Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nietzsche and Secular Liberalism

Secular liberals face a dilemma. Liberal values, such as individual liberty and compassion, derive from monotheistic religious institutions, but these institutions are dysfunctional and their theological rationales are no longer credible. Meanwhile, secularism promotes oligarchy and regressive consumerism, much as Nietzsche predicted. So warns Chris Hedges in his article, After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck with Nietzsche.

More specifically, the problem is that western secular assumptions--informed by science and the capitalistic drive towards plutocracy--are that we’re all just clever beasts with no intrinsic worth, who struggle for power with no divine oversight, but who are able to create our own values. As Nietzsche contended, the most appropriate standard by which to rank these values is the aesthetic, not the moral one. Universal western morality is the creation of the early Christians, of conquered Jews who, in their resentment towards the more powerful Romans, articulated a myth to trap their oppressors. According to this myth, whatever helps the weak is right and whatever hurts them is wrong. What helps them chiefly is the Golden Rule that everyone should be treated as if they were the same, that people have rights just by being people, regardless of their personal weakness or social status, since rights flow from something other than natural ability. Instead of having the willpower and the strength of character to confront their world in an ennobling way, Christians delude themselves by trusting that animals aren’t driven mainly by their will to power. As a product of the creative will, Christian morality is ugly and ignoble, according to Nietzsche.

The amoral secularist affirms, instead, the sad truth of our belonging in the gloriously violent physical universe in which stars and whole galaxies are created and destroyed by the exercise of power, not by intelligence or benevolence. Hedges writes that the results of this secular affirmation are the cultures of the Übermensch and of the Last Man, which in our case are those of the power-intoxicated, financial and military oligarchs and of the passive, apathetic mob of debt slaves, respectively. The Wall Street titans, castigated by politicians and mocked by comedians for their amorality, are actually the Nietzschean heroes who understand and personally accept that with God’s death falls the whole monotheistic edifice, including morality. From a Nietzschean viewpoint, says Hedges, the ruthless and hedonistic oligarchs stand tall as impressive beasts, not just because of their vast wealth, but because of their creativity and their courage in living as though the world were so horrible that sociopaths such as them could come to dominate in it. From a scientific point of view, the world is indeed so horrible, and there’s no escaping that horror except by succumbing to some delusion or other, such as a stale monotheistic myth. (See Cosmicism.) But a delusion is just an aesthetically displeasing product of the imagination. By comparison, in its affirmation of natural life, Nietzsche’s myth of the glory of conquering heroes is an ennobling work of art.

Hedges rejects the foundational teachings of the Christian worldview, of the Bible’s inerrancy, of Jesus’ miracles and even of Jesus’ historical existence, as indeed must everyone who sees scientific methods as more worthy than tradition or institutional authority. And Hedges thinks that secularism has nightmarish consequences. Clearly, a doctrinaire Christian or Muslim would have some basis for condemning a Darwinian culture; after all, assuming that the Bible effectively condemns Nietzschean philosophy, that the Bible is inspired by God, and that God is perfect, no further argument would be needed. But Hedges’ lament for the secular alternative to the declining religions isn’t theological. He seems to accept what he calls the liberal values of monotheistic religions, such as individual liberty and compassion, while also rejecting the theological rationales for those values. Thus, he stands wistfully between the two sides, unable to explain how each individual could have rights and how compassion could be a virtue, because he shares the basic scientific assumptions of the secular worldview even while he rejects the harsh, Nietzschean values that are more authentic expressions of that viewpoint. All of this raises the question of whether there’s anything to be said in favour of secular liberalism. Can the best of liberalism and secularism be combined, producing a third option? Is the only ultimate choice of cultures between theistic religion and social Darwinism?

The Bankruptcy of Postmodern Liberalism

North American and European liberalism presents few if any hopeful signs for a way out of the dilemma. In the U.S., Obama promised to change Washington and he was elected on a wave of naïve optimism about the chances of victory for progressive ideals in a broken, money-driven political system. But Obama has proven himself to be what the media euphemistically call a pragmatic centrist rather than a progressive. In a so-called bipartisan fashion, he wanted to initiate an alliance between the two, bitterly opposed parties and to reach consensus to solve problems for the majority of the American population. Pragmatism, however, is just flexibility in choosing the most efficient way of achieving some goal. A mere pragmatist, as opposed to a liberal or a conservative one, is a nihilist who has nothing to say about which goal to achieve, but who adopts some preselected plan, as a functionary, for example, of a financial oligarchy. “Centrism” entails ideological moderation, which is the lack of passion for any political idea, and a focus on negotiating power imbalances. Centrist politicians can be expected, then, to appreciate the weakness of their position compared to that of a financial oligarch on which their funding and thus their political survival depend. (See Liberalism.)

So as a functional nihilist (“pragmatist” or “centrist”) and servant of American oligarchy, Obama has continued Bush’s foreign policies, gifted the private health insurance companies with his signature domestic bill, and bailed out Wall Street at the behest of the duplicitous Wall Street insiders whom he appointed as his advisors. As a result, American progressives are demoralized if not cynical and apathetic about American politics, although Obama has already begun giving progressive, politically correct speeches to win back his base for the coming presidential election.

One explanation of why this has come to pass is apparent from Hedges’ dilemma. American liberals are either theistic or secular. Theistic assumptions can’t be taken seriously in a society filled with the technological fruits of science and governed by “pragmatic” (hedonistic, nihilistic, or sociopathic) businesspeople. And secularists have no satisfying rationale for their own for liberal values. Hence, the liberalism of the secular Democratic Party is mere pretense. When Democrats get into power, they behave as centrists or as weak Republicans, because they have no liberal inspiration. The noose of secularism around their necks has drained the life of liberal values from them, values that are taken from the prescientific, theistic mythos. Moreover, as the historian Oswald Spengler might have suspected, secular liberalism enters into a decadent phase when it loses its mythical underpinnings. Thus, liberalism can devolve into feel-good relativism; compassion for everyone comes to require respect for the presumed equal worth of all cultures. This, too, emasculates Democrats, making them prey for Republicans who retain an energizing, religious worldview. (See Conservatism.)

The same pragmatism is found in Canadian liberalism. Canada is more liberal than the U.S., on the whole, but many Canadians long for a leader with a liberal vision that can regain a prestigious place for Canada in world affairs. None seems forthcoming, and Canada becomes more and more internationally irrelevant, even as Canadian banks proved highly responsible in the bursting of the recent real estate bubble. Europeans have the most effective progressives in their midst, activists who force their governments to implement liberal foreign and domestic policies. But these policies have only fattened countries like Iceland, Greece, Italy, and the U.K., as lambs to the slaughter, while parasitic oligarchs use mystifying financial instruments to plunder those countries, having already laid waste to numerous poorer ones.

The pattern is that secular liberals offer no viable opposition to the Nietzschean heroes. These heroes are secularists and in some ways they’re more conservative than liberal, but again they assess their activities in realistic, amoral terms: they’re just artists in the struggle for power. The greatest, perhaps most sociopathic of these human predators rule transnationally as oligarchs, even in corrupted democracies where they operate outside of the media spotlight. Liberal values might regulate or even put an end to their destructive games if liberals could bring themselves to believe strongly enough in inalienable human rights to fight for them. But it’s unclear, at best, that there are these rights, from a secular standpoint. There are feelings of sympathy in compassionate individuals, there’s a certain rational strategy for creating a peaceful society, and there are revered documents asserting that there are human rights, but none of these magically turns a talking, tool-using primate into an intrinsically valuable end in-itself. Even if language and human intelligence turn its user from an animal into a more self-controlling person, this makes the animal very rare in nature, not normatively special. (See Oligarchy and Procreation for Ancestors.)

A Straussian Solution?

Perhaps liberals can learn to live with their albatross of secularism, by applying the Straussian political theory (as interpreted by the philosopher, Shadia Drury). According to Drury, Straussians, such as many of the neoconservatives in the last Bush administration, would agree that liberals face Hedges’ dilemma. Monotheism is a flawed vehicle for the classic liberal values that sustain a society in which the greatest activity of all, philosophizing, is possible, and scientists have confirmed the brutal truths of what I’ve called our dire existential situation (see Happiness). The grim truths are that we have, at best, an ever-shrinking supernatural dimension, as scientists explain more and more; we’re not as conscious, free, or as rational as we like to believe and we aren’t intrinsically significant; morality is ultimately the expression of feelings and our destiny is to war with each other for earthly goods. The ancient Greek solution, however, is for the elite among us, the Übermenschen with the willpower to digest the shocking truths, to tell noble lies to the weak-willed mob, to pretend that monotheism isn’t flawed, for the greater good of social cohesion. In short, the Straussian solution is for the elite to stand with Nietzsche and Plato, and for everyone else to worship Yahweh, Jesus Christ, or Allah; the elite are those philosophers who are fit to receive esoteric wisdom, while the nonphilosophical majority are fed pablum.

The problem with this Straussian solution is that academic philosophers make for unimpressive Nietzschean conquerors. If Drury’s interpretation of Straussian philosophy is correct, the neoconservatives may have had the backbone to accept the mournfully dark truths of secularism, but they lacked the wherewithal and the competence to carry out their bold schemes. Even if Iraq becomes a functioning secular democracy, that is, a covert oligarchy as opposed to a naked dictatorship, thanks to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the neoconservatives’ vision for the post-911 world far exceeded their reach. With Ivory Tower optimism, Wolfowitz, Rice, and the young academics sent in as bureaucrats to run Iraq, tried to remake the Middle East by military force and by the presumed self-evidence of American ideals. Had they succeeded, the Straussian form of secular liberalism might have been vindicated. But the fiasco of Bush’s administration covered no neoconservative in Nietzschean glory.

The Need for Great Secular Myths

I can think of no easy remedy for the secular liberal, but maybe the options aren’t as stark as Hedges suggests. The danger of absolute power is well-known: the prospect of enjoying that power attracts someone who is already corrupt or else the use of that power corrupts an innocent person. So oligarchies have tended not even to be great works of art. Pharaohs, Caesars, emperors, kings, tsars, Kaisers, dictators, and the Führer are guilty not just of the worst acts ever committed, from a liberal perspective, such as genocide, but often failed to live up to amoral aesthetic standards. The Nazis dabbled in pseudoscience and scapegoated the Jews, which demonstrated that the Nazis feared certain truths, and so Hitler was no Nietzschean hero. Perhaps there never has been any Übermensch, no one who overcomes all internal and external obstacles in an artistically glorious way. Perhaps no higher primate deserves the godlike position of an oligarch. But there is at least this psychological, existential side of the Nietzschean ideal. And this side holds out some hope that even if liberal values are impossible today for the honest secularist, other values will be created to replace them, values that are awe-inspiring even to someone who believes there are no miracles. These other values may even inspire oligarchs to behave as heroes rather than as spoiled children.

Inchoate myths that secularists can cherish can be glimpsed in science fiction. In Greg Egan’s Diaspora, for example, when humans discover that the universe is really a multiverse, and that travel is possible between the infinite universes, they discover also that an alien species has defied those vertigo-inducing facts by creating a multiverse-spanning sculpture of their biological form, with parts placed in different universes. And in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series, there’s an alien species that uses biological weapons as a last resort to utterly destroy its enemies, but that’s so disgusted by the tainted process and so loath to profit from it, that the leaders responsible for the slaughter always voluntarily kill themselves once the sorrowful task is done.

This latter ideal of honour in the battlefield is far from the horrible reality of war that Hedges describes as a journalist. Far from committing suicide, those responsible for high tech American wars are wealthy civilians who read reports in their offices instead of confronting what their decisions unleash or who send instructions to remote controllers of robotic weapons systems, while sitting safe in an underground bunker. But honour is more highly prized in certain eastern traditions. The growing popularity of mixed martial arts in North America may look like the result of a regressive mob’s lust for violence, but the sport’s growth could also indicate an emerging secular mythos, one that acknowledges the grim fact that natural life is a power struggle, but that makes the best of this fact by upholding the suitable ideal of honour for the combatants. Honour is respect, fame, glory, integrity. The mixed martial artist who sucker-punches his opponent long after the bell rings has no honour, whereas the one who stops hitting his opponent even before the referee intervenes, because the opponent obviously can no longer offer an intelligent defense, wins respect. Christian charity has no place in mixed martial arts, but this doesn’t mean the strong fighters can only prey on the weaker ones.

Secular values must be rooted in an acceptance of the tragedy of life’s evolution within an indifferent cosmos. There are no God-given rights and no secularist with any integrity can feel Bible-inspired compassion for all hapless persons. On the contrary, pity for the weak or for the unfortunate brings shame to the latter. But the secularist can feel honour-bound to respect everyone as fellow combatants in the battle to retain our sanity despite the available knowledge of our existential predicament. From a naturalistic viewpoint, oligarchs need offer no apology for exercising their power to their own advantage, even if doing so makes life harder for the weaker majority. But an oligarch should feel embarrassed by any failure of his to make a masterpiece also of the inner world of his mind. Only when his inner success matches his outward one can an oligarch be expected to act heroically rather than as a mere tyrant, parasite, predator, or sociopath.

The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt employed thousands of slaves to build the huge pyramids, providing work but also symbols in an elaborate myth that made life and death meaningful to the Egyptians. Many slaves died in the effort to give concrete reality to the Pharaoh’s vision, and from a monotheistic perspective the whole enterprise of ancient Egypt was absurd. But if, instead, it’s monotheism and its value system that’s absurd, which it is, today’s secular oligarchs can learn from the Pharaohs. (See Theism.) Some progressive critics of our oligarchs speculate that their master plan is to recreate a feudal society but on a global scale, with a central banking system that controls the debts of nations. Suppose this is so and the plutocrats succeed. What then? Once all human power is centralized, what awe-inspiring mission will the elite pursue with their godlike control? The Dubai playground for the wealthy isn’t particularly stirring. A global government should be only a means, not an end, and would be so for an oligarch whose mind is as impressive as his or her mansion. A secular hero needs visionary myths and inspiring symbols, and these are products of artistic genius which is found in a certain noble character, not in a mere hedonist or an insane tyrant. A powerful secular artist may not acknowledge human rights, as such, or feel Christian love for all God’s children. But with the ever-expanding reach of technology, this artist might lift up weaker persons in a way that can now only barely be imagined and that makes for an aesthetically pleasing response to the horror of the inhumane cosmos.


  1. I wonder, could the pursuit of medicine/life-extension/cryogenics which the wealthy would benefit from firstly be similar to the death-defying pyramids of Egypt for giving hope to a populace?

    Even in realistic terms, people could hold on to the idea of "if not me now, me later" or "if not me, my children who I love" or "If I can't escape death, I may be returned from it".

    Even if we can preserve brains of the dead skirting problems of water crystalization, electrical inactivity, etc. there are likely losses, yet daily existence is also a loss of individuality as we forget and learn new things, so people may be able to accept it.

    1. I think most transhumanists are pinning their hope for immortality on the prospects of artificial intelligence and of downloading our minds into machines, but AI has proven more elusive than many predicted. Still, the computer-software relationship seems like the best analogy for the brain-mind one, so theoretically the transfer should be possible. The sticking point is consciousness, though: how can anything physical be conscious?

  2. " Universal western morality is the creation of the early Christians, of conquered Jews who, in their resentment towards the more powerful Romans, articulated a myth to trap their oppressors."

    BULLSHIT. First of all "Universal Western Morality" is a patent oxymoron of a statement. If it is "universal" it cannot be just "Western", second of all, 'Western' (meaning European in origin) morale is not owed to a bunch of illiterate Jewish fishermen and carpenters of the arid Galilean countryside.

    Secondly, the notions of righteousness disseminated by both the intellectual followers of Paul, and by the inspired simpletons of the Middle East 2,000 years ago were based of old upon the Jewish-Persian ideas of what constitutes righteousness which hark back to the Babylonian Captivity and earlier.

    Western morality was respected by Nietzsche when he discovered the truly universal moralities of "Slave" and "Master" (incompatible).

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alex. I wasn't speaking for myself so much when I said that, but was trying to summarize Nietzsche's view. Nietzsche may have respected the natural dynamic between master and slave, but slave morality itself sickened him. I agree it's too strong to say that Western-style altruism was "created" by Judaism and Christianity, since Judaism borrowed and rework its myths from those of older civilizations. But Rome's exploitation of that Jewish cult did make altruism politically correct even for modern secular Europe, which disgusted Nietzsche. He thought that atheists and secular humanists can't legitimately borrow theistic myths to justify their values; instead, we need a revaluation after the death of God.