Saturday, March 14, 2015

Nietzschean Nihilism, Natural Right, and Liberal Education

The failure to solve what Leo Strauss identified as the problem of natural right led Strauss and his students to embrace Nietzsche's value-positing nihilism.  This led to a Nietzschean view of liberal education as promoting the life of artist-philosophers who create new values as an expression of their will to power. 

This Straussian turn to Nietzschean nihilism was clearly intimated, although never openly affirmed, in Strauss's writings published near the end of his life and after his death.  This was also seen in Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.  And although William Deresiewicz does not fully understand what he is doing, he expresses this Nietzschean view of liberal education in his book Excellent Sheep.

The alternative to this Nietzschean turn is to solve the problem of natural right by showing how Darwinian science can confirm natural right as rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature.  This Darwinian natural right would support a Darwinian liberal education that would integrate all of the intellectual disciplines of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities into a comprehensive science of nature and of human nature as part of that natural whole.

According to Strauss in Natural Right and History, the problem of natural right is that natural right requires a teleological conception of nature that seems to have been refuted by modern natural science.  Neither in Natural Right and History nor in any other writing did Strauss explain how to solve that problem. 

In 1970, only three years before his death, Strauss wrote a new Preface to Natural Right and History, which included this sentence: "Nothing that I have learned has shaken my inclination to prefer 'natural right,' especially in its classic form, to the reigning relativism, positivist or historicist."  Thus, writing like Max Weber, Strauss put the term natural right within quotation marks, and he indicated that his affirmation of classic natural right was nothing more than his personal preference.  In Natural Right and History, Strauss said that Weber's propensity for putting terms designating value judgments in quotation marks was a "childish trick" (53).

In 1973, the year of Strauss's death, Interpretation published his "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil," which suggested his fundamental agreement with Nietzsche.  Near the end of his life, Strauss left instructions for the publication of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, with his article on Nietzsche as the central chapter.

In 1987, Bloom's Closing of the American Mind became an international best-seller, and thus the best-selling Straussian book of all time.  Most readers saw Bloom's apparent criticism of the relativism in America's elite universities and his apparent defense of Socratic liberal education as directed to the pursuit of truth.  But some readers (Harry Jaffa, for example) also saw in the book a dramatic conflict over whether Bloom's heroic model for liberal education was to be Socrates or Nietzsche.  Some readers also noticed that Bloom's interpretation of Nietzsche followed closely what Strauss had written in his essay on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil

Socrates and Nietzsche are the two thinkers that Bloom mentions more often than anyone else.  He sets them in opposition to one another.  And he never clearly states any disagreement with Nietzsche, while suggesting that Nietzsche might have been correct in his criticisms of Socrates (51, 60, 79-80, 143, 145, 160, 163, 194-98, 204, 207-208, 268, 270, 277, 310-11).  Much of Bloom's book is designed to show us what he calls "the extraordinary thought and philosophical greatness" of not only Nietzsche but also Heidegger and the other German nihilists (239).

Nietzsche makes his first appearance in Bloom's book in a passage explaining why Bloom began to doubt the Great Books approach to liberal education as founded on the model of Socrates.  Bloom describes the "enchanting prospect" provided by American students when he first began teaching in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He quotes from something he wrote in 1965 about how the good students in the elite universities were open to liberal education, and how "these students are a kind of democratic version of an aristocracy" (49).  And thus Bloom echoed Strauss's hope that a Great Books liberal education could "found an aristocracy within democratic mass society" ("What Is Liberal Democracy?", 5).  In 1965, Bloom saw in his students "a spiritual yearning, a powerful tension which made the university atmosphere electric."  Later, however, he began to suspect that Nietzsche was right about how a liberal democratic culture brings a decadence that deprives the human soul of any transcendent longings:
"But the students who have succeeded that generation of the late fifties and early sixties, when the culture leeches, professional and amateur, began their great spiritual bleeding, have induced me to wonder whether my conviction--the old Great Books conviction--was correct.  That conviction was that nature is the only thing that counts in education, that the human desire to know is permanent, that all it really needs is the proper nourishment, and that education is merely putting the feast on the table.  At the very least, it is clear to me now that nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man's art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness.  At worst, I fear that spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul's boiling blood is taking place, a fear that Nietzsche thought justified and made the center of all his thought.  He argued that the spirit's bow was being unbent and risked being permanently unstrung.  Its activity, he believed, comes from culture, and the decay of culture meant not only the decay of man in this culture but the decay of man simply.  This is the crisis he tried to face resolutely: the very existence of man as man, as a noble being, depended on him and on men like him--so he thought.  He may not have been right, but his case looks stronger all the time. . . . The soil is ever thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain the taller growths." (51)
So Bloom doubts the Great Books appeal to nature and the permanent natural desire to know.  He fears the cultural flattening of the human soul that was at the center of all Nietzsche's thought, and he understands Nietzsche's concern that the creation of a new nobility would require philosophic creators like himself.  Without openly embracing Nietzsche's position, Bloom points in that direction: "He may not have been right, but his case looks stronger all the time."  Originally, Bloom wanted the title of his book to be Souls Without Longing, and his book is all about the Nietzschean lament that liberal democratic culture has created people with flat souls, and that the creation of a new nobility requires creating a new culture of noble values.

"The longing for the beyond has been attenuated," Bloom declares (61).  By contrast, Bloom describes the spiritually deep lives of his uneducated grandparents, whose lives were rooted in their simple faith in the Bible, which differed from the life of the next generation:
"I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning.  When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clich├ęs, superficialties, the material of satire.  I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by.  I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things.  Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside.  The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished." (60)
Notice that the Bible is identified here not as a divine revelation of truth but as only one of many "revelations" or "epics" without which "there is nothing to see out there."  As Jaffa observed, "to say that without books there is nothing to see is nihilism" ("Humanizing Certitudes and Impoverishing Doubts," 117).  But then, as Jaffa noticed, Bloom contradicts this nihilism by referring to "natural vision" and "the real nature of things," a contradiction that runs throughout Bloom's book. 

Moreover, Bloom's account of the power of the Bible in creating a spiritually rich culture among common people echoes Nietzsche's account of how "reverence for the Bible" has until recently shaped "more relative nobility of taste and tactful reverence" among less educated people than among "the newspaper-reading demi-monde of the spirit, the educated" (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 263).

Many readers of Bloom's book assumed that his criticism of relativism was part of a defense of traditional morality.  But some readers noticed that this was not true.  Bloom declared: "It is not the immorality of relativism that I find appalling.  What is astounding and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept such relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives" (239).  Notice that the immorality of relativism is not appalling to Bloom.  Rather, what Bloom finds disgusting is America's "easygoing" relativism, or "nihilism, American style" (139), as opposed to the anguished relativism of Nietzsche.  "Nietzsche replaces easygoing or self-satisfied atheism with agonized atheism, suffering its human consequences" (196).
"Stripping away the illusions about values was required, so Nietzsche thought, by our situation, to disenchant all misleading hopes of comfort or consolation, thereby to fill the new creators with awe and the awareness that everything depends on them.  Nihilism is a dangerous but necessary and a possibly salutary stage in human history.  In it man faces his true situation.  It can break him, reduce him to despair and spiritual or bodily suicide.  But it can hearten him to a reconstruction of a world of meaning.  Nietzsche's works are a glorious exhibition of the soul of a man who might, if anybody can, be called creative.  They constitute the profoundest statement about creativity, by a man who had a burning need to understand it." (198)
In understanding philosophy not as the will to truth but as the will to power, as the artistic creation of values through creating culture, Nietzsche must overturn the Socratic understanding of philosophy as the quest to know the truth about nature.
"Nietzsche's psychology concerns the impulse toward God, for in that impulse the self arrays and displays all its powers; and his influence brought a new burst of religious interest, if not religion, to the intellectual world.  God is myth, Nietzsche taught.  Myths are made by poets.  This is just what Plato says in the Republic and for him it is equivalent to a declaration of war between philosophy and poetry.  The aim of philosophy is to substitute truth for myth (which by its very definition is falsehood, a fact too often forgotten in our post-Nietzschean fascination with myth).  Since myths are thee first and give men their first opinions, philosophy means a critical destruction of myth in favor of truth for the sake of freedom and living naturally.  Socrates, as depicted in the Platonic dialogues, questioning and confuting the received opinions, is the model of the philosophic life; and his death at the hands of his countrymen for not believing in their myths epitomizes the risks of philosophy.  Nietzsche drew precisely the opposite conclusion from the same facts about myth.  There is no nature and no such freedom.  The philosopher must do the contrary of what Socrates did.  So Nietzsche is the first philosopher ever to have attacked Socrates, because Socrates' life is not the model life, but a coruupt and monstrous one lacking in all nobility.  The tragic life, which Socrates defused and purged, is the serious life.  The new philosopher is the ally of the poets and their savior, or philosophy is itself the highest kind of poetry.  Philosophy in the old mode demythologizes and demystifies.  It has no sense of the sacred; and by disenchanting the world and uprooting man, it leads into the void.  The revelation that philosophy finds nothingness at the end of its quest informs the new philosopher that mythmaking must be his central concern in order to make a world." (208)
But even as Bloom sets up this conflict between Socrates and Nietzsche, he also hints that they might have been in fundamental agreement about philosophy as a creative art.  He identifies Socrates as "the complementary man" (268).  This unusual expression is Nietzsche's term in Beyond Good and Evil (section 207) for the value-creating philosopherUnlike the "objective spirit" of a scholar, who is only a mirror of reality and who "does not command," the true philosopher is a "complementary man," who is "the Caesarian cultivator and power-man of culture."  (If Strauss thought Socrates was actually a Nietzschean artist/philosopher, that would explain why he put his essay on Nietzsche at the center of his Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.)

Like Nietzsche, Deresiewicz sets up an opposition between scientific objectivity and discovery, on the one hand, and artistic subjectivity and creativity, on the other.  Liberal education, he argues, should be on the side of art rather than science, because humanistic knowledge is not about the objective observation of external reality but about the subjective experience of internal reality, of "what reality feels like" (159).  For the liberal arts, Deresiewicz insists, the question is not "Is it true?" but "Is it true for me?" (160).  As with Nietzsche, knowledge in liberal education for Deresiewicz is not a matter of discovery and the will to truth but interpretation and the will to power.  Also like Nietzsche, Deresiewicz sees this artistic creation of meaning and purpose as a substitute for traditional religion--"aestheticism, the religion of art" (156).

Deresiewicz does not reflect on the nihilistic implications of assuming that human life has no objective goods discoverable by the human mind but only subjective values created by the human will.  Objective human goods would require some conception of natural right as rooted in natural teleology.

Bloom points to the possibility of a natural teleology of human biological nature, but his Nietzschean nihilism denies that possibility.  For example, he writes: "I mean by teleology nothing but the evident, everyday observation and sense of purposiveness, which may be only illusory, but which ordinarily guides human life, the kind everyone sees in the reproductive process" (110).  So even as he recognizes the evident teleology of human biology, he cannot fully affirm it, because it "may be only illusory."  This happens often in his book (112-116, 126, 130, 143, 133, 166, 181, 207-208, 270-71, 300, 356-358).

Bloom recognizes that the Socratic question of how one should live is a question of how human beings fit into the natural universe.  To think through that question would require a unification of the intellectual disciplines in the modern university--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--into a comprehensive science of nature.  He identifies "sociobiology" as one attempt to do that, but he does not develop that thought (369).

Like Strauss, Bloom's interpretation of Nietzsche concentrates on the early and late writings of Nietzsche; and thus Strauss and Bloom ignore Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian science in Human, All Too Human, where Nietzsche suggests how the problem of natural right could be solved by a Darwinian science of evolved human nature that would allow for the immanent teleology of natural human desires.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts herehere, here, here, here, here., here, and here.


Walter Bond said...


To use the otherwise overused taxonomy as shorthand: you seem to imply that the East coast Straussians are correct in their interpretation of Strauss, but that the West Coast Straussians (and Midwest?, I can’t keep track) - while incorrect in the lessons they learn from Strauss himself - are correct philosophically. Is that a fair characterization? I don’t think Jaffa would ever have conceded that Bloom understood Strauss better than he, however. Also fair? In which case you’re closer to Bloom regarding Strauss and to Jaffa regarding political philosophy (despite some other differences with Jaffa)? As an outsider, I’ve always found Strauss to be more Socratically skeptical, or at least illusive, than conclusive regarding the possibility of nature as a standard. Perhaps this comes from reading him too superficially. But even Bloom, as you point out, sometimes adopts this position of hedging his bets, or remaining open, no?

Larry Arnhart said...

My answer to all of your questions is yes. The East Coast Straussians are more correct as interpreters of Strauss. The West Coast or Midwest Straussians are more correct as political philosophers.

Mobius Trip said...

You say: “... Nietzsche suggests how the problem of natural right could be solved by a Darwinian science of evolved human nature that would allow for the immanent teleology of natural human desires.” It sounds to me that your interpretation of Nietzsche is that he is more of a Lamarckian, than a Darwinian. Strauss might also fit this description, but his conservative tendencies might have constrained him to his Jewish tradition, while Nietzsche’s liberal Christian view of the world, in the sense that Christianity was to a large degree a catalyst for the development of science, allowed him to look through the mechanical Platonic world view (“Christianity is Platonism for the people”) to see the world that could be with healthier myths. Myths conducive to the abduction of scientific theory.

I recall you mentioning in a previous post about being skeptical about the prescription of Darwinian evolution. So why not develop a Lamarckian view?

Larry Arnhart said...

Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution. He stressed the importance of cultural evolution, especially in human moral evolution. That's true for Nietzsche as well, in Human, All Too Human.

Both Darwin and Nietzsche could see the importance of mythic evolution as cultural evolution.

Troy Camplin said...

I'm not sure why an assertion that a strong, deep interpretive frame is better than a weak, superficial interpretive frame for being able to see what's out there is nihilistic. It seems to me that that is what Bloom was claiming, not that there is nothing to see without books.

In any case, I completely agree with you that we need complete consilience to overcome all of the things you mention. Which is precisely why it's my approach to everything. Which makes writing anything but books difficult, and makes even writing books difficult (I only have the one).

Kent Guida said...

This series of posts that began in January with your comments on Melzer and Strauss is most stimulating ever. You don't shy away from the big questions, do you? This one on Bloom may have tipped the balance for me. Up till now I have resisted the 'Strauss as Nietzschean' hypothesis, but my defenses are crumbling.

Is this a preview of your Strauss chapter in the new edition of Political Questions? If not, do you have plans to publish it elsewhere?

Larry Arnhart said...


This is a good point. To stress the importance of interpretive cultural frameworks is not in itself nihilistic, unless one sees that interpretive framework as creation ex nihilo. As the natural order of things, including human nature, is seen as constraining but not determining the cultural interpretation, this is not nihilism.

Larry Arnhart said...


Like you, I have been very reluctant to accept the Strauss as Nietzschean view, but for the reasons indicated in some of my posts, I now find the evidence for that view persuasive.

And yet, I still think Strauss helps us to understand the weaknesses in the early and late Nietzsche.

Some of this is elaborated in my chapter on Strauss in the 4th edition of Political Questions, which has been completed, and which should be published in a few months.

Walter Bond said...

Is it possible that - rather than being Nietzschean - Strauss was open to something akin to your extended argument as being true, but still a "deadly truth" at that? (Even, of course, if you reject this conclusion).

You have written that a virtue ethics based on our human nature is narrower than a “cosmic” morality. However, one could argue that when we consider truly ghastly and heinous crimes our natural moral sentiments seem to desire such a cosmic morality, or at least something closer to it. If this is true, then it is our evolved human nature itself that desires a morality grander in scale than can be supplied by the natural right based on that human nature alone.

Perhaps Strauss could have accepted the broad bases of your argument (as he hints at them in the introduction to NRH), but would have been skeptical of them as being a sufficient ground for most "non-philosophers'" conception of justice?

Larry Arnhart said...

That's a good suggestion. As you indicate, Strauss did say that the lack of cosmic support for what we care about was "the most terrible truth," and a Darwinian natural right would teach that terrible truth.

Similarly, the Nietzsche of "Human, All Too Human" thought that Darwinian science would not satisfy those human beings who needed a metaphysical purposefulness for life.

Mobius Trip said...

So you differentiate between passive and active nihilism, in that:

“Strauss did say that the lack of cosmic support for what we care about was "the most terrible truth," and a Darwinian natural right would teach that terrible truth.”

is passive nihilism, and:

“Similarly, the Nietzsche of "Human, All Too Human" thought that Darwinian science would not satisfy those human beings who needed a metaphysical purposefulness for life.”

is active nihilism? Further, that active nihilism could be the foundation for a new religion?

Xenophon said...

I don't think you have proved your claims about Strauss as a "Nietzschean nihilist" at all. Bloom was not Strauss. You have previously rightly criticized Bloom for some of his confusions about teleology.

You write: "In 1970, only three years before his death, Strauss wrote a new Preface to Natural Right and History, which included this sentence: "Nothing that I have learned has shaken my inclination to prefer 'natural right,' especially in its classic form, to the reigning relativism, positivist or historicist." Thus, writing like Max Weber, Strauss put the term natural right within quotation marks, and he indicated that his affirmation of classic natural right was nothing more than his personal preference."

Sorry, but this is a contentious reading. I don't think he indicated any such thing and it would certainly undermine his entire work to say it was a "mere preference". There are preferences that can be rationally supported. And there are "preferences" that are the best one can decide on the evidence while admitting that issues involved are so complex that that the debate will never end.

"In 1973, the year of Strauss's death, Interpretation published his "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil," which suggested his fundamental agreement with Nietzsche." That piece is pretty obscure. I have read it many times and I don't see that it proves his "fundamental agreement with Nietzsche" unless one takes every statement in the piece as Strauss's own voice rather than Nietzsche as he understood himself. And in that Nietzsche piece he asks "is not Nietzsche's critique of Plato and Socrates a grave exaggeration, not to say a caricature?" Which would imply that even it contains a small element of truth, Nietzsche did not adequately understand ancient thought.

You write: "Near the end of his life, Strauss left instructions for the publication of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, with his article on Nietzsche as the central chapter."

Not quite. According to Cropsey's Forward, there was supposed to have been another essay on Plato's Gorgias inserted after essay 3, on the Euthydemus. So there would have been 16 essays in total and there would have been two centers, not one, essays 8 and 9, "Jerusalem and Athens" as well as the Nietzsche piece. But again it begs the question about Strauss's ultimate intention if the Nietzsche essay is not, as you have it, a defense of Nietzsche but an implicit critique.