As Christopher Dawson argued, the nineteenth century proved a short century. When the century began, Thomas Jefferson delivered his gorgeous blueprint for a liberal republican world in the form of the first inaugural address. “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” the president stated, calling for unity among divided Americans. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,” the president continued, echoing John Milton as well as Voltaire in his almost utopian hopes for civility through honest discourse. Less than ninety-seven years later, V.I. Lenin had the entire Russian revolution planned, waiting only for the spark to carry it forward. A short century, indeed.
The great ideas of the nineteenth century changed as well. One might even state without too much hyperbole, the great ideas not only changed, but they devolved. More than anything else, the greats of the western tradition of the nineteenth century narrowed the thoughts of those who had come before them. Whereas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith—the great greats of the eighteenth century—began with the beginning, the nature of nature, the nature of natural law, and the nature of rights, the greats of the nineteenth century narrowed, narrowed, narrowed, and then exploded one truth to insanity, allowing it to overpower all other truths. With Karl Marx, everything was economic. With Charles Darwin, everything was biological. With Sigmund Freud, everything was psychological. True enough, the human being is, of course, economic, biological, and psychological. Yet, the human person is so much more than this, almost infinitely complex and various. Jefferson, Burke, and Smith not only fought systematic thoughts, men of system, and what would be called ideologies, but they also each contented themselves with the beginnings of the human person, not the ends of the human person. In other words, in contrast to their nineteenth-century inheritors, these eighteenth-century thinkers found the minimum equality necessary for a dignified life, allowing the individual person and community to make its own way through trial and error, success and failure, charity and failing.
Because the greats of the nineteenth century—each to his own varying degree—accepted one truth at the expense of all others and relied, entirely, on materialist explanations of the world, they fundamentally failed to understand the nature of the human person, the nature of existence, and the nature of history. This is not to deny their individual and particular brilliances, but rather only to note that by ignoring the spiritual element of humanity, they offer nothing that can be seen as successful in the long run of society. From Heraclitus forward, the greats of the western tradition have sought to understand both the material and spiritual elements of existence, recognizing the overwhelming complexities not only of life, but also of each individual life.
As such, history will, most likely, understand the nineteenth century as a failure in human thought, but it will also recognize that even the failures had successes, especially rather grand if temporary ones. To be sure, it would be nearly impossible (and utterly foolish) to dismiss the influence that Marx, Darwin, and Freud had on those who came after them.
Of the nineteenth century greats, though, the one who will be remembered as having had the most influence not just on the twentieth century but on all subsequent centuries will almost certainly be Friedrich Nietzsche. Even those twentieth century horrors so influenced by Marx—Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot—owe just as much to the nihilism of Nietzsche. Other socialists, such as Hitler, owe even more to Nietzsche—especially through the music of Richard Wagner—than to Marx.
Yet, because no country, political party, or ideology has labeled itself Nietzschean, Nietzsche’s thought has been little studied when it comes to political theory. To understand the state of the world in 2019, though, we gain far more by studying Nietzsche than by studying Marx, Darwin, or Freud. Marx, Darwin, and Freud destroyed much by employing hubris—the belief that all things could be understood by their own narrowing. Yet, Nietzsche, the most hubristic of all, took into account the spiritual nature of the human person, thus allowing him to better this contemporaries.
Nietzsche went so far as to claim it would be the very spirit itself that would define the twentieth century and all centuries thereafter. In this rediscovery and reclamation of spirit, though, the world would tear itself apart. As explored in a not-so-distant future post, Nietzsche believed himself the culmination of all justice and anger against the Judeo-Christian inheritance of morality, an annihilator and destroyer of its many (or so, he argued) flaws and delimitings. With the final destruction of the errors of Judeo-Christian morality and thought—a true to life Ragnarok, a twilight of the gods, the world would begin again, but through a spasm of brutal violence.
My genius resides in my nostrils. I contradict as no one has contradicted hitherto, and am nevertheless the reverse of a negative spirit. I am the harbinger of joy, the like of which has never existed before; I have discovered tasks of such lofty greatness that, until my time, no one had any idea of such things. Mankind can begin to have fresh hopes, only now that I have lived. Thus, I am necessarily a man of Fate. For when Truth enters the lists against the falsehood of ages, shocks are bound to ensue, and a spell of earthquakes, followed by the transposition of hills and valleys, such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept “politics” then becomes elevated entirely to the sphere of spiritual warfare. All the mighty realms of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on falsehood: there will be wars, the like of which have never been seen on earth before. Only from my time and after me will politics on a large scale exist on earth. [Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, 1886]
Terribly, Nietzsche did not overestimate his purpose or his influence. He did, for all intents and purposes, become the destroyer of worlds, and we today are still picking up the pieces. If we focus on the relative simplicity of Marx, Darwin, or Freud, however, as ready explanations for the horrors of the past century, we will continue to misunderstand just what went wrong with the world. Indeed, it is critical as Christians, as Jews, as conservatives, and as human beings that we take up Nietzsche again and begin to understand him in all of his madnesses and terrors.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.