The philosopher's legacy has been tainted by erroneous readings of his work and misappropriation of his ideas, writes Dr Matt Fogarty, Department of English
There are grounds for calling Friedrich Nietzsche the most misunderstood thinker in the history of Western philosophy. Not only were his ideas misinterpreted in a whole host of complex and often contradictory ways during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but these misinterpretations were just as often at odds with Nietzsche’s own philosophical principles.
There is a certain irony in all of this, though, given that Nietzsche rejected even the possibility that objective truths might exist (he called this philosophical principle "perspectivism"). In this way, Nietzsche was at once the great champion and the greatest philosophical victim of fake news. And so we should not be surprised that this controversial figure has much to teach us about our contemporary cultural moment.
These days, it hardly constitutes news of any description to say that Nietzsche’s ideas were misappropriated by the Nazis in the run-up to the Second World War, nor that this misappropriation was enabled by his sister, and devout anti-Semite, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. In reality, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, which the Third Reich used to justify its idea of a biologically superior Aryan race, was largely designed to counteract the intense nationalism that underpinned fascist ideologies in the 20th century. This might well be the most familiar example of Nietzsche’s philosophical legacy being tainted by fake news, but it really is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to erroneous readings of his work.
In the late 19th century, Nietzsche was unfairly characterised as a nihilist by the first academics to pay attention to his work in Britain and France. These interpretations were largely inspired by the pessimistic values that Nietzsche advocated in the 1870s. But they ignored the fact that Nietzsche renounced these values before he published his most important works in the 1880s.
In January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental collapse, which left him entirely incapacitated until his death in August 1900. This fact was used as a highly effective baton by those who disagreed with his philosophical values. In 1892's Degeneration, Max Nordau insisted that Nietzsche was insane from birth and portrayed him as a "madman, with flashing eyes, wild gestures, and foaming mouth, spouting forth defaming bombast".
Nietzsche even managed to become something of a darling for a number of British socialists during a brief period in the late 1890s. This happened in spite of Nietzsche’s commitment to individualism and the many anti-socialist statements that pepper his books with considerable regularity.
Moving into the 20th century, Nietzsche’s name became increasingly associated with German militarism before the First World War. After the war began in 1914, some high-profile intellectuals even claimed in the British and Irish media that Nietzsche was single-handedly responsible for its outbreak. These critics pointed firmly toward Nietzsche’s self-professed immorality and the passages in his published works that glorify the absolute necessity of war. Those who rushed to his defence against these somewhat absurd accusations pointed instead to the passages in which Nietzsche acclaimed French culture and criticised German culture for its fundamental inferiority.
These kinds of conflicting attitudes toward Nietzsche were replicated in the 1930s and 1940s. French and German thinkers, such as Henri Lefebvre, Georges Bataille, and Karl Jaspers challenged the Nazis' misappropriations and laid much of the groundwork for the existentialist image of Nietzsche that emerged after the Second World War.
That the majority of these conflicting reports and misinterpretations appeared in various newspapers and periodical magazines tells us first and foremost that fake news is not really a 21st century phenomenon. In fact, every time Donald Trump tweets the phrase alongside "enemy of the people", it calls to mind the propaganda produced by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. These regimes also used the best available technological developments to generate and distribute their preferred versions of the news. Cambridge Analytica’s interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum serves as a timely reminder that these kinds of large scale manipulations can be manufactured with far greater efficiency in the age of digital and social media.
Fake news is not really the problem today and that the expectation of truth is still the main offender
Even in this ultra-technologised contemporary world, the most important lesson Nietzsche’s life and work can teach us about fake news still holds true. This particular lesson comes most clearly into focus with the acknowledgement that Nietzsche was at least partially responsible for these misinterpretations of his ideas, except in cases where substandard French and English translations of his work were at fault.
In advocating the philosophical principle of perspectivism, Nietzsche set himself the task of arguing that there are no objective truths. However, the claim itself cannot be true if there are no objective truths. In order to argue this point across the breadth of his published work, Nietzsche was forced to write in a range of styles and forms that allowed him to circle the issue and make his case through inference and association. In the long run, this rendered his philosophy more susceptible to misappropriation. But if we accept Nietzsche’s premise, it quickly becomes apparent that fake news is not really the problem today and that the expectation of truth is still the main offender.