Nietzsche on friendship and on the ‘tragedy of life’

Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Friendship’ is something to which we all probably would nod and we would say that we fully understand what is meant by it, but do we? Who are these ‘friends’ we think are around us? What do they mean to us and do these ‘friends’ of today really differ from people we only ‘know better’ and or to whom we ‘talk more’ than with random people we daily meet? These might sound like silly questions to ask, really, however, when the phenomenon of Facebooks, Myspace etc. strikes daily the news and journalists often mention that people have tens or even hundreds ‘friends’ on their profiles, I believe it is never useless to stop and wonder for a moment.

Quite interestingly, I would like to point out to perhaps the most unexpected person who considered friendship in his work – to Friedrich Nietzsche. He, just as the voluntarist Schopenhauer before him, had almost no friends at all. Suffering from constant health problems – migraine headaches and vomiting, this brilliant intellectual had to resign from the post of professor at the University of Basle, which he received at unheard age of 24, and in 1879 started to travel around Europe, seeking seclusion and peace from his collapsing health near mountain lakes deep in the Alps.

In earlier days of his writing career, Nietzsche was a friend and admirer of the work of Richard Wagner. Nietzsche saw in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1865) the possible resurrection of the antic tragedy. The Greek tragedy was for Nietzsche especially important because he regarded it as an ‘honest depiction of human life.’ That is, as a piece of art that depicts each person as born with certain qualities, but also possessing the ‘tragic flaw,’ which gives him a destiny that he cannot escape. Although in the Greek tragedy characters struggle with their predestined path, by each step they inadvertently proceed towards their certain end.

This is perhaps best depicted in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus is given a terrible predicament – he is to marry his mother and kill his father. The tragic flaw in case of Oedipus is hubris – and although that when he hears his terrible fate from the Delphic Oracle and tries to flee from the place where his (foster) parents live, escaping, he kills his father Laius – only because they argue who has the right-of-way.

Nevertheless, heroes of the antic tragedy – although endowed with the tragic fate – are not content with it, and they struggle till the very end. As Nietzsche mentions in The Birth of Tragedy this is a ‘honest’ image of what life is – tragic.

One is born into a condition one does not chooses. He is endowed with certain predispositions, born into a certain family, into a specific community, which make tremendous impact on one’s identity – on the fact ‘who one is.’ The ancient Greeks personified this human precondition as ‘given’ by three Moirae – the personifications of destiny. The ancient hero, however, is the one who, although endowed with both flaws and qualities, does not ‘give up’ and fights his destiny and although never wins (the human life can never be won, the human life is tragic, it always ends in death which can never be avoided) he understands that ‘there are moments and things worth living (and dying) for.’

In his later works, Nietzsche elaborates further; when one considers great heroes as Beethoven, Goethe or Napoleon, they were all both endowed with certain flaws, no one of them was ‘perfect,’ but they all, above all, were in their specific fields great ‘warriors,’ who stood against the human fate and managed to push the meaning of living to a completely another, greater level – they set example for others and in their fight found what ‘they are’ – what to be living for them truly means. They found that it is precisely this fight, this totality of all things – both living and dying, both flaws and qualities, both joy and sadness, both victories and failures – what life is. That life is beautiful – and interesting – and worth living for – because above all, to be a human means a tremendous possibility, a challenge – to understand one’s flaws and qualities and on them build one’s work – one’s fate. For Nietzsche, life is an art, a Greek tragedy. And it is precisely this fact that life is tragic – which makes is beautiful. For Nietzsche, and for the ancient Greeks, the life ‘makes sense’ only when understood in this highly artistic sense.Richard Wagner

As to Richard Wagner – and to the opera Tristan und Isolde Nietzsche so admired, one could now perhaps better understand why Nietzsche praised Wagner as a  cultural prodigy. Nietzsche saw in earlier Wagner’s work a possibility how to restore the tragic understanding of life, back into the contemporary society which elevated only the Christian reverence and its preaching that man is born from sin and that he can only achieve ‘happiness’ in the afterlife. The Christians, Nietzsche maintains, do not understand what life is, they are in fact, the life’s failures, to weak to conceive of life as the totality of all values – as both struggle and peace, as both birth and death and so on. They instead would like to live in ‘eternal happiness and peace,’ which is a non-sense Nietzsche argues; since happiness cannot exist without sadness, as sadness cannot without happiness. Just as well as life entails death, also death is necessary to give life to next generations. Each exists only in relation to the opposite. The weak would be even unable to consider, Nietzsche argues, that life consisting only of ‘happiness’ would be too boring to live. Indeed, for the strong, for the type of the antic hero, it is unimaginable to be living in the Christian heaven, in an eternal ‘peace and happiness.’ One might well say that what is the hell for the Christian, is the ‘heaven’ for a Nietzschean hero, because, quite simply, it would be much more fun.

The friendship between Wagner and Nietzsche nevertheless did not last long. Wagner more and more enclosed himself with a circle of German nationalists and instead of elevating Nietzsche’s untimely model of the Antic hero, Wagner became too narrowly German, and ultimately, with his final opera Parsifal, even a hypocrite. In Parsifal Wagner elevated the Christian piety, when he himself was an admirer of Nordic paganism. Nietzsche was nauseated by the fact that Wagner used something so alien to his (Wagner’s) beliefs only to promote the sense of German national history. Even then, Nietzsche stayed true to his beliefs, and although he despised its pseudo-Christian leitmotif, he admired the beauty of the music; in a letter to Peter Gast from 1887, he asks himself: ‘Has Wagner ever written anything better?’

It is then perhaps no wonder that for Nietzsche, the friendship has a very peculiar meaning. Today it is mostly understood that a friend is someone ‘who wants the best for you.’ Nietzsche considers this too shallow and his response is similar as in the case of the Christians who would like to live only in their ‘heaven.’ A true friend for Nietzsche is someone who by wishing you the ‘best’ wishes you ‘the worst,’ – struggle, strife, obstacles, fear, and ‘many good enemies.’ A friend for Nietzsche is not someone who accepts your every word and blindly follows in your steps or even someone who tries to ‘offer you a helping hand’ – this only promotes laziness, acceptance of one’s status, weakness and decadence. To wish truly one best also means to be in opposition, to propose contra-arguments, to go one’s own way and even destroy and fight against a friend’s plans. In the Nietzschean sense, the friend is the one ‘who wishes you to be strong.’ In contrast to a Christian who wishes you ‘heaven,’ that is meekness and decadence in otherworldly piety.

Consider also this assumption: what is for Nietzsche the difference between friend and enemy? One can easily derive from the above mentioned that there is no difference at all. Both friend and enemy is someone who you consider your equal. It is someone who you think is worth fighting against. From the fight, you both learn and ultimately strengthen your resolve. In fact, it might be said that ‘your best friend is also your best enemy, and your best enemy is your best friend.’ Similarly, Nietzsche mentions Christ’s ‘love thy enemy’ as a commendable principle to follow, but not in the ‘Christian sense.’ For Nietzsche, since love and hate are almost inseparable, the enemy, your antithesis, is also someone to be truly admired, because this enemy inevitably forms a part of ‘who you are,’ the enemy shows you a different side of the coin, and thus makes you stronger in the end.

In the end, one might and might not aggree, yet Nietzsche certainly provides a persuasive theory of friendship, especially in a time when it seems that friendship is being reduced to an artificial list of names available on an individual’s profile somewhere on the internet…


There is also an interesting documentary on YouTube from BBC, which you might consider viewing for some information on Nietzsche’s life and philosophy – link.


13 Responses to Nietzsche on friendship and on the ‘tragedy of life’

  1. madamechauchat says:

    Nice post. But even leaving aside facebook friends, do we ever have friends in the Nietzschean sense?
    An interesting quote is also Gay Science II. 61, where it Nietzsche seems to endorse the view (attributed to antiquity in general) that friendship is the highest feeling.

  2. Faust says:

    First, thank you for your comment. Nietzsche was, I would say ‘inevitably,’ a romanticist, living in the second period of the 19th century, he stood both against the Christianity and the rising petty nationalism that equated one’s ‘friends’ only with what is the ‘closest.’ Although I am not familiar with the particular section of Nietzsche’s work, one of the main topics of the second part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is Zarathustra’s search for ‘friends’ and ‘fellow travellers,’ but such friends who would not merely repeat Zarathustra’s words, but that would at some part leave him, ‘seek themselves’ and try to challenge his ideas.

    That is, to answer your question whether do we have friends in the sense Nietzsche develops, it depends on each one of us and how do we conceive of those we have around. Are friends only those who offer ‘caring words’ or also those who deeply shake our beliefs or even stood in direct opposition of our actions?

    For instance, one might take a relation between one’s family/friends and a drug addict. What a ‘real’ friend would do? Would a friend try to pity him/her, take him/her to hospitals and give him/her money for drugs? Or would a true friend harshly throw him/her out in order he/she could stand on his own again? The latter treatment is obviously, ‘hard’ or even ‘cruel’ in our contemporary sense – a weak person, which a drug addict usually is, will probably succumb and he will not be able to survive.

    But I believe this is the precise point Nietzsche makes. He again and again states in his works that his words do not apply ‘to everyone.’ Nietzsche has no universalist tendencies. He writes he speaks to ‘those who understand me.’ His concept of friendship thus applies only for the ‘strong,’ to put it rather simplistically, for mutual friendship of those who are ‘strong in spirit’ – as in the Greek aristotoi – who realize that to treat the other ‘harshly’ – to treat the strong ‘harshly’ is to make him stronger. Those obstacles to which others succumb the strong ‘laughs at.’

    This is Nietzsche’s ‘ideal’ which he poses against the petty ‘national trifles’ of his own time. Ultimately, one probably has to decide on his own whether he seeks or finds such friendship or not.

  3. James Rogers says:

    Very good. I think your blog will go a long way if you maintain it.

  4. Lord Kavi says:

    Dear Faust:
    Your post was great and I liked that. I think I’m gonna add your link in mine!
    Beside your nice appraoch on Nietzsche’s friendship, I would like to know more about his view on Firendship (Not his Firendship)! Because I’m into Friendship concept, lately!
    Would you help me and tell me where can I find this kind of views? In which book or website!

  5. Lord Kavi says:

    And also I would be happy if you inform me about your answer to mine by email or commenting on my weblog! Because I think I wont be aware if you do it here!
    I’m waiting!

  6. Dominic says:

    A quote from The Gay Science, that your readers may like…

    “Here and there on Earth we may encounter a continuation of love in which this possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession—a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship.”

  7. Cristin says:

    Very Nice! I thoroughly enjoyed this blog.

  8. pia says:

    I enjoyed your blog

  9. kedarguru says:

    this was a very informative post – at the moment, I’m just interested in learning more about Nietzsche. thanks.

  10. Pepe says:

    Thanks for such beautiful words… they really have inspired me.

    But as Nietzsche would say, I’m only praising you because you have written exactly what I wanted to write myself.

    Nonetheless, it’s good to see that I’m not alone on my interpretation of Nietzsche’s thoughts and work.

    May our thoughts someday contradict each other my friend, because only then they will be able to clash!!!

  11. ronald holmes says:

    loved your post working on similiar theme this morning when I found this in response to search for Nietzsche on friendship.

    facebook and friends

    my theme was how to listen to songs like “thats what friends are for” in the facebook world.


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