It seems like Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers whom lots of people who have never studied philosophy still enjoy reading. Why do you think he’s so appealing in this way?
I think the most important reason to start with is that he’s a great writer, and that is not the norm in philosophy. He’s a great stylist, he’s funny, he’s interesting, he’s a bit wicked, he’s rude. And he touches on almost every aspect of human life and he has something to say about it that’s usually somewhat provocative and intriguing. I think that’s the crucial reason why Nietzsche is so popular. Indeed, he’s probably more popular outside academic philosophy because he’s so hostile to the main traditions in Western philosophy.
Do you think people who haven’t studied philosophy can get quite a lot out of him? You might not really enjoy Spinoza’s Ethics, for instance, if you just picked it up randomly in a bookshop or in the library. Would you say that’s the case with Nieztsche?
I think people without that philosophical background do miss quite a lot – because a lot of what is going on in Nietzsche is reaction to and sometimes implicit dialogue with earlier philosophers. If you don’t know any Kant or Plato or the pre-Socratics, you’re not going to understand a lot of what’s motivating Nietzsche, what he’s reacting against. You get a much richer appreciation of Nietzsche if you are reading him against the background of certain parts of the history of philosophy.
Nietzsche himself was not trained in philosophy, he was trained in classics. But that included a great deal of study of ancient Greek philosophy. And then he taught himself a lot of other philosophy. Kant and Schopenhauer were particularly important to him.