Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche The Best 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 (like his declaration that God is dead, for instance, or his vision of the Übermensch, or his presentation of the eternal recurrence, or any other of the 97 clever Nietzsche passages and quotations we’ve collated here), 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 from all over the political and philosophical spectrum.

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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

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.

2. Introduction to Nietzsche and His 5 Greatest Ideas, by Philosophy Break

Introduction to Nietzsche and His 5 Greatest Ideas

If you're looking beyond biography for a deeper introduction to Nietzsche's actual philosophy, then the 2022 Introduction to Nietzsche and His 5 Greatest Ideas is designed to help you learn everything you need to know about the brilliant philosopher in just six days. Distilling Nietzsche's best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch, this bite-size course delivers materials direct to your inbox, and is accessible forever from any device. Of course, we're a little biased, as we produced this one — but if you're seeking to understand the fundamentals of Nietzsche's best ideas, have clarity on exactly what he was trying to say, and discover why he is so influential, then Introduction to Nietzsche and His 5 Greatest Ideas gets rave reviews, and might be just what you're looking for!

3. Beyond Good & Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche

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

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

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

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

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 academic treatment of Nietzsche on this list, but rewards the reader with deep excavations and interpretations of his thinking.

Further reading

Are there any other books you think should be on this list? Let us know via email or drop us a message on Twitter or Instagram.

In the meantime, why not explore more of our reading lists on the best philosophy books:

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The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.


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