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Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young

Eva Cybulska is in two minds over a new Nietzsche biography.

Having read and enjoyed Julian Young’s other publications on Friedrich Nietzsche, I was looking forward to this biography. The author, who is anything but a puffed-up academic, has impressed me with his incisive, provocative and elegant writing. He also seems to have a gift for sleuth-work. Yet although I regard this book as a highly worthwhile read, for me it is tinged with some disappointments.

The book’s structure revolves round a discussion of Nietzsche’s life and writings and their mutual influence. Young’s arguments are persuasive, yet leave enough space for the reader to form his/her own interpretation. This is a welcome improvement on Hollingdale’s version from 1965, full of orthodox certainties. Hayman’s biography of 1980 is balanced and engaging, but misses in the philosophical dimension. After all, Hayman is not a philosopher and he knows his limits. Kaufmann’s classic Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) is surprisingly absent from the bibliography, as are Elsner’s and Safranski’s books (1992 and 2002) – both with titles identical to Young’s (eternal return?)

An important asset of Young’s philosophical biography is that it portrays both Nietzsche the philosopher and Nietzsche the man amidst the backdrop of historical, political and cultural events, including the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck’s rise to power, the ascent of the sciences, and the growing fame of his friend Richard Wagner.

Young traces Nietzsche’s ‘philosophy of religion’ to his pious childhood. Nietzsche’s attack on Christian metaphysics and what he sees as its anti-life, guilt-ridden morality, is well known; yet there was hardly anything he cared more about than religion. Indeed, his philosophical mission was “to find a new religious outlook that will re-found ‘culture’.” (p.181) For this he turned to ancient Greece. In worshipping Dionysus (another dying god) he recovered an earlier, more wholesome and life-promoting incarnation of the divine. The two symbolic representations merged into one when Nietzsche signed his last (mad) letters alternatively as ‘Dionysus’ and as ‘The Crucified’. Young convincingly argues for a hitherto unacknowledged view of Nietzsche’s, that religion, as a communal myth, is vital to communal health; but he ignores Jung’s archetypal connection. The Übermensch, who becomes a god unto himself, lives and dies dangerously – as the prescient image of the tightrope walker falling to his death in Zarathustra’s Prologue warns us. As Jung would have said, the shattering (or crucifixion) of the self is the price paid for identifying oneself with an archetype.

For Nietzsche’s philological influences, Young includes Homer, Goethe, Hölderlin (in considerable detail), Dostoevsky and Strindberg. Yet quite unbelievably, he leaves out Sophocles, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Byron and Heine. Wasn’t Nietzsche the most philologically-informed philosopher, after all? And when discussing Nietzsche’s musical composition Manfred Meditation and von Bülow’s reaction to it, Young completely bypasses its inspiration, Byron’s Manfred. Read by the young Nietzsche, Manfred became a powerful impulse not only to his musical composition, but also to his life and philosophy (lonely wanderings in the Alps, ‘Wanderer and his Shadow’, the third part of Human, All Too Human, for example). It was in relation to Byron’s Manfred that Nietzsche first used the famous term übermenschlich (supermanlike), while still a schoolboy at Pforta. One of Nietzsche’s best-known assertions is of the Eternal Return – the claim that everything will happen again and again. In Young’s discussion of Eternal Return, there is also no mention of a passage from Heine’s Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken, which Nietzsche used in The Will to Power. Also missing is J. N. Mayer’s Mechanik der Wärrme, a book Nietzsche read in the spring of 1881, and which could partly explain the content (though not the form) of his most scientific idea, eternal recurrence.

By contrast, Young’s in-depth discussion of Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche’s life and thought, with special attention to Schopenhauerian themes, is particularly informative. The musicality of Nietzsche’s writings matches the philosophicality of Wagner’s music: while Wagner seemed to have composed the innermost feelings of Nietzsche’s soul, Nietzsche expressed the innermost thoughts of Wagner’s intellect. Young condenses the latter observation with a customary wit: “one can imagine an enlightened Wagner replying to requests for a statement of what he really thought about Greek tragedy with ‘I don’t know: ask Nietzsche what I think’.” (p.131.) And the description of Wagnerian/Baudelairian décadence on pp.493-4 as a ‘hidden will to death’ is absolutely brilliant.

Ecce Homo

Nietzsche emerges from the pages of this book as both a passionate and a compassionate human being, given to idealisations and inevitable disappointments, the latter often expressed in rage and abuse. He is human, all too human; and although full of faults, contradictions and inner torments, he is a far cry from the stereotype of a megalomaniac Nazi. Relying on Nietzsche’s friends and family, Young reads (or rather deciphers) Nietzsche’s soul with a mirroring passion and compassion. Uniquely, he also gives some credit to Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth – otherwise universally hated by the scholars for her outrageous tampering with her brother’s work, and for her association with Hitler.

On the downside, the significance of the ‘Lou Salomé affair’ for Nietzsche is much overrated. Although their acquaintance lasted only a few months, she pronounced herself an expert on all things Nietzschean. To flirt with geniuses, including Rilke and also Freud, and entice them into her circle of admirers, seems to have been her life’s mission. Reading their work in order to recite it back to them, proved a very successful bait. Her favourite game, however, was to reduce a genius to a voyeur in a ménage à trios, preferably with the help of a whip (as indicated in the famous photograph below). She missed out with Gustav Klimt, however. One can only imagine what his painting Salomé with the Head of Nietzsche would have been like!

To Nietzsche’s chagrin, Lou Salomé was no Cosima Wagner, whose own life’s task was “to live and to die for [Richard] Wagner” (p.584). Salomé’s aim was rather to make a genius live and die for her. Hence Nietzsche’s scathing comments about this femme fatale appear fully justified. But unlike Alma [Mrs] Mahler’s love affairs, Salomé’s were usually untainted by carnal pleasures. Incidentally, the significance of various persons in Nietzsche’s life can be inferred from the appearance of their names in his writing from his last creative year of 1888: it was Wagner, and even more Wagner. And it was Cosima Wagner, not Lou Salom é, who surfaced in one of Nietzsche’s last letters.


Young devotes his last chapter to Nietzsche’s madness. He proposes the diagnosis of manic-depression with psychotic features. This is precisely the diagnosis I put forward at the Nietzsche Society conference in 1996 – the first such medical re-evaluation in the Anglophone world: several others followed later. After a lengthy battle with medical ‘experts’, my report was published in Hospital Medicine in the year 2000, under the title ‘Nietzsche’s Madness: Misdiagnosis of the Millennium?’ Meanwhile, Professor Rogé, a fellow psychiatrist from Paris, released his book Le Syndrome de Nietzsche in 1999, independently arriving at the same conclusion. Zeitgeist, surely! We parted ways as to the diagnosis of Nietzsche during the last eleven years of his life, when in my view he probably developed vascular dementia.

Young mentions neither of these publications, nor the extensive account of Nietzsche’s medico-psychiatric history by Volz in 1990. A thorough discussion in relation to Young’s own diagnosis of Nietzsche’s manic-depression is also missing. One would expect a scholar of his stature to present a cogent, well-researched argument, rather than unsubstantiated intuition. It is rather surprising that, as a non-psychiatrist, Young has joined the diagnostic brawl at all.

Other problems with this biography include the many all-too-timely comments and anecdotes peppering the pages, concerning topics from global warming to President Obama. These become more of a distraction than an illumination. There are also numerous grave editorial lapses; and the index is close to abysmal.

In summary, Julian Young’s philosophical biography of Nietzsche has great potential; but to realise this it needs to be revised, pruned of unnecessary diversions, rebalanced, and some arguments reassessed. But regardless of these faults, I enjoyed it, and will return to it again and again, utilizing the added bonus of listening to Nietzsche’s musical compositions on the book’s website. I would probably not recommend this biography to a Nietzsche novice. The best recommendation for an introduction to Nietzsche, would be to read Nietzsche himself.

© Dr Eva Cybulska 2011

Eva Cybulska is an independent scholar and writer living in London. Formerly a psychiatrist, she is currently working on her book Nietzsche: A Hero’s Journey into Night.

Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Julian Young, Cambridge UP, 2010, 649pp, £36.00 (hbk), ISBN: 9780521871174.

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