Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mansfield's Manly Nihilism

As I indicated in my previous post, Harvey Mansfield asserts that the "manly virtue" of Plato and Aristotle depends on the eternity of species and cosmic teleology, which are denied by Darwinian evolution. In response, I have argued that Darwinian science supports the idea of natural right through an immanent teleology of species-specific natural ends.

It is odd, however, that Mansfield never actually asserts the truth of eternal species and cosmic teleology. And while he opens and closes his book by apparently endorsing the teaching of Plato and Aristotle that virtue is rooted in nature, the central chapter of his book (Chapter 4)is devoted to the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt and Friedrich Nietzsche. He thus leaves his reader suspecting that the secret teaching of the book is the truth of "manly nihilism."

"The most dramatic statement of manliness," Mansfield asserts, "would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning," which is nihilism (82). Nietzsche is "
the philosopher of manliness in modern times" (110). Teddy Roosevelt is the best political expression of manly nihilism, particularly in the "assertiveness of executive power" (97).

Mansfield is famous for his Machiavellian defense of executive prerogative, which includes some recent articles defending President Bush's displays of the "assertiveness of executive power." Is this all in the service of "manly nihilism"? Does this support the suspicion that Mansfield and other "Eastern Straussians" really are nihilists?

There would no need for nihilism if we saw how a Darwinian naturalism supports natural right as rooted in human nature and immanent teleology.


Anonymous said...

A few remarks on that Nietzsche, Darwin, and nihilism thing.

The idea that Darwin's [alleged] "denial of eternal, fixed nature and cosmic teleology prepares the way for nihilism" I find absurd.

It never fails to amaze me how Nietzsche, who coined the term "nihilism", and his subliminally - and in places explicitly - Darwinian assessment of men (not Man) is turned so upside down and used to muddle the whole biocentric aestheticist perspective.

Let me remind you, first, what Nietzsche's understanding of nihilism is not: It is NOT lack of a fixity of "meaning" or an ethical "ideal". Such an assessment would itself be the sign of decadence (i.e. decay) and nihilistic tendencies. Nietzsche is an extreme realist, and as such he doesn't interpret anything about humans from an idealistic viewpoint. He disdains the whole notion (including Kant's) of "ideals", of "internality", of "transcendence". (And fools think that makes Nietzsche a nihilist.)

Why would that be so? Because - and here's Nietzsche's original definition - Nature, existence does NOT have to justify itself. Any notion that what is real, what IS, is in some way subject to rational justification and judgement in its entirety is itself the sign of decadence - which, for Nietzsche, is the cause of nihilism.

Why would he call that "nihilism"? Because he wants to define "belief" as the natural *affirmation* of a beast of its own nature - whatever it is at any delta time in the evolutionary timeline. It neither requires a fixity of nature nor a rationalization. A happy, healthy beast does NOT question why he is what he is.

It is he who has lost his will to power, his will to exist, his vigor, and turns to desparately fortifying his sorry existence by "rationalisms", that is nihilistic.

Does evolution need fixity of nature? Yes, and no.

No, because evolution is itself granting the fact that there is only one meta-beast with a gazillion variations that emerge as species. No, because through that journey what once used to be a marine reptile ended up, in one its descendents, as a monkey on plains

And yet, yes, because there's no going back from that. Once a mutation creates a branching off that turns - at a certain historical crossroad - toward the line that eventually becomes say "birds", it cannot roll back and switch to "reptile" again. Variational differentiation is extremely historically-specific, and the "throw of the dice" (a synonym for "necessity" in Nietzsche) through which mutations emerge has consequences from which it is not possible to backtrack.

Why the search for fixity of nature? Well, why else, because conservatism has defined itself - in an uncannily similar way to its evil sibling "liberalism" - as a set of "ideas", "principles", etc. Darwinian conservatism may have a better chance at shaking off this "idealistic" bug from its code, but until you get all those like the Evangelicals, for instance - or crypto-liberals like Mansfield - to denounce their various idealisms which although once upon a time may have originated - through vigorous, masculine, "strong" types - as affirmation of an underlying nature, have now become idealistic schemes through which existence is being judged and required to affirm itself.

Take masculinity, for example. If Mansfield looks at this exactly as you say, well, then he is hopeless. All that confused, liberal definitions of public versus private - read that as the sphere that matters to our oligarchs in which to play their power games, the sphere rigged to guarantee their victory, versus the sphere which they leave to the powerless, the masses, like prison cells, to harmlessly exist and masturbate in. It is exactly this very critical division of life into these spheres, and the paralyzing of men via this shutting out of manliness from the power domain, that made possible the liberal tyranny we live under.

And note that even his assumption of Teddy Roosevelt being a paradigm example of assertiveness is wrong-headed and liberal. Because his view of human nature is egalitarian, a principle liberal through and through. Men, on the other hand, seek hirarchies - unlike women who are (to quote Camille Paglia) populistic and communitarian. Teddy Roosevelt and his ilk view political power or privileges as instruments of imposing their effeminate (self-effacing and, therefore, ultimately nihilistic) egalitarianism. Patrician, masculine men - in their obsessively systematizing minds - see structural principles like "separation of powers" as manly, hierarchically justified.

No wonder Mansfield has to find the naturalistic faith in masculinity as "nihilistic" (turning Nietzsche's definition entirely upside down) because his vision of manhood is the rationalistic, egalitarian one in which men who don't qualify for the criteria for inclusion in the democratic "public" sphere (the metrosexual?) are slated for castration.

But note that those - like Mansfield - who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the stark reality of sex differences, of "gender", fall into this trap because of their fear to challenge the final status quo of public opinion that arrived through a tidal change of heart in the last half a century, particularly during the 60s. And the 60s is exactly that which conservatives still fail to understand. Name-calling is not understanding. Paglia is one of the few who - despite her adherence to that quack named Freud and his pseudo-scientific crock - does undertand this Apollonian period. To anyone who can cut through the mountains of commie bullshit written about it, the 60s is nothing other than the return of the Pagan, of Masculine Assertiveness. It was a bunch of very gifted guys creating, yet again, unique cultural artifacts to assert their will to power, smashing all the decaying, nihilistic moralisms of the established order. Rock music sung through Led Zeppelin is pure and simple male megalomania, of godliness, with adoring chicks at their feet. If you told any of those guys things like separation of the public and the private spheres, you'd only get a raised middle finger.

And this is exactly where the tragedy of movement conservatism lies. Except for short-lived periods of re-invigoration (Reagan years?), it speaks the language of museum curators and bureaucrats, not the language of warriors and creators, of vigorous males (mostly, dead white) who, in their heroic acts (none of which were produced through any long drawn, sissy rationalizations), asserted nothing other than their racially-specific character.

Nietzsche had this one-liner which sums up the tragedy of modern times (to the devastating ills of which no movement, including establisment conservatism is in any way immune):

"The values of the weak prevail, because the strong have adopted them as devices of leadership."

As a last note, to illustrate this process, let me point at a recent cultural event, the The Dumb Vinci Code phenomenon. This plot is not the antithesis of Christianity, despite appearances. It is its final stage.

Steve Sailer entered the following comment on his blog, defending Christianity against the criticisms levied at it by Da Vinci Coders:

If this doesn't prove the effeminizing impact of Christianity - the last stage of which is the Da Vinci Cauldron -, of the nihilistic core in it finally taking over, in a suicidal turn, the once healthy (manly, vigorous?) body politique it has infested, I don't know what does. I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart: after reading the previous comments to your post, I hope you can appreciate why some people might think that your attempt to base ethics on human nature is, well, crazy, or vitiated by ideological motivations. The post above illustrates perfectly the irrationalism that is all too common in Nietzscheans of all stripes (whether conservative like our previous anonymous or liberal like Brian Leiter) and in conservative thinkers of most varieties (liberals tend to be irrational, too, but irrational liberals usually do not put on the pretension of being 'thinkers'). We are there being told that we should follow our nature, where that means being a 'healthy, happy beast' in the sense of doing whatever our 'nature' purportedly drives us to do. That sort of thought comes in second place only to the myriad attempts to justify the status quo as something 'natural' that will only resist our attempts to reform it anyway. You can understand, then, why someone might mistakenly assume that your thought tends in the same direction, especially since you yourself call it 'conservative.'

In fact your thinking is perfectly level-headed, well-articulated, and defensible, and you know how to defend your ideas against objections without delving into mere rhetoric and ad hominem attacks -- which is not something that can be said of most people who associate themselves with conservative political philosophy, with the idea that ethics is rooted in human nature, or (most of all) with Leo Strauss. I have not finished reading your work, and so I do not yet know whether or in what respects I agree with it. I do wonder, though, why exactly you think that the view of human nature that you give us necessarily leads in a conservative direction. I fully understand why you take it to entail a rejection of the views of the far left, views that deny any sort of importance to human nature or any sort of non-subjective human good. Rejecting those views does not make a conservative, though, and at least two of our major contemporary proponents of objective human goods are notoriously not conservative: Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum would, I think, criticize American conservativism, in all or most of its varieties, for provincialism and for failing to recognize certain demands of justice; MacIntyre just considers it a variation on liberalism and therefore systematically set to frustrate the pursuit of the human good. From what I have read of your work so far, I see no reason why accepting the basic picture of human nature that you offer would compel me to abandon distinctively 'liberal' positions on policy issues like, say, health care, education, environmental protection, worker's protection, taxation. On the contrary, I'm hard-pressed to figure out how anybody could defend 'liberal' positions on those issues without a picture of objective human good much like the one you offer.

Of course, these issues will probably become clearer for me as I continue to read your work. In the mean time, I think you deserve applause for arguing for your position in a clear, level-headed way. If ethical naturalism is to become a respectable position, we will need more proponents like you and less like Harvey Mansfield and the majority of Straussians.

Anonymous said...

To the author of the 2nd post (from the author of the 1st post):

You display extreme ignorance and superficiality in interpreting what I have said. Your amazing reduction of my assessment of man's nature to "doing whatever we like" (whatever that means) is I believe the unmistakable sign of your difficulty in comprehension.

More specifically, you seem to utterly lack in understanding "reflexive" reasoning.

A strong man - let's say a "moral" "conservative", your beloved - who rejects behavior which the likes of you sheepishly find so abominable also acts according to his "nature". But you reduce nature to "all ugly things that must be limited by <your beloved paradigm of morality here>".

This site supports the perspective that it is demonstrable by the Darwinian paradigm that humans have a "nature", and what we call "moral" behavior is the result of that nature. With which those "irrational Nietzscheans" (again, whatever that means) like myself also agree.

Anonymous said...
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Pete said...

Hello everyone-I've been reading the comments here and enjoy what I understand. Any recommendations on some starter books. Where to start for basic knowlege? I realise there's a lot of areas covered here but any help would be appreciated. I've been reading Paglia but she's a bit over my head although I can pick up part of what she's saying.....Thank you ...Pete