Friday, March 02, 2012

Do Strauss's Religious Longings Explain His Silence about Nietzsche's Darwinian Liberalism?

In reading Leo Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity," I am reminded of my blog posts a few years ago on Strauss's religious longings, and on how those religious longings explain Strauss's attraction to Nietzsche's early and later writings, as opposed to the middle writings that show Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian  evolutionary science.

In "Three Waves of Modernity," Strauss says that Nietzsche's critique of modern rationalism created the "third wave" of modernity that was "the deepest reason for the crisis of liberal democracy," and "the political implication of the third wave proved to be fascism" (98).

Remarkably, Strauss says nothing--neither here nor anywhere else, as far as I know--about Nietzsche's moderate support for liberal democracy in his middle writings, particularly Human, All Too Human.  This Nietzschean liberalism is a Darwinian liberalism, because in this book--and also in Dawn and the first four books of The Gay Science--Nietzsche writes as a Socratic "free spirit" who accepts a Darwinian science based on the general claim that "man has evolved," because "everything has evolved," and thus "there are no eternal facts" (HATH, sec. 2).

Strauss rejects this Darwinian Nietzsche, because Strauss prefers the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil who affirmed "the eternal basic text of homo natura" (sec. 230).  In his article on Beyond Good and Evil, Strauss stresses the importance of Nietzsche's eternalizing of human nature, his respect for the "religious instinct," and his atheistic religiosity.  Like the Nietzsche of the early and later writings, Strauss was moved by a religious longing for eternity that could not accept the Darwinian "deadly truth" that human nature is enduring but not eternal.

My elaboration of these points can be found here, here, here, and here.

Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism would resolve the "crisis of liberal democracy" by affirming that liberalism can be grounded in evolved human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of eternal order.

What would Nietzsche's Darwinian liberal democracy look like?  Although Nietzsche is critical of modern democracy in much of his writing, Human, All Too Human shows a moderate acceptance of liberal democratic politics and institutions, while strongly rejecting socialism.  (Here I am drawing some language from my chapter on Nietzsche in Political Questions.)  He sees that in modern Europe all political parties must appeal to popular opinions because of the triumph of democracy.  He accepts the political rule of the majority of the people as long as the few "free spirits" are given their freedom to keep out of politics generally, while occasionally being allowed to speak out about public issues.

Philosophers such as Plato were enemies of democracy, Nietzsche observes, because believing they possessed absolute truth, they wanted to rule over others.  There were "tyrants of the spirit."  But free-spirited philosophers pursue scientific knowledge in a skeptical spirit.  "Free spirits" want to be free to investigate everything, but they have no desire to become tyrants.  They are "oligarchs of the spirit" (sec. 261).  "Free spirits" can live in a modern democracy, because they ask only for the freedom of speech and thought that liberal democracy can provide.

Previously, Nietzsche observes, the state claimed a transcendent religious authority to rule absolutely over the life of a people.  Now, in modern democratic states, the state has no such transcendent authority, because the government is merely an instrument of popular will (sec. 472).  Religion is a purely private matter, pursued in civil society as distinguished from the state, and therefore there is a great diversity of religious sects.

The popular distrust of central authority in a liberal democracy leads to a weakening of the state.  Increasingly, the functions of government are given over to private contractors.  This decline in the state gives "free spirits" a freedom that they would not have under a centralized illiberal state.

While Nietzsche welcomes the freedom provided by modern liberal democracy, he fears the tyranny to come from modern socialism.  Modern socialism will require "the most submissive subjugation of all citizens to the absolute state, the like of which has never existed" (sec. 473).  Since socialists will not be able to use traditional religious authority to support the state, they can only rule for short periods "by means of the most extreme terrorism."  Nietzsche foresees that this socialist rule by terror will only reinforce the lesson that all accumulations of state power are dangerous, and thus the reaction against socialist state terror will promote the idea of minimizing the power of the state.  We need democratic institutions, Nietzsche concludes, to combat the "lust for tyranny" (WS, sec. 289).

Thus did Nietzsche predict the rise and decline of socialist despotism in the twentieth century--both Marxist socialism and National Socialism--and the eventual revival of liberal democracy and limited government.

Nietzsche's political thinking in Human, All Too Human contradicts those German National Socialists who claimed that he was their ideological founder.  Not only does he argue in favor of individual freedom and against centralized state power and rule by terror, he also rejects nationalism as an artificial obstacle to the political and cultural unification of Europe to form "a mixed European race" that will include the Jews, whom he praises for their contributions to European culture (sec. 475).  Moreover, Nietzsche ridicules the idea of a "party member" as contrary to free thought.  "He who thinks much is not suited to be a party member:  too soon, he thinks himself through and beyond the party" (sec. 579).

In fact, some of the Nazis recognised that Nietzsche was not friendly to their cause.  Ernst Krieck, a leading Nazi intellectual, remarked: "Apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist, and opposed to racial thinking, he could have been a leading National Socialist thinker!"

As long as modern democracy leaves Nietzsche's "free spirits" free to pursue their lives of endless scientific and philosophic inquiry, they are not much interested in political activity.  There is a kind of solitariness that characterizes this Nietzschean life, which is indicated by the last part of Human, All Too Human, entitled "Man Alone with Himself" (secs. 483-638).  The "man of science" is constantly questioning his beliefs, and thus he cannot be a "man of convictions" who is absolutely certain about his beliefs, which means that the scientific man cannot be a political man, because he cannot serve a political cause with unexamined enthusiasm.  Nietzsche's "free spirit" looks a lot like the Socratic philosopher as described by Strauss.

It is true, however, that some of Nietzsche's writing--his early and later writings--stirred the political enthusiasm of Nazis and other political ideologues, who looked to the "will to power" of the "Overman" to bring eternal meaning to human life.

Remarkably, its these same writings that show a spirit of atheistic religiosity that attracted Strauss.

Some of these points are developed further in my previous post on the "Nazi philosophers".

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