The New Abuse of Nietzsche’s Concepts
Friedrich Nietzsche, undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers of recent history, famously wrote in The Anti-Christ that “Up till now this has been the only great war.” The war he was referring to was culture war, specifically the battle between the pious and the impious. For almost as long as there has been man there has been a war of ideology. History has shown that the most momentous and difficult times make culture war a prominent issue. In our current time of economic uncertainty, polemic arguments abound on both sides and the chances of finding a middle ground diminish. Many see the current economic situation as remarkably similar to the one depicted in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It is in this novel Rand lays clear her philosophical beliefs. Any layman who reads the book will certainly notice the main characters are unusually driven, highly capable, extremely intelligent, and good-looking. As the book progresses, these people escape the society of “no” that has become America and leave it to crumble. As many people have noted, Rand’s protagonists are remarkably similar to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, or overman. The overman is beyond good & evil, and has truly embraced the sense of self to become something better than the average human. It is this theory of the overman that Rand used to forge many of her works. However, it is important to make one thing very clear: Rand’s philosophy is not a natural extension of Nietzsche’s, but rather a perversion of his individualistic ideal. Nowhere is this more evident than the differences between Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Ayn Rand’s John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Rand found something that she liked in Nietzsche’s concepts, but could not properly grasp it, or did not wish to understand it fully. This results in a selfish and unrealistic model for humanity that will benefit none. To begin with, it is important to understand what Atlas Shrugged is about, as this book has the clearest statement of Rand’s beliefs. We will also review key elements of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the penultimate declaration of Nietzsche’s philosophy, avoiding as much as possible the years of misinterpretation that have severely harmed his reputation. Finally, it will be necessary to discuss Rand’s ideological surgery on Nietzsche’s concepts, and how this makes itself evident in Nietzsche and Rand’s protagonists. First, let us delve into the world of Rand’s philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged tells the story of what happens when the movers of the world no longer show up to work. As the story begins, several nations have gone from being capitalist to being “people’s republics” and as such, the businesses, property and ideas that had belonged to creative industrialists are now the property of government. One inventor, John Galt, sees this trend and decides that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is not a justifiable social system and vows to “stop the motor of the world.” The movers of the world, or “Atlases”, who support the weight of the world, begin to disappear. Galt convinces these heads of companies, inventors, scientists, and businessmen to “shrug” and leave society behind in favor of a city called Galt’s Gulch hidden away in the mountains of Colorado. At the end of the novel, society crumbles and the book’s protagonists escape to their utopia to live free of the restraints of normal society. Atlas Shrugged is unique in that Ayn Rand considered it to be her magnum opus; it is an absolute expression of her ideology. She wrote that “Atlas Shrugged was the climax and completion of the goal I had set for myself at the age of nine.” The book as a whole is the clearest statement of her philosophy, called Objectivism. Objectivism is a distinctive philosophy in that it is unabashedly self-centered. Rand writes in Atlas Shrugged that the central tenet of Objectivism “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The end result of this philosophy is a celebration of the achiever, the thinker, or the capitalist. In fact, this system of belief will only flourish in a truly capitalist society. Rand advocated a system known as laissez-faire capitalism, where government only interjects to ensure that physical force is not utilized to rob someone of their life or liberty. In this system, which is depicted in Galt’s Gulch, everyone is able to pursue their own interests without the meddling of government intervention or taxes. As a result, each is free to enjoy the benefits of their work, without owing anything to anyone. It sounds an awful lot like a utopia, but it should be noted that in order for the Objectivists to live in this society, the world outside of Galt’s Gulch must crumble to the ground. Now, let us review Nietzsche’s theories, in the hope of understanding those ideas which Rand has latched onto.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“What is ape to man?” asks Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The answer is that ape is “a laughing stock or painful embarrassment.” Ultimately, Nietzsche believed that modern man would be the same to the overman. Nietzsche posited the overman as a being beyond man, the next evolution of which man was only a rope linking ape and future. The true meaning of Nietzsche’s theories is often unclear; many people have offered different interpretations of his beliefs. By simply reviewing some key elements of Nietzsche’s writings, we can determine what he meant when he referred to the overman. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche wrote “The problem I raise here is not what ought to succeed mankind in the sequence of species (– the human being is a conclusion –): but what type of human being one ought to breed, ought to will, as more valuable…” In this passage we can see that Nietzsche does not see the overman as a new species, but rather a realization of the full potential of our species. Of course, Nietzsche was most proud of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which he believed was an ardent and clear declaration of his philosophy; however, in Nietzsche’s eyes it fell upon deaf ears. This is made no clearer than when he wrote, regarding his magnum opus in Ecce Homo, “With that I have given mankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far.” In this book, Zarathustra, an exemplary overman, states “I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, but who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth may someday become the overman’s.” It is here that Nietzsche clarifies his belief that an overman should not need to search for meaning behind the stars, that is to say, in the afterlife, but rather should seek to live in this life and benefit the earth for the future overman. What can be made of all this? Nietzsche’s overman lives in the now, is in no way selfish, does not seek an eternal reward, and is not a new species but rather a realization of the possibilities of this one. Nietzsche’s philosophy was not a social one; he merely had an individualist ideal, which stands in stark contrast to how Rand abused Nietzsche’s philosophy, twisting his words for her own ends.
Comparing Rand to Nietzsche
Much has been said of Ayn Rand. Her staunch atheism, pronounced views, and the widespread perception of Rand as a strong feminist make her a personage surrounded by much controversy and strong opinions on either side of her beliefs. Rand believed that men should be free to pursue their own desires without the interference of outside sources such as the church or government. Few would argue that one should benefit from good old-fashioned hard work. Nietzsche himself would agree that outside interference in personal work is not a good idea. The differences and similarities between Nietzsche and Rand are best exemplified by their penultimate protagonists: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and Rand’s John Galt. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra comes out of his ten-year seclusion from society to preach to mankind about the proper way to live. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt leaves society behind and vows to take with him the people who make the world work. Both exemplify a sort of existence beyond that of the normal man, but Nietzsche’s character shows a sympathy for humanity and a desire to help mankind; Rand’s protagonist exhibits a blanket hatred for mankind, disregarding most of humanity as a race that is not worth saving. Particularly telling is this quote from a review of Atlas Shrugged written by Granville Hicks: “Loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate.” Indeed, Nietzsche’s fiction is a much more positive experience than Rand’s, which ends with humanity in shambles with the exception of the movers of the world. Where Nietzsche proclaimed striving to become the overman, Rand is more interested in depicting a world where the hordes are doomed to starve in the wastes of our own failed culture. Rand’s philosophy becomes a sort of overdeveloped narcissism, a fantasy wherein survival is only given to those Rand deems worthy, leaving the dregs of humanity doomed. Nietzsche’s philosophy is much more enlightened; the sometimes hard to decipher Thus Spoke Zarathustra is at least imbued with an element of hope for the transformation of mankind. Even in an element of fiction there is something to be said for hope.
We find ourselves in a time where culture war is in the air of every enlightened discussion regarding the political situation. Our society has built so much on the importance of money; when we find it is finite, panic tends to be the natural response. Polemic arguments abound, and in this situation writings such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are bandied about as a sort of grim portent of our inevitable future. It seems a shame to reveal such simple truth to the pundits, but this is not the first and will not be the last economic crisis of our lifetimes. Discussion, at every level of society, is a necessity when we must decide how to right the ship, but one must raise an eyebrow in concern when philosophers like Rand are given credence as though they have offered the solution. Much more credit is due to Friedrich Nietzsche, who valued the ability of the individual to strive for something more. When reviewing their different texts, we can see that where Rand and Nietzsche differ is in the tone of their rhetoric. Rand seems just fine abandoning those whom she does not favor in the interests of rational egoism. Nietzsche, at least, shows some interest in spreading his idea of the “yes to life” to all people, regardless of wealth, class, or entrepreneurial ability. The “will to power” is not about struggle but about personal, spiritual progress. An example of the divergence in thought between Nietzsche and Rand is evident in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra meets a saint. The saint wants Zarathustra to go into the woods, rather than bring his word to man. The saint says “…man I love not. Man is for me too imperfect a thing. Love of man would kill me.” Zarathustra replies “I bring men a gift.” to which the saint replies “Do not go to man. Stay in the forest! Go rather even to the animals!” The saint represents the John Galts of the world, self-involved to the point that they remove themselves from society. Zarathustra wants to bring his message to mankind. It was said best when Walter Kaufman wrote in the introduction to his translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nietzsche wants no believers but, like Socrates, aims to help others to find themselves and surpass him.” This is truly what separates Rand from Nietzsche. In Rand’s mind, one should “never live for the sake of another man.” It is this conceited selfishness that is a blatant abuse of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
We, as a society, must take care whose perspective we admire, as this says a lot about our values as a whole. There is much more to admire in Nietzsche’s philosophy than Rand’s by far. Nietzsche’s great theory was to reject the denial of life that the Christian church demanded. Rand believed that one should accept and embrace life. Where their philosophy differs is where Rand wants the wealthy and intelligent to step on the rabble to further their ends. The consequence of the powerful being self-rewarded endlessly is evident in the most recent global financial collapse; the bottom line is that this sort of ideology is untenable and unrealistic. One should much rather live in a Nietzschean world of embracing life than a Randian world where all people battle each other endlessly for control.
(Header image created by Kristin Richey.)
Zarathustra to Galt by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on religion and culture.