Friday, May 11, 2007

Mansfield, Nietzsche, and Strauss

In the central chapter of Harvey Mansfield's Manliness, he identifies two personifications of "manly nihilism"--Friedrich Nietzsche and Theodore Roosevelt. Now, in two recent statements, Mansfield has elaborated his defense of these two sides of "manly nihilism." In his Wall Street Journal article defending George Bush's "one-man rule" and "imperial ambition," Mansfield shows the Teddy Roosevelt side of "manly nihilism." In his Jefferson Lecture, he shows the Friedrich Nietzsche side of this "manly nihilism."

In his defense of executive power outside the rule of law, Mansfield asserts the need for Machiavellian princes to exert leadership through force and fraud to impose their forms on the otherwise formless matter of history. The "people" will allow such tyrannical rule, he suggests, as long as the fear of formless flux in times of war drives them to yield to the spirited energy of presidential war leaders. This is the Teddy Roosevelt side of "manly nihilism."

In his Jefferson Lecture, Mansfield asserts the primacy of thumos--the spirited contest for domination--as the essence of politics, and he warns against science as the enemy of thumotic politics. Here he restates the position of Friedrich Nietzshe in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche criticized "scientific Socratism" for destroying the tragic view of life that had developed in ancient Greek art and music. According to the Dionysian "tragic world view" that Nietzsche defended, the world is not rationally comprehensible, and thus we need human art to contrive those illusory appearances that make it possible for us to live in this incomprehensible world. In the modern world the threat to Homeric tragic manliness comes from the Socratic science of Darwinism. In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche warns: "If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines which I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people."

Similarly, in the Jefferson Lecture, Mansfield warns against Socratic science as a threat to the tragic spirit of thumotic politics. "Socrates said that reasoning means following the course of the argument regardless of where it goes, and of how much it might hurt you: this is the dispassionate spirit of science. But in politics, people make assertions that they try to control; the argument goes where you want it to go."

And, again like Nietzsche, Mansfield sees Darwinian evolution as the new threat to thumos coming from Socratic science. In explaining human beings as evolved products of a natural order that embraces all life, Darwinian science seems to deny the importance of human beings and thus the importance of asserting one's importance. Such a science is "true but deadly." As the antidote to such deadly science, Mansfield urges us to turn to literature and history as artistic depictions of human life that escape the despiriting effect of science.

This same Nietzschean fear of Darwinian biology as Socratic science that denies the spiritedness of human pride is expressed in Peter Lawler's Heideggerian/existentialist conservatism. I have noted this in some of my posts on Lawler, as in the one from October of last year.

In all of this, Mansfield follows a line of thought that has become common among those influenced by Leo Strauss. The Straussians fear modern science--and particularly modern biology--as a reductionistic understanding of human life that denies that sense of human importance that sustains political ambition and nobility. That's why many Straussians will speak favorably about alternatives to Darwinian science based on "intelligent design theory" or cosmic teleology. But even as they do that, they imply that although these alternatives are not scientifically true, they need to be asserted as "noble lies."

Darwinian conservatism as based on Darwinian natural right would show that a Darwinian science of human nature is both scientifically true and morally healthy. Darwinian science affirms thumos as expressing the natural desires for status and political rule, desires that belong to our evolved human nature. But Darwinian science would also affirm the natural desire to be free from the exploitative dominance of thumotic men, which supports the need for limited government under the rule of law.

When Mansfield says that rule by "the living intelligence of a wise man" is superior to the rule of law, he repeats one of the commonplaces of Straussian thought. But a Darwinian conservatism would see this as a utopian conception that ignores the imperfection of human beings in both knowledge and virtue, because not even the wisest man can be trusted with absolute power. The silliness of Mansfield's argument becomes evident when one notices that his "wise man" turns out to be George Bush!

Well, at least now I understand why they're called the Mayberry Machiavellis.

No comments: