Who’s ready for a lesson on “Eggsalentlalism?” How about “Exatentalum?” Sound like fun? Great! Pull up a tiny chair, grab a toy, and get ready to have Nietzsche explained like you’re five with “Explain Like I’m Five: Existentialism and Friederich Nietzsche.” A web series inspired by a subreddit, “Explain Like I’m Five” has explained other complicated subjects to five year-olds, including the crisis in Syria and the volatility of the stock market. In this episode, our two presenters prime their students for a discussion on slave morality with the question “who here thinks they’re a good boy or a good girl?”
All the kids eagerly raise their hands, and after some Socratic dialogue are told that Existentialism means “there is no universal morality that governs all of us.” I’ll leave it to the philosophers out there to assess this definition. The kids don’t respond well. They hate Nietzsche. One vociferous young critic proposes tossing him on the street and stepping on him. Like good 19th century German burghers, they can’t imagine a world without rules. I imagine these kids’ parents would also like to toss Nietzsche in the street when their angels come home paraphrasing Beyond Good and Evil.
Some of the popular responses to Nietzsche among adults can also be overly emotional. First there is fear: of the supposed nihilist who proclaimed the death of God and who—thanks to the machinations of his unscrupulous and anti-Semitic sister—became erroneously associated with Nazi ideology after his death. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of Nietzsche’s work by unsophisticated readers who see him only as an antiestablishment romantic rebel, hellbent on undermining all authority. Some of these impressions are valid as far as they go, but they tend to stop with the style and leave out the substance.
What people tend to miss are Nietzsche’s sustained defense of a pragmatic naturalism and his tragic embrace of individual human freedom, which is not won without great personal cost. The unusual thing about Existentialism is that it’s a philosophy so broad, or so generous, it can include the anti-Christian Nietzsche, radically Christian Kierkegaard, and the Marxist Sartre. A more serious treatment of the subject—1999 three-part BBC documentary series “Human All Too Human”—also includes Martin Heidegger, who actually did truck with Nazi ideology. The series, which profiles Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, begins with the Nietzsche doc below (this one with Portuguese subtitles).
If you’re new to Nietzsche, and not actually a five-year-old, it’s worth an hour of your time. Then maybe head on over to our collection of venerable Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann’s lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. For additional serious resources, Dr. Gregory B. Sadler has an extensive YouTube lecture series on Nietzsche, Existentialism, and other philosophical topics. And if all you want is another good chuckle at Nietzsche’s expense, check out Ricky Gervais’ take on the woefully misunderstood philosopher.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness