College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance

James M. Albrecht

"'The Sun Were Insipid, If the Universe Were Not Opaque': The Ethics of Action, Power, and Belief in Emerson, Nietzsche, and James"

This article traces some of the broad and fundamental similiarities between Nietzsche and the pragmatic tradition of American thought running from Emerson to William James. Without denying the important differences between the three writers, and without claiming that Nietzsche is a pragmatist, it is still important to recognize that their philosophical projects share many essential concerns, attitudes, and conclusions. These similarities revolve around their common desire to establish a new standard of moral or ethical valuation, to reject the absolutisms of traditional religion and science in favor of an ethics that measures human values (or truths) in terms of their effects on the vitality of human life. For all three, such an ethics must locate our primary value in the struggles through which people develop, exercise, and express their active natures--in what Emerson and James often call "work" or "action," and what Nietzsche (also like Emerson) calls "power." This insistence that moral value is not an absolute entity (divine "goodness" or "truth"), but rather a mode of existence we achieve in struggle with the resistances and limits of our material environment, is in effect a tragic ethics. Emerson, Nietzsche, and James each renounce traditional religion's promise of certain meaning behind (and compensating for) the sufferings of our world, in favor of a view that accepts the limits and failures of material life as real and unrecoverable losses--losses that are meaningful, however, indeed necessary and beneficial, as occasions for human performance and power.

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