Saturday, October 30, 2010

Emerson as Nietzsche's Predecessor

I find it an interesting twist of events that brought my attention to Ralph Waldo Emerson so soon after I had finished reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Each writer had his own peculiarly characteristic style;  and, in the context of my own interests, I find it amusing that each of them inspired a twentieth-century composer, Charles Ives for Emerson and Richard Strauss for Nietzsche (although my guess is that Ives read his Emerson much more seriously than Strauss read his Nietzsche).  What amuses me most, however, is their shared opinion that “faith-based reasoning” is an oxymoron and their respective styles of polemic in addressing this issue.

However, while Nietzsche never passes up an opportunity to be prankish, Emerson seems to feel obliged to write as a model of New England sobriety.  Thus, we have the following passage in his “Experience” essay:

Nature, as we know her, is no saint.  The lights of the church, the ascetics, Gentoos and corn-eaters, she does not distinguish by any favor.  She comes eating and drinking and sinning.  Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law;  do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weight their food, nor punctually keep the commandments.  If we will be strong with her strength we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too from the consciences of other nations.  We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come.  So many things are unsettled which it is of the first importance to settle;—and, pending their settlement, we will do as we do.

This is language fit for a sermon;  and, for all we know, it can be traced back to a sermon delivered from a Unitarian pulpit.  This may be a far cry from the prankishness of Twilight of the Idols;  but it is clear that, where the “revaluation of all values” is concerned, Nietzsche is sort of a kid brother to Emerson.  I am not sure how Nietzsche would have reacted during his lifetime to such a comparison;  but, if he could recognize the prankish spirit in which it was formulated, he would probably accept it!

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