Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Religious Longing for Myth in Nietzsche and Nazism

The contradictory and incoherent character of Friedrich Nietzsche's writings arises from his ambivalent stance in the debate between Platonic idealism and Darwinian naturalism. 

The writings of his middle period--such as Human, All Too Human--were largely free from contradiction and incoherence, because he fully embraced Darwinism and rejected Platonism.  But in his earlier and later writings, he was caught in the contradiction of denying the Platonic dualism of Being and Becoming while affirming a Platonic longing for a religious transcendence or redemption of life that goes beyond the Heraclitean flux of the natural world.  So, for example, in The Birth of Tragedy (sec. 23), Nietzsche lamented the "secularization" of modern life, and he hoped for a "rebirth of German myth" that would support a German state rooted in a unified culture of myth that would impress "the stamp of the eternal" on life and thus become "desecularized."  Later, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, he created new myths--eternal recurrence, will to power, the Superman, and the religion of Dionysus--that would constitute the new faith for the redemption of the earth.  Thus, in his earlier and later writings, Nietzsche manifested a religious "need for redemption" that he rejected in Human, All Too Human (27, 141, 222, 476). 

In his recent book--Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich--William Altman offers a good study of Nietzsche's self-contradictory longing for Platonic transcendence without Platonic metaphysics (xix, 56-57, 107, 114-15, 129-33, 143, 149-51, 157-58, 164-65).  But Altman does not see how the Darwinian Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human escapes from this self-contradictory position.  Nor does he see that it's the Platonic idealism of Nietzsche's earlier and later writings that was appropriated by the Nazis. 

Nietzsche's life-long struggle with Platonism and Darwinism is illuminated by considering the influence of his reading of Friedrich Lange's book The History of Materialism.  Although there are no references to Lange in Nietzsche's published writings, George Stack's Lange and Nietzsche (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983) has shown the pervasive influence of Lange's book on Nietzsche.  Lange's book includes detailed surveys of the latest scientific research--particularly in cosmology, physics, Darwinian evolution, and neurophysiology--that bears on the debate over materialism and idealism.  One can see here one source for Nietzsche's study of natural science. 

It becomes clear that in his early and late writings, Nietzsche agrees with Lange in rejecting metaphysical Platonism as contrary to empirical science while embracing mythopoetic Platonism as satisfying their religious longings.  And yet the Darwinian naturalism of Human, All Too Human departs from Lange's Platonism, a point that Stack ignores.

Lange initiated the tradition of neo-Kantian philosophy at the University of Marburg.  Adopting what Stack calls "materio-idealism," Lange combined skeptical phenomenalism and mythopoetic idealism, and this same tense combination can be found in Nietzsche's early and late writings.

Beginning with the atomism of Democritus, materialism assumes that matter alone is real, and therefore the only true knowledge is understanding matter in motion as determined by the causal laws of physical nature.  In telling the history of materialism, Lange shows that a crucial turn was the move from materialism to sensationalism, which began with Protagoras, and this Protagorean sensationalism was a move towards idealism.

The materialist seeks to know the material things that constitute the outer world of nature.  But the sensationalist denies that we can have any direct knowledge of matter as it is in itself, because all that we have immediately given to us is our sensations of the eternal world, and thus we can know the material world as it appears to us in our sensations, but we cannot know how the material world might be in itself independently of our sensations.  Consequently, Protagoras taught, man is the measure of all things: of those that are that they are; of those that are not that they are not.

So while Democritus started from the material objects of external nature, Protagoras started from the subjective consciousness of internal human experience.  Lange sees this Protagorean move as the first step in a tradition of antimaterialism that culminated in Kantian idealism.  Contrary to the claim of the Democritean materialist, we cannot know material objects as things in themselves, because through our sensations, we know only the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to us, and so we cannot know the noumenal world, the world as it really is in itself.

Lange argues that the empirical science of the physiology of the sense-organs confirms the Protagorean teaching that man is the measure of all things.  Hermann Helmholtz and other psychophysiologists have shown that our sense experience is entirely conditioned by the constitution of our sensory faculties.  How the external world appears to us depends upon the organization of our sensory systems, and the same external world would appear differently to different organisms with different sensory faculties.  Consequently, the world as it is in itself is unknowable.

For example, Lange points to the opposition between hearing a tone and the vibrations of the string that occasions it.  That we turn the vibration into a tone arises from the organization of our auditory faculties as setting the a priori conditions for such sensory experience.  If we had no sense but hearing, we would conclude that all phenomena are sound.  Even within this realm of experience, our sensations are limited in that some animals can hear a range of sounds that we cannot.

Similarly, our visual experience is conditioned by the organization of our visual systems--the eye, the optic nerve, and the visual centers of the brain.  We see colors only because our human visual system is organized to divide waves of light into a spectrum of colors.  Other animals with different visual systems see the world differently from the way we do.

Nietzsche adopts this argument in much of his writing to claim that our senses deceive us in giving us an illusory account of the world.  We cannot know the reality of the external world as it might be in itself, because in our sense experience, we must translate nerve stimuli into images that are actually metaphors, and then we translate those sensory metaphors into the linguistic metaphors of language.  Thus we are caught within the web of appearances that we ourselves have created, because we have no direct access to the reality of the external world.  We cannot even know ourselves as we really are, because our experience of ourselves as thinking and feeling beings--as conscious selves--is itself a poetic construction of our brains.  This suggestion that what we think we know about our external and internal worlds is only a fictional creation leads to nihilism.

But if one accepts the evolutionary account of life, as Lange and Nietzsche do, then it is possible to overcome epistemological nihilism through evolutionary realism.  If human cognitive faculties are products of an evolutionary history of adaptations for survival and reproduction, then we can predict that those cognitive faculties have been shaped by an evolutionary process of interaction between human ancestors as physical, active, and perceiving animals and the reality of the physical and social worlds in which they have lived.  Those human ancestors whose cognitive faculties gave them utterly delusional images of the world would have been less likely to survive and reproduce.  And yet we could also predict that cognitive faculties adapted for evolutionary success will be selective in gathering and interpreting information relevant to success in the ecological niche of human adaptation, and thus ignoring information about the world that has no adaptive relevance.  From this, we can predict that our evolved mental capacities will be reliable but fallible. 

Such an evolutionary epistemology supports a hypothetical realism.  Assuming that our evolved mental grasp of reality is reliable but fallible, we can test the limits of our comprehension by testing hypotheses about our evolved psychology.  For example, we cannot see ultraviolent light, but bees can, because bees have evolved a visual system that detects ultraviolent light so that they can navigate by the sun even on cloudy days, which is an evolutionary adaptation for bees but not for human beings.  And yet human beings can use scientific reasoning with experiments and special instruments to detect the full spectrum of light and to uncover the special visual capacities of bees and other animals.

This is what Nietzsche means when he speaks in Human, All Too Human about the perspectival character of knowledge and how natural science can expand our knowledge by uncovering new perspectives.  Even if empirical science cannot give us absolute knowledge of the world, it can allow us to reach ever greater approximations to the truth about things.  Science can even help us to see the world through the eyes of a bee.

Is there any good alternative to evolutionary naturalism?  Will Altman says the alternative is Platonic dualism:  the only true knowledge is reason's grasp of the eternal ideas that belong to the intelligible world of Being, as opposed to the sensory experiences of the momentary impressions that belong to the sensible world of Becoming.

But as Plato indicated in the Parmenides, this radical dualism creates insoluble problems.  Socrates cannot explain how the unchanging, purely intelligible Ideas are related to the changing, sensible experience of mortal human beings.  Either Becoming must take on the absolute fixity of Being, or Being must take on the absolute flux of Becoming.  But that would deny the dualistic separation of Being and Becoming.

Whenever Plato in his dialogues fails in his efforts to provide an intellectually coherent account of his metaphysical dualism, he turns from rational proof to mythic imagery.  Lange sees this as showing that while Platonic idealism fails as metaphysics, it succeeds as myth; and this mythopoetic idealism captures the true core of religion in a way that is compatible with empirical science.

Would Leo Strauss and the Straussians agree with this--that Plato's Idealism is more a matter of mythic poetry than metaphysical truth?

Lange writes:
"We cannot imagine a lion as such, a rose as such; but we may represent in imagination a definitely-outlined picture of a lion or a rose, wholly free from all those accidents of individual formation which may collectively be regarded as deviations from this norm, as imperfections.  This is, however, not the Platonic idea of the lion or the rose, but an ideal that is a creation of the senses, intended to express the abstract idea as perfectly as possible.  The idea itself is invisible, for everything that is visible belongs to the fleeting world of mere phenomena: it has no forms in space, for the supersensuous cannot be linked with space.  Similarly, nothing whatever positive can be expressed of the ideas without conceiving them in some sensuous fashion.  They cannot be called pure, sovereign, perfect, eternal, without our connecting with them by these very words ideas of sense.  So Plato, in his ideal theory, is obliged to have recourse to mythus, and so, at a single step we pass from the highest abstraction to the true life-element of all mysticism--the sensuous supersensuous.  The mythus is, however, to have only a figurative or metaphorical force.  By its means, what is in itself only an object of the pure reason is to be represented in the forms of the phenomenal world; but what kind of figure can that be of which the original cannot be supplied?" (I, 77-78)
While Lange dismisses the Platonic Ideas as "cobwebs of the brain" and "fabulous," he accepts Plato's mythic idealism as "a poetical exaltation of the spirit" and "not knowledge but poesy," which serves religious and moral ends, and which "often indirectly affords a new impulse to scientific research" (I, 78-80).  As long as this mythic idealism is understood to be "not knowledge but poesy," it makes no metaphysical claims that would contradict empirical science,  And yet it satisfies a spiritual longing that cannot be satisfied by empirical science.  Platonic poesy "is a necessary offspring of the soul, arising from the deepest life-roots of the race, and a complete counterbalance to the pessimism which springs from an exclusive acquaintance with reality" (II, 232).

The spiritual appeal of mythic poetry that does not claim any metaphysical truth is what Lange calls "the standpoint of the ideal."  He writes:
"Pessimism, which likewise clings to the whole, is a product of reflexion.  The thousand contrarieties of life, the cold cruelty of nature, the pains and imperfections of all creatures, are collected in their individual features, and the sum of these observations is contrasted with the ideal picture of Optimism as a terrible indictment of the universe.  A complete picture of the universe, however, is not reached in this way.  Only the Optimist picture of the world is destroyed, and this involves a great service, if Optimism is inclined to become dogmatic and to pass itself as the representative of truth and reality.  All those beautiful ideas of the individual disharmony which is resolved into the harmony of the great whole, of higher, divine contemplation of the world, in which all riddles are solved and all difficulties disappear, are successfully destroyed by Pessimism; but this destruction affects the dogma only, not the ideal.  It cannot do away with the fact that our mind is so constituted as ever anew to produce within itself a harmonious picture of the world; that here as everywhere it places its ideal beside and above the reality, and recreates from the struggles and necessities of life by rising in thought to a world of all perfections." (III, 341)
Lange thinks that Friedrich Schiller's poetry manifests mythic idealism, particularly in his generalizing the Christian doctrine of redemption into the idea of an "aesthetical redemption."  "The elevation of the soul in faith here becomes the flight into the idea-land of beauty, where all labour finds its rest, every struggle and every want their peace and their reconciliation" (III, 345).  This purely aesthetic appeal to our emotional need for redemption cannot be refuted by empirical science.
"Who will refute a Mass of Palestrina, or who will convict Raphael's Madonna of error?  The 'Gloria in Excelsis' remains a universal power, and will ring through the centuries so long as our nerves can quiver under the awe of the sublime.  And those simple fundamental ideas of the redemption of the individual man by the surrendering of his own will to the will that guides the whole; those images of death and resurrection which express the highest and most thrilling emotions that stir the human breast, when no prose is capable of uttering in cold words the fullness of the heart." (III, 360)
Nietzsche quoted from this passage in a letter in 1866 expressing his excitement in reading Lange's book.  In his early and later writings,  Nietzsche used his power for philosophical poetry to create new myths that would provide "aesthetical redemption" for humanity.

In his middle writings, Nietzsche recognizes the power of the "need for redemption" that has been satisfied in the past by religion and art.  But he wonders whether the progress in the scientific understanding of human evolution will show that this was an artificial need, and that new institutions might evolve to serve the "common, true needs of all men" (HH, 27, 153, 475-76).  He recognizes that with the modern weakening of traditional religion and metaphysics, romantic artists (like Richard Wagner) will satisfy the religious longings of people who want to feel religious emotions without having to believe religious doctrines.  But he warns that the religious intoxication of romantic art and the romantic worship of artists thought to be geniuses can become delusional (HH, 145-64).

In his later writings, however, Nietzsche himself fell into a delusional state of Dionysian frenzy induced by his mythic belief in eternal recurrence and the will to power as teachings that would redeem humanity.

An evolutionary science of aesthetics might explain our natural desire for making sense of the world through story-telling and the anthropomorphic projection of agency and intelligent design onto the universe.  But determining whether this anthropomorphic belief in cosmic purposefulness is metaphysically true or only mythically appealing is beyond natural science.

In any case, we should recognize the moral and political dangers that can arise from a delusional longing for mythic redemption.

Lange was a socialist who worried about the atomistic individualism of liberalism.  In fact, much of his attack on materialism and support for idealism seemed to be directed ultimately at what he saw as the egoistic materialism of the classical liberal political economy initiated by Adam Smith (III, 233-68).

For Lange, Smith's moral and political philosophy was based entirely on a narrow egoism to support the conclusion that government has no proper role beyond maintaining freedom for the selfish competition of interests.  Even Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is egoistic, according to Lange, because while Smith grounds morality in sympathy, he understands sympathy as merely an extension of one's self-love to embrace one's family, friends, and others to whom one feels some attachment and concern.

By contrast, Lange argues that a sense of moral community requires mythopoetic idealism that will teach a Christian ethic of self-denial and selfless altruism.  This became the basis for Lange's ethical socialism.

Against this, Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human declares that "egoism is not evil," because we all act for the sake of what we believe will be desirable or good for us.  The idea of "selflessness" of morality is illusory, because seemingly selfless acts are actually acts in which we sacrifice one part of ourselves to serve another part of ourselves that we love more (57, 101-102).  The Christian need for redemption arises from the illusion of imagining a totally selfless way of thinking and then feeling dissatisfied and imperfect because we cannot attain such selflessness (132-33).

In arguing against the claim that morality requires complete selflessness, Nietzsche defends an egoistic individualism that is similar to the moral thought of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, in which our evolved mammalian tendency to self-love is extended to a sympathetic concern for others to whom we feel some attachment.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche defends a liberal conception of the state: "The state is a clever institution for protecting individuals from one another; if one goes too far in ennobling it, the individual is ultimately weakened by it, even dissolved--and thus the original purpose of the state is most thoroughly thwarted" (235).  By contrast, Nietzsche observes, the socialist conception of the ideal state strives for the "destruction of the individual, which it sees as an unjustified luxury of nature, and which it intends to improve into an expedient organ of the community."  Nietzsche foresees that socialism will require a brutal terrorism in striving for "the most submissive subjugation of all citizens to the absolute state, the like of which has never existed" (473).

Hitler's National Socialism employed a mythic symbolism to achieve this subordination of individuals to the community of the Volk.  Alfred Rosenberg shows this in his Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930).  As an early member of the Nazi Party, he wrote this book as a general statement of Nazi thought.  Echoing the Nietzsche of the early and later writings, Rosenberg lamented that the German people had become "mythless."  What they needed was a "new myth" that would inspire heroic political activity.  He declared: "The longing to give the Nordic race soul its form as a German church under the sign of the Volksmythos, that is for me the greatest task of our century."

The religious myth favored by the Nazis was developed by Ernst Haeckel and the Monist movement.  Daniel Gasman has shown that Haeckel was the primary ideological influence on both National Socialism and fascism.  Haeckel promoted a mystical pantheism of nature that united scientific materialism and religious spirituality.  The fundamental premise of his pantheistic religion was that "there lives one spirit in all things," which is a "divine spirit."  He defended this romantic religion of nature as superior to the dualist metaphysics of Christianity, which denigrated earthly life and the natural world.

Under Haeckel's influence, Hitler promoted this pantheistic religion.  He proclaimed: "Man has discovered in nature the wonderful notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships.  Fundamentally, in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God."  This romantic pantheism was a pervasive part of National Socialism (see Robert Pois, National Socialism and Religion of Nature, 1986), and this mythic pantheism echoes the Dionysian myth of Nietzsche.

This same mythopoetic idealism is evident in Martin Heidegger's mythic positing of Dasein and in his Rectoral Address at the University of Freiburg.  Even after the defeat of Nazism, he continued to declare: "Only a god can save us now."

Unlike the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human, the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Beyond Good and Evil belonged to an idealist tradition of longing for myth that prepared the way for Heidegger, Hitler, and the Nazis.  George Williamson has shown how Nietzsche fits into this tradition in his book The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 2004).  Williamson concludes:
"Mythological thought, it must be emphasized, did not create National Socialism or anti-Semitism, nor did it ensure their victory in 1933--here the factors of war, economic blight, and fear of Bolshevism played the dominant role--but in its Wagnerian or volkisch guise myth offered a way of thinking about art, religion, and the nation that was particularly suited to the political fantasies of Hitler and the racist policies of the Nazi state." (293)
By contrast, the Darwinian liberalism of Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human gave no encouragement to the myth-making of Hitler and the Nazis. 

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

In your subsection titled "MYTHOPOETIC IDEALISM AND EVOLUTIONARY AESTHETICS," you say "An evolutionary science of aesthetics might explain our natural desire for making sense of the world through story-telling and the anthropomorphic projection of agency and intelligent design onto the universe." Interestingly, this is exactly the argument I make in my dissertation titled "Evolutionary Aesthetics." Even more interestingly, I base many of my arguments on Nietzsche's third period -- ideas which contributed to the development of my own classical liberal position, which I give foundation to in my book Diaphysics. Go figure.