Nietzsche’s Magnum Opus

Thomas H Brobjer. History of European Ideas. Volume 32, Issue 3. 2006.


Did Nietzsche intend and plan to write a magnum opus, a ‘Hauptwerk’? I will show and argue that this was indeed the case, that he for at least the last 5 years of his active life (1884-88) planned, projected and worked hard to write such a work. That this was the case has been ignored or denied, and few Nietzsche scholars have shown an awareness of it and discussed its possible consequences. The principle reason for this denial and ignorance has been the ferocious debates about the status and value of the compilation of Nietzsche’s notes under the title Der Wille zur Macht (1901, 1906 and 1911) which Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Heinrich Köselitz (also known as Peter Gast) edited, and for which they have been accused of giving the impression that this was the finished ‘Hauptwerk’. This compilation is still the only version of the late Nietzsche’s notes available in English translation, entitled The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. It is time that the question of Nietzsche’s planned ‘Hauptwerk’ and its possible content is discussed in a scholarly manner without being hampered and tied up with the infectious debates about Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s and Peter Gast’s edition. My primary purpose is not to evaluate that work, but instead to bring attention to Nietzsche’s intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’, and to show that this has consequences for our understanding of the late Nietzsche’s writing and manner of thinking. For example, an awareness that he avoided to use material intended for the ‘Hauptwerk’ in Jenseits von Gut und Böse and Zur Genealogie der Moral, and that the subtitle to the former work, ‘Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future’ actually refers to the projected ‘Hauptwerk’. Further, a consequence of an awareness that Nietzsche worked intensively on writing a magnum opus the last 5 years of his life, is that the relevance and importance of some topics—such as eternal recurrence and nihilism—which are present in the late Nietzsche’s published books, but which he intended to elaborate on much more in his magnum opus, ought to be given more attention and greater weight. This then also becomes true of his late notes generally. His work on a ‘Hauptwerk’ shows that the late Nietzsche had intentions, and a sense of mission, that went beyond what can be found in the published works, since he never finished the said ‘Hauptwerk’. I will also show that there are good reasons for upgrading the importance of Nietzsche’s project of a revaluation of all values. Oddly and unfortunately enough, among Nietzsche’s more well-known topoi, such as Übermensch, will to Power, eternal recurrence and the revaluation of all values, it is the latter that has received by far the least attention. Furthermore, Nietzsche was hardly a systematic philosopher, but he indented to write this ‘Hauptwerk’ in a more systematic manner than most Nietzsche scholars assume or are aware of. It is certainly curious, considering the enormous number of books and articles published about Nietzsche and his philosophy—more than 19000—that at least since the 1960s such miniscule attention has been directed at his intention to write such a work, and at its possible philosophical content and the direction of that content.

The best and the most authoritative text written about this question is Mazzoni Montinari’s in many ways excellent essay ‘Nietzsches Nachlaß von 1885 bis 1888 oder Textkritik und Wille zur Macht’ published in Nietzsche lesen (Berlin, New York, 1982). As a very acute and perceptive scholar, and as the editor of the critical edition of Nietzsche’s works, his views and arguments must certainly be taken very seriously. He is very skeptical and critical towards the idea of a ‘Hauptwerk’ by Nietzsche, and he claims that ‘Nietzsches collapse in Turin came when he literally was finished with everything’.4 The same claim is made by the main biographer Curt Paul Janz: ‘with it [Der Antichrist] and by 30 September 1888 his philosophy has come to an end!’. To me, this claim seems both psychologically improbable and in regard to Nietzsche’s intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’ simply wrong (and I will below present arguments against it). I will attempt to show that Nietzsche was continually concerned with writing a ‘Hauptwerk’ during the last five active years of his life, and this intention certainly strongly influenced him and what he wrote. Furthermore, an awareness of this intention constitutes an essential ingredient in determining the value and originality of his late notes. It has been a failure of historians of philosophy and Nietzsche scholars not to take this into consideration and account.

Before Nietzsche’s Planned and Projected ‘Hauptwerk’

There can be no doubt that Nietzsche planned and projected a magnum opus, although this has received little attention. There is ample evidence of it in his writings. One can summarize the situation as follows. Nietzsche had first passed through a stage of idealistic and partly romantic philosophy, inspired by Schopenhauer and Wagner, then reacted against this and held an almost positivistic philosophical position during his free spirit phase (1875/76-1881/82), developed in comradeship with Paul Rée. By the summer of 1881 Nietzsche felt that he was ready to move into a new stage of his thinking and philosophy. Shortly thereafter, in early August 1881, he discovered the idea of eternal recurrence, which together with other ‘discoveries’ he made near this time,6 confirmed that he had moved into a new phase. He thereafter felt a new sense of purpose, but decided nonetheless to write his next book, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, mostly in the spirit of the middle phase (that is, he withheld discussions of eternal recurrence and other aspects in the work). That he himself knew that he had moved into a new phase can be seen in many ways. For example, he writes on the back cover the Die fröhliche Wissenschaft that this is the last book of the free spirit phase, he suggests in several letters to Lou Salomé that he has left the ‘free-spirit phase’, and we can observe it in the fact that he had already ‘discovered’ the figure of Zarathustra and used it in his notes, but deleted all references to him in that work, except in the last section, to foreshadow his next work. Nietzsche already in 1881 or at least by 1882 knew that he was going to write Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-85). He would always be most satisfied with this work, but he also realized that he in that work had presented his new thoughts as literature, poetically and metaphorically rather than philosophically. Both for the sake of being understood and for his own understanding he needed to work through most of the contents of that work more stringently and philosophically. We can note, as a single example of how Nietzsche connected Also sprach Zarathustra to his ‘Hauptwerk’, that he in the preface to Der Antichrist, the first volume of the Revaluation of All Values, claims that this work belongs to the very few, perhaps to those who understood his Zarathustra. The evidence for his intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’ can be seen in his published works, in his letters and in his notebooks. Let us examine the evidence in more detail.

The Presence of the Projected ‘Hauptwerk’ in Nietzsche’s Published Books

The intention of writing a ‘Hauptwerk’ is visible in all of Nietzsche’s works after Also sprach Zarathustra, but this presence has been ignored or gone unnoticed by almost all commentators. He avoided using the material intended for the ‘Hauptwerk’ when he wrote and put together his first book after Also sprach ZarathustraJenseits von Gut und Böse (1886) and also Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887). The subtitle to the former, ‘Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future’, does not refer to a vague general hope but directly to the projected ‘Hauptwerk’, though this has rarely been understood. In fact, he even announced the ‘Hauptwerk’ on the back cover of Jenseits von Gut und Böse as a work in progress: ‘Works under preparation: The Will to Power. An Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values. In Four Books.’ In Zur Genealogie der Moral he explicitly refers to his future intention: ‘I shall probe these things more thoroughly and severely in another connection (under the title ‘On the History of European Nihilism’; it will be contained in a work in progress: The Will to PowerAttempt at a Revaluation of All Values).’ In an earlier version of this text, which was changed as late as in the proof-reading stage, Nietzsche had written ‘my main work [Hauptwerk] which is under progress’ instead of ‘a work in progress’. Furthermore, shortly after having finished writing the three essays of Zur Genealogie der Moral, he writes to Gast, 15 September 1887, that he has more to say than what is written in them, with obvious reference to his forthcoming ‘Hauptwerk’. After having finished Zur Genealogie der Moral, Nietzsche intended to work more or less exclusively on his ‘Hauptwerk’ for a longer period of time—and this was also to a large extent what happened. However, the following year he made two short ‘pauses’ to write Der Fall Wagner and Götzen-Dämmerung, both which he regarded as resting places in the midst of the greater and much more difficult task of writing his ‘Hauptwerk’.

In his next published work, after Zur Genealogie der MoralDer Fall Wagner (1888) he again explicitly refers to the content of his coming ‘Hauptwerk’: ‘I shall have an opportunity (in a chapter of my main work [meines Hauptwerks], entitled ‘Toward a Physiology of Art’) to show in more detail how this over-all change of art into histrionics is no less an expression of physiological degeneration […].’

Nietzsche’s next book, Götzen-Dämmerung, contains many references to the future ‘Hauptwerk’, including the claim in the preface that he has just finished the first volume of it, i.e., Der Antichrist: ‘Turin, 30 September 1888, on the day the first book of the Revaluation of all Values was completed’. I will discuss the many signs of the projected ‘Hauptwerk’ in Götzen-Dämmerung and Der Antichrist, and how the reading of the latter work changes when it is realized that it constituted the first volume of the planned magnum opus, in a forthcoming article entitled ‘The Antichrist as the First Volume of Nietzsche’s magnum opus’.

Nietzsche decided that for his ‘Hauptwerk’ to be read and understood, he needed to prepare the ground—and especially explain why he has been able to see what no one else has seen or realized for 2000 years—by writing his autobiography Ecce Homo (written in October and November, revised in December 1888) and meant to be published before his ‘Hauptwerk’ (including Der Antichrist). Nietzsche refers to it as ‘a in the highest degree preparatory text’ to his ‘Hauptwerk’ in a letter to Naumann, 6 November 1888, and it contains continual references to his future ‘Hauptwerk’. Just to mention a few examples: The very first sentence of the book announces his future work: ‘Seeing that I must shortly approach mankind with the heaviest demand that ever has been made on it [i.e., the revaluation], it seems to me indispensable to say who I am.’ At the end of the preface, as a separate paragraph, is a short text originally dated on Nietzsche’s birthday, 15 October 1888, in which he in the first version again refers to Der Antichrist as the first book of his ‘Hauptwerk’: ‘The first book of the Revaluation of all Values, the Songs of Zarathustra, the Twilight of the Idols, my attempt to philosophize with a hammer—all of them gifts of this year, of its last quarter even!’ When Nietzsche revised this text in November and December, he struck out the date, but—significantly—continued to refer to Der Antichrist as the first volume of the ‘Hauptwerk’.When Nietzsche carefully read the manuscript of Ecce homo during the first week of December—‘weighing each word on a gold scale’—and then read the proofs during the middle of the month, he still kept referring to Der Antichrist as ‘the first book of the Revaluation’ (my emphasis). However, just days before his mental collapse, 30 or 31 of December 1888, he sent instructions to his publisher to strike out the words ‘the first book of’ and changed the text to: ‘The Revaluation of all Values, the Songs of Zarathustra, and, as relaxation, the Twilight of the Idols, my attempt to philosophize with a hammer—all of them gifts of this year, of its last quarter even!’.

In the longest chapter of Ecce Homo Nietzsche reviewed all his books (up until Der Fall Wagner and Götzen-Dämmerung). After discussing and highly praising Also sprach Zarathustra, he begins the text under the heading Jenseits von Gut und Böse by discussing the new task broadly speaking (that is, not just Jenseits von Gut und Böse), which he describes as a Revaluation of all Values: ‘The task for the immediately following years was as clear as it could be. Now that the affirmative part of my task was done, it was the turn of the denying the No-saying and No-doing part: the revaluation of existing values themselves, the great war—the evocation of a day of decision.’ The importance of Jenseits von Gut und Böse was downplayed and it is described as ‘a critique of modernity’. This downplaying is surely because Nietzsche wanted to stimulate the readers’ interest in the future ‘Hauptwerk’ and because Jenseits von Gut und Böse had summarized his philosophy in 1886, but did not contain discussions of the philosophical themes which now preoccupied him. The same is true for Zur Genealogie der Moral, which is described as ‘three decisive preliminary studies of a psychologist for a revaluation of all values’, i.e., it is explicitly stated to be preparatory for his ‘Hauptwerk’. He then briefly reviews Götzen-Dämmerung, and, as in the case with Jenseits von Gut und Böse, he emphasizes the existence of a dichotomy—so suitable for a revaluation of values—of which one side is modernity and modern ideas, while the other side is not made explicit—surely because that is the task of his ‘Hauptwerk’. Nietzsche ends his discussion of Götzen-Dämmerung with the claim: ‘And, in all seriousness, no one before me has known the right path, the ascending path: only after me are there again hopes, tasks, prescribable paths of culture—I am the bringer of the good tidings of these … Precisely therewith am I a destiny’. This is again a promise of his ‘Hauptwerk’—and the word ‘destiny’ connects with the last chapter of Ecce homo entitled ‘Why I am a Destiny’, which points forward to his coming ‘Hauptwerk’.

Immediately after the quoted text, although he is finished with presenting Götzen-Dämmerung, he states that he has started to work on his ‘Hauptwerk’: ‘Immediately upon completing the said work [Götzen-Dämmerung] and without losing so much as a day, I attacked the tremendous task of the Revaluation in a sovereign feeling of pride beyond compare’. After some preamble, Nietzsche briefly again alludes to his writing of Der Antichrist or the first book of his Revaluation of all Values, without actually referring to its title.

The last book Nietzsche reviewed was Der Fall Wagner, with constant discussion and critique of modern decadence. He on several occasions hints at his coming ‘Hauptwerk’, with claims such as: ‘Does anyone except me know a way out of this blind alley? …’ And at the very end of the review he explicitly refers to his coming ‘Hauptwerk’: ‘And so, about two years before the shattering thunder of the Revaluation which will set the earth into convulsions, I sent the ‘Wagner Case’ into the world.’

The last chapter of Ecce Homo ‘Why I Am a Destiny’ is to a large part centered upon his coming work: ‘Revaluation of all values: this is my formula [and also the title of his coming ‘Hauptwerk’] for an act of supreme coming-to-oneself on the part of mankind […] I am a bringer of good tidings such as there has never been’.

Nietzsche’s planned ‘Hauptwerk’ is thus present in all later published books, and affected how they were written and their contents. The strongest prima facie argument against that Nietzsche’s late notes contain interesting material not included in his published books is that he published extensively late in life. Two major philosophical works in 1886 and 1887, and he prepared four further books for publication in his last active year. However, as we have seen, he avoided themes which he was planning to discuss in his ‘Hauptwerk’ while writing Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886) and Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887), and of the last four books, Der Fall Wagner and Götzen-Dämmerung were merely ‘resting places’ while Nietzsche worked on his projected book, while Ecce homo was written explicitly for the purpose of preparing the way for the ‘Hauptwerk’. While writing Der Antichrist, it certainly was intended to be only the first of four books of his ‘Hauptwerk’.

Signs of the Planned ‘Hauptwerk’ in Nietzsche’s Letters

Nietzsche’s intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’ is still more prominent in his letters than in his published books. In them we also get some hints as to the nature of the ‘Hauptwerk’. He explicitly refers to such a work as his ‘Hauptwerk’ in a number of letters between 1886 and 1888,18 but an intention to write such a work is clear already from at least 1884 onwards.

Nietzsche began to feel a new and intensive sense of purpose with his ‘discovery’ of the idea of eternal recurrence (and other related ‘discoveries’ made near that time) in early August 1881. He then began to refer to his ‘task’, ‘life-task’, ‘fundamental task’ and ‘main task’ (AufgabeLebensaufgabeHauptsache and Hauptaufgabe), and similar expressions, and that he will require several years time to develop it.

In early 1884, when he had finished Also sprach Zarathustra in three parts (he had no definite plans to continue it until late in 1884) he clearly had plans to write a greater work in which he planned to elaborate on his idea of eternal recurrence and on his critique of morality—he certainly wrote down a large number of titles for such a work in 1884 and 1885 (compare the next section). It is at this time that his intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’ becomes explicit as can be seen in four letters where Nietzsche speaks of Also sprach Zarathustra as merely an ‘entrance hall’ to his philosophy, and that he was working on the main building. In a letter to Meysenbug, end of March 1884, he writes that he has finished his Also sprach Zarathustra and calls that work ‘an entrance hall to my philosophy—built for me, to give me courage’, and he hints at that he is working on the main building by claiming that he was working on ‘the book of my life’ [‘das Werk meines Lebens’].

In three further letters he refer to Also sprach Zarathustra as merely the ‘Vorhalle’ to his philosophy, and to his strong sense of purpose and mission. It seems clear that he had in mind a more philosophical (and less metaphorical) work than Also sprach Zarathustra, but which, in all likelihood, would elaborate on the same fundamental ideas.

If I get to Sils Maria in the summer, I mean to set about revising my metaphysical and epistemological views. I must now proceed step by step through a series of disciplines, for I have decided to spend the next five years on an elaboration of my ‘philosophy’, the entrance hall of which I have built with my Zarathustra. (Letter to Overbeck, 7 April 1884)

A month later, he repeats the intention to work on a ‘Hauptwerk’, then referred to as ‘Haupt-Bau’, i.e., ‘main building’.

Now, after that I for me have built this entrance hall to my philosophy, I will have to start again and not grow tired until the main building also stands finished before me. (Letter to Meysenbug, early May 1884).

In fact, this was not only an intention, for during much of 1884 Nietzsche actually planned and worked on this ‘Hauptwerk’ or ‘main building’ of his philosophy.20 At this early stage it most frequently was called ‘Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence’ as title or subtitle. In early autumn Nietzsche seems to confirm that he had fulfilled his plans.

I have practically finished the main task which I set myself for this summer; the next six years will be for working out a scheme which I have sketched for my ‘philosophy’. It has gone well and looks hopeful. (Letter to Gast, 2 September 1884)

During 1885 Nietzsche continued to plan and prepare for producing a ‘Hauptwerk’. From the autumn of 1886—after having finished Jenseits von Gut und Böse—Nietzsche began to refer to the projected major work explicitly as his magnum opus, his ‘Hauptwerk’, and he now has a better grasp of what it ought to contain after having drafted titles and contents in his notebooks for several years. He began to call it ‘Der Wille zur Macht’ in August or September 1885, at first with a subtitle which connected it with the earlier projected titles: ‘Versuch einer neuen Auslegung alles Geschehens’. During the autumn 1886 he then gave it the full title ‘Der Wille zur Macht: Versuch einer Umwerthung aller Werthe’, which it would continue to have for the next 3 years, and which he felt certain enough about to have published on the back cover of Jenseits von Gut und Böse as a work in preparation.

For the coming 4 years the working out of a four-volume magnum opus [Hauptwerks] has been announced; already the title is enough to raise fears: ‘The Will to Power. Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values’. For its sake I have need of everything, good health, solitude, good spirits, perhaps a wife. (Letter to Elisabeth and Bernhard Förster, 2 September 1886)

Nietzsche continued to work on this project during the following year, sometimes feeling that things were going well, at other times being more dejected and frustrated:

Ah, everything in my life is so uncertain and shaky, and always this horrible ill health of mine! On the other hand, there is the hundredweight of this need pressing upon me—to create a coherent structure of thought during the next few years—and for this I need five or six preconditions, all of which seem to be missing now or to be unattainable. (Letter to Overbeck, 24 March 1887)

However, after having finished Zur Genealogie der Moral, he on the whole felt as determined and optimistic as he had done a year earlier after having finished Jenseits von Gut und Böse. His whole life continues to be determined by ‘the nowadays completely absorbing main task [Hauptpensum] of my life’, that is, his work on the ‘Hauptwerk’ ‘for which purpose I have much to learn, to question, to read’ (letter to Gast, 15 September 1887).

During 1887 and most of 1888, Nietzsche was intensively engaged in this work on the ‘Hauptwerk’, which is often evident in his letters, and I will cite several of them in the next section where I discuss his notebooks. It is primarily with the aid of Nietzsche’s notebooks that we can see and discuss the planned content of his ‘Hauptwerk’. However, already from the letters it is clear that it was planned to be a four-volume work, which was meant to present and elaborate his thinking in a more structured and theoretical manner than is done in any of his other books. Not only does Nietzsche refer to the planned work as a ‘Hauptwerk’, a ‘main building’, ‘my lifework’, ‘my main task’, etc. suggesting, not only that it was to be a magnum opus, but also that it was going to be a more ‘complete’, structured and theoretical work than his other books. Already in 1883 he speaks of constructing something more ‘theoretical’, thereafter he refers to his ‘Hauptwerk’ as a ‘conceptio’, as ‘einen zusammenhängenden Bau von Gedanken’, ‘meine Gesammt-Conception’, that he will perform an ‘Ausarbeitung meiner ‘Philosophie’, ‘Ausarbeitung eines Schema’s an, mit welchem ich meine ‘Philosophie’ umrissen habe’, ‘Ausarbeitung meines ganzen Gedankensystems’ and in September 1888 he refers to its ‘sehr strengen und ernsten Charakter’.

Signs of Nietzsche’s ‘Hauptwerk’ in his Nachlaß

The most important source of information about Nietzsche’s projected ‘Hauptwerk’ and its planned content can be found in his notebooks. It is possible to find a very large number of outlines of titles of planned books related to Nietzsche’s ‘Hauptwerk’ in them from the later 1880s. Already in August 1881, shortly after having discovered the idea of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche drafted a work in four volumes where this idea was to be delineated and its effect discussed (which is a major theme in all later drafts of a ‘Hauptwerk’). Thereafter it is easy to find many similar drafts of titles referring to works of—at the beginning three, four or five volumes—later consistently of four volumes.

I have found six relevant such drafts from the year 1884—mostly referring to the same work entitled ‘Die ewige Wiederkunft’. In the first half of 1885 the title(s) continue to echo the eternal recurrence, and in several outlines he still foresees five volumes. However, from the summer of 1885, all the drafts consist of four volumes, and from August/September 1885 the main title is ‘Der Wille zur Macht’, until the last one in late August 1888. Thereafter it was called ‘Umwerthung aller Werthe’, which remains the main title until the end. I have found 72 relevant such drafts of titles (or table of contents clearly relating to such titles) from the summer of 1885 until October 1888. This is a much larger number than for any other projected or realized book, and illustrate how Nietzsche for many years planned and worked on a ‘Hauptwerk’. On the whole, there is significant consistency between the different drafts, and on several instances it is a previous subtitle that has become the main title. There are thus good reasons to regard these different titles as referring to essentially the same planned ‘Hauptwerk’.

Nietzsche’s work on and notes for the ‘Hauptwerk’ 1884-88 can be divided into nine periods, and during this time there are six more extensive collections of notes for and corresponding tables of contents of that work.

The earliest period for which not only drafts of titles but more consistent work on the ‘Hauptwerk’ can be found is during the summer-autumn of 1884. Nietzsche at this time regarded Also sprach Zarathustra (in three parts) as a finished ‘entrance hall’ and worked on the ‘main building’ (or to prepare for the writing of something which could be likened to a ‘main building’). In the notebooks from this period, many different titles (and preliminary tables of contents) occur, but the most frequent one is ‘Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence’ (or ones closely related to this one, either as title or subtitle.29 For example, a draft of titles and contents from the summer-autumn of 1884 shows how closely related the work is to his Also sprach Zarathustra, dealing in turn with the idea of eternal recurrence, immoralism and Übermensch. Later in the same notebook, he divides the projected book into five sections, and it now takes a form more akin to that what it will take in 1887 and 1888—the first book dealing with epistemology, the second, morality, the third, art and aesthetics, the fourth with higher human beings and the fifth eternal recurrence. Later, parts of book 3 and the whole of book 4 will be subsumed into the last book. That this projected work was meant to be more theoretical than Also sprach Zarathustra is clear from the notes in ‘W II 5’ which deals with many more conventional philosophical themes and discusses many philosophers, among them Schopenhauer, Kant, Aristotle, Plato and the pre-Socratics. The notes in this notebook are of miscellaneous nature, and are not clearly organized into any projected book. To do that requires interpretation. However, Nietzsche has gone through the notebook when it was finished—probably while working on notebook KSA 11, 27 (‘Z II 5’) during the summer and autumn 1884, and with a blue and a red pencil marked many notes as belonging to the theme ‘philosopher’ or ‘artist’ respectively, that is, probably as belonging to (or rather, constituting working material for) books one and three of his planned ‘Hauptwerk’, then called ‘Die ewige Wiederkunft’ or ‘Mittag und Ewigkeit’.

The second, connected, period when there seems to be an increase in notes and drafts for books relating to Nietzsche’s ‘Hauptwerk’ is in the summer of 1885. He continues to draft titles related to ‘Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence’, but also others such as ‘Dionysus’ and ‘Mittag und Ewigkeit’, which clearly relates to his ‘Hauptwerk’.

The third, partly overlapping period, covers the autumn of 1885 to the autumn of 1886. It is during this time that Nietzsche decides that ‘The Will to Power’ will be the title of his ‘Hauptwerk’. He writes down several drafts for titles, tables of contents, general contents and prefaces, especially during the summer of 1886.

The fourth period, and the most serious one so far, occurred between the winter of 1886/87 and early spring 1887, i.e., between the writing of Jenseits von Gut und Böse (and the fifth book of the Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) and Zur Genealogie der Moral. During this time he writes down almost fifty pages of notes for ‘Der Wille zur Macht’, followed by another 20 pages of more general notes. It is one of the drafts for the four-volume ‘Hauptwerk’ from this period which Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Peter Gast used as the blue-print for their compilation Der Wille zur Macht. In fact, the very last time Nietzsche wrote down an outline for ‘Der Wille zur Macht’, during the end of August 1888, this corresponded well to these notes, and he then went back to them and added different volume and chapter titles to them. These notes merit careful examination, and they can, at least in part, be regarded as both Nietzsche’s first and last extended and more consistent draft for his ‘Hauptwerk’ (and can be called version A).

The fifth period seems to have been in the spring-summer of 1887. During the spring of 1887, Nietzsche goes through his old notebooks from 1885 and 1886 and numbers 53 notes which he had not used in his previous works. He also copies down short catch-phases from the notes and lists them, presumably for the work on his ‘Hauptwerk’. He then, on 10 June 1887, writes down a longer continual text—called the ‘Lenzer Heide’ text—of seven printed pages about nihilism (which was to be one of the main themes of his ‘Hauptwerk’). Shortly thereafter, he wrote another almost continual text of 13 printed pages relating to four of the chapters of his projected ‘Der Wille zur Macht’,43 and he felt that the work was going well. These notes can be regarded as Nietzsche’s second more consistent attempt at and draft for his ‘Hauptwerk’ (version B).

The sixth period covers the autumn of 1887 until February/March 1888, i.e., after having finished Zur Genealogie der Moral, when he worked intensively on his projected ‘Hauptwerk’. During this autumn, at the beginning of his last winter in Nizza, he began to use two large notebooks of 142 pages each for the purpose of collecting notes for his ‘Hauptwerk’. He wrote and copied down from earlier notebooks in legible handwriting a large number of notes into them. This work is reflected in a letter to Elisabeth, 15 October 1887:

On the other hand, there is not the slightest chance once my magnum opus [mein Hauptwerk] is finished to bring it to the world other than through ‘self-print’. […] Forgive me, if I due to these worries about the future (that is about making my magnum opus [meines Hauptwerks] possible, in which the problem and the task of my life is concentrated) now behave in regard to financial questions with unwilling worry and hesitation.

By the end of November 1887, he had copied down about 400 such notes, of which he had numbered 300. In late November he continued this work in a third notebook, and numbered most of these new notes consecutively up to 372. During December and January, he worked hard on the ‘Hauptwerk’, with a strong sense of purpose, and also with the feeling that his previous life had been a mere promise. However, he seems not to have been able to give a satisfactory structure to his work.

In February 1888, he began using a new notebook, and filled half of it with a ‘index’ to the three previous notebooks, in which these notes are briefly summarized and numbered 1-372 (the same as in the other notebooks). The first three hundred of these summaries are divided into four books by using roman numerals. There is also a plan for the whole book, presumably entitled ‘Der Wille zur Macht’, but no title is given, in four volumes. These notes can be regarded as Nietzsche’s third and most extensive draft for his ‘Hauptwerk’ (version C).

Nietzsche referred to this intensive work and claimed that the ‘first version of my ‘Umwerthung aller Werthe’ is finished’ in a letter to Overbeck, 13 February 1888:

Expressed as factum brutum: the first version [erste Niederschrift] of my ‘Revaluation of All Values’ is finished. The total conception [Gesammt-Conception] of it was the longest torture I have experienced, a real illness.

In another letter to Gast, written the same day, he claims to have achieved much:

Dear friend […] ‘very much has been achieved! In spite of everything, very much has been achieved! […]’ […] I have finished the first version of my ‘Attempt at a Revaluation’: it was, all in all, a torture, and furthermore, I absolutely do not yet have the courage for it. In ten years I will do it better.

During the spring of 1888, from March to June, Nietzsche continues this work—in what can be regarded as a seventh period—by writing a large number of notes into a new large notebook of 190pages, began on 25 March 1888 and eventually completely filled by him. These notes are not as directly focused towards work on the ‘Hauptwerk’ as the notes in the four notebooks from the previous autumn-winter, although notes for the ‘Der Wille zur Macht’ constitute the majority of them. At this time Nietzsche felt that his work was going well, as can be seen in several of his letters.

Nietzsche continued the work on his ‘Hauptwerk’ during the spring in Turin, parallel to his work on Der Fall Wagner. Thereafter he began two further notebooks—Nietzsche often worked with several parallel notebooks—which he filled with notes of a similar nature. All three of these notebooks contain drafts of ‘Der Wille zur Macht’ in four volumes or twelve chapters. One of these is of especial interest, probably written down at the end of May or early June. Nietzsche goes back to notebook ‘W II 5’, and adds titles from these 12 chapters to a large number of notes, i.e., organizes them according to that plan. This can be regarded as Nietzsche’s fourth more extensive draft for his ‘Hauptwerk’ (version D). He seems to feel that he is able to grasp the whole of his philosophy at this time:

These weeks in Turin (where I shall remain until 5 June) have been better and more successful than any I have had for years past,—above all, more philosophic. Almost every day I have had one, two hours during which I have reached that degree of energy so that I have been able to review my conception as a whole, from top to bottom [meine Gesammt-Conception von Oben nach Unten sehn zu können]: where all the enormous host of problems lay spread out at my feet in relief and clear in outline. Such a feat requires a maximum of strength which I scarcely dared hope ever would be mine again. Everything fits into its place, and for years has been tending in the right direction (Letter to Brandes, 4 May 1888).

Nietzsche continued to work in a similar manner during July and August, although in a much less intensive manner. In part this is explained by the fact that he during August read the proofs for Der Fall Wagner, worked on his poetry (which was to become the Dionysos-Dithyramben) and wrote Götzen-Dämmerung during the second half of August and the first days of September. In the middle of that work, 26 August, he for the last time used ‘Der Wille zur Macht’ as title for his ‘Hauptwerk’, and wrote down a detailed and well structured table of contents for his ‘Der Wille zur Macht’. He then used this plan to give volume and chapter titles, and to structure about fifty pages of notes he had written earlier, during the end of 1886 and early 1887. It is not known or obvious if Nietzsche intended to combine these notes with his two last previous selections, versions C and D. Although there are few connected notes relating to his ‘Hauptwerk’ from these summer months, apart from the restructured ones mentioned above, this last detailed table of contents could be used to structure Nietzsche’s late notes and thus can, with some hesitation, be regarded as his fifth major plan or draft for his ‘Hauptwerk’ (version E, which is thus just an extension of version A). Just before he wrote that plan down, he felt confident about his work and the future of his ‘Hauptwerk’.

If everything continues in the good manner with which it has began, I will in the coming years be finished with a major task [Hauptsache] of my life—and will need much money to print it. (Letter to Franziska, 22 August 1888)

The last period, during which Nietzsche worked through his notes for the purpose of writing a ‘Hauptwerk’, occurred in September and October 1888. Within two weeks of the last time he used ‘Der Wille zur Macht’ as the title of the ‘Hauptwerk’, the subtitle to that work, ‘Umwerthung aller Werthe’, had become the main title. In the mean time he had finished Götzen-Dämmerung and, more importantly, decided to put together several of the chapters dealing with Christianity in his ‘Hauptwerk’ (which until then had been scattered into different volumes) into one book which became the first volume of his ‘Hauptwerk’, ‘Umwerthung aller Werthe’. He thereafter, while working on Der Antichrist, began to make notes for and drafts to the other three volumes of that work. We possess seven drafts for the ‘Umwerthung aller Werthe’. These notes and drafts can be regarded as the sixth and last major plan and collection of notes for the ‘Hauptwerk’ (version F). During September Nietzsche in several letters expressed his optimism and sense of achievement, obviously feeling that his work on the ‘Hauptwerk’, with which he had struggled for so long, now was going well and would lead to success and completion.

May I tell you about myself? In the main I feel more than ever a great calm and confidence that I am on my way and even close to a great goal. I have, to my own surprise, already half finished in its final form the first book of my Revaluation of All Values. […] such a task makes deep pauses and distractions even hygienically necessary [which he exemplifies by discussing the writing of Der Fall Wagner and Götzen-Dämmerung]. (Letter to Overbeck, 14 September 1888)

This feeling continued in October, but thereafter, in November and December 1888, there are few notes, and none of them philosophical. These last two months before the collapse, Nietzsche was busy writing, editing, correcting, proof-reading a number of works, including Ecce homo, and he wrote well over a hundred letters. However, that which prevented the completion of the ‘Hauptwerk’ was, in my view, apart from the mental collapse, less that he was busy, but more that there was no hurry. He had decided to write, finish and publish Ecce homo before and as preparatory, and thus the work on the ‘Hauptwerk’ could and had to wait. Still more important was the signs of mental instability during these two last months, visible especially in his letters.

It seems psychologically unlikely that Nietzsche was finished with everything when he collapsed 44 years old. The evidence seems also to show that this was not the case. For many years he had planned for and worked hard to write a major work beyond what we have today, and as late as mid November 1888 he still planned to write and publish the three remaining volumes of his ‘Hauptwerk’. Even if he perhaps gave up the idea of writing a ‘Hauptwerk’ during the last weeks before the mental collapse (and it seems reasonable to regard this, in large part, as due to his mental state), it seems more interesting and relevant to take into consideration his feelings and intention during the last 5 years when most of his life was directed towards writing a ‘Hauptwerk’.

Montinari, and almost all commentators, have regarding this question ‘interpreted backwards’, that is, from the fact that no ‘Hauptwerk’ was finished (for few accept Der Antichrist as such), and possibly strengthened by the interpretation that Nietzsche perhaps gave up the idea of a ‘Hauptwerk’ during the last weeks of his active life, they have concluded that Nietzsche’s final position was that he had said all he wanted to say. This view became even more entrenched due to the exposure of the problematic nature of Elisabeth’s and Peter Gast’s selection of notes under the title Der Wille zur Macht, which by many was understood to constitute this planned ‘Hauptwerk’. In the debate about its status the claim that Nietzsche at the end had no intention to write such a work was an effective argument.

It is surprising that Elisabeth’s and Peter Gast’s Der Wille zur Macht has received so much attention and that it is essentially the only attempt of reconstructing—or seriously discussing the content of Nietzsche’s planned ‘Hauptwerk’. There ought to be ample room for discussion, speculation and for producing interesting editorial versions of his notebooks and thus for examining the relation between the late notes and the published works. The only exception seems to be Friedrich Würzbach’s attempt Umwertung aller Werte: Aus dem Nachlass zusammengestellt und herausgegeben (München, 1940, second ed. 1969). In fact, both Elisabeth’s and Würzbach’s versions are more like subjective selections and attempts at organizing them (and thus really not all that different from the many shorter and more random selections from the late Nietzsche’s notebooks that have been published) rather than attempts to follow Nietzsche’s own intentions. As I have shown above, the latter, at least in outline, is possible.

Still more surprising, considering that it coloured and partly determined much of Nietzsche’s life and work during the last 5 years of his active life, is that the question of his attempt to write a ‘Hauptwerk’ has received almost no in depth discussion in the many biographies of Nietzsche. It is, for example, only briefly discussed by Janz, and hardly mentioned at all in the most recent ones by Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: Biographie seines Denkens (München, Wien, 2000), Josef Rattner, NietzscheLebenWerkWirkung (Würzburg, 2000) and Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche (London, 2002).

Essentially all discussions of the question whether Nietzsche intended to write a magnum opus, or of the relevance of his late notebooks, have exclusively focused on the project ‘Wille zur Macht’, and inevitably got bogged down in discussions of Elisabeth’s and Peter Gast’s selection of notes. That has been a serious mistake, for as I have shown, the project ‘Will to Power’ only constituted a link in a much longer and more relevant chain—of Nietzsche’s intention to write a ‘Hauptwerk’. And that intention influenced and shaped what Nietzsche published (and did not publish) during his whole late period.

Many readers of Nietzsche find it surprising and frustrating that he himself claims that the idea of eternal recurrence is so profound and fundamental, but that he hardly elaborates on it at all. In fact, his most comprehensive ‘discussion’ of it is in its very first presentation in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft and more poetically in Also sprach Zarathustra. Thereafter he frequently alludes to it but do not carry out any discussion of it or its consequences. There washowevera reason for thisand that was that he saved it to constitute the pinnacle of his ‘Hauptwerk’, as is shown in all of his drafts. The same frustrated expectation can by the reader be held in regard to several other aspects and topics of Nietzsche’s late thinking, especially regarding the revaluation of all values and nihilism. In fact, for the latter case, Nietzsche has even at the end of Zur Genealogie der Moral promised (as we have seen above) that he would elaborate more extensively on ‘the history of European nihilism’ in the future (and there are ample notes on this theme among his late notebooks). To deny that Nietzsche had such intentions, and to ignore the late Nietzsche’s many interesting notes, has been a failure and a sign of poverty in Nietzsche research the last decades. Today, with greater historical distance, and with the aid of Colli and Montinari’s critical and chronological edition (KSA and KGW), especially since the facsimile edition of Nietzsche’s late notebooks is under publication (as KGW, section IX), such an approach can be performed under better conditions than ever before. A thorough examination and study of the late notes, and a comparison of them with his published works, ought to be one of the major tasks of Nietzsche research today.