Ayn Rand’s Evolving View of Friedrich Nietzsche

FAVORITE PHILOSOPHER--Nietzsche. His "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is my Bible. I can never commit suicide while I have it. (Ayn Rand, answering a questionnaire, circa 1935.)[1]

[Y]ou still don’t seem to know yourself that your idea is new. It is not Nietzsche or that other goof, ... Max Stirner.... [Roark] is something, he doesn’t even have to say so. You give the logical statement as well, – and at the opposite pole from any Blond Beast super-German. He is an American. (Isabel Paterson to Ayn Rand, 1943.)[2]

I am very anxious to separate Objectivism from Nietzsche altogether. …I don’t want to be confused with Nietzsche in any respect. (Ayn Rand, Radio Interview, 1964.)[3]

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is no doubt the one philosopher with whom Ayn Rand is most often associated in popular discussions of her ideas. The relationship between her ideas and those of the German writer and thinker are the subject of the wildest misconceptions. The general tendency of these misconceptions is to greatly exaggerate the similarity between the ideas of these two thinkers. Nonetheless, there are connections between them, of a sort, and they are interesting ones.

One thing that can make the relationship between them difficult to understand is the fact that Rand’s relation to Nietzsche changes considerably over the years. The history of this relationship can be divided roughly into three different periods. The first begins during her years as a student in Russia and ends with the completion of The Fountainhead (from approximately 1921 to 1942 ). The second period follows upon the completion of The Fountainhead and ends with the completion of Atlas Shrugged (1942-1957). The third and last period (1957-1982) follows the writing of Atlas and ends with her death. During the first period, it is possible to find ideas, attitudes and even turns of phrase in her writings that readily bring those of Nietzsche to mind. As she matures, those Nietzsche-like elements are typically transformed and re-thought, often ingeniously, to suit a point of view that differs from his more and more. In the second period, such echoes of Nietzsche disappear from her work, and her style -- both her style of writing and of thinking -- are sharply different from his. During the third period, her activity as a writer takes the form of producing non-fiction essays and books. Explicit references to Nietzsche now reappear in her writings and public statements from time to time, but they are always negative in tone, and sometimes harshly so. Obviously, something has changed over the years: at the very least, her attitude toward Nietzsche has changed. No doubt this change in attitude was brought about by other, deeper developments. In this chapter I will make some suggestions about what those deeper developments were. First, however, I will tell in greater detail the story of Rand’s changing attitude toward Nietzsche.

Ayn Rand discovered the works of Nietzsche in Russia, during her first year in college, when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. As she remembered it years later, an older cousin told her, “not very kindly,” that she should read him because “he beat [her] to all [her] ideas.” She later said that she thought she then read “all his works,” or at least all that had been translated into Russian. On coming to America in 1926, the first three books she purchased were the Modern Library edition of Also sprach Zarathustra (which the translator Thomas Common rendered as Thus Spake Zarathustra), a book that she subsequently read many times, and in addition the Modern Library editions of Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist.[4]

The years immediately following this were a time of intense interest in Nietzsche. At the age of 23, while living in Los Angeles in 1928, she wrote extensive notes for a novel she was planning at the time to write, titled The Little Street.[5] It is beyond doubt the most Nietzschean writing of hers that survives today. The Nietzschean themes begin already with the title, which is suggestive of a favorite theory of Nietzsche’s, to the effect that the enemy of the ideal is not the bad or the evil, but the small. He believed that the basic traits that enable one to be heroically good also enable one to be evil. It is in terms of such ideas that Rand characterizes the hero of The Little Street, a young man “[s]uperior to the mob and intensely, almost painfully conscious of it,”[6] – an experience, incidentally, which Nietzsche liked to call “the pathos of distance.” He also happens to be a murderer. He could, however, have been a great man but for the fact that he lives in a world run by and for suffocatingly boring mediocrity. She quotes from the chapter “The Old and New Tablets,” in Zarathustra: “Oh, that their best is so very small! Oh, that their worst is so very small!”[7] The story is characterized by unrelenting hostility to Christianity: the villain, and victim of the murder committed by the hero, is a “beloved” clergyman. The real villain of the story, however, is what Rand calls “the mob.” In the world of this story, most people have a powerful tendency to bond together with “sympathetic understanding and co-feeling with others” and to react with “subconscious fury” against whatever appears to be above it.[8] “To humiliate, to throw down – that is the mob’s greatest delight.”[9] All this is authentically Nietzschean in terms of its style, sentiment, and ideas as well.[10]

We may have no way of knowing what Rand’s whole world-view was like at this stage of her life, and it is extremely doubtful that she ever agreed with all the major tenets of Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, the notes for The Little Street are full of Nietzschean themes and there is nothing in it that conflicts with Nietzsche’s views. The author of these notes is striving to write a work of fiction with a philosophical theme, rather than to originate new philosophical theses, and she is drawing for this purpose on the philosophy of Nietzsche, or on those parts that she finds relevant and congenial

The earliest concerted attempt at philosophical writing by Rand that we have is a journal entry dated April 9, 1934.[11] This entry expresses attitudes that overlap with those of Nietzsche and yet are sharply distinct from them at the same time. The subject of the note is her opposition to religion: “I want to fight religion,” she says at the outset, “as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering.” She gives two reasons for her opposition to religion. The first is that religion makes it possible for one to “consider ideals as something quite abstract and detached from one’s everyday life.” So far, these comments bear some obvious similarities with themes in Nietzsche. He too was critical of various religions (especially Christianity) and he also sought ideals that can be lived here on earth.

However, her tone here is different from the one typical of Nietzsche, and the second reason she gives for rejecting religion suggests a clue as to the reason for this difference: “Faith is the worst curse of mankind,” she writes, underscoring the words, “as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.” The reason faith is so bad is that it conflicts with a fundamental and absolute value: “Thought and reason are the only weapons of mankind, the only possible bond of understanding among them. Anyone who demands that anything be taken on faith – or relies on any ... super-logical instinct – denies all reason.”

This is rather different from the treatment of faith we find in Nietzsche. It is true enough, of course, that he is critical of faith. He says that “faith moves no mountains, but puts mountains where there are none.” “‘Faith.’” he also tells us, “means not wanting to know what is true.”[12]

But his critical comments on faith generally take the form of charging that it is futile or, at worst, a symptom that something else is wrong with one’s life. Rand, on the other hand, is charging that faith is actually toxic in and of itself. There is an obvious reason for this difference. Although Nietzsche would agree that faith is inimical to reason, he does not hold reason to be an absolute value. While he later abandoned the complete irrationalism of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, his thinking always contained irrationalist elements, and he certainly never thought that the value of reason is absolute or basic to other values. Consequently, his condemnation of faith does not have the strong, categorical quality that Rand’s does. The important point here of course is the difference between Rand and Nietzsche on the question of the value of reason. The later Rand, as is well known, did hold reason to be an absolute value, and she apparently did so at least as early as this 1934 journal entry. Indeed, she made comments in an autobiographical interview decades later to the effect that the vein of irrationalism in Nietzsche’s writings was offensive to her from the very beginning. Speaking of The Birth of Tragedy, she said: “If before that I thought he was anti-reason, here it was stated specifically that reason is an inferior faculty, and some kind of drunken orgy emotions, the Dionysus principle, were superior. That really finished him for me, in the sense of a serious spiritual ally.”[13] This difference between her and Nietzsche is a profound one and gives rise to other differences between them, differences that will become increasingly prominent in her work as time goes on.

In another entry in this same journal from 1934, Rand also takes another position that separates her from Nietzsche on a fundamental issue: she defends free will. Nietzsche makes it clear that he is a determinist: it is crucial to his critique of the idea of moral responsibility, and also for his argument for the notion of “the eternal recurrence of the same things.” Indeed, this is another point on which, she suggests in the later autobiographical interview, she differed from Nietzsche from the beginning.[14]

However, when people associate Nietzsche with Rand, as they often do, they are not thinking of such metaphysical and epistemological issues as determinism and the validity of reason. They are probably thinking mainly of ethical issues. It is not clear to what extent, by this time in the early thirties, her ethical position was yet sharply different from that of Nietzsche There are passages in the first edition of We the Living (1936), later cut from or revised in the second edition (1959), which are rather reminiscent of Nietzschean thoughts and attitudes. They leave the issue of the relation between Rand’s ethics and those of Nietzsche rather ambiguous. Asked by Andrei whether we can sacrifice the many for the sake of the few, Kira replies:

You can! You must. When those few are the best. Deny the best its right to the top – and you have no best left. What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?[15]

This at least sounds very much like something that the author of Zarathustra might say.

Nietzsche’s ethical views were focused on matters of character, rather than on issues about what actions one should do. His ideal was a type of person – represented in Zarathustra with the trope of the Übermensch (which Rand in her journals translates as “superman”). The principal ethical task is to facilitate the existence of these exemplary human beings, and the ideal society for Nietzsche would be one in which those who are not exemplary find meaning in their lives by supporting those who are.[16] This view could be expressed, rather hyperbolically, by saying that the best that most of us can strive for is to serve as “fuel to be burned for those who deserve it.” The question of how close Rand is coming in what are sometimes called the “Nietzschean passages” in We the Living to accepting this view depends on how one interprets these passages.[17]

If the relation between the ethics of We The Living and Nietzsche’s is ambiguous, The Fountainhead represents a clear, sharp, profound break with Nietzsche.[18] One of the principal issues in the novel is that of the correct understanding of a concept that is fundamental to Nietzsche’s philosophy and, in particular, his ethics. This is the nature of power, of power as a value. Two of the novel’s principal characters, Howard Roark and Gail Wynand, are contrasted and characterized in terms of the different ways in which they interpret that concept. Rand makes it very clear that power is Wynand’s fundamental value. As he says at one point in a conversation with Dominique Francon: “Power, Dominique. The only thing I ever wanted. To know that there’s not a man living whom I can’t force to do – anything. Anything I choose.”[19] On the other hand, Roark is not depicted as someone who is happy to be powerless. He, too, is interested in power, but it is a completely different sort of power from the one that Wynand seeks. Wynand is interested in power over others, while Roark is interested in having the power to act and, especially, to create. Part of the point of the interaction between these two characters, which results eventually in Wynand’s moral ruin, and part of the point of Roark’s courtroom speech, is to show that the sort of power that Wynand seeks is not real power. Nietzsche, on the other hand, certainly would regard it as real power. This constitutes a profound difference between Rand’s values and those of Nietzsche. Obviously, it will lead to deep differences between them regarding the way in which people ought to treat each other.

Though this criticism of Nietzsche will have a profound effect on other differences between Rand and Nietzsche, it is possible to see it as a revision of a central Nietzschean theme, rather than an outright rejection. Power is still an important value, though it is power over nature, and not power over human beings, that represents real power. Indeed, Roark’s criticism of Wynandian power in his courtroom speech has an interestingly Nietzschean ring to it: “Rulers of men” he charges, “ ... exist entirely through the persons of others,” in that their “goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving,” with the result that they “are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker, the bandit.”[20] This is a criticism Nietzsche would have to take seriously, precisely because it is as it were a criticism of him in his own terms. Rand is saying that to pursue power over others is to breach one’s own psychological self-sufficiency. This is just the sort of consideration that Nietzsche himself sees as undermining one’s own power.[21]

Soon after completing The Fountainhead, Rand developed ideas that would make it very clear that her ethics is not merely a radical revision of the Nietzschean one but is actually a diametrically opposed alternative to it. The next major writing project was to be a book-length essay, “The Moral Basis of Individualism,” which she eventually abandoned. On the earliest page of the extensive notes and drafts she made for this project, dated August 12, 1943, we find this memorandum: “The proper relationship of man to men, deduced from the moral law. (Traders, notservants.)”[22] This is apparently the first appearance in Rand’s writings of the idea, later elaborated in Atlas Shrugged, of the just society as one in which people are related to each other primarily as traders. To see how this indicates a widening rift between her ethics and those of Nietzsche, consider briefly his best known ethical idea: his account of the difference between “master morality” and “slave morality.” Nietzsche used this distinction in order to explain various features of different moral codes that exist today in terms of different psychological reactions that our ancestors had to finding oneself in the position of either a master or a slave. Masters tend to develop one sort of moral code, and slaves tend to create quite a different one. One obvious feature of slavery as a way of dealing with human beings is of course that massive amounts of the “over others” sort of power involved. Another, slightly less obvious feature, which is closely related to this one, is that the relationship between the master and slave is, as game-theorists put it, “zero sum”[23]: it is a relationship that benefits one person at the expense of the other. If you take this relationship as a sort of paradigm of what social relations are, then you see the world as one in which “one man’s gain is another man’s loss.” This is indeed how Nietzsche tends to see the world, and it helps to explain why he evaluates power over others very differently from the way Rand does. In a zero-sum world, it will be very important to gain control over others, and to extend it as far and keep it as long as we can. Your neighbors want to live and prosper just as you do and, in such a world, they will not do what is in your interest if they have a choice.

A society of traders is the exact opposite of this sort of world. Trade, unlike slavery, is a relationship based on mutual consent. For that reason, both parties to a trade advance their own goals by means of it, or they would not willingly participate. Acting within the framework of rights that make trade possible, people become positively valuable to one another. The switch from a world of hegemony to a world of trade has implications of breathtaking proportions, extending to one’s very sense of life. Nietzsche consistently characterized his view of life as “tragic.” Rand’s is anything but. One of the likely reasons for this very large sense of life difference between them is the underlying ethical difference.[24].

The introduction of the idea of society as a system of traders brings with it another subtle and basic development. In the same early (1934) philosophical notebook in which Rand declares war on faith, she includes the following comment on political philosophy:

The new, I hope, conception of the State which I want to defend, is the State as a means, not an end; a means for the convenience of the higher type of man. ... The state, not as a slave of the great numbers, but precisely the contrary, as the individual’s defense against great numbers. To free man from the tyranny of numbers. The fault of liberal democracies – giving full rights to quantity – majorities – they forget the rights of quality, which are much higher rights. Prove that differences of quality not only do exist inexorably, but should exist. The next step – democracy of superiors only.[25]

Here she is still working on the basis of a Nietzschean premise, according to which superior individuals are so different from others that they do not even have the same rights. This will need to change as she moves to the paradigm of the society of traders. Trade is a relationship of mutual consent, in which neither party can be taken for granted. It also is in a certain way symmetrical: each party gets what it desires from the other only on condition that they meet the conditions, set by the other, for their willing cooperation. At a fundamental level, they must have the same sorts of rights, including most obviously property rights. This is exactly the view that Rand eventually arrives at.[26]

During the years that Atlas Shrugged was in preparation, Rand developed her views in the fundamental areas of epistemology and metaphysics, something she had not done before to any great extent. As her thinking on these subjects progressed, the gap between her and Nietzsche widened further. Nietzsche’s views on epistemology changed a number of times and are subject to varying interpretations, but on no account could his views be called “objectivist.” He often characterized his views as a form of “perspectivism,” by which he seems to have meant (at least) that reality is subject to multiple interpretations, and that, while some of these “perspectives” are better than others, the reasons clearly include pragmatic considerations, and not (or not only) objective truth.[27] In the realm of metaphysics, he eventually sketched, in unpublished notes published posthumously as The Will To Power, a view of the universe as a shifting system of “quanta of power.” In his view, the world is a Heracleitean flux entirely lacking in the stable substances that populate the sort of metaphysics favored by Rand.[28]

As her thinking became more systematic, she came to see the distance between her thinking and his as enormous. The points of overlap or resemblance were relatively narrow, while the differences concerned very fundamental issues. Eventually, in a radio interview given in 1965, she characterized the relationship between her philosophy and his like this:

I am very anxious to separate Objectivism from Nietzsche altogether. The reason for the mistaken rapprochement that some people hold between my philosophy and that of Nietzsche is that Nietzsche has certain very attractive, very wise quotations purported to uphold individualism, with which one could agree out of context. But excepting his general “feeling for” individualism, I would not consider Nietzsche an individualist; and above all, he is certainly not an upholder of reason. When you judge a philosophy you must always start by judging its fundamentals. And in all fundamentals – particularly metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics – Objectivism not only differs from Nietzsche but is his opposite. Therefore, I don’t want to be confused with Nietzsche in any respect.

When her interviewers asked her to distinguish her treatment of “superior” people such as Howard Roark and Henry Rearden from Nietzsche’s discussions of the superior individual, she had this to say:

[I]t’s and equivocation on the word “superior.” If you mean “superior” in the sense of excellence – and “superior is a bad word to use here – if you mean that some men excel, are better, than others, by means of self-developed, self-made virtue, that is a different thing entirely than Nietzsche’s concept, which divided men in effect into two species. You see, the word “superior” is more applicable to Nietzsche’s philosophy. It is a word which we never use. I never describe my characters as “superior” men, I describe them as ideal men. Now in Nietzsche’s concept, a man is superior or inferior by birth: it has nothing to do with morality.

When asked what she thought of Nietzsche’s idea that superior people need not follow the rules that apply to inferior people, she said:

A moral code has to be based on man’s nature. Men do belong to the same species. … Since men are all examples of the same species, the fundamental rules of conduct, that which is common to all of them, and applies to all of them, will have to be the same. If some men are better than others, in certain talents or in certain achievements, this is merely a … difference of degree, not of kind. Therefore you couldn’t have different rules for so-called superior or inferior men. … [T]he basic rules will have to be the same for all men, since they are based on the fundamentals of man’s nature, not on degrees of their achievement or of their virtue.[29]

During the last period of her career, Rand leveled several blistering attacks on Nietzsche in print.[30] However, there did remain one surviving debt to Nietzsche, and in a way it was an important one. In the biographical interviews from which I have already quoted, she said of him, “he did do me one service.” She explained that it was from her encounter with Nietzsche’s works that she came to understand how it is possible to think of “man,” as she puts it in the “About the Author” page at the end of Atlas Shrugged, “as a heroic being.”

She explains that she had earlier thought that in order to think of the human being as heroic, she “had to defend man as the species.” That is, the heroic vision of human life seemed to mean that all the people who currently live are somehow heroes. This seems obviously untrue. In addition, the idea that everyone is good would seem to imply, just as much as the idea that everyone is bad, some sort of determinism. This is how she describes how she found her way out of this dilemma:

And what Nietzsche made me realize is that it doesn’t have to be collective. ... [H]e helped me to formulate it in terms of individualism and not of the metaphysical original virtue of mankind as such. So, in a sense, what my attitude could have taken me into would be original virtue determinism. But what I then realized, is that the species can be vindicated by one man. And from then on, what my thinking gradually came to in conscious terms: If I am a member of the species then that’s what I judge them by. I’m not a freak.

Notice that she does not seem to be saying that Nietzsche consciously held the idea that she derived from reading him. What seems to have happened is this. Like Rand, Nietzsche often made some very acerbic judgments about the actions and attainments of actual human beings, while at the same time, again like her, he did seem to see “man” in the abstract as heroic. How is this possible? A full answer to this question would be a long story, but clearly part of it involves taking a heroic individual – perhaps a fictional individual like Zarathustra or Howard Roark – as representing the human type more fully than the far more numerous non-heroic ones do. There is a shared underlying logic, which makes possible the peculiar combination of realism and idealism that characterizes the writings of both these thinkers.

However, as Isabel Paterson pointed out, the nature of the heroes involved are quite different. One is European and aristocratic, while the other is deeply American and adapted to life in a society of producers and traders. One is reason-based and the other is more emotion-based.[31]

[1] Document titled “A Candid Camera of Ayn Rand,” ARC Carton 86 Folder18-16. The undated two page document appears to consist of answers to questions from a publisher to be used to publicize a book, probably We the Living (1936). I am indebted to Shoshana Milgram for bringing this document to my attention.

[2] Letter postmarked October 14, 1943. ARC Carton 145 Folder 33-PAT-B.

[3] See fn. 28, below.

[4] These biographical details are from the transcripts of the biographical interviews with Barbara Branden and others, which are archived in the Special Collections section at the Ayn Rand Institute, Interview #6, Tape 3, Side 2, p. 187

[5] An edited version of these notes can be found in David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), pp. 20-48. All references for this manuscript, which is now missing from the Ayn Rand Institute archives, will be to this edition.

[6] Harriman, p. 26.

[7] Harriman, p. 41.

[8] Harriman p. 42.

[9] Harriman p. 39.

[10] For statements of these themes in Nietzsche, see the following chapters in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Penguin, 1959): “The Flies of the Market Place,” “On the Tree on the Mountainside,” and “On the Love of the Neighbor.” On the “pathos of distance,” see section 257 of Beyond Good and Evil.

[11] Ayn Rand Papers, Carton 172, Folder 43-04. This material corresponds to pp. 66-8 of the book edited by Harriman, cited above.

[12] Sections 51 and 52 of The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 632 and 635.

[13] Biographical Interviews, Interview #6, Tape 3, Side 2, p. 190.

[14] Interview #6, Tape 3, Side 2, p. pp. 188-89.

[15] Ayn Rand, We the Living (New York: Macmillan, 1936), p. 93.

[16] See The Antichrist, sect. 57, in The Portable Nietzsche.

[17] These passages have been discussed very well by Robert Mayhew in his “We the Living: ‘36 and ‘59,” in Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand’s “We the Living” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 205-214. He discusses a number of different interpretations that may be offered for these passages and points out, among other things, that the more extremely “Nietzschean” interpretations conflict, not only with Rand’s later views, but with the themes of We the Living itself.

[18] I should point out, though, that an early germ of the main idea that separates Rand from Nietzsche in The Fountainhead can be found in the 1934 philosophical notebook I discussed above. See Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 71.

[19] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), p. 533.

[20] The Fountainhead, p. 741.

[21] I explore the critique in The Fountainhead of Nietzsche’s conception of power in “Thus Spake Howard Roark: Nietzschean Ideas in the Fountainhead,” in Philosophy and Literature, vol. 30 no. 1 (April 2006), pp. 79-101.

[22] Ayn Rand Papers, Carton 36, Folder 6-114-A. This material corresponds to p. 244 of Harriman.

[23] I owe this way of characterizing the relationship to Stephen Hicks. See his “Egoism in Nietzsche and Rand,” forthcoming in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

[24] : On the trader principle in Rand’s social ethics, see Darryl Wright’s discussion in Chapter 7 above, 00-00; on Rand’s sense of life, see Allan Gotthelf’s “Coda,” below, 00-00.

[25] Ayn Rand Papers, Carton 172, Folder 43-04. This material corresponds to pp. 72 and 73 of the book edited by Harriman, cited above.

[26] On the place of rights – and, in particular, property rights— in Rand’s mature political thought, see further Chapters 8 and 9 above, 00-00 and 00-00.

[27] For Rand’s views on the nature of objectivity, see the chapter on epistemology in this volume, 00-00.

[28] See the chapter on metaphysics in this volume.

[29] The Ayn Rand Program, WKCR FM Radio, 1965. I am indebted to Allan Gotthelf for bringing this material to my attention and supplying me with a recording of the interview.

[30] See the following passages: For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 36; The Fountainhead (New York: New American Library, 1968), “Introduction,” pp. xi; and The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: New American Library, 1971), “Apollo and Dionysus,” pp. 57-58.

[31] See Allan Gotthelf’s chapter on man as a heroic being in this volume, 00-00.