Are We Witnessing the End of a “Nietzschean” Age?

If you are like me, you watch the nightly news with a sense of horror and foreboding. The riots on the streets, the antics of nihilist anarchists, the tactics of the Marxist left seeking the ever illusive “end of history” and institution of a proletarian dictatorship, the complicity of left-wing politicians, and worst of all, the egging-on by the liberal media, without the slightest reflection on where this is all heading. For those who want to know the end-game of all this, my suggestion is that the end game will not be not pretty—or what its proponents desire.

When I was a young lawyer, I worked for a time with one of those brilliant people who work by day in a practical job, but whose sheer mental ability drives them to a deeper thought pattern. I was a young and inexperienced Christian reading my Bible. He was a mature lawyer reading a history of the French Revolution. The Enlightenment, with its hostility to religion, began in France among a group of philosophers, the most famous of which was Voltaire. They envisioned a perfect, humanistic state. They created a dictatorship in which thousands died in an orgy of madness. The result was not a perfect state, but a perfectly demonic state. What finally emerged was not a paradise of reason, but Napoleon.

If American intellectuals, left-wing politicians, and the plutocrats that control much of our wealth are wise, they will take a break from radical politics, political calculations, and cultural accommodation and study the French Revolution. Those that egged on the French mob were ultimately destroyed by the mob. This same kind of senseless evil was characteristic of the 20th century, from Lenin, to Hitler, to Mao, and beyond. Venezuela is the latest example.

There is a kind of naïve utopianism that discounts human brokenness and our capacity for evil, that believes that a different sort of ruler (me or my group) would mean change for the better, and that impatient for change. In the case of modern revolutions, people seek a secular Messiah who will usher in a golden age of peace and plenty, but most often get Stalin. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7, KJV).

Will to Power

As I have mentioned in this blog before, it is characteristic of modern political science to be consumed by politics as the acquisition and use of power, as John Milbank notes in his book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. [1] Contemporary politics and political thinking are dominated by two underlying political ideologies in which this endeavor manifests itself: first in what might be called “materialistic, laisse faire capitalist liberalism,” and second in “Marxist dialectical materialism.” In the end, both extremes see politics and economics as subject to universal rules of reason that act in the material world without reference any transcendental moral or religious ideal. Both ideologies are fundamentally materialistic and tend to discount moral and spiritual values as important to political or economic life

The philosopher Nietzsche instituted a program of seeing all moral claims, and all truth claims as simple bids for power, a program that finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting the attempt the weak to gain power over the strong, the “Ubermench” (“overman” or “superman,” who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) is well known. In practice, the results of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of Nazism. [2] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy towards violence. [3] The truth and reality of this observation is seen in Antifa and in the events in major U.S. cities over the past several weeks.

Will to Healthy Relationality

Over and against the Nietzschean notion of the “will to power” as ultimate, Christians posit that the universe is ultimately relational carrying in its very being the vestiges of the self-giving love of its Trinitarian source. In holding this view, Christian social thinking is consistent with the insights of modern science. If the modern world view is founded on Newtonian physics and its reduction of reality to matter and force, a positive post-modern world view is based on the relativistic and quantum view of reality as ultimately relational and not material.

Beginning with the insides of Einstein and extending into the insides of quantum theory and chaos theory, a picture has developed of the universe as deeply relational. The ultimate reality is not material at all. The fundamental units of our universe appear to be potentialities that exist in fields. These fields, and indeed the universe itself, are deeply related at a fundamental level. Even at a “macro level” (the level of our ordinary life) open systems are so delicate that slight changes in many systems can result in unpredictable and impressive effects (the so-called “butterfly effect.”

Our universe does not seem to be the kind of universe that Nietzsche believed existed. Instead, the universe seems to be a delicate web of relations that must be maintained with a kind of wise and careful honor. One example of this way of thinking is contemporary environmentalism, which flows from an understanding of the way in which the elements of our environment are related and impacted by foolish or uncaring interventions.

A Preference for Peace

Back to Antifa and the nihilistic radicals that are damaging our social fabric. It’s a picture of reality that I am painting is accurate, then human preference should be for peaceful, wise, and careful changes in our political structure over time. Obviously, as in the case of slavery, there are social evils so large and so deeply in bedded into a society that major changes may have to be made. However, most of the time a society is better served by small, incremental changes that maintain social peace. A kind of politics that depends upon ultimately irrational appeals to human prejudice, human fear, and violence in an impatient search for a perfect world is unlikely to produce the kind of social peace and progress that our society, and every wise society, desires.

A Christian view of society views conflict as a symptom of our human brokenness, not a fundamental element in any human society. Love it turns out, that love seen on the Cross, is the most fundamental reality of all—and a reality that can and should be embedded in our social interactions.

We cannot know how the events of the most recent weeks will end. We can hope that our society will step away from the brink and begin the slow process of developing a political process that assumes that love is more powerful than violence and wise decision-making more valuable than shrewdness,  power-seeking, or political victory. If we do, then our society has a bright future. If not, then we shall see….

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK.: Blackwell, 2006). This is a very difficult, postmodern analysis of contemporary social theory, which I am almost loath to cite because I find it so difficult to read and understand. Nevertheless, it is enlightening.

[2] Milbank would not agree with all my conclusions, nor I with his. In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life. Milbank believes as do I that Nietzschean nihilism always leads to some form of Nazism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society.

[3] Id, at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

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