How Did Nietzsche Become the Most Misunderstood & Bastardized Philosopher?: A Video from Slate Explains

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Did Niet­zsche Real­ly Mean When He Wrote “God is Dead”?

Down­load Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Mod­ern Thought (1960)

The Dig­i­tal Niet­zsche: Down­load Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Patricia Attaway says:

    Wow. I was shocked and dis­mayed that there were no com­ments here for Josh. So I a leav­ing one just to let him know that his ideas and pre­sen­ta­tion has been well receive by at least one per­son, oth­er than his moth­er. Very well done. It has been years since I read Niet­zsche and although the basic con­cepts were still there, I had for­got­ten where they came from. I am going to have to pick Niet­zsche again, for a good read. Thanks for the inspi­ra­tion.

  • Will says:

    “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. ”

    It also makes the assump­tion that the per­son mak­ing these assump­tions some­how has the one true under­stand­ing and prop­er inter­pre­ta­tion of Niet­zsche. Which I think might be a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Niet­zsche. I’d rather some­one mis­in­ter­pret him than just take up opin­ions they heard about him in an air of intel­li­gence.

  • Gordon Lightfoot says:

    Nailed It. Loved the video. Loved the Mon­ty Python.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fair point, Will. This is why at the end of the post I urge peo­ple to read Niet­zsche them­selves rather than rely­ing on sec­ond-hand inter­pre­ta­tions. We’ve com­piled links to free eBooks of near­ly all of his major works:

  • Ruben says:

    His last teach­ings were all about say­ing “yes” to life like nev­er before since Pla­to. Been capa­ble of iden­ti­fy and destroy nihilism in all it’s all­ways chang­ing forms: reli­gion, art, phi­los­o­phy*, and a long etc.

    *ide­al­is­tic phi­los­o­phy.

  • Poopiter says:

    I’m lis­ten­ing to your video as I type, so for­give me if you get to this. Did­n’t Hem­ing­way sort of sum it all up in A Farewell to Arms? ‘Peo­ple do mis­un­der­stand. And, they mis­un­der­stand on pur­pose.’

    I recall read­ing Zarathus­tra, and laugh­ing out loud quite fre­quent­ly. Most­ly, I was laugh­ing because I could not under­stand how any­one could find fault with what I was read­ing, and because the Eng­lish trans­la­tion was VERY humor­ous. THE GREAT MAN DOES NOT PRESERVE. Lol… the crap­py peo­ples and fac­tions who and that attempt to con­vince THE RABBLE that Nietsche was encour­ag­ing baby killers to do their best at killing babies, sad­ly, put Nietsche’s lessons to use in the wrong ways. Yuck…

    I’m not an expert, but I’ve yet to read ANYTHING attrib­uted to Niet­zsche that isn’t “life-affirm­ing” (Zarathus­tra, Twi­light of the Idols/Antichrist, Human, all too Human).

  • George says:

    Bril­liant expo­si­tion of a mate­r­i­al I found so very dif­fi­cult to read and thus not under­stood. A pas­sion­ate advo­cate of Nietsche I met, could not explain his attrac­tion any more than a shared love of Greek mythol­o­gy and arche­types.

    This new rev­e­la­tion appears to be about a more kin­dred spir­it. Look­ing at the hyp­no­sis of mankind. A son becom­ing their father’s father as a daugh­ter their moth­er’s moth­er. (‘Those who come after me will do more than I’). And one that I will now want to spend more time digest. You gave me a key.

    Your video has been shared wide among friends and fam­i­ly. Thank you.

  • Britni Stocks says:

    Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.