Twilight of the Idols


Friedrich Nietzsche

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Twilight of the Idols Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Friedrich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, in present-day Germany. He was the eldest of three children, and his father was the village pastor. Nietzsche’s father died in 1849, and Nietzsche’s mother moved with her children to Naumberg. Nietzsche attended Pforta, a renowned grammar school. In 1860, he formed a literary society, “Germania,” with two of his friends from Naumberg. He began attending the University of Bonn in 1864; he studied theology and philosophy, though he would lose his faith and abandon his theology studies the following year. He published his first work, “Zur Geschichte der Theognideischen” (The History of the Theognidia Collection) in 1867. After completing a year of military service, he was appointed chair of classical philology at the University of Basel. Following a series of health setbacks, he left the university in 1871, and it was during this time that he wrote his most famous works, including The Birth of Tragedy (1872), The Gay Science (1882), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche never married, though he is purported to have proposed, multiple times, to Lou Andreas Salomé, a Russian-German psychoanalyst, author, and essayist, who rejected him each time. Salomé instead suggested that she, Nietzsche, and author Paul Rée (whom Salomé also rejected) live and study together and form an academic commune, though this plan never materialized. Nevertheless, the three traveled throughout Europe together for a time before Nietzsche parted ways with them in 1882. He suffered a mental collapse in 1889 in Turin and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He lived with his mother upon his release, and then with his sister, Elisabeth, following his mother’s death. Nietzsche never recovered from his mental health issues and died in 1900, possibly from syphilis.
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Historical Context of Twilight of the Idols

A recurrent subject of scorn for Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols is late 19th-century German culture and politics. At the time of its writing (1888), the unification of Germany into the German Empire (also called the Second Reich) had occurred less than 20 years ago, in 1871. The German Reich was led by Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia, who became Chancellor. Following unification, the German Reich began a conservative campaign of nationalism based on Prussian authoritarianism, which was simultaneously anti-Catholic, anti-liberal, and anti-socialist. To establish a strong German national identity, the government gradually eliminated the use of non-German languages in public schools. Antisemitism also rose during this period. Nietzsche was highly critical of his day’s German nationalism and anti-Semitic movements—he even parted ways with his editor in 1886 over his editor’s anti-Semitic views. He ended his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner for the same reason. Despite his explicit condemnation of nationalism, the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany would co-opt his work following his death. This was due, at least in part, to heavily edited editions of his works that Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, curated after Nietzsche’s death. Förster-Nietzsche deliberately revised and misrepresented many of Nietzsche’s ideas to support her fascist politics. Still, Nazi Germany did draw from several of Nietzsche’s unedited views. Thomas Mann and Albert Camus, among others, suggest that the Nazi movement and Nietzschean philosophy had in common a number of socially regressive views; for instance, Nietzsche was staunchly opposed to democracy and egalitarianism. So while it is somewhat misrepresentative to call Nietzsche himself a fascist (since he explicitly opposed fascism), it’s also true that legitimate (that is to say, unedited) Nietzschean philosophy did inspire fascist regimes like Nazi Germany, even if they interpreted his words more extremely or literally than Nietzsche may have intended.

Other Books Related to Twilight of the Idols

Nietzsche is an influential figure in 19th-century philosophy. He wrote Twilight of the Idols in response to his growing popularity across Europe—the book is an introduction to the core ideas he explores in greater detail in his other works. Some of Nietzsche’s most important works include Beyond Good and Evil, a critique of traditional morality; On the Genealogy of Morals, which expands on the ideas Nietzsche covers in Beyond Good and Evil; and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a work of philosophical fiction that explores philosophical concepts such as the will to power, eternal recurrence, and the death of God. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche references many philosophers from antiquity and the modern era. One philosopher from the modern era whom Nietzsche criticizes (though from whom he initially took inspiration) is Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) greatly inspired the young Nietzsche, though Schopenhauer’s pessimism and emphasis on metaphysics eventually compelled Nietzsche, as he matured as a philosopher, to reject Schopenhauer. Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly his relativism, influenced French Deconstructionist philosophers Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Of Grammatology (1967) is a foundational book on deconstruction by Derrida; The Order of Things (1966) is a famous work by Foucault that explores the relationship between epistemic assumptions and truth throughout history.
Key Facts about Twilight of the Idols
  • Full Title: Twilight of the Idols: or How to Philosophize with a Hammer
  • When Written: 1888
  • Where Written: Sils Maria, Switzerland
  • When Published: 1889
  • Literary Period: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
  • Genre: Philosophy
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Twilight of the Idols

Art Resembles Life. Nietzsche supposedly suffered a mental breakdown after he witnessed the beating of a horse in Turin, Italy. It’s said that he ran to the horse and embraced it before falling to the ground. The Turin Horse, an art film by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, begins with a narrator recalling Nietzsche’s breakdown and draws inspiration from the incident. Tarr was inspired to make the film upon hearing the film’s writer, László Krasznahorkai, tell the story of Nietzsche’s breakdown.

Puns auf Deutsche. The original German title of Twilight of the Idols, Götzen-Dämmerung, is a play on Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the title of an opera by Richard Wagner (Nietzsche’s former friend, who was by then his foe). Nietzsche’s title plays on the original title, changing Götter (Gods) to Götzen (false Gods—idols).