The Nietzschean Prophecies
200 Years of Nihilism
The following is excerpted from The Radical Tradition: Philosophy, Metapolitics & the Conservative Revolution, edited by Troy Southgate (Primordial Traditions, 2011)
Among the many great and enormously influential thinkers of the 19th century, it is Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) who arguably stands the highest in terms of possessing both the most profound and penetrating criticisms of Western civilization as it was in his time, and the most prescient insights and predictions as to what the future course of the evolution of the West would involve. In our own day, Nietzsche has been a popular topic of academic discourse for some time, and the reading of his works has long been a popular pastime among trendy undergraduates. Yet in Nietzsche’s day, he remained obscure and his works were not widely read or accepted until after his death. Even with the abundance of Nietzsche scholarship that has been produced in the more than a century since his passing, his core ideas remain widely misunderstood or misinterpreted. Indeed, Nietzsche has been largely appropriated by the academic Left—a great irony considering his own considerable contempt for the politics of the Left—and the prevailing academic philosophy of postmodernism includes the philosophy of Nietzsche as a direct ancestor in its genealogical line.
No thinker is more important or relevant to the ideas of the Conservative Revolution than Nietzsche. While Marx continues to retain his status as the most influential radical thinker of the 19th century, it was Nietzsche who was the more revolutionary of the two in the actual implications of his thought. Nietzsche also stands as a polar opposite of the conservative counterrevolutionaries that arose in opposition to the spread of the influence of the Enlightenment. Nietzsche is no mere traditionalist in the vein of Edmund Burke, Joseph De Maistre, or Luis De Bonald. His outlook involves a dramatic departure not only from traditional Western thought as it had unfolded since the time of the Socratics, but from the intellectual culture of even the most advanced or revolutionary thinkers of his own time.
The Historical Context of Nietzsche’s Thought
An adequate understanding of Nietzsche is impossible without recognition of the historical context in which he wrote. Nietzsche’s core works were produced between 1872 and 1888. By that time, the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment was well-established among Western intellectual elites and among the rising educated middle classes. The Enlightenment intellectual revolution and its outgrowths were existential in nature. The most important aspect of the impact of the revolution was what Nietzsche characterized as the “death of God.” Advancements in human knowledge in a wide variety of areas had the effect of undermining the credibility of traditional theological views on cosmology, moral philosophy, the meaning of human existence, and so forth.
The overthrow of the Christian worldview that had dominated Western civilization for 1500 years left subsequent thinkers with a number of ultimately profound questions.1 If the purpose of an individual’s life is not to achieve salvation in an afterlife, then what is the purpose of life? If the king or established political authorities do not rule by divine right, then what is the basis of political legitimacy? How should society be organized? If morality is not to be understood according to the teachings of the Church, the Bible, or traditional religious authority, then what is the basis of justice, morality, truth or “right and wrong”? Do such concepts have any intrinsic or objective meaning at all? If the observable universe was not the product of special creation by a divine power, and if humanity was not “created in the image of God,” then what is the meaning of existence? Does it have any meaning beyond itself? If history is not guided by divine providence, then how is the process of historical unfolding to be understood? These are the questions that Western thinkers have been grappling with since the older, theological view of the universe and existence was demolished by the intellectual innovations of the Enlightenment.
The New Religion of Reason and Progress
Western civilization existed for millennia prior to the rise of Roman Christianity, so it is unsurprising that anti-Christian, Enlightenment intellectuals found inspiration in the classic works of antiquity. The Enlightenment thinkers (the “philosophes”) developed a worldview and philosophical outlook relatively similar to that which prevailed among the great thinkers of Greco-Roman intellectual culture.2 The traditional Christian emphasis on faith, revelation, mystery, and divine authority was rejected in favor of a new emphasis on the efficacy of human reason and ability to engage in rational criticism.
The Enlightenment view of the universe mirrored the human-centered outlook of the Greeks, with the ideas of the philosophes reflecting the Greek adage that “man is the measure of all things” to a much greater degree than Christian thought had ever done. It was the view of the philosophes that human reason and rational thought alone possessed the capability for the discernment of profound insight into the workings of the universe through the use of science. This confidence had been generated by the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Human reason was likewise capable of discerning the workings of society and of discovering ways by which society and humanity could be improved upon.
Out of this conviction emerged an intellectual optimism that expressed great confidence in the possibility and inevitability of progress. This intellectual framework that was bequeathed to subsequent generations of Europeans by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment formed the foundation for most of modern thought.
The concept of progress was a dominant feature of every major aspect of 19th century thinking, whether in the areas of philosophy, politics, or science. Thinkers of the German Idealist school, such as Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, attempted to retain the notion of justice, morality, and virtue as concepts possessing transcendent characteristics in a manner similar to that found in earlier Christian approaches to moral philosophy. Hegel developed a philosophical doctrine known as “historicism” that characterized the process of human historical development as one by which reason unfolds towards a higher state of rational unity that contains within itself the collection of prior expressions of, and resolved contradictions within, human thought.
Hegel gave a metaphysical and quasi-theological gloss to his philosophical system in a way that is still debated and subject to varying interpretations. Yet, this linear, progressive view of history postulated by Hegel established the framework for historical interpretation that would dominate Western thought for the next century.3
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed a materialist conception of Hegel’s interpretation of history as a dialectical process. The core component of the Marxist interpretation of history is a kind of economic determinism. According to Marxism, history is the manifestation of the struggle between competing socio-economic classes.Other aspects of human life such as politics, religion, culture, family, and philosophy are merely expressions or outgrowths of the material foundations of a given society.Marxism regards history as an evolutionary process whereby class conflict serves as the dialectical process whose impact is the advancement of humanity to a higher stage of social development.4
The 19th century idea of progress was further strengthened by the scientific innovations of the time. Evolutionary thinking became dominant in the natural sciences as the older, religious views on the origins of humanity and the universe fell into intellectual disrepute. The prevailing model of evolutionary theory of the era was the “developmental” model. This framework suggested that the evolutionary process was a manifestation of a linear drive towards a particular end. The analogy often used was that of the growth of an individual. The conventional view was that evolution transpires in a way that demonstrates direction and purpose. This particular rendition of evolution, most famously represented by the theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, was exploded by Charles Darwin. Darwin argued that evolution takes place through a process of adaption by means of natural selection.5
Darwin’s actual theory indicated that the process of natural biological evolution exhibits a great deal of randomness, and unfolds in a haphazard way with no specific outcome being inevitable regarding the ends of the evolutionary process. The actual implications of authentic Darwinian evolutionary theory severely detracted from the established “developmental” model of not only biological evolution but also human social evolution.6 Yet the publication of Darwin’s work had the effect of popularizing evolutionary thinking, even if his ideas were misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Subsequent thinkers would attempt to find justification for their preferred social or political views in Darwinian evolutionary biology.7 Marx considered Darwin to have found a scientific justification for his own views on socio-economic evolution, and Darwin was also appropriated by racists and proponents of chauvinistic nationalism.
Indeed, efforts to interpret human social evolution within the context of a pseudo-Darwinian biological framework became rather open-ended in nature. Proponents of social reform, humanitarians, advocates of predatory capitalism, utopians, racial supremacy theorists, and proponents of class warfare all appealed to Darwin as a justification for their beliefs, all of which were rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s actual ideas.8
It was the philosophy of Nietzsche that provided the interpretive framework of human history that was the most compatible with the implications of genuine Darwinism.
The Revolt Against Reason and Progress: The Philosophy of Nietzsche
If Darwinian evolutionary biology exploded the 19th century idea of progress in the realm of the natural sciences, it was the thought of Nietzsche that provided the most far-reaching assault on the presumptions of the time in the world of philosophy. Nietzsche is perhaps most well-known for his statements concerning the “death of God,” but the meaning of the “death of God” in Nietzschean philosophy involves a good deal more than mere conventional atheism. Other prominent intellectual atheists had come before Nietzsche such as Diderot, d’Holbach and (by implication) Hume, and he was by no means the inventor of modern atheism.9 While Nietzsche was certainly an “anti-theological” thinker in the sense of rejecting a theistic worldview in a conventional religious sense, his notion of the “death of God” was also intended as a critique of the intellectual presumptions of his own era, including those of intellectual elites who had rejected conventional religious faith. While Nietzsche was an atheist, materialist, and rationalist of a kind comparable to the most radical Enlightenment thinkers, his outlook sharply diverges from the Enlightenment tradition with regards to the role of reason in human life and thought.
Nietzsche regarded the Enlightenment emphasis on reason as having the effect of denying the role of the passions in forming human character, and shaping human action and human societies. He contrasted the Enlightenment’s orientation towards reason with the earlier manifestations and emphasis on the passions he considered to have been made manifest by the Renaissance. He compared these two eras within the framework of his famous Appollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. The Apollonian aspect of human essence is the rational, logical, prudent and restrained. The Dionysian is the instinctual, impulsive, and emotive. Nietzsche was not a skeptic of the passions in the manner of Hobbes or Burke, who regarded human passion and feeling as prone towards dangerous excesses and in need of restraint. Instead, he counseled human beings to live dangerously. Nietzsche regarded the passionate and the irrational (or pre-rational) as the foundation of all high cultures, which he in turn considered to be apex of human existence. The Greeks had emphasized and explored the passions, rather than having feared or shunned them, and for this reason the Greeks had produced the highest of hitherto existing human civilizations. Nietzsche vehemently opposed the rising egalitarian sentiments and trends towards mass society and mass democracy of his era. Only an elite motivated by the passions can produce a high culture. An egalitarian society would be a society of weak and fearful mediocrities concerned only with comfort and safety.
The “death of God” was intended as an attack on philosophical idealism of the kind retained by Kant and Hegel as much as it was an attack on the Christian faith. Nietzsche’s philosophy insisted that there is no transcendent or metaphysical foundation for ethics, morality, or justice. Values of this kind are mere human constructions. They have no meaning aside from what human beings, individually or collectively, assign to them. Nietzsche likewise rejected the view of history represented by Hegel’s historicism. One of Nietzsche’s earliest works, The Use and Abuse of History, is an attack on Hegel.10 The linear view of history contained within Hegel’s philosophical system had many precedents in Western thought, with roots going back as least as far as Aristotle.
According to Nietzsche, history has no purpose. It is merely a series of events that have no meaning in and of themselves, other than subjective meanings adopted by individuals and human groups relative to their own time, place, and experiences. Nietzsche’s philosophy was an attack on virtually the entire legacy of Western metaphysics since the time of Plato.
Nietzsche regarded the 19th century idea of progress, and the myriad of ideologies, movements, and causes of the time that were a manifestation of this idea to be superstitions every bit as much as the theological superstitions that dominated the Christian era. His parable of the madman found in The Gay Science is to be interpreted in this way.11 Nietzsche is ridiculing the intellectuals of his time who believe they have attained a superior state of enlightenment, and who regard themselves as the progenitors of a higher civilization. He is instead arguing that the thinkers of his time have not yet fully recognized the consequences of the “death of God” for Western civilization.
Instead, they are simply trying to find substitutes by replacing old dogmas and pieties with new ones. Among these new gods are socialism, liberalism, utopianism, humanism, nationalism, democracy, pseudo-scientific racism of the kind represented by thinkers such as H.S. Chamberlain12 and the anti-Semitism of his former friend Richard Wagner. Such efforts are dismissed by Nietzsche as methods of avoiding or postponing the existential crisis that Western civilization would ultimately have to face. Nietzsche attacked even the conservatives of his era for making too many concessions to rising egalitarian movements such as democracy and socialism, and for retaining their allegiance to the corpse of Christianity. He dismissed the traditional European aristocracies as weak and in a state of decay, and he also opposed the rising nationalist movements of his time as symptomatic of the egalitarian mass societies of mediocre individuals he saw on the horizon. Nietzsche presciently suggested that the 20th century would be a time of great wars between the rising ideological mass movements of his own time, and that it would be the 21st century before the existential crisis for civilization is fully recognized.
Nietzsche’s prophecy that the 20th century would be a time of war on an unprecedented scale between polarized ideological forces found its realization in the Great War and then the Second World War, and the destructiveness of the latter surpassed even the shocking brutality of the former. The suffering and death generated by the two world wars, and the invention of weapons technology with the capacity to destroy all of mankind demolished the 19th century faith in progress and pushed postwar intellectuals towards a confrontation with the nihilistic implications of modern science and philosophy of the kind Nietzsche had previously written about. Existentialism, with its implicitly or explicitly Nietzschean roots, became the prevailing philosophical outlook for intellectuals in the mid- to late 20th century. Existentialism represents an effort to confront the crisis of nihilism suggested by Nietzsche and the serious problems this crisis poses for human ethics and the question of meaning. If existence has no meaning, then what is the basis for proper human behavior? If God is dead, is everything permitted, as Dostoevsky suggested? The struggles of existentialist thinkers with these questions are famously illustrated, for instance, by the efforts of the feminist-existentialist Simone De Beauvoir to establish a framework of ethics in the face of the meaninglessness of existence by pointing to the commonness of the human experience, and the possibility of creating shared virtues and values that advance human interests in the realm of lived experience, even if these values ultimately have no objective or cosmic foundation or meaning.13 Her companion Jean Paul Sarte argued that one could create one’s own meaning by participating in the social or political activities of one’s time or even by embracing the irrational by, for example, becoming a devout Christian or a militant Communist. Sartre himself chose the latter.
Nietzsche predicted that it would be well into the 21st century before Western thought fully confronted the crisis of nihilism. It would thus far appear that he was correct. Western thought since the Enlightenment has attempted to compensate for the loss of the old faith by replacing the discredited Christian worldview with new faiths and new pieties. As these have become increasingly difficult to justify within a framework of rationality and a belief in inevitable “progress,” Western intellectuals have increasingly retreated into the irrational. This is illustrated by the curious phenomena of the present efforts by Western intellectual elites to embrace postmodernism, with its accompanying moral and cultural relativism, while simultaneously embracing the egalitarian-universalist-humanist moralistic zealotry popularly labeled “political correctness” and espousing with great piousness such liberal crusades as “human rights,” “anti-racism,” “gay liberation,” feminism, environmentalism and the like. Such an outlook, which combines extreme moralism in the cultural and political realm, complete moral relativism in the philosophical or metaphysical realm, and at times even falls into subjectivism in the epistemological realm14, is fundamentally irrational, of course. That such an outlook has become so deeply entrenched indicates that Western intellectuals are desperately working to avoid a full confrontation with the crisis of nihilism.
Pareto argued that civilizations die when their elites lose faith in their own civilization to such a degree that the will to survive no longer exists. Western political and cultural elites presently exhibit abiding contempt for the legacy of their civilization, as demonstrated by their attachment to anti-Western ideologies such as “multiculturalism” and support for political policies, such as permitting mass immigration into the West from the Third World, that ultimately mean the demographic overrun and death of Western civilization. The presumption of present day elites is that dramatic demographic alteration can transpire without consequences of significance, or that the overthrow of Western civilization itself may even be desirable. The prevalence of such attitudes once again indicates that cultural nihilism has become rather deeply entrenched. Yet this nihilism has been thus far masked by liberal-humanist platitudes of escalating silliness.
It remains to be seen what will eventually bring this crisis to the forefront. Genuine threats to the survival of Western civilization itself may well force such a confrontation. These might include the threat of nuclear terrorism, economic collapse or ecological catastrophe, the depletion of resources on which civilization has become dependent, or confrontation with an ideological rival that poses an existential threat. As demographic change on a magnitude that threatens cultural dispossession becomes increasingly imminent, and as the consequences of such become increasingly undeniable, perhaps a belated cultural awakening and renewal will begin. Otherwise, it may well the case that Western modernity and postmodernity will eventually suffer the same fate as the classical Greco-Roman civilization of antiquity.
1 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1966), pp. 8-9, 62-63.
2 Gay, pp. 59-127.
3 Georg W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991).
4 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948.)
5 Peter J. Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. (Baltimore and London: Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 9-10, 43-44, 24-28, 40-45.
6 Bowler, pp. 9-14.
7 Bowler, pp. 132-158.
8 Bowler, pp. 166-173.
9 Gay, pp. 63-64, 103, 105, 407-419.
10 Werner J. Dannhauser, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” History of Political Philosophy, edited by Joseph Cropsey and Leo Strauss. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 1972) Third edition, 1987, pp. 829-831.
11 Friedrich Nietzsche, A Nietzsche Reader (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 202-203.
12 Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Vol. I. Trans. John Lees. (New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1968).
13 Simone De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, (Secauscus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1948).
14 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), Originally published in 1961.