Is there a more misunderstood philosopher than Friedrich Nietzsche? Granted, the question makes two assumptions: 1) That people read philosophy 2) That people read Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps neither of these things is widely true. Many people get their philosophy from film and television: Good Will Hunting, True Detective, Coming to America.... There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I don’t read medical books. Most of my knowledge of medicine comes from hospital dramas. (If you ever hear me make unsourced medical claims, please remind me of this.)
But back to Nietzsche…. If few people read philosophy in general and Nietzsche in particular, why is his name so well-known, why are his ideas so badly mangled? Because some of the people who read a little Nietzsche write films and television shows. In many of them, he emerges as a twisted nihilist with no scruples and little regard for human life. In the most infamous case of Nietzsche-twisting, the philosopher’s sister extracted from his books what she wanted them to say, which sounded very much like the ideas of the Nazis who later quoted him.
Nietzsche’s mastery of the aphorism and his fiercely polemical nature have made him supremely quotable: “God is dead,” “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.” And so on. Bring the context of these statements to bear and they sound nothing like what we have imagined. The video above from Shon Arieh-Lerer and Daniel Hubbard explains how Nietzsche became “the most absurdly bastardized philosopher in Hollywood.” It leads with a tellingly hilarious clip from The Sopranos in which A.J. calls the philosopher “Niche” and Tony tells him, “even if God is dead, you’re still gonna kiss his ass.”
We might half expect Tony to embrace the German philosopher. The way Nietzsche’s been interpreted seems to justify the principles of sociopaths. This should not be so. “In reality,” the video’s producers write at Slate, “Nietzsche was a very subtle thinker." The two biggest misconceptions about Nietzsche, that he was a nihilist and an anti-Semite, get his philosophy grievously wrong. Nietzsche “wrote letters to his family and friends telling them to stop being anti-Semitic” (and calling anti-Semites “aborted fetuses.”) He famously broke off his intense friendship with Richard Wagner in part because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. His work is not kind to Judaism, but he rages against anti-Semitism.
Far from endorsing nihilist ideas, Nietzsche feared their rise and consequences. So how did he become “a darling of Nazis and sad teenagers?” The caricature arose in part because readers from his day to ours have, like Tony Soprano, found his complete and total rejection of Judeo-Christian morality too shocking to get beyond, mischaracterizing it as tantamount to the rejection of all human values. On the contrary, Nietzsche argued for the “revaluation” of values, “the exact opposite of what one might expect,” he wrote,” not at all sad and gloomy, but much more like a new and barely describable type of light, happiness, relief, amusement, encouragement, dawn.”
Of course, the fact that Nietzsche—or a butchered version thereof—was co-opted by the Nazis did more to sully his name than anything he actually wrote. “By the time Nietzsche made his way into American pop culture,” says Arieh-Lerer, “we were predisposed to getting him wrong.” Nietzsche may have had some strange quasi-mystical conceptions, and he believed in a definite hierarchy of cultures, but he was not a racist or a psychopath. He has been as misunderstood as many of the sad teenagers who love him. Perhaps you will be moved to read him for yourself after seeing his rehabilitation above. If so, we can point you toward online editions of nearly all of his books here.