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Nietzsche’s American legacy?

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Here is an interesting review of the sorts of ways Nietzsche’s thoughts have been received in the U.S. One paragraph in the essay hits upon a worry I have had from time to time:

For all these reasons, Nietzsche often figures in American culture as a sinister guru of the violent and deranged. When Jared Lee Loughner, who murdered six people in his attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, turned out to be a close reader of Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, an old stereotype was confirmed. Indeed, the title of America’s best-known Nietzscheans goes to Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenagers who in 1924 murdered a boy with a chisel because they took seriously the philosopher’s belief that the “Superman” is liberated from conventional notions of good and evil. (Their lawyer, Clarence Darrow, blamed the effect of Beyond Good and Evil on their impressionable minds in his 12-hour defence speech.) If you were to include fictional characters, Leopold and Loeb might have a rival in Howard Roark, the arrogant architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

The essay claims that the intellectuals influenced by Nietzsche tend not to be sinister and arrogant assassins. They carefully consider the ideas and incorporate them into further theory making (sometimes judiciously, sometimes not). It is the less studious who obsess over Nietzsche, buy a weapon, and await their opportunity to prove themselves the overman.

One might decry these would-be criminals and accuse them of misreading Nietzsche, but the fact is that Nietzsche’s powerful prose can get people in the mood for some pretty dark goings-on. This fact sometimes causes me to wonder whether it is morally irresponsible to turn young minds on to Nietzsche. I’ll be the first to admit that I myself am too timid to step beyond good and evil, and I really don’t want my neighbors to take that step. If, when I teach Nietzsche, I always face a certain probability of getting some people into a dark mental space where they might do dark things, should I back off and teach, I dunno, Emerson? Any thoughts?

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3 Comments

  1. RyanS says:

    Have them read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.

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  2. Mike says:

    If only the people who “teach” the Bible and the Koran were as circumspect.

    Maybe this too isn’t so much of an issue of what is being taught as how it’s being taught. I mean there are plenty of people being exposed to Nietzsche without philosophical training and context and I imagine a Nietzsche in dialog with interlocutors (“Epicurus and Montaigne, Goethe and Spinoza, Plato and Rousseau, Pascal and Schopenhauer. With these I have had to come to terms when I have wandered long alone, from them will I accept judgement, to them will I listen when in doing so they judge one another. Whatever I say, resolve, cogitate for myself and others: upon these eight I fix my eyes and see theirs fixed upon me.”) is better than interpreting Nietzsche alone.

    Emerson, well, I’m a fan — “whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist” and all that — but I prefer to balance Nietzsche with Whitman and Pessoa (my current employment notwithstanding).

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  3. Huenemann says:

    Yes, that is a good point. And one should probably be careful teaching Dostoyevsky as well!

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