Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is the only philosopher who is truly infamous. If you’ve ever heard of the Übermensch, or superman, that’s Nietzsche’s idea. He makes Ayn Rand look like a candy striper, and came up with the bumper-sticker quote, “God is dead”. He was also Hitler’s favourite philosopher.

Don’t hold all that against him, though! Nietzsche is brilliant. He is probably the best literary stylist of philosophers, and while that can make him hard to understand, he is never boring. He is outrageous, hyperbolic, manic, moralistic… and right.

If you ask me, Nietzsche is at his best when he attacks philosophers’ conceits and deflates their puffery. He tries to turn philosophy (and especially ethics) on its head. Philosophers say that they value truth—Nietzsche demands to know why. Is falsity not every bit as good? Ethicists are concerned with right and wrong—Nietzsche says that ‘good’ is merely what benefits the herd, and ‘evil’ is what harms it. The best men would pay no attention to the cautious ideas of philosophers; the Übermensch charge ahead. Ideas like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean nothing to them; they are concerned only with effective and ineffective.

Nietzsche adores the ambitious, egoist, willful and psychopathic; he loathes the cautious, traditional and inward. Oddly, though, Nietzsche himself was a bit of a baby. He had serious man-crush on the composer Richard Wagner. He suffered from such terrible tummy aches and migraines that he couldn’t hold a job. He lost his mind in his forties, and spent the rest of his life being taken care of by his mother and sister. His sister, apparently, was a real piece of work; she was such a thorough-going racist that she tried, with her husband, to establish a racially pure, Aryan colony—in Paraguay of all places. She also made Nietzsche popular with the Nazis, in part by forging his work.

Nietzsche can still be easily understood by modern readers; like us, he was scientific and secular. To me, he is the first really modern philosopher. He writes about social changes still occurring, and the germs of existentialism and post-modernism—philosophies that took 75 years to mature—are in his work.