Wednesday, December 04, 2013

How Nietzsche Conquered America: Ratner-Rosenhagen and the False Dichotomy of Absolutism and Nihilism

In 1987, Allan Bloom published an article in The Wilson Quarterly on "How Nietzsche Conquered America," an article based on excerpts from his book The Closing of the American Mind.  The article and the book elaborated Leo Strauss's argument that Friedrich Nietzsche had initiated a "third wave of modernity" that had created a "crisis of liberal democracy" by promoting a nihilism or value relativism that made it impossible to defend modern liberalism.  Bloom offered an intellectual history of how Nietzsche's thought had permeated American culture in a manner that subverted American liberal democracy.  He asked "Why, then, could ideas contrary to American ideals so easily take root?"

Now, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, in her book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (University of Chicago Press, 2012), has extended Bloom's project by laying out the most detailed intellectual history of Nietzsche's reception by Americans that has ever been written.

Despite their differing points of view, Bloom, Strauss, and Ratner-Rosenhagen agree in framing their account of Nietzsche's influence in America within a sharp intellectual alternative--absolutism or nihilism.  They thus fail to consider the possibility that this is a false dichotomy and that Nietzsche himself suggested a third possibility in the writings of his middle period--particularly in Human, All Too Human.

Strauss says that until recently all known ideals--including the ideals of American liberalism--"claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason."  But now Nietzsche's historicist relativism makes it impossible for us to believe in any absolute objective standards rooted in Nature, God, or Reason, because we see that all standards are human creations or cultural projects with no eternal grounding.  To see this is to fall into the abyss of nihilism by seeing that there is no real grounding for our standards at all, which become purely arbitrary products of individual will or cultural invention.  This is what Nietzsche means by his warning about the dangerous consequences of recognizing that "God is dead."

Similarly, Ratner-Rosenhagen sees Nietzsche as teaching "anti-foundationalism" and thus denying the traditional "foundationalist" claims that our moral, political, and intellectual standards can be grounded on the cosmic foundations of the eternal order of nature, God, or reason.  This anti-foundationalist thinking denies the traditional support for American liberal democracy as grounded on "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  This becomes part of Nietzsche's attack on liberal democracy and his advocacy of a new anti-democratic aristocracy that will create a new set of values for a new nobility.  But as she indicates, many of the Americans who have embraced Nietzsche's anti-foundationalism--like Richard Rorty, for example--want to hold onto American liberal democracy, even as they admit that it has no objective support.

Nietzsche and Bloom denounced the decadence coming from moral relativism in liberal democracy--the dehumanizing decadence of "last men" who have no transcendent longings for anything high or noble.  For Bloom, this was confirmed by his students, who showed "souls without longings."  For Nietzsche, the only escape from this liberal democratic decadence was to create a new antiliberal aristocracy of supermen who would rule tyrannically over the earth.

Ratner-Rosenhagen rejects Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism and defends the nobility of liberal democracy, but her reasoning for this position is vague.  She seems to see a "persistent longing for meaning in a world without foundations" (146).  Bloom himself "wanted transcendence," but "for an author so critical of relativism's ill effects, Bloom gave little discussion to the virtue of moral absolutes" (309-10).  Bloom "admired Nietzsche for the way he turned to the resources in himself to fight the nihilistic implications of his own relativism" (311).  But while Nietzsche's fight against nihilism required creating a new aristocratic caste to rule the earth as tyrants exercising master morality, Ratner-Rosenhagen and Bloom seem to be looking for a liberal democratic alternative, but they never explain exactly how this would work.

In the final lines of her book, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes: "Nietzsche, who took Emerson as his educator, understood what an education after absolutes might look like.  It would provoke, not instruct, young souls to shoot arrows of longing over the yawning resentiment of intellectual belatedness, and over the abyss of antifoundationalism.  That longing, from Emerson to Nietzsche and indeed down to Bloom, is a longing worth longing for" (312).

So it's good for us to have a longing for longing?  A longing for what?  For absolutes?  No, because we should know that there are no absolutes.  If it's not absolutes, then what's the target for our "arrows of longing"?  Ratner-Rosenhagen doesn't say.

If our choice is between foundationalist absolutism and antifoundationalist nihilism, and if we must reject the first as clearly false, then I don't see how we can shoot any arrows of longing over the abyss of nihilism except through some delusional belief in absolutes.

In recent years, I have written many posts arguing that the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human and other writings of his middle period escapes this false dichotomy of absolutism versus nihilism.  I have also argued that the Darwinian aristocratic liberalism of Human, All Too Human is more sensible than the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of the early and late Nietzsche. 

Ratner-Rosenhagen does not consider this possibility because she does not see the distinctiveness of Nietzsche's middle writings.  Nietzsche's friend Lou Salome was the first commentator to see the differences between the early, middle, and late Nietzsche, and to see that the middle Nietzsche was the most defensible Nietzsche.  Ratner-Rosenhagen acknowledges this analysis of Nietzsche's writing into three stages in a brief footnote (352, n. 77), but she ignores this point throughout her book.

Instead of assuming that the only choice is between absolutism and nihilism, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human recognizes that the natural historical science of evolution allows us to understand the changing but enduring order of evolving life.  This Nietzsche accepts a Darwinian evolutionary psychology in which human nature is understood as shaped by prehistoric evolutionary history, so that human nature is enduring but not eternal.  Consequently, "there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths."  But there are "humble truths" that are discoverable by the strict methods of modern evolutionary science (HATH, 1-3).

This evolutionary science of Human, All Too Human supports liberal democracy as the political regime that secures the individual liberty that allows for the fullest satisfaction of the evolved natural desires of human beings.  The purpose of the state is to protect individuals from one another (HATH, 235), which protects the majority from the tyranny of the minority, while also protecting the few (including "free spirits" like Nietzsche) from the tyranny of the majority.  This allows for the emergence of a higher culture in which free spirits can develop their superior talents without tyrannizing over others (HATH, 438-39).

Previously, Nietzsche indicates, the state claimed a transcendent religious authority to exercise absolute paternalistic rule over the people.  But now liberal democratic states claim no such transcendent authority, because they secure individual liberty, which includes the liberty for religious belief as part of private life free from governmental interference.  By contrast, Nietzsche warns against socialist regimes as tyrannical in claiming absolute state power, which will require brutal reigns of terror (HATH, 472-73).

Ratner-Rosenhagen notices that the first translations of Nietzsche's texts in America were published in Benjamin Tucker's periodical Liberty, beginning in 1892 and 1893.  Liberty was the leading American journal for advocating individualist anarchism and libertarianism.  It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the translations of Nietzsche in the journal were passages from Human, All Too Human.  The longest single passage was a complete translation of sections 472-473 of Human, All Too Human, which argued for limiting the power of the state and rejecting socialism (in Liberty, January 7, 1893).  At the same time, however, Tucker recognized that Nietzsche in his later writings turned away from the liberal individualism of his middle writings and embraced an illiberal stance that supported tyrannical statism (see Liberty, July, 1899).  Thus, Tucker saw how the aristocratic radicalism of Nietzsche's later writings could be appropriated by right-wing statists.

Ratner-Rosenhagen notices Tucker's ambivalence about Nietzsche, but she doesn't notice how this arises from the contrast between the liberal individualism of Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human and the illiberal statism of his later writings (37-39).  Moreover, she does not notice how Nietzsche's liberalism was rooted in the Darwinian science of Human, All Too Human.

The recent revival and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary psychology suggests the possibility of appealing to advances in Darwinian science as supporting Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism.

Many of my points here have been elaborated in previous posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The complete archive of Tucker's Liberty can be found online.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Nietzsche's historicist relativism makes it impossible for us to believe in any absolute objective standards rooted in Nature, God, or Reason, because we see that all standards are human creations or cultural projects with no eternal grounding."

Well, take the Shakers' celibacy. That is a human created standard. But it is not natures standard because nature drives to extinction those who practice it. Nature does have standards in that values have survival value. So that question is, what are the standards that need to be adopted to exist and persist in the world. Those standards will be natural and objective, and mandatory in that those who don't practice them cease to exist. But they also might be contextual as different strategies might be better in different settings (pacifism might be better for those who could never win).