Nietzsche is one of the most quoted and popular philosophers of the past centuries. He’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood, especially by people who have never read him.
This famed philosopher has been the target of unfair treatment over the years. Even before his mental illness overtook him, already right-wing extremists were adopting his philosophy as a banner for their cause. Nietzsche responded to those attempts with utter discontent and rejection, as he refused to be misused in such a way. So that you don’t let anyone misappropriate his thoughts, here are some of the biggest misconceptions about this fascinating German philosopher.
“He was an antisemite!”
Not only was Nietzsche not an antisemite, he was most explicitly against antisemitism. His disdain for antisemites, whom he constantly mocked, is expressed throughout his writings and correspondence with no ambiguity. “I am just having all the anti-Semites shot,” he wrote at one point. He even severed friendships with those who harbored antisemitic sentiments.
So, how did this misconception come about? It all started with Nietzsche’s younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Throughout her life, Elisabeth held notoriously antisemitic, fascist, and nationalistic views. She married an antisemitic radical and moved to Paraguay in order to found Nueva Germania, a “pure-blooded Aryan” nation (it was fortunately a failed project). Nietzsche constantly reaffirmed his opposition to his sister’s antisemitic party, but after his mental collapse in 1889 she took charge of administering all his texts at a time when Nietzsche had already become widely read in Europe. She betrayed her brother by heavily editing his writings to fit her extremist political agenda and in 1930 Elisabeth joined the National Socialist Party. Through careful manipulation, she used Nietzsche’s prestige to promote the Nazis. Hitler himself attended her funeral.
(Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, 1894)
Within Nietzsche’s true body of work, radical right-wingers and fascists would find nothing much of use, not if carefully read. But some of his most popular expressions, such as “will to power,” “the blond beast,” or the “Übermensch” (“super-man”) were easily misused. None of these were racial concepts as such; they had nothing to do with skin color or ascendancy. They were allegorical figures for human nature in general, yet they were readily misappropriated and repurposed by those who understood nothing about Nietzsche’s philosophy (they didn't care to understand if it didn’t directly help their purpose). Nietzsche was repulsed by everything Nazism, racism, fascism, and antisemitism represented, and The Third Reich embodied his ultimate nightmare. Worst of all, he was used to promote that nightmare as if it had been his dream, all because of the biased inclination of his estranged sister.
“He was a misogynist!”
Now, this misconception is not entirely unfounded. We can forgive those who would jump to this conclusion when they’ve come to hear, or merely gotten a glimpse of, some remarks in his writings. Without context (and sometimes, it seems, even within), they are entirely easy to interpret as hateful assertions against women, but there are also many among his claims that are gentle and good and express respect and admiration for them. Maybe his views shifted from time to time. It’s also possible that when he described women in bad terms, he was in fact thinking of his own wicked sister.
And then some scholars, such as Nesbitt Oppel, have argued that Nietzsche’s seemingly misogynistic assessments were part of his overall rhetorical strategy to show that our attitude towards women is cultural (a product of male desire) and can be changed. It would not be surprising if this were the case, given Nietzsche’s love for metaphors and allegories and, in general, for being non-literal. This kind of interpretation is supported by a very telling passage in The Gay Science, one of Nietzsche’s most famous works, where he seems to be exposing (and mocking) a paradox socially imposed upon women.
On female chastity. — There is something quite amazing and monstrous in the upbringing of upper-class women; indeed, maybe there is nothing more paradoxical. The whole world agrees that they should be brought up as ignorant as possible about matters erotic, and that one has to impart upon their souls a deep shame in the face of such things … They are supposed to have neither eyes, nor ears, nor words, nor thoughts for this their ‘evil’; yes, even knowledge is here an evil. And then to be hurled … into reality and knowledge, with marriage … to catch love and shame in a contradiction … There one has tied a psychic knot that may have no equal.
He goes on to express admiration about how women deal with this knot, however difficult it must be for them, concluding that “one cannot be too gentle towards women!” It’s a passage advocating sexual education and sexual freedom for women, if there ever was one!
Whatever the case, Nietzsche did often champion causes for women’s empowerment, and actively looked to improve the intellectual lives of the women that surrounded him. Even the most critical against Nietzsche’s remarks recognize that, whatever his personal views were, he never advocated for misogyny as a model for others.
“He was a nihilist!”
People tend to immediately associate Nietzsche with a very general and vague notion of nihilism, but it’s not as straightforward as that. The word 'nihilism' comes from latin’s nihil, which means “nothing.” So, nihilism literally means nothing-ism. Whenever you believe there’s a lack of something, you’re a nihilist in that regard. We’re all nihilists in some way or another. I, for one, am a supernatural nihilist, since I don’t believe in the supernatural. You might be a magic nihilist or a monsters-under-bed nihilist or what have you.
But many people think nihilism is about believing there is no meaning in life. In this sense, Nietzsche was not a nihilist. Sure, one of his influences was Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher who did think life was meaningless, but Nietzsche actually rejected this idea with notions such as the Eternal Return, which posited that constructed meaning in this life is all there is. He was an afterlife nihilist in that he rejected the existence of another world to inhabit after we die, but that was not about lacking a belief as such, it was about affirming and reaffirming this life. If anything, Nietzsche was a vitalist before being a nihilist in Schopenhauer’s sense. Then again, Nietzsche was indeed a moral nihilist (he believed there are no moral facts), so there’s that.
God is dead?
One of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes declares that “God is dead.” Many people, most of whom have not actually read Nietzsche, have taken this to mean that there is no God as such. So they quote the line to argue he was an atheist. However, that may be too quick an assumption, since that’s not exactly what Nietzsche meant. Rather than a theological proclamation, his was a critique of society and religion as a whole. It was not about the contents of religion per se, but about how religion is practiced in society, about the hypocritical nature of its adherents, and about the implausibility of the notion of God after the historical period known as the Enlightenment.
So, Nietzsche wasn't saying that atheism is true, or that God simply doesn’t exist. He meant that the belief in a Christian God has become “unbelievable” and that with its collapse comes the fall of western morality as well. The “murder” of God was perpetuated by society itself, in this sense. Quite more interesting than mere atheism, wouldn’t you say? The complete phrase, as originally presented in The Gay Science, is “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Don’t let anyone unfamiliar with Nietzsche believe the slanders that surround his figure. Surely we can and should help prevent anyone misusing his authority for their own nefarious ends, don’t you think?
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