Monday, April 01, 2013

Nietzsche--Aristocratic Radical or Aristocratic Liberal?

Bruce Detwiler's Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1990) is the best single study of Nietzsche as a political philosopher.

I have three reasons for saying that.  First, Detwiler makes a good case for aristocratic radicalism as the political teaching of Nietzsche in his early and late writings.  Second, he recognizes that Nietzsche's endorsement of liberal democracy in the writings of his middle period contradicts what he says in his other writings.  Third, Detwiler concludes his book with some of the best criticisms of Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.

My step beyond Detwiler is to argue that the political teaching of the middle period is superior--morally, politically, and intellectually--to the political teaching of the early and late writings, because the teaching of the middle period is rooted in a Darwinian anthropology that supports an aristocratic liberalism that escapes the criticisms that Detwiler directs at Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.

In November of 1887, the Danish scholar George Brandes wrote a letter to Nietzsche praising his writings and endorsing his "aristocratic radicalism."  Nietzsche responded by accepting this label: "The expression Aristocratic Radicalism, which you employ, is very good.  It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself."  Detwiler's insight was to adopt this expression as the best term for conveying Nietzsche's political teaching.  On the one hand, Nietzsche was not an "aristocratic conservative," because he was an atheistic radical in affirming the death of God and the death of all ultimate standards.  On the other hand, Nietzsche was not an "egalitarian radical," because he was aristocratic in affirming that there was an order of rank by which one could recognize a few human beings as "higher men" who deserve to rule over the inferior majority of human beings.  Nietzsche thus became "the first avowed atheist of the far Right" (189-90). 

This is, I think, Leo Strauss's Nietzsche as initiating the "third wave of modernity" that led to fascism and National Socialism (see 83-84).  The Straussian influence on Detwiler could have come through Werner Dannhauser, who directed Detwiler's dissertation at Cornell.

The fundamental idea of aristocratic radicalism is that "Nietzsche's response to the demise of all ultimate ends is to make the highest human being the ultimate end" (191), and that highest human being is the Dionysian artist-philosopher who exercises his will to power by tyrannically legislating new values for all of humanity.  This is most clearly expressed in Beyond Good and Evil and The Will to Power.  European democracy must ultimately transform itself into "a new and sublime development of slavery," in which the "herd animal" is enslaved to the "leader animal" (WP, 954, 956).  Thus, "the democratization of Europe is . . . an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants--taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual" (BGE, 242).

This tyrannical rule of the artist-philosophers will require "conscious breeding experiments," "terrible means of compulsion," and even "the annihilation of millions of failures."  This is necessary for the "domination of the earth" by a "new, tremendous aristocracy . . . in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be made to endure for millenia," and the rule of this "new caste" over Europe will unify it into "one will" (BGE, 208, 251; WP, 764, 954, 960, 964).

But after showing how this aristocratic radicalism constitutes the fundamental political teaching in all of Nietzsche's early and late writings, Detwiler admits (in chapter 8) that this teaching is contradicted by Nietzsche's apparent endorsement of liberal democracy in his middle writings--especially, Human, All Too Human and The Wanderer and His Shadow.  In this middle period, Nietzsche was committed to a modern natural science of history in which the highest life is the dispassionate pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake.  This free-spirited science refutes the metaphysical and religious claims to superhuman authority that have supported the traditional state's legitimacy in subordinating individuals to its rule.  Consequently, the state as "a mysterium, a supernatural institution" must disappear, and increasingly individuals will judge the state as either useful or harmful to them (HH, 472).  This favors modern liberal democracy, which claims no superhuman authority, because it is understood as merely instrumental to the security and freedom of the individuals that it serves.

This conception of the liberal state defended in the middle period contradicts the aristocratic radicalism of Nietzsche's early and late writings, because this latter requires "a new kind of superhuman authority"--the superhuman authority of the Superman or the artist-philosopher who must create a new religion for humanity.  Here the indispensable goal is "the establishment of a sense of devotion to the superhuman in a world without God" (187-88).

Detwiler sees no way around this contradiction--"in the middle period, Nietzsche appears to turn suspiciously against himself" (183).  The contrast with the rest of his writing is stark:
"Although there is little enthusiasm for democracy in The Wanderer and His Shadow, there is no advocacy of new ruling castes or master races or conscious breeding experiments, and there is no talk about the domination of the earth or the annihilation of millions of failures or about philosophers working as artists upon men to produce a higher sovereign species.  Indeed, democracy does not appear as a new, subtle form of slavery in The Wanderer and His Shadow; rather, democracy appears as a bulwark 'against physical and spiritual enslavement,' and as that which sees 'independence for as many as possible.'" (177-78)
Well, yes, I would say, and doesn't this show the superiority of the middle Nietzsche over the early and late Nietzsche?  Isn't it sensible not to advocate master races, breeding experiments, the annihilation of millions of human beings, and the creation of artistic-philosophical tyrants?  Isn't it reasonable to defend democracy if it can protect us "against physical and spiritual enslavement" and promote "independence for as many as possible"?

Detwiler doesn't consider this possibility.  Nor does he consider the importance of Nietzsche's Darwinism in his middle period as shaping his aristocratic liberalism during that period.

And yet, Detwiler does indicate the serious problems with Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.  At the end of his book, he offers five criticisms of Nietzsche.  First, he suggests that Nietzsche shows "an impoverished sensibility" when he denies that the lives of most human beings have any value--that "the majority of mortals" are "physiologically deformed and deranged," and that "a people is a detour of nature to get six or seven great men" (GM, 3.1; BGE, 126).  It shows a strange blindness to the reality of human experience to say that there is nothing worthwhile in the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings (193-94).

Detwiler's second criticism is that Nietzsche never offers a convincing argument for his claim that life is will to power.  He offers no empirical proof for this as either a metaphysical or psychological hypothesis (194-95).  In fact, much of what Nietzsche says about the will to power is clearly deficient as an account of human experience.  As one can see, for example, when he claims that love is just will to power, because love is "at bottom, the deadly hatred of the sexes" (EH, "Why I Write Such Good Books," 5).

His third criticism is that Nietzsche's teaching that the human drives are totally chaotic with no innate order at all is empirically false (195).  Surely, the human drives show neither total harmony nor total disorder.  Even if we are the "undetermined animal," in that nature does not perfectly define or arrange our drives, and thus psychic definition or arrangement depends on social culture and individual choices, it is still likely that there is "a significant level of innate order among the drives, and even a significant level of order common to all human beings."  By totally separating art from nature, Nietzsche makes his Dionysian philosopher an omnipotent god.  But this denies what we know by experience as to how human nature puts limits or constraints on human art.

Detwiler's fourth criticism is his questioning of whether Nietzsche is correct in asserting that all gods have died, and therefore that all the foundations of morality in the Western world are gone (195).  Is it possible that Nietzsche has not properly understood the foundations of Western morality?

Detwiler's fifth criticism is that Nietzsche's immoralism is so excessive in its immoderation that we should all rightly reject it because it is so disturbing (195-96).

My response to all of this is to point out that in the writings of his middle period, Nietzsche embraced a Darwinian liberalism that escaped all five of these criticisms.

First, his Darwinan liberalism recognized human inequality and the excellence of those few human beings who devote themselves to scientific and philosophic inquiry, but it also recognized the dignity or worth of ordinary human beings living ordinary lives that can display some of the beauty and sweetness of human life.  Darwinian liberalism affirmed the individual freedom of a liberal society as the primary condition for the diverse expression of human excellence at all levels of human potentiality. 

Second, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism did not try to explain all life as will to power, although it did recognize the drive for domination and warn about the need to control it. 

Third, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism recognized "a significant level of innate order among the drives, and even a significant level of order common to all human beings."  Nietzsche's Darwinian science saw that evolved human nature constrains but does not determine human culture, and that human nature and human culture together constrain but do not determine human judgment.  Our natural desires--perhaps the twenty natural desires that I have identified--constitute an innate order that is universal to the human species, although there is cultural and individual variation in the particular expressions of that universal human nature.  Consequently, a Darwinian political science requires a complex study of the interaction of natural history, cultural history, and individual history.  Although  the innate order of the human drives does not precisely determine the moral and political orders of human life, it is not true that those human drives are so completely chaotic as to impose no constraints at all on a supposedly superhuman Dionysian philosophy.  Indeed, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies that any human being can claim to be "superhuman" (ubermenschlich), because we are all human, all too human.

Fourth, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies that all the foundations of Western morality have collapsed, because it affirms the reality of human morality as rooted in evolved human nature.  And while Darwinian liberalism allows for religious belief as a possible support for morality, it does not make such religious belief indispensable for moral and political life.

Fifth, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies immoralism by affirming the natural moral sense as a product of human evolution.

Finally, as I have indicated in some previous posts, Nietzsche's aristocratic liberalism is based on a Darwinian anthropology that is open to empirical verification or falsification, while his aristocratic radicalism is based on mythopoetic fictions--the will to power, eternal recurrence, the Ubermensch, and Dionysian religiosity--that are beyond empirical testing.

From all of this, I conclude that Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.

Some of my other posts on Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism are here, here, and here.


NickM said...

Hi -- interesting posts, but I have a question. Why should we care what Nietzsche thought? If he were an authority or made some discoveries or made a lot of sense, that would be a reason. But it sounds like most of his work is pure crazytown -- and dangerous, Nazi-inspiring crazytown at that. Who cares if his middle period ameliorates this somewhat? He's a kook overall nonetheless. If I want to read something useful about politics I'll read Jefferson and Madison, and if I want something about human nature I'll read Darwin. Why can't we just write off Nietzsche, like Russell did, as power-mad phantasies of an invalid?

Interested in what you have to say -- answer on your blog if you like. Cheers, Nick.

Anonymous said...

Nick: "Why can't we just write off Nietzsche, like Russell did, as power-mad phantasies of an invalid?" you wouldn't understand if i told you here. you still seem to be too much of a profane conformist, even though you seem have some intellectual bits that could be developed. you have to widen your mental spectrum first...

"dangerous, Nazi-inspiring crazytown"
it's not nietzsche's fault if some untermensch with under-developed understanding of philosophy interpreted it to suit their fascist simplistic ideas.

I suggest you read the book "aristokratia" which has a perfect chapter in it on nietzsche by gwendolyn taunton.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with your assesment of Nietzsche's "Darwinian Liberalism". Although Nietzsche believed in evolution he disagreed with Darwinian explanations and so forth. in fact his geaneology of morals as I am sure you know is Nietzsche's assessment on the evolution of moral feelings. He wrote that book ion response to the theories that were born in England.
So, how could he be a "Darwinian Liberal" when in fact he disagreed with Darwinian mechanics?

Larry Arnhart said...

As I have explained, Nietzsche was committed to Darwinian science during his middle period but not in his late period. THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS was published in 1887, during the last period of his writing. I have given some reasons for why the writing of his middle period is superior to that of his later period.