Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Understanding Nietzsche and Fukuyama (Part 2)


Fukuyama describes how the West's aristocratic warrior's ambitions have (for the most part) been successfully transformed by Liberal Democracy into peaceful equivalents of war:

"The desire to be recognized as superior to other people we will . . . label . . . megalothymia. Megalothymia can be manifest in the tyrant who invades and enslaves a neighboring people so that they will recognize his authority, as well as in the concert pianist who wants to be recognized as the foremost interpreter of Beethoven. Its opposite is isothymia, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people . . ."

"The social embodiment of megalothymia, and the social class against which modern liberalism declared war, was the traditional aristocracy. The aristocratic warrior did not create wealth, he stole it from other warriors . . . His behavior was fenced in by dictates of pride and codes of honor which did not permit him to do things beneath his dignity. . . War . . . remained central to the aristocratic way of life, and war, as we well know is 'economically suboptimal.' Much better, then, to convince the aristocratic warrior of the vanity of his ambitions, and to transform him into a peaceful businessman, whose self-enriching activities would serve to enrich those around him as well."

"An American politician could harbor ambitions to be a Caesar or a Napoleon, but the system would allow him or her to be no more than a Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan -- hemmed in by powerful institutional constraints and political forces on all sides and forced to realize their ambition by being the people's 'servant' rather than their master."

And this is the Liberal Democracy that Fukuyama views as the end of history. It has taken the desire to distinguish oneself on the field of battle and transmuted it into the desire to distinguish oneself in activities that preserve and enhance Liberal Democracy. Once all nations have become Liberal Democracies than there will be no more war and history will be at an end, but not everyone viewed this future with equanimity.

"The greatest and most articulate champion of thymos in modern times, and the prophet of its revival, was Friedrich Nietzsche . . . Nietzsche was once described by a contemporary as an 'aristocratic radical,' a characterization he did not dispute. Much of his work can be seen, in a certain sense, as a reaction to what he saw as the rise of an entire civilization of 'men without chests,' a society of bourgeois who aspired to nothing more than their own comfortable self-preservation. For Nietzsche, the very essence of man was neither his desire nor his reason, but his thymos: man was above all a valuing creature, the beast with red cheeks' . . . Nietzsche's well-known doctrine of the 'will to power' can be understood as the effort to reassert the primacy of thymos as against desire and reason, and to undo the damage that modern liberalism had done to man's pride and self-assertiveness. "

What happens with this Liberal Democratic "man with no chest" has to defend himself against people without his fine sense of such things as "the first amendment"? There is no easy answer to that. The "man with no chest" sees his system as superior and worthy of emulation, but he has given up his will to fight for it. Fortunately for this system, not every member is born "with no chest." Fukuyama writes, "Nature, on the other hand, will conspire to preserve a substantial degree of megalothymia even in our egalitarian, democratic world. For Nietzsche was absolutely correct in his belief that some degree of megalothymia is a necessary precondition for life itself. A civilization devoid of anyone who wanted to be recognized as better than others, and which did not affirm in some way the essential health and goodness of such a desire, would have little art or literature, music or intellectual life. It would be incompetently governed, for few people of quality would choose a life of public service. It would not have much in the way of economic dynamism; its crafts and industries would be pedestrian and unchanging, and its technology second-rate. And perhaps most critically, it would be unable to defend itself from civilizations that were infused with a greater spirit of megalothymia, whose citizens were ready to forsake comfort and safety and who were not afraid to risk their lives for the sake of dominion. Megalothymia is, as it always was, a morally ambiguous phenomenon: both the good things and the bad things of life flow from it, simultaneously and necessarily. If liberal democracy is ever subverted by megalothymia, it will be because liberal democracy needs megalothymia and will never survive on the basis of universal and equal recognition alone."

So while Fukuyama is considered the modern father of the idea that Liberal Democracy is "the end of history" we see him here wrestling with the idea that megalothymia is needed in some form for its survival. As long as Liberal Democracy is satisfying this need by providing opportunities for those who want to be superior, then the need will remain benign. But what happens if someone's need is greater than anything provided by Liberal Democracy?

We who are comfortable living in our Liberal Democracies hope there will never be such people as the "Aristocratic Warrior" again. We like things the way they are. But Nietzsche didn't: "He hated societies that were diverse and tolerant, preferring instead those that were intolerant, instinctive, and without remorse -- the Indian Chandala caste that tried to breed distinct races of men, or the 'blond beasts of prey' which unhesitatingly lay (their) terrible claws upon a populace.' Nietzsche's relationship to German fascism has been debated at great length, and while he can be defended from the narrow charges of being the forefather of National Socialism's simpleminded doctrines, the relationship between his thought and Nazism is not accidental. Just as in the case of his follower, Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche's relativism shot out of all the philosophical props holding up Western liberal democracy, and replaced it with a doctrine of strength and domination. Nietzsche believed the era of European nihilism, which he was helping to inaugurate, would lead to 'immense wars' of the spirit, objectless wars whose only purpose was to affirm war itself."

The "last man" for Nietzsche "resembles the slave in Hegel's bloody battle that began history. But the last man's situation is made worse as a result of the entire historical process that has ensued since that time, the complex cumulative evolution of human society toward democracy. For according to Nietzsche, a living thing cannot be healthy, strong, or productive except by living within a certain horizon, that is, a set of values and beliefs that are accepted absolutely and uncritically. 'No artist will paint his picture, no general win his victory, no nation gain its freedom,' without such a horizon, without loving the work that they do 'infinitely more than it deserves to be loved.' . . . That is why modern man is the last man: he has been jaded by the experience of history, and disabused of the possibility of direct experience of values.

"Modern education, in other words, stimulates a certain tendency toward relativism, that is, the doctrine that all horizons and values systems are relative to their time and place, and that none are true but reflect the prejudices or interests of those who advance them. The doctrine that says that there is no privileged perspective dovetails very nicely with democratic man's desire to believe that his way of life is just as good as any other. Relativism in this context does not lead to the liberation of the great or strong, but of the mediocre, who were now told they had nothing of which to be ashamed. The slave at the beginning of history declined to risk his life in the bloody battle because he was instinctively fearful. The last man at the end of history knows better than to risk his life for a cause, because he recognizes that history was full of pointless battles in which men fought over whether they should be Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic, German or French. The loyalties that drove men to desperate acts of courage and sacrifice were proven by subsequent history to be silly prejudices. Men with modern educations are content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism. As Nietzsche's Zarathustra says of them, 'For thus you speak: 'Real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition.' Thus you stick out your chests -- but alas, they are hollow!'

COMMENT: I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 during a war. Sixty years later I have not changed my mind as to that being the right thing to do. I don't believe wars are pointless. In this year, 2010, I don't believe a war between Islamism and Liberal Democracy pointless. I am no relativist. On the other hand I have never had much megalothymia pertaining to war. I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps and that's all I ever aspired to be. My chest was large enough to be willing to defend my country, but not so large that I wanted to start a war for personal aggrandizement. I liked living in a Liberal Democracy, but I was no "last man." The idea of running off to Canada to avoid being in a war was appalling. If a Liberal Democracy had value as a place to live, then it was worth fighting for.

I say I never aspired to being more than a Sergeant, but that isn't all I felt. I had a certain mistrust of officers. I wasn't sure we needed them. Sergeants, at least Marine Corps Sergeants, were perfectly capable of fighting a war. That may not have been true, but that is what I thought when I was in the Corps, and that is sort of what I think today. We don't need military ambition, at least not the sort of ambition that some of the Greek aristocratic warriors displayed. I am of the American "Jacksonian" tradition. We believe in defeating the enemies and then taking off our uniforms and going home. If you aren't willing to do that "then you ain't much of a man," or as Nietzsche would say, "you haven't much of a chest."

I do feel ambivalent about our current situation. Our Liberal Democracy has fostered a complacency, one in which the men with no chests listen to their "great leaders" who encourage them in their relativistic beliefs. They are encouraged to think one belief is as good as the next, that there is no point in fighting against Islamism because Islamism is just as good as anything we believe in. We as a prosperous Liberal Democracy can afford quite a lot of these "Hollow men," but should their relativistic philosophy ever prevail, should there ever be a time when an adequate number of men with chests could not be found to defend Liberal Democracy, then the Liberal Democratic world would end -- as T.S. Eliot wrote in 1925 in his poem "The Hollow Men":

"this is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


Chief said...

As a Navy Chief I have some of the same thoughts about military officers. I don't know if they have too much thymus or not enough. Their ambition tends to point more toward self interest. As far as megalothymia existing in our American society I am skeptical. When I returned from 23 years of active duty my impressions were the same as Nietzsche's
these are Men Without Chests.

Lawrence Helm said...

I appreciated you comment, Chief.



Sean said...

I liked your article.

I'm actually writing a grad school thesis on Fukuyama's book and thought your intake was interesting.

Although I don't agree with your officer comment. I was an E-5 in the Marine Corps (logistics MOS), got out, and commissioned as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Yes, many if not most officers are careerists, but that doesn't mean you don't need them.

Lawrence Helm said...

I can't argue this point too far. I was mostly speaking of my own personal experience. I joined the Marine Corps during the Korean War and spent 13 months of my three year enlistment over there. I was there while the war was still going on, there during the armistice signing and there for some months after that signing; so in that particular war saw a before and after situation. The officers I saw were sent over there for short periods of time presumably, we thought, so that they would be able to wear the ribbon. If memory serves, they were over there for six months. Enlisted men were there for 13. Granted there wasn't a lot to do after the armistice, but the officers seemed to have contempt for enlisted men and we returned it. They seemed administrators rather than people who could actually do any fighting. Your experience was obviously different.

The rest of my USMC experience wasn't all that different. I went through all my training (conducted by NCOs), went to Korea for 13 months, was reassigned to the 2nd 90s at 29 Palms for a short time and spent my final period as a rifle instructor at Camp Pendleton.

Did you ever see the movie BATTLE LOS ANGELES? The main character, the hero who does all the fighting and leading is a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant. He had been ready to retire after 20 years of service. Why didn't he have a higher rank? Someone out there must have the same prejudices I do.