There is a strong chance that Friedrich Nietzsche might be one of the most misunderstood thinkers we’ve seen in the philosophical enterprise. What’s interesting about it is the fact that these misconceptions are almost entirely not his fault. This is not an example of vague or overly complex prose leading to a misread of a text (I’m thinking along the lines of Hegel here, whose prose is so dense that he’s easily misunderstood due to confusion more than anything). Far from it. Nietzsche’s text is clear. Some would say too clear in certain situations, bordering on polemic (or, in the case of On the Genealogy of Morals, it’s actually subtitled as “A polemic”). Even Thus Spoke Zarathustra and some of the aphorisms from The Gay Science that are designed to be parables (or parodies of parables, which might be a better fit) still have a clear topic of focus and are easy to understand philosophically.
I’m also not trying to say that some of the controversy concerning Nietzsche’s thought is unwarranted. There are moments, especially in On the Genealogy of Morals sections about the good/evil and good/bad distinction, that sound pretty scary from a Third Reich perspective (thanks, “blonde beast”). His thoughts were radical and challenging, and made many uncomfortable. Two things certainly didn’t help: 1. His sister’s involvement in his work and the publishing of The Will to Power, and 2. his eventual co-opting at the hands of the Nazi regime. These two things go hand in hand considering Elizabeth Nietzsche’s political outlook was strongly pre-Nazian, and she made obvious edits to his unpublished work.
Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook was always confrontational. I’ve long held the belief that there are two major histories in the Western philosophical tradition. The positive history of philosophy charts the progress of thought from its origins in the pre-Socratics and Parmenides through the holy trinity of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, on through DesCartes, Kant, and so on, with its apex (in my opinion at least) found with Hegel. In nearly all cases, these were philosophers that argued for the ability to understand knowledge rationally as something supersensible beyond the sensual realm. You could easily refer to it as the rational history of western philosophy, but I think that designation lacks sufficient punchiness. On the other side of the coin, you have the negative history of philosophy, which begins with Heraclitus, moves through the Greek skeptics and Protagoras, other scattered thinkers through the ages like Pascal, Hobbes, David Hume, and Kierkegaard, and finds its apex in Nietzsche. In some ways, this negative philosophy is more concerned with the sensible. Perspectivism, relativism, and skepticism are strongly rooted in this history. In many ways, the negative history is a systematic response to the positive. It builds on its predecessors in a similar way, but often takes the role of refutations or devils’ advocates of the popular positive philosophers of the time. It’s not something as simple as the division between analytic and continental philosophy, as continental rationalists certainly exist and are quite popular. Either way Nietzsche was there. And he changed a lot of things just based on how he wrote. He would call out specific philosophers in sometimes mean spirited fashion (Socrates being referred to as a demon, John Stuart Mill as a flathead, and so on). He would write aphorisms that were specifically design to elicit a response. Zarathustra as a work was a carefully constructed parody of Christianity. He was ruthless.
Because of this, Nietzsche is often considered by scholars to be not worthy of philosophical examination. He’s seen as a gimmick, a thinker who was more concerned with getting a rise out of his readers than making any real philosophical progress. While I would certainly argue that this isn’t at all true, it has led to a lot of backlash. When Nietzsche made his famous proclamation in The Gay Science that “God is dead,” he made enemies. And this was intentional. Nietzsche was constantly using such language to fend people off, to force them away. He didn’t want everyone to read his philosophy, because he was actively aware that his philosophy is not for everyone. Indeed, the “God is dead, and we have killed him” phenomenon is less about religion itself, than the values (specifically Christian values) that these religions hold have lost sway on the modern man. Science has put religion on decline. It is no longer needed by modern man. It has been overcome. It is an incendiary saying, obviously, but its design is to show us the world as it actually is. It is simply done through invective, because this is Nietzsche’s way.
What I can say is unequivocally the greatest injustice levied on Nietzsche’s thought and works is the proto-Nazi anti-Semitism that is constantly used as an excuse to pigeonhole his philosophy. What’s so annoying about it, and the work of scholars like Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale has helped allay these conceptions immensely, is that it’s completely opposite to Nietzsche’s outlook. From his first work in 1872, he warned against German nationalism. You see it again as late as Ecce Homo, one of his last published works in 1888. If anything, he was an anti-German, which is ironic considering his eventual co-opting at the hands of National Socialism. The only part of his philosophy (and when I say philosophy, I mean the works that he actively published during his life) that could be considered anti-Semitic is portions of On the Genealogy of Morals, and that was more about Judaism as a herald of Christianity than anything else. He does say that Judaism is the cause for the creation of the master/slave morality (the infamous "slave revolt of morality" that probably had some deference to Marx) that he thinks is one of the key changes in thinking that leads to the necessary revaluation of all values (i.e. nihilism), but he is also very clear that the true problem of the master/slave morality is the Christians coming in, taking up the cause and making it the dominant religion and value system of the western world. He never talks about any kind of hatred for the Jewish race or Jewish people in themselves. He simply disagreed (violently) with their values.
The will to power, the overman, the more radical nationalism that you see in his later posthumous works was not anything that anyone should legitimately take seriously as paramount to Nietzsche’s thought as such. His sister, who he actively criticized during his lucid years, took control of his works and published them with reckless abandon, actively editing his words to fit her own nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies. His reputation unfortunately goes hand in hand with this period, as it happened so soon after his descent into madness and death, and that period was also the beginning of his rise in popularity in the early twentieth century. One wonders if Nietzsche’s legend would even be as large as it is today (for good or ill) if he had not been turned into post-hoc Nazi propaganda. What really matters, what people constantly overlook when studying Friedrich Nietzsche, is his educational roots. The man was a classical philologist. He went to university to study Ancient Greece. I still contend (and this may be controversial in its own right, but the evidence is there) that the single most important idea in all of Nietzsche’s thought that colors everything he does is the dichotomy he talks about in The Birth of Tragedy between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces from Ancient Greek culture. Above the eternal recurrence, above the overman (heh), above the will to power, above perspectivism and nihilism. He’s a Greek at heart, born in the wrong decade. It’s a shame he’s been dragged through the mud on so many occasions. I wish it would stop.