“Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.” Ralph Waldo Emerson published these words of warning in 1841, and they can be read as both self-description and prophecy. Self-description because they occur in the essay “Circles,” one of the most dazzling bursts of American prose ever written, a hymn to a fact exhilarating and terrifying—that “nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.” The risk of conflagration erupts in the rhythm of Emerson’s thought and the pulse of his writing, evoking a world of “sliding” surfaces, of “whims” and “experiment,” of “surprises” and “abandonment,” where “permanence is but a word of degrees,” the essay slowing down just long enough to make a culminating statement that offers no anchorage: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Emerson had already tailored his actions to his words, having resigned from the ministry a few years earlier and chosen a life of unsettlement as a freelance lecturer and writer.
His warning to beware when “God lets loose a thinker” was borne out thirty-three years later, when a 30-year-old German academic quoted it in his autobiographical essay “Schopenhauer as Educator” to inspire his own act of liberation from settled routine. Friedrich Nietzsche would soon leave his Basel professorship in philology for the wanderings of a free spirit, making philosophy a way of life, as it had been for the ancients and the sage of Concord. Nietzsche had been reading and revering Emerson (in translation) since 1862, finding his words so intimate and penetrating that he couldn’t praise them: they are “too close to me,” he confessed. Born from this union—one of the most significant acts of transatlantic cross-fertilization in Western intellectual history—was “the enfant terrible of modernism,” the “epitome” of its unsettling spirit, to borrow the words of an early commentator. There was no turning back: “Where once the moral life was couched in terms of foundations, now, ‘after Nietzsche,’ thinkers and writers imagined it as life on the open sea.” “Beware,” Emerson had warned.
American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s lively history of the reception of Nietzsche’s ideas in the United States, from which I have drawn the preceding quotation about the moral life, wisely devotes its prologue to Emerson’s impact on the philosopher: “Nietzsche used Emerson not to get closer to him but to get closer to himself. For Nietzsche, Emerson provided an image of the philosopher willing to go it alone without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” These themes, encompassing Nietzsche’s persona and ideas, figure prominently in American Nietzsche. The facts of the philosopher’s lonely nomadic life—his books largely ignored upon publication, his genius burdened by ceaseless physical pain and eventually insanity—were, for most readers, inseparable from the scandalous self-described “immoralist” with his emphatically modern “philosophy of the future,” as he called his thinking. And this fusion of life and work made him, especially in the eyes of Greenwich Village radicals in the twentieth century’s opening decades, a prophet and martyr embodying what Ratner-Rosenhagen calls a “cautionary tale about the perilous course of the intellectual in the democratic era.”
Nietzsche paid a heavy price for daring to strip away the comforting props of Victorian piety, bringing readers face to face with the imperative “to become what you are.” He launched his own version of Emerson’s project, which begins with the recognition that man is but “a half-man,” a “dwarf of himself.” The time was ripe: how thrilling it must have been for Americans long shackled to the “agonized conscience” of Puritan rectitude, the “yoke” of the genteel, in George Santayana’s phrasing. Cease hiding behind conformity and habit and laziness, Emerson and Nietzsche implore; the former invites “every man to expand to the full circle of the universe,” while the latter will eventually call for the overcoming of the human, summoning what he will name the “overman.” Better known as the notorious Übermensch, this figure would be appropriated and distorted to help sponsor German imperialist aggression during World War I and then the Nazis’ genocidal onslaught. How Nietzsche’s reputation managed to survive both disasters is among the stories Ratner-Rosenhagen tells. In the postwar era, it was above all the labors of Walter Kaufmann, as translator and interpreter, who rescued Nietzsche from the taint of totalitarianism, locating him in the ambit of the Enlightenment tradition and turning him into a rugged individualist with immediate appeal to an American readership already swooning over French existentialism. Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a persuasive case for Kaufmann’s pivotal importance.