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
November 16, 2011
Read more: Wittgenstein's forgotten lesson

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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