Friday, March 08, 2013

Nietzsche's Aristocratic Liberalism

In the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche's middle period, when his thinking was shaped by Darwinian science, he embraced what I will call "aristocratic liberalism."  I use that term to convey the thought that while a liberal regime secures equal liberty under the rule of law, it also thereby secures inequality of results in allowing for "the natural aristocracy of virtues and talents" (as Thomas Jefferson called it).  Aristocratic liberalism can thus combine the ancient concern for social virtue and the modern concern for individual liberty.  The aristocratic liberalism of Nietzsche's middle period is in contrast to the aristocratic anti-liberalism of his later writings (BGE 44, 201-202, 257).

Nietzsche's aristocratic liberalism can be sketched out as four affirmations and four negations:  affirming constitutional democracy, liberal pluralism, religious liberty, and cosmopolitan globalization, while denying socialist statism, "great politics," anti-Semitism, and atheistic religiosity.

Nietzsche sees the democratization of European politics as an irresistible power (HH, 438; WS, 275).  Increasingly, the offices of king and emperor are being hollowed out; and the only way monarchs can hold on to any dignity is through declaring states of emergency during war to slow the growing constraints on monarchic power from constitutional democracy (WS, 281).

Nietzsche declares: "Democratic institutions are quarantine arrangements to combat that ancient pestilence, lust for tyranny: as such they are very useful and very boring" (WS, 289).  That he identifies democratic restraints on the lust for tyranny as "very boring" might suggest the scorn for democracy as "herd-animalization" that runs through his later writings (BGE, 201-202, 242; TI, 9:38; WP, 890, 898).  But, in fact, the Nietzsche of the middle writings warns that the despisers of "herd humanity" are foolish in thinking that they can escape being harmed by the herd by running away from them (AOM, 233).  Instead of that, he recommends, the superior human beings should put on the mask of mediocrity and modesty, and adopt the virtue of moderation, so as not to provoke the great majority (WS, 175; HH, 464).

In a constitutional democracy, the state has no metaphysical or religious justification, because the state is founded on the mutual contract of individuals for their own interests (HH, 441).  Over time, the functions of the democratic state are taken over by private contractors, and thus the state itself falls into decline, as the power of the state shrinks (HH, 472).  (Remarkably, Nietzsche's talk about how governmental functions could be turned over to private contractors and thus bring a decline in the state sounds a lot like the reasoning of liberal anarchists such as Gustave de Molinari.)

This weakening of the state is good, because "the state is a prudent institution for the protection of individuals against one another: if it is completed and perfected too far, it will in the end enfeeble the individual and, indeed, dissolve him--that is to say, thwart the original purpose of the state in the most thorough way possible" (HH, 235).

Some scholarly commentators (like Brian Leiter, for example) have said that Nietzsche is not a political philosopher at all, because he thinks culture is more important than politics.  One might see indications of this in Human, All Too Human, because while it contains one of the longest sections on politics in Nietzsche's writing--Chapter 8, secs. 438-82--the title of the chapter is "A Glance at the State," suggesting that a "glance" is all the state deserves, and this chapter is followed by the last chapter of the book on "Man Alone with Himself."  The preoccupation with culture is indicated by the title of the central chapter--"Tokens of Higher and Lower Culture."

And yet this claim that Nietzsche's elevation of culture over politics shows him to be an anti-political philosopher misses the fundamental point that liberal politics secures the freedom of culture from political supervision.  The liberal state is a limited state, because it refrains from imposing a monolithic moral order on society, which allows for cultural pluralism.  The liberal state demands only a "glance," because the cultural formation of life occurs in civil society largely free from the coercive intervention of the state.

In a liberal democracy, all political parties must become demagogic in their appeal to the masses, and this requires a stupid simplification in all political rhetoric.  Nietzsche sees no point in resisting this, because "if the purpose of all politics really is to make like endurable for as many as possible, then these as-many-as-possible are entitled to determine what they understand by an endurable life."  If the multitude of people are happy to live a narrow life based on the few simple ideas that they can understand, there is no reason for a free-spirited thinker like Nietzsche to object, as long as "this narrow-mindedness does not go so far as to demand that everything should become politics in this sense, that everyone should live and work according to such a standard."  A few people must be allowed "to refrain from politics and to step a little aside."  These few will not take the happiness of the many very seriously, and they will sometimes be "guilty of an ironic posture," because what they take seriously and the happiness they seek must be very different from that of the great multitude.  All that the free-spirited few ask for politically is "permission to speak": "a moment when they emerge from their silent solitude and again try the power of their lungs: for then they call to one another like those gone astray in a wood in order to locate and encourage one another; whereby much becomes audible, to be sure, that sounds ill to ears for which it is not intended.--Soon afterwards, though, it is again still in the wood, so still that the buzzing, humming, and fluttering of the countless insects that live in, above, and beneath it can again clearly be heard" (HH, 438).  Freedom of speech in a liberal democracy allows for both demagogic rhetoric and philosophic discourse.

This sounds a lot like the life of a Socrates living in a democracy.  This section of Human, All Too Human is immediately preceded by a reference to Socrates, who is generally identified as a free spirited philosopher (HH, 65, 361, 437; WS, 86).  This also sounds a lot like what Socrates says in Plato's Republic about how philosophers in a democracy might withdraw from politics ("the madness of the many") and mind their own business (496a-d), and how democracy is the one imperfect regime that secures freedom for all ways of life, including the philosophic life (557b-d).  Indeed, I see Human, All Too Human as Nietzsche's elaboration of this Platonic suggestion as to how a liberal democracy might provide freedom for Socratic philosophy and science.

Such a liberal regime provides the conditions for a higher culture in allowing for two castes in society--a working class and a leisured class (HH, 439).  Previously, the leisured class was largely a class based on inherited noble lineage.  But now this position has been taken by merchants and industrialists who command the work of wage-laborers.  Whereas previously, in feudal societies, subordination was based on the belief in unconditional and superhuman authority, subordination in a free society will be based on mutual contract (HH, 440-41).  The vulgar manners of manufacturers and entrepreneurs make it hard for them to win the respectful obedience of their employees, who are consequently attracted by the rhetoric of socialist revolutionaries.  So to reduce the appeal of socialism, employers will have to learn how to show the noble manners that win the respect of their employees.  And while most people in a free society will work in order to be paid, a few people--artists, thinkers, and other people of leisure--will work only when the work is intrinsically pleasurable for them (GS, 40-42).

Nietzsche sees that part of liberal pluralism is religious liberty.  For as long as the state is conceived as exercising a paternalistic guardianship over its subjects, because the great mass of people are treated as children, the state will need the support of religion to sanctify government and thus give it legitimacy.  "Thus absolute tutelary government and the careful preservation of religion necessarily go together" (HH, 472).  But democratic states teach a different conception of government:  government becomes a mere instrument of popular will, and thus government can no longer claim transcendent authority coming from a state religion.  Religion then becomes a private matter determined by the conscience and habits of every individual, and thus liberal democracy requires religious liberty.

Nietzsche believes that the first consequence of this religious liberty is likely to be an increase in religious enthusiasm, because the religious movements that were previously suppressed by government will now freely express themselves as a multiplicity of sects.  But then this very diversity of religious groups will expose their weaknesses, because no single religious group can claim unquestioned authority.  As a result, the more gifted people will embrace irreligion, and this hostility to religion will take over the minds of those in government.  Those people who are still religious will be suspicious of government.  This then will further weaken the state, and increasingly the functions of the state will be taken over by private contractors.  Thus, "the sovereignty of the people serves then to banish the last remnant of magic and superstition from this realm of feeling; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state."  This is not necessarily a bad thing, because as the state begins to shrink to insignificance around the world, prudent self-interest might eventually lead to the invention of new institutional forms to take the place of the state (HH, 472).

Nietzsche suggests that those new institutional forms of governance might arise from the growing networks of international trade and cooperation.  Commerce will grow more cosmopolitan to the point that a merchant in London will have to learn many languages to do business, and eventually there will be international languages for commerce and for intellectual discourse (HH, 267).  Nations that have been enemies can become trading partners and thus increase their wealth and well-being (WS, 190).

Nietzsche writes: "European man and the abolition of nations.--Trade and industry, the post and the book-trade, the possession in common of all higher culture, rapid changing of home and scene, the nomadic life now lived by all who do not own land--these circumstances are necessarily bringing with them a weakening and finally an abolition of nations, at least the European: so that as a consequence of continual crossing a mixed race, that of European man, must come into being out of them" (HH, 475).

Nietzsche foresees that one likely outcome of the spread of democratization across Europe is a European league of nations, in which each nation will become a governmental canton (WS, 292).  This merging of nations in Europe will foster a sense of European culture in which individuals will increasing see themselves as "good Europeans."

This looks a lot like what Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and others have identified as a growing cosmopolitan culture with declining violence fostered by global cooperation based on liberal capitalism, which fulfills Darwin's forecast of an evolutionary extension of the social instincts and sympathies to embrace all of humanity as bound together by networks of exchange.

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

I had your ongoing discussion of Nietzsche's middle liberalism in mind when I wrote this (and the one it links to, both of which I think you will find of interest). Spontaneous orders emerge from the herd, once you get rid of the power of the dominant alpha.