House of Cards, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power

“I just love this painting, don’t you? We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Take care not to tip it over, I can only save one of us.”
— 
Frank Underwood, Season 1, House of Cards

“The ignorant, to be sure, the people – they are like a river down which a boat swims; and in the boat, solemn and disguised, sit the assessments of value…”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

When it comes to House of Cards, whether you haven’t yet started or have already finished its second season, you’d likely agree on one constant that runs throughout the show, sexualities included: the irrefutable fact that Frank’s will to power is only matched by his artful articulation of his desires. So much so that we find ourselves lured into daydreaming about manipulating everyone around us to the whims of our own wills (and genitals). Who hasn’t thought silently as Frank though — that “generosity is its own form of power” — as we buy our boss a cup of coffee we hope will pay off months later in a plumb promotion, or at the very least help us avoid any serious disapprobation?

Besides Frank, there’s maybe one other bereft soul who could so beautifully enamor their audience with such biting power-centric one-liners. While you may be thinking about Machiavelli, there’s actually someone who makes ol’ Niccolò look like Mr. Rogers: the esteemed Friedrich Nietzsche.

Notorious for his “God is dead” quote, and the notion that with God out of the way all else is permitted (something Underwood probably agrees with), Nietzsche also developed the idea of the will to power, along with all kinds of glorious power-laden prose to accompany it. Sometimes, as both Nietzsche and Underwood show us, it isn’t enough just to be tough, you’ve also got to talk tough and sound good at it. As Nietzsche wrote in Why I Am So Wise:

I have with this book given mankind the greatest gift that has ever been given it. With a voice that speaks across millennia, it is not only the most exalted book that exists, the actual book of the air of the heights – the entire fact man lies at a tremendous distance beneath it – it is also the profoundest, born out of the innermost abundance of truth, an inexhaustible well into which no bucket descends without coming up filled with gold and goodness.

And what is this book that Nietzsche is referencing? He himself of course, he who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra with this at its core:

But wherever I found creatures, there too I heard the language of obedience. All living creatures are obeying creatures…Where I found a living creature, there I found will to power; and even in the will of the servant I found the will to be master.

Similarly, Frank postulates this — err — humanist belief:

There is no solace above or below. Only us. Small. Solitary. Striving. Battling one another. I pray to myself…for myself.

While Nietzsche himself never really held any positions of power beyond that of a professor, his existential forays into the plight of man among other men has permeated into the philosophy and diction of America’s favorite fictitious villain politician. Frank’s infamous take on money and power seems to be something tidied for Hollywood from Nietzsche.

Compare this, from Frank early in Season 1…

Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-Mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.

With this, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Just look at these superfluous people! They acquire wealth and make themselves poorer with it. They desire power and especially the lever of power, plenty of money – these important people.

Even their feelings about their friends seem to coincide, if only insofar as the connection they make between friends and enemies. Again, Frank first followed by Friedrich:

Friends make the worst enemies.

If you want a friend, you must be willing to wage war for him: and to wage war, you must be capable of being an enemy.

What stands as perhaps the strongest connection between Friedrich and Frank, however, is their insatiable drive towards assuming power and influence. And making waves while doing so.

Frank:

You don’t want to work anywhere you’re not willing to get fired from, Zoe. Treading water is the same as drowning, for people like you and me.

Nietzsche (in Ecce Homo):

War is another thing. I am by nature warlike. To attack is among my instincts. To be able to be an enemy, to be an enemy – that perhaps presupposes a strong nature, it is in any event a condition of every strong nature.

While we might be able to argue about how Nietzschian Frank Underwood actually is, what we undeniably have on our hands is a connection between the pursuit of power and the devilish lines that buttress one’s prowess — extending all the way to into their views on woman.

Frank:

Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes, every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless, at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood.

Nietzsche:

For the true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason he wants woman, as the most dangerous plaything…The warrior does not like fruit that is too sweet. Therefore, he likes woman; even the sweetest woman is still bitter.

And being the Nietzschean “true man” that he is, Frank himself lets on to his only weakness, one that Nietzsche predicted more than 100 years prior, and one that maybe Season 3 will exploit:

I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.