Friedrich Nietzsche went mad after allegedly seeing a horse being whipped in the Italian city of Turin


German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most influential philosophers of the Western philosophical circle. The contemporary philosophical scene would most likely be radically different without his seminal works like The Birth of Tragedy or Twilight of the Idols.

Nietzsche pursued his interests in literature and philosophy since his youth; he was especially fascinated by the existentialist philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. However, 1867 Nietzsche decided to pursue a career in the Prussian military. His fellow recruits thought that he would soon be able to achieve high ranks because he was an excellent rider and a disciplined soldier, but he fell off his horse and was unable to walk for several months. At that time he decided to continue his studies and began his prolific career as a philosopher.

Nietzsche in 1861.

His versatile productivity abruptly stopped in January of 1889, when he suffered a mental collapse and remained bedridden until his death the very next year. The exact nature of Nietzsche’s psychological illness remains unknown, but some researchers suggest that his madness developed because of syphilis: the event that is widely believed to be the cause of his breakdown is rather disturbing.

On January 3, of 1889, Nietzsche was apprehended in the Italian city of Turin. The police were called because Nietzsche caused a public disturbance: when they apprehended him he was in a psychotic state from which he never recovered. He reportedly saw a horse being whipped by a coach driver in the Piazza Carignano, a major square in Turin.

He was so overcome with the brutality of the scene that he threw his arms around the horse’s neck and refused to let go, and this was when his descent into madness began.

Nietzsche, 1882. Photo by Gustav Adolf Schultze.

After the incident he sent several letters to some of his friends and colleagues, including the wife of Richard Wagner. These letters are known as the “Madness letters;” in them he called himself “the crucified one” and urged European powers to take military action against Germany. On his deathbed he muttered his famous last words: “Mother, I am dumb.”

Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, late 1899.

Many people thought of Nietzsche as the philosopher of the Nazi ideology in the 1930s and 1940s, but that was only because his sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche altered many of his writings to fit the Nazi ideology.

She was married to Bernhard Förster, a notorious German anti-Semite who influenced her to become a radical National Socialist. However, Nietzsche strongly opposed anti-Semitism and after World War II many philosophers and writers helped to clear his name.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906.

While there is no dramatization of Nietzsche’s encounter with the horse in the city of Turin, Bela Tarr, esteemed Hungarian filmmaker, directed the film Turin Horse, which depicts the harsh and sad life of the horse’s owners.

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In the film Tarr hypothesizes that poverty, unfavorable circumstances, and the horse’s deteriorating health led its owners to cruelty as an act of utter desperation.