Sunday, August 30, 2009

Zuckert's Plato: Teleology and Eternity

The Straussian proponents of Platonic political philosophy reject Darwinian natural right for two reasons.

First, they think it promotes a reductionism that denies the cosmic teleology of natural ends. Second, they think it promotes a historicism that denies the cosmic eternity of natural kinds.

When modern natural science sets aside any teleological conception of the universe, they say, it deprives human purposefulness of any cosmic support and thus leads to a reductionistic nihilism. When modern natural science sets aside any conception of the eternity of species or kinds, it deprives human morality and politics of any eternal standard of human nature and thus leads to historicist relativism.

That's why the Straussians are deeply suspicious of modern science and why they look to Plato's argument that the human good must be judged by a cosmic model of eternal, teleological order.

But as I have indicated in my posts over the last two months, I am not convinced that Plato (or Plato's Socrates) supports this position. As I have suggested previously, I see Catherine Zuckert's new book--Plato's Philosophers--as a helpful guide to these questions as they arise in the Platonic dialogues. By taking up each of the dialogues in their dramatic order--rather than in the order in which Plato wrote them--and by comparing what Socrates says in comparison with what is said by four other philosophers in the dialogues--the Athenian Stranger, Parmenides, Timaeus, and the Eleatic Stranger--Zuckert shows that Plato's teaching about cosmic teleology and the eternity of the ideas is much more complex than is often recognized.

Moreover, she shows that these two topics really are the fundamental issues running throughout the dialogues. The question of cosmic teleology is raised at the end of the Laws. "If no connection can be found between the most pressing concerns of human existence and the order of the whole, we humans would appear to be set adrift in a fundamentally indifferent, if not hostile environment" (145-46). The Athenian Stranger offers a teleological cosmology based on the intelligent design of a divine mind. But, Zuckert observes, his arguments are not very plausible; and Socrates is not present in the dialogue to question him. So we are left wondering "whether we can discover an all-encompassing, intelligible order, and second, if such an order can be found, whether it supports or fosters human happiness."

The question of the eternal ideas is raised in the Parmenides. A young Socrates cannot defend his doctrine of the ideas against the criticisms of Parmenides. In particular, Socrates cannot explain exactly how the unchanging, purely intelligible ideas are related to the changing, sensible experience of mortal human beings. In fact, as Zuckert sees it, Socrates never solves this problem anywhere in the dialogues.

As I have noted in some of my previous posts on Zuckert's book, she generally emphasizes that Socrates never clearly develops a cosmic teleology. "In contrast to Timaeus, Socrates never gives a specific account of the order of the movements of the heavenly bodies or the geometric construction of the four elements" (421).

Instead of finding moral guidance in the cosmos, Socrates looks to human wants and desires. "In contrast to Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger, Socrates never suggests that human beings can discover what is good for them by contemplating the intelligible order of the movements of the heavens. Not moved by the same wants and desires, the heavens cannot tell us what to do" (419).

If this is the correct interpretation of Socrates' position, then Socrates would be close to my position--that human morality and politics depends not on a cosmic teleology but on an immanent teleology of human natural desires. If human beings are by their natural desires directed to certain ends or purposes, then we can see those ends or purposes as intrinsic to their nature, regardless of whether these ends have any cosmic reference. Darwinian biology supports such an immanent teleology because it recognizes the goal-directed behavior characteristic of various animal species, including the human species.

This suggests that Plato's Socrates could embrace a conception of the cosmos as morally neutral, while seeing the species-specific desires of human beings as sufficient grounds for moral teleology. This seems to be the stance of the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. The Eleatic concludes that although the gods might have cared for human beings in the past, the gods no longer rule us directly. And so, as Zuckert states it, human beings now live "in a godforsaken universe in which they have to rule and provide for themselves" (714-17). Joseph Cropsey--in his Plato's World--interprets this denial of cosmic teleology as Plato's understanding.

Although Zuckert generally agrees with Cropsey, she occasionally suggests disagreement. In contrast to the "godforsaken universe" of the Eleatic Stranger, Zuckert asserts, Socrates' universe looks like that of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger. "All three of these philosophers suggest that studying the intelligible motions of the heavenly bodies will help human beings learn not merely how the cosmos is ordered but, even more important, how to order their own souls" (718). But this contradicts what Zuckert says elsewhere in her book about how Socrates never clearly embraces the cosmological arguments of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger.

Zuckert's confusion here reflects a confusion in Socrates' position. On the one hand, Socrates never develops any precise cosmology comparable to that of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger, and he never clearly endorses what they say, although he does say that Timaeus represents "the peak of all philosophy." On the other hand, Socrates does show a yearning for some cosmic explanation of everything as guided by "mind" (nous) so that everything is ordered for the best. It seems, as Zuckert suggests, that Socrates wants this to be the "best of possible worlds" (in Leibniz's famous phrase), because if it is not, then this world is in some essential sense accidental, and that would frustrate Socrates' yearning for a cosmic order that is ordered for the best.

But what then about the other big issue--the question of the eternity of species? If Darwin's evolutionary science is correct, then all the species of life come into being and pass away. Species are not eternal or everlasting. This would seem to contradict the Platonic/Socratic teaching that being--what is really real and fully intelligible--is to be identified as eternal and unchanging, as distinguished from the temporal and ever-changing flux of the sensible world.

This identification of the real as what is eternally fixed is Parmenides' teaching. Socrates adopts this Parmenidean position, although he departs from Parmenides claim that being must be one and undifferentiated, because Socrates insists that being must be differentiated into multiple forms or ideas. As Zuckert says, Socrates is a "pluralistic Parmenidean" (684, 688).

But as long as he adheres to this Parmenidean assumption that being is eternally unchanging, Socrates cannot bridge the gap between the unchanging ideas and changing sense experience. The Eleatic Stranger points out that any absolute separation of unchanging intelligibles and changing sensibles cannot explain human knowledge, because human cognition is in motion. "The intelligibility of being seems to require that it somehow be both in motion and at rest" (700). The Eleatic proposes that we understand the world by sorting things into classes according to the ways they are like or unlike one another.

I am on the side of the Eleatic Stranger. Karl Popper--in his The World of Parminides--captures the main thought here: we need to go beyond the Parmenidean search for invariants and see that reality is a mixture of fixity and flux. We need to see, as Popper suggests, that the history of the cosmos shows an evolutionary emergence of variance and novelty. As the Eleatic Stranger argues, we can sort things out according to their enduring patterns of similarity and difference. But these enduring patterns are not eternal.

This is certainly true for our study of human nature. The human species is not absolutely invariant or eternal. Human beings did not exist before the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens, and we can expect that some day the human species will go extinct. But for as long as our species exists, there will be natural propensities that characterize us.

And yet the present reality of the human species is not invariant, because each human being is unique in being a product of a unique natural history. Biological history depends upon the variation that comes from sexual mating in which the random assortment of genes results in the procreation of unique individuals. So while we can identify the human species as a range of traits, we know that within that range, there is immense variation expressed in individual diversity. Human nature as we know it is neither absolutely fixed nor absolutely chaotic.

Without realizing it, Zuckert implicitly endorses this Darwinian understanding of the human species in her criticisms of Timaeus's cosmological explanation of the human species. As she indicates, Timaeus cannot account for the unpredictable variation in human beings that comes from human mating and reproduction, because he has to assume that the divine craftsman created human nature as absolutely unchanging. Consequently, Timaeus has to assume that all human beings are born absolutely the same in their natural abilities and traits, which denies the reality of natural individual differences (842). Thus, as Zuckert indicates, Timaeus' cosmology--in its search for eternal invariance--must deny the obvious facts of sexual reproduction and individual identity.

My conclusion from all this is that the Platonic dialogues give us reasons to believe that conceptions of cosmic teleology and the eternity of species are implausible because they contradict what we know by experience. More plausible, I suggest, would be the Darwinian conceptions of immanent teleology and the evolution of species.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Darwinism, Reductionism, and the Socratic Turn

One of the most common criticisms of a Darwinian political science is that it must assume a materialist reductionism that denies the freedom of the mind. I often hear this criticism from my colleagues in political philosophy who sometimes cite the famous account in Plato's Phaedo of why Socrates turned away from natural philosophy to moral and political philosophy.

Speaking to some of his friends the day before his execution in Athens, Socrates recounts that as a young man he studied natural philosophy. He was particularly attracted to the teaching of Anaxagoras that everything in the cosmos is ordered by Mind (nous). Socrates thought it was good that Mind should be responsible for ordering all things in just the way that would be best, so that to explain the cause of anything--why it exists or why it comes into being or passes away as it does--one should discover why it is best for it to be as it is, as fulfilling the intention of the cosmic Mind. Socrates thought he had discovered "a teacher after my own mind" (97a-d).

But later Socrates discovered that he was wrong about Anaxagoras. Instead of explaining how each thing in the universe is ordered by Mind for what is best, Anaxagoras explained things through material causes such as air and water. For Socrates this can't be right. He observes:

"To me this seemed most similar to that of somebody who--after saying that Socrates does everything he does by mind and then venturing to assign the causes of each of the things I do--should first say that I'm now sitting here because my body's composed of bones and sinews, and because bones are solid and have joints keeping them separate from one another, while sinews are such as to tense and relax and also wrap the bones all around along with the flesh and skin that holds them together. Then since the bones swing in their sockets, the sinews, by relaxing and tensing, make me able, I suppose, to bend my limbs right now--and it's through this cause that I'm sitting here with my legs bent. And again, as regards my conversing with you, he might assign other causes of this sort, holding voices and air and sounds and a thousand other such things responsible, and not taking care to assign the true causes--that since Athenians judged it better to condemn me, so I for my part have judged it better to sit here and more just to stay put and endure whatever penalty they order. Since--by the Dog--these sinews and bones of mine would, I think, long ago have been in Megara or Boetia, swept off by an opinion about what's best, if I didn't think it more just and more beautiful, rather than fleeing and playing the runaway, to endure whatever penalty the city should order" (98c-99a).

The explanations through physical causes correctly describe the necessary material conditions for what Socrates is doing. But they don't explain the true cause of his actions here, which is his opinion about what it's best for him to do.

Socrates goes on to report that his frustration with Anaxagoras led him to undertake a "second sailing" in search for the causes of things. Instead of looking directly into beings, like those who blind themselves by trying to look directly at the sun during an eclipse, he decided to study the accounts or arguments (logoi) that people make about being, like those who look at the sun's reflection in water. This is what some have called the "Socratic turn" away from studying natural science to philosophical conversations about what people think about the world, which includes a turn towards moral and political philosophy.

But many modern biologists would agree with Socrates in criticizing the inadequacy of materialist reductionism. Consider, for example, Ernst Mayr, one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the last century, who writes:

"The conceptual framework of biology is entirely different from that of the physical sciences and cannot be reduced to it. . . . The courtship of a male animal, for instance, can be described in the language and conceptual framework of the physical sciences (locomotion, energy turnover, metabolic processes, and so on), but it can also be described in the framework of behavioral and reproductive biology. And the latter description and explanation cannot be reduced to theories of the physical sciences. Such biological phenomena as species, competition, mimicry, territory, migration, and hibernation are among the thousands of examples of organismic phenomena for which a purely physical description is at best incomplete if not irrelevant" (Toward a New Philosophy of Biology [1988], p. 18).

One of the irreducible features of biological explanations, Mayr argues, is teleology--or at least the kind of teleology that Mayr identifies as "teleonomy." Mayr observes:

"Goal-directed behavior (in the widest sense of this word) is extremely widespread in the organic world; for instance, most activity connected with migration, food-getting, courtship, ontogeny, and all phases of reproduction is characterized by such goal orientation. The occurrence of goal-directed processes is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the world of living organisms" (p. 45).

"Teleonomy" is Mayr's term for the idea that such goal-directedness is guided by a genetic "program" that has ultimately been shaped by evolutionary history.

For animals with nervous systems and brains, some of this goal-directed behavior can be steered by cognition. Some animals can act voluntarily in so far as they are conscious of their goals. Human beings can act deliberately in so far as they have the cognitive capacity to aim at their goals in the light of past experience and future expectations. As Darwin saw, human beings are moral animals because they can deliberately act under the guidance of their moral sense of what is best for them.

Modern Darwinian biology is not reductionist, because it recognizes the irreducible, emergent complexity of the living world, which shows teleological behavior and mental causality. And yet there is no basis in this biology for cosmic teleology--for the idea that the cosmos as a whole is directed by some intelligent cause to some goal or purpose.

As Socrates indicates in the Phaedo, the idea that Mind rules the cosmos and orders it to good ends is an inference from our introspective human experience of mental deliberation and intentional choice. While Darwinian biologists can accept the idea of intentional order in the behavior of animals with some cognitive capacity for intentional behavior, they cannot accept the projection of this intentionality onto the whole universe.

As I have suggested in some previous posts, it's not clear whether Plato (or Plato's Socrates) endorses cosmic teleology. That Socrates was so attracted to the idea of Mind ruling the cosmos suggests an inclination in that direction. And the Timaeus would seem to lay out the cosmic teleology--the ordering of the cosmos by a divine craftsman looking to the eternal ideas of perfection--that Socrates had hoped would come from Anaxagoras. But the silence of Socrates during Timaeus's speech and the ridiculously implausible assertions in Timaeus' "likely story" leave careful readers wondering whether Plato endorses any conception of the cosmos as ordered by Mind for some cosmic purpose.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nietzsche, Darwin, and Christian Morality

It is remarkable that religious believers who fear Darwinian science as a threat to religious morality can quote Friedrich Nietzsche as supporting their position. I have noticed, for example, that whenever I defend a Darwinian conception of morality, some religious believers will remind me of what Nietzsche said about David Strauss and George Eliot.

Nietzsche's long essay on "David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer" (1873) was published as the first of four essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. It is a scornful attack on Strauss's book The Old Faith and the New.

In 1835, Strauss's book The Life of Jesus provoked intense criticism and even violence against him, because he denied the historical reality of Jesus and argued that he was a purely mythical creation of the early Christian community. (This book was translated from the German into English by George Eliot in 1846.) Nietzsche's reading of the book as a theology student in 1864-65 helped to convince him to reject his Christian faith and to refuse to take communion at Easter 1865.

The Old Faith and the New extends Strauss's reasoning by rejecting any conception of a personal God and by arguing that the moral teaching of Christianity can be preserved as part of the "new faith" in Darwinian science.

Nietzsche dismisses Strauss as a foolish philistine who does not understand that in rejecting Christianity, he has rejected the foundation for a Christian morality of universal love that cannot be sustained by Darwinian science. Strauss does not realize, according to Nietzsche, that a truly Darwinian ethic would be based on a Hobbesian "war of all against all" with the rule of the stronger over the weaker. Instead, Strauss declares: "Do not ever forget that you are a man and not a mere creature of nature: do not ever forget that all others are likewise men, that is to say, with all their individual differences the same as you, with the same needs and demands as you--that is the epitome of all morality." But this ignores the fact that, according to Darwin, man is "precisely a creature of nature and nothing else."

Moreover, Nietzsche notes, Strauss fails to see that Darwinian science does not support his metaphysical belief in the moral character of the cosmos, his belief "that everything proceeds according to eternal laws out of the one primeval source of all life, all reason and all goodness--that is the epitome of religion." By contrast, Nietzsche explains: "Modern natural science and study of history have nothing whatever to do with the Straussian faith in the cosmos."

In the Twilight of the Idols (ix.5), Nietzsche makes the same point in ridiculing George Eliot:

"G. Eliot. They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females a la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

"We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth--it stands or falls with faith in God.

"When the English actually believe that they know 'intuitively' what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English moraltiy has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem."

But notice the crucial assumption here in Nietzsche's reasoning--his agreement with those Christians who claim that human beings cannot know what is good for them unless they receive Christian morality as a command from God. I reject this assumption, because I believe that human beings can know what is good for them from their natural moral experience. And in rejecting Nietzsche's assumption, I also reject his conclusion--that Christian morality cannot rightly be sustained if one no longer believes in the Christian God.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin says that "to do good unto others--to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you--is the foundation-stone of morality," and he claims that even primitive human beings might act according to this principle as impelled by "the love of praise and the dread of blame," because they care about how they appear to others (1:165). He writes: "The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need not say anything on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to show that the social instincts--the prime principle of man's moral constitution--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule. 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;' and this lies at the foundation of morality" (1:106).

That Darwin here quotes the statement of the golden rule from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12) might be taken by Nietzsche as evidence for his assertion that Christian morality depends on Christian faith. But notice that Darwin presents this rule as flowing "naturally" from human experience as combining social instincts, social habits, and intellectual activity. In referring to the social instincts as "the prime principle of man's moral constitution," Darwin has a footnote citing Marcus Aurelius, which suggests that the recognition of this moral sociality does not depend on Christian theology. Elsewhere in the Descent, Darwin explains the golden rule as a conclusion from the human experience of reciprocity--the natural tendency of human beings to respond in kind, rewarding those they trust and punishing those they don't. Consequently, when Jesus states the golden rule, he is not commanding something that human beings could not have figured out for themselves. Rather, he is reinforcing a lesson of human practical experience. Given our evolved human nature as social animals, our socially evolved habituation, and our intellectual powers for reflecting on our natural inclinations and social habits, we can understand the wisdom of the golden rule as "the foundation of morality."

Religious belief can reinforce our recognition of moral principles such as the golden rule, and that's why, as Darwin indicates, religion is important for moral history as contributing to our moral habituation. But still that morality can stand on its own natural ground even without any specific religious doctrines.

That's why I disagree with those like John Hare, Carson Holloway, and Peter Lawler, who agree with Nietzsche that there is no natural ground for Christian moral principles like the golden rule. (As I have indicated in some recent posts, it was only in his "middle period" that Nietzsche could see how morality could be rooted in evolved human nature without any need for a transcendent moral cosmology.)

A couple of previous posts on these points can be found here and here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How Nietzsche's Pietism Overturned His Darwinism

As Nietzsche fell into madness at the beginning of January in 1889, he wrote and mailed a series of letters. A letter to Peter Gast was only one sentence: "Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy." It was signed "The Crucified." Other letters were signed "Dionysus."

To many readers, it seems odd that Nietzsche--the self-proclaimed "Antichrist" who announced the death of God--would use such religious imagery and identify himself with Jesus and the god Dionysus. We might dismiss this as only a manifestation of his madness. But the signs of religiosity appear throughout Nietzsche's early and late writings. For example, in the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche professes his "faith" in the belief "that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole." And he declares: "Such a faith is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name of Dionysus" (ix.49).

One doesn't see this religiosity in the writings of Nietzsche's "middle period." In Human, All Too Human and Dawn, he strives for a Darwinian philosophy based on a scientific history of evolution. Rejecting all metaphysical and religious philosophy grounded on the idea of a cosmic teleology of eternal moral order, Nietzsche works from the thought that "everything has evolved: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths" (HATH, 2). Even though there are no eternal truths, a properly historical science can discover the "humble truths" of historical development.

Nietzsche believes that modern science continues the skeptical spirit of the Socratic tradition. He acknowledges, however, that most human beings cannot live the skeptical life of a Socratic "free spirit," because they yearn for transcendent truths and transcendent values that are absolute and eternal. Religions such as Christianity satisfy the transcendental longings of human beings to be redeemed from ordinary earthly existence so that they can feel an ecstatic rapture in the prospect of entering an eternal realm of perfect bliss. In Human, All Too Human, he speaks of this need for redemption as an "artificial" or "acquired" need that was cultivated by the Christian church in the Middle Ages, and he suggests that a future society might eliminate this need while serving "the common true needs of all men" (HATH, 27, 476). But Nietzsche also indicates that this need for redemption has become so strong that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art. Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music (such as Wagner's operas) that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines. Indeed, romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art (130-31, 150-53).

But then, as Nietzsche began writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1883, he seemed himself to fall under "the magic of religious feeling." In Human, All Too Human, he had warned against the "cult of the genius," based on the "religious or semi-religious superstition that these spirits are of superhuman [ubermenschlichen] origin," and that they have some deep insight into reality (164). But then Zarathustra proclaims the "superhuman" or "overman" as the redeemer. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche looks to "the redeeming human of the great love and contempt," to "this human of the future who will redeem us from the previous ideal," and he foresees: "this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision, that makes the will free again, that gives back to the earth its goal and to man his hope; this Anti-Christ and anti-nihilist; this conqueror of God and of nothingness--he must some day come" (II, 24).

In his middle writings, Nietzsche came under the influence of Darwinian science, which overturned the romantic metaphysics and religiosity of The Birth of Tragedy and the Untimely Meditations. But, then, beginning in 1883, he returned to some of the religious and metaphysical propensities of those early writings. In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, he had warned that scientific history--and particularly, Darwinian evolutionary history--was dangerous to life, because this "science of universal becoming" denied the eternal meaning of life as supported by belief in a cosmic teleology. He indicated that there were only two possible antidotes to this intellectual poison. The "unhistorical" antidote would require forgetting history and enclosing one's cultural life within a bounded horizon. The "suprahistorical" antidote would depend on "the powers that lead the eye away from becoming towards that which bestows upon existence the character of the eternal and recurring, towards art and religion." The problem is that science "sees everywhere things that have been, things historical, and nowhere things that are, things eternal; it likewise lives in a profound antagonism towards the eternalizing powers of art and religion." And thus science "robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal" (4, 9-10).

After going through his middle period devoted to historical or evolutionary science, Nietzsche in his later writings returned to his earlier fear of science as subversive of life as he looked to "the eternalizing powers of art and religion" as the only way to restore meaning to life.

In Lou Salome's book on Nietzsche--the first book on Nietzsche's writings--she explained this history of his writing as showing his struggle with a "religious drive" that he could never shake off. On the one hand, he denied the God in whom he had devotedly believed in his Lutheran household. On the other hand, he needed to replace that orthodox religion with a new religion of Dionysus and the Overman. She thought that only in his middle writings--during the time of his deep friendships with Paul Ree and herself--did Nietzsche achieve a position of scientific skepticism free of religious ideas.

In Bruce Benson's recent book Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith (2008), Salome's reading of Nietzsche as tormented by the conflict between his religious longings and his denial of God is deepened and made more precise. Benson shows how Nietzsche moved from the Christian Pietism of his youth to the Dionysian Pietism of his philosophic works. Far from being godless, he moved from one god to another.

As a child, Nietzsche was shaped by Lutheran Pietism, in which Christian faith is understood as a matter of the heart rather than the head, because to have a right relationship with God one must have a childlike trust in God that does not depend upon doctrinal propositions. As an adult, Nietzsche rejected Christian Pietism, because he denied the Christian God. But his Dionysian religion is a kind of Pietism in requiring a childlike trust in life, a joyful acceptance of life that allows him to say "yes and amen" to life.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche affirms: "Eternal life, the eternal recurrence of life; the future promised and made sacred by the past; the triumphant yes to life beyond death and change; true life as collective survival through reproduction, through the mysteries of sexuality. . . . All this is signified by the name Dionysus: I know no higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism, the symbolism of the Dionysian rites. In them, the deepest instinct of life, the instinct for the future of life, for the eternity of life, is experienced religiously--the very way to life, reproduction, as the holy way" (x.4). Nietzsche's Dionysian religion is pietistic in the sense that it requires a change of heart--perhaps through music and dance--that will allow him to say "Yes and Amen" to everything in life, which would be "an ecstatic affirmation of the total character of life" (WP 1050).

Benson succeeds in laying out the character of Nietzsche's Dionysian Pietism. But one major weakness in his book is that he fails to contrast this religious longing as it appears in Nietzsche's early and later writings with his evolutionary science as it appears in his middle writings. Salome sees this contrast, as Benson does not. And so Salome shows how Nietzsche might have freed himself from religious mysticism if he had adhered to the scientific stance of Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of the Gay Science.

Did Nietzsche really become a faithful follower of Dionysus? In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes Dionysian rapture: "Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the brink of flying and dancing, up and away into the air above. His gestures speak of his enchantment. . . . he feels himself to be a god, he himself now moves in such ecstasy and sublimity as once he saw the gods move in his dreams" (BT 1). Franz Overbeck reports that in the early days of Nietzsche's insanity, he danced and improvised music at his piano, telling his friends that he could only express his feelings in music.

Perhaps Nietzsche did finally achieve ecstatic union with his god Dionysus by giving up his reason and being swallowed up in madness.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Nietzsche and Darwin

For a long time, it has been hard for me to understand Friedrich Nietzsche's relationship to Darwin and Darwinism.

On the one hand, Nietzsche seems to embrace Darwinism in declaring that everything has evolved--including human nature--because what appears fixed is the evolutionary product of selection carried out long before the 4,000 years of history that we are familiar with. So, there are "no eternal facts." Moreover, he seems to agree with Darwin in denying any cosmic teleology, in affirming that there is no purpose, no reason, no divinity in the apparent design of the cosmos, because it has all emerged by natural evolution. Human values, therefore, cannot be rooted in any cosmic order of rational or divine intention. Rather, values arise as the evolved conditions for human life.

On the other hand, Nietzsche often criticizes Darwin and Darwinians (especially Herbert Spencer) for failing to see that life is governed not by a "struggle for existence" but a "will to power," and for failing to see that apparently altruistic behavior is ultimately egoistic. Moreover, in arguing for the "will to power" as a cosmic force that rules the whole universe, Nietzsche seems to assume a cosmic, vitalistic teleology that contradicts his acceptance of the Darwinian attack on cosmic teleology. His teleological conception of the "will to power" resembles Leibniz's pan-animism, which manifests the influence of the cosmic teleology in Plato's Timaeus.

My thinking about this has been helped by some recent books--particularly, Gregory Moore's Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor (2002), John Richardson's Nietzsche's New Darwinism (2004), and Robin Small's Nietzsche and Ree.

Moore's book is a "historical" study of how Nietzsche's biological thinking was shaped by the biological ideas that he picked up from his extensive reading of nineteenth-century science. Richardson's book is a "philosophical" study of how Nietzsche's ideas can be made plausible by putting them into a Darwinian framework, despite the fact that Nietzsche himself never lays it out in this way. Small's book is a "biographical" study of how Nietzsche's thinking about Darwinism was influenced by his friendships with Paul Ree and Lou Salome. (Nietzsche, Ree, and Salome called themselves the "holy trinity" when they were trying to set themselves up as a household of free spirits who would share ideas and perhaps more. This strange menage-a-trois was made famous by the picture they staged in May, 1882, with Nietzsche and Ree pulling Salome in a cart with her holding a whip. That explains the true meaning of Nietzsche's remark about "when you go to a woman, take a whip"!)

There is no evidence that Nietzsche read any of Darwin's major writings, although it is probable that he read Darwin's article "A Biographical Sketch of an Infant." But Nietzsche did pick up Darwinian ideas from his reading of Friedrich Lange's History of Materialism, Spencer's Data of Ethics, John Lubbock's Origin of Civilization, and Walter Bagehot's Physics and Politics. He learned a lot about Darwinian ethics and psychology from Ree, whose writings lay out a Darwinian view of morality as a product of natural evolution. He also read extensively and carefully various books by scientific critics of Darwinism.

Nietzsche's acceptance of a Darwinian view of the cosmos and human nature as products of evolutionary history is clearest in his writings in the "middle period" of his life--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of the Gay Science. This was the period of his close friendships with Ree and Salome, who reinforced Nietzsche's interest in natural science and especially Darwinian science.

In both their style and their content, these middle writings are more moderate and sensible than Nietzsche's early and late writings. This sensible moderation comes from a Darwinian naturalism that is free from the romantic transcendentalism of his early writings or the ecstatic poetry and cosmic teleology of the "will to power" in his later writings.

Richardson does a wonderful job in restating Nietzsche's ideas in the most systematic and cogent manner by putting them into the framework of a Darwinian science that works through three levels of selection--natural selection, social selection, and self selection. Natural selection explains innate animal values. Social selection explains acquired human values. Self selection explains the possibility for a superhuman transvaluation of values by heroic individuals.

Richardson concedes that Nietzsche himself never lays out his thinking in precisely this way. But Richardson's argument is that this is the best way to make Nietzsche's thinking plausible.

Although I agree with much of what Richardson claims, I disagree on various points. First, he insists that the Nietzschean account of "social selection" and "self selection" goes beyond the Darwinian inclination to reduce everything to natural selection. But I would argue that Darwin and the Darwinian tradition generally recognizes the importance of social selection through cultural learning and self selection through individual judgment. These three levels correspond to what I have analyzed as a hierarchy of natural order, customary order, and deliberate order. In the study of morality, this would correspond to the three levels of moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. Similarly, Frans de Waal distinguishes the three levels as moral sentiments, social pressure, and judgment/reasoning. (Occasionally, Richardson himself acknowledges that Darwin allows for social evolution through cultural learning and that this is an important part of modern coevolutionary theorizing.)

Although a Darwinian science recognizes "self selection" in the deliberate judgments exercised by individuals, it also recognizes that this deliberate choosing is constrained both by nature and by culture. This recognition of the severe restraints on the self-choosing freedom of even the most "free spirits" is evident in Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human. But this moderation falls away in his later writings as he looks up to the superhuman freedom of the "overman." Occasionally, Richardson admits that freedom as self selection is never complete or absolutely unbounded (103, 115-16, 170, 188-89, 215, 218, 261, 267, 270). I would stress this point. And I would also stress that the extremism of Nietzsche's later writings comes from a tendency to heroic transcendentalism that ignores the sober limits on human nature and human society that are prominent in the more Darwinian stance of his middle writings.

Richardson sees that the "dominant" view of "will to power" in Nietzsche's writings assumes, at least implicitly, a cosmic teleology and anthropomorphism in which a cosmic mind rules over all. I agree with Richardson that a "recessive" view of "will to power" as a product of natural selection would be more plausible. We could say then that the natural disposition of living beings to expand, increase, and dominate--to enhance their power--has arisen by evolution because it enhanced their fitness. The desire for power is teleological, because it is directed to ends or goals, but the teleology here is immanent rather than cosmic. This desire is not the product of some cosmic intelligent design such as that set forth in Plato's Timaeus. This desire can be explained as the product of a selective process--natural selection working on inherited variations and social selection working on cultural variations--that does not itself have any "purpose."

Nietzsche's inclination in his early and late writings towards a cosmic teleology of eternal values reflects the religious longings seen by Salome. In his middle writings, he shook off those religious longings under the influence of Darwinian science. But they returned in his later writings. So, for example, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human declares that "man has evolved," because "everything has evolved; there are no eternal facts" (sec. 2). But the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil looks to "the eternal basic text of homo natura" (sec. 230).

In his article on Beyond Good and Evil, Leo Strauss stresses the importance of this appeal to eternal human nature. This raises the question of whether Strauss--like Nietzsche--yearned for an eternal cosmic order that would support human values.

In his Untimely Meditations (ii.9), Nietzsche worries: "If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines which I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future."

Some of the Straussians agree with Nietzsche's fear of the deadliness of Darwinian science. For example, Harvey Mansfield warns: "Darwin was not a nihilist, but he prepared his generation and later generations for nihilism. His theory of evolution not only denied the eternity of the species but also undermined all eternities, all permanence of meaning" (Manliness, 83). Mansfield presents the "manly nihilism" of Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt as a rebellion against the Darwinian teaching that there is no purposeful and eternal cosmic order of nature to provide standards for human excellence and importance (86, 89, 93, 105, 111, 121). Nietzsche looks to the manliness of the "overman" (Ubermensch), while TR looks to the manliness of the "leader" (Fuhrer).

But isn't there something dangerous about the extremism of this vision of redemptive leadership? Far more healthy, I suggest, is the moderation of Nietzsche's Darwinian science in Human, All Too Human.