There’s no shame if you’ve never known how to pronounce Friedrich Nietzsche’s name correctly. Even less if you never remember how to spell it. If these happen to be the case, you may be less than familiar with his philosophy. Let Alain de Botton’s animated School of Life video briefly introduce you, and you’ll never forget how to say it: “Knee Cha.” (As for remembering the spelling, you’re on your own.) You’ll also get a short biography of the disgruntled, dyspeptic German philosopher, who left a promising academic career at the University of Basel in his mid-20s and embarked to the Swiss Alps to write his violently original books in solitude before succumbing to a mental breakdown at 44 when he saw a cart driver beating a horse.
Nietzsche died after remaining almost entirely silent for 11 years. In these years and after his death, thanks to the machinations of his sister Elizabeth, his thought was twisted into a hateful caricature. He has since been rehabilitated from associations with the Nazis, but he still calls up fear and loathing for many people because of his relentless critiques of Christianity and reputation for staring too long into abysses. Maybe we can’t help but hear fascistic overtones in his concept of the ubermensch, and his ideas about slave morality can make for uncomfortable reading. Those steeped in Nietzsche’s thought may not feel that de Botton’s commentary gives these ideas their proper critical due.
Likewise, Nietzsche himself is treated as something of an ubermensch, an approach that pulls him out of his social world. Important figures who had a tremendous impact on his personal and intellectual life—like Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard and Cosima Wagner, Lou Salomé, and Nietzsche’s sister—don’t even receive a mention. But this is a lot to ask from a six-minute summary. De Botton hits some of philosophical highlights and explains some misconceptions. Yes, Nietzsche held no brief for Christianity at all, but this was because it caused tremendous suffering, he thought, by making people morally stunted and bitterly resentful.
Instead, he argued, we should embrace our desires, and use so-called sinful passions like envy to leverage our ambitions. Nietzsche is not a seducer, corrupting the youth with promises of greatness. You may very well fail, he admitted, and fail miserably. But to deny yourself is to never become who you are. Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich has described this aspect of the philosopher’s thought as the ethics of the supportive friend. She quotes David B. Allison, who writes that Nietzsche’s advice comes to us “like a friend who seems to share your every concern—and your aversions and suspicions as well. Like a true friend, he rarely tells you what you should do.”
Except that he often does. Babich also writes about Nietzsche as educator, and indeed he considered education one of the highest human goods, too precious to be squandered on those who do not appreciate it. His philosophy of education is consistent with his views on culture. Since God is Dead, we must replace scripture and liturgy with art, literature, and music. So far, so many a young Nietzsche enthusiast, pursuing their own form of Nietzschean education, will be on board with the philosopher’s program.
But as de Botton also explains, Nietzsche, who turned Dionysus into a philosophical ideal, might have issued one prescription too many for the average college student: no drinking. If that’s too much to stomach, we should at least take seriously that stuff about staring into abysses. Nietzsche meant it as a warning. Instead, writes Peter Prevos at The Horizon of Reason, “we should go beyond staring and bravely leap into the boundless chasm and practice philosophical base jumping.” No matter how much Nietzsche you read, he’s never going to tell you that means. We only become who we are, he suggests, when we figure it on our own.