Friedrich Nietzsche on Solitude

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one of the most forceful philosophical writers of modern times, influencing many philosophers as well as figures in the creative arts, literature, and politics. He virtually originated concepts like nihilism, the will to power, and eternal recurrence. This is not the place to analyze Nietzsche's thought and writing but to explore his concept and use of solitude and his presentation of the solitary as a new thinker on the horizon of history.

Solitude in Nietzsche can be approached in at least three ways: 1) as an aspect of his personal and professional life, voluntary and involuntary, 2) Nietzsche's personal use of solitude as a creative person, and 3) his concept of solitude as a philosophical and existential state of being for the individual. The first two approaches tend to converge. All three will be touched upon here.

Nietzsche was not a philosopher by profession but a brilliant student first, then for ten years professor of philology in a university before his retirement due to health problems that were to plague him through his mental collapse in 1889. Studying in a rigorous boarding school where Greek and Latin were not only taught but read, written, and spoken by the students, and a brilliant university student and professor, Nietzsche was to have little patience with the philosophers he read, and turned to ancient modes of thought and expression for his models.

His writings range from deductive , discursive and aphoristic essays, to the grand drama of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to autobiographical sketches in Ecce Homo, his last lucid work. His chief works are Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals. The writings are characterized by scintillating insight, wit, logic, and irony, and filled with many literary devices and layers of creative masks or personas. Nietzsche is complex and subtle but forceful and provocative. He is easily misunderstood and taken to represent whatever caricature many modern abusers have contrived to find in his concepts of nihilism, will to power, and the Ubermensch or Overman.

Personal solitude

The personal and creative aspects of Nietzsche's solitude are clearly described by him. His pastor father died when Nietzsche was five, and the widow and her young children (son and daughter) lost their ancestral home. Young Friedrich grew up among female relatives with whom he shared little. He was a studious but friendless youth. Nietzsche was to later make statements of an unmitigated misogynist; he never married, plunging into his creative work while plagued with racking migraines that forced his retirement on a modest pension and separated him from social circles.

That his personal solitude involved a hidden and solitary aspect of his outward and literary persona was observed by psychologist Carl Jung in speaking of himself:

I was held back by a secret fear that I might perhaps be like him [Nietzsche], at least in regard to the "secret" which had isolated him from his environment. Perhaps, who knows? he had had inner experiences, insights which he had unfortunately talked about, and had found out that no one understood him.

But Sigmund Freud, in rare praise, noted that Nietzsche "had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live."

Nietzsche's sincerity in pursuing all the paths and possibilities of the mind, of reason and insight, and of the makings of himself, characterizes thorough-going and inevitable solitude. This personal solitude is built in part on his physical maladies and his unorthodox ideas as much as on his personality, and presents a heroic uniqueness among philosophers and thinkers in general.

Nietzsche himself was acutely aware of his psychological  isolation, and joked to a correspondent that he was the "hermit of Sils-Maria," referring to the Swiss town of his summer residence during most of the last ten years of his lucid life. To another correspondent, however, he was more sober:

I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody's cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.

In autobiographical passages, the mingling of personality and creativity is clear, as when Nietzsche writes positively of

the energy to choose absolute solitude and lead the life to which I had become accustomed ...

I need solitude, which is to say, recovery, return to my self, the breath of a free, light, playful air.

Solitude safeguarded Nietzsche's inspirational and creative source, his "hidden aspect," as Jung noted. Moreover, solitude naturally complemented his personality.

One must avoid chance and outside stimuli as much as possible; a kind of walling oneself in belongs among the foremost instinctive precautions of spiritual pregnancy.

Safeguarding "spiritual pregnancy" or the creative spirit was a priority for Nietzsche as it would be for any creative person. Certainly this was necessary for writing and studying. But on clear mornings (his favorite time was between ten o'clock and noon), Nietzsche  thought it foolish to languish indoors reading a book, and he often walked vigorously for exercise in the mountains of Switzerland and northern Italy, where he lived. He claimed to have a careful diet, too, and was scrupulously clean, bathing at least daily.

But the unnamed sickness that provoked unrelieved headaches, eye pain, and stomach troubles, and which culminated in madness during his last twelve years, cannot be attributed to either his ideas or his solitary nature, attractive as these views have been to Nietzsche's enemies. But the tantalizing speculation that having done all he could at the end of his lucid days, Nietzsche deliberately or unconsciously entered irreversibly into a complete mental solitude was first fueled by the remark of a friend and contemporary who, upon visiting Nietzsche during his later years wondered:

I cannot escape the ghastly suspicion ... that his madness is simulated. This impression can be explained only by the experiences I have had of Nietzsche's self-concealments, of his spiritual masks.

Or, as Nietzsche wrote in a draft of one of his last works: "I am solitude become man."

Solitude and philosophy

Nietzsche transformed personal and creative solitude into a philosophical instrument to critique and unmask the premises of tradition, culture, and society. As he put it in his autobiographical Ecce Homo: "I turned my will to health, my will to life, into philosophy." No longer a personal philosophy but neither a systematic philosophy in the style of Kant or Hegel, Nietzsche projected solitude as the model of thought and being for what he conceived to be a new category of thinker.

This new thinker of the future he calls the "free spirit." Eventually, the free spirit becomes the Higher Man or Overman -- the better translation of Ubermensche than Superman, with its image of savage power. In one sense, this new thinker is an informal member of a new Academy or Stoa, privileged by self-realization to be what Nietzsche calls one of the "born, sworn, jealous friends of solitude" (BG&E 51). And while the new thinker challenges all traditional thought and morality, Nietzsche does not omit an ethos for his new solitude, who is no mere libertine.

As for the meaning of the dangerous formula "beyond good and evil," with which we guard against being mistaken for others: we are something different from "freethinkers," and whatever else the goodly advocates of "modern ideas" like to call themselves (BG&E 44).

Instead of projecting his ideas outward to culture and society, Nietzsche would have his model thinker turn inwardly. He considers his contemporaries "levelers" -- not in the social or even moral sense but in the intellectual and psychological. They are, as he puts it, "men without solitude, without personal solitude." They parrot culture and society in their ideas and writings and daily lives because they lack the ability or will to plumb their own being and derive meaning and ideas from a thorough-going examination of self -- which can only be achieved by cultivating solitude. In this such people are "slaves."

This does not mean that solitude is psychological remorse or resentment, or a way of punishing others or self. Nietzsche is keenly aware of false motives that can poison the soul of the solitary, as will be seen. As the commentator Horst Hutter succinctly puts it in his Shaping the Future: Nietzsche's New Regime of the Soul and Its Ascetic Practices, referring to Nietzsche's methodology:

Temporary retreats into solitude are the main part of the deconstructive aspect of self-shaping in which one could begin to dissolve one's own entrapment in a "slavish" identity. Withdrawals into solitude would make free spirits realize how they are caught in resentment and the desire for revenge that inform the institutions and interaction rituals of modern societies. Solitude would permit someone to avoid being continually re-infected by these strong negative emotions. It would open an individual's deeply rooted line of fate and would show the means by which a "slavish" self could be dissolved.

Nietzsche's bold ideas and provocative language were not meant to equip a tyrannical elite but to free the individual by legitimizing solitude. Thus when Nietzsche spoke of "slavish" morality, or of contemporary Europe's "herding-animal morality," or of the "timidity of the herd" and the need for new "commanders and law-givers" and of "Viking morality" -- when he concluded that "Wherever is the crowd is a common denominator of stench" -- he gives provocative vent to his repugnance at what culture has done in the name of morality. He repudiates society's abhorrence of the solitary who dares to point this out, its abhorrence of the free spirit, of the one who questions society's rituals and its hypocrisies of class, ranks, and morals. The solitary is he who challenges society's desire to turn the human being into an "absolutely gregarious animal."

Living as a solitary

Thus Nietzsche not only advocated solitude as a psychological utility or even a life-style but perceived solitude as the logical position of anyone who had unmasked society. As he puts it in his essay "Schopenhauer as Educator," first reflecting on personal and "professional" solitude:

No one who possesses true friends knows what true solitude is, even though he have the whole world around him for his enemies. Ah, I well understand that you [the reader] do not know what solitude is. Where there have been powerful societies, governments, religions, public opinions, in short , wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated, for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart, and that annoys the tyrants.

There is great risk in wanting to live and think like a solitary, for outwardly, the solitary is expected to conform to culture and popular opinion, to ties of "blood, residence, education, fatherland, chance, the importunity of others." For this reason, the solitary's temptation is resentment and revenge-taking, as already mentioned.

The solitary can emerge from a cave wearing a "terrifying aspect." This is why society resents, isolates, and stigmatizes the solitary. Nietzsche points to the inevitable persecution of the Christian mystics by Church authorities. As he writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "Man is the cruelest of animals. At tragedies, bullfights, and crucifixions has he hitherto been happiest on earth. And when he invented his hell, behold, that was his heaven on earth" (Zarathustra 224).

Yet it is the solitary who is free, while the masses have renounced their will and allowed themselves to become "slavish." To bolster the struggle of the solitary, commentator Hutter extrapolates Nietzsche's recommendations.

In solitude, the three mechanisms by which slavishness is maintained would become visible and their dissolution would become possible. These mechanisms are: a) the quite natural identification of a self with all its negative emotions, b) a self's constant anxious considering of the opinions that others hold of it, and c) a self's captivity in the fast and furious pace of modern life that pressures everyone into becoming a workaholic busybody. Solitude makes again possible the practices of contemplation, which puts a self in touch with its own deep sources of wellness.

In describing the free spirit, Nietzsche sometimes appears to simply be safeguarding personal autonomy or independence. This lengthy passage (BG&E 41, broken down here into numbered points) outlines fundamental practices that amount to prerequisites for cultivating and strengthening solitude, not merely safeguarding it.

  1. Not to cleave to a person, not even the most beloved. Everyone is a prison and a nook [i.e., a terminating point].
  2. Not to cleave to a fatherland, not even the most suffering and needful. It is even less difficult to sever one's heart from a victorious fatherland.
  3.  Not to remain stuck in pitying or sympathizing, not even sympathizing higher men [i.e., free spirits], into whose peculiar torture and helplessness chance has given us an insight.
  4. Not to cleave to a science though it entice with its great discoveries seemingly reserved just for oneself.
  5. Not to cling to one's own liberation or detachment, to that voluptuous remoteness of the bird that ever flies further aloft in order to see more below it -- the danger of the flier.
  6. Not to cleave to one's own virtues nor become as a whole a victim to any one of our characteristics, such as hospitality - the danger of dangers for highly developed souls, rich souls who expend themselves lavishly in apparent indifference to themselves, making of their virtue of generosity a vice.

Concludes Nietzsche in this passage: "One must know how to conserve oneself: the hardest test of independence."

For Nietzsche, then, solitude is the foil against corrupt society and the asserting of a higher level of values. In this passage, sympathy refers to appreciation.

To remain master of one's four virtues: courage, insight, sympathy, and solitude. For solitude is a virtue with us, as a sublime bent and bias to purity, which divines that in the contact of man and man, in society, it must be unavoidably impure. All society makes one somehow, somewhere, or sometime, common (BG&E, 284).

But having achieved a level of solitude not merely utilitarian but what Nietzsche calls a virtue, he can point to a process or state of what today would be called self-realization or self-actualization. "Choose the solitude," he recommends, "the free, playful, light solitude, that gives you, too, the right to remain good in some sense." Nietzsche elaborates:

Some people are so used to solitude with themselves that they never compare themselves to others but spin forth their monologue of a life in a calm, joyous mood, holding good conversations with themselves, even laughing.

The key to a stable solitude is what psychology simply calls self-esteem. One of the reasons Nietzsche inveighs so vigorously against authority and tyranny, even against society and popular morality, is society's constant attempt to destroy individual self-esteem and capture it for its own uses. The result is alienation and the fragmentation of self, with all its attendant psychological problems. Solitaries must recognize this and strengthen themselves against it.

But if they are made to compare themselves with others, they tend to a brooding underestimation of their selves, so that they have to be forced to learn again from others to have a good, fair opinion of themselves. And even from this learned opinion they will always want to detract or reduce something. ... Thus one must grant certain men their solitude and not be foolish enough, as often happens, to pity them for it (Human, All Too Human, 6250).

The tension, therefore, is between self and society, which is often turned by society into the conflict of selves against selves, for its own nefarious purposes. As Nietzsche wrote in Mixed Opinions:

The origins of mores may be found in two thoughts" "Society is worth more than the individual," and "enduring advantage is to be preferred to ephemeral advantage."

A true solitary, Nietzsche never thought of his work as something intended to change the world. "The last thing I should promise would be to 'improve' mankind," he remarked. "I smash no idols." Referring to his persona of Zarathustra, Nietzsche comments:

It is no fanatic that speaks here; this is not "preaching"; no faith is demanded here: from an infinite abundance of light and depth of happiness falls drop upon drop, word upon word.

But solitary path can be the burden of knowing well, of seeing clearly in the ways of society and the world. In the preface to Joyful Wisdom, Nietzsche concedes that the trials of "this radical retreat into solitude as a self-defense against a contempt for men that had become pathologically clairvoyant." He admits of the "undiscovered solitude that among us is called life but might just as well be called death" (Joyful Wisdom, 365).

Even as he descended into the darkness of mental illness, after suffering years of physical agony, Nietzsche was able to write:

On this perfect day, when everything is ripening and not only the grape turns brown, the eye of the sun just fell upon my life: I looked back, I looked forward, and never saw so many and such good things at once. ... How could I fail to be grateful to my whole life?


Nietzsche is a complex and provocative thinker, but he is a clear advocate of the role of solitude in every level of human activity, from philosophical and psychological to creative and societal. He was profoundly insightful of human psychology, in part because he was not engulfed in society or ideology, and could see clearly and in a detached but engaged way. His fearless clarity and willingness to explore topics to their logical endpoint makes his contribution to the concept and practice of solitude unique, valuable,  and enduring.


The best collections of Nietzsche's writings are: Basic Writings of Nietzsche, introduction by Peter Gay, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1968 and The Portable Nietzsche, selected and translated with an introduction, prefaces, and notes, by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1954.