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 imageby Adam Kirsch / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…