Human, All Too Human – Friedrich Nietzsche

One of a three-part series of BBC documentaries on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, first broadcast in 1999.

(details below)

This programme gave me a very different picture of Friedrich Nietzsche than I’d got from Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy. I started my comments on that section of the book with the words “Russell has a very low opinion of him, and doesn’t attempt to hide it: more than with most other philosophers, he tries to explain Nietzsche’s philosophy by his personality defects”. Russell concedes that “Nietzsche has had a great influence”, and that “his prophecies as to the future have, so far, proved more nearly right than those of liberals or Socialists”, adding “If he is a mere symptom of disease, the disease must be very widespread in the modern world.” Later he asks the question “Suppose we wish – as I certainly do – to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?”, subsequently failing, as far as I’m concerned, to find anything remotely adequate.

This BBC documentary, on the other hand, presents Nietzsche as a great man and a positive influence on human development (‘if we hadn’t had Nietzsche, we would never have had Freud’), watering down those aspects of his philosophy which most people would find shocking or distasteful and (for instance) failing completely to mention his hatred of women. His doctrine of the Übermensch “could be read as” referring to the need to conquer the lower part of oneself in order to rise and fulfil one’s true potential (or something along those lines), and his popularity with the Nazis was entirely due to his sister’s misrepresentation of his philosophy after his death. Worst of all, the incident of his hugging a mistreated horse in Turin is presented as ‘his last sane act’ which showed, in spite of his life-long railing against sympathy for the suffering and downtrodden, that he really was capable of normal human feelings after all! I mean, if that story about the horse was actually true, then it would seem much more logical, at least to anyone who wasn’t desperately trying to find something ‘nice’ to say about Nietzsche, to regard it as his first insane act. I’m pretty certain that it generally is so regarded, and it was presumably considered pretty insane by the two policemen who escorted him home afterwards!

His final madness is presented as a consequence of his philosophy, the logical result of his having given up all the comforting illusions of civilisation and taken a path where no one could follow him. He is even very nearly presented as a sort of Christ figure, suffering for the good of all humanity – which is how he saw things himself. Most accounts of Nietzsche completely ignore his madness, or regard it as coincidental and irrelevant to his philosophy, but there may well be quite a lot of truth in the view presented here.

All the contributors to the programme were obviously admirers of Nietzsche (when not actually his biographers or people who work for the Nietzsche-Archiv) who might have had a vested interest in his being seen in a positive light by the general public. In spite of Bertrand Russell no longer being available, couldn’t they have found a philosopher somewhere to say something critical about Nietzsche? I thought the BBC were a bit more balanced than that…

Apart from this attempt to make Nietzsche seem like a nice chap, this is about what you’d expect from a TV programme about philosophy, with lots of visual effects designed to make the subject photogenic and exciting. We get to see not just Nietzsche sitting at his desk writing, and a mad monk with a lantern wandering around a market place asking people “Wo ist Gott?”, but a guy walking endlessly across a snow-covered mountain top in the middle of nowhere with Strauss and Wagner booming away in the background. All very entertaining, but not as informative as it might have been.



title Human, All Too Human – Friedrich Nietzsche
director BBC documentary
released 1999
language English
seen 28/11/2014, on my PC
download / watch online YouTube


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