Nietzsche was born the son of a Lutheran clergyman in October 1844. He lived his early childhood in a slow, quiet, pastoral setting. His father died when Nietzsche was five. Nevertheless, his father gave Fritz a fundamental influence. Music. The pastor was gifted with a piano and played many classical compositions in addition to religious hymns and longer works of the Church.
Curtis Cate writes of Fritz’s boyhood. “His most remarkable characteristic was an acute sensitivity to music. Whenever his father began to play the piano, little Fritz would drop whatever he was playing with and listen with rapt attention. That his father was the only person in the community able to extract such lovely sounds from this wondrous instrument raised him above ordinary mortals and enveloped him in a celestial aura of infant adoration.” (page 6)
Early on, Nietzsche developed the habit of writing about his experiences. But this was more than just keeping a diary. Rudiger Safranski explains: "As a young boy, Nietzsche began to discover his keen delight in writing, which he indulged even while playing children's games. Barely able to contain his eagerness to record his experiences, he always rushed to note down in his 'little book' every detail of his games and have his playmates read his compositions. The game itself paled in comparison with his account of the game. As experiences unfolded, he was already crafting his narratives of them. He captured the fleeting moment and infused the present with imminent meaning. All of us ponder our existences, but Nietzsche strove to lead the kind of life that would yield food for thought. His life was a testing ground for his thinking. The essay was a mode of living." (pages 27-28)
When he was 14, Nietzsche jotted down a 30-page manuscript reflecting upon his youth entitled “From My Life.” In it he wrote: “God has given us music so that we should first of all be led upwards through it…its main designation is that it leads our thoughts to higher things, that it elevates us, even shakes us.” (Cate, page 15)
It was around this time he began composing his own music.
Another section in “From My Life” is translated by R.J. Hollingdale: “I have already experienced so much – joy and sorrow, cheerful things and sad things – but in everything God has safely led me as a father leads his week little child…I have firmly resolved within me to dedicate myself forever to His service.” (page 17)
In yet another section of same the manuscript this time in The Good European, possibly revealing his early enjoyment of hiking and being outdoors: “From childhood on, I sought solitude, and I felt best whenever I could give myself over to myself undisturbed. And this was usually in the open-air temple of nature, which was my true joy. Thunder storms always made the most powerful impression on me: the thunder rolling in from afar and the lightning bolts flashing only increased my fear of the Lord.” (page 19)
In Fritz’s extended family there were numerous pastors and religious workers. Christianity was more or less his family’s “trade.” It was faith-based, yet not fundamentally so. The enlightened arts were all appreciated and participated in along with a largely agrarian lifestyle. Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska, was thrilled that Fritz initially wanted to be trained in theology as his vocation.
Fritz loved to swim and often played in the rivers with his school friends. “From My Life” in The Good European: “Oh, it is delightful to surrender oneself to warm waters of summer! I especially felt this once I learned to swim. To give oneself over to the current, and so float effortlessly on the surface of the tide – can one imagine anything more lovely? In this regard I also esteem swimming not only as pleasant but also as very salubrious and refreshing.” (page 23) He often swam in the Saale River. He would enjoy rivers, lakes, and the sea coast all his life.
His grades were often excellent. In spite of frequent periods of illness relating to migraine headaches, joint pain, and nausea, he excelled in school. He scored consistently high marks in Latin, Religion, Greek, German, French, History, ‘industry’, and ‘good behavior.’
Nietzsche was a conscientious boy. In 1863, he wrote his mother to beg her forgiveness. From The Good European: “If I am writing you today it is nonetheless one of the most unpleasant and saddest things I have ever had to do. For I have committed something terrible, and I don’t know whether you will or can forgive me. With a heavy heart and against all my own natural inclinations I take up the pen, especially when I call to mind the splendid conviviality we enjoyed during the Easter holidays, a conviviality no discord was able to darken. Well, last Sunday I got drunk, and I have no excuse than the fact that I don’t know how much I can hold, and besides I was rather excited that afternoon.” (page 24)
It seems simple and perhaps sentimental to consider such a confession in our postmodern awareness. But, this letter reveals how sensitive he was to the world and how he strove to act in a manner befitting his family name. Getting drunk shamed him.
At age 18 he wrote an essay entitled “Fate and History.” It was interrupted by severe headaches which caused him to be bled by leeches in the school’s sickroom. In this essay Nietzsche begins to show cracks in his faith, based upon his academic experience. Cate offers a quote from the essay: “We have been influenced without having had the strength in us to oppose the counter-force, without realizing we have been influenced.” (page 31) While in The Good European the same essay states: “We scarcely know whether humanity itself is but a stage or period in universal history, or becoming; whether it is but an arbitrary epiphany of God.” (page 32)
In another short essay we find: “Absolute, fateless freedom of the will would make Man a God, the fatalistic principle reduce him to an automation.” (Cate, page 32)
He entered the university at Bonn at age 20 to study theology with a particular secondary interest in philology. At Bonn, Fritz was very much a "party" boy. He often went out drinking with friends, he visited bordellos, and generally strived to be a 'fast-living student.' (Julian Young, page 56)
Over the course of recent school years, his success in class, his academic essays, his mastery of old languages particularly Latin and Greek, and his exposure to new methods of historical interpretation such as David Strauss’ “The Life of Jesus” led Fritz to see that the teachings of Jesus should be subject to mythic explanation just like everything else handed down to us in written form throughout history.
This culminated on a visit home after his first semester at Bonn when he refused to go to communion with his mother. It was a profound first. His faculty registration in his second semester at Bonn became philology, not theology. It was a fundamental break.
Nietzsche took communion at his early schools and with his mother and sister regularly when at home up to his entry into Bonn. Of his break with the Church, Rudger Safaranski summarizes it this way: “When he returned to Namburg during the first semester break in early 1865, his mother was horrified to see her son demonstrably refusing to take communion. An emotional quarrel ensued. Finally, she broke down in tears and was consoled by one of his aunts, who pointed out that all great men of God had to overcome doubts and temptations. She calmed down for a moment, but demanded that her son show considerate restraint in the future. He was not to mention any doubts about religion in her presence. His mother wrote to her brother Edmund: ‘My dear old Fritz is a noble person, despite our differences of opinion. He truly interprets life or, more accurately, time and appreciates only the lofty and good and despises everything crude. Yet I am often worried about this dear child of mine. But God looks into our hearts.’” (pages 43-44)
Later that year, Fritz clarified his position in a letter to his sister, Elizabeth. Walter Kaufmann includes part of it in his biography: “Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth – even if it be most abhorrent and ugly. Still one last question: if we had believed from childhood that all salvation issued from another than Jesus – say, from Mohammed – is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? ...Every true faith is infallible inasmuch as it accomplishes what the person who has the faith hopes to find in it; but faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (pages 23-24)