Loading
The tiny Swiss town that inspired Nietzsche
Share on Linkedin
While walking along the shores of Lake Silvaplana, Nietzsche came up with his famous concept, Eternal Recurrence of the Same (Credit: Achim Thomae/Getty Images)
The philosopher spent seven summers in this 750-person Alpine village, and it was here that he birthed his most famous – and controversial – ideas.
G

Groundhog Day is my favourite movie. By a mile. I must have watched it dozens of times. Groundhog Day is my favourite movie. By a mile. I must have watched it dozens of times. Groundhog Day is my favourite movie. By a…

I haven’t merely watched the movie, I’ve communed with it, imbibed its ethos. I loved it when it first came out in 1993. I loved it before it became a cultural meme, before people used the word “meme” in conversation. I still love it. More than ever.

Nietzsche is the bad boy of Western philosophy. The delinquent too smart and prescient to ignore.

The protagonist is a curmudgeonly TV weatherman named Phil Connors. He is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival. Again. Phil isn’t happy with this assignment and takes every opportunity to share his unhappiness with his earnest crew. Phil files his report, then goes to sleep. The next morning, he wakes to find it is Groundhog Day again. And again and again. Phil is stuck in plebeian Punxsutawney, fated to relive the same day and cover the same insipid story, over and over. He responds to his plight with incredulity, indulgence, anger, deceit, despair, and, ultimately, acceptance.

According to the author, the film Groundhog Day parallels a groundbreaking theory posited by Nietzsche in a tiny Swiss village (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

According to the author, the film Groundhog Day parallels a groundbreaking theory posited by Nietzsche in a tiny Swiss village (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The movie is classified as a romantic comedy, but Groundhog Day is, I believe, the most philosophical movie ever made. As Phil Connors wrestles with the blessing and the curse that are his eternally recurring day, he also wrestles with philosophy’s major themes: What constitutes moral action? Do we possess free will or are our lives fated? How many blueberry pancakes can a grown man eat without exploding?

I am pleased though not surprised when I learn how closely the movie parallels an enthralling, mind-boggling theory posited more than a century ago by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the bad boy of Western philosophy. The delinquent too smart and prescient to ignore. He was, and is, the most seductive, the most inevitable, of philosophers.

---

I arrive in Sils-Maria, Switzerland, 124 years after Nietzsche. I see why he liked it. The gingerbread houses, authentic as they are adorable; the air, sharp and clear; and, everywhere I look, the Alps, stretching skyward. If there is such a thing as Swiss dirt, I see no evidence of it. Even the rubbish bins are spotless.

Sils-Maria is a picture-perfect Swiss Alpine village home to some 750 year-round residents (Credit: ChrisRinckes/Getty Images)

Sils-Maria is a picture-perfect Swiss Alpine village home to some 750 year-round residents (Credit: ChrisRinckes/Getty Images)

I walk the few yards from my hotel to the small house where Nietzsche lived. At the time, a shop selling tea and spices and other staples occupied the ground floor. Nietzsche rented a room on the second floor. It’s been faithfully preserved, furnished simply, as it was in Nietzsche’s day, with a narrow bed, a small writing desk, an Oriental rug, a kerosene lamp.

Nietzsche craved routine. He woke early, took a cold bath, and then sat down for a monkish breakfast: raw eggs, tea, an aniseed biscuit. During the day, he wrote and walked. In the evening, between seven and nine, he sat still in the dark. An admirably rigid routine, but hardly heroic. Where, I wonder, is the philosophical daredevil, the aeronaut of the spirit?

Physically, Nietzsche was no superhero, as the black-and-white photos on display here attest. They portray a wisp of a person, more moustache than man. He had large, dark eyes that made an impression on people – none more so than Lou Salomé, the alluring Russian writer and iconoclast who broke Nietzsche’s heart. His eyes, she recalled, “had none of the searching, blinking quality which make so many short- sighted persons look unconsciously intrusive.”

For seven summers in the 1880s, Nietzsche stayed in this nearly 200-year-old house in Sils-Maria (Credit: Paolo Koch/Getty Images)

For seven summers in the 1880s, Nietzsche stayed in this nearly 200-year-old house in Sils-Maria (Credit: Paolo Koch/Getty Images)

Instead, she says, his defective eyesight “lent his features a very special kind of magic, for instead of reflecting changing impressions from outside, all they rendered was what was going on deep down within him.” The moustache, bushy and Bismarckian, enhanced the opacity Nietzsche cultivated. It tricked people into thinking he was someone he was not.

One of the few philosophers to celebrate health as a virtue, Nietzsche enjoyed precious little himself. From age 13, Nietzsche suffered from migraine headaches that, along with a panoply of other ailments, plagued him throughout life. His terrible eyesight worsened over the years. He suffered fits of vomiting that lasted hours. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed at all.

You may also be interested in:
Paul Theroux: Is travel the secret to a long life?
Pico Iyer: The secret of immersive travel
Barack Obama: Why travel matters

He tried many medical interventions and, for someone otherwise so sceptical, was remarkably susceptible to quackery. One doctor prescribed a regiment of nothingness: “no water, no soup, no vegetables, no bread.” Nothing, that is, except the leeches he applied to Nietzsche’s earlobes.

Nietzsche suffered from a variety of physical ailments, and some days he couldn't get out of bed (Credit: ullstein bild Dtl/Getty Images)

Nietzsche suffered from a variety of physical ailments, and some days he couldn't get out of bed (Credit: ullstein bild Dtl/Getty Images)

Nietzsche felt death’s shadow keenly. His father died at age 36. “Softening of the brain,” the doctors said. (Cancer, most likely.) Nietzsche feared a similar fate awaited him. References to impending doom pepper his correspondence. His books are written in the urgent prose of a man who knew his days were numbered.

If it’s possible for a place to save a life, Sils-Maria saved Nietzsche’s

He was almost superhumanly prolific, publishing 14 books from 1872 to 1889. Without exception, the books sold poorly. Nietzsche paid the printing costs of some himself. The world was not ready to hear what the “hermit of Sils” had to say.

Personally, I would have quit after the third flop. Not Nietzsche. He persisted, not even slowing down, despite the rejection and the physical ailments. How did he do it? What did he know?

The house contains a small library, books by and about Nietzsche, and a few scores, testimony to his aborted musical ambitions. What intrigues me most are the letters. He wrote a lot about the weather and was extremely sensitive to meteorological nuances. Wherever he went, he noted temperature and barometric pressure, recorded rainfall and dew points. Cloudy days depressed him. He craved “a sky that is eternally cheerful”.

The philosopher rented this simple room on the second floor of the private residence in Sils-Maria (Credit: Paolo Koch/Getty Images)

The philosopher rented this simple room on the second floor of the private residence in Sils-Maria (Credit: Paolo Koch/Getty Images)

He found it in Sils-Maria. If it’s possible for a place to save a life, Sils-Maria saved Nietzsche’s. Yes, he still experienced headaches and stomach upset but these bouts were far milder. The Alpine air calmed his nerves, too. He could breathe again.

He birthed his biggest ideas here. It was in Sils-Maria that he pronounced, 'God is dead'

He birthed his biggest ideas here. It was in Sils-Maria that he pronounced, “God is dead”, one of philosophy’s most brazen assertions. It was in Sils-Maria that he conjured his dancing prophet and alter ego, Zarathustra, a fictionalized version of the Persian prophet who descends from the mountain to share wisdom with humanity. And it was in Sils-Maria that his greatest thought – “the thought of thoughts” – struck him with a ferocity he did not think possible.

It was August 1881. Nietzsche was on one of his usual walks along the shores of Lake Silvaplana, high above sea level, “6,000 feet beyond man and time”. He had just come across “a mighty pyramidal block of stone” when the thought of thoughts arrived unbidden – an earthquake of an idea that led to a rethinking of the universe and our place in it, as well as a major motion picture starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The idea hit him hard and fast, heated and expanded to unimaginable size. Only later did it cool and congeal into these words.

Sils-Maria inspired Nietzsche's biggest and most controversial ideas (Credit: Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Getty Images)

Sils-Maria inspired Nietzsche's biggest and most controversial ideas (Credit: Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Getty Images)

“Imagine you are visited in the dead of night by a demon, who says to you: ‘This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence – and in the same way this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again ­­– and you with it, you dust of dust!’.”

This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again

Nietzsche is not speaking of reincarnation. You do not return as the same soul in a different body. It is the “self-same you” that returns, again and again. You do not, like Phil Connors of Groundhog Day, recall your previous iterations. You cannot, like Phil, edit your recurring life. Everything has happened before, and it will happen again, exactly the same way, forever. All of it. Even seventh grade.

Nietzsche called his idea Eternal Recurrence of the Same. It enthralled him. It terrified him. He walked, practically ran, back to his simple room in Sils-Maria, and for the next few months, despite excruciating head and eye pain, he could think of little else.

---

I wake to another day in Sils-Maria. I brush my teeth, just like yesterday, and splash cold water on my face. I shave, nicking my cheek, again, and tumble downstairs to the breakfast room ­– the same room where Nietzsche dined regularly. I see the same hostess as yesterday and the day before and who, once again, tolerates my garbled guten morgen and seats me at the same table by the same window.

While walking along the shores of Lake Silvaplana, Nietzsche came up with his famous concept, Eternal Recurrence of the Same (Credit: Achim Thomae/Getty Images)

While walking along the shores of Lake Silvaplana, Nietzsche came up with his famous concept, Eternal Recurrence of the Same (Credit: Achim Thomae/Getty Images)

I walk past the front desk, again, and say hello to Laura, who today like yesterday and the day before is wearing lederhosen. I step outside to a perfect Swiss day, a day like yesterday and the day before, and I set out on one of the nearby hiking trails. It is a different hiking trail from yesterday and, as Bill Murray’s exasperated character in Groundhog Day says, different is good. I am on a mission. Not from God (we killed Him, Nietzsche reminds me) but from Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s dancing prophet. I am determined to find the mighty stone, the place where the philosopher first imagined Eternal Recurrence. By seeing it, touching it, I hope to think what he thought that day – better yet, to feel what he felt.

I walk and walk some more. My legs ache. Still I walk. I walk despite the pain, because of the pain. Nietzsche would approve, noting that I’m exercising my “will-to-power”, overcoming an obstacle, on my way to becoming an übermensch (literally “overman”), one step at a time.

I’m tempted to stop and read Nietzsche, but the philosopher dissuades me: “How can anyone become a thinker if he does not spend at least a third of the day without passions, people and books.”

Hiking trails thred the Alpine mountains and valleys around Sils-Maria (Credit: clu/Getty Images)

Hiking trails thred the Alpine mountains and valleys around Sils-Maria (Credit: clu/Getty Images)

His poor eyesight was a secret blessing. It liberated him from the tyranny of the book. When he couldn’t read, he walked. He walked hours at a stretch, covering great distances. “Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement,” he said. We write with our hands. We write well with our feet.

I’ve yet to find Nietzsche’s “mighty pyramidal block of stone” and decide to stop walking and read, an act of rebellion I’m sure he’d understand. I spot a bench. I sit down and crack open Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science or, as it’s sometimes translated, The Joyful Wisdom. After only a few sentences, I realise Nietzsche doesn’t speak to me. He shouts at me! If Socrates was the philosopher of the question mark, Nietzsche is the philosopher of the exclamation mark. He loves them! Sometimes he’ll string two or three together!!!

Nietzsche is both a delight and a burden to read. It’s a delight because his prose rivals that of Schopenhauer for its clarity and refreshing simplicity. He writes with the unabashed exuberance of a teenager with something important to say. He writes as if his life depended on it.

“We have to learn to think differently… to feel differently," wrote Nietzsche (Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images)

“We have to learn to think differently… to feel differently," wrote Nietzsche (Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images)

Nietzsche is a burden because, like Socrates, he demands we question entrenched beliefs, and that’s never pleasant. I’ve always assumed philosophy was powered by hard reason and cold logic. If Rousseau put a dent in that belief, Nietzsche demolishes it. Infusing the pages is a quiet (and often not so quiet) celebration of the impulsive and the irrational. For Nietzsche, emotions are not a distraction, or a detour on the road to logic. They are the destination.

Some philosophers shock. Many argue. A few inspire. Only Nietzsche danced

Nietzsche was no fan of purely abstract thought. Such fuzzy ruminations never inspired anyone to do anything, he argued. “We have to learn to think differently… to feel differently.”

I’m immersed in his taut words when I sense a presence. I look up and see a butterfly. It has alighted on Nietzsche, its golden-brown wings fluttering atop page 207. I’m not sure what to do. I’m tempted to snap a photo but fear that might spook the butterfly. Besides, recording the moment seems a poor substitute for experiencing it.

The butterfly has landed on a passage called “At the Sight of a Learned Book”. A fine selection. Classic Nietzsche. “Our first question concerning the value of a book, a man, or a piece of music is: Can it walk? Or still better: Can it dance?”

Today, Sils-Maria looks nearly identical to how it did during Nietzsche's day (Credit: Rosmarie Wirz/Getty Images)

Today, Sils-Maria looks nearly identical to how it did during Nietzsche's day (Credit: Rosmarie Wirz/Getty Images)

Some philosophers shock. Many argue. A few inspire. Only Nietzsche danced. For him, there was no finer expression of exuberance and amor fati: love of fate. “I would only believe in a God who knows how to dance,” he wrote. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra dances wildly, fervently, with not even a trace of self-consciousness.

The spirit of every good philosopher, Nietzsche said, is that of a dancer. Not necessarily a good dancer. “Better to dance ponderously than to walk lamely,” he said, and did. He couldn’t muster even a few decent steps on the dance floor. So be it. The good philosopher, like the good dancer, is willing to make a fool of himself.

Nietzsche’s philosophy dances superbly. It has rhythm. It skips and sashays across the page, and occasionally moonwalks. Just as dancing has no purpose – the dance is the purpose – so, too, with Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Nietzsche, dancing and thinking move toward similar ends: a celebration of life. He’s not trying to prove anything. He simply wants you to see the world, and yourself, differently.

The butterfly departs, its golden-brown wings lifting it skyward, and I resume my walk along the lakeshore. The air is thin and crisp. I see why Nietzsche craved it. Warm air dulls the mind. Cold air sharpens. I’ve covered several miles but, still, no sign of Nietzsche’s mighty stone. I look everywhere. I look where it should be and where it shouldn’t. Nothing. I backtrack, twice, and I hate backtracking. Still nothing. I’m exhausted and consider quitting but, no, I must persevere. Nietzsche’s will to power demands it. He didn’t quit when rejected by lovers and ignored by readers. Neither will I.

Eric Weiner is a BBC Travel contributor and the author of four books. This story was adapted from his latest book, The Socrates Express.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC