Saturday, May 19, 2007

Allan Bloom, Nietzschean Nihilism, and Darwinian Natural Right

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which was first published in 1987. There have been a few conferences to reconsider Bloom's book and the public debate that it stirred.

It has always seemed odd to me that conservatives have praised Bloom's book, because far from being conservative, Bloom's book promotes Nietzschean nihilism. Nietzsche receives more attention from Bloom than any other author, and Bloom never criticizes him. He often adopts Nietzschean readings of other philosophers even when this distorts their original meaning. For example, he asserts that Plato and Nietzsche agree that music expresses our terror before a chaotic universe and our need to create an irrational image of order (pp. 70-81).

In embracing this Nietzschean "tragic sense" of the terrifying chaos of the universe, Bloom affirms nihilism. "It is the hardest task of all to face the lack of cosmic support for what we care about" (pp. 60, 270, 277).

I suspect that some of the conservatives who have embraced Bloom are actually nihilists themselves, because their fear of the nothingness at the heart of things drives them to conservative traditionalism to cover up the lack of natural support for human life and morality. Harvey Mansfield shows this in affirming the "manly nihilism" of Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt.

Bloom intimates that the crucial question is whether "natural teleology" is still defensible; and he also suggests that the clearest manifestations of teleology are biological--particularly, the reproductive process, child care, and family life (pp. 110-18, 125-27, 130-31, 181, 300-301). "The attachment of mother and child," he asserts, "is perhaps the only undeniable natural social bond" (p. 115).

But then he often indicates that this biological teleology might be illusory: "I mean by teleology nothing but the evident, everyday observation and sense of purposiveness, which may be only illusory, but which ordinarily guides human life, the kind everyone sees in the reproductive process" (p. 110). "Which may be only illusory"?

Of course, one might wonder whether Bloom's fervent homosexuality might have made him doubt the biological teleology of reproduction.

The alternative to Bloom's Nietzschean nihilism is Darwinian natural right--that is to say, a conception of natural right rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved life. Although Darwinian science cannot support a cosmic teleology in which the whole universe is directed to some end or purpose, it can support an immanent teleology in which all species are evolved to have natural ends that are specific to each species. Leo Strauss points to such an immanent teleology in NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY: "For, however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions" (p. 94).

If human beings have a species-specific nature that includes a range of natural desires, then we can judge moral and political order by how well it conforms to those natural desires. This natural teleology of natural human desires supports conservative social thought.

I have elaborated some of these points in other posts here and here.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche wasn't a nihilst.

Citizen Grim said...

Nietzsche wasn't a nihilst.

He was a lunatic. Same difference.

ha!

Seriously, though, yes he was.

Mike S. said...

Larry,

If human beings have a species-specific nature that includes a range of natural desires, then we can judge moral and political order by how well it conforms to those natural desires. This natural teleology of natural human desires supports conservative social thought.

First of all, shouldn't you say "takes into account", or something similar, rather than "conforms to" those natural desires? People have both good and bad natural desires. In addition, your formulation doesn't take into account what criteria we should use to adjudicate competing desires.

More generally, while I'm sympathetic to your notion that evolution provides a grounding for a fixed human nature, it seems to me that relying solely on evolutionary justification leaves your position no mechanism for countering claims that human nature is evolving and changing (perhaps this is what you believe). But if it is evolving and changing, then how does one determine which aspects of human nature are fixed, and which are destined to change? There are some who argue that in the modern world the natural desires regarding the reproductive process, child care, and family life are atavistic and no longer needed. How does one know that such desires are not destined to be selected against?

Anonymous said...

Seriously, though, yes he was.

Then Nietzsche was seriously deluded as to his own convictions, because he devoted numerous pages in "The Will to Power" to mocking nihilism.

Willie said...

Then Nietzsche was seriously deluded as to his own convictions, because he devoted numerous pages in "The Will to Power" to mocking nihilism.

Thank you! I get pretty tired of these distortions.

Some common others are that "Leaves of Grass" is just like "Walden" or that Kafka's "The Trial" is about secret courts, prisoner abuse, and oppressive governments (it isn't!)

Another well-known lie about Nietzsche is that he was an anti-Semite.

Anonymous said...

I liked Darwinian Conservatism better when it was called "The Golden Bough."

mjwatson said...

One can be a nihilist in how one sees the ontological reality of the world: there is no meaning to be found, there is "nothing" out there. Only systems to be created by dishonest philosophers.

And one can be a nihilist in how one reacts to that ontological reality: by being paralyzed by the "abyss" of meaninglessness, or of lapsing into pessimism a la Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche is a nihilist in the first sense, but not in the second. There is no meaning to be found, but this is not his last word. There is meaning to be created, "life" to be affirmed. This is why both posters above can be right: Nietzsche is a nihilist, and he rails against nihilism.

Larry Arnhart said...

mjwatson is correct.

I take up some of these questions in my chapter on Nietzsche in POLITICAL QUESTIONS.

My response to Mike S. can be found in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM. In both books, I take up the problem of conflicting desires and the need for prudential judgment.

Anonymous said...

I read Bloom's "Closing" before I really identified myself as a conservative. I got bogged down in the book, so I never read the whole thing. What I remember most was his critique of the culture of tolerance. He said that "tolerance" had become our greatest virtue and then went on to show how its elevation has hurt our culture. I also remember his stinging critique of academia, particularly the overthrowing of teaching the classics in favor of women's studies, black history, etc.

It's issues like these that made conservatives embrace the book, not Nietschean nihilism, or love for Allan Bloom.

Larry Arnhart said...

Anonymous,

You're exactly right as to what conservatives saw in Bloom's book. And, like you, very few conservatives "read the whole thing," of if they did, they didn't read it carefully. The Nietzschean nihilism doesn't become clear until one looks closely at what he said. This was also true about his teaching style: his flamboyant lecturing captivated his students, but few caught the Nietzschean intimations.

The same could be said about Harvey Mansfield, although his lecturing style is more elegant than flamboyant.

Greg said...

One must remember that Nihilism wasn't the end-point for Nietzsche. It was a necessary component in the growth of man. To put it shortly and crudely--one must sink to the depths of dispair, wallow in the nihilism, before one can come through it and overcome it. Thus becoming the "Overman" or Ubermensch. And it wasn't about creating a race of "Supermen" as so many have posited. It is very much an individual struggle, and I believe he probably thought most not capable of accomplishing it. And it is an ongoing process; thus the Eternal Recurrence.

I spent an entire semester in college reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading) "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and debating it with my professor. One of the most enjoyable times in my life. Can't say that I understood everything Nietzsche wrote, but it sure was fun trying.

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche is a nihilist in the first sense, but not in the second. There is no meaning to be found, but this is not his last word. There is meaning to be created, "life" to be affirmed. This is why both posters above can be right: Nietzsche is a nihilist, and he rails against nihilism.

This is likely incorrect. As a later poster noted, nihilism for Nietzsche was not the ultimate end of philosophical possibility. The "new philosophers" of which he often spoke would not be nihilists, but rather "creative children" who took delight in smashing decrepit old meanings and creating fabulous new ones in their stead.

I say again: Nietzsche was no nihilist, he abhorred nihilism except to the extent that its negative energies could be used against prevailing philosophical and religious systems which he also despised.

And what is one to make of Nietzsche's concept of the Eternal Recurrence? A nihilist would sneer at the idea as pure metaphysical hogwash. Yet more evidence that Nietzsche was not a nihilist.

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche loves destruction but he is no nihilist. Nietzsche loves the [deified] self, but he is no original post-modernist. Nietzsche's writing reflects the mind of the man who damns a god above and longs for a god within. His Beyond Good and Evil is not beyond anything; it is the very old will of Satan, not to bow nor to love, but to destroy the evidence of one's inferiority, that which others have created, and replace it with one's own creation.

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche a nihilist- HAH

Dinoysus, herd mentality, will to truth - how many basic tenets does one need.

beau lebette said...

Certainly Bloom admired Nietzsche but if "promotes" implies advocacy then we can confidently dismiss the claim regarding Bloom and "Nietzschean nihilism."

Such an understandable misinterpretation I'm happy to chalk up to Bloom's seriousness as teacher.

Anonymous said...

Bloom was not a nihilist. Like his teacher Leo Strauss, he contended that the philosophical way of life is the natural perfection of the human mind. He did not agree with Nietzsche, but, rather, found him profound - - someone that had to be understood and responded to. Bloom's last book, Love And Friendship, does not show a trace of nihilism. The book is about eros, an element of the soul that longs for a comprehensive completion, for, as
Bloom repeatedly states, wholeness. The nihilist, if he can long for anything, must fabricate the object of his longing out of nothing. Bloom contends that eros is inherent in the soul and is naturally inclined toward a completion, which, ultimately, is wisdom, or at least the quest for wisdom.

Larry Arnhart said...

"He did not agree with Nietzsche"?

Can you point me to any passage in his writings where Bloom indicated that Nietzsche was wrong about anything?

Anonymous said...

In the introduction to Love And Friendship, Bloom argues that we can recover the experience of eros by reading and experiencing the best books. The obstacles to this approach, he writes, are theories "reigning in the land that tell us that books have no permanent meanings or intrinsic beauty, that their authors' conscious intentions are deceptions, especially self-deceptions." (p. 30.) Most importantly, the theories hold that books have to be explained "in terms of the will to power of their writers." (Id.) Bloom notes that the source of these theories is, among others, Nietzsche and rejects the views. (p. 31.) It is true that Bloom is not referring directly to Nietzsche here, but rather to the source of views reigning in the land. Nonetheless, Bloom's own approach to reading and interpreting texts is not an approach which sees them in the light of the will to power; instead, Bloom (following Strauss) attempts to uncover the author's intent, to understand the books as the author himself understood them. That is a rejection of Nietzsche.

Another example is Bloom's essay on Strauss in Giants And Dwarfs, where Bloom writes the following: "Nietzsche, Strauss found, was wrong in his belief that there is a single line of Western rationalism originating in the ancients and culminating in contemporary science." (p. 244.) Bloom is not speaking in his own name here, but this is one of Strauss's central conclusions, and I think it is fairly clear that Bloom accepted it.

Anonymous said...

Bloom's book is largely an elegy for the academy's failure to teach the "great books." Could anything be less nihilistic than that?