One of the most influential thinkers of the modern era, Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher whose work, an early example of existentialism, explored the meaning of the human experience. Nietzsche believed in the importance of individualism and self-expression; he often challenged traditional morality and societal norms, and espoused the pursuit of personal excellence.
Born in 1844, Nietzsche grew up with his mother and younger sister, after his father and younger brother died within six months of each other when Nietzsche was just 5 years old. He began composing songs at age 14 — a creative discipline that would inform his life and work — and went on to study classical philology (the study of language and literature) at Germany’s University of Bonn. At 24 years old, without a doctorate or teaching certificate, Nietzsche was put forward to be the professor of classical philology at Switzerland’s University of Basel in Switzerland — the youngest person to ever hold the chair.
Nietzsche started publishing his influential works shortly after, including The Birth of Tragedy, Daybreak, Beyond Good and Evil, and his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In his late 30s, however, his health began to decline, and in 1889, he experienced a mental health crisis that would effectively end his career. He spent the rest of his life in the care of his mother and, later, his sister, who went on to edit and publish many of the philosopher’s works after his death in 1900.
Nietzsche's work has had a profound influence on 20th-century thought, and continues to be debated and interpreted to this day. Here are 10 quotes to help distill the philosophy of Nietzsche and his visionary ideas.
What does not kill me, makes me stronger.
One of Nietzsche's more famous quotes is a confident affirmation of resilience. Facing and overcoming adversity can be a valuable learning experience. It not only makes a more capable and confident person, but will lead to one of Nietzsche's most-valued outcomes: personal growth and development.
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.
Nietzsche often challenged the idea that there are absolute “right” and “wrong” ways to do things, notions that were tied to what he felt were outdated religious and moral ideals. Instead, in this translation from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he emphasized the importance of personal freedom, encouraging people to explore their own ideas and paths, and to find their own way in life.
No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone.
Again emphasizing individualism, Nietzsche tells us here that no one else can make decisions for us, solve our problems, or hand us our successes. It’s an empowering idea — reminding us not only that nothing worthwhile is easy, but that we have the power to shape our own destiny and overcome any obstacle — but it also carries the weight of responsibility.
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
It’s no secret that when we focus too much on negativity, it can have a profound effect on our own psyche, consuming our thoughts, emotions, and, eventually, our actions. Here, the abyss could represent any number of things that we spend too much time contemplating. It’s an insightful cautionary statement, reminding us to be mindful of where we choose to focus our attention.
Become who you are.
Nietzsche's urging to become who we are is a reminder of his signature directive: to not live an unexamined life. Less about a final destination or goal, this line evokes the courage needed to truly be ourselves. It encourages self-awareness, self-acceptance, and taking ownership of our choices to pursue our most authentic selves, even if that means taking an unconventional path.
There are no facts, only interpretations.
This quote reflects Nietzsche's skepticism about absolute truths. He believed there were only different interpretations of knowledge, shaped by our individual perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. This component of his philosophy also came to be known as “Nietzsche’s perspectivism.”
There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.
Nietzsche firmly believed in the connection between suffering and joy — that one could not truly be experienced without first knowing the other. This quote frames this philosophy poetically, and suggests that the compassion that comes from experiencing hardship allows us to connect with others on a deeper, more vulnerable level.
He who has a why in life can tolerate almost any how.
Having a strong sense of purpose in life can give us the strength and resilience to endure just about any obstacle that comes our way. It’s worthwhile, then, to look at our lives and define our “why” in order to stay motivated, and in turn, stay true to our own path.
Without music, life would be a mistake.
Nietzsche was musical from a young age, and often remarked on the power and importance of music. He saw it as one of the purest expressions of the inner self — something unburdened by societal expectations, and a conduit to forces greater than the human mind. Music, he strongly believed, has a profound impact on human emotions, thoughts, and experiences — so much so that life would hardly be meaningful without it.
The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.
Personal excellence was a foundational idea in Nietzsche’s work. He introduced the concept of the “übermensch,” (or “super man”) as a goal for all of humanity, and here he provides a visual of soaring high. He warns, however, that the more successful we are, the less relatable we might seem to others; we must be mindful of staying humble and empathetic to those in a different place on their own journey.
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