Nietzsche Made Me Do It

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This week: On Becoming Who You Are— with John Kaag and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

It was Nietzsche week at Open Source, prompted by the morning we spent in John Kaag’s “Existence and Anxiety” class at U Mass Lowell last Friday. John’ has written a memoir about his own Nietzsche exploration — Hiking with Nietzsche, in which he retraces a trip he made at age 19 to Sils Maria in the Alps to walk in the very steps of the German philosopher. John embodies the theory and practice of living a philosophical life, thinking to live by, as Chris said. His class of students was generous, engaged, thoughtful about their lives and experiences, and hungry for the deep questions John asks them.

I learned after the show from both John and our resident philosophy major, Rebecca, that philosophy as an academic discipline has become heavily analytical and has largely turned away from Nietzsche and others in the more lyrical, less systematic continental tradition. John’s popular books about philosophy and his students’ response suggest there’s an appetite for a less analytical form of philosophy, not as therapy exactly, but as a way of being; Michelle Obama might call it Becoming, and indeed she might have swiped that idea from Nietzsche himself.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagan and John Kaag

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagan helped us reconsider Nietsche and reclaim him a bit from his reputation as the scary, Hitlerian, Übermensch-y, God is Dead guy; she says Nietzsche was hugely inspired as a young man by none other than our own local sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Jennifer’s book, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, is full of modern Nietzsche-ites including Mark Rothko, Joni Mitchell (her cat named Nietsche, for example) and Jordan Peterson as well as lefties and bohemians like Emma Goldman, Isadora Duncan, and Jack London. Jennifer tracks the breadth and depth of Nietzsche’s reach in American thought and culture, chronicling his influence on thinkers as diverse as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and Stanley Cavell. It’s an incredible book, and we’re looking forward to reading her new one, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History.

Jennifer told us she’s fascinated with the degree Nietzsche has infiltrated American culture, and she told us about the world of Nietzsche tattoos (some featured, we discovered, on

Nietzsche, it turns out, is also a hallmark of inspirational posters, magnets, and greeting cards.

Listen: Robert Pogue Harrison on Rene Girard

This week we posted Chris’s conversation with Stanford prof Robert Pogue Harrison on the literary critic and theorist Rene Girard. It was, as Chris said and many commented, a real meeting of minds. If you liked our Nietzsche show… you’ll love this one. Here’s the link.

Coming: The Wall

British novelist and journalist John Lanchester is coming to town this week. We’ll dive into his new dystopian novel and get caught up on the news from London.


Jane Mayer digs into Fox News. Malcolm Harris on American work. Rebecca Gordon on myths about the female body. Quinn Slobodian on the far right and gold. Do the math on the Green New Deal. Tim Wu on the Oppression of the Supermajority. Here’s Trump’s 2020 campaign. Stay Woke! 25 Songs that Matter Right Now.



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