NIETZSCHE, EMERSON’S SELF-RELIANCE, AND THE INDIVIDUAL SECESSION
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Emerson, Nietzsche had little formal training in classical philosophy and was largely a self-directed autodidact; and from Emerson, he took his philosophical duty as a trailblazer on a wild and savage path. He took delight in Emerson’s style, his wit, his aphoristic way of writing, and his abandonment of prior forms and historical thoughts in the record of thinking. Here, in Emerson, was a thinker at last. An active intellect, unconcerned wit the contents of other men’s thoughts because he was secure in the form of his own critical thought.
The Transcendentalist movement, in America and abroad, has always been viewed as something esoteric and sophistical in the history of literature. As a philosophical movement in Germany, in the wake of Immanuel Kant, German Idealism became something wearisome and overwrought—leading to its decline into universal solipsism through Fichte, Schelling, and, worst-of-all, Hegel. What Transcendentalism was, at base, was Kant’s Critical Philosophy in application, touching new ideas with the light of reason, which is the same old light that had shed its influence over history and animated its halls with flickering shadows of mankind since time immemorial. What had changed, thought Emerson, was that the light was now understood; its form was secure, and the individual’s critical capacity for self-knowledge had been freed from the dogmatism and second-hand wisdom of the ages. There was a danger in this new era; the danger of abandoning traditional wisdom and the best that had been thought and said. In that abandonment lay the pitfalls of error; the chance that the thinker might be led down a winding path that had already resolved itself into a dead-end before. And though custom, culture, old usage, and religious tradition might assure the thinker that its own dogmas were surefire prescription against these errors, as the ossified quintessence of historical wisdom, a true thinker had to shed that dogmatism and risk his soul in the quest for truth.
Between 1862 and 1889, the year when Nietzsche suffered his mental breakdown, Nietzsche is known to have read Emerson exhaustively every single year of his life. To anyone who has plunged into Nietzsche, or perhaps into Nietzsche’s American partisan, H.L. Mencken (an heir to Emerson’s legacy returned again to America from Nietzsche’s Germany), one can trace these Emersonian influences all throughout his life’s works—but not in definite particulars. In Nietzsche, as in Emerson before him, we find an authentic thinker in the mold of Kant, a self-reliant thinker as he is in the anarchy of reason. As one critic notes,
Although it is not obvious in the published works, Nietzsche continually praised and quoted Emerson throughout his life. The young Nietzsche read and excerpted much from Emerson. The letters in which he recommended Emerson to his friends…have been lost but are likely to have been highly enthusiastic…Later, in 1874, Nietzsche referred to “the excellent Emerson,” and in 1879 he referred to “Emerson, the richest American.” In 1881 Nietzsche was still more effusive: “Emerson. I have never felt so at home, and in my home, in a book as—I cannot praise it, it stands me too near.” Shortly thereafter, Nietzsche called Emerson “the author richest in thought this century.” In 1882 Nietzsche took a saying from Emerson as a motto for his The Joyful Science and placed it on the title page, and in the book he praised Emerson as one of the four greatest authors of the nineteenth century. In a letter to Overbeck from 1883 Nietzsche wrote, “I experience Emerson as a twin-soul [Bruder-Seele]” […] And in an early draft to Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo (1888), in which he described his own development and reading, he wrote: “Emerson, with his Essays, has been a good friend and someone who has cheered me up even in dark times: he possesses so much scepsis, so many ‘possibilities,’ that with him even virtue becomes spiritual.” 1
Many scholars have seen in Nietzsche’s crowning literary achievement, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sparks of Emerson’s wit, style, and individualism in the character of Zarathustra himself. While this may be an overreach, it cannot be denied that Zarathustra’s spirit and essence would have been at home in Emerson’s essays as much as in Nietzsche’s notebook. In the figure of Zarathustra we find a man who, on the advice of Emerson in his essay, Self-Reliance, removed his coat of many colors, which is colored by others perceptions that others have of him, tossed it to the ground, and fled to live his life unencumbered by so many superfluous opinions.
In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson cautions the reader away from the power of precedent and authority and challenges the reader to—in essence—abandon the essay in order to life the examined life: to fill his book with the sights and smells of nature, and to take his gospel therefrom. He challenges the reader to take care to keep his spirit from being caught up in singular ends to the detriment of his being. To the abolitionist dogmatist, he tenders the caution that he should take care to keep his familial tenderness, to care for his babe, to speak to his peers as men, and as a man, and not to lose himself in the dogmatism of his political or social cause. He scorns the philanthropist and the beggar, for he wants to meet with men who offer him a challenge, rather than a plaintive appeal for subsistence. To the patriot and the acolyte of the nation, he sends out his warning: in the nation, in the herd, in the sphere of other men’s expectations and perceptions—there lies a want of self-reliance and the corruption of the soul.
Kant identified three different modes of reasoning: skepticism, criticism, and dogmatism. The challenge for all critical thinkers was to probe the limits of reason, to canvass the limitations of skepticism, and to avoid dogmatism at all costs. In the first Introduction to his Wissenschaftslehre, one particular student of Kant, J.G. Fichte, identifies the mode of dogmatic thinking:
Dogmatism wishes to use the principle of causality to explain the general nature of the intellect as such, as well as the specific determinations of the same. The intellect is in this case supposed to be something that has been caused; i.e., it is supposed to be the second member in a series.2
Furthermore, the battle between dogmatism and criticism is a veritable battle for the human soul:
The dispute between the idealist and the dogmatist is actually a dispute over whether the self-sufficiency of the I [i.e., the Subject] should be sacrificed to that of the thing [i.e., the Object], or conversely, whether the self-sufficiency of the thing should be sacrificed to that of the I. What, therefore, could drive a rational person to declare himself in favor of either one of these two systems? 3.
The idealist was battling the specter of materialism, the crass mind-as-matter and nothing else credo of the skeptical atheist or the conservatism of the dogmatist, and risking everything upon the anarchy of the human intellect.
In his essay, Self-Reliance, Emerson continually cautions mankind to avoid unexamined and inherited obligations, customs, and cultural rites. He speaks to specific causes, specific rites, and specific traditions—i.e., philanthropy, abolitionism, and orthodoxy—but his target is dogmatism. The goal is to shed that sweet influence of the rebellious individual spirit; to remind all parties of all disputes that he individual’s mission in life is self-knowledge and a higher enjoyment of life. To the dogmatist, he advises that one should shun the activism of the moment, the politically expedient ritual and virtue because, as Nietzsche would write in Beyond Good and Evil:
“Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself. And when you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” 4
There is a reactive state of mind that is a mental and spiritual decay to the dogmatist. Committing himself to a cause, the cause consumes a portion of his being and his time. He becomes a reaction to his mission. He is the antithesis to his opponent’s thesis. He anticipates the maneuverings of the thesis of which he is the opposing element; and in staring into that abyss of oppositions, he loses somewhat in his personal associations; but his associations lose nothing in consuming a portion of his life. Nevertheless, there is less of him. Because he takes first from the cause to give his life meaning, he runs a perpetual spiritual deficit. True change, Emerson seems to assert, can only come through the individual’s self-improvement and critical reflection. Only by these means does the individual offer something worth the investment of time and labor. Never to define himself by his opposition, he sought to surround himself with only those who had something unique to offer his mind, his enjoyments, and his whims.
Throughout the essay, Emerson attacks the notion that man has an inborn allegiance to other men as the default state of his existence. As the extension of his pursuit of the transcendental mode of living, Emerson urges us to spurn dead churches, other men’s morals, philanthropies, public charity, and the obligations of the State. To the individual, Zarathustra spoke a similar gospel:
Whoever has gained wisdom concerning ancient origins will eventually look for wells of the future and for new origins. O my brothers, it will not be overlong before new peoples originate and new wells roar down into new depths. For earthquakes bury many wells and leave many languishing, but they also bring to light inner powers and secrets. Earthquakes reveal new wells. In earthquakes that strike ancient peoples, new wells break open.
And whoever shouts, “Behold, a well for many who are thirsty, a heart for many who are longing, a will for many instruments”—around that man there will gather a people; that is: many triers.
Who can command, who must obey—that is tried out there. Alas, with what long trials and surmises and unpleasant surprises and learning and retrials!
Human society is a trial: thus I teach it—a long trial; and what it tries to find is the commander. A trial, O my brothers, and not a “contract.” Break, break this word of the softhearted and half-and-half.” 5
In Emerson we find mankind as he is; and in Emerson we discover a writer at peace with man’s place in the world. It is not mankind’s duty to reform the world into utopia by ordering about his fellow beings, to break into parties, to agitate for perfection, to demand higher perfection from outside influence so as to ennoble the individual spirit in the quest for a perfect society; rather, it is the charge of mankind to accept his place within the world, and within that world to discover himself as he is and to discover in that equilibrium with Nature the perfection of himself. In the debate between liberty and equality, he damns the equality as criminal, as a self-immolation or a self-sacrifice with no reward.
Liberty, now shown through the light of reason, is the essence of being and living in harmony with one’s knowledge of oneself. Liberty is the quest to seek the good and to risk injury to dogmatic tradition. It is a quest perhaps best summed up by Zarathustra’s gamble:
1. Brobjer, Thomas H. Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2008. 24-5. Print.
2. Fichte, J.G. [First] Introduction. In Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings (1797-1800). Ed. and translated by Daniel Breazeale. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994. Print. 21.
3. ibid., 17.
4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Eds. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman. Transl. Judith Norman. London: Cambridge UP, 2002. 69. Print.
5. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Transl. Walter Kauffman. Penguin Classics, .
6. Ibid., .