Saturday, March 10, 2012

Surfing Strauss's Third Wave of Modernity

As I indicated in my previous post on Leo Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity," I am puzzled as to why Strauss chose to pass over in silence Friedrich Nietzsche's Darwinian naturalism in Human, All Too Human and the other writings from his middle period. 

This is crucial for how we assess Strauss's claim about the crisis of modern natural right, which is the crisis of liberal democracy.  According to Strauss, "the critique of modern rationalism or of the modern belief in reason by Nietzsche cannot be dismissed or forgotten," and "this is the deepest reason for the crisis of liberal democracy."  This is the third wave of modernity, and "the political implication of the third wave proved to be fascism."

It seems, then, according to Strauss, that Nietzsche was correct in his critique of modern rationalism, which created a crisis leading to fascism, and that Nietzsche offered no way out of this crisis.  But any reader familiar with Nietzsche's writings must wonder why Strauss says nothing about Nietzsche's acceptance of Darwinian science in his middle period as an alternative to the apocalyptic rhetoric of "will to power" and "eternal return" in his later writings.  It is this Nietzsche of the later writings that Strauss and the Straussians have embraced--the Nietzsche who shows the "manly nihilism" admired by Harvey Mansfield.

Oddly enough, Strauss in this essay does quote one brief passage from Human, All Too Human (sec. 2).  But Strauss is silent about the context of this quotation, which is part of Nietzsche's development of a free-spirited Darwinian science.  In one of his typically long paragraphs, Strauss writes:
I quote Nietzsche: "All philosophers have the common defect that they start from present-day man and believe that they can reach their goal by an analysis of present-day man.  Lack of historical sense is the inherited defect of all philosophers."  Nietzsche's critique of all earlier philosophers is a restatement of Rousseau's critique of all earlier philosophers.  But what makes much sense in Rousseau is very strange in Nietzsche: for between Rousseau and Nietzsche there has taken place the discovery of history; the century between Rousseau and Nietzsche is the age of historical sense.  Nietzsche implies: the essence of history has hitherto been misunderstood.  The most powerful philosopher of history was Hegel.  For Hegel the historical process was a rational and reasonable process, a progress, culminating in the rational state, the postrevolutionary state.  Christianity is the true or absolute religion; but Christianity consists in its reconciliation with the world, the saeculum, in its complete secularization, a process begun with the Reformation, continued by the Enlightenment, and completed in the postrevolutionary state, which is the first state consciously based upon the recognition of the rights of man.  In the case of Hegel, we are indeed compelled to say that the essence of modernity is secularized Christianity, for secularization is Hegel's conscious and explicit intention.  According to Hegel there is then a peak and end of history; this makes it possible for him to reconcile the idea of philosophic truth with the fact that every philosopher is a son of his time: the true and final philosophy belongs to the absolute moment in history, to the peak of history.  Post-Hegelian thought rejected the notion that there can be an end or peak of history, i.e., it understood the historical process as unfinished and unfinishable, and yet it maintained the now baseless belief in the rationality or progressive character of the historical process.  Nietzsche was the first to face this situation.  The insight that all principles of thought and action are historical cannot be attenuated by the baseless hope that the historical sequence of these principles is progressive or that the historical process has an intrinsic meaning, an intrinsic directedness.  All ideals are the outcome of human creative acts, of free human projects that form that horizon within which specific cultures were possible; they do not order themselves into a system; and there is no possibility of a genuine synthesis of them.  Yet all known ideals claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason.  The historical insight destroys that claim and therewith all known ideals.  But precisely the realization of the true origin of all ideals--in human creations or projects--makes possible a radically new kind of project, the transvaluation of all values, a project that is in agreement with the new insight yet not deducible from it (for otherwise it would not be due to a creative act).  (pp. 95-96)
 Notice how Strauss presents this whole paragraph as a commentary on his quotation from Nietzsche--"I quote Nietzsche."  And yet if one looks at the passage being quoted from section 2 of Human, All Too Human, one notices that Nietzsche's argument here differs from the argument attributed to him by Strauss.

Nietzsche is arguing for rejecting "metaphysical philosophy" and embracing "historical philosophy" rooted in the "natural science" of evolution.  This science of evolution teaches us that "everything has evolved," and thus "man has evolved."  He writes: "everything essential in human development took place in primeval times, long before those four thousand years with which we are more or less familiar.  Man probably hasn't changed much more in these years.  But the philosopher sees 'instincts' in present-day man, and assumes that they belong to the unchangeable facts of human nature." 

Thus, Nietzsche accepts a Darwinian evolutionary psychology in which human nature has been shaped by prehistoric evolutionary history, so that human nature is enduring but not eternal.  Consequently, "there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths."  But there are "humble truths" that are discoverable by the strict methods of modern natural science.

This supports what Nietzsche identifies in Human, All Too Human as "philosophical science" (sec. 27) or "scientific philosophy" (sec. 131).  Such a science is an "imitation of nature in concepts" (secs. 38, 136).  Such a science will be pursued only by those few human beings who derive their greatest pleasure from a Socratic life of studying nature for its own sake (secs. 3, 34, 38, 56, 254, 265, 292, 635-38).  All knowledge is perspectival, because life itself is determined by perspective.  But still we can rank the probable truth of perspectives as more or less powerful, just, and comprehensive (Pref., 6-7).

Here, then, the Socratic life of philosophy becomes a modern scientific life of endless inquiry into nature, which has an enduring order as a product of evolution although it is not eternal.  This new philosophic science of evolution will be Socratic but not Platonic. 

Strauss's talk about "a radically new kind of project, the transvaluation of all values" has more to do with Nietzsche's later writings than with Human, All Too Human.  Strauss goes on to speak about Nietzsche's belief in the "infinite power of the Over-man" (97).  But Strauss says nothing about Nietzsche's warning in Human, All Too Human (sec. 164) that any belief that some minds are "superhuman" (ubermenschlich) is a "religious or half-religious superstition."

Once again, as I have suggested in some previous posts, we see that Strauss prefers the atheistic religiosity and the striving for eternal order in Nietzsche's later writings over the Socratic evolutionary science of his middle writings.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post, but I don't find it fully persuasive. The plain fact is that Strauss wrote very little about Nietzsche, and in order to take the sort of position that you are recommending, he would have had to write a lot more about Nietzsche - "put his cards on the table", with respect to both the mid-early-and-late Nietzsche - than he was evidently willing to. So I think the reality is that we don't know exactly what he would say to some of the points you make, nor can we really says that he "prefers" the religious longings or what have you of the later writings. For the purpose of a broad gloss on Nietzsche such as the passage which you quote it makes sense for Strauss to weight the gloss in favor of the later Nietzsche, since that is the road that Nietzsche ultimately took, and it is what he is most famous for. For what it's worth, I believe that some Straussians have recently started to deal more with the differences between the middle and later Nietzsche. Paul Franco's recent book is one example.

Larry Arnhart said...

The ultimate question is which Nietzsche has the stronger argument.

To argue for what Strauss calls "the infinite power of the Over-man" to bring redemption to humanity is a weak argument.

To recognize this as a silly, but also dangerous, appeal to religious longings is a more reasonable position.

In fact, the most acute refutation of the later Nietzsche comes from the middle Nietzsche.

Strauss chose to ignore this fact.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right that a confrontation between the middle and late Nietzsche would have been an interesting and important project for Strauss and/or Straussians. It seems clear that Strauss must not have been fully persuaded by the middle Nietzsche, perhaps because he was too dismissive of the arguments. But I don't know that it follows that this was because of his sympathy for Nietzsche's later "religious longings" exactly. He probably found that to be an important challenge. But was he sympathetic to it? Did he even think that it represented the truth of the late Nietzsche's view? Its hard to say. In the fifteenth paragraph of his "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil" he says that he has "no access" to "Nietzsche's 'theology'".

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, Laurence Lampert seems to go in both directions: he criticizes Strauss for not coming to terms with modern science as Nietzsche did. But Lampert is also sympathetic to the "religious longings" of the later Nietzsche.