Friedrich Nietzsche & Existentialism Explained to Five-Year-Olds (in Comical Video by Reddit)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Exis­ten­tial­ism with Hubert Drey­fus: Four Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

The Exis­ten­tial Star Wars: Sartre Meets Darth Vad­er

The Dead Authors Pod­cast: H.G. Wells Com­i­cal­ly Revives Lit­er­ary Greats with His Time Machine

Find Many Clas­sic Works by Niet­zsche in our Free eBooks Col­lec­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Lucy Calhoun says:

    But by propos­ing throw­ing Niet­zsche into the street and step­ping on him, the boy is actu­al­ly embrac­ing his sup­pos­ed­ly hat­ed phi­los­o­phy — do what you want.

  • Josh Jones says:

    What a pro­found­ly orig­i­nal inter­pre­ta­tion, Lucy. Which of Niet­zsche’s works do you think best exem­pli­fies this idea and why?

  • Freddy says:

    hilar­i­ous idea but too bad the instruc­tors had no idea what they were talk­ing about

  • Ernst says:

    aso­cial behav­ior is not the same as exis­ten­tial­lism. Exis­ten­tial­ism does not oppose the cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive, for exam­ple. And the Über­men­sch is not the one who does as he pleas­es but who sees and acts in a world con­cise­ly based on his or her own — pos­si­bly strong — morals, unbi­ased by the soci­etal con­sen­sus (eg. what state/school/church/yo mam­ma thinks is moral­ly right). Teach­ing that to 5‑year olds might then not be such a good idea, they don’t have the intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ties to come up with a moral sys­tem of their own.

  • Sandy says:

    I love the age old method of philoso­phers and schol­ars to rate them selves high­er than any­one who dares to dis­agrees with them by infer­ring or stat­ing, ‘You don’t think broad­ly enough…’

  • Susan says:

    Amus­ing con­cept; poor exe­cu­tion. Maybe do more read­ing of Niet­zsche and the exis­ten­tial­ists before try­ing?

  • MWmESH says:

    Niet­zchze died insane and yes, I am going to judge his phi­los­o­phy on that out­come.

  • David Johnston says:

    Two things:
    1) There’s noth­ing Niet­zchze could­n’t teach about the rais­ing of the wrist.

    2) Neech-ee? What’s wrong with Neech-er?

  • Eric Crawford says:

    Way off base in terms of your under­stand­ing of Niet­zsche and Exis­ten­tial­ism. But he would have enjoyed the spir­it of your enter­prise. “Man’s matu­ri­ty: to have regained the seri­ous­ness that he had as a child at play.”

  • Margit (@Margit11) says:

    Great vid, but I don’t see why a “Ger­man super­man” has to be depict­ed wear­ing leder­ho­sen. A) Leder­ho­sen are not a Ger­man thing but exclu­sive­ly (and very rarely even there)worn in Bavaria. Niet­zsche was not Bavar­i­an, by the way. So please don’t rein­force very old and out­dat­ed cul­tur­al clich­es onto the next gen­er­a­tion.

  • Leslie Katona says:

    Nice to know that these edu­ca­tors are pre­sent­ing a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Niet­zsche.

  • Jeremy Jones says:

    agreed. That is a ter­ri­ble def­i­n­i­tion of exs­ten­tial­ism.

  • Arlen Herb says:

    Who in the world allowed these adults to present it — should be fired or sued or both. This was done at the expense of those chil­dren and their inabil­i­ty to take away any­thing mean­ing­ful due to their devel­op­men­tal stage.

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