August 18, 2006

Emerson and Nietzsche

It is fairly well known that Ralph Waldo Emerson influenced generations of Americans, from his friend Henry David Thoreau to Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and recently, Richard Rorty. What is much less known is that even Nietzsche had a profound admiration for Emerson’s writing. Or better still—as Stanley Cavell has observed—“The depth of the connection between [Emerson and Nietzsche] is unknown. Everyone has to discover that for themselves. No matter how many people tell you the connection exists you forget it, and you can't believe it".

Yet, in the course of the last years—mostly thanks to Stanley Cavell’s enduring work on Emerson—this situation has begun to change. An example of that change of mood is David Mikics’ recent book The Romance of Individualism in Emerson and Nietzsche, reviewed by Steven G. Affeldt in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. An ambitious and wide-ranging work in which the author specifies and investigates a number of important affinities between Emerson and Nietzsche—even though Mikics warns against too closely assimilating the two, wishing, instead, “to outline a dynamic relation in which Nietzsche struggles with Emerson’s influence and example in order to develop his own path”.

Here are some excerpts from Affeldt’s review:

[Mikics] treats many of Nietzsche’s major works, often offering surprising and original interpretations of them, as well as several of Emerson’s most important essays. Furthermore, and remarkably given the quantity of material he considers, his readings are detailed, subtle, keyed closely to specific passages, and directed toward highlighting the complexities, internal tensions, and rifts within the individual works.


Mikics specifies and traces a number of important, inter-connected affinities between Emerson and Nietzsche. However, the most central affinity he explores is their shared pursuit of what he calls individuality; a pursuit he associates with a type of perfectionism. That is, Mikics understands the work of Emerson and Nietzsche to
begin from a shared judgment that human beings have failed to achieve individuality; a condition that he argues they associate with freedom and originality as well as with a kind of integrity or coherence in one’s actions and beliefs while remaining open to change and transformation.

Accordingly, he claims, in a somewhat problematic phrase, that for Emerson and Nietzsche humans do not yet exist as “fully created” (p.1). Against their shared “dream of individual power” (p. 1), Mikics points out that these thinkers judge humans to exist in unthinking conformity to the ways of speaking and acting that surround them, or as though frozen within mere repetition of the history that preceded them (and so unable to themselves become historical beings with a critical consciousness of the past as well as an open future), or as though taking themselves to be trapped within an impersonal and inexorable fate or necessity which mocks any idea of individuality or freedom.

However, while Emerson and Nietzsche each begin from the bleakest of judgments about the condition in which humans mostly exist (in “The American Scholar” Emerson speaks of humans living as bugs or spawn), their work does not merely condemn nor does it succumb to despair or pessimism. Rather, Mikics argues, their writing is largely devoted to articulating the nature of individuality, exploring why it is mostly not and how it may be achieved, and, through their writing itself, working to enable or provoke that achievement for themselves and others.


Anyone interested in either working out an individualism that goes beyond those of Emerson and Nietzsche or in attempting a re-reading of Emerson and Nietzsche that establishes a greater viability for their visions, will need to grapple with, and will be helped by, Mikics work.
[Read the rest]

[This post was first published at on September 10, 2004.]

No comments:

Post a Comment