The profound influence of American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson on Nietzsche is one of the most underestimated connections in the history of philosophy; as American philosopher Stanley Cavell has put it:
“no matter how often this connection of Nietzsche to Emerson is stated, no matter how obvious to anyone who cares to verify it, it stays incredible, it is always in a forgotten state.”
The glaring lack of attention to the relationship between the two thinkers is itself an enigma worthy of inquiry. One obvious reason for the underestimation is its sheer unlikeliness. Not only were the philosophers from different geographical continents but the two also seemed to occupy completely different continents of the intellect. Emerson was a spiritual, nature-loving Transcendentalist and Nietzsche was…well, Nietzsche. He was a bombastic iconoclastic Antichrist and one of Existentialism’s founding fathers. The link between the two is far from intuitive.
Another obvious reason for the lack of attention given to the Emerson-Nietzsche relationship is that there are only two explicit mentions of Emerson in all of Nietzsche’s published works and though these two mentions are provocative their sheer sparseness makes it easy to dismiss the connection.
Peeking behind the curtain of Nietzsche’s published works however into his personal library, letters and manuscripts a different story takes shape.
There was a connection between the two and it was profound. Nietzsche says a lot about Emerson much of which is unusually laudatory. One Nietzschean scholar Charles Andler has identified Emerson as “one of the prototypes of Zarathustra”. Another Nietzschean scholar Herman Hummel goes so far as to say “that Emerson was more than “a brother soul” to Nietzsche, and that “he exercised a continuous influence stronger than that of any other writer on Nietzsche”
Why Nietzsche Doesn’t Speak of Emerson
Because of the scant mentions of Emerson in his published works, it is hard to quantify the influence of the American philosopher on Nietzsche. Where we see Nietzsche actively wrestle with Schopenhauer and with Kant, with Plato and with Socrates, Emerson does not get the same treatment.
Emerson seems to have inhabited a different room of Nietzsche’s mind. He never attacked him as he did with the others and though it’s clear that he did find faults, he nevertheless felt a deep kinship with him.
Nietzsche himself describes Emerson as a “twin soul” and commenting on a collection of Emerson’s two series of essays he says:
“I have never felt so much at home in a book, so much in my own house as — I ought not to praise it; it is too close to me.”
The kinship with Emerson seems to go deeper than the intellectual façade of philosophising; in Emerson Nietzsche finds the ideal of living philosophy.
Emerson the Artist-Philosopher
Emerson is the archetypal philosopher-poet who does a wonderful job bridging the two realms Nietzsche strived his whole career to bridge — art and philosophy. These two aspects are in conflict in Nietzsche throughout his career — from the Apollonian and Dionysian distinction of his first book The Birth of Tragedy to the conflict of Dionysus and the Crucified at the end of his career/sanity. One simplified way of looking at Nietzsche’s philosophy is to say that it is an attempt to marry these separate strains. In aphorism 92 of The Gay Science he notes that:
“Good prose is written only face to face with poetry. For it is an uninterrupted, well-mannered war with poetry: all of its attractions depend on the way in which poetry is continually avoided and contradicted”
Later in this aphorism we get Nietzsche’s first published mention of Emerson as one of only four masters of prose in their shared 19th century.
Nietzsche’s relationship with Emerson is unique among philosophers. The Sage of Concord seems to have spoken to a deeper more personal layer of Nietzsche; he seems to have gotten into Nietzsche’s bones and shaped his very character and worldview. His conviction that philosophy was something you lived resonated in the depths of Nietzsche’s soul.
It wasn’t the violent upheaval of infatuation that Nietzsche experienced with Schopenhauer and Wagner but the slow transformative effect of a lifelong relationship.
A diligent student
Nietzsche’s relationship with Emerson’s writings was not a flash in the pan or a brief flirtation. The first encounter of he had with the works of Emerson was as a 17-year-old schoolboy at Schulpforta school. During this time, he copied out excerpts from Emerson’s works, something he was to do a number of times throughout his life.
The most notable occasion was in 1882, the year he wrote The Gay Science and the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. At this time, he copied out a sheaf of excerpts from Emerson’s Essays — some of them word for word, others summed up or slightly reformulated and others blended with his own thoughts.
The most tangible instance of Emerson’s influence is in Nietzsche’s copy of this book of Emerson’s Essays. As Nietzsche’s personal library of books has been preserved, scholars can study the books and see Nietzsche’s notes and annotations on the different books that he read.
As Benedetta Zavatta has observed in her book on Emerson and Nietzsche Individuality and Beyond, Nietzsche’s copy of Emerson’s essays stands out as a singular case in Nietzsche’s library; its pages are literally covered with his notes over multiple re-readings with everything from underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks, to dog-eared pages, annotations and philosophical comments in the margins.
For more than a quarter of a century Emerson was the object of Nietzsche’s continuing interest.
Another Nietzsche scholar Eduard Baumgarten writes that the marginal notes in “these crumpled, paper-bound books” proceed “without any interruption from Emerson’s text into Nietzsche’s own meditations.” Talking about this book of essays he notes that it is “thoroughly soiled with much reading, crowded with underlinings and marginal notes.”
Some of these notes date right up to the end of Nietzsche’s career with Ecce Homo being written multiple times in the margins.
From Nietzsche’s published letters, we know that he always carried a volume of Emerson with him when he travelled, that he lost one at Bayreuth in 1874 and that he bought translations of Emerson as they appeared.
And so we can see a chronological relationship to Emerson from Nietzsche’s first acquaintance with him as a schoolboy in Schulpforta in 1862 right up to the end of his career with Ecce Homo in 1889.
For more than a quarter of a century Emerson was the object of Nietzsche’s continuing interest.
A wayward brother
This continued relationship might seem like Nietzsche had an enduring idolisation of Emerson but from his comments we see that this is not the case.
To Nietzsche, Emerson is a wayward brother. After all, the metaphysical aspect of Emerson’s thought couldn’t be further from Nietzsche’s own views.
The comments on Emerson we have from his published works are instructive in this sense. We see that even Emerson’s accolade as the 19th century author most rich in ideas becomes something of a vice:
“Through Jean Paul, Carlyle has been corrupted and has become England’s worst writer; through Carlyle, in turn, Emerson, the most gifted of the Americans, has been seduced to a tasteless extravagance which tosses thoughts and images in handfuls out of the window.”
In December 1884, the time of the composition of Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote to his friend Franz Overbeck:
“I am having translated into German a long essay of Emerson’s which throws some light on his own development; if you like, it is at your and your dear wife’s disposal. I don’t know how much I would give to effect retroactively the strict disciplining, the real scholarly education of so great and splendid a nature, with its spiritual and intellectual wealth. As it is, we have lost a philosopher in Emerson.”
The deep love that Nietzsche has for Emerson is striking in these comments. You don’t get a sense of competition or acrimony but that of a wayward brother. Nietzsche doesn’t blame Emerson for his faults but his education. He sees the perfect clay in Emerson; he only bemoans that he could not mould into its proper form. This is a sort of love that Nietzsche shows for no other author or thinker; it speaks deeply to his sense of a twin soul and someone closer to him than anyone else.
Why so similar?
Before we wrap up there is one more question that is worth contemplating — is there any reason why these two are so similar? What is the source of the deep kinship of these thinkers?
In this regard, the biographies of these thinkers bear very interesting similarities that may point to a similar psychological soil out of which this type grows.
For a start, both men are descended on the paternal and maternal sides from several generations of theologians. Emerson’s father was a pastor of the Second Church, Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor. Emerson’s father died when he was 8; Nietzsche’s when he was 5. The orthodox puritanism of New England is not so dissimilar to the provincial orthodox German Lutheranism of Nietzsche’s environment.
Both men’s upbringings inclined them towards religious practices and the pursuit of theological studies and though both studied to become pastors, both fell away. Nietzsche was 22 at university when he switched from studying theology to philology. Emerson finished his studies but after three years as a pastor he parted ways with the cloth because he couldn’t reconcile himself to the ossified nature of church practices.
They both also suffered from poor health.
Nietzsche was forced to retire from his post at the University of Basel at the age of thirty-five under the weight of his health problems which ranged from stomach ailments and failing eyesight to migraines and chronic insomnia and his health demanded that live in specific climates at specific times of the year.
When Emerson was in university he had to spend a summer wintering in the south because of weak lungs and eyes and rheumatism. After leaving the church at age 30, Emerson troubled by the death of his wife and the death of one of his brothers and with poor health, sailed to Italy for the winter.
From here their biographical paths take different routes. Emerson’s career took the gentle course of slowly maturing wisdom that mirrored the landscape of Concord. Nietzsche on the other hand took to steep climbs in the ethereal air of the mountains scaling the Alpine peaks of human potential but falling fast and far.
Though their stories end very differently, it makes you wonder whether the source of their kinship has something to do with their shared experience at the hands of the vicissitudes of life.