An Animated Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Life & Thought

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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

Niet­zsche Lays Out His Phi­los­o­phy of Edu­ca­tion and a Still-Time­ly Cri­tique of the Mod­ern Uni­ver­si­ty (1872)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philo­soph­i­cal Recipe for Get­ting Over the Sources of Regret, Dis­ap­point­ment and Suf­fer­ing in Our Lives

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

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