Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into madness is a subject that has been widely discussed by scholars, considering the profound impact his philosophical work has had on the world. His mental decline began in the late 1880s and culminated in a complete mental breakdown in 1889.
Throughout his adult life, Nietzsche suffered from a variety of health issues. He was plagued with severe migraines, digestive problems, and deteriorating eyesight. Many of these conditions were debilitating, often leaving him bedridden and unable to work for extended periods. There is also speculation that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease known to cause a host of neurological problems, including mental instability, in its later stages. However, this remains a point of contention among scholars.
His descent into madness is often symbolized by an incident that took place in Turin, Italy, in January 1889. Nietzsche allegedly saw a horse being whipped in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, ran to the horse, threw his arms around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed in the street. Following this breakdown, Nietzsche reportedly exhibited a variety of strange behaviors, including dancing naked, claiming to be Jesus Christ, and signing his letters as “Dionysus” or “The Crucified.”
After the Turin incident, Nietzsche’s friends, including Franz Overbeck, were deeply concerned and Overbeck travelled to Turin to bring Nietzsche back to Basel. Nietzsche was then institutionalized in a Basel mental asylum and later moved to a clinic in Jena, where he was diagnosed with tertiary syphilis.
In the decade that followed, Nietzsche lived under the care of his mother and later his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. During this time, he was largely non-communicative and inactive. Nietzsche passed away in 1900 at the age of 55.
However, the causes and nature of Nietzsche’s mental illness continue to be a matter of debate among scholars. While the diagnosis at the time was tertiary syphilis, some modern scholars doubt this, suggesting alternative possibilities including a slow-growing brain tumor or a mental disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The exact nature of Nietzsche’s madness remains a mystery to this day.