Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/February 1911/Ibsen, Emerson and Nietzsche: The Individualists

1579504Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 February 1911 — Ibsen, Emerson and Nietzsche: The Individualists1911Lewis Worthington Smith




THE development of various phases of individualism is one of the striking phenomena of the nineteenth century. We are not yet far enough away from it to be sure how it will look to our eyes when it has become somewhat definitely measurable as the actual past, but it is not a wild conjecture to think that it will then appear as the individualistic century. In the world of letters Ibsen, Emerson and Nietzsche were three of the more significant, not to say the three most significant, apostles of individualism. They are interesting in comparison, because they represent quite different phases of the individualistic spirit and find their inspiration in somewhat different sources at the same time that they were contemporaneous and were each the product of a general tendency of their time. They illustrate that responsiveness to the common tone of an age that often surprises us in great men who have seemingly been not at all subject to the same specific influences. There were three major subjects of human thought within which originated the presuppositions that were the foundation for individualism. These were religion, political economy and biology with its related sciences. When at the house of the centurion Cornelius in Cæsarea, Peter said that he perceived that God was not a respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feared him and respected him was acceptable to him, the Christian religion was set forward on that course that was to bring man finally to a larger hope and trust for himself and all his fellows. For several centuries, for the first twelve hundred years following the founding of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical system, indeed, the church meant little for either morality or the individual man. It was the church itself, its organization and its further establishment, that was of first moment, but with the Protestant reformation the fundamental Christian sense of human values at once became more active in society. When it became "the dissidence of dissent" in the new world and particularly when it became New England Congregationalism, that sense of value had made the individual human being of first importance in the world. That consequence of the development of protestantism was carried still further by the weakening of Calvinism in the New England churches and by the warmer recognition of the interest taken by the Son of God in every man, Jew or Gentile. It was not solely because New England was in the north that the abolition sentiment was so strong there in the fifties. It was largely because in the eyes of New England Congregationalism the black man had a soul, as, in the same sense and degree, he could not have to the eyes of the presbyterianism and the episcopalianism that were dominant in the south.

The growth of individualism as a part of the political activities originating at the close of the eighteenth century is so obvious and so familiar as to come well within the common knowledge of every one, but the contribution of science to this movement of thought in the nineteenth century is not so easily apparent. The first significance of the doctrine of evolution, the great contribution of biology to science in the nineteenth century, was doubtless that of a lessening of the dignity of man. The importance given to man in the expansion of protestant theology, in which he was more and more pushed forward to the honor of co-heir with Christ, was at once denied by implication in the thinking of the followers of Darwin, A creature that had risen out of the brute was very doubtfully filled with that divine essence that made him rightfully a ruler of the universe equally with all other men as being in the same degree with them one of the sons of God. Science here, therefore, gave individualism no promise upon which it could establish itself in the essential nature of man. On the other hand, the Darwinian presentation of evolution as a process did furnish such a premise in the process itself. It was through the struggle for existence that man had come to be man. In this struggle it was some quality or qualities of the individual that raised him above the mass and kept the evolutionary process going forward. That understanding of the nature of the forces that shape life for us transformed the conceptions of the last century and put a new emphasis upon social efficiency in the individual as the first element of progress. In the United States all of these influences, the freedom of extreme protestantism in religion, the general doctrine of political and human equality, and the acceptance of the principle of evolution, have been more free than elsewhere to combine in producing an extreme form of individualism. Of these several influences, however, the spirit of an advanced protestantism seems to have been the most distinctive and the most peculiarly active.

It is as an ultimate product of the most liberal and progressive religious thinking of the new world that Emerson is an individualist. It is also, to be sure, as a philosopher working out in his own way a transcendentalism that goes back to Kant, but the philosophy is so deeply interpenetrated with religious feeling and is so largely turned aside to religious uses that we may call it religion. Everywhere, however, it is the religion of the individual soul, a religion that finds its support in an unfaltering faith in the worth of the individual. In "Self-Reliance" he says:

Let a stoic arise who shall reveal the resources of man and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves—that a man is the word made flesh—and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window—we. . . thank and revere him.

Further on in the same essay he says again:

The secret of fortune is joy in our own hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide. Him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire.

This is all open and unmistakable individualism, and that it is individualism on the religious basis is clear when, in the same connection, he speaks of a greater self-reliance as "a new respect for the divinity in man."

This, indeed, is in an essay that suggests the note of personal aggressiveness, but we shall not find it otherwise in the essays on "Love" and "Friendship." In the one he says:

Thus we are put in training for a love which knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality, but which seeketh virtue and wisdom everywhere. . . . We are often made to feel that our affections are but tents of a night. Though slowly and with pain, the objects of the affections change, as the objects of thought do.

In the other he says as the conclusion of the whole matter:

I do then with my friends as I do with my books: I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them. We must have society on our own terms, and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause. I can not afford to speak much with my friend. If he is great he makes me so great that I can not descend to converse.

Here even the offices of what are normally the most unselfish of the personal relations of life are conceived of as having their aim and end in the development of self. Life finds its fulfilment in an approximation to the divine possibilities that are the natural heritage of every human being, and in attaining to that one must not permit himself to be materially hindered by consideration for others. Part of the divine perfection is doubtless expressed for Emerson in the Sermon on the Mount, but it seems clear that he contributes his share toward that questioning of the ethical system of Christianity which now centers upon that portion of the gospel. He does not put himself explicitly in opposition to the beatitudes, but he exalts a spirit and a philosophy in which their teaching is more or less negligible. This, perhaps, is little more than saying that with Emerson protestant theology had passed out of the stage of bondage to the letter, but the forces at work in the change were those of a deeper regard for the powers and capabilities of the inner man, a deeper wish that there should be no check upon their expansion to their fullest possibilities. How large these were in his conception of them may be seen in the essay on "History."

I can find Greece, Palestine, Italy, Spain and the Islands—the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras, in my own mind.

It was in the same spirit that he spoke slightingly of travel. Man could find nothing in foreign countries beyond what he took there, because, if he would be fully himself, if he would bring himself to completion, he would find the whole world in himself. That was the sufficient warrant for feeling that society was not important, but man the individual, man, too, not as in society and a part of it, but man as a separate entity realizing his kinship with the divine in his own way for himself.

There is this same word again in the conclusion of "The American Scholar."

Is it not the chief disgrace of the world, not to be a unit—not to be reckoned one character—Hot to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong?. . . We will walk on our own feet; we will speak our own minds. . . . A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

The background for the individualism of the German philosopher Nietzsche was in most respects very different from that of Emerson. There was this much in common between them that they both came of clerical stock and that in a way they both reacted from the religious bias that seemed so to have been given to their lives. Beyond that superficial resemblance in the influences playing upon them, they differed radically in the way in which they responded to the teachings of Christianity. Emerson may be said to have been a natural development of the puritan spirit, unique, iconoclastic, reconstructive, to be sure, and yet a puritan clergyman, who, as Woodberry says, never wholly escaped the black coat. In every fiber of his being he was first and last a moralist, one who passed out of the negations of puritanism to its affirmations, and yet essentially a puritan moralist. The one thing that most marks Nietzsche's individualism, that distinguishes it vitally and unalterably from Emerson's, is its intense opposition to Christian morality. This hatred of the whole Christian system has its ground in his conception of Jewish morality as a slave morality. Christian ethics are, to his view, the product of a religious system and teaching, the end and purpose of which is that of giving weakness an advantage over strength, of making the slave the ultimate lord of his master, of raising a subject race to a sense of triumph over its enemies and conquerors. This to his mind is a monstrous perversion of things, for, as he says in "A Genealogy of Morals":

To demand of strength that it should not manifest itself as strength, that it should not be a will to overpower, to subdue, to become master of, that it should not be a thirst for enemies, resistance, and triumphs, is as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should manifest itself as strength.

This demand is the demand of the Christian system, and, to quote Nietzsche again from the same volume:

It was the Jews, who, with the most frightfully consistent logic, dared to subvert the aristocratic equation of values (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of God), and who, with the teeth of the profoundest hatred (the hatred of impotency), clung to their own valuation: "the wretched alone are the good; the poor, the impotent, the lowely alone are the good; only the sufferers, the needy, the sick, the ugly, are pious; only they are godly; but ye, ye, the proud and potent, ye are for aye and evermore the wicked, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless; ye will also be, to all eternity, the unblessed, the cursed and the damned.

This is what Nietzsche calls the slave revolt in morality, and with the present triumph of the Christian system that here had its source he sees a transformation of the values of the terms good and bad that has been more or less destructive of the fine ideals of the human race. Evil has gained the upper hand. He says again:

The two antithetical values, "good and bad," "good and evil," have fought a terrible battle, a battle lasting thousands of years. . . . The symbol of this struggle, in letters which remained unreadable above the entire history of man until now, is called "Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome." So far no greater event has occurred than this struggle, this question, this deadly inimical antithesis. Rome felt in the Jew something like the embodiment of anti-naturalness, its anti-podal monster, as it were; in Rome the Jew was looked upon as "convicted of hatred against all mankind"; and rightly so, in 80 far as we have a right to connect the welfare and future of mankind with the unconditional dominance of aristocratic values, Roman values. . . . The Romans, we know, were the strong and the noble, so that stronger and nobler men had never existed on earth before, nay, had not even been dreamt of. . . . The Jews, on the contrary, were that priestly class of people of resentment par excellence, which was possessed of an unparalleled, popular ingenuity of morals.

It was as an intellectual aristocrat, a believer in aristocratic values, that Nietzsche set forward in his development as an individualist. He began his life work as a philologist, and Greek was his especial philological interest. His studies in this field brought him under the influence of Greek ideals of power and beauty, dionysiac ideals of abandon, of unrestraint, of free joy, as opposed to the moral conceptions involved in the worship of Apollo. This point of view appears in his first philosophical book, "The Birth of Tragedy." In its first form this title had the additional phrase, "out of the Spirit of Greek Music," and this is significant as revealing his sense of the greatest of the arts as having its origin in the vague and wandering impulses of free feeling rather than in moralizing and reflective thought. Here was the origin of that sense of final values upon which his philosophy is built. The thing of most worth in the world is not the average man and his happiness, but the select man, the man who answers Yea to all of life, the man who takes tribute of other men and lives gladly and freely and fully, obeying his instincts and ignoring the common priest-taught, slave-born distinction between good and evil. Power, intellectual and physical, the power to do a thing, to conquer others, to use men of less power for his own ends, is the mark of an excellence that should suffer no check from the plebeian teachings of a Jewish and slave morality.

To the influence of the Greek spirit as Nietzsche felt it there was added the influence of Schopenhauer to whom he was indebted for his conception of the highest instinct of man as being "The Will to Power." For him this will to power is so fundamental a part of the natures of all men of the higher sort that he finds in it the motive for the imposing of punishment upon those who injure the state or their fellow men. He says:

By the administration of punishment against the debtor the creditor will become a sharer in a privilege of the master. At last he also will for once be inspired by the elevated feeling of being allowed to despise and maltreat somebody as being "lower than himself," or, at any rate, in case the proper power of punishment, the executive power, has already passed to the authorities, the feeling of seeing him despised and maltreated.

This is but one phase of what he calls "the true nature and function of life, which is will to power." We hear a great deal lately of the superman, and we are likely to associate the conception with the name of George Bernard Shaw, but he has borrowed it from Nietzsche. If the select few are left free to exercise this "true nature and function of life," as they will, they may develop into an order of beings of higher tastes and greater powers than are exhibited by man in the present. This process, however, can not go on to the evolution of the superman as long as society is under the dominance of a slave morality of which the first consequence is a transformation of values by which the humble and the lowly and the weak are made the equals of the strong and the victorious and the successful.

Of this individualism in Nietzsche it is to be observed first that it is based primarily on a personal predilection. The circumstance that Nietzsche finds some human qualities admirable and others contemptible is not a sufficient ground for the establishment of a system of ethics or philosophy. A preference for the Roman over the Jew is, after all, but a preference, and Nietzsche does not sufficiently show that it is founded in some clear superiority of one over the other as determined by some recognized standard of worth. In the same way he is personal and dogmatic in declaring that the will to power is the true nature and function of life. He cared for power, but it is not a necessary corollary from that fact that the gratification of the will in the pursuit of power is the distinguishing mark of the nobler man. Nietzsche's individualism here must have another support beyond that of his own sense of values. It happened that just at this time science was presenting a theory of the world order of things that offered the required basis for his views.

Nietzsche frequently displays an antipathy for English thought, irritated apparently by its practical and utilitarian leanings. Nevertheless it was to an Englishman, Darwin, that he was indebted for the substantial support that his thinking needed. It is not evolution, however, that is the support of the Nietzschean individualism, but the Darwinian process of evolution. The thing that is inseparably bound up with Darwinism is the doctrine of the struggle for existence. If we accept the struggle for existence as the most important, or even as a vital factor in the process of evolution, then we may accept Nietzsche's will to power. The one is the reflection in philosophy of what the other is in biology. It is the application to human life of a biological sense of values. The man actuated by the will to power is the one that, succeeding in the struggle for existence, will carry the evolutionary process forward. It does not matter that this idea did not originate in this way in Nietzsche's mind. However personal and illogical it may have been in its inception, we shall yet have to give it a hearing, if we can be assured that it is but the expression in new terms of an established scientific truth so generally accepted in one department of knowledge as to be of universal application in all departments. That is a vital question, vital, not for Nietzsche alone, but also for all of us in all our thinking while we are yet a part of that struggle between individualism and collectivism of which the world will not for a long time see the end.

It is to be borne in mind that there is no general question now of the actuality of evolution, but within the last twenty years there has developed among biologists a wide-spread distrust of Darwinism as an explanation of evolution. It would not do to say that selection and the struggle for existence have been disproved as sufficiently revealing the method of evolution, but they have been very largely discredited. Instead of the Darwinian explanation of the method of evolution there have been proposed a great many other explanations, and those accepting these various theories have naturally been active in showing the weaknesses in Darwinism. In other words, the presuppositions upon which individualism founded itself in Nietzsche's philosophy and in the thought of the world have been very seriously undermined. No one will be so bold as to deny that now as we finish the first decade of the twentieth century, along with the weakening of our faith in the survival of the fittest, we are witnesses of a pronounced lessening of the power of individualism over the human mind. Nietzsche, individualist of the most extreme type though he was, is probably read more than ever, but interest in him is rather interest in what men have thought than interest in what they are still thinking. A recent sign of the reversal of our feeling in this matter is observable in the wide-spread adoption of the Galveston or Des Moines plan of city government, a plan which looks toward organized social efficiency more than it does toward the preservation of individual rights. Nietzsche died in nineteen hundred, too early perhaps to realize that the scientific foundations for the work of his life were crumbling beneath his feet.

Emerson's death occurred in 1882. It must have been then even less clear that the theological basis for his philosophy, if it may be so called, was also in no very long time to lose much of its weight. The idealism that in unitarianism lifted man up to the level of Christ soon wrought a kind of self-destruction by bringing Christ down to the level of man. The exaltation of man, of his individual greatness through his kinship with the divine that was Emerson's especial word ceased to be an exaltation when it reduced the divinity of Christ to a merely human greatness. Protestant theology, going forward to its ultimate conclusions, accepting the results of the higher criticism, studying the Bible as a great but as a human literature, compromising with evolution as a causo-mechanical explanation of the origin of things, finally leaves Emerson's individualism without any sufficient body of supporting voices in the house of his friends. There remain, to be sure, the christian scientists. They derive from Emerson, and, with a beautiful blindness to the results of both christian scholarship and the conclusions of modern science, they push the Emersonian ideas to a point at which they become nonsense. Theirs is a beautiful madness, but it is madness. They represent only the aberrant tendencies of more or less unbalanced minds. Their belief that each human being may be the master of himself, his body and the material world, may be himself a kind of God, if he wills, does not go far in support of individualism as a general feeling among men. It was otherwise with Emerson. He and those of his fellowship were enormously influential in American thinking. It may be doubted whether any other man has been equally important in shaping the ideals of the more intelligent classes in America. It is something of moment when on one side that influence is breaking down and on another is turning into the vagaries of people who clutch at cobwebs spun out of the froth of some fanatic's ravings.

One thing is to be borne in mind and that is that the truth or falsity to be found in either Emerson or Nietzsche is for the moment of no matter. It is sufficient as explanation of the growing preponderance of socialistic over individualistic tendencies to show that two of the fundamental inspirations for individualism as seen in them are materially less active forces in society than they were twenty or thirty years ago. If that were mere change of sentiment, it would be of less importance. The fact that it is not sentiment, that it is a change of front resultant from a changed understanding of what the world is for man, and that it is a new establishment of values of things for man to achieve and be makes it significant. A decade or two makes now such an addition to the body of facts that come into the range of human knowledge that the effect may be complete subversion of previously entertained opinions except in the case of men whose sentiments are so strong that they cling to what they have believed the more tenaciously the more it is assailed. Public opinion as a whole shapes itself in agreement with the new facts. It is new facts and fuller interpretation of the old facts, not merely a refluent wave of human feeling, that is responsible for the current trend away from individualism.

Ibsen died in nineteen hundred and six, and so he must be reckoned as of both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. He was an old man then, however, over twenty years older than Nietzsche was when he died, and naturally the real body of Ibsen's work was done by the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, he was a man whose thoughts looked forward to our day as Emerson's did not and as Nietzsche's did not. He was an individualist as they were, but he was not an extremist, he was not a man to see the world from one view-point only, he was not narrow or intellectually provincial. That he went with the current ideas of his time as fully as either Emerson or Nietzsche, however, is easily apparent, and it is quite as clear that he was intensely an individualist. What could be more thoroughly individualistic than the words with which Dr. Stockmann ends "An Enemy of the People"? "You see," he tells his wife and children after the utter defeat of all his plans for the good of the community, "You see, the fact is that the strongest man upon earth is he who stands most alone." The two plays that probably more than any others have interested the general reading and play-going public, "Ghosts" and "A Doll's House," are both of them declarations—positive and negative, of the same thing, the right of the individual to develop his own life in his own way according to the needs of his own nature without too close a regard for the demands of society. When at the end of "A Doll's House" Nora is leaving her husband and children and Hehner protests that before all else she is wife and mother, she answers: "I no longer think so. I think that before all else I am a human being just as you are; or at least, I have to try to become one." It is in fact just the individualism in this play and in these words that has made it in a sense the distinctive and notable play of the nineteenth century. It is a human cry for emancipation, for freedom, for self-realization, and it is a cry that Ibsen reiterates again and again through his dramas, demanding that man shall realize himself, but also that he shall realize his best self. It is his peculiar virtue as an individualist that he is held back more or less by the feeling that no man realizes his best self without taking his fellows very largely into account. That is the summing up of his word in "Brand."

Ibsen can not be reduced to a formula. In a measure we may so deal with both Emerson and Nietzsche. We can express the one with some completeness in the term "the oversoul" and the other in the phrase "the will to power," but it was Ibsen's nature to look more carefully at both sides of the shield. That seems to have been the consequence not 80 much of any greater sureness or clarity of thinking as of a wider range of human sympathies. Emerson wrote beautifully about friendship, but he did not concern himself greatly about his immediate relations with his friends. It was difficult to engage his interest deeply in the affairs of the community or the state or the nation. It seems a fairly reasonable assumption that any man who, theoretically or in fact, is to determine the forms that life as a social whole shall take must be a man who has a deep interest in his fellows, a man of warm social instincts. Only as he is such a man can he come to understanding of those things that man demands in his social order, and no social order can succeed unless it founds itself as carefully upon man's instincts and needs as it does upon the laws that man has discovered in nature. Ibsen felt this as apparently neither Emerson nor Nietzsche did. He was alive to all the political and social movements of his time, and so, because the basal motives of his thinking were rather political than religious or scientific, there was always in his thinking a glance at the whole of society. This kept him full-visioned and sane, and it must be this that Arthur Symons means when he says of him:

He has less courage than Nietzsche, though no less logic, and is held back from a complete realization of his own doctrine because he has so much worldly wisdom, and is so anxious to make the best of all worlds.

Here we have the significant thing about Ibsen, and it is in this that he is a larger man than either Emerson or Nietzsche, at once an individualist and also a thinker conscious of that check upon the rampant individualism of a Nietzsche that we now feel necessary for the making of the "best of all worlds." Bernick in "The Pillars of Society," seeing that he has not realized himself because he has not sufficiently felt his obligations to society, says:

Do you know what we are, we, who are reckoned the pillars of society? We are the tolls of society, neither more nor less.

Such a generalization understood as Ibsen meant it, has in it a profounder truth than anything in either Emerson or Nietzsche and it is a truth more immediately in accord with the spirit of the new century whose first years saw him a weakening and a dying man. In the loss of that divine made human in us of which Emerson dreamed we are only men once more, and it is as men that we must make the best of our world, if we do not make it the "best of all worlds." As evolutionists we must at last realize, it seems clear, that the struggle for existence is not and never again can be a blind struggle. Darwin made man a conscious factor in the struggle as soon as he told him that there was such a struggle. As such a conscious factor he is certain to realize more and more that he is able to push the evolutionary process on only as a part of the social whole. It is the gregarious instinct in man that makes him the lord of the brute and civilized man the lord of the savage. So, while the biologist lessens the struggle for existence as a recognized factor in evolution, man nullifies it in organized society for those within the organization, and leaves it to work what havoc it will outside. This is on the way from individualism to socialism, and that is the way we are now going because of our new premises in religion and science and politics. Man, the single man, is to be steadily more and more, no doubt, but it is man in the collective whole that in this century is to croon over him as, in Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," Solveig at last croons over that poor wreck of self-realization gone mad. Peer Gynt himself:

I will cradle thee, I will watch thee;
Sleep and dream thou, dear my boy.