America’s Superman

Prospect Magazine

America’s Superman


Nietzsche has appealed to Americans on the right and left for over a century. They have looked past his dark reputation to remake the German philosopher in their own image

American Nietzsche

by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Chicago Press, £19.50)

A famous moment in the career of George W Bush came in 1999, during an early debate in the Republican presidential primary. Asked to name his favourite political philosopher, Bush said “Jesus”—a tactically perfect answer that led to much copying by the other candidates.

Perhaps the question was not really fair. If any candidate had said John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, little light would have been shed on his actual policies; and he would certainly have been tagged as elitist. But imagine what would happen if an American politician, faced with the same question, were to choose Friedrich Nietzsche as his favourite philosopher.

Many American politicians could find support for their ideas in Nietzsche. A Tea Party Republican might choose Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” A secular liberal could turn to the strident atheism of Beyond Good and Evil, while an unapologetic, Dick Cheney-style hawk would have plenty of quotes to choose from. What about, for starters, “You should be such men as are always looking for an enemy—for your enemy”?

Yet the very idea of an American politician publicly proclaiming himself a Nietzschean sounds like a punchline. It was daring enough for Barack Obama, during the 2008 campaign, even to include Nietzsche on a list of writers who were “most significant to him”—well down on the list, to be sure, after Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and other American standards. For in the popular imagination, Nietzsche remains a dangerous figure, whose most famous ideas are hostile to the American character. America is a pious country; Nietzsche wrote a book called The Antichrist. America is a democracy; Nietzsche railed against the herd. The kind of ethics Americans glorify as “family values” Nietzsche despised as “slave morality.” Then there is the long tradition linking Nietzsche’s praise of conflict and admiration for aristocratic virtues with German militarism and Nazi racism—a link that the determined efforts of philosophers and scholars have never quite effaced.

Real complications arise when the philosopher’s name becomes an adjective. “Nietzschean” brings to mind not just a student of Nietzsche, but someone who aims to challenge traditional values, overturning conventional Christian morality in favour of the total freedom of the superior individual, the Übermensch or “Superman.” In this active, committed sense, being a Nietzschean is, paradoxically, more like being a Christian than a Cartesian.

For all these reasons, Nietzsche often figures in American culture as a sinister guru of the violent and deranged. When Jared Lee Loughner, who murdered six people in his attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, turned out to be a close reader of Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, an old stereotype was confirmed. Indeed, the title of America’s best-known Nietzscheans goes to Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenagers who in 1924 murdered a boy with a chisel because they took seriously the philosopher’s belief that the “Superman” is liberated from conventional notions of good and evil. (Their lawyer, Clarence Darrow, blamed the effect of Beyond Good and Evil on their impressionable minds in his 12-hour defence speech.) If you were to include fictional characters, Leopold and Loeb might have a rival in Howard Roark, the arrogant architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Rand, a favourite writer of so many libertarians, capitalists and teenage monomaniacs has surely been the most influential American conduit of Nietzschean ideas. Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said in his book The Age of Turbulence that “I was intellectually limited until I met her.”

In her new book, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen focuses on writers, academics and the clergy, showing that Nietzsche’s influence on American intellectuals has been durable and wide. Everyone from the feminist and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger on the left to Francis Fukuyama on the right could, Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, could claim the label “Nietzschean.”

To these writers and academics, nothing could be more abhorrent than to be linked via Nietzsche with someone like Jared Lee Loughner. In America, philosophers and theologians and novelists may have admired Nietzsche, and learned from him, but they were never Nietzscheans in that vulgar, all-too-literal sense. On the contrary, the major lesson of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, and its comedy, lies in her demonstration of how deftly the American genius has drawn on Nietzsche but cushioned and contained  his challenge to democracy, religion, and humanitarianism in general.


The great example in recent American philosophy is Richard Rorty, the pragmatist philosopher and liberal sage who died in 2007. Ratner-Rosenhagen shows how Nietzsche provided the inspiration for Rorty’s controversial view that philosophy’s search for stable, objective truths was misguided—a hunt for something that did not exist. “It was Nietzsche,” Rorty wrote, “who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth.’”

For Nietzsche, however, giving up the belief in objective truth was no mere “drop”; it was a vertiginous, unstoppable fall. It changed everything. Rorty, by contrast, suggests that there is no reason why mankind should not be able to set up a white picket fence in the void. In his 1989 classic Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he argues that people should continue to fight for social justice even while acknowledging that justice, like truth or goodness, is an essentially meaningless term.

This is the position of Rorty’s ideal man and citizen, the “liberal ironist,” who combines Nietzsche’s all-devouring scepticism with a commitment to the common good. If you were to ask a liberal ironist why he cares about others, in a world where such caring is neither commanded nor justified, the answer would be that he just does. To want more, such as an answer to the question “why should I avoid humiliating another person?” is to consign oneself to the benighted ranks of the metaphysicians—those who still cling to essences and absolutes.

For all his philosophical radicalism, it is hard to avoid seeing Rorty as one of the “lauded wise men of the academic chairs” whom Nietzsche railed against in Zarathustra. These types promote virtue on the grounds that “one must have all the virtues in order to sleep well.” Why does this kind of complacency about the Nietzschean challenge, the certainty that one can have one’s nihilism and eat it, feel so quintessentially American?

One reason, American Nietzsche clarifies, is that Americans have been adept at taking from Nietzsche only those ideas that reinforce their own beliefs or political goals. Around the turn of the century, the journalists James Huneker and HL Mencken led the movement to popularise Nietzsche’s ideas—and, crucially, the tragic story of his life, the genius cut down in his forties by madness. Mencken, in particular, used Nietzsche’s elitism and scorn of the mob as a weapon in his fight against the “booboisie” and the “Bible Belt.” But as Ratner-Rosenhagen says in her chapter on “The Making of the American Nietzsche,” all varieties of social reformers embraced “a writer who railed against the pretentions of tired orthodoxies in an age clamoring for revolt against inherited authority”—even though Nietzsche was often as hostile to “progress” as he was to tradition.

Thus Margaret Sanger, who set up America’s first birth-control clinic in 1916, embraced Nietzsche’s attack on Christian sexual morals while ignoring his notorious misogyny. The first translations of Nietzsche’s work in America were published in the anarchist newspaper Liberty, whose editor, Benjamin Tucker, was drawn to Nietzsche’s free thinking and libertarianism. Yet (Ratner-Rosenhagen writes) “Tucker confessed that the predatory quality he detected in Nietzsche’s writings”—the extolling of conquest and conflict, the praise of the Übermensch—“struck him as a ‘dreadful weakness’ and made him ‘hate Nietzsche at times.’” Tucker advised that the philosopher be used “profitably,” not “prophetably.”

It is undeniable that the Americans who have become all-out Nietzscheans are rarely intellectuals of the first rank. In Europe, Nietzsche fertilised the geniuses of André Gide, DH Lawrence and Thomas Mann. In America, he was most closely identified with journalist-propagandists like Mencken and Huneker, and the literary work that bears his stamp most clearly is Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

The truest American Nietzscheans might in fact be the totally unknown admirers whose letters, excavated from the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, form the basis of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s most interesting chapter. “American Nietzsche” begins with a fan letter the philosopher received from a German-American admirer in 1881, long before he had any kind of reputation in Europe. “Esteemed Herr Doctor,” wrote Elise Fincke of Baltimore, “Perhaps it is of little concern to you that here in America three people… often sit together and allow Nietzsche’s writings to edify them… but I don’t see why we shouldn’t at least tell you so once.” In fact, it mattered to him quite a bit: on the back of the letter, he scrawled, “Initium gloriae mundi.”

However, some of the letters sent to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the sister who took charge of his legacy after he died in 1900, are more eccentric. Jennie Hintz, a 67-year-old from Yonkers, New York, explains that she had Nietzsche’s ideas first, “but I remained mute, keeping them for myself.” Francis Langer of Pittsburgh identifies with Nietzsche because “I was born in the same year.” But the ultimate in appropriation came from one John I Bush of Duluth, Minnesota, who wrote to inform Elisabeth that he was the very Superman her brother had been waiting for: “May you hereby have the consolation and delight to have lived long enough to know that the visions, prophesies, and hopes of your brother have been fulfilled to the very letter; for the author of this scribbling is the very man prognosticated in [Zarathustra].”

In America, the readers most receptive to the idea of the Übermensch turn out to be the most lumpen of Untermenschen: the deluded, frustrated and envious—exactly the kind of people Nietzsche would have denounced as the herd. Thoughtful and educated Americans, on the other hand, usually managed to make Nietzsche the servant of their own purposes, no matter how different those purposes may have been from his own.

Of all the messages in Nietzsche’s books, the least mixed is his hatred of Christianity. Yet there were more than a few pastors, Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, who found Nietzsche “a valuable moral stimulant that would energise Christians and an intellectual astringent that would enable them to do some long-overdue spiritual, ethical, and liturgical housecleaning.”

After blasting what one Anglican priest called the “milk-and-water sentimentalism [which has] usurped the once austere name of Christian piety,” these Christian Nietzscheans naturally urged a reinstatement of a more austere faith, not the Dionysian liberation Nietzsche recommended. Only one cleric, the theologian George Burman Foster, seems to have followed the author of The Antichrist all the way. After getting expelled from his Baptist church in 1909, he began preaching a new saviour, “a man who, as no other, embodies in himself all the pain and all the pleasure, all the sickness and all the convalescence, all the age and all the youth, of our tumultuous and tortured times: Friedrich Nietzsche!”


Depending on how you look at it, there is something either pathetic or reassuring about America’s ability to learn from Nietzsche without becoming Nietzschean—or, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, to create a “philosophy that never abandons… humanistic promises.” It is as though the American mind had been inoculated against the worst symptoms of Nietzscheanism—the admiration of conflict and conquest, the animalisation of the human being, the abjection before “great” men. These are, of course, the very tendencies that made it so natural to see Nietzsche as the patron saint of Wilhelmine militarism and Nazism.

That Americans no longer think of Nietzsche that way is partly thanks to Walter Kaufmann, the German-Jewish scholar and translator who did more than anyone to rehabilitate the philosopher’s reputation after the second world war. Ratner-Rosenhagen devotes a chapter to Kaufmann, discussing how his vision of Nietzsche as an Enlightenment philosopher, concerned with “self-overcoming” rather than conquest, helped to disinfect Nietzsche’s reputation during the Cold War period. This very sanitising of Nietzsche led to a strong reaction against Kaufmann in the 1970s, with the rise of the postmodern, radically relativist “French” Nietzsche of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Yet Kaufmann, who escaped to the US from Nazi Germany in 1939, was writing very much in the American grain when he cast Nietzsche as a messenger of “liberation and self-reliance.” That last idea is key. Americans have been inoculated against Nietzsche, one might say, by prolonged exposure to Emerson, the 19th-century transcendentalist essayist and poet who is one of the most revered American writers.

Unlikely as it may seem, Emerson, as Ratner-Rosenhagen explains in a prologue, was one of Nietzsche’s own greatest influences. “The most fertile author of this century so far has been American,” Nietzsche declared, and it is uncanny how many of Nietzsche’s central ideas turn up, slightly disguised, in Emerson’s essays. “The only sin is limitation,” “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it,” “the civilised man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet”: it is the expression more than the substance of these sayings that mark them as the product of Concord, Massachusetts, not Sils Maria.

Emerson’s insistence on the sovereignty of the self, his scepticism about traditional morality, his metaphysical irony, all prefigure Nietzsche. So why is it that the word “Emersonian” has an infinitely more benign sound than the word “Nietzschean”? The reason may have less to do with each thinker’s propositions than with the spirit, and the prose, in which they are advanced. Nietzsche’s Superman and Emerson’s Oversoul are not principles to think with, like Kant’s categorical imperative; they are experiences to be sought. As with all such experiences, they cannot be divorced from the language that induces them; they are, in the strongest sense, literary.

That is why the difference in style between Emerson and Nietzsche is more telling than the similarity in their concepts. Emerson’s spacious, rippling, blurry prose is the insignia of his trustfulness, just as Nietzsche’s aphorisms communicate his sarcasm and aggression. Because Americans recognise in Nietzsche the bearer of Emerson’s alienated majesty, they hear the Nietzschean provocation muffled in the old Emersonian reassurance: “Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.”

The prospect that tomorrow may not bring pleasure and power, but in Nietzsche’s words “profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished” is—even in these days of recession and uncertainty—a notion as remote from American thought as from American experience.

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Richard Rorty – He was arguably the most influential philosopher of our time: a radical American who is against war in Iraq – and against truth, reason and science. Yet his radicalism turns out to be oddly disarming, argues Simon Blackburn

Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson – Wittgenstein’s philosophy is at odds with the scientism which dominates our times. Ray Monk explains why his thought is still relevant.

Charles Taylor interviewed – The Canadian philosopher talks to Prospect about religion, multiculturalism and the future of the left

Identity and migration - Modern liberal societies have weak collective identities, writes Francis Fukuyama. But if our societies cannot assert positive liberal values, they may be challenged by migrants who are more sure of who they are

  1. November 22, 2011

    Tali Makell

    It strikes me as bizarre that this article began with a reference to a book by Nietzsche which has long been denounced by Nietzsche scholars as an invention of Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic, German nationalist sister, Elisabeth, who kept those who had known her brother and understood his ideas away from any role in her “edition” of her brother’s work, which was actually little more than an attempt to reconcile the ideas of her husband, Bernhard Förster, who set up an unsuccessful anti-Semitic colony in Paraguay, with those of her brother, which were diametrically opposed to Förster’s. In short, there is no such thing as a book by Nietzsche entitled “The Will to Power”, which is little more than a hodge-podge of notes Nietzsche wrote over several years, arranged to appear as though they are organized, systematic, and represent an important part of his philosophy. In fact, Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism, was against the idea of German military supremacy, hated nationalism and believed that the Übermensch was a man of peace whose wars of conquest were directed inwardly, not toward other countries. In fact, a sure sign that someone has misunderstood Nietzsche’s ideas is when one hears or reads of them being touted as political, or even systematic. While I have read other reviews of this book which have struck me as positive and accurate, it strikes me that this review is written by someone who stubbornly persists in holding onto his prejudices and pre-conceived notions about Nietzsche and his writings, which strikes me as unfortunate, both for the book and for those wishing to understand the significance of Nietzsche’s work, here in the Us or the wider world.

  2. November 22, 2011


    Although the initial difficulty with Nietzsche is how to spell his name correctly with the “z”,”s”, and “c” never coming out quite in the correct order, the whole thing could have been easier settled if he had shortened it to Niet for those slightly familiar with Russian and which neatly encapsulated his attitude towards conventional moralities. The essential problem lies in whose concepts to accept in delineating a superman. If Greenspan is to be used as a standard the current financial debacle can be well understood.

  3. November 22, 2011

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    I think Nietzsche is most misunderstood philosopher in the world. One reason is his own violent and turbid thinking and his dancing excessive and exaggerate language is also responsible to misused him.That is why everybody used his philosophy for his own selfish purpose.He never used word superman. his intention become Over man. He don’t want victory over man.If we read carefully to him his contribution to mankind is.tremendous. His motto “accept your fate not only accept it but love it”most insightful teaching. Freud rightly told about him that he is first and last psychologist who search very deeply his own soul” Unfortunately intelligent people till misunderstood him

  4. November 22, 2011

    Nick Salome

    All the Kirsch demonstrates by claiming that Rorty believed “that justice, like truth or goodness, is an essentially meaningless term,” is that he is a very poor reader of Rorty.
    Sheesh, talk about oversimplification leading to gross mischaracterization.

  5. November 22, 2011

    Roger Seamon

    Three cheers for Tali Makell. My own perhaps over-literary view is that people get heavy-duty about Nietzsche, and lose the “light-footedness” he loved. For example, he said of George Eliot’s novels that (and I have it I hope about right) they are “revenge of Christianity on art.” That is genius. Of course Eliot is a great artist, but the heart of the novels, including the bad bits from a liberated perspectice, eg in the Mill on the Floss Eliot arranging it so that Maggie can reconcile with her brother only in the moment of death, is deeply Christian and if one doesn’t resonate to that one is not getting it. Nietzsche got it but also saw it for what it was, like it or not. Which was sort of what he had to say about us generally adn which remains true, and the new atheists are simply crude about this. N. wasn’t.

  6. November 22, 2011

    Devdas Davids

    Not a bad article at all. As a longtime enthusiast of Nietzsche (Nietzsche as revealed by Kaufmann), I am often disappointed to see him misrepresented in popular culture. However, I think this review has done justice to Nietzsche. Hopefully the book will do the same. I’ll be adding “American Nietzsche” to my reading list.

  7. November 22, 2011

    Ashley March

    Contrary to the author’s idiotic assertion here is a statement from Ayn Rand herself, taken from “Introduction to The Fountainhead,”
    The Objectivist, March 1968, “Philosophically, Nietzsche is a mystic and an irrationalist. His metaphysics consists of a somewhat “Byronic” and mystically “malevolent” universe; his epistemology subordinates reason to “will,” or feeling or instinct or blood or innate virtues of character.” Hardly what one would expect from “the most influential American conduit of Nietzschean ideas.”

  8. November 22, 2011

    Joyce Mullan

    As someone who has read and taught Nietzsche for about 30 years, I have no such Romantic ideas as other commentators to this article. The article does not begin, as Tali Makell writes, with a reference to “The Will to Power,” it begins with a quote from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” That work does have an extended discussion of the Overman, an idea, he wrote about even earlier in “The Gay Science.” Even if his sister did stitch together “Will to Power,” where did she get the ideas from? Even more, why did she choose to marry an Aryan racist? From my own experience, I agree with Adam Kirsch that most Nietzscheans do pick and choose the ideas that confirm their own prejudices. Yet, even I think that Nietzsche did have some good insights about a few things. For example, he is right that priests and warriors have a natural antipathy. It is not because priests are powerless, however. More importantly, his anti-democratic contempt for the many and his ideas about war clearing away the ‘detritus’ of civilization were appalling. I don’t read him with rose colored glasses, I take him at his word. Nietzsche was at one with the non-conformist spirit of the times that you find in Emerson, J.S. Mill, and Kierkegaard. Yet, I agree with Kirsch that those who think they can combine a commitment to the common good and concern for social justice with Nietzsche, are pitifully mistaken.

  9. November 22, 2011

    Luke Lea

    Nietzsche was also a kind of Walter Middy figure, a nerd with a Napoleon complex, a would-be sociopath.

  10. November 22, 2011


    Ashley Marsh:

    Ayn Rand was, in fact, influenced by Nietzsche early in her career. You are right to suggest that Rand repudiated this influence, as her comment attests–although you also conveniently edit the remainder of Rand’s comment: “But, as a poet, [Nietzsche] projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness, expressed in emotional, not intellectual, terms.”

    Anyway, thank you for offering Rand’s (generally) idiotic comment on Nietzsche as a counterweight to Kirsch’s.

    Joyce Mullan:

    “Even if his sister did stitch together ‘Will to Power,’ where did she get the ideas from? ”

    So, if one were to edit someone’s writings in a way that completely misrepresents the writers’ views, then that writer would still be responsible for the result?

    “Even more, why did she [Nietzsche's sister] choose to marry an Aryan racist?”

    What does this have to do with Nietzsche, himself? Are you trying to smear him by association?

    “More importantly, his anti-democratic contempt for the many and his ideas about war clearing away the ‘detritus’ of civilization were appalling.”

    You are certainly not “romantic” about Nietzsche’s writings. Instead, you display a bovine literal-mindedness about them. Do you really think that that is an improvement?

    I pity your students.

    Luke Lea bleats, yet again:

    “Nietzsche was also a kind of Walter Middy [sic] figure, a nerd with a Napoleon complex, a would-be sociopath.”

    Luke loves to leave this little apercu like bird droppings every time he spots an article on Nietzsche referenced in Arts & Letters Daily. He always forgets that Nietzsche fought in the Franco-Prussian War, was a vigorous hiker, and in general struggled heroically with chronic illness–all of which, I’d wager, is much more than Luke has ever managed to accomplish. And what in the world is a “would-be sociopath”?!?

    Anyway, nice try, folks, but Tali Makell’s comment remains the most intelligent one so far in this thread.

  11. November 23, 2011


    Would someone please translate the Latin phrase that Nietzsche wrote on the envelope?

    My basic Latin gives: “The beginning of the glory of the world”

    But that doesn’t make much sense to me in this context.


  12. November 23, 2011


    It is unfortunate that the author seems to be unaware of the fact that the two historical figures who Nietzsche most admired were Socrates and Goethe. A careful reading of Kaufmann discloses that Nietzsche’s vision of philosophy was pragmatic, aesthetic, and ethical. Nietzsche’s work has flaws, as Kaufmann has pointed out. Kaufmann does the best job of articulating the comprehensive themes and ideas in his work. Page for page Nietzsche is the most fertile and insightful thinker that ever lived. He belongs to the tradition of the Enlightenment because he wrote to cultivate creative skepticism and autonomy in himself and his readers.

  13. November 23, 2011


    Actually, Ashley, your quote comes from after Rand dropped Nietzsche. Before that, she read him extensively. It would take a very determined person to not see the striking similarities in sentiment and style between the two. The influence is disputable, but it’s not something that can be brushed aside with a single quotation.

    Considering how meager a thinker Rand is, it’s a trivial point, but I’m motivated to make it by your rudeness.

  14. November 23, 2011


    As usual, Adam Kirsch delivers a fine essay on an endlessly fascinating subject: the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

    I believe, however, that Kirsch misses the mark when he discusses the contribution of the great post-World War II scholar Walter Kaufmann to the literature on Nietzsche. Kirsch describes Kaufmann’s project as a disinfecting, or “sanitizing,” of the work on Nietzsche. While Kirsch is obviously referring to the rejection of all ties between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Naziism, German nationalism, and anti-Semitism, a reader is left with the impression that it was Nietzsche’s philosophy itself, not the voluminous literature of distortion that grew up around it, that needed cleaning up.

    Kaufmann, it seems to me, once and for all let Nietzsche be read on his own terms, not according to the agendas of idiots. After Kaufmann, I think, no reader or commentator on Nietzsche anywhere can claim that he has not been thoroughly disabused of these ridiculous associations. If that had been Kaufmann’s sole accomplishment, his career would have achieved historic importance. All readers who love Nietzsche owe Walter Kaufmann an enormous debt.

    Furthermore, Kirsch asserts that the postmodernist Nietzsche of Foucault and Derrida was a “strong reaction against Kaufmann . . . ” I disagree. I believe that the poststructuralist Nietzsche developed parallel to Kaufmann’s project, not in response to or in dialogue with Kaufmann’s. The postmodernists focus on Nietzsche’s epistemology, his perspectivism, in order to upend absolutes, convictions, and other settled views of the world.

    Kaufmann, it seems to me, was engaged in an entirely different enterprise. His emphasis was on the self-overcoming of man, who Nietzsche had made up his mind definitely needed overcoming. Indeed, the “giants” of today, self-anointed and socially recognized, are precisely the little men, the dwarfs, whom Nietzsche deemed most dangerous to the life project of the Ubermensch. Kaufmann, though he of course addressed epistemological questions, sought to clarify the nature of the Ubermensch and to identify the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same as his ultimate test. The postmodernists went off in another direction.

    It bears mentioning that no one knew better than Nietzsche himself that his philosophy would be twisted beyond recognition and used for purposes that he would never endorse. His sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, and her husband, the rabid anti-Semite Bernhard Forster, were only the first in a seemingly endless series of idiots who did to Nietzsche’s extraordinary thought precisely what he knew would be done. In a life filled with tragedy, this is the greatest tragedy of all for Friedrich Nietzsche.

    There’s another matter that bothers me a bit about Kirsch’s discussion, illuminating as it is. I don’t think Nietzsche would approve of the word “Nietzschean,” especially as a noun. He explicitly repudiated disciples. Nietzsche, I believe, would encourage each brave soul to climb his own mountain; be his own Nietzsche or kind of Nietzsche; to become who he is; or to be his own man, blazing his own path, returning to the fray every now and then to share the Overman, and restoring himself once again with the high-thinking and cold insight of the mountains.

    I don’t think Americans today have the stomach for Nietzsche’s thinking, or for the hard, but noble, life to which his thinking conduces. But that’s no surprise, to me, to Kaufmann, or to Nietzsche himself. His philosophy isn’t for everyone, nor could it be. One must man up to it, and few possess the muscular intellect to do that. In the age of Oprah and, in the academy, of Richard Rorty, one cannot expect a warm reception for the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.

  15. November 23, 2011

    roibert landbeck

    “in Nietzsche’s words “profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished” is a description of the human condition that our species may have to get used to. For the search for progress may demand that same critical self scrutiny, as the starting point, for humanity to avoid Nietzsche’s own tragic end.

  16. November 24, 2011

    Odorico Leal

    I don’t think at all that America is free from “the worst symptoms of Nietzscheanism—the admiration of conflict and conquest, the animalisation of the human being, the abjection before “great” men”. The very fact that americans think so of themselves with such a confidence is what makes them re-elect over and over politicians who sistematically rely on ‘conflic and conquest’ and the ‘animalisation of human being’ in order to profit. America has thrown the first two atom bombs, for Christ’s sake. Give the rest of the world a break. I love America, from Whitman, Peirce and Emerson to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Peanuts (although in this history line you can see the moral degeneration – except, maybe, for Peanuts!). But a little self-awareness and self-reflection on true guilt and the real meaning of political and social actions might help America find its true spirit again. Read Eric Voegelin instead of Nietzsche, people.

  17. November 25, 2011

    Joyce Mullan

    Aldebaran uses a pseudonym to hide his lofty identity. Very cool. The point I was trying to suggest regarding Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth is that maybe the ‘apple didn’t fall far from the tree’. After all, she was closer to him than any of us. Bovine literal-mindedness? That’s pretty close to sexism. Yes, since women are often the victims of war, it can really be difficult for us to celebrate a macho mentality that talks a lot about war, but never fights in one, no matter how vigorous a hiker he was. Maybe you’re such an armchair warrior yourself. As for my students, they like my classes a lot. I give it to them straight, not distorted by old hippie myths.

  18. November 25, 2011

    Tali Makell

    @ Joyce Mullan “Old hippie myths’ What are you selling you students, a Fox News version of Nietzschean thought? In the final analysis, regardless of how close Nietzsche’s relationship with his sister was during their youth, it is well known that there was very little agreement between them on any level by the time they were adults. Unlike other philosophers, it is, I think, very important for those who would attempt to understand Nietzsche to consult a decent biography of the man in order to avoid such obvious errors with regard to his personal relationships. While Nietzsche, like most Europeans of his time, harbored anti-Semitic opinions as a young man, he got rid of them in his thirties and by the end of his career openly hated anti-Semitism, nationalism and militarism. This is not some “hippie myth”. It is fact, or has your Fox News sensibility inoculated you against fact?

  19. November 25, 2011


    Joyce Mullan:

    “Aldebaran uses a pseudonym to hide his lofty identity. Very cool.”

    Joyce Mullan uses an irrelevant, ad hominem argument to attack me. Very cool.

    “The point I was trying to suggest regarding Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth is that maybe the ‘apple didn’t fall far from the tree’”

    Yes, it’s exactly as I said: Because you have no rational arguments against Nietzsche, you try to smear Nietzsche by association. If you knew anything about Nietzsche, then you’d know that he loathed anti-Semitism and Elisabeth’s husband, and that he didn’t seem to think much of Elisabeth, either.

    “Bovine literal-mindedness? That’s pretty close to sexism.”

    Sexism? That’s pretty close to paranoia. Be assured, my use of “bovine” here is entirely sex-neutral–like the adjective itself, if you take the trouble to research the definition.

    “Yes, since women are often the victims of war, it can really be difficult for us to celebrate a macho mentality that talks a lot about war”.

    Is it equally difficult for women to understand metaphorical language, such as Nietzsche uses? It seems you are the sexist, here, if you assume so.

    “a macho mentality that talks a lot about war, but never fights in one, no matter how vigorous a hiker he was”

    Once again, you demonstrate your ignorance, despite all your years of teaching and reading Nietzsche: He did fight in the Franco-Prussian War.

    “Maybe you’re such an armchair warrior yourself.”

    Once again, the ad hominem. You really are intellectually bereft, aren’t you?

    As to your students, please point them to this discussion. Let’s see how much respect for you they have after reading this article and thread.

  20. November 26, 2011

    Tali Makell

    @ Luke Lea “Nietzsche was also a kind of Walter Middy [sic] figure, a nerd with a Napoleon complex, a would-be sociopath.”

    Actually, the title of the story by Thurber is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, not Middy”. It isn’t really germane to the subject zat hand, but neither is the allusion to it in connection with Nietzsche.

  21. November 27, 2011

    Mark W. Budwig

    “If any candidate had said John Locke or Thomas Jefferson,… .”
    In fact, Steve Forbes mentioned *both* Locke and Jefferson, while Alan Keyes invoked the founding fathers.
    Bill Clinton was mocked as elitist for reportedly reading Marcus Aurelius.

  22. November 28, 2011


    @Tali Makell:

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Luke Lea. He appears to be a Mitty-esque figure, himself, one who, in his daring daydreams, slays evil philosophical dragons such as Nietzsche. That he fails to slay them anywhere else shouldn’t concern us too much.

  23. November 29, 2011

    Joyce Mullan

    Aldebaran, still using a pseudonym, you are the one using ad hominem arguments.

    As for your replies:
    Nietzsche did not fight in the Franco-Prussian War, he was a hospital attendant.
    Bovine means cow-like. Perhaps, I am being too literal, but cows are female.
    As for the supposedly non-rational nature of my remarks, firstly, Nietzsche himself was critical of reason. But, secondly, I initially wrote to say that I find compelling Kirsch’s rational argument, that those on the left who try to combine Nietzsche with a concern for social justice are mistaken. None of your remarks have proven otherwise.
    What you have proved is that the cloak of anonymity seems to give you the cover to write quite viciously of those who don’t share your opinion. Nietzsche has proved to be a divisive writer, I should have expected that. Have a look at this recent post from the New York Times, “Anonymity and Incivility on the Internet,”

  24. November 30, 2011


    joyce mullan:

    “Aldebaran, still using a pseudonym”

    I have my reasons. As I mentioned, my identity is irrelevant to my arguments. Since you cannot attack them, however, it makes sense that you would find something irrelevant to attack, instead.

    “you are the one using ad hominem arguments.”

    It is obvious that you know as little about *ad hominem* arguments as you do about Nietzsche. I suggest that you research exactly what an *ad hominem* argument is.

    “Nietzsche did not fight in the Franco-Prussian War, he was a hospital attendant.”

    Here, you are right. I confused Nietzsche’s earlier cavalry service with the later experience in the Franco-Prussian War. Still, Nietzsche served in the war, voluntarily, and experienced its effects.

    “Bovine means cow-like. Perhaps, I am being too literal, but cows are female.”

    “Bovine” means “belonging to, or characteristic of, the ox tribe” (OED), which includes all form of cattle, as well as both sexes.

    “As for the supposedly non-rational nature of my remarks, firstly, Nietzsche himself was critical of reason.”

    Nietzsche was not purely critical of reason, per se; merely of a certain misuse of it. As to the majority of your remarks, they are not necessarily anti-rational; they are merely factually incorrect.

    “I find compelling Kirsch’s rational argument, that those on the left who try to combine Nietzsche with a concern for social justice are mistaken. None of your remarks have proven otherwise.”

    Kirsch does not make a rational argument for this proposition. He merely states it as an opinion, based upon the book he is reviewing.

    In any case, I never intended to disprove this point. It’s a pure matter of opinion on both your part and Kirsch’s, one that can neither be proven or disproven. I addressed the assertions in your initial post that needed addressing; i.e., the ones that contain misleading statements, innuendo, and factual errors.

    “What you have proved is that the cloak of anonymity seems to give you the cover to write quite viciously of those who don’t share your opinion.”

    I can see why you keep harping on the point of pseudonymity, since you have no other argument, rational or otherwise, to make. I’ve written nothing that I would not say to you in person, and if you really think that my remarks are “vicious”, as opposed to, say, barbed in places and ironic, then you are as ill acquainted with the meaning of that term as you are with the other vocabulary that we’ve discussed. In any case, do you really think that giving a name means that the name is real? You could have chosen your own name as a pseudonym, for all any of us know. Mine at least is obviously one.

    For the rest, you yourself initially wrote that those who disagree with you on this point are “pitifully mistaken”, and that certain of Nietzsche’s views are “appalling”. Also, you grossly distort Nietzsche’s ideas, and you even imply that he was really an anti-Semite, despite all proof to the contrary. And then, you are surprised when others reply to you in equally strong language!

    “Nietzsche has proved to be a divisive writer”.

    No, he has proved to be a controversial, much misunderstood, and often maligned writer. For that reason, those of us who *do* grasp Nietzsche’s thought become understandably impatient with those, such as yourself, who malign his work and misrepresent both his writings and his character.

  25. December 1, 2011

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    There are quite a few philosophers one would be better off not reading. Nietzsche is certainly among them. When I read that his ” …most famous ideas are hostile to the American character”, for example, I am pleased to remind myself of my own understanding that Nietzsche was an extreme individualist whose ideas one had better not try and fit into any national character. The Germans tried it once (or twice)and it didn’t seem to fit their national character lastingly either.

  26. February 28, 2014

    Jon Monroe

    “Then there is the long tradition linking Nietzsche’s praise of conflict and admiration for aristocratic virtues with German militarism and Nazi racism—a link that the determined efforts of philosophers and scholars have never quite effaced.”

    Often neglected in mention is the fact that Nietzsche’s association with German militarism was due to determined efforts of ideologues and psychopaths. I’ll take the determined efforts of philosophers and scholars… thank you very much.

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Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch
Adam Kirsch’s latest book “Why Trilling Matters” is published by Yale University Press 

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