The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in the Pragmatism of Justice Holmes

19 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2017

Date Written: 2016


Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Friedrich Nietzsche. This article examines that affinity, showing how Holmes's pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche's existentialism. Holmes's pragmatism shares with Nietzsche's existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind. We demonstrate here that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche's writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes's belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate. The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

Keywords: Richard Posner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pragmatism, Existentialism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Fate, Power, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Suggested Citation

Vannatta, Seth and Mendenhall, Allen, The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in the Pragmatism of Justice Holmes (2016). UMKC Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 1, 2016, Available at SSRN:

Seth Vannatta

Morgan State University ( email )

1700 E. Cold Spring Ln
Baltimore, MD 21251
United States

Allen Mendenhall (Contact Author)

Troy University ( email )

Troy, AL
United States

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