Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lyric Opera's "Die Meistersinger" (2): Is Hans Sachs a Nihilist?

I have a nose for nihilism.  I can smell a nihilist a mile away. 

Years ago, when I first read the libretto of Die Meistersinger, I thought I detected the odor of nihilism around Hans Sachs, particularly in his famous monologue on Wahn.  But with more study of the opera, I changed my mind and decided that this is the one opera of Wagner's that is free from nihilism, and thus free of the nihilist connection to Nazism.

At the end of the Second Act, Sachs interferes with Beckmesser's attempt to serenade Eva with a love song at night, which is to be his rehearsal for the singing contest the next day.  It turns out that the woman he's serenading is actually Magdalene, Eva's nurse and the fiance of David, Sach's apprentice.  When David sees what's happening, he attacks Beckmesser, and the noise of their altercation draws many townspeople into the streets, who then pick fights with one another, starting a general riot that stops only when the night-watchman appears.

At the beginning of the Third Act, Sachs is in his house reading a book of world history and apparently pondering the riot of the previous night.  After speaking briefly with David, who apologizes for starting the fight, Sachs is left alone, and he launches into a dark, meditative monologue on how everything is full of Wahn.  This German word cannot be easily translated into a single English word, because it can variously mean "delusion," "madness," "feigning," "folly," or "irrationality."  Here's a translation of this monologue, leaving the word Wahn untranslated:
"Wahn! Wahn! Everywhere Wahn!  Wherever I search in city and world chronicles, to discover the reason why, till they draw blood, people harass and torment one another in useless, foolish rage!  No one has reward or thanks for it.  Driven to flight, he deludes himself that he is the hunter; he does not hear his own cry of pain; when he digs into his own flesh, he is deluded that he gives himself pleasure!  Who will give it a name?  It's the old Wahn, without which nothing can happen, either to change or to preserve.  If it halts somewhere in its course, it sleeps only to gain new strength: it suddenly awakens, and then, see who can master it!"
"How peaceful, with its sound customs, contented in deed and work, there lies in the middle of Germany my beloved Nuremberg!  But late one evening, to prevent a mishap caused by youthful ardour, a man does not know what to do; a cobbler in his shop plucks at the thread of Wahn; how quickly in alleys and streets it begins to rage!  Man, woman, journeyman and child fall on each other as if mad and blind, and if the Wahn will bless it, it must now rain blows, with cuffs, punches and thrashings to quench the fire of rage.  God knows how that came about?  A goblin must have helped there: a glow-worm failed to find its mate; it set the trouble off.  It was the elder tree: Midsummer Eve!"
"But now is come Midsummer's Day!  Now let's see how Hans Sachs can manage to guide the Wahn subtly to perform a nobler task.  For if it will not leave us in peace, even here in Nuremberg, then let it be for such a work that seldom in commonplace matters, and never without touch of Wahn, is achieved."
This monologue shows the influence on Wagner of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.  Lucy Beckett has shown this very clearly in her essay "Sachs and Schopenhauer" (in John Warrack, Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg [Cambridge University Press, 1994], 66-82). 

Schopenhauer adopts Kant's dualistic metaphysics that separates the phenomenal world of nature (things as they appear to us) from the noumenal world of freedom (things as they are in themselves).  The apparent world of nature is ruled by the natural necessity of each individual to preserve himself.  This is the world of egoism in which each individual wills his own life in conflict with the will to life of others, which is the world of the Hobbesian war of all against all.  This is the world of suffering and unfulfilled longing.  The only escape from this world is for the will to renounce itself--to will not to will--which frees us from the apparent world into a world of empty nothingness.  Schopenhauer sees this as a metaphysical statement of the Christian dogma of human life as ruined by the original sin of willful self-assertion and as redeemed by the denial of all willing in self-renunciation.

In 1862, while he was working on Die Meistersinger, Wagner expressed his version of this Schopenhauerean teaching in an essay "On the State and Religion," in which he formulates this teaching through the idea of Wahn.  To overcome the destructiveness of human egoism, we need the Wahn of patriotism to delude us into sacrificing for the state as if this were in our selfish interest.  But the state cannot satisfy the deepest human longings.  For that we need "true religion," and its "inmost kernel is denial of the world--that is, recognition of the world as a fleeting and dreamlike condition reposing merely on illusion--and struggle for redemption from it, prepared for by renunciation, attained by faith."  As religious belief fades in the modern world, the redemptive function of religion can be carried on through art, by which we enter a "conscious Wahn in place of the reality": through art, we can willingly deceive ourselves while accepting "the nothingness of the world," and escaping from that world through an ecstatic self-annihilation (like that of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, whose frenzied erotic longing was finally consummated in death).

Here we see Wagner's Gnostic nihilism--the thought that the world as we know it, the world of ordinary human experience, is an illusory world of suffering and unfulfilled longing, but that we can free ourselves from the prison of this world through a redemptive self-renunciation.  As Nietzsche and others have seen, this theme of redemption runs through Wagner's operas, in which art takes the place of religion in appealing to the transcendent longings traditionally served by Biblical religion.

And yet Die Meistersinger is the one opera that departs from this Wagnerian theme of Gnostic redemption from the world.  Many commentators think they see redemption in Sach's decision to give up his chance to win the song contest and marry Eva, and instead he choses to teach Walther how to use the Wahn of artful and beautiful singing to win the contest and marriage to Eva.  But there is no ecstatic self-annihilation in Die Meistersinger like that in Tristan und Isolde.  In Die Meistersinger, there is no fleeing from the world, but rather a healing reaffirmation of the world of ordinary experience.

Sachs explains to Walther that while it's easy for a young man with the erotic longings of springtime to sing a beautiful love song, it's hard for older men to sing once they have experienced the stresses and suffering of married life, children, work, and business.  The older men who become Mastersingers have developed the formal rules of poetry and music so that they can sing even when the erotic passions of youth have faded.

We see this early in Act Three:
SACHS:  Follow my advice, short and good: fashion your mood into a Mastersong.
WALTHER:  A beautiful song, a Mastersong . . . What's the difference?
SACHS (softly):  My friend, in the charming time of youth, when from powerful sprouts, we are captured in our first love, when the heart is beating and swelling, to sing a beautiful song is granted to most: spring sings for us.  Through summer, fall, and winter's time, when trouble and care press on our life, though at the same time, as marital happiness, with children's christenings, business, discord, and strife, only those who still manage to sing a beautiful song will be called Masters.

Through their singing art, Sachs explains, the Mastersingers preserve the memory "of all the springs that once they knew."  When Walther asks how these men can recover their image of spring once their spring has been long over, Sachs answers: "They start afresh as best they can."

M. Owen Lee is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who became famous for his opera commentary, particularly during intermissions of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.  He is a fan of Wagner's operas, and he regards Die Meistersinger as perhaps his best.  Although I always find his remarks on Wagner insightful, I think he is wrong in claiming that the theme of redemption from the world runs through Die Meistersinger as it does through all of Wagner's operas.

The contrast between Die Meistersinger and the other operas can be seen by comparing two passages from Lee giving overviews of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde:
"The wounded, haunted Tristan comes painfully to see that the human condition, inherited from father and mother, nurtured by ambition, intensified by sexual passion, never fulfilled, driving him ever onward, is not the real world, and he summons up all his strength to renounce it.  Only then is he rewarded with a vision of Isolde coming to him, walking over the sea on waves of flowers.  Tristan at that moment has suffered through to what Wagner thought, at that time of his life, was the ultimate human truth, buried deep in the unconscious, but clearly stated in the wisdom of the East--that only when a man renounces his insatiable desires can he find the Nirvana-peace which is his true fulfillment." (Wagner, The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 53)
"Can we sum up Wagner's aesthetic, as expressed in Die Meistersinger, in the half-minute that remains to us before we listen to the rest of his opera?  If we read the music and the metaphors rightly, we can say five things.  Art, for Richard Wagner, is fashioned from both intuition and honest craftsmanship, from both innovating spirit and respect for tradition.  It can speak powerfully to us if we have within ourselves the capacity to respond to it.  It can survive the fall of empires to speak to future civilizations about the civilization that produced it.  It can tell us what we need to know about ourselves, perhaps most of all about the flaw in human nature that makes mysteries of our lives.  And it can help us to accept the inevitable sadness in life--as well as to sing like songbirds from the sheer joy of being alive." (Wagner and the Wonder of Art: An Introduction to Die Meistersinger, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 85)
So, in Tristan und Isolde the "human condition"--the world of human love, marital bonding, parental care, and ambitious striving--"is not the real world."  To reach the "real world," we must renounce all of our natural desires to achieve the annihilation of "Nirvana-peace."  By contrast, Die Meistersinger affirms the natural goodness of our human, all too human life, even with all its flaws and suffering, so that we can "accept the inevitable sadness in life--as well as to sing like songbirds from the sheer joy of being alive."

Like the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde, the Nietzsche of his early and later writings shows a need for redemption from the world that leads him to an atheistic religiosity expressed in the Dionysian ecstasy of Wagner's music or Zarathustra's poetry.  But like the Wagner of Die Meistersinger, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human rejects the need for redemption as showing a sickly refusal to accept life as it is--even in all its transience, vulnerability, and pain--as having a natural sweetness that makes it all worth living.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lyric Opera's "Die Meistersinger": Wagner, Hitler, and the Nightwatchman State

The most striking phrase coined by Leo Strauss is reductio ad Hitlerum.  In National Right and History, Strauss argues that Max Weber's teaching about values leads to nihilism.  Just as he begins to make this argument, Strauss observes:
". . . In following this movement toward its end we shall inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler.  Unfortunately, it does not go without saying that in our examination we must avoid the fallacy  that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum.  A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler." (42-43)
 As Will Altman has noted, Strauss never again mentions Hitler in the book, which leaves the reader wondering where exactly in the book "the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler."  We might also wonder, as Altman suggests, why Strauss doesn't identify this fallacy as a noble fallacy.  After all, why isn't it good that our scorn for Hitler is so deep that we assume that a view is refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler?

I thought about that Saturday night while attending a performance of Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This was Hitler's favorite opera, and it was often performed in the Third Reich with Nazi sponsorship.  Consequently, many people have been disturbed by the thought that this opera promotes the anti-Semitism, the German nationalism, and the nihilism that led to Hitler's movement.

Of course, a similar reductio ad Hitlerum has been used to criticize Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Just as Wagner provided Hitler his music, it is said, Darwin provided him his science, and Nietzsche provided him his philosophy.  And thus Wagner, Darwin, and Nietzsche are all refuted by their connection to Hitler.  Even if this is a fallacy, it is surely reasonable to question any view of the world that supports such evil.

As I have argued on this blog, there is nothing in Darwin's writing that leads directly to Hitler.  In fact, as far as I know, Hitler never even mentioned Darwin's name, although he did use some of the phrases associated with Darwin.  Even when Richard Weikart argues that there is a history of movement "from Darwin to Hitler," he must admit that there really is no clear connection between Darwin's writings and Hitler.

By comparison, Hitler's connection to Nietzsche and Wagner seems much clearer.  Even so, as I have been arguing on this blog, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human provides no encouragement to Hitler and the Nazis.  And Wagner's Die Meistersinger is his one opera that presents a view of the world similar to that of Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human.  Neither of these two works support the anti-Semitism, the fanatical nationalism, or the nihilism of Hitler and the Nazis.

It's significant that just as Die Meistersinger is generally the least popular of Wagner's operas among the Wagnerites, Human, All Too Human is generally the least popular of Nietzsche's books among the Nietzscheans.  My view is just the opposite--that Die Meistersinger is Wagner's best opera, and Human, All Too Human is Nietzsche's best book.  It all depends on whether you prefer explosive frenzy, as the Nietzscheans and Wagnerites do, or sensible moderation, as I do.

Die Meistersinger was first performed in 1868.  Of the ten operas of Wagner's mature work, this is the only comedy and the only opera not based on myth.  The story of the opera is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg.  The guild of Mastersingers in Nuremberg preserves a proud tradition of German singing governed by rigorous rules.  On Midsummer's Day (St. John's Day), they will conduct a song contest.  The contest is sponsored by Veit Pogner (a wealthy silversmith), and he offers as a prize for the winner marriage to his beautiful daughter Eva.  Eva is free to reject the winner if she chooses, but whoever she marries must be a Mastersinger.  Walther von Stolzing is a young man who has recently arrived in town, and he and Eva have quickly fallen in love.  So Walther must win the contest if he and Eva are to marry.  The problem is that although he can sing beautiful love songs in a passionate style, Walther does not know--and does not appreciate--the complex rules for singing enforced by the Mastersingers.  To win the contest, he will need to follow the wise instruction of Hans Sachs, an older man who is equally skilled in making shoes and mastersinging, and who is the most respected man in town.  In fact, Hans Sachs really did exist as a famous poet and singer in sixteenth-century Nuremberg.  (For the Lyric Opera performances, the role of Sachs has been sung by James Morris, one of the greatest Wagnerian singers of our time.) 

Walther's primary challenger in the contest is Sixtus Beckmesser, an older Mastersinger who wants to marry Eva.  While Beckmesser has mastered the rules of mastersinging, his pedantic stiffness lacks the intuitive insight and youthful passion of Walther's singing. 

Although Sachs does teach Walther the art of mastersinging, while helping him compose the song that will win the contest for him, Sach feels some conflict about this.  Sachs has helped to rear Eva from the time that she was an infant.  And now that she is grown up, he has developed romantic feelings for her, which she reciprocates.  Sachs is a widower whose wife and children have all died.  Marrying Eva would give him both a wife and a child at the same time.  After some struggle with himself, Sachs decides that the marriage of Eva to Walther would be best for everyone, and that he must restrain his longings for Eva in serving the greater good of his community through her marriage.

There are at least three features of the opera that have been seen as points of contact with Hitler's Nazism.  First, Beckmesser has been said to be an ugly anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew who earns a humiliating defeat in his German town.  Second, the opera ends with a speech by Sachs warning that German art needs to be defended from Germany's enemies, which sounds like the German nationalistic rhetoric that favored the rise of Nazism.  The third point brings up the deepest philosophical issue of the opera:  Sachs muses darkly about how all of life is ruled by delusion and madness, for which there is no cure except using the noble delusion of art to redeem human beings from the ugly truth that all that seems real to us is only illusion.  This looking into the nothingness of the world seems to be the nihilism that Strauss saw as primary source of Nazism as a product of the Third Wave of Modernity.

On the first point, it's clear that the anti-Semitic remarks by Wagner in his prose writings provided plenty of material for the Nazis.  For this reason, many people have looked for anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas.  But if one were unaware of what Wagner had said in his prose writings, one would not see any clear evidence of anti-Semitism in his operas.  Particularly, in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser is never identified as a Jew.  Furthermore, even though he is depicted as ridiculously foolish--the sort of fool we expect to find in a comedy--he also elicits some sympathy from us, and he is a respected and honored member of his community.

Similarly, while one can easily find some anti-Semitism in some of Nietzsche's writings, especially in his attacks on the Jewish sources of "slave morality," Human, All Too Human and other writings of his middle period contain passages where he praises the Jews for what they have contributed to the evolution of culture.  Examples of this would be section 475 of Human, All Too Human and section 205 of Dawn. 

The second point--the reference to Germany and its enemies in Sach's final speech--is a more serious problem for the defender of Die Meistersinger.

After Walther has won the singing contest, Pogner offers him a golden chain with three medals.  Walther refuses the chain, because he is still bitter about the earlier rejection of his singing by the Mastersingers.  Sachs grabs him by the hand and exhorts him to respect the Masters for what they do in preserving their art.  Sachs then warns:
"Take heed!  Ill times now threaten all; and if the German folk [Volk] and Reich should fall, and foreigners should rule our land, no king his folk would understand, and foreign rule and foreign ways would darken all our German ways; what's German and true could not abide were't not for German Masters' pride!  I beg of you: honor your German Masters, and thus you will ban disasters!  And if you have their work at heart, though the Holy German Reich fell, there still will remain the holy German art!"
Walther then accepts the golden chain.  The Masters pay homage to Sachs with upraised hands, and all join the people of the town in singing praise for Sach: "Heil Sachs!  Hans Sachs!  Heil Nuremberg's poet Sachs!"

This opera premiered in 1868, just two years before the Franco-Prussian War, at a time when a war between France and Prussia was widely expected.  So this final speech by Sachs could easily have been interpreted as an exhortation to German militaristic nationalism.  Similarly, when Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy announced in 1872 a rebirth of tragedy in Germany through Wagner's music, this appeared to be a clear reference to the Prussian victory over France and the proclamation of the Second German Reich. 

At one point in his revising of the libretto, Wagner struck out this final speech by Sachs.  But then he was persuaded by his wife Cosima to restore it.  So Wagner had his doubts about whether this ending to the opera was appropriate.

In any case, one should see that Wagner's patriotism here is more cultural than political, and not at all militaristic.  After all, it's clear in the opera that art is more important for preserving the German nation than is military or political power.

Furthermore, what one sees in Die Meistersinger is a depiction of a self-governing bourgeois city that is organized primarily through the institutions of civil society--family, church, and voluntary associations.  The only sign of governmental force is the minimal power of Nuremberg's night-watchman.  When a violent riot breaks out at the end of Act 2, the crowd disperses when the night-watchman walks through on his rounds.

It was in 1862, only six years before the premier of Die Meistersinger, that the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle ridiculed the classical liberals for advocating "the night-watchman state"--the idea that government should be limited to punishing violence and fraud to protect property, liberty, and peace.  Some of the proponents of classical liberalism have actually embraced the phrase "night-watchman state" as a good label for their position.  In his book Liberalism (3rd edition, 1985), Ludwig von Mises observed: "it is difficult to see why the night-watchman state should be any more ridiculous or worse than the state that concerns itself with the preparation of sauerkraut, with the manufacture of trouser buttons, or with the publication of newspapers" (37).

In a liberal regime, the cultivation of the arts and of cultural life generally comes from the natural and voluntary associations of a free society that requires only limited governmental intervention.  That's the case in Hans Sach's Nuremberg.

In the same way, Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human endorses a largely liberal view of society and government in which "higher culture" and the excellence of "higher men" is fostered by the freedom of civil society.  Culture is largely free from political regimentation, and culture is more important than politics.  According to Nietzsche, "the state is a prudent institution for protecting individuals from one another," but any ennobling of the state into a "perfect state" tends to bring a dangerous suppression of the individual (HH, 235). 

Just as is the case in Sach's Nuremberg, Nietzsche presents the majority of people as devoted to the ordinary concerns of life, and they display little human excellence, but a few people with higher aspirations and talents can develop their moral and intellectual virtues through the self-regulating order of civil society.

Much of the appeal of National Socialism came from the claim that liberalism is degrading in its bourgeois mediocrity and thus cannot cultivate the heroic human excellence that goes beyond the base materialism of the "Last Man."

Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human deny this claim by showing how a free society can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy.

I will take up the third point about the connection of Meistersinger to Nazism--the apparent nihilism of Sachs--in my next post.

One of the best performances of Die Meistersinger--in 2001 at the Metropolitan Opera with James Morris as Sachs--can be seen as an online video at the "Met on Demand" website.  There's a free seven-day trial that allows immediate access.  You need to be well rested before you watch this opera.  If you take two 30-minute intermissions, the opera will take five and a half hours! 

I recommend watching it with a good bottle of pinot noir.  My wife and I had two bottles over dinner before the opera and snacks during the intermissions at the Pederson Room at the Lyric Opera House.  A very civilized evening indeed.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nietzsche, Liberalism, and the Second Reich

In contrast to the common association of Nietzsche with the Third Reich, William Altman's book on Nietzsche makes a brilliant argument for seeing Nietzsche as the philosopher of the Second Reich.

Nietzsche's first book--The Birth of Tragedy--was written in 1871, and it was in January of 1871 that the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War led to the proclamation in Versailles of the Second German Reich, with Wilhelm I as the Emperor and Otto von Bismarck as the Chancellor.  Nietzsche's last books were written in 1888, before his collapse into insanity at the beginning of 1889.  In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died, his son Frederick III became emperor, but then Frederick died three months later, and his son Wilhelm II became emperor.  In 1890, Bismarck was forced to resign, leaving Wilhelm II as the dominant ruler until the defeat of Germany in the war in 1918 brought the end of the Second Reich.  Thus, Nietzsche's intellectual career coincided with the Bismarckian period of the Second Reich.

Altman shows how Nietzsche's thinking was shaped by the political events of his time, despite his pose of "untimeliness."  Moreover, by the time of the First World War, Nietzsche had become so influential that he was seen by many people inside and outside Germany as the philosopher of German culture.  Many German soldiers took copies of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into their trenches, and the daring courage of the "storm troopers" looked a lot like the military heroism that Nietzsche had foreseen as necessary for the future triumph of the "higher men."

Altman makes a persuasive argument that Nietzsche's thinking illuminates the history of the Second Reich, just as the history of the Second Reich illuminates Nietzsche's thinking.  That mutual illumination leads to the general conclusion that both Nietzsche and the Second Reich suffered from internal contradictions that led to their destruction--Nietzsche's mental breakdown in 1889 and the Second Reich's military and political breakdown in 1918.

Although I generally agree with Altman's reasoning, I disagree with him about two points.

The first point of disagreement is that I am not convinced that in showing Nietzsche's entanglement with the Second Reich, Altman has thereby shown that Nietzsche was not entangled with the Third Reich.  In fact, Altman admits in his Preface that Nietzsche provided all of the intellectual components of National Socialism as understood by Leo Strauss, although Altman insists that these Nietzschean components "did not even come close to being crystallized into the final form that Strauss eventually gave them" (xiv).

My second point of disagreement is that unlike Altman, I see Nietzsche in his middle period (Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of The Gay Science) as providing an alternative--based on his Darwinian liberalism--to the positions he took in his early and late writings.  Nietzsche's Darwinian writings do not suffer from the contradictions that Altman rightly sees in his other writings.  Nor do the Darwinian writings provide any encouragement to the Nazis who appropriated ideas from the other writings.

In his reading of those writings that began with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Altman sees continuity with the free-spirited science of Nietzsche's middle period--"there is little here that Nietzsche could not have said, and did not in fact say, in Human, All Too Human" (21).  But this ignores the fact that the writings of Nietzsche's middle period reject almost all of the fundamental teachings of his later writings--the celebration of "great politics," Dionysian intoxication, the eternalizing of becoming through Eternal Return, the scorn for democratic "herd-animalization" and equality of rights, the supernatural heroism of genius and the Ubermensch, atheistic religiosity, and the will to power.

Actually, Altman himself occasionally admits that the Darwinian science of the middle period really does look very different from the teachings in the early and late writings.  Altman sees this in the scorn for "great politics" when Nietzsche was "sailing under the flag of Darwinism" (35-36, 75-76, 134-36).

And yet Altman does not see the opening for liberal democracy in Nietzsche's middle period.  Particularly in Human, All Too Human (92-93, 438-482) and in The Wanderer and His Shadow (275-293), one can see a aristocratic liberalism that is very similar to the classical liberalism of someone like Eugen Richter, the leader of "Left Liberalism" in the Second Reich and a leading critic of Bismarck's policies.  Richter's arguments for constitutional democracy, liberal pluralism, and religious liberty and his arguments against socialism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and militarism all find support in Nietzsche's middle writings.

If the Second Reich had moved toward Richter's classical liberalism, which could have happened if Frederick III had lived long enough to promote his liberal ideas, then Germany might have avoided the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Will Altman's German Trilogy and Leo Strauss's Third Wave of Modernity

At the end of the summer, the American Political Science Association will be meeting in Chicago.  For that meeting, I have proposed a panel on William Altman's book The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism (2011), which makes the provocative argument that Strauss was the secret theoretician of National Socialism. 

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Altman's book on Strauss.  I argued that Altman does not prove his strongest claim--that Strauss was "remarkably successful" in his project "to take Germany's western enemy out of the picture: to destroy Liberal Democracy's faith in itself" (516).  But I also conceded that Altman does show a disturbing refusal of Strauss to clearly and emphatically state his defense of liberal democracy against the anti-liberal position of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt.  By contrast, Strauss's friend Hans Jonas was very clear and emphatic in his criticism of Heidegger for failing to apologize for his endorsement of Nazism.

If my panel proposal is approved, my contribution will be to indicate how Altman's book on Strauss needs to be read in conjunction with the other three books that Altman has published in the last three years (all published by Lexington Books): Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (2012), Martin Heidegger and the First World War: Being and Time as Funeral Oration (2012), and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich (2013).  (To have published four books in three years that show impressive scholarship and intellectual depth would be a great achievement for any university professor, and so it's remarkable that Altman is a public high school teacher!)

In the Preface to his Nietzsche book, Altman indicates that this book along with his books on Heidegger and Strauss can be seen as a "German trilogy," following a tripartite structure suggested by Strauss in his "Three Waves of Modernity."  According to Strauss, the First Wave of modernity came with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the Second Wave came with Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; and the Third Wave came with Nietzsche and Heidegger.  But if each wave comes through a sequence of three thinkers, who is the third thinker of the Third Wave?  Surely, Altman suggests, it must be Strauss.  And if the Third Wave leads to fascism, as Strauss indicated, then this would point to Strauss as the thinker who most fully worked out the theory of fascism or Nazism as the anti-liberal solution to the crisis of liberal democracy.

Consequently, Altman's books on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss can be understood as a "German trilogy" that works through the three stages of the Third Wave of modernity as the consummation of the crisis of liberalism and the emergence of an anti-liberal alternative.

If Strauss was completing what Nietzsche had started, then we should see all the elements of Strauss's critique of liberalism in Nietzsche's writings.  And, in fact, Altman claims, we see in Nietzsche the five components of National Socialism as Strauss understood it:
"(1) a radical anti-Christianity that explains even Nietzsche's rejection of Christian anti-Judaism, (2) a crystal clear sense of the Jewish origins of Christianity, (3) an interest in the use of exotericism, (4) a rejection of racialist anti-Semitism, and (5) the valorization of Israel's kings as opposed to her prophets." (xiv-xv)
Most fundamental for all of these components of National Socialism is a monistic metaphysics of secularization that rejects the dualistic metaphysics of Plato as expressed in Judaism and Christianity as a Jewish religion.  For this reason, Altman's book on Plato is connected to his "German trilogy" of books, because Altman defends Plato as the proponent of a metaphysical dualism that supports the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and liberal democracy.  Thus does Altman defend a transcendentalist dualism that is Platonic, Jewish, Christian, and liberal against a materialist monism that is anti-Platonic, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-liberal.

Altman suggests that Pope Benedict XVII agrees with his interpretation of National Socialism.  He quotes from the Pope's remarks in 2006 during a visit to the Auschwitz Camp:
"By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they [sc. the Nazis] ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful."
Yes, Altman argues, that's exactly what Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss wanted to do.

I will have more to say about Altman's account of Nietzsche in my next post.  As you might expect from my previous posts on Nietzsche, I will defend the Darwinian science of Nietzsche's middle period as morally, politically, and intellectually superior to the early and late writings of Nietzsche, and thus I will disagree with Altman in his playing down the distinctiveness of Nietzsche's Darwinian middle period.

My previous posts on Altman can be found here, here, and here.  My previous posts on Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity" can be found here and here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Birthday of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln

It's that time of the year when I traditionally observe the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, who were born on February 12, 1809.

As I have indicated in previous years, I see at least six points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln.

(1) Both saw the universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life. (2) Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation. (3) Both spoke of God as First Cause. (4) Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion. (5) Both abhorred slavery as immoral. (6) Both were moral realists.

I have elaborated some of these points here and here, which include links to even more posts on the Lincoln-Darwin connection.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Part 7 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"

Concluding this series of posts, I draw your attention to what Nietzsche says in Dawn (aph. 26) about the evolved animal origins of prudence:
"Even the sense for truth, which is really the sense for security, man has in common with animals: one does not want to let oneself be deceived, does not want to mislead oneself, one hearkens mistrustfully to the promptings of one's own passions, one constrains oneself and lies in wait for oneself; the animal understands all this just as man does, with it too self-control springs from the sense for what is real (from prudence).  It likewise assesses the effect it produces upon the perceptions of other animals and from this learns to look back upon itself, to take itself 'objectively,' it too has its degree of self-knowledge.  The animal assesses the movements of its friends and foes, it learns their peculiarities by heart, it prepares itself for them."
So the virtue of prudence evolves from the animal "sense for truth," which is actually the "sense for security,"  which is also a "sense for what is real" that supports self-control. 

As shaped by evolutionary history, animals must gather information about themselves and about their physical and social environments, and then they must assess that information as it bears upon their needs, so that they can make practical decisions about what they need to do to survive and reproduce.  The human moral and intellectual virtue of prudence arises from this pragmatic mental capacity for detecting and responding to threats and opportunities in ways that secure one's well-being.

For social animals, this practical intelligence is largely social intelligence, because the most complex intellectual problem for the social animal is assessing the movements and intentions of one's fellow animals as friends or foes.  This can even require "mind-reading"--projecting oneself into the thoughts and feelings of other animals so that one can predict their behavior in alternative scenarios of action in the future.

Some people like Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga see a problem with such an explanation of the human mind as emerging from the evolutionary adaptation of the animal mind.  If the mind has evolved as a purely pragmatic instrument for survival and reproduction, then the mind has been designed for practical success but not for true beliefs, because one can imagine that an animal's practical success might come from erroneous beliefs about the world.  (In fact, doesn't Nietzsche himself speak of the history of human culture as the history of errors?)  If so, then one has no reason to trust the human mind as producing valid knowledge, and thus one has no reason to trust the mind's belief in the theory of evolution.  In this way, Nagel and Plantinga argue, an evolutionary naturalism becomes self-defeating.

The only escape from this, they insist, is either the theistic belief (Plantinga) that the human mind can be trusted because it was created in the image of the Divine Mind, or a Platonic belief (Nagel) that the human mind can be trusted because it fulfils a cosmic end or purpose as guided somehow by a cosmic mind.

Nietzsche in the writings of his middle period rejects both positions as lacking any scientific support, and he defends the evolutionary account of the mind as showing how the human mind could arise from animal minds as fallible and yet reliable.

I agree with Nietzsche about this, for reasons that I have elaborated here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Part 6 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"

Nietzsche's sociobiology of animal morality includes evolutionary accounts of the four cardinal virtues--justice, moderation, courage, and prudence. 

By comparing what he says about these virtues in his middle writings and what he says about them in his later writings, we can see that his turn away from the Darwinian free-spirited science of his middle writings explains why his later writings became so popular with the Nazis, who would have found nothing appealing to them in his middle writings.

I will consider here two of these virtues--justice and moderation.

Nietzsche claims that justice originates as exchange or barter (HH, 92).   He sees this as the lesson of Thucydides' story of the meeting of the Athenian and Melian envoys:  justice arises among those who are roughly equal in power, so that to avoid mutual injury, the parties negotiate the claims on both sides.  "Each satisfies the other in that each gets what he values more than the other.  Each man gives the other what he wants, to keep henceforth, and receives in turn that which he wishes.  Thus, justice is requital and exchange on the assumption of approximately equal positions of strength.  For this reason, revenge belongs initially to the realm of justice: it is an exchange.  Likewise gratitude."

Thus, justice is initially "insightful self-preservation," but later this egoistic origin of justice is forgotten, and justice is assumed to be selflessness.

Of course, the disturbing teaching of the Melian dialogue is that where power is not equal, the stronger rules over the weaker.  But Nietzsche points out that when the Melians refused to surrender, the Athenians were forced to fight them in a year-long siege, and thus the Athenian victory was costly.  This shows us how the weaker gain rights against the stronger, Nietzsche observes, because the power of the weaker to inflict some damage on the stronger creates a kind of equalization of powers that can be the basis of rights (HH, 93).  Even slaves can have some rights if the resistance of the slave to the master's exploitation can inflict some damage on the master.  Nietzsche concludes from this that Spinoza was correct in declaring that "each has as much right as he has power" (Theological-Political Treatise, chapter 16).  "The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others," and thus changes in power-relationships bring changes in the natural history of rights and duties (D, 112).

This is similar to what I have argued in some previous posts about how might does make right, in the sense that the natural human resistance to oppression forces oppressors to limit their oppression, and thus we derive rights from wrongs, deriving justice from our violent resistance to injustice.  Animals do this in fighting those who would injure them.  Human beings do this, but they can also use their mental powers of reason and language to formulate social rules of right and wrong that express this natural resistance to injury, and the sense that it's to the advantage of all to agree to norms of mutually beneficial exchange.

If neighboring societies fight one another for many years, Nietzsche suggests, and if their power is roughly equal, then neither side gains a decisive victory, and both sides suffer losses.  If it's possible for some third party to mediate their dispute and establish peace between them, then they might become trading-partners, which increases their welfare and prosperity (D, 190).

The cultures of the past, Nietzsche thinks, have been based on violence.  But what we need now is a gradual change of thinking and feeling so that "justice must become greater in everyone, and the violent instinct weaker" (HH, 452).  A big part of this change comes as the "man of convictions" is replaced by the "man of science" (HH, 630).  Conviction is the belief that one possesses absolute truth, and the struggle between conflicting convictions provoked a long history of violence.  This explains, for example, the history of cruelty in persecuting heretics: "what is the burning of one man compared with the eternal pains of Hell for nearly everyone!" (HH, 101).  A growing scientific skepticism about absolute truth weakens such motivation to violent cruelty.

Moreover, much of the unjust cruelty in past cultures came from a failure to feel or understand the suffering of the victims of cruelty.  "That the other suffers must be learned; and it can never be learned completely" (HH, 101).  Thus, the cultural evolution in understanding and feeling the suffering of others promotes an expansion of sympathy that brings a progressive expansion of justice.

As we have seen, Darwin also saw this expansion of sympathy as crucial for moral progress.  Matt Ridley shows how this works through the expansion of exchange and the division of labor leading eventually to global networks of trade that foster peaceful cooperation.  Steven Pinker shows how this cultural evolution of liberal humanism has brought a remarkable decline of violence both within and between societies.

While this conception of moral progress towards greater justice as manifested in declining violence and increasing cooperation is affirmed by Nietzsche in his middle period, he scorns it in his later writing as the "herd morality of timidity," which is expressed as "Hurt no one; rather, help all as much as you can," or as "We want that some day there should be nothing any more to be afraid of" (BGE, 186, 201).  In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche sneers at this.  "Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality," which is the morality of the "democratic movement."  He yearns for "higher moralities" than this (BGE, 202).

The Nietzsche of the later writings is nauseated by "this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims," and he looks to the new philosophers of the future acting as "leaders" (Fuhrer) to do a revaluation of values that will create a new aristocratic morality for higher men (BGE, 203).

Similarly, Nietzsche affirms the virtue of moderation in his middle writings, but then he rejects it in his later writings as a disgusting virtue of herd morality.

In his middle period, Nietzsche sees free-spirited thinking as promoting moderation--particularly, in the cautious restraint in one's practical and intellectual life that avoids the religious inclination to intoxication or frenzy (Rausch) (HH, 114, 139, 149, 464, 631; WS, 212).  The moderation of the free-spirit should not be confused with mediocrity or boredom, because this virtue actually belongs to a cheerful disposition of those who are cautiously self-controlled because they don't want an overheated enthusiasm to cloud their clear view of the world as it truly is (HH, 34; AOM, 230, 326).  Modern evolutionary science helps us to know ourselves as we truly are by teaching us that since we have evolved as mortal animals on earth, we cannot pass over into a higher order beyond the transitoriness of human life on earth.  Understanding and accepting our evolutionary transience as animals evolved from apes can protect us from that "faith in intoxication"--in the ecstatic feeling of exaltation--that has ruined the religious and artistic cultures of the past with delusional fantasies (D, 48-50).

Nietzsche explains that we need moderation as a moral and intellectual virtue to avoid the delusion that there are religious, artistic, or political geniuses who are "superhuman" (ubermenschliches) (HH, 143, 164, 441, 461; D, 548-49).  Napoleon, for example, was eventually ruined by his delusions of superhuman grandeur.  Evolutionary science refutes any belief that human beings as evolved animals can become superhuman (D, 49).  Rather, they are human, all too human.

But in both his earlier and later writings, Nietzsche rejects moderation and yearns for Dionysian frenzy and intoxication (Rausch) (BT, 1; TI.ix, 8-10).  This immoderate frenzy finally expresses itself in Nietzsche's ecstatic proclamation of the Superman, the Ubermensch, as a revelation that will redeem humanity and give eternal meaning to life: "I teach you the Superman.  Man is something that shall be overcome" (Z, prologue, 3).

Nietzsche's Zarathustra is nauseated by the fact that "small people need small virtues" like the mediocrity of moderation.  "At bottom, these simpletons want a single thing most of all: that nobody should hurt them."  Their virtues have clever fingers.  "But they lack fists, their fingers do not know how to hide behind fists.  Virtue to them is that which makes modest and tame: with that they have turned the wolf into a dog and man himself into man's best domestic animal" (Z, 3:5.2).

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche scorns moderation as a virtue of "the herd man in Europe."  Such virtues of the herd cannot satisfy the human need for leadership--for a Fuhrer like Napoleon, who had a superhuman genius for commanding.  Parliamentary constitutions fail because of the futility of attempting "to add together clever herd men by way of replacing commanders" (BGE, 199; TI, ix, 37-44).

Later, Carl Schmitt was to elaborate this Nietzschean Fuhrer principle in denouncing the Weimar republic for its parliamentary weakness, and the decadence of its "last man" culture, and then in promoting the heroic leadership of the Nazis, moved by ideological frenzy free from any restraining moderation.

Of course, Nietzsche's defenders will say that the Nazis were guilty of a vulgar distortion of Nietzsche's teachings.  But that only confirms a warning from Nietzsche in his middle period:
"For the despisers of 'herd humanity'.--He who regards men as a herd and flees from them as fast as he can will certainly be overtaken by them and gored by their horns." (AOM, 233)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Part 5 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"

In explaining the past cultural evolution of morality as based on religious, metaphysical, and artistic errors, it might seem that Nietzsche wants to reject morality and become an immoralist.  But in the writings of his middle period, it is clear that he affirms the importance of morality, and that he is looking to see how we might free ourselves from morality as an unconscious inheritance based on errors, so that we might then consciously adopt the moral virtues as based on scientific truth and individual deliberate judgment about how those virtues promote our individual and social goods.

Consider the following passages:
"Concept of morality of custom.  . . . Self-overcoming is demanded, not on account of the useful consequences it may have for the individual, but so that the hegemony of custom, tradition, shall be made evident despite the private desires and advantages of the individual: the individual is to sacrifice himself--that is the commandment of morality of custom.--Those moralists, on the other hand, who, following in the footsteps of Socrates, offer the individual a morality of self-control and temperance as a means to his own advantage, as his personal key to happiness, are the exceptions--and if it seems otherwise to us that is because we have been brought up in their after-effect: they all take a new path under the highest disapprobation of all advocates of the morality of custom--they cut themselves off from the community, as immoral men, and are in the profoundest sense evil." (Dawn, 9)
". . . It goes without saying that I do not deny--unless I am a fool--that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged--but I think that one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.   We have to learn to think differently--in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently." (Dawn, 103)
"Immoralists.--Because they dissect morality, moralists must be content to be upbraided as immoralists.  But he who wants to dissect has to kill; yet only for the sake of better knowledge, better judgement, better living; not so that all the world shall start dissecting.  Unhappily, however, people still believe that every moralist has to be a model and ideal in all he  does and that others are supposed to imitate him: they confuse him with the preacher of morals.  The older moralists dissected too little and preached too much: which is why the moralists of today experience this confusion and its unpleasant consequences." (The Wanderer and His Shadow, 19)
"Stages of morality.--Morality is first of all a means of preserving the community and warding off its destruction; then it is a means of preserving the community at a certain height and in a certain quality of existence.  Its motive forces are fear and hope . . . Further stages of morality, and thus of means of attaining the objectives described, are the commands of a god (such as the Mosaic law); further and higher still the commands of the concept of unconditional duty with its 'thou shalt'--all still somewhat coarsely hewn but broad stages and steps, because men do not yet know how to place their feet on narrower, more delicate steps.  Then comes a morality of inclination, of taste, finally that of insight--which is above and beyond all illusionary motive forces of morality but has a clear realization of why for long ages mankind could possess no other." (WS, 44)
"Content of the conscience.--The content of our conscience is everything that was during the years of our childhood regularly demanded of us without reason by people we honored or feared.  It is thus the conscience that excites that feeling of compulsion ('I must do this, not do that') which does not ask: why must I?--In every case in which a thing is done with 'because' and 'why' man acts without conscience; but not yet for that reason against it. -- The belief in authorities is the source of the conscience: it is therefore not the voice of God in the heart of man but the voice of some men in man." (WS, 52)
"Socrates.--If all goes well, the time will come when one will take up the memorabilia of Socrates rather than the Bible as a guide to morals and reason, and when Montaigne and Horace will be employed as forerunners and signposts to an understanding of this simplest and most imperishable of intercessors." (WS, 86) 
"Free of morality. Now that minds are becoming freer and less narrow, it is certain that morality (inherited, handed down, instinctual acting in accordance with moral feelings) is on the decline: but the individual virtues, moderation, justice, repose of soul, are not--for when the conscious mind has attained its highest degree of freedom, it is involuntarily led to them and comes to recognize how useful they are." (WS, 212)
As indicated in this these passages and in aphorism 26 of Dawn Nietzsche thinks that a free, conscious mind can see the need for the "Socratic virtues"--the four cardinal virtues--justice, moderation, courage, and prudence.  Even when a free spirit frees himself from the errors that sustained traditional morality in the past, he can see the good reasons for these virtues.

Nietzsche distinguishes four phases in the evolutionary history of morality--the "three phases of morality until now" and the fourth phase that is only now coming into view that he calls "morality of the mature individual" (HH, 94-95).

In the first phase, an animal becomes human when he uses his reason to direct his behavior to his enduring comfort rather than just his momentary comfort, and thus he acts for the sake of what he sees as personally expedient or useful for him.

A higher phase is reached when he acts according to the principle of honor, by which he shows himself to be a social animal, who wants to be respected by others, who is thus dependent on the opinions and feelings of others.

The third phase is the highest stage of morality until now--the preference for general usefulness over personal usefulness, a preference for what has enduring value over momentary value, becomes his standard that he legislates for himself and others.  He then lives and acts as a "collective-individual."  This seems to correspond to the Kantian morality of autonomy in legislating the categorical imperative as the moral ought.

Until now, morality as been interpreted as impersonal, as a sacrifice of one's personal interests to the common good, a sacrifice of one's personal needs "to the state, to science, to the needy."  But now, Nietzsche suggests, we might enter the highest phase of morality--"the morality of the mature individual"--when the mature individual can recognize his personal interest in the common good.  "Now too we wish to work for our fellow men, but only insofar as we find our own highest advantage in this work; no more, no less.  It depends only on what one understands by his advantage.  The immature, undeveloped, crude individual will also understand it most crudely" (HH, 95).

One sees here, I think, the liberal individualism of Nietzsche's middle period.  It's a moral individualism of the mature individual, who understands that caring for others serves his own personal advantage, and thus that there is no self-sacrifice in serving the common good.  But this also recognizes that many if not most individuals will be crude in their understanding of their personal advantage.

Nietzsche's evolutionary account of morality corresponds roughly to Darwin's.  Like Nietzsche, Darwin sees animal morality as originating in the mental capacity to compare one's momentary passions and one's enduring instincts, and then to feel regret when one yields to a momentary passion that conflicts with some enduring instinct.  For example, if a swallow had enough mental capacity, she might regret that she had yielded to her migratory impulse and abandoned her young to die in their nest without her brooding them (Charles Darwin's Notebooks,  619-29; Descent, 120-22, 131, 133-38, 680-81).  This experience of regret could generate feelings of remorse, repentence, and shame that would constitute conscience.

The social instincts leading an animal to take pleasure in the society of others and to feel sympathy for them could then be extended through reason, language, and habit into a general concern for social approbation and disapprobation and a sense of honor.  We want to be praised by others, and we fear being blamed.  Human language allows public opinion to be formulated as standards for how one ought to act for the public good (Descent, 120-22).

Darwin infers that this could give rise to a moral sense or conscience that could be expressed as a moral ought.  This deep feeling of right or duty could then be manifested in Kant's affirmation of moral law: "Duty! Wondrous thought, that workest neither by fond insinuation, flattery, nor by any threat, but merely by holding up thy naked law in the soul, and so extorting for thyself always reverence, if not always obedience; before whom all appetites are dumb, however secretly they rebel; whence thy original?" (Critique of Practical Reason, AA, p. 86; quoted at Descent, 120).

Finally, Darwin suggests, progress in reasoning and experience lead modern societies to see the goodness of the self-regarding virtues of the individual (Descent, 143, 147, 681-82).

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Part 4 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"


Nietzsche identifies only the "beginnings" of the virtues as animal, In the writings of his middle period, he makes it clear that while the evolutionary precursors of human morality can be found in nonhuman animals, the full development of morality requires the evolution of culture and reason in ways that are uniquely human.

In Human, All Too Human (40), he writes:
"The super-animal [Das Uber-Thier].  The beast in us wants to be lied to; morality is a white lie, to keep it from tearing us apart.  Without the errors inherent in the postulates of morality, man would have remained an animal.  But as it is, he has taken himself to be something higher and has imposed stricter laws upon himself.  He therefore has a hatred of those stages of man that remain closer to the animal state, which explains why the slave used to be disdained as a nonhuman, a thing."

The evolutionary history of morality has been a cultural evolution driven by the errors of religion, art, and metaphysics.  The cultural epochs are "systems of thought and feeling" that constitute a distinctive ordering of the good.  So, for example, "if someone prefers revenge to justice, he is moral by the standard of an earlier culture, yet by the standard of the present culture, he is immoral" (HH, 42, 274).  These errors were chains that human beings put upon themselves so that they would no longer behave like animals.  This great goal has been achieved, because now man "has in truth become gentler, more spiritual, more joyful, more reflective than any animal" (WS, 350). 

This history of cultural evolution has shaped the anatomy of the brain--the oldest parts of the brain manifesting the oldest epochs of human evolution and the latest parts manifesting the latest epochs.  Unusually cruel people might be people who have by accidents of heredity brains structured like those of our prehistoric ancestors (HH, 43).

But now that this cultural history of errors has succeeded in separating human beings from the animals, the next great goal is to throw off these errors as scientific knowledge and the pursuit of truth grow.  Yet this must be done cautiously, because only a few human beings are capable of becoming free spirits embracing scientific philosophy.  The time has not yet come for all human beings to become free-spirited lovers of truth.  Such a life--in which the love of scientific inquiry is the highest pleasure--must be a life for only a few individuals who can live for the sake of Socratic science (WS, 350).

Previously, Nietzsche observes, culture developed unconsciously, but increasingly it becomes possible for culture to develop consciously through a scientific understanding of cultural history.  "The new, conscious culture kills the old culture, which, seen as a whole, led an unconscious animal-and-vegetable life; it also kills the distrust of progress: progress is possible" (HH, 24). 

And yet, progress is not necessary.  Each epoch of cultural progress brings some loss, and it's possible that scientific culture could be completely lost in a reversion to barbarism (HH, 24, 239, 251, 262; WS, 183, 222).  After all, some cultural epochs have shown regression, as when the scientific culture of the Renaissance was later reversed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which retarded the growth of science until it's revival in the 18th century (HH, 237).  Even earlier in ancient Greece, when Socrates turned away from the natural philosophy of the pre-Socratic philosophers, he thus slowed the development of natural science, which was later revived by the Epicureans, and then much later renewed by modern scientists in the Epicurean tradition (HH, 68, 102, 261, 275; WS, 192, 227). To assume that cultural evolution is always and necessarily progressive would be an illusory "deification of evolution," as if evolution were guided by some divine mind (HH, 238).

Now it is possible for a scientific free spirit to repeat in his individual life all the cultural phases of previous human history.  He can move from religion to metaphysical philosophy, to art, and finally to science.  He can thus recapitulate in the first thirty years of his life perhaps thirty thousand years of human cultural history.  He can climb a cultural ladder of a hundred rungs, understanding each cultural epoch through his own life experience, and yet rising above each as he recognizes the impure thinking at its foundation.  He thus becomes "an inevitable chain of culture rings," deducing the course of cultural history in general, and trying to project the future culture.  He does all of this purely for the sake of knowledge as the sweetest pleasure (HH, 272, 276, 278, 292).

If one were such a man, Nietzsche explains:
"one would live among men and with oneself as in nature, without praise, reproaches, overzealousness, delighting in many things as in a spectacle that one formerly had only to fear.  One would be free of emphasis and would no longer feel the goading thought that one was not simply nature, or that one was more than nature.  Of course, as I said, a good temperament would be necessary--a secure, mild, and basically cheerful soul. . . . a man from whom the ordinary chains of life have fallen in such measure that he continues to live on only to better his knowledge must be able to renounce without envy and chagrin much, indeed almost everything, that other men value.  He must be content with that free, fearless hovering over men, customs, laws and the traditional evaluations of things, which is for him the most desirable of states." (HH, 34)
Such a man faces the end of his life without fear.  Nietzsche observes:
"Only when you are older will you perceive properly how you listened to the voice of nature, that nature which rules the world through pleasure.  The same life that comes to a peak in old age also comes to a peak in wisdom, in that gentle sunshine of continual spiritual joyfulness; you encounter both old age and wisdom on one ridge of life--that is how nature wanted it.  Then it is time, and no cause for anger that the fog of death is approaching.  Towards the light--your last movement; a joyful shout of knowledge--your last sound." (HH, 292)  
This could be a description of Charles Darwin.  Before his thirtieth birthday, he had sailed around the world on the Beagle, using scientific observation and inference to study every stage of human cultural evolution--from the primitive foragers of Tierra del Fuego to the global civilization of the British Empire--while beginning to explain how this human history could be understood as part of the entire evolutionary history of life on earth.  At the end of his life, he wrote his Autobiography, which included the history of his moral and religious beliefs--from theistic religion to agnosticism to sceptical rationalism--and concluding that without any belief in a future existence with rewards and punishments: "I believe I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science" (Autobiography, Barlow ed., 95).

Nietzsche believed that modern science had to reverse Socrates' turn away from natural philosophy to moral and political philosophy (described in Plato's Phaedo), because modern science needed to explain how human life could be understood as part of the natural history of the universe, and thus fulfil the dream of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the unification of all knowledge (HH, 261).  (In Consilience, E. O. Wilson presents his own program for the unity of knowledge as a fulfillment of what the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had sought.)

Similarly, when Darwin died in 1882, Thomas Henry Huxley's obituary in Nature compared him with Socrates:
"One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates.  There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself; the same belief in the sovereignty of reason; the same ready humour; the same sympathetic interest in all the ways and works of men.  But instead of turning away from the problems of nature as hopelessly insoluble, our modern philosopher devoted his whole life to attacking them in the spirit of Heraclitus and of Democritus, with results which are as the substance of which their speculations were anticipatory shadows.
Like Nietzsche, Darwin thought that while morality could be explained as having evolutionary roots in the animal world, morality in the strict sense was uniquely human in combining social instincts, habituation, language, and reason.  Morality required innate emotional and intellectual capacities that had been shaped by natural selection.  But the full development of those capacities into morality required cultural evolution.

Also like Nietzsche, Darwin believed that this cultural evolution of morality could be seen as progressive, from the lower morality of savage societies to the higher morality of civilized societies.  The morality of savages is erroneous because they fail to see the bearing of the self-regarding virtues on the welfare of the tribe, because they lack self-control, because their sympathy does not extend beyond the tribe, because they enforce the good of the community in ways that ignore the welfare of individuals, and because human reasoning has not developed sufficiently to allow thoughtful individuals to become the judge of their own conduct.  On all of these points, modern moral culture is superior (Descent, 120-122, 129-37, 141-51, 157-59, 163, 169, 171-72, 679-82, 688-89).  Eventually, the growth in sympathy, self-command, and reasoning could produce a universal morality.
"As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.  If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures.  Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions.  It is apparently unfelt by savages, except toward their pets.  How little the old Romans knew of its is shown by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.  The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas.  This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.  As soon as this virtue is honored and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion." (Descent, 147)
Of course, it would be a utopian delusion to expect that we are evolving into a world of perpetual peace and love without any conflicts,  because even if we extend our moral sympathy to all human beings and perhaps even to all sentient beings, that sympathy will always be stronger for those beings closer to us than for those far away, and that love of one's own will always produce tragic conflicts of interest.

Nevertheless, as I have indicated in some previous posts, books like Robert Wright's Nonzero, Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, and Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist provide evidence and arguments for the kind of cultural moral progress foreseen by Nietzsche and Darwin.  Indeed, the preceding passage from Darwin's Descent is quoted in all three of those books as a statement of what those authors see as the fundamental pattern of human evolution. 

Friday, February 01, 2013

Can Darwinian Conservatism Support a Pro-Marriage Coalition with Gays and Lesbians?

As indicated by his book The Future of Marriage (2009), David Blankenhorn and I are in fundamental agreement about the Darwinian evolutionary roots of marriage as explained by Edward Westermarck.  For that reason, I have been fascinated by the development of his thinking about gay marriage.

Although Blankenhorn has been one of the leading opponents of gay marriage, he has now changed his mind, and his new view is similar to what I have suggested-- that the evolutionary nature of marriage as based on spousal bonding and parental care can support gay marriage.

As the head of the Institute of American Values, and as a marriage advocate testifying in the 2010 California court case on Proposition 8, Blankenhorn has argued that only heterosexual marriage can combine the biological, social, and legal aspects of parenthood into one bond in a way that secures social order by producing and caring for children.  But now he thinks that the opposition to gay marriage is a mistake, because it distracts attention from the real problem that we face today, which is the decline in marriage, particularly for those in the middle class.  Consequently, he has proposed a new pro-marriage coalition that would combine all of those people who want to strengthen marriage--including gays as well as straight people.

Blankenhorn first announced his change of position in an article published last summer in the New York Times.  As recently reported in the Times, Robert George and other vehement opponents of gay marriage have resigned from the board of Blankenhorn's organization, and they have taken their funding with them.  In the meantime, Blankenhorn has formed a new board that includes some advocates of gay marriage under the directorship of Bill Galston (known to some of us as the Straussian liberal who was an adviser to President Clinton, and now with the Brookings Institution).  This group has just issued a statement in support of their new coalition.  The current debate is over the question, Should gays marry?  They argue that that debate has been fruitless.  A better debate would be over the question, Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage? 

The signers of this statement include liberals as well as conservatives, and including Jonathan Haidt, the proponent of Darwinian moral psychology who has been the subject of some of my posts.

The statement from the Institute for American Values declares:
"Why marriage?"
"Because families are the seedbeds of civil society, and marriage is the basis of the family.  Marriage creates kin.  Marriage is a wealth-producing institution.  And because marriage is the main institution governing the link between spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society's most pro-child institution."

"Marriage is fracturing in America.  While the nation's attention is riveted by a debate about whether a small proportion of our fellow citizens (gays and lesbians) should be allowed to marry, marriage is rapidly dividing along class lines, splitting the country that it used to unite.  While marriage is stable or strengthening among our college-educated elites, much larger numbers of Americans, particularly in middle and working-class America, are abandoning the institution entirely, with harmful social and personal consequences."
They are referring here to a new pattern in the decline of marriage that has been well surveyed by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.  Beginning in the 1960s, declining marriage seemed to be a serious social problem in the United States mostly for poor and uneducated people in the inner cities.  But in recent decades, it has become a problem for those in the middle class who are better educated, and this decline in marriage is pushing people out of the middle class into precarious social and economic conditions where children are less likely to be nurtured in ways that will make them successful as adults.  Increasingly, the children of moderately educated mothers--high school graduates who might have some post-secondary training but no four-year college degree--have been born outside of marriage.  Many of these children will fall out of the middle class because of the consequences that flow from the mistake of their mothers in having children without first getting married.  By contrast, those mothers who finished their four-year college degrees and who married before having children are more likely to provide a secure base for the success of their children as nurtured by two parents.

I agree with Blankenhorn and his associates that this decline in marriage has little to do with same-sex couples or the move towards legalizing gay marriage.  Marriage will endure for as long as human beings have natural desires for spousal bonding and parental care that are most fully satisfied in monogamous marriages.  But the problem for us is how to best support those social practices that encourage people to see their need for monogamous marriages to satisfy their desires and to see how mistaken it is to produce children outside of marriage.  More precisely, the problem is how to use marriage to secure the attachment of men to the children they produce.

Although it is not stated as clearly as it should be, the implied assumption of this new pro-marriage coalition formed around Blankenhorn is that gay marriage could secure the two natural ends of marriage--spousal bonding and parental care.  As I have suggested in some of my posts in response to Robert George's arguments, evolved human biology supports heterosexual monogamy as the natural norm for satisfying our natural desires for spousal bonding and parental care; but still, gay men and lesbians might well approximate that norm through homosexual monogamy and same-sex adoptive parenting.

Robert George would say, yes, the decline in marriage is the root problem.  But gay marriage is part of that problem, because gay marriage is not real marriage, and for that reason, legalizing gay marriage adds to the decline in real marriage.  His claim is that it's biologically impossible for gay couples to have a real marriage, because the biological nature of real marriage is necessarily heterosexual.  While heterosexual marriage is naturally oriented to producing and caring for children, gay marriage is not.

The key point in George's argument has been stated by Sean Fieler in explaining why he withdrew his support from Blankenhorn's organization.  "The problem with gay marriage and the position David has taken is it promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle.  It suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health, and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do.  That's not true." 

My response is that while this might be true of many gays, it is not true of all, particularly of those who seek a monogamous marriage with children as the fulfillment of their deepest desires.

My claim--and the implied claim of the Blankenhorn coalition--is that gay marriages with adopted children could approximate heterosexual marriages in serving the two natural functions of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care of children.

It is significant that one of the people joining Blankenhorn's coalition is Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who wrote Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004).  Rauch argues that gay marriage would be good because it would strengthen marriage, and thus it should be supported by social conservatives.  Remarkably, he admits: "If I could have designed myself in the womb, I would have chosen to be heterosexual."

In a recent post, I have commented on Robert George's book What Is Marriage?  This post includes links to my other posts on this debate.