Nietzsche: An American Icon?

In the early twentieth century, the pronouncements of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were admired and championed by many prominent American secularists including Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippmann, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Margaret Sanger, and Upton Sinclair. Mencken proclaimed that Nietzsche was “the greatest individualist” since Adam. O’Neill and London described him as their “Christ.”

In the recently published, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Idols, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen explains that Nietzsche was chic with Greenwich Village bohemians and the anti-egalitarian crowd because he hated Christianity, democratic government, and the middle class. One reviewer of the Rosenhagen book hailed Nietzsche as the thinker who “helped Americans to acquire a better sense of cultural identity and, as a culture, a higher level of intellectual maturity.”

For the life of me, I cannot figure why Americans would fall for Nietzsche’s warped Weltanschauung or how he “inspired rapture devotion.”

Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the son of a Lutheran minister, born in Prussia, and educated at the University of Bonn. He taught classical philology at the Swiss University of Basel before resigning due to illness in 1879. During the next decade, he wrote a series of philosophical works including his most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1889, at only forty-five, Nietzsche had a mental breakdown and spent the remainder of his life in an insane asylum.

He argued that human nature was determined by primitive forces, namely the will to power, whereby each human being defines his own personal order and creates the values that determine all his actions. The will to power is “the innermost essence of being,” not one’s soul made in the image of God.

For Nietzsche there is no God. (“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!”) God is merely the delusional expression of future hopes; a mere value judgment to give meaning and stability to one’s life.

Nietzsche correctly concludes that without God there can be no absolute standards, no right or wrong, no salvation, no afterlife, no objective or eternal truths. If there is no God, only our own values or feelings matter: “Truth,” Nietzsche declared, “is that sort of error without which a particular type of living being could not live.” Truth becomes whatever one “wills.”

Nietzsche opposed the rational idea of life characterized by the Greek god Apollo. He preferred Dionysius, the god of instinct and emotion. The dynamic, adventurous aspects of life supersede order and rationality. Power supersedes truth, and thought is a slave to the will.

Consequently, Nietzsche foresees a Zarathustra descending from the mountain to preach a new religion in which the dead God is replaced by an Übermensch – the Overman or Superman who creates his own values and goals.

The Superman’s essential quality is strength, meaning his will. He has a strong personality and is master. He lives dangerously, seeks conflict, which is the essence of life. The Superman loves suffering. According to Nietzsche, pain and suffering bring out greatness.

                Nietzsche by Curt Stoeving (1894) 

The weak succumb to suffering; the strong grow by it. Cruelty, conflict, war are to be encouraged not eliminated. The Superman is also proud; he knows he is superior and a law unto himself. Nietzsche refers to this state as the “transvaluation of all values.” 

Only this superman can provide hope for the future of mankind. Only this superman can eliminate the key institution that is responsible for the existence of mediocrity: Christianity.

Nietzsche despises Christianity because it was an obstacle to the rise of the Superman. It undermines man’s faith in himself, limiting his powers and dignity by notions of sin, wretchedness, humility. The Christian is governed by “slave morality.” 

Nietzsche condemns Christianity because it renders life on earth relatively unimportant. It emphasizes the next world and promotes the cult of mediocrity. Since Christianity preaches that all men are equal in the eyes of God, the powerful must occupy a lower status than is rightfully theirs.

To succeed, Nietzsche’s Superman must destroy Christianity and declare a new dawn for humanity. The end of Christianity Nietzsche prophesized, would lead to an active nihilism. Supermen who have rejected absolutes will then take the next steps necessary to destroy the remaining remnants of Western civilization particularly democratic forms of government that “represent the disbelief in all great men.”

Why have many American ideologues found attractive a philosophy that Camus described as “the will to power taking the place of the will to justice”? Some embrace Nietzsche because they view him as the logical successor to transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the Concord illuminati. 

Emerson, like Nietzsche, maintained that man must reject organized religion and government and rely on private judgments and emotions. He called the person who is to lead the revolt against authority, the “oversoul.” Emerson’s oversoul proclaims: “every will to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.” Nietzsche’s Superman shouts, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Other prominent Americans admired Nietzsche because he despised democracies that gave the “herds” a say in their governments and respected equality. And they are still among us, those who consider themselves the only ones fit to govern – not because they love the downtrodden or have useful experience, but because they perceive themselves as measurably smarter than the public at large. Society will only benefit from their counsel. 

But our religious tradition wisely reminds us that smart is not the same as good. Nietzsche provided some of the framework for the twentieth century’s fascist horrors. Yet he continues to have a following in America as if all that never happened. 

The only way to prevent the return of Nietzsche’s world view in new guises and to preserve our great democracy is to reassert what gave our nation strength at its birth: a firm belief in human beings as made in the image of God.


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.