Feature 05.27.2020 9 minutes

Reading Twain to the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans


There there, Pepe—it’s gonna be O.K.

Can it be a coincidence that Nietzsche and pajamas date to the same era? Or that Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer, despised them both? Twain’s final verdict on the German was “Damn Nietzsche!”—and his hatred of pajamas was no less. “The dreams which came in the fitful flurries of slumber” while wearing them, he wrote, “were such as distress the sleep of the damned, or ought to.” Snug pajamas made him miss “the refreshing and luxurious sense” of being “undressed, emancipated, set free from restraints and trammels,” and “in a sane interval” he “discarded” them “and led a rational and comfortable life thenceforth.”

To his credit, Nietzsche adored Mark Twain. Reading Tom Sawyer alongside Plato’s Laws in 1877, he told Paul Rée, “I love his [i.e., Twain’s] fooleries more than any German clevernesses.” He delighted in Twain’s “Americanness,” because “American laughter makes me happy, especially this kind…. Nothing German could make me laugh more.”

American laughter is, indeed unique. It is a cultural manifestation of a society based on certain principles: the principles of classical liberalism, which hold that each person owns himself, has a fundamental right to direct his own life, and that the state is our agent, responsible for protecting us as we go about pursuing happiness. These principles gave rise to the secular, liberal, bourgeois republic, the greatest invention in history, responsible for more fulfillment and flourishing than anything else humans have ever managed to create.

Reciting its benefits—whether in the form of longer and happier lives, greater literacy, or scientific, technological, and yes, even artistic progress—would soon dull the senses from the sheer scale of amazement. It took us to the moon. It lit up the night. It cured polio. And it generated a culture of self-direction and optimism that underlies the ineffable “Americanness” so beautifully embodied by Mark Twain.

Conservatism’s Weakness

Of course, there have always been those for whom this all seems paltry by comparison to the voices in their heads. “Pajama-boy Nietzscheans” antedate both Nietzsche and pajamas. The first was Edmund Burke, who laid the foundation for the assault with his euphemisms about the long-lost “age of chivalry” and its supposedly glorious fruits (which he identified as “submission,” “obedience,” and “subordination”).

Burke’s argument, if argument it can be called, was seized upon by Carlyle, Calhoun, and Mussolini, among others. For all their differences, they agreed on their hatred for the notion of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives pursuing their (oh so ordinary!) happiness. Wasn’t there anything more? Some splendid altar upon which to lay some sacrifice? Today, this contempt for the bourgeois is embodied on the Left by “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) and on the Right by the frankly ludicrous neo-reactionaries who get thrills fantasizing about the Crusades and such.

Thompson is right to identify these two as opposing sides of the same counterfeit coin that says America is only for white people, and that its Constitution and institutions were never meant for anybody else. Against these allegations, conservatism—at least, such as it was until 2016, when irrationality became too thick to penetrate—has indeed provided insufficient defense. That failing is no accident; it is the consequence of a flaw which Harry Jaffa was foremost in identifying: conservatism’s hostility to ideas.

As articulated by Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, and the like, conservatism prided itself on being an “anti-ideology”—a habit, rather than a theory, and one that shied away on principle from any abstract principles. As Jaffa warned, this anti-intellectualism rendered conservatism vulnerable to takeover by racists, anti-Semites, and plain old bunco artists, who deny the truth of the Declaration’s propositions and retreat to tribalism in the belief that there are no permanent standards and political philosophy is only “a matter of social convention and changing customs.” What happens, Jaffa asked, when the conventions change?

Jaffa understood that American ideas of equality and liberty were “applicable to all men and all times,” and that no conservatism that rejected these ideas was either capable or worthy of success. For that, he was reviled by conservatives who (accurately) viewed him as an apostate from their anti-ideology. To the degree that conservatism has failed today—either to withstand the Left or to offer a spokesman who is anything other than a game-show charlatan—it has done so for just the reasons he predicted.

The reality is that America’s classical liberal foundations are not only valid, but the only morally valid basis for any political system, precisely because they are rooted in objective goods: the individual’s right to own and direct his or her own life, to pursue and obtain happiness and safety, and not to be compelled to pray to someone else’s God.

These principles cannot be defended on the basis of “custom, convention, and continuity.” They require a rational, philosophical vindication, such as was offered by the Founding Fathers, and they must be relearned and reasserted by every generation. The Conservatism of Habit defaulted on this obligation long ago. By recalling our attention to a rational consideration of principles instead, Thompson’s new book is a welcome sign that the work continues anyway.

A Government of Scolds

Thompson is also right to identify an error that seduces many into Old Right and alt-Right delusions: the idea that the outrageous SJW ideology flows inherently from America’s founding principles. According to this notion, the state must impose “the common good” on us, or we’ll have mass hysteria—and by preventing this moral authoritarianism the classical liberal order has proven itself a suicide pact.

This is fallacious for three reasons. First, civil societynot the state—is where our ideas of the common good develop; even the state must draw such ideas from civil society (or some politically designed, less perfect substitute) before it can impose these ideas by force. Just as government cannot subsidize industry without taxing industry to pay for that subsidy, so the state cannot instruct us on morals without first drawing morals from us. Where Sohrab Ahmari and his allies go wrong is in viewing the state as our parent, when it is actually our child; it is our responsibility to discipline it—not the other way around.

The second fallacy is that before the state takes charge of our morals, it must be morally superior to us, and there’s no evidence it is. Quite the contrary: the record shows that when government takes command of personal morality, both the people and the state end up less moral, not more.

Conservatives love quoting Madison’s line, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But they often ignore what follows: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Our Constitution bars government from taking the authoritarian measures today’s Right wants precisely because government is not run by angels, but by fallible, ignorant, sometimes corrupt humans, who are more likely to exploit political power for such abominations as the Crusades than to make us all good.

I take that last part back. Moral authoritarians may imagine themselves Knights Templar, but in truth, they’re Carol Kennicotts, irritated that their neighbors don’t read the “right” books. Surely if the SJW phenomenon teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that when the state purports to impose politicians’ vision of “common good” on us, the result is more often pestiferous nagging than world-changing misery. Like too-tight pajamas, the busybody moralisms of government bureaucrats are more likely to scratch and suffocate us than to transvalue our values.

Finally, moral authoritarianism founders on the fact that coerced morality is no morality at all. As John Milton—hardly a moral relativist—put it in Areopagitica, “we bring not innocence” but “impurity” into the world when we try to force people to be moral, because doing so only teaches obedience, not fidelity, and makes people do the minimum to avoid punishment, rather than take initiative toward their own betterment. For the latter, nobody has ever created a better system than the free society, where people are responsible for their own lives—and enjoy the fruits of wise choices and suffer the losses of bad ones.

Back to Normie

It’s time for us, in a sane interval, to discard authoritarianism—whether Left or Right—as Twain did his pajamas, and lead a rational and comfortable life thenceforth. Or, rather, it’s time to appreciate the Americanness that Nietzsche himself prized above all the monotonous sanctimony of German nationalism.

After his 1889 mental collapse, Nietzsche’s mom took him home and tended to him. She’d often settle his nerves by reading to him from Tom Sawyer. I can think of no more apt image to cap off the pajama-boy Nietzscheans and their assault on the American idea.

It’s no detraction from the profundity of our foundational principles to recognize that their loveliest manifestation—ordinary, bourgeois, “American laughter”—have meant more to more people, and for better reason, than all the German-infused tweets of neo-reactionaries owning the libs. When the pajama boys are finally tuckered out and back at home with mother, the tomfooleries of free, boring, bourgeois society will still be around to soothe them.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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