I’ve been getting some pushback against my argument that Friedrich Nietzsche had a major formative impact on the people who created modern American liberalism.
The hallmark of modern liberalism is social liberalism or cultural liberalism. It is left-libertarian. It is driven by the transgressive impulse to tear down cultural norms. It is an aesthetic form of liberalism. The origins of modern liberalism can be traced back to the 1910s when Modernism arrived in the United States and merged with progressive liberalism in Greenwich Village. The culture war of the 1920s that opened up between “liberals” and “conservatives” has continued down to the present day. Previously, there had been a cultural consensus in Victorian America around traditional religious and moral values.
The Young Intellectuals who created modern liberalism were influenced by the European avant garde, socialism and anarchism and Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud. They wanted to create a “revolution in consciousness” that would unleash a more libertarian America in which free spirits could pursue their own aesthetic lifestyles uninhibited by religious and moral norms. The left-libertarians like Randolph Bourne and the right-libertarians like H.L. Mencken had a shared love of Nietzsche and a shared hatred for the “bigoted” and “puritanical” culture of Anglo-America.
Nietzsche’s ideas trickled into America in the 1890s and initially gained traction in anarchist circles. The avant-garde quickly embraced Nietzsche whose philosophy had found a colder reception in German academia. H.L. Mencken, Emma Goldman and the Young Intellectuals were Nietzsche’s first big fans in the United States and used his philosophy to critique “Puritanism.” The latter were already committed relativists who had studied under the pragmatists William James and John Dewey.
The following excerpt comes from Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas:
“While young Americans studying in Europe were witnessing the burgeoning “Nietzsche vogue” firsthand, a small but growing number of American radicals were participating in it from afar. The earliest US importers of Nietzsche’s philosophy were anarchists, leftist romantic radicals, and literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions who tracked developments in European intellectual life in real time. As Nietzsche’s fame grew in Europe in the early 1890s, these radical writers broke the story in their publications. Though small in numbers, they were instrumental in bringing avant-garde European intellectuals and cultural movements to America, and the first to incorporate Nietzsche’s philosophy into their campaigns to promote “advanced” thought. …
Thompson similarly saw Nietzsche as a solitary, singular genius whose influence had come to dominate late-nineteenth century avant-garde literature. …
His writings (Nietzsche) presented them with a description of Western culture teetering on shaky intellectual and moral foundations that mirrored their own impressions of a modern America that could no longer be supported by its moral and cultural inheritances. Nietzsche emboldened them in their revolt against the stifling genteel sensibility, the psychic bankruptcy of a despiritualized Christianity, and the airy idealism of a late-nineteenth democratic theory. He taught them that their battle with their inheritances was no standard generational revolt of sons against fathers, or New Women against the matriarchal ideal, but rather a full transvaluation of intellectually feeble and yet culturally robust moral absolutes, which had overstayed their welcome in a modernizing America. In his assessment of a will to power underlying all human knowledge and belief, his savage critique of the life-denying impulses in Christian asceticism, and his attack on the “slave morality” of democratic egalitarianism, Nietzsche offered the radicals a method and language for critiquing an American life that they believed had not yet fulfilled its democratic promise.
While the young radicals enlisted Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism in their assaults on what they considered a decrepit bourgeois worldview, they also understood that tearing down false idols was no endgame for the serious intellect. The ruins of a toppled past, they learned from Nietzsche, were breeding grounds for despair but no refuge for the modern free spirit. Breaking old idols with one hand and feverishly gluing them back together with the other was no answer either. The task of the modern thinker instead was to balance the deconstructive with the regenerative, to apply the acids of intellect on debilitating beliefs while employing a playful imagination to contemplate ideals that enliven the spirit. Nietzsche’s “gay science” presented these aspiring intellectuals with a new genre of critical philosophy that balanced analytic vivisection with aesthetic creation. Likewise, in Nietzsche’s aphorisms, extended essays, and poetic verse, they witnessed a new species of writing that blended the philosophical with the artistic, the sociological with the prophetic, and a hard intellectual hit with a light literary touch. Nietzsche’s philosophy became, for them, a model of both literary self-expression and the social efficacy of ideas.
The young writers and reformers read Nietzsche’s works through a variety of cultural, economic, and political lenses. Playwrights, novelists, and poets like George Cram Cook, Upton Sinclair, and Kahlil Gibran found in Nietzsche a romantic model of modern divinity after the “death of God.” Socialists including Max Eastman and Hubert Harrison enlisted Nietzsche’s theory of “slave morality” to challenge American capitalism, racism, and militaristic nationalism. The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks drew from Nietzsche as he criticized the tepid aesthetics of the American bourgeoisie, while self-identified pragmatists such as William English Wailing and Walter Lippmann turned to Nietzsche’s romantic instrumentalism as an antidote to modern drift. And figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, H.L. Mencken, and Randolph Bourne mined Nietzsche’s texts for his critique of Judeo-Christian asceticism and moral psychology as they attempted to come to terms with the lingering influence of Puritanism on American thought …
While today it is commonplace to bewail the puritanical prudery and provincialism of American culture, the Puritans didn’t always have such a bad reputation. Only when early twentieth-century critics like Goldman, Mencken and Bourne started to excavate the past for the historical conditions conspiring against the free intellect did the modern conception of the Puritan develop. The radicals collapsed Nietzsche’s analysis of Christian asceticism and sentimentalism into a critique of the lingering effects of Puritan psychology and piety. While the philistines treated ideas as if they were merely decorative, the Puritan viewed them as disciplinary. In their efforts to find a usable past to critique what they regarded as a culture of rigid moralizing, the radicals discovered the wrathful “Puritan” who policed free thought, hounded liberated spirits, and damaged the free play of personality. …
Once the impressionistic archetype of the austere, self-righteous premodern Puritan began to take shape, it was relatively easy to survey American society – from the vice campaigns of the Progressive Era through the wartime hysteria to the postwar return to “normalcy” – and discover modern Puritans incapable of free thought and eager to police those who weren’t.
This may have been the image of the Puritan that gained traction in the 1920s, but Randolph Bourne insisted that it missed the mark. Bourne agreed that there was a war to be waged in modern America against puritanical influences. But that war was not between fathers and sons, the New Woman and the matriarchal ideal, an intellectual free spirit and Comstockery. It was a war among the instincts of the self …
Bourne turned to Nietzsche as a philosopher of “personality,” a fellow gay scientist who understood the power of illusions to fix themselves into immutable form. And while he shared his fellow radicals’ desire to sound out the cultural wreckage obstructing the self, he repeatedly insisted with Nietzsche that the most tyrannical of the old tyrannies are found within the self. In order to cultivate the free modern personality, a culture of genuine intellect, the cultural critic must examine his own ideals-turned-idols.
Bourne and his fellow radicals discovered in Nietzsche’s philosophy, with its inventive expressions, its genealogical approach, and its concern about the diminished modern personality, a new species of thought they would come to identify as cultural criticism. But they also recognized something familiar in his arguments against absolute truth. They identified striking parallels between Nietzsche’s deconstruction of divine and rational foundations, and the pragmatists’ challenge to moral and philosophical universals. A number of them had studied under William James at Harvard or John Dewey at Columbia, or had at least followed their work closely; and they had absorbed the idea that truth is plastic and perspectival rather than timeless and absolute. According to the critics, both Nietzsche and the pragmatists sought to reorient philosophy away from idealism, metaphysics, and Darwinian materialism, and toward a closer analysis of personal experience. Both wanted to abandon the notion of the mind as a mirror of nature, because, as they argued, no single observer could neutrally and synoptically apprehend the entirety of human experience. Truth was not a finished fact that lay outside human agency but an instrument developed by people as they interacted with their physical and cultural environments …”
Here is something that I did not know.
“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”
All Gods dead? Sounds familiar.
“Beginning in 1915, F. Scott Fitzgerald was exposed to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche under the guidance of mentors and from his personal reading lists. While reading Nietzsche, Fitzgerald’s concern with the rise of cultural pessimism in 1920s America appeared in his fiction. Interestingly, both the philosopher and author explore the decline of Western culture in the twentieth century––a period of identity crises that affected America and Europe. This thesis investigates Fitzgerald’s misreading of Nietzschean ideas that appears in his fiction to highlight the author’s interest in explaining the cause of America’s decline. In particular, this thesis appropriates a Nietzschean framework from Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses of the spirit in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Each thesis chapter compares one metamorphosis to one quest in Fitzgerald’s first three novels. I argue that Amory Blaine’s quest in This Side of Paradise (1920) represents the camel’s metamorphosis, Anthony Patch’s journey in The Beautiful and Damned (1922) aligns with the lion’s metamorphosis, and Jay Gatsby’s quest in The Great Gatsby (1925) mimics the child’s metamorphosis. After establishing a connection between Fitzgerald’s concerns and Nietzsche’s ideas, this thesis asserts that Fitzgerald’s limited understanding of Nietzschean philosophy derives from the adulteration of ideas in the twentieth century.”