Salvo 11.29.2023 5 minutes

Greatness Without Cruelty


Young Nietzscheans should look to Tocqueville as a more politically responsible source for a new politics.

We live in a time of profound spiritual and moral crisis where the old gods—among them, biblical religion; sturdy and steady republican self-government; liberal inquiry about the true, the good, and the beautiful; monogamous marriage and sexual fidelity; freedom accompanied by salutary self-restraint—seem at once passé and moribund. The bright and energetic among the young are understandably tempted to dismiss the old verities as among the causes of our present discontents. Understandably but not wisely. Are the principles of the American Founding truly a “poison pill” leading to societal dissolution, moral confusion, and a generalized effeminacy? Is authentic Christianity coextensive with softness, pacifism, doctrinaire egalitarianism, and moral non-judgmentalism? Is there no principled middle ground between softness and cruelty, between an apolitical cosmopolitanism and a politics of bellicosity and self-assertion?

The young have little experience of the world or of the prudence—firm, tough-minded, and humane—that ought to inform the hearts, minds, and souls of responsible, self-respecting human beings. They wish to latch on to something new, exciting, and vital, and not old truths that have seemingly revealed their obsolescence. Among the young men who people the New Right, the broad currents of anti-establishment conservatism, one witnesses a growing attraction to vulgarized Nietzscheanism marked by an impatience with traditional wisdom, a distrust of the old religion, and a facile appeal to masculinity as opposed to a spiritually demanding manliness. For some of the more impatient the old republic must go too, even if they have nothing to put in its place. A falsely heroic pose is all-to-evident in angry blogposts and tweets that mock more than they inspire.

Friedrich Nietzsche was not without profound insights. He was immensely learned and wished to restore vitality to a human spirit that had given way to passivity, indiscriminate pity, and resentment toward authentic human excellence. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he denounced with a fierce poetic eloquence the self-satisfied “last man” who is content with the passive enjoyment of creature comforts and who confuses his decadence and mediocrity with the “progress” of the human race. Nietzsche despised as “tarantulas” the intellectuals who hated human greatness and committed themselves to a resentful, inhuman levelling of the human spirit.

There is wisdom in these fulminations. The philosopher was in no way wrong when he stated in Beyond Good and Evil (section #201) that “there is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly.” It is hard not to become overcome with excitement, with a youthful glee, when Nietzsche denounces “the religion of pity” and the “doltish philosophasters and brotherhood enthusiasts who call themselves socialists and want a ‘free society,’” one without authority and manly striving. Nietzsche took direct, admirable aim at those who “involuntary plunge into gloom and unmanly tenderness under whose spell Europe seems threatened by a new Buddhism” (BGE, #202).

But ominously, Nietzsche threw the baby out with the bathwater. He indiscriminately blamed Platonic philosophy and Christianity for the excesses of democracy and the “degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal…this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims” (BGE, #203). In doing so, he confused love of neighbor with resentment of greatness, and the search for timeless truths with the abdication of the willing and striving that defines humanity at its noblest. His defense of cruelty, of rank as an end itself, and of the “blond beast,” may not be his final word as a philosopher. But that kind of rhetoric was both intoxicating and grotesquely irresponsible.

Leo Strauss memorably argued in his 1957 essay “What is Political Philosophy?” that Nietzsche “used much of his unsurpassable and inexhaustible power of passionate and fascinating speech for making his readers loathe, not only socialism and communism, but conservatism, nationalism and democracy as well.” In doing so, “he left them with no choice except that between irresponsible indifference to politics,” a kind of self-satisfied aesthetic nihilism, “and irresponsible political options. He thus prepared a regime, which as long as it lasted, made discredited democracy again look again like the golden age.” Strauss added with true profundity that Nietzsche’s excessive valorization of the human will, of “will to power,” of “the triumph of the will,” would lead his descendants, from Heidegger to the existentialists to the even more vulgar postmodernists, to renounce “the very notion of eternity,” of the true and unchanging, of the enduring things. Man would sacrifice his nature, and the very order of things, to give free reign to his will.

Young enthusiasts on the Right take note: There is another way. As Harvey Mansfield once remarked, everything that is true and solid in Nietzsche can be found in an infinitely more responsible way in the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. The great French thinker and statesman, too, despised socialism and the despotism of the soft which is the moral core of “soft” or “tutelary” despotism. But he did not reject Christianity, democracy, or equality rightly understood. He wrote nobly in the first volume of Democracy in America that “there is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed.” At the same time, he derided “a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” As Pierre Manent argues in An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Tocqueville criticizes the pathological softness that can accompany and deform democracy without ever praising “‘harshness’ or even ‘cruelty.’” Against the humanitarian Left and the atheistic Right, the party of pity and the party of cruelty, he defends a noble and elevated conception of “political freedom” that “makes men come out of themselves to live in a common world, providing the wisdom for judging their virtues and their vices; only political freedom allows them to see themselves as both as equals and as distinct.”

Tocqueville called this path “liberty under God and the law.” It allows freedom, human dignity, and greatness to coexist in a common world worthy of human beings. Despite our growing crisis, or because of it, that path is in no way passé or moribund. Let our young friends take note.            

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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