Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich NietzscheThe Top 7 Books to Read

Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th-century German philosopher who, though hardly read during his own (sane) lifetime, has become a dominant intellectual force in today’s popular culture. Known and regularly quoted for his dazzling and often controversial turns of phrase, Nietzsche’s reputation in the English-speaking world is now arguably the highest it’s ever been, and his place in philosophy’s canon looks assured.

However, it wasn’t always this way: after suffering a mental breakdown in 1889, Nietzsche and his works came under the care of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was a bigoted anti-Semite. Elisabeth warped Nietzsche’s unfinished works into a bloodthirsty call to arms for nationalist Germany, which ultimately became the blueprint for Hitler and his 'superior' Aryan race. For a long time, therefore, Nietzsche’s ideas were synonymous with those of Nazism.

Thankfully, the truth of Elisabeth’s tampering emerged — as did letters and earlier works evidencing Nietzsche’s fierce opposition to nationalism and anti-Semitism — and his character has since been reformed and his ideas reexamined. Even enjoying a resurgence in popularity, however, Nietzsche’s philosophy remains commonly misunderstood, misread, and misappropriated by those seeking to vindicate a worldview not unlike that of Nazism.

So what were Nietzsche’s views, exactly? Well, that is still up for debate. Nietzsche is unusual among philosophers in that he doesn’t really tell us what he thinks. Rather, he confronts a number of our assumptions about the world, particularly about morality and religion, in ferocious and sometimes hilarious fashion. He doesn’t teach us ‘what’ to think so much as ‘how’ — for, as he puts it in one of many famous aphorisms, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

This reading list consists of the best and most essential books for those looking to understand more about Nietzsche and his fascinating philosophy. It contains a mix of both primary and secondary literature, for although Nietzsche’s words always make for a brilliantly entertaining read themselves, they are most powerful when contextualized by scholars whose life's work has been dedicated to understanding him.

1. I Am Dynamite! By Sue Prideaux

This is the biography on Nietzsche we've been waiting for. Winner of The Times Biography of the year in 2019, Sue Prideaux's I Am Dynamite! is a vividly compelling, myth-shattering portrait of one of history's most misunderstood philosophers. Prideaux illuminates all the events that shaped Nietzsche's thinking, as well as his heart-breaking descent into madness, and introduces the key components of his philosophy. It's a great place to start for anyone looking to get a well-rounded understanding of Nietzsche's life and work.

2. Hiking With Nietzsche, by John Kaag

John Kaag's beautifully written 2018 book Hiking with Nietzsche combines Kaag's personal philosophical journey with Nietzsche's. Kaag retreads the very same steps Nietzsche took through the Swiss peaks above Sils Maria where he thought up many of his ideas, intimately reflecting on how Nietzsche's philosophy relates to us in the twenty-first century, and exploring the key drivers and consequences of his thinking.

3. Beyond Good & Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche

In his 1886 work Beyond Good & Evil, Nietzsche attempts to sum up his own philosophy — making it an ideal starting point for those looking to delve into Nietzsche's actual writings. Writing with his trademark flair, sharpness, and sheer profundity, Nietzsche explores themes recurrent throughout his work: the origins and nature of morality, the failures and dangers of objective thinking, as well as how we can overcome mediocrity and suffering and become who we truly are.

4. On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Published shortly after Beyond Good & Evil in 1887, On the Genealogy of Morals is arguably Nietzsche's masterpiece. In it, Nietzsche develops and explains ideas only cryptically explored in earlier works, laying out his thoughts in an accessible, highly readable tripartite essay form. This is the culmination of Nietzsche's thinking as prose, exploring goodness, 'evil', guilt, bad conscience, as well as ascetic ideals and the purpose of life. For anyone interested in Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals is worth digesting and re-reading again and again.

5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche

If On the Genealogy of Morals is the culmination of Nietzsche's thought as prose, then his 1885 philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the culmination of his thought as poetry. Considered by Nietzsche himself to be his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra lightheartedly imitates the New Testament in style, and chronicles the fictitious travels of a prophet named Zarathustra, who descends from solitude in the mountains (the parallels here to Nietzsche's own life are not, some scholars suspect, accidental) to tell the world that God is dead, but that we shouldn't worry: humanity can become the divine successor, if only we let go of piety and restraint and embrace passion, chaos, and freedom. Not for the faint-hearted, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a dense, challenging, deeply rewarding read.

6. Nietzsche on Morality, by Brian Leiter

Both an introduction to and a sustained commentary on Nietzsche's moral philosophy, Brian Leiter's 2002 book Nietzsche on Morality has become one of the most widely used and debated secondary sources on Nietzsche over the past two decades. Focusing on morality but touching on related topics too, Nietzsche on Morality is a fantastic overview and critique for anyone interested in Nietzsche's philosophy.

7. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, by Maudemarie Clark

Maudemarie Clark's 1990 book Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy treats Nietzsche like an actual philosopher — difficult to do with a thinker who resisted categorization so vehemently — engaging dialectically, argumentatively, and systematically with Nietzsche's views on truth, knowledge, and morality. It's the most rigorous and philosophical treatment of Nietzsche on this list, but rewards the reader with deep excavations and interpretations of his thinking.

Further reading

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