When one thinks of Nietzsche, the first image the probably comes to mind is that of the much-used profile: with the mustached and quaffed philosopher resting his head in his arm, peering off into the distance and also out of a sort of heavy-tweed-coat shell. What people probably imagine, when animating this picture in their mind, is a firebrand: an ebullient, cantankerous brute, slamming down coffee cups to punctuate shrieks, while preaching to those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be within earshot about the “superman” and the need to cull the weak in order to perfect the glorious Reich—made so by the “will to power” of a deserving elite, and the transformation to seeing themselves not as men but as gods on earth.
In this dramatization we see Nietzsche, the proto-Nazi, encouraging German colonialism abroad and eugenics at home—all made possible by death of god and the superiority of humans in their rightful place at the top of the hierarchy. Sound familiar?
The problem with this dramatization, however, is that it’s just that: a sensationalized (and downright crude) caricature of the real man and his real ideas. But because of many factors—from intellectual laziness on the part of translators and philosophers and thus an ignorance of the actual text, especially in its original German, to deliberate attempts to misconstrue Nietzsche’s concepts, starting during his lifetime with his own sister—the first modern free-thinker (the first and last existential philosopher you’ll ever need, in my opinion) is still burdened with the (Sisyphean?) boulder of this character assassination.
Maybe the force of his ideas is transposed into physical, human force; how could a person who assaulted the old intellectual guard with so many conceptual bombshells not be a kind of human howitzer: big, loud, imposing?
But as with most conventional ideas, the opposite is indeed more accurate. Consider the fact that “superman” is a mistranslation (and even taken at its incorrect face value, super man is singular, thus not the call for a superior race), Nietzsche never wrote a work called “The Will to Power” (his sister did, though), and he was actually very private and quiet (and didn’t drink coffee or beer or whiskey—only mild tea, as he had a bad stomach).* And then consider that he not only didn’t believe in a master race, but he didn’t even believe all that much in the German imperial project, or in any state, for that matter—and, in fact, didn’t think that humans in general were all that exceptional, in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
To begin On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche wrote:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is down for again, nothing will have happened.
Could someone who considered himself to be the center of the universe show such humility?
* Walter Kaufmann dispels many myths and rumors about Nietzsche in his introduction to “Zarathustra” in his collection of translations, The Portable Nietzsche:
He is shy, about five-foot-eight, but a little stooped, almost blind, reserved, unaffected, and especially polite; he lives in modest boarding houses in Sils Maria, Nizza, Mentone, Rome, Turin. This is how Stefan Zweig brings him to life for us: “Carefully the myopic man sits down to a table, carefully, the man with the sensitive stomach considers every item on the menu: whether the tea is not too strong, the food not spiced too much, for every mistake in his diet upsets his sensitive digestion, and every transgression in his nourishment wreaks havoc with his quivering nerves for days. No glass of wine, no glass of beer, no alcohol, no coffee at his place, no cigar and no cigarette after his meal, nothing that stimulates, refreshes, or rests him: only the short meager meal and a little urbane, unprofound conversation in a soft voice with an occasional neighbor (as a man speaks who for years has been used to talking and is afraid of being asked too much).
And up again into the small, narrow, modest, coldly furnished chambre garnie, where innumerable notes, pages, writings, and proofs are piled up on the table, but no flower, no decoration, scarcely a book and rarely a letter.
…Wrapped in his overcoat and a woolen scarf (for the wretched stove smokes only and does not give warmth), his fingers freezing, his double glasses pressed close to the paper, his hurried hand writes for hours—words the dim eyes can hardly decipher. For hours he sits like this and writes until his eyes burn.