Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Nietzsche, atheism, and conservatism

Andrew Sullivan asks if there are any atheists in the "conservative punditariat." I ask: why is he asking? Is he trying to drive some sort of wedge between the evil neoconservatives, who are all at least quasi-Nietzscheans (he and others have implied) and religious conservatives?

Here’s my response to Sullivan in an email this morning:

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

Allan Bloom may have been an atheist, but he was not dogmatic about it, nor did he disrespect people of faith. He was not, in other words, one of Burke’s "turbulent and seditious" atheists. And even if he was an atheist, that doesn’t make him a Nietzschean. It is possible, I’m sure you would agree, to accept Nietzsche’s critique of the "faith-based" character of enlightenment rationalism without accepting either his account of the will to power or the prescription that he thinks follows from his diagnosis. Nietzsche may well have his finger on something crucial about modernity, but that by no means requires us to adopt his conclusions.

You’re right, I think, about the place of Nietzsche as someone we must take into account.

I don’t quite understand why there can’t be practical agreements and alliances between (non-Nietzschean) atheists and people of faith. Certainly atheists have thought so since time immemorial. And there seems to me no reason why, for example, Christians can’t make common cause with non-dogmatic atheists who for all practical purposes behave as if there were something like natural law (or, in the Reformed tradition, common grace). To put it another way, there’s a long-standing Christian tradition (think of Aquinas citing Tully or "the Philosopher") of engaging with people who use their "God-given reason."

Since I suspect that you know this, I’m not sure what your motives are for posing the questions you do, unless you think that to be Christian is to be intolerant.

Best wishes,

Joseph M. Knippenberg
Oglethorpe University

Many of the relevant posts offered by Jonah Goldberg in NRO’s "The Corner" can be found here.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Having read quite a bit of his product over the last few years, I think Andrew Sullivan is a sadly confused man. I wonder if it’s worth engaging in dialogue with him.

To David,
I would agree it’s not worth the time to even read what Sullivan writes.
Regarding Bloom, John Coumarianos at Innocents Abroad has some more on the comparison.

Sullivan: Not Very Subtle

There are others who could speak with infinitely more intelligence about this, but I can’t resist. What’s the point of having a blog anyway?

So, Allan Bloom a Nietzschean? Now Andrew Sullivan’s on the bandwagon. All you have to do is thrill a little bit to the description of the last man, maybe also find the Use and Abuse of History fascinating, perhaps think John Dewey is superficial, and they call you a Nietzschean.

Influenced by Nietzsche? Sure. Taught serious things by Nietzshce? Unquestionably. But a Nietzschean? I don’t think so.

There are extended passages in the Closing of the American Mind lifted from the Use and Abuse of History. These occur especially when Bloom is taking on the critiques of the Great Books approach, the most serious of which come from Nietzsche and with which Bloom clearly has considerable sympathy. Nevertheless, Bloom ultimately recoils from accepting Nietzsche’s critique (that the approach fosters superficiality -- the bourgeois with his shelves filled with fancy books that he never reads), and persists in recommending a Great Books education anyway. I suspect it’s testimony to a kind of American quality in Bloom’s soul (that his critics are loathe to point out) that allows him to think that these books are simply there for the taking and that even brief but earnest introductions to them can provide the inspiration necessary to set at least some otherwise uncultivated but serious people on the course of a lifetime of learning. I never met him, but I suspect the chain-smoking guy in fancy European suits really believed in opportunity.

When you consider Bloom’s defense of this pedagogical prescription, it seems mistaken to call him simply a Nietzschean. Anyone who calls him that either can’t really have read the Closing of the American Mind or can’t have taken it very seriously.

I think it would be quite demanding to be a (non-Andromedan) ’Nietzschean’. I could never find much consistency in his writings.

This might help to explain why they - or their at the time available editions - had admirers as diverse (and inconsistent in their own ’political’ views) as Th.Mann, A.Hitler and the younger S.DeBeauvoir.

Habe nun, ach! ’Die Geburt der Tragödie’, ’Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen’,
’Menschliches, Allzumenschliches,
Morgenröthe’, ’Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’,
’Also sprach Zarathustra’, ’Jenseits von Gut und Böse’,
Und leider auch ’Der Antichrist’ und ’Ecce homo’
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.

At least we know about Wagner that he was a jerk.

I’m an atheist -- not a strict one, I am a fairly spiritual person and I am very open minded about religion, having been raised in an Episcopalian church uncorrupted by the modern liberalization movement that has ruined many others. Christians are the most tolerant people I know.

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