College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance

Michael Lopez

"Emerson and Nietzsche: An Introduction"

Emerson's trans-Atlantic influence on the German thinker who has become, in Stanley Rosen's words, "the most influential philosopher in the Western, non-Marxist world" has long been acknowledged. We know that Nietzsche praised Emerson fulsomely in his journals and letters, in Schopenhauer as Educator, and in Twilight of the Idols, and that his earliest philosophical essays, "Fatum and Geschichte" and "Willensfreiheit und Fatum," were, as their titles suggest, syntheses of Emersonian topics and ideas. European scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century established the extent and depth of Emerson's influence throughout Nietzsche's career. Nevertheless, the Emerson-Nietzsche connection has continued to exist--in both Emerson and Nietzsche scholarship--as a kind of rumor or trade secret. It has rarely been accorded, particularly in Anglo-American scholarship, the significance it deserves. "The depth of the connection between [Emerson and Nietzsche]," as Stanley Cavell observes, "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."

The introduction to this special edition of ESQ examines the history of the continuing repression of the Emerson-Nietzsche connection. It focuses particularly on the way in which Emeron's "transcendentalist" image and "the Nietzsche legend" (that is, Nietzsche's alleged madness, fascism, incoherence, and so on) have long made their mutual consideration all but impossible. "The Nietzsche legend" has been discredited, of course, since Walter Kaufmann's critique of it in the 1950s. Recent work that reads Emerson in light of Nietzsche--or, as Cavell puts it, seeks to understand "what it is in Emerson that inspired Nietzsche's love, and allowed him to be Nietzsche"--has begun to suggest the limits of the still-predominant interpretation of Emerson as a transcendentalist, idealist, or "utopian" thinker.

"Nothing," as George Stack asserts, "made a deeper impression on Nietzsche's thought than the Emersonian stress on the power of fate"--and recent scholarship has begun to recapture the profoundly "fatalist" (fate-conscious, pain-conscious, limit-conscious) nature of Emerson's thought. Emerson's importance as a source for those pivotal Nietzschean ideas (the will to power, eternal recurrence, and amor fati, as well as his critique of Christianity) are becoming clearer. The portrait of Emerson that is emerging--an Emerson concerned with fate, power, history, the sublimation of primal drives, and the overcoming of Christian ethics--locates him not as he is usually depicted, looking backward toward Kant and German idealism. It places him, instead, in the intellectual world of his German contemporaries--Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche--looking forward toward Freud and Heidegger.

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