Whitman's Oceans, Nietzsche's Seas

By Mullin, Amy | Philosophy Today, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Whitman's Oceans, Nietzsche's Seas


Mullin, Amy, Philosophy Today


Both Friedrich Nietzsche (1841900) and Walt Whitman (1819 -1892) were profoundly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson ( 1803-1882), and both freely expressed their debts to his thought. Other than their connection to Emer son,1 however, no direct link has been found between the two. Although Nietzsche did own a book by Karl Knortz entitled Walt Whitman: Vortrag, we have no evidence that either Nietzsche or Whitman ever read the other's work, and while both mention Emerson in their published and unpublished writing, neither Whitman nor Nietzsche mention one another.

This is not to be, however, an essay comparing the influence of Emerson on Whitman and Nietzsche. Instead, the odd effect of reading Nietzsche and Whitman together is the subject of discussion.2 This odd effect results from confronting their many similarities with their radical differences. In particular, both have a shared understanding of the nature of the self, but their social and political visions could hardly be more dissimilar. I will discuss their similarities, their differences, and the challenge that Whitman represents for Nietzsche's determination to affirm life.3

Whitman represents a challenge to Nietzsche because it is precisely insofar as they differ that Whitman is a closer approximation to one of Nietzsche's ideals than is Nietzsche himself. The ideal in question is Nietzsche's "expression of his wish and his dearest thought."4 Nietzsche writes that someday he hopes:

to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be as one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati:5 let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.6

Nietzsche's wish is all the more poignant because he could never sustain this hope. The aphorism quoted above introduced the fourth book of The Gay Science. Nietzsche in general is certainly known as more of a nay-sayer and critic than otherwise, and even the rest of the fourth book of The Gay Science oscillates between occasional references to elevated moods of affirmation and many harsh criticisms of all that Nietzsche abhors.

Whitman and Nietzsche: Similarities

As we shall see, Whitman comes much closer than Nietzsche to approximating the latter's determination to see as beautiful what is necessary in things. However, despite this difference, there are many similarities between the two. Both long to influence their readers, but do not wish for disciples or followers. Here, ironically, they come closest to following Emerson, who wrote: "This is my boast that I have no school and no follower."' The desire to avoid being taken as an example is similarly a common theme in Nietzsche. In one such passage he claims: "I do not want to have people imitate my example; I wish that everybody would fashion his own example, as I do."' In a passage many would mistake for Nietzsche, Whitman writes that: "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."9

However, many of the similarities between Whitman and Nietzsche represent either a rejection or radicalization of Emerson, and cannot be attributed to his direct influence. Both, for instance, are far harsher critics of traditional Christianity than Emerson. Both were strongly attracted to war and the warlike, to risk and dangerous living. Nietzsche, for instance, welcomes signs that his had become a more warlike age10 and Whitman speaks of the "warlike flag" of his great idea.11 Many have argued that Whitman found it easier to sing the praises of war than to accept peace.12

These, however, are not the most striking similarities between the two thinkers. The features that mark their commonalities most dramatically are instead:

(I) Their celebration of what is natural, and scorn for those who slander or cannot accept the natural;13

(2) their understanding of the soul as a modification of the body;

(3 ) their willingness to accept the necessity for evil as well as good in the life of an individual and in the destiny of a community; and

(4) their shared view of the self as multiple. …

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