(excerpted from, “Modern Consciousness: New Views of Nature, Human Nature and Art”, in An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry, pp. 293-353)
- early modern mentality: belief in progress and the perfectibility of society through reason and science
- late modern mentality: new insights into human nature and the physical universe lead to the questioning of Newtonian mechanics, of the primacy of reason in the human psyche, and of the rules of aesthetics that had dominated art since the Renaissance
Modern thinkers repudiated the Enlightenment conception of human rationality, stressing instead the irrational side of human nature. They saw blind strivings and animal instincts, not logical consciousness, as the primary fact of human existence. Some thinkers, recognizing the weakness of reason, still valued it and sought to preserve it as an essential ingredient of civilized life. Others concentrated on the creative potential of the irrational, rebelling against the insistence of scientists and positivists on rational analysis as the only path to knowledge. Like the Romantics, proponents of the non-rational placed more emphasis on feeling, spontaneity, instinct and intuition than on reason. They belittled the intellect’s attempts to comprehend reality, scorned the liberal-rational tradition, praised outbursts of the irrational and in some instances lauded violence.
There were immense implications for political life in this new emphasis on the emotional. The popularity of fascist movements which openly denigrated reason and exalted race, blood, action and will, demonstrated the naivete of nineteenth century liberals who believed that reason had triumphed in human affairs.
Friedrich Neitzsche and Irrationalism
The principal figure in the dethronement of reason and the glorification of the irrational was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He attacked the accepted views and convictions of his day as a hindrance to a fuller and richer existence for man. He denounced social reform, parliamentary government, universal suffrage; he ridiculed the vision of progress through science, condemned Christian morality, and mocked the liberal belief in man’s essential goodness and rationality. He said that man must understand that life, which abounds in cruelty, injustice, uncertainty and absurdity, is not governed by rational principles. There exist no absolute standards of good and evil, no timeless principles, whose truth can be demonstrated by reflective reason. The higher world of metaphysics is a myth; so too is the Christian heaven. Nothing is true. There is only naked man living in a godless, chaotic, meaningless and absurd world. The strong face this reality; the weak invent fables about a higher reality and a future life.
Critic of European Values
Modern bourgeois society, said Nietzsche, was decadent and enfeebled-- a victim of the excessive development of the rational faculties at the expense of the will and instinct. Against the liberal-rationalist stress on the intellect, Nietzsche urged recognition if the dark , mysterious world of instinctual desires, the true forces of life. Smother the will with excessive intellectualizing and you destroy the spontaneity that sparks cultural creativity and ignites a zest for living. Foe man’s potential to be realized, he must forgo relying on the intellect and nurture again the instinctual roots of human existence.
In The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Nietzsche emphasized the emotional roots of Greek culture, the Dionysian spirit that springs from the soil of myth and ritual, passion and frenzy, instinct and intuition, heroism and suffering. This Dionysian spirit, rooted in the non-rational, was the source of Greek creativity in art and drama. Greek tragedy declined, said Nietzsche, when serenity, clarity, order, structure, form, and cold calculation, the Apollonian spirit, predominated over noble ecstasy and creative intuition. Greek tragedy was killed by a rationalism which undermined life.
Nietzsche attributed to Socrates the rise of a theoretical outlook, of scientific thought, which seeks to separate truth from myth, illusion, and error. This scientific outlook had become the basis of modern culture. Modern westerners value the theoretical man and not the man of instinct and action; consequently, they do not appreciate the creative potential of the non-rational side of human nature. During the late eighteenth century, men were beginning to recognize the limitations of science and of the cognitive faculty itself.
Nietzsche believed that Christianity, with all its prohibitions and demands for conformity also crushed the human impulse for life. Christian morality must be obliterated, for it is fit only for the weak, the slave. The triumph of Christianity in the ancient world, he said, was a revolution of the lowest elements of society, the meek, the weak, and the ignoble, nothing less than an attempt of resentful slaves to prevent superior people from expressing their heroic natures. The meek condemn as evil the very traits they lack: strength, assertiveness, ability, and a zest for life. They saddle the strong with guilt if they deviate from the contemptible, life-negating values of pity, kindness, self-denial, or the pursuit of heaven. What a clever act of revenge against their superiors! In reality, these virtues of love, compassion and pity are really only a facade; they hide the Christians’ true feelings of envy, resentment, hatred, and revenge against their superiors.
Many of the Enlightenment philosophes had rejected Christian doctrines, but they had largely retained Christian ethics. Nietzsche, however, did not attack Christianity because it was contrary to reason, as the philosophes had, but because it was a ‘declaration of hostility towards life, nature and the will to life.’ By blocking the free and spontaneous exercise of human instincts and making humility and abnegation virtues and pride a vice, said Nietzsche, Christianity gave man a sick soul.
“God is dead,” proclaimed Nietzsche. God is man’s own creation. There are no higher worlds, no transcendental or metaphysical truths, no higher morality that derives from God or nature. Dead too are the secular ideals of natural rights, scientific socialism, and faith in inevitable progress. The death of God and all transcendental truth can mean the liberation of man. Man can surmount nihilism by creating new values that further his instincts for life and foster self-mastery. In the process he can overcome the deadening uniformity and mediocrity of modern civilization; he can undo democracy and socialism, which have made masters out of the cattle-like masses, and quash the shopkeeper’s spirit, which has made man soft and degenerate.
Europe can only be saved by the emergence of a higher type of man, the superman or overman, who would not be held back by the egalitarian rubbish preached by the democrats and socialists. Europe needs a new breed of rulers, a true aristocracy of masterful men, a ‘new order of rank.’ The superman is a new kind of man who breaks with accepted morality, which only negates life, and creates his own values. He does not repress his instincts but asserts them. Free of Christian guilt, he proudly affirms his own being; dispensing with the Christian “thou shalt not,” he instinctively says, “I will.” He dares to be himself. He makes his own values. He relishes and exudes power. He knows that life is purposeless but lives it laughingly, adventurously, fully. The superman represents the highest form of life.
The superman exemplifies the ultimate fact of life, that “the most fearful and fundamental desire in man [is] his drive for power,” that human beings crave and strive for power ceaselessly and uncompromisingly. It is perfectly natural for human beings to want to dominate nature and other human beings, even to inflict pain on them. This will to power is not a product of rational reflection but flows from the very essence of human existence. As the motivating force in human behavior, it governs everyday life and is the determining factor in political life. The enhancement of power brings supreme enjoyment: “the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything- health, food, a place to live, entertainment- they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited; for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied. Take everything form them and satisfy this and they are happy- as happy as men and demos can be.” The masses, cowardly and envious, will condemn the superman as evil; this has always been their way. Thus, Nietsche castigates democracy, because it “ represents the disbelief in great human beings and an elite society,” and Christianity, for imposing an unnatural morality, one that affirms meekness, humanity and compassion.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) had declared that beneath the conscious intellect is the will, a striving, demanding, and imperious force that is the real determinant of human behavior. In contrast to Hegel, who identified ultimate reality with reason, Schopenhauer viewed will, an all encompassing force that pervades even plants and animals, as the essence of reality: “the will is the thing-in-itself, the inner content, the essence of the world...every man is what he is through will... for willing is the basis of his inner being.” In contrast to the philosophes, who saw human beings as fundamentally rational, Schopenhauer held that the intellect is merely a tool of an illogical and irrational will. Life is an endless striving to fulfill ceaseless desires. Schopenhauer anticipated Freud when he declared that dark and blind animal impulses, not reason, are a human being’s true essence.
Nietzsche learned from Schopenhauer to appreciate the unconscious strivings and impulses that dominate human behavior. Regarding the will as a source of strength and the wellspring of human creativity and accomplishment, Nietzsche called for its heroic and joyful assertion. Affirmation of the will allows us to redeem life from nothingness. Supermen cast off all established values. Free of all restrictions, rules and codes of behavior imposed by society, they create their own values. They burst upon the world propelled by something that urges people to want , take, strike, create, struggle, seek, dominate. Supermen are people of restless energy who enjoy living dangerously, scorn meekness and humility, and dismiss humanitarian sentiments; they are noble warriors, hard and ruthless. This new elite can save European society from decadence.
Nietzsche in Perspective
The influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy is still a matter of controversy and conjecture. He brilliantly expressed the spirit of an age in which all areas of thought and culture were pitting life force and soul against positivism and scientism, intuition and instinct against reason, daring and adventure against bourgeois conformity, comfort, and smugness. The release this wild, primitive and merciless energy into the twentieth century nearly hurled Western civilization back to a state of barbarism.
Nietzsche grasped the essential problem of modern society and culture- that with the death of God traditional moral values had lost their authority and blinding power. In a world where nothing is true, all is permitted. Nietzsche foresaw that the twentieth century would be an age of nihilism, violent and sordid.
Nietzsche is part of a general nineteenth century trend that sought to affirm the human being and earthly aspirations rather than God or salvation. There is no God, Nietzsche declared, values and norms do not derive from a transcendental realm outside ourselves. We must respond to this crisis of existence, he said, by facing ourselves and our lives free of illusion, pretense and hypocrisy, by standing on our own two feet, and forging our way. We do this by rejecting conventional beliefs and ways of living and choosing our own values- the values that we can feel and live by without deception or rationalization. Nietzsche’s rejection of God, metaphysics, and all embracing historical theories that attempt to impose rational patterns on the past and present is crucial to the development of existentialism.
However, Nieztsche had no constructive proposal for dealing with the disintegration of rational and Christian certainties. He offered no constructive guidelines for dealing with the problems of modern industrial civilization. Nor can we find anything helpful in his condemnation of equality. His vision of society is merely ‘a foundation and scaffolding by means of which a select class of beings may be able to elevate themselves to... a higher existence.” He provides his followers with a warrant for ruthless domination and exploitation. Many young European intellectuals saw his philosophy as liberating an internal energy which would erode the rational foundations of Western civilization. These young people, attracted to Nietzsche’s thought, welcomed World War I; they viewed the war as an esthetic experience and believed it would clear a path to a new heroic age.
Nazi theorists tried to make Nietzsche a forerunner of their movement. They sought form NIetzsche a philosophical sanction for their own will to power, contempt for the weak, ruthlessness, and glorification of action, as well as for their cult of the heroic and their Social Darwinist revulsion for human equality and endorsement of cruelty. Recasting Nietzsche in their own image, the Nazis viewed themselves as Nietzsche’s supermen: the new aristocracy, members of a master race who, by force of will, would conquer all obstacles and reshape the world according to their self-created values.
Nietzsche himself detested German nationalism and militarism; he scoffed at the notion of German racial superiority, disdained anti-semitism, and denounced state worship. He would have abhorred Hitler and been dismayed at the twisting of his idea of the will to power into a prototype fascist principle. The men that he admired were passionate but self-possessed individuals, who by mastering their own chaotic passions, would face life and death courageously, affirmatively, creatively. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s extreme and violent denunciation of Western democratic principles, including equality, his praise of power, his call for the liberation of all instincts, his elitism, which denigrates and devalues all human life that is not strong and noble, and his spurning of humane values provided a breeding ground for violent, anti-rational, anti-liberal, and inhumane movements. His philosophy is conducive to a politics that knows no moral limits.