarrantably emphatic, as when Young writes without providing hard evidence: “The Nietzsche/Oehlers surrounded the children with authentic Christian lives, with the unforced manifestation of Christian virtue” (5). Young also gives considerable space to Nietzsche’s adoption of Wagner’s belief in communal self-celebration through festivals. While Nietzsche did learn much from Wagner, Young’s repeated recourse to such topics suggests that his biography can be construed as a defense of his earlier book, and this must inspire uneasiness in a reader who wants a less tendentiously interpreted account of his life.   

Also troubling is Young’s tendency to bring ideas up to date by making contemporary comparisons, glossing Machiavelli, for example, as “that Henry Kissinger of the Florentine Renaissance” (559). By adopting a frame of reference very much of this century, he sometimes obscures the fact that he is dealing with a figure who grew up a hundred fifty years ago and in both a country and culture that no longer exist. His discussion of Nietzsche’s sexual orientation—a topic he touches on frequently—seems particularly anachronistic. Without any evident awareness of the histories of those concepts, he applies the opposition, “gay/straight,” to persons who lived in an era when the disjunction was in that form unknown and when any such terms were unlikely to have been regarded as definitive of personal identity.

Although Young often speaks disparagingly of “dry-as-dust” scholarship, there are reasons for sobriety, and his account reminds us what they are. His book contains dozens of factual errors, of which the following may serve as examples. Deussen was never a full professor at Berlin (31); Guido Meyer was not expelled for being drunk (29) but for being off-premises without permission; Nietzsche attributed the quote on p. 69 not to Napoleon but to Wilhelm Corssen; Wilhelm Pinder and Gustav Krug did not attend the Bürgerschule and were not classmates of Nietzsche before enrollment at Herr Weber’s Institut (13).

There are many more such misstatements, most of them trivial but suggesting in their quantity and ubiquity that Young does not have a firm command of his facts. More troubling are cases where the errors reflect some systemic failure, usually of methodology. Given space constraints, we will limit ourselves to two types: the sources Young uses and those he doesn’t.

Young puts great reliance on questionable witnesses, a prime offender being Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Although Young sometimes doubts her account (generally when it does not match his own views), he accepts many of her fantasies as truth. He makes much, for example, of her claim that the walls surrounding Naumburg were still intact during her childhood and weaves this as a leitmotif into the work as a whole, frequently citing how Nietzsche preferred “walled” cities to those with less tangible boundaries. In fact, the Naumburg fortifications were significantly dismantled between 1819 and 1836, fifteen to thirty years before the Nietzsches arrived, so that Elisabeth’s account of people trapped outside during the night appears to be an invention. Young also frequently quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche: Chronik in Bildern und Texten, a compendium of historical documents that can only be as reliable as the writers it collects. In one case he asserts that during Nietzsche’s Schulpforta years, he often “read through an entire night, his foot in a bucket of freezing water to prevent him falling asleep” (32). Checking the footnote, one finds that he is citing the Chronik, which is in turn quoting a late-nineteenth-century Swiss journalist, who is citing a Sils Maria grocer, who claims to be repeating Nietzsche. Four levels of citation (and two of hearsay) underlie a statement that Young presents as unproblematic fact. And it is highly improbable. Schulpforta had rules on when students went to bed and when they could rise, and—apart from the presence of his peers in Nietzsche’s dormitory room, many of them critical of Strebertum—a teacher slept nightly just outside the sleeping quarters with a peephole available to maintain surveillance.

If Young relies on questionable sources, he seems largely to ignore the quite solid scholarship that has appeared in recent years, particularly in German publications. In 1989 the East German borders opened, and researchers descended on the Weimar archives in numbers previously unknown. As a result, Nietzsche biography has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in the past twenty years. It is therefore troubling that none of the accounts of Nietzsche’s life in English show awareness of such recent work. Had Young read Thomas Brobjer’s articles on the Domgymnasium and Schulpforta, he would never have said that Nietzsche won his scholarship to the latter because of his performance at school. (His grades at the Domgymnasium were mediocre, and he most likely received the Pforta scholarship because his father had died in service to the king.) Had he read Klaus Goch’s biography of Ludwig Nietzsche, he would have not have written that Nietzsche’s father was a man of wide culture or that he “held the niceties of theological belief to belong within the privacy of individual conscience” (4-5). Had he read Martin Pernet’s account of Naumburg society or Rainer Bohley’s articles on Nietzsche’s upbringing, he would not have made the growing boy’s religious education sound so unproblematic. William Calder could have stopped him from guessing that Rohde’s early defense of Nietzsche did not hurt his career long. And Otto Ribbeck’s biography of Ritschl might have forestalled speculation that the disagreement between Ritschl and Otto Jahn was “one of those feuds (typical of academia both then and now) the origin of which no one can remember” (61-62). (Their mutual discomfort began with the way Jahn was hired and broke into open conflict when the latter tried to hire a professor behind Ritschl’s back.) 

In fairness to Young, producing a biography of Nietzsche is a nigh-impossible task and one likely to consume as many years of the biographer’s life as it took Nietzsche to live it. To compose such a work, one cannot merely repeat the claims of the Nietzsche siblings and the memoirs of those who knew them, for all such testimonies are partial and must be tested for reliability. Beyond that, one must consider Nietzsche’s milieu, the books that he read, and the revelations currently appearing in German-speaking countries. In short the task is overwhelming, and at the moment it seems both premature and too late to write a comprehensive biography. It is late because our knowledge of Nietzsche’s life has become too voluminous for summary, and it is premature because more information is appearing all the time and this fresh data has to be digested. Readers, however, will be too impatient to await perfection. For these, Young’s book will provide a lively and intellectually bracing account of Nietzsche’s life. For those aware of the controversies and the facts, however, it will remain a Trojan Horse, a polemic in disguise, often brilliant but unreliable, and on no account to be cited as a source without corroboration.