Nietzsche, The Wanderer

Friedrich Nietzsche spent his days hiking the Swiss Alps, where he discovered the joy of philosophy: not as a logical puzzle — but as an adventure.

K. J. L. Kjeldsen
May 13 · 14 min read

Philosophy, as I have understood it hitherto, is a voluntary retirement into regions of ice and mountain-peaks — the seeking — out of everything strange and questionable in existence, everything upon which, hitherto, morality has set its ban. Through long experience, derived from such wanderings in forbidden country, I acquired an opinion very different from that which may seem generally desirable, of the causes which hitherto have led to men’s moralizing and idealizing…

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Preface.3

The popular of image of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has long been associated with Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”). While Caspar David Friedrich may not have intended any direct connection to the life or writing of Nietzsche, his work has often been featured on the covers of various editions of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, including by notable publishers, such as on the Barnes & Noble Classics edition.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich

We all know the pose of the “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (I even recreated it for my profile image). The figure stands with his back to us, surveying the world from on high. The valleys are still shrouded in mist, separating the Wanderer from the below-world as if by a cloudy veil. The Wanderer stands triumphantly, at once exhausted and at leisure, having earned for himself a beautiful vantage point that few others will ever reach or know.

What Caspar David Friedrich captured in his oil painting was the same underlying mood of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. When his ill health required him to leave the University of Basel in 1879, Nietzsche began to spend much of his time up in the mountains of Switzerland, near Sils Maria. Every day, Nietzsche wrote, walked, thought, and walked some more, and wrote some more. This was his routine, virtually every day. This is recorded in Curtis Cate’s book on Nietzsche [1]:

With a Spartan rigour which never ceased to amaze his landlord-grocer, Nietzsche would get up every morning when the faintly dawning sky was still grey, and, after washing himself with cold water from the pitcher and china basin in his bedroom and drinking some warm milk, he would, when not felled by headaches and vomiting, work uninterruptedly until eleven in the morning. He then went for a brisk, two-hour walk through the nearby forest or along the edge of Lake Silvaplana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stopping every now and then to jot down his latest thoughts in the notebook he always carried with him.

After lunch, Nietzsche took even longer walks in the mountains, sometimes not returning until four or five in the evening, whereupon he would write even more. Around this time, he began to write about “the free spirit”, Nietzsche’s model for a thinker who was truly unbounded from any cultural, religious or metaphysical tethers.

The free spirit is not defined by his criticism or opposition to the current culture. He is not a reflexive skeptic, nor a liberal elitist. Nietzsche instead emphasized that the free spirit is one who, by holding many convictions, eventually passes through those convictions through a slow, disciplined process of learning. He becomes able to stand outside of all presuppositions and behold the relativity of human values.

He introduced this new type of philosopher in Human, All Too Human, which came out in three volumes, in 1878, 1879 and 1880. Hand-in-hand with the free spirit came another metaphorical figure: “The Wanderer”. This related figure is introduced near the very end of the first volume, aphorism #638

THE WANDERER. — He who has attained intellectual emancipation to any extent cannot, for a long time, regard himself otherwise than as a wanderer on the face of the earth — and not even as a traveller towards a final goal, for there is no such thing. But he certainly wants to observe and keep his eyes open to whatever actually happens in the world; therefore he cannot attach his heart too firmly to anything individual; he must have in himself something wandering that takes pleasure in change and transitoriness…

The Wanderer is one who has fully realized his “intellectual emancipation”, and, having stood outside all moral and cultural perspectives, no longer has any “home” to return to. Nietzsche elaborates further in this passage that The Wanderer, when he occasionally grows tired of wandering, and enters the gates of the city to rejoin the crowds of men, he no longer feels at home among them. The Wanderer now “sees perhaps in the faces of the dwellers therein still more desert, uncleanliness, deceit, and insecurity than outside the gates”. Having questioned the common morality, and the stories that a culture tells about itself, one finds himself alienated from those who still believe.

The Wanderer and the free spirit are related figures, but it is noteworthy that Nietzsche felt the need to employ two different metaphors, indicating that there is perhaps some distinction to be made. To be free-spirited may be but one trait that a thinker might possess. But The Wanderer is the representation of free-spiritedness as an entire way of life. He cannot, for example, after departing from Christianity and recognizing it as a man-made religion, come to the conclusion that Christianity is the best way of life, and will himself into believing the fables of the Bible. Once one perceives the hollowness of all idols, there is no going back. One must now live — intellectually at least — outside of the boundaries of any law or country.

In Volume II of Human, All Too Human, The Wanderer returns again. We must once again see something increasingly autobiographical in the way that Nietzsche describes The Wanderer. Whereas he first described The Wanderer as traveling through a sort of barren desert, he begins in the second volume to place The Wanderer instead into the high mountains, above society and modernity. In Human, All Too Human, II, aphorism #237, Nietzsche writes:

THE WANDERER IN THE MOUNTAINS TO HIMSELF. — There are certain signs that you have gone farther and higher. There is a freer, wider prospect before you, the air blows cooler yet milder in your face (you have unlearned the folly of confounding mildness with warmth), your gait is more firm and vigorous, courage and discretion have waxed together. On all these grounds your journey may now be more lonely and in any case more perilous than heretofore, if indeed not to the extent believed by those who from the misty valley see you, the roamer, striding on the mountains.

The lakes of the Upper Engadine and the town of St. Morits (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Here, the adventurous aspect of the life of The Wanderer comes into greater focus. Sure, his life is a bit lonely — just as Nietzsche’s was. Certainly, it is perilous to question the deepest moral values and sacred cows of one’s own culture. But the air up in the mountains, above all that, is wildly free and refreshingly cold.

Most importantly, the Nietzschean sketch of the activity of philosophy runs counter to the entire analytical model which would rise up and take hold in the decades after Nietzsche’s death. Philosophy as done by The Wanderer is an act of traveling and observing. One seeks out new perspectives but does not dwell in any of them for very long. Nietzsche is calling from upon the ridge down to the prospective free spirits, inviting them with a view of philosophy as a call to adventure, rather than as an exercise in logical edifice-building.

Volume III of Human, All Too Human, was entitled, Der Wanderer und sein Schatten — “The Wanderer and His Shadow”. The work begins with a dialogue between the figure of The Wanderer, and his own shadow.

THE WANDERER: …You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents — rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.

THE SHADOW: Yes, and I hate the same thing that you hate — night. I love men because they are votaries of life. I rejoice in the gleam of their eyes when they recognize and discover, they who never weary of recognizing and discovering. That shadow which all things cast when the sunshine of knowledge falls upon — that shadow too am I.

THE WANDERER: I think I understand you, although you have expressed yourself in somewhat shadowy terms…

Rather than representing a malevolent or animalian dark side to the human psyche, as the shadow represents in the Jungian sense, Nietzsche’s Shadow represents the self-consciousness, as the companion to the id’s wanderlust. “The Shadow” should be seen more akin to the way Plato, in his famous allegory, described the shadows on the walls of the cave. It is a mere reflection of the material (the body and its drives): and yet, we are always accompanied by our shadow, and it is only through the perception of the shadow, or representation, that men understand themselves and the world.

Nietzsche felt driven to wander and explore, as a sort of fundamental trait of his personality. In Nietzsche’s view, rather than an ego-consciousness “driving” a body, we are primarily bodies, with the consciousness simply along for the ride as the narrator. The Shadow therefore becomes yet another imaginary friend for Nietzsche, who in real life lived largely in isolation for large parts of the year.

In the works that followed Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche continued to explore the figure of the free spirit, which he wrote about again in his book, The Dawn. Then, the Wanderer and the free spirit both appear again in The Gay Science. It was in The Gay Science that many of the most significant and subversive ideas of Nietzsche’s began to emerge, such as the Death of God. It was while walking by Lake Silvaplana, in fact, that Nietzsche claimed that one of his most famous ideas, that of the eternal recurrence of the same events, struck him — “6,000 feet above man and time” as he writes later in Ecce Homo.

But Nietzsche never rested on any of these ideas, as though on the foundation of a new philosophical system. While he arguably did take steps towards constructing a political or ethical project, he was first and foremost driven not to settle, but to continue his sojourn. Thus, much of the work towards creating a coherent Nietzschean political or ethical philosophy was carried on by others. He describes the difficulty that this driving force of wanderlust imposed on him, in a passage in Book IV of The Gay Science, aphorism #309.

OUT OF THE SEVENTH SOLITUDE. — One day the wanderer shut a door behind him, stood still, and wept. Then he said: “Oh, this inclination and impulse towards the true, the real, the non-apparent, the certain! How I detest it! Why does this gloomy and passionate taskmaster follow just me? I should like to rest, but it does not permit me to do so. Are there not a host of things seducing me to tarry! Everywhere there are gardens of Armida for me, and therefore there will always be fresh separations and fresh bitterness of heart! I must set my foot forward, my weary wounded foot: and because I feel I must do this, I often cast grim glances back at the most beautiful things which could not detain me — because they could not detain me!”

The reference to the “gardens of Armida” may require some explanation for modern audiences, which will help to further elucidate how Nietzsche felt about his philosophical quest. Armida is a character in the epic Gerusalemme liberata, by Rennaissance poet Tarquato Tasso. In the poem, the warrior Rinaldo is distracted from his heroic quest by Armida, who first comes to kill Rinaldo, but instead falls in love with him. She then creates a magical, dreamlike garden for Rinaldo wherein the two can live together. Rinaldo is seduced by Armida’s beauty, and remains in her garden. Eventually, Rinaldo’s Christian compatriots arrive, and hold a shield up to his face to show him his own reflection — and thus remind Rinaldo who he really is.

Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For Nietzsche, the adventure of philosophy allured because he actually stood in the same kind of relationship to abstract ideas that an ordinary person might feel for another human being. Nietzsche could literally fall in love with a thought, or feel himself fighting a literal battle within his soul, or find himself dragged into abyssal depths by a strong mood. Nietzsche’s wanderlust required him to confront the panoply of human thoughts and feelings that had been painted onto reality by culture and religion. Even where he found these interpolations to be beautiful, he had to resist becoming enchanted with them and remaining in some Armida’s garden of the spirit. This was genuinely difficult for Nietzsche, but for him it represented true independence.

Nietzsche records what is perhaps one such moment of departure from an ‘Armida’s garden’ in The Wanderer and His Shadow. While he does not mention The Wanderer as a character, the aphorism (#295) records Nietzsche’s own wandering through the Swiss Alps, almost akin to a journal entry:

ET IN ARCADIA EGO. — I looked down, over waves of hills, to a milk-green lake, through firs and pines austere with age; rocky crags of all shapes about me, the soil gay with flowers and grasses. A herd of cattle moved, stretched, and expanded itself before me; single cows and groups in the distance, in the clearest evening light, hard by the forest of pines; others nearer and darker; all in calm and eventide contentment. My watch pointed to half-past six. The bull of the herd had stepped into the white foaming brook, and went forward slowly, now striving against, now giving to his tempestuous course; thus, no doubt, he took his sort of fierce pleasure. Two dark brown beings, of Bergamesque origin, tended the herd, the girl dressed almost like a boy. On the left, overhanging cliffs and fields of snow above broad belts of woodland; to the right, two enormous ice-covered peaks, high above me, shimmering in the veil of the sunny haze — all large, silent, and bright. The beauty of the whole was awe-inspiring and conducive to a mute worship of the moment and its revelation. Unconsciously, as if nothing could be more natural, you peopled this pure, clear world of light (which had no trace of yearning, of expectancy, of looking forward or backward) with Greek heroes… So individual men too have lived, constantly feeling themselves in the world and the world in themselves…

It must be said that Nietzsche loved the Greeks, and felt the Greek heroes to be much healthier, worldlier ideals for a people to believe in — in comparison to the figure of Christ, for example. He had praised the aesthetic triumph of the elevated dreamworld of the Greek Olympians in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. But he had seen how the world that men live in was a reflection of themselves — how, in our deepest metaphysical assumptions, and most cherished religious doctrines, we had merely painted the contents of the human mind onto the very firmament of the cosmos. Thus, Nietzsche does not lament or reject the world of Greek heroes in this passage. But having wandered far and wide, he sees man’s stories about the world as incredible, ersatz, phantasmagoria. That is all these stories can be any longer.

The figure of The Wanderer himself comes from just such a story. Wotan, or Odin, who was a central figure in German and Norse mythology, was also known as The Wanderer, or The Gray Wanderer. Richard Wagner, the celebrated composer, and Nietzsche’s early mentor, had even depicted Wotan in the form of The Gray Wanderer in his operas. One can even see the cultural influence of The Gray Wanderer in popular culture today, in the form of Gandalf the Gray from Tolkien’s novels. The image of the powerful wizard, who travels alone through the wilderness, provided the ready material for Nietzsche’s image of the independent and intellectually-itinerant thinker.

And thus, we return to the figure of The Wanderer, at he famously appeared in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting. Carlos Idrobo wrote an essay [2] exploring the longstanding connection between Nietzsche’s ideas and images, and the famous Friedrich painting:

The wanderer motif played an important role during the 19th-Century German art, literature, and philosophy, mostly because of its capacity for embodiment and for connecting places, discourses, and related motifs like the summit experience and man before a borderline situation.

One of the concepts that Idrobo considers is the compositional device known as Rückenfigur, common to German Romantic painting, in which the figure depicted is seen from behind. In Friedrich’s painting, the composition allows us to take in the visual experience of The Wanderer. By placing us just behind the figure, we look out at the world along with him, and associate ourselves with the figure to some extent. We might consider the third-person perspective of many videogames, in which the character controlled by the player is followed from behind in a similar style of composition. Rather than eliminating the figure — by using a first-person perspective, for example — we include a central figure, but also identify with the perspective of the figure.

The common ideas within German culture provided both Caspar David Friedrich and Friedrich Nietzsche with the image of The Wanderer: in one case, a visual representation, and in the other a literary representation. Both lead the audience to powerfully identify with The Wanderer. In Friedrich’s painting, it is through the technique of Rückenfigur, and the alluring mystery of The Wanderer’s mountain vantage point, that we are made to yearn for adventure. In Nietzsche’s writing, it is through the language of philosophy as an act of wandering, and Nietzsche’s own example as a wandering philosopher, that we are again called to adventure. Perhaps this is why this painting, and the works of this philosopher, while not directly related, have always been seen as artistic kin.

There are many reasons why Nietzsche is revered by the online philosophical community today. He’s even won the respect of academia to some degree, when in the early decades after Nietzsche’s life he was largely relegated to the fringe. When we question why this is, we may be tempted to locate the attraction in Nietzsche’s ideas, writing style, or method. All of these may explain part of the appeal.

I wish to propose, however, that Nietzsche’s image of The Wanderer, encapsulated in visual form by Friedrich’s painting, offers more to the prospective student of philosophy than anything else in Nietzsche. The Wanderer represents Nietzsche’s ideal, and some sort of heroic ideal is required for self-actualized people. The Wanderer is the mold for the philosophers of the future that Nietzsche hoped would eventually continue his philosophical quest. During his time hiking and thinking in the mountains of Switzerland, Nietzsche discovered that philosophy could be so much more than metaphysical speculation or prejudicial moralizing. In fact, it was the very power to go beyond all such cultural boundaries, and journey into the unknown. Nietzsche continues to allure us, because, for him, philosophy is an adventure.

Yes, the author recreated this picture multiple times, both in the Swiss Alps. This photo was taken in 2019 on Mt. Pilatus, overlooking Lake Lucerne.


[2] Idrobo, Carlos (November 2012). “He Who Is Leaving: The Figure of the Wanderer in Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer

Noontide Magazine

Exploring the philosophical landscapes of the past. Sketching a life-philosophy for the future.

K. J. L. Kjeldsen

Written by

Musician who has been touring for the past eight years. I write autodidact philosophy, memoirs, short stories and cultural criticism.

Noontide Magazine

At Noontide Magazine, we write essays to help sketch a life-philosophy for the future by first exploring the philosophical landscapes of the past. Philosophy, psychology, and literature — and everything in between!

K. J. L. Kjeldsen

Written by

Musician who has been touring for the past eight years. I write autodidact philosophy, memoirs, short stories and cultural criticism.

Noontide Magazine

At Noontide Magazine, we write essays to help sketch a life-philosophy for the future by first exploring the philosophical landscapes of the past. Philosophy, psychology, and literature — and everything in between!

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