This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
Stephen Hicks suggests three questions regarding the relationship of the philosophies of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche:
1. To what extent do Rand and Nietzsche agree, and how fundamental are these agreements?
2. To what extent was Rand (specifically, the mature Rand) influenced by Nietzsche?
3. Did Rand go through a “Nietzschean phase” in her early intellectual development, during which her philosophy had more significant Nietzschean elements than the mature Rand?
On question 1, I think Stephen has done such a thorough job in his introductory essay (with one reservation I voiced in my post last week, regarding two of the alleged sense-of-life agreements), that I don’t see anything significant to add on this question. The list of positive agreements between Ayn Rand and Nietzsche consists of: A. philosophy as systematic; B. consciousness as functional/useful; C. morality as in the service of life; and D. an exalted sense of human potential.
(In my commentary on Jason Ticknor-Schwob's part one review essay , I argued against several other perceived similarities between Rand’s and Nietzsche’s approaches to morality, such as an alleged similarity between Nietzsche’s concept of Ressentiment and Rand’s concept of “hatred of the good for being the good.”)
On question 2, I think the answer follows straightforwardly from the answer to question 1. It seems extremely unlikely that, if there were any significant influence by Nietzsche on Ayn Rand , she would have agreed with him on so few issues, while disagreeing on all the fundamental philosophical questions. It seems far more likely that whatever favorable impression Rand had of Nietzsche’s writings, it came from his expressing ideas (of the four listed above, especially C and D) that she already believed. (This is also confirmed by Alan Gotthelf’s statement--“On Ayn Rand,” 14, based on Rand’s 1960-61 biographical interviews--that Rand was initially introduced to Nietzsche’s writings by a cousin who remarked that “he beat you to all of your ideas.”)
In the rest of this essay, therefore, I will focus on question 3; did Rand have an early “Nietzschean phase”?
Evidence for the “Nietzschean Phase”?
As far as I could find, the only defense of the claim that Rand has had a “Nietzschean phase,” with any attempt at presenting evidence for it, has been by Ron Merrill, in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, ch. 3. (Chris Sciabarra also discusses this claim in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, ch. 4; but the only evidence he cites for the claim is cited from Merrill’s book, and he concludes that the evidence for a “Nietzschean phase” is inconclusive.)
What evidence, then, does Merrill present for his claim? Merrill’s entire evidence--and the only evidence I have ever seen presented for the claim of a “Nietzschean phase”--consists of two paragraphs, from a conversation between Kira and Andrei, in the first edition of We The Living, which were altered in the second edition, and which seem to express contempt for the masses, and a willingness to see them sacrificed and destroyed for the sake of the deserving few.
As is to be expected from any attempt to reach far-reaching conclusions about a thinker’s views and intellectual development, on the basis of just two paragraphs, Merrill’s argument is extremely weak. There are two main weaknesses in Merrill’s case:
a. As Stephen Hicks pointed out, in his review of Merrill’s book (IOS Journal, vol. 2 no. 2, Fall 1992), these two paragraphs are highly inconclusive on just what moral philosophy they express. In the full context of the dialog in the book, these statements can more plausibly be seen as the result of not yet having a full account of the proper alternative to altruism, and therefore letting the Communists, through the character of Andrei, set the terms of the debate, with sacrificing the masses vs. sacrificing Kira and Leo as the only two alternatives.
b. Even if we were to take the highly implausible approach, of treating these two paragraphs as expressing Rand’s moral philosophy at the time--and conclude that the early Rand did indeed believe that the few best people should be willing to sacrifice the many for themselves--this still does not support the claim about a Nietzschean phase. It does not change the fact that We the Living is written with a passion for the individual’s happiness as the ultimate goal; and this just can’t be reconciled with any tendency to Nietzscheanism. Kira’s goal is, very clearly, the highly anti-Nietzschean goal of finding happiness for herself and Leo; and what makes the best people the best, in the view of the author of We the Living, is their capacity for happiness. There is nothing in these two paragraphs, in the rest of the book, or anywhere else in Rand’s early writings, to even hint at a concern for the pursuit of power; for the improvement of the species; for any of the goals essential to Nietzsche. As much as we torture the evidence, the most it might confess to is that the early Rand did not understand the harmony of men’s interests, and so saw sacrifice of others to oneself as a legitimate means to pursuing one’s happiness; even if this were true, it would still make her early philosophy different in all essentials from Nietzsche.
Evidence from Rand’s First Philosophic Journal
In Merrill’s version of the “Nietzschean phase” theory, The Fountainhead represents in symbolic form Rand’s struggle to break with Nietzscheanism; with Wynand representing Nietzscheanism, Roark representing Rand’s mature philosophy, and Dominique, with the choice she faces between the two, representing Rand herself.
In judging this theory, Rand’s May 15, 1934, entry in her philosophical journal is extremely relevant. Rand writes:
“What is accomplished if a man attains power and prominence at the cost of playing down to the masses? It is not *he* that triumphs, it is not his ideas and standards. It is only his physical frame. Essentially, he is only a slave to those masses (Journals of Ayn Rand, 71; previously published in The Objectivist Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, August 1983).
As Stephen Hicks pointed out in his review of Merrill, this is strong evidence against Merrill’s thesis; it demonstrates that in 1934--before the publication of We the Living--Rand was already thinking of the Wynand-type character and could understand what was wrong with attempting to live in this way.
Merrill claims that Rand turned away from Nietzsche because she could intuitively sense the problems with his philosophy as a guide to life, and consequently found herself unable to integrate that philosophy in her fiction. This claim, too, is contradicted by the above statement, which shows Rand--prior to the publication of We the Living--considering the problems of the seeker of power, not at some intuitive level but as an explicit philosophical issue.
Another highly significant entry, for this issue, is the April 9, 1934, entry. Initially, this entry seems quite Nietszchean, with its attack on religion. Read more closely, however, and we see that her main complaints against religion are:
“I want to learn *why* men do not use logical reasoning to govern their lives and [solve] their problems. Is it impossible to them or has it been taught to them as impossible? I believe this last. And the teacher is the church....
“Are instincts and emotions necessarily beyond the control of plain thinking? Or were they trained to be? Why is a complete harmony between mind and emotions impossible? Isn’t it merely a matter of strict mental honesty? And who stands at the very bottom of denying such honesty? Isn’t it the church?”
The early Rand’s main accusations against religion, then, demonstrate two profound differences with Nietzsche--the importance of logic and reason for her, and her recognition that reason and emotion can be in harmony (and a belief that religion is the main cause both of people’s failure to think logically and of the unnecessary conflict of reason and emotion).
In his review of Merrill’s book, Stephen Hicks wrote that until all of Rand’s early notes are published, we may not be able to settle the issue of just how much she had in common with Nietzsche in her early philosophical views. Unfortunately, the publication of The Journals of Ayn Rand provides us with very few philosophical notes from that early phase, other than what was already published in 1983; and it is doubtful we will ever see any more published.
However, I believe Stephen Hicks was too cautious in his remark; the few notes we have already indicate profound differences with Nietzsche, as early as 1934. Combined with the lack of any real evidence for significant early agreement with Nietzsche (beyond the four points on which the mature Rand agreed with him as well), I think this provides enough evidence to confidently reject the claims about an alleged “early Nietzschean phase.”