Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Tomorrow’s Birthdays

...include John Kenneth Galbraith and Nietzsche. OK, they’re both overrated. Galbraith wasn’t much of an economist, although he has a nice prose style and looked good playing an economist on TV. And our society really and truly is affluent. Nietzsche tried to be the first wholly post-Christian postmodern, but he only succeeded in being really, really modern. (We learn both from his penetrating criticism and personal example that everything we proudly call postmodern is really hypermodern.) It is true enough, though, that if I have a "why," then I can get by with just about any "how," and so any conception of freedom that’s all about "the how" and reduces "the why" to a mere preference is worthless, is nihilism. Nietzsche certainly was a brilliant critic of the herd morality lurking at the heart of liberalism. And he saw clearly what liberalism would do to key social institutions, such as marriage. But his observation that "God is dead" was plain wrong, and so the desperation that fueled his extremist rhetoric was, to be gentle, misguided. Read Tocqueville instead.

Discussions - 7 Comments

The overall failure of Nietzsche's project can be seen in his inability to fully extricate himself from the very Christian categories he tries so hard to repudiate; like Heidegger, he comes to realize that some religion might be indispensable but still wants it to be the result of free creativity. One of the reasons Nietzsche is still relevant is that he's one of the few figures folks on the left and the right agree should be on the canon and it is impossible for either to fully embrace him given the criticism and praise he offers to each.

Ivan,

I agree with your assessment of Nietzsche's relevance; however,

I'm not sure I understand why what you say at first demonstrates a failure on Nietzsche's (or Heidegger's) part. Religion's indispensability as a category does not imply that it must always be the sole property of the Judeo-Christian lineage.

I specifically mention Christianity in that context because Nietzsche explicitly tries to liberate himself from what he identifies as Christian categories; this is interesting to me, at least in part, given his conspicuous reliance upon the very same categories--I didn't mean to imply that Christianity is the only candidate response to this religiousness.

But here's another way FN might be relevant to us today in figuring out modernity: he certainly understood the indispensable need modern society has for virtue but also wants that virtue to reflect what he diagnoses as the new demands of a post-religious, post-metaphysical world. He seems to promote a condition in which many of the traditional virtues are creatively willed so we end up with virtue without any of its traditional supports. The great chasm in FN between human virtue and the interpretation of human nature that makes such virtue possible can be helpful to us today in reflecting on our own attempts to have one without the other.

Thank you, Ivan. Much better put, I think.

I would rather be creatively willed and (happen to be?) virtuous than non-creatively willed and commanded to be virtuous.

Well, I don't think being "creatively willed" is really a serious possibility--even FN begrudingly concedes a given (the eternal return business is at least in part a response to this problem). My point was that there is, in fact, a human nature and that being virtuous has something to do with acting in accordance with that nature--virtues that are freely chosen could never be taken all that seriously by us (or by others), do violence to the very notion of human virtue that most folks intuitively accept, and doesn't do justice to our basic moral condition which seems to necessarily involve both freedom and dependance.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...."there is in fact a human nature and that being virtuous has something to do with acting in accordance with that nature"--I can't bite that. I'm not really disagreeing with the validity of your argument, but I'll never concede that it's truth can be established. Human nature and virtue are far too hard nail down.

Another note on Nietszche as I take a quick break from work: there's a lot we can learn today from his often compelling critique of conservatism and his reflection on some of its limitations. From FN's perspective "standing athwart history, yelling stop" is always a losing proposition and the best we can hope for when the nihilistic darkeness descends is to keep morale up. From his perspective, this meant the creation of life affirming myths which at least intially would accelerate the descent of the very same darkness. However, he didn't seem to sufficiently reflect on the impotence of myths to inspire when they are transparently seen as myths nor did he seriously consider the possibility that the "twighlight of the idols" never fully arrived, nor could it.

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