Monday, June 12, 2017

Et tu, Brute?

Where did I leave those damned keys?

Nietzsche, to begin with, was not born crazy; and it's an indictment of G.K. Chesterton's thought that Nietzsche went mad because he was too rational and not religious enough.  So let's set the canards aside for a moment.

On the other hand, I'm hardly a student of Nietzschean thought, so I don't mean to put my expertise in his work against that of Sean Illing or Hugo Drochon.  Still, I don't think their analysis is the last word on Nietzsche and politics (any more than "ubermensch" is the "Superman" or "That which does not destroy me makes stronger" is a summation of his thought.  That latter phrase, by the way, was popularized by G. Gordon Liddy.  Ask your grandfather, if you have to, but guilt by association is as real as the struggle is real.)  I disagree with Illing and Drochon because I think Nietzsche needs to be put in context a bit more, and that context starts with philology.

If you hear of Nietzsche and know basically only Zarathustra (the "ubermensch") and Beyond Good and Evil (God is dead; though I don't know enough to say that's where the idea appears, but the title is popular), you misunderstand rather badly, and on this Drochon is a fine antidote in summation:

Hugo Drochon
I completely share your point about Nietzsche not being a nihilist. He was responding to the specter of nihilism that was haunting Europe at the time. First, we have to remember that Nietzsche was the theorist of the "death of God." He said we used to live our lives according to a transcendent morality that everybody could agree on, but if nobody agrees on that anymore, then we have to confront, really confront, the challenge of relativism.

Sean Illing
I want to linger on Nietzsche’s “God is dead” thesis for a second because I think it’s arguably the most important thing he said, and probably the least understood.

There’s this idea that Nietzsche gleefully pronounced God’s death, but the next sentence after that line reads, “And we have killed Him.” For Nietzsche, it was a terrible thing that this had happened. “Since Copernicus,” he wrote, “man has been rolling away from the center towards X.” That “X” was the abyss opened up by the collapse of this belief that earth was the center of things, that history had a direction or that humanity held a privileged place in the cosmos.

How do you understand this phrase “God is dead” and why did you think Nietzsche considered it such a monumental event?

Hugo Drochon
Well, I think we have to first remember the context. This was the late 19th century and Nietzsche was talking specifically about the Christian God, or the idea of a monotheistic god. And he was referring to the values that had sprung up in the Western world which had their roots in this monotheistic tradition.

The death of God meant simply that no one really believes in this anymore. They carry on as though they do, but science and reason had completely undercut the metaphysical claims of monotheism, which is to say the idea of absolute moral truth. What we learned was that life was always in the process of becoming.

For Nietzsche, God may have died in this sense, but we were still living in his shadow. And this meant that people no longer believed in God but were living as if God were still alive. Nietzsche really wanted to challenge those types of people. He wanted to force them to reckon with the consequences of this.

Sean Illing
The claim here wasn’t that there could be no morality or values; rather, it was that we had lost the transcendent justification for the Judeo-Christian worldview, and that the moral implications of this extended well beyond religion.

Hugo Drochon

If you first read Nietszche, as I did, with his early work The Birth of Tragedy, you are introduced to the classics scholar deeply trained in the German academy.  Philology was the study of language and literature, and Nietzsche excelled at it.  His discussion of Dionysian and Appollonian is, I would contend, central to his thought.  I see it peeking through in the discussion between Drochon and Illing, though it is never acknowledged.  (and were I less lazy I'd re-read Tragedy and refresh my knowledge myself, but it isn't central to my argument, so we press on.).  That's part of the context he has to be seen in because his argument is not progressive but conservative.  Note what Drochon points out is a thinker opposed to current events (you could, in fairness, say the same about Kierkegaard, but we aren't discussing S.K.'s politics here, are we?), not a thinker seeking to shape them, a la Locke or even Hobbes.  I would emphasize that issue in any analysis of Nietzsche's political thought because he's trying to preserve what he has found to be true and valuable in classical culture.  The whole thrust of Tragedy, as I recall it, is to re-establish the validity of his understanding of Greek culture, especially against 19th century German culture.  Tragedy is not just an interesting analysis of ancient Greek plays, it is an argument for how we should then live.

And his conclusion would hardly line up with Tolstoy's.

Nietzsche is also reacting (as was S.K.!) to the rise of the importance of the individual in European culture.  You really can't leave that revolution out of any analysis of 19th century European thought, and you certainly can't take it for granted as the way everybody in Europe always thought.  So Neitszche is hardly a progressive political thinker, in the modern sense; he's much more a reactionary.  Consider:

Hugo Drochon
Nietzsche predicts what he calls "wars to determine the future of mankind," which will take place in the shadow of God. And his reasoning is that the death of God reopens the question of what we want humankind to be.

Before, in the West at least, we had a Christian answer to this, a Christian conception of the good man. But if we don't believe in that anymore, or if we can't justify belief in that anymore, we have to take up this question yet again. And Nietzsche believed the next centuries would consist of wars over what the answer to that question ought to be.

Interestingly, Sartre reached pretty much the same conclusion after World War II.  So did a lot of people, the ones who hadn't reached that conclusion after World War I (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, the entire "Lost Generation").  Were the world wars the result of a loss of conception of the Christian "good man"?  Or were the results just a bit more complicated (and how does that loss of the Christian model play in Japan's role in WWII, or Turkey's role in WWI?).

You see the problem with oversimplifying history, especially to make it fit a hypothesis.  Nietszche, if Drogon's is a fair assessment of the former's thought, is as guilty of this as his students are.  And frankly, the Christian conception of the "good man" proved pretty damned flexible in Europe for the time it supposedly reigned supreme before Nietzsche noticed we'd buried God.  Either the burial didn't take, or we have to create a very anachronistic concept of God in order to say we've superseded it.  Once again, I think Nietzsche is simply reacting to the pantheism of Romanticism (few of the English Romantics were notably Christian thinkers, and yet they were wildly influential in the 19th century in Europe and America), not seeing clearly into the future which took his words justification for what he dreaded and feared.

Nietzsche would probably have taken a brick bat to G. Gordon Liddy.

I dunno; if we're looking for lessons about modern politics, we'd do better paying attention to the plays of the Bard, and not paying so much attention to the costumes of the characters in those plays.  Or the costumes in which we dress up our thought, in order to make it seem more timeless than it really is.


  1. Speaking of Apollonian, nihilism and war, have you seen "Wonder Woman" yet? It asks a similar question of what it means to be a human in a corrupt world whose values are no longer rooted in a transcendent ethic because the gods are literally dead....

  2. Now I have to reconsider my whole response to that film.

  3. I have a lot of trouble with the God is dead thing because in the last 20 years I've seen that God is as alive as ever. Though "alive" is, of course, inapplicable or, rather, inadequate.

    I think what is more dead is the scientism that fueled so much of 19th, 20th and 21st century thought. It's noteworthy that Copernicus certainly didn't lose his faith over his discovery, if Nietzsche read On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres he could have hardly failed to have noticed that. Neither did the Pope and bishops who had encouraged and, in the end, kind of had to imply an order for him to publish. Notably, in spite of being brought up in the scientistic 20th century, many scientists didn't think so, either.

    It wasn't science that led to that conclusion, it was scientism and, I think more than anything else, fashion that led to those things.

    I don't know the extent to which the theory of natural selection had an effect on the culture of the Japanese elite which started invading other countries as Hitler and Mussolini did but it was definitely the motivation of the fascist and Nazi ideologies. In looking closely at the reality of the belief in natural selection its role in bringing about the way that the German military elite thought of WWI was a revelation. I've mentioned the American biologist Vernon Kellog, a fully informed Darwinist who made that observation in his book Headquarter Nights, it was enough to turn him from a pacifist into a proponent of American getting in against Germany. The role it played in other things such as the primitive trial run for death camps in German colonies in Africa even earlier shows that Nazism was a development out of a stream of Darwinian scientism.

    Even earlier than Darwin, Compte faced some of the same moral consequences of a growing assumption of materialism in Western culture.

    I think God is only dead if your conception of God is more in line with pagan Gods who are all too human. Couldn't resist.

    I don't have any confidence that anything like a decent, peaceful life is possible under a widespread assumption of materialism and I think it was a less intellectual, more informal, every day, common sense kind of materialism which the writers of the Bible encountered, continually. That's the meaning of the story of the golden calf, making matter, in the form of material wealth, a god. The Law was a series of attempts to order society away from that, dealing with the fact that they were embedded in the pagan world and that pagan ideas, especially in so far as they attracted the Children of Israel with material gain, could lead them astray. I think that's what a good part of that distracting sexual code was aimed at, as well as preventing divisions internally, sexual jealousy and suspicion being the diverting poison it can be. I think that's the form of corruption that is more prevalent in the United States and the reason for our abandonment of Christianity, what is generally called that being nothing like it.

    I'm going to write a post if I don't stop.

    Stimulating piece, thank you.