HOW TO CELEBRATE THE BICENTENNIAL
Dr. Edward J. Erler, Director of the Office of the Bicentennial of the Constitution at the National Endowment for the Humanities, delivered this address on Constitution Day, September 17, at the University of Dallas.
By Edward J. Erler
We are gathered here today on this solemn occasion to celebrate our Constitution. I have selected as my text "The Importance of Celebrating First Principles." One might wonder about the propriety of celebrating on such a solemn occasion. But those of you who know my predilection for celebrating will understand my choice. There are those, however (and they are all no doubt teetotalers), who would say that a more appropriate activity for this occasion is not a celebration but a cerebration. After all, it is argued, one can understand principles but not celebrate them, for cerebration and celebration are incompatible activities. One may celebrate a tradition or a god or gods, it might be argued, but not principles. Celebration is reserved, it seems, for things that are unique-as God is unique. Celebration is the appropriate posture toward tradition, but cerebration is the posture toward principles. Whether to celebrate or cerebrate-that is the question.
Whatever the answer, both modes-cerebration or celebration-evidence a peculiar preoccupation with origins or beginnings. This preoccupation is, I think, a wholly modern phenomenon, for the ancients, I don't think, ever evidenced such a preoccupation with origins. Rather, their concern was with purposes or ends. Aristotle, for example, notes that while the polis exists by nature, the first human being to establish or set up a polis was the greatest benefactor. But I don't recall that Aristotle remarks that the essential character of a regime is necessarily illuminated by reflection upon its founding or beginnings.
We, on the other hand, feel the impulse to return to beginnings, the archai, for the source of our understanding-and for the source of our legitimacy. Even though we have made something of an industry of Bicentennial commemorations, those who were closer to the origins understood better than we do today the importance of returning periodically to the origins of the regime. The drafters of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights of 1780 wrote that "a frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution . . . [is] absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty, and to maintain a free government." It is this frequent recurrence to first principles which supplies our access to regime questions-those fundamental questions that reach to the foundations of the nation's way of life.
Nothing could better illustrate how far we have come from our beginnings than the simple reflection that virtually every one of the Founders believed in Natural Law, whereas virtually no one today believes that there is such a thing as natural law, or at least no one of any importance. The Founders may have been wrong; it is quite possible that modern science has disproved the existence of natural law. If that is the case, we should take the appropriate steps to change the regime. If the Founders have not been proved wrong, then of course we must take steps to rescue the regime by returning it to its origins. The answer to the question of what is to be done can come only from a reflection upon first principles. But this is always a dangerous enterprise. A reexamination of principles always implies that the principles are somehow questionable. But there is no choice. Even if we may not fancy ourselves as moderns, we live in a modern world.
America is dominated by its Constitution perhaps more than any regime in history. As Tocqueville noted, almost every question of American life sooner or later is reduced to a constitutional question. The Constitution is the source of our way of life more than any written instrument has ever been for any other people. But the way in which it was intended to constitute us as a people is a question that seems always to be debated. And this debate always propels us into considerations of first principles, since we seem instinctively to know that what constitutes us as a people is somehow dependent upon our understanding of principles. And we are convinced-or at least some of us are-that principles are best illuminated by uncovering their origins.
But why this emphasis on uncovering the origins of the regime? Why this impulse to uncover the roots periodically? How can we believe that a periodic uncovering of the roots will invigorate the tree? Wouldn't it be better to keep the roots solidly buried so that the tree can be stable and well nourished? Wouldn't it be better to forget the origins, indeed to take measures to obscure them? After all, wouldn't constitutional traditions be better served if we didn't always insist upon examining and reexamining their pedigree? Such uncoverings cannot be conducive to authority, they can only serve to subvert authority, unless the authority of law depends upon the understanding of principle, unless, that is, the regime is based upon some form of enlightenment. In that case, authority or obligation stems primarily from understanding and only secondarily from tradition.
The American dilemma-the dilemma of modern liberalism itself-is to find a reliable method of deriving obligation from understanding or, if you will, duty from right. The problem, in a word, is to derive tradition from a frequent recourse to first principles. And this is no small dilemma; but, as they say, at least it is our dilemma.
America was founded in the full light of day. Its origins are not shrouded in myth or tradition as was every founding prior to the American Founding. The American Founding provided the first occasion in human history of a people constituting itself by dedication to principle. And the optimism of the Founding period seems to have been almost unbounded. As Alexander Hamilton remarked,
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
In his famous letter to Roger Weightman, Jefferson wrote in a similar vein in reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:
May it be to the world what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
The Founders of the American political order appear to have believed that tragedy could be excluded from political life. But, as I think Lincoln demonstrated, this belief was itself the source of America's greatest tragedy.
Our preoccupation with origins is modern-it is Machiavellian, for Machiavelli initiated the project that looked forward to politics without tragedy. Modern science-and its political counterpart, modern liberalism-deriving its character from a preoccupation with beginnings and bounded by no notion of natural telos, is spurred by the idea of progress. The idea of progress and optimism go hand in hand. It was thought that science-informed by the belief in progress-could ultimately lead to the relief of the human estate, thereby relieving the human political condition of tragedy. Nothing better expresses the vision of modern science and modern liberalism than this idea of the human condition without tragedy. After all, tragedy implies limits upon the human condition. But science-and modern liberalism-knows no limits, and certainly not those of Nature or God.
Machiavelli turned to origins as an alternative to ends. The character of a regime was said by Machiavelli to be determined by its beginnings and not by its ends. This was a necessary part of Machiavelli's project to combat the teleology of ancient political philosophy and of Christianity at one fell swoop. Machiavelli's attempt was to replace the uncertainties both of reason and of revelation by the certainties of science, to replace the uncertainties of ends with the certainties of beginnings. Machiavelli's model for political success was Christianity itself because he knew that Christianity stood in its essentials in opposition to natural right. Kurt Riezler remarked once in a series of lectures that he put into the mouth of Aristotle speaking before a modern audience:
When the inheritance of my people faded, your theologians separated Man from Nature, wishing to elevate Man and make him independent as a creation of that history which to them was the history of Salvation. By raising Man above Nature they degraded Nature. This is your inheritance.
For Machiavelli, the necessity of periodic recourse to beginnings was a reminder to any regime that its character was determined by its beginnings and not by its ends. Insofar as our preoccupation turns to beginnings, we partake of this Machiavellian enterprise. But is this the end of the story? I don't think so.
It is true that after the advent of Christianity-and particularly after the political secularization of that Christianity by Machiavelli-the only regime possible in the modern world is, in some sense, a liberal regime. By a liberal regime I mean one in which the individual is paramount, whether this individualism is expressed in terms of the primacy of rights or in terms of the primacy of the salvation of the individual soul. In either case, one derives one's highest duties or obligations from a source which is independent of, and anterior to, the political community. In this case, regime principles are not created by the regime. The regime exists merely to put those principles into force and effect. As the Founders of our regime knew better than anyone, we can never acquiesce in the argument-as our leading constitutional scholars and Supreme Court Justices today do-that our rights and liberties are created by the regime. This is a dangerous proposition because whatever the regime creates, the regime can destroy. As Jefferson queried in the Notes on the Slate of Virginia, "[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?" Those rights are not the product of a human political will; they are not positive rights. Since every individual is said-by virtue of his participation in a species that is uniquely characterized by its equality-to be by nature the sole executor of his life, liberty, and property, every individual is a complete human being prior to the advent of political community. Human beings do not need political community for their perfection and always have the prepolitical state of nature as the standard for judging political order. The standards of humanness-whether in modern liberalism or in the Christian polity-are either prepolitical or transpolitical, and the focus is always on the individual.
What can be said about our own particular brand of modern liberalism? I believe that the American regime is the most sober form of modernity possible. It is not the modernity of Machiavelli or even of Hobbes, or even, I believe, of Locke. It draws on these seminal authors but is somehow unique. I don't think that the Founders had Aristotle in mind either when they drafted the Declaration and the Constitution. I don't believe that Aristotle's polity is America, no matter what the superficial resemblances may be. Aristotle's polity was class-based; it can be understood only in terms of the effects different classes have acting in terms of their own class interest. The oligarchs would act in terms of their own class interests and the demos in terms of its interests. If the mixture was appropriate or suitable, then a moderate regime would be possible, a regime in which there would be no class expropriations. There is a superficial resemblance here to the arguments of Federalist 10. But Madison's constitutional majorities were not majorities made up of any one class. They were indeed a part of the whole, but a part acting in the interest of the whole. Certain institutional arrangements were necessary to ensure the public spiritedness of the majority, but it was nevertheless a majority which did not act exclusively in terms of its own class interest. Class politics was the hallmark of the feudal regime that the Founders of our regime wanted, more than anything else, to supplant. The world has probably never known such an inveterate hater of the "monkish ignorance" of feudalism than Thomas Jefferson. Aristotle had to be used in a new light after the advent of Christianity. This the Founders understood-at least implicitly.
The American Founding is unique, and it is in its uniqueness that we find cause for the activity that is closest to my heart: celebration. The Founders' belief in natural law is revealing. Machiavelli, for example, never talks of natural law, for nature, not to speak of natural law, implies limits on the human condition-it implies human nature, and nature implies standards that are independent of human will or human science. Insofar as the Founders of the regime predicated it on "the laws of Nature and Nature's God," they explicitly attempted to found it in opposition to the Machiavellian "project." As Leo Strauss remarked-however tentatively-in his preface to Thoughts on Machiavelli, "The United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles." And some of the Founders must have known-or divined-that natural law is the exoteric version of natural right. Our access to natural right today is through the idea of equality, and this is the only access to natural right that exists in the modern world. It is our access to nature because we maintain that equality is the unique distinction of human nature. The revelations of Nature's God are the laws of Nature. But these revelations are based on unaided human ratiocination. The regime of Nature's God is a regime of principle-those principles of the Declaration of Independence. And it is necessarily a constitutional regime, a regime of limited government which has as its central feature the equal protection of the laws expressed as the equal protection of equal rights.
Today, however, our most authoritative constitutional commentators proclaim that equality is "an empty idea." The modern attack on the idea of nature as a standard for political life inevitably becomes an attack on the idea of equality. This is certainly not the first time in American history that the positive view of rights has been propounded, nor, in all likelihood, will it be the last. Our most authoritative expounders of the Constitution have forgotten-if they ever knew-American history. It suffices only to recall the positivism of Stephen Douglas to realize how quickly the regime of principle can become the regime of interest. The dictum that "justice is the interest of the stronger" seems to be the most perdurable of all political postulates and will always have its greater share of adherents. Regimes based upon principle will always be the exception and will always be destined, it seems, to stand in the maelstrom of positivism.
The regime of principle is unique. It is not unique on account of the principle itself, because principles or ideas (as we learn from Plato's Republic) are the objects of communism, but because a particular people has dedicated itself to a principle, to the principle that all men are created equal. The principle to which we are dedicated is the object of cerebration. The uniqueness of ourselves as a people constituted by dedication to a principle is the appropriate object of celebration. In the case of a people constituted by the "laws of Nature and Nature's God"-in the case of America-our celebrations are cerebrations. Let us above all celebrate our uniqueness as we celebrate the uniqueness of God, for the uniqueness of America makes us the chosen people, and the return to our
origins is the greatest act of piety that we can perform as a people.
CLASSICAL EXAMPLES: ODYSSEUS AND PLATO
If experience were not enough, numerous governmental and private studies have made hackneyed the theme of declining educational standards. Professor Robert Grudin asks questions these studies have overlooked.
By Robert Grudin
Three questions presently haunting and dividing educators are: (1) What good are the humanities to a student's "career"? (2) How can the humanities be made more attractive to students? and (3) Are the traditional models for research in the humanities still valid? Conscious that in so doing I am observing a traditional humanistic model, I will address these questions by reminding the reader of Homer's Odysseus.
Because he is a complex figure who must orchestrate his skills to meet complex challenges, Odysseus can be regarded as the earliest example of a characteristically Western man. Unlike the other Homeric heroes, who are seldom brilliant in more than one area (Achilles, for example, is superb in the field but admits to being fuzzy in council), Odysseus is miscellaneously outstanding: prudent leader, charming speaker, eminent counselor and strategist, feared disciplinarian, major warrior, champion wrestler, runner and hurler. He is a prince who knows the chivalry of court, the order of the town, and the regimen of the farm. The challenges of life not only demand these skills of him but require that he mingle and temper them. In his confrontation with Circe, he functions as warrior, orator, strategist and lover, but must repress the ethical impulse to return home and punish the suitors. When he reaches Scheria he displays athletic prowess but delays the disclosure of his princely identity. Arriving at last in Ithaca, he conceals most of his skills and virtues, suffering humiliation in order to test his people and surprise his enemies. By what art or skill does he make these choices? Significantly, in each case he receives instructions from the gods. But since here as elsewhere in Homer god-given virtue is viewed interchangeably with personal virtue, we may take the gods' assistance as a kind of higher wisdom, a skill-directing skill which, indefinable in itself, defines and validates all the others. Alone in this harmonic complexity, Odysseus is the unique and emphatic recipient of the adjective polylropos, "complicated," "of many turns."
The idea of a master skill, implicit in Homer, was later codified by Plato. In the Apology, Socrates criticizes those specialists who, because they know one discipline, mistakenly claim to be wise about everything. In the Republic and the Symposium, Socrates argues that a comprehensive skill is not available to us until we have mastered several individual disciplines. The skill which transcends all others is called "dialectic" and "synoptic": dialectic, because it depends on universal principles of analysis; synoptic, because it perceives common principles and ends at work in all the disciplines studied. For Socrates, "the 'synoptic' person is a 'dialectic' person." Only such a person is capable of governing wisely. Only such a person can glimpse divine truth. The effective individual has to be a many-turned, a versatile individual, not only because the arts he masters are mutually necessary, but also because they reveal, as a kind of secret gift, that common denominator of truth and justice which is the exclusive possession of the philosophical mind.
Plato's description of the curriculum leading to dialectic and synopsis (Republic, VII) is the earliest surviving exposition of what we now call the liberal arts. Neither Plato nor Socrates invented this curriculum. Similar studies had been required by the Sophists. But while the Sophists considered the liberal curriculum to be useful solely for success in active life, Socrates and Plato credited it with profound philosophical significance. The Sophists disdained any form of learning which had no particular and practical value. The Socratics defended liberal disciplines as a means of transcending the particular and the practical. Only through such transcendence, they argued, could the particular and the practical be seen in their true light. The Socratic idea of the truly "practical" is founded securely on the philosophical quest.
The position of the humanities in modern Western culture dramatically underlines the distinction between the Sophistic and Socratic philosophies. The perspective of most educators and professionals is dominated by something very like the Sophistic model. Professional education is generally aimed toward effective practice in narrowly specialized areas. Advanced graduate work and research in the humanities are intensely specialized; in the humanities, as in the natural and social sciences, only specialized expertise will enable men and women to publish in most of the standard journals. The broader realm of the liberal arts is by no means despised, but rather is praised more or less as the Sophists praised it: we need to think analytically, to speak convincingly, to write cogently, to be well-informed, because these attributes enhance our professional careers. The Socratic model, far weaker in the modern mind, persists nebulously, in vague and eloquent statements, usually made by college presidents and specialists emeriti, that the liberal arts establish continuity with the past, civilize us, delight us, bring us together, make us human. These statements gladden hearts but seldom loosen purse strings. More importantly, they say nothing about the functioning of the human mind. Liberal education survives in most American colleges as a composition program and a set of generalized group requirements, without an effective structure or a clear rationale. The word "dialectic" has been commandeered by students of Hegel and Marx. The idea of synopsis is almost completely forgotten.
We might accept this state of affairs, albeit with some wistfulness, as being the way of the world. Ironically, however, the real world does not seem to be going this way at all. Major political and personal decisions remain as interdisciplinary for us as they were for Odysseus. Indeed the hyperspecialization of disciplines makes the necessity for interdisciplinary liaison and direction progressively more critical. No one exclusively trained in a single field can make intelligent judgments about issues as massively interdisciplinary as, for example, abortion, energy taxation and regulation, grain sales to the U.S.S.R., or the insanity defense. By what standard do we weigh the misery of inflation against the misery of unemployment? When we compare the merits and dangers of genetic engineering, of nuclear energy, where is our point of reference? How may we balance constitutional liberty with the safety of the commonwealth? It is at once galling and funny, to see how, in our specialized world, such decisions are normally made. Politicians assemble in committees and call in experts to testify. Business, labor, the military and social science contribute their insights. Natural scientists appear in force and variety: business scientists, military scientists, government scientists, and scientists from the academy. The specialists not only hold conflicting views but speak in different forms of jargon. The individual politician (if he has not prejudged the case on party lines) then must make a decision. He consults his staff. One staffer has been sifting the media for editorial consensus. Another has been lunching with lobbyists. A third has attached another staff of consultants to take a poll. A fourth phones in with a word from the constituency. In conference a position is hammered out. A fifth staffer writes an appropriate speech, and the interdisciplinary function of politics has been fulfilled again.
Devoid of precision or creativity but nonetheless armored against catastrophe, the commonwealth lumbers into the future. Catastrophes, however, do now and then occur, not because of a lack of assorted data but rather because of an executive inability to evaluate the data properly. Lyndon Johnson and his staff failed conspicuously to coordinate the humanitarian, diplomatic and strategic principles governing involvement in Vietnam. Richard Nixon and his staff could give neither a coherent rationale for Watergate nor, once most of them had repented, a credible explanation of why Watergate had been wrong, Jimmy Carter, after years in office, declared he was shocked to discover that the U.S.S.R. was not single-mindedly committed to the cause of peace. These administrations all had their staffers and consultants. What they lacked, however, was an "overview"-or more precisely, a sense of how various advocates and disciplines were related in a comprehensive and enduring human order.
Can we connect congressional fumbling and executive blunders with inadequate grounding in the liberal arts? Such an hypothesis might well provoke laughter, and I too would join in the hilarity if we see the liberal arts (1) with the Sophists as specific means to professional ends, or (2) with modern humanists as assorted links with the past which "enhance" and "civilize." Even if we accepted both of these models simultaneously, they would not supply an adequately dynamic correlation between liberal studies and active virtue. But the Platonic model, given the close attention it deserves, is in this regard neither weak nor laughable. Education in the Republic is eminently suited to active life, not only because it imparts specific skills but for far more compelling reasons: Education in the Republic is aimed at the basis, context and goal of action. It proposes epistemological universals-harmonics in the ways of knowing-which in turn form the foundation for interdisciplinary judgment. In consequence, Platonic education is addressed not only to continuity with the past but to an effective understanding of present and future. Indeed, we might argue, continuity with the past would be invalid if it were not seen in unison with coherence across the present. The only reason ideas endure through time is that they apply across humanity.
The curriculum in the Republic begins with arithmetic and proceeds through plane and solid geometry to astronomy (solids in motion). The next study, under the broad heading mousike (inadequately translated as music), includes harmonics, song, dance, and literature. Dialectic comes last, bringing with it synopsis, an overview of the principles which unite all the arts. I will not concern myself here with the details, for the detailed development of the educational programs in Books VI and VII, complex in themselves, are woven inextricably into the even more complex development of the dialog as a whole. What concerns me here is that element of the curriculum which may be transferable from the Republic into a modern theory of education: the use of interdisciplinary instruction to build a synoptic perspective. Given the principles of order and proportion which inhere in the subjects he proposes, and given a modern and nonutopian context for education, Plato might well today include physics, chemistry and biology in his catalog of liberal arts. Advanced dialectical study would require the mastery of foreign languages and include the social sciences and the history of ideas. Detailed versions of the curriculum might and indeed ought to vary; what is essential is the order and direction of the curriculum, which reflect the following priorities:
A Required Core of Arts and Sciences. The complexity and variety of civilized life, which have discouraged many modern educators from requiring core curricula, instead counsel us urgently that some common ground of discourse and inquiry be maintained. That such policy ensures basic skills and continuity with the past is true but obvious. What must be added is that renewal, inspiration, even revolution are impossible without a sense of enduring principle and historical context. We cannot continue to ask our leapers to push off from slush.
Progression from Simple to Complex. While the propensity to analyze may be inborn, the skills of analysis are not. Modern education in the humanities has been conspicuous in encouraging students to scale ladders of noble inquiry while simultaneously removing the bottom rungs. Such policies are not only ineffective but also damaging. The ascent to complexity brings danger as well as confusion. Students who are asked to consider madness with Dostoevsky, murder with Sartre or suicidal anguish with Sylvia Plath are ill-served if they have been offered no prior knowledge of the intellectual fabric from which such loose strings hang.
A View Toward Common Principles. Specialized courses should not be taught by "specialists" in the conventional sense but rather by instructors educated in principles which unite the disciplines. A professor of music history should be able to enlighten his students on the ties which unite music to physics (harmonics), literature (poetry), and the visual arts (symmetry). A professor of biology should give thought and time to the analogies which connect his subject with ethics and politics. In general, humanists should achieve a fuller appreciation of the principles of scientific inquiry; while scientists should elaborate not only the truth of their discoveries but the beauty of what is discovered.
Emphasis on the Quest for General Laws. All inquiry, whether scientific or humanistic, is based on the effort to resolve particular phenomena into general laws. One finds this human constant even in the most heterodox social science, the wildest modern art and literature. One of the major current issues in physics, that hardest of all sciences, is grand unification, the attempt to identify and connect the elemental forces of nature. In this project modern physicists are basically not different from Parmenides, and their hypotheses have a simplicity which would have delighted him. In fact such hypotheses, based on modern findings in astronomy, electromagnetism and nuclear physics, are stunning validations of Plato's theory that dialectic leads to synopsis. Students should be reminded again and again of this epistemological constant, especially since at present, with humanity facing monsters more terrible than any encountered by Odysseus, the quest for common principle and unifying goal must animate all the arts and sciences.
Education along synoptic lines would have, I believe, welcome effects on the nature of advanced research. The rigors and pleasures of instruction according to the synoptic model would encourage scholars to reconceive their own fields, looking beyond the limited prospects of ultra-specialized research and toward the elemental goals and necessities which unite inquiry of all kinds. This change in outlook would, it seems likely, grow more pronounced when the first generation of synoptically educated students reached professional rank. Scholarship might, at long last, renounce its exile from the main channels of human experience.
Our original questions, then, have twofold answers. Conceived in terms of the scholarly and pedagogical theories now in effect, the liberal arts are sharply limited in their usefulness and attractiveness to students. Recast, on the other hand, in terms of a synoptic educational theory, the liberal arts might be not only attractive but enthralling,
not only useful but transfiguring. The implementation of such a theory would require a comprehensive reorganization of curricula, both on the undergraduate level and in the more advanced education of future professors. It would suggest, moreover, a radical reevaluation of the nature and purpose of academic research.
WANTED FOR MURDER: THE UGLIEST MAN
By Harry Neumann
Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy, around the demi-god everything becomes a satyr-play; and around god everything becomes - what? perhaps a "world"? Beyond Good and Evil [BGE], Aphorism 150)
Nietzsche saw modernity's core in the death of god or nihilism. Here "god" does not mean exclusively the biblical god who is merely a popularization of Plato's invention of the good in itself (BGE, Prologue). "God" means any morality, any of mankind's countless notions of good and bad, right and wrong. The biblical morality of universal love and pity is merely the regnant moral orthodoxy of post-Platonic, Christian civilization. Consequently when the Ugliest Man murders god (Thus Spoke Zarathustra [Z], IV: 7), he destroys not only Christian or post-Christian (democratic, socialist) ethics; he attempts a complete eradication of any sense of good and bad, just and unjust. This obliteration is the soul of modernity's atheism.
Modernity arises from rejection of the common-sense orientation of pre-modern thought. Common sense (or what Nietzsche calls the herd instinct) inspires the faith that one is part of a world that exists independently of one's consciousness of it (Joyful Science [JS], 116, 354; BGE, 188, 199-203). Now common sense does not experience everything in that world as equally weighty. Its primary question concerns the good life, how one should live. Usually this question is answered, almost prior to its being raised, by some form of the morality dominant in one's civilization. Denying that any civilization can answer common sense's chief question, Plato claimed that the Good is knowable by a pure mind available only to the philosophic elite. Consequently Nietzsche traced the wisdom of this elite to popular superstition, the attempt to satisfy common sense by answering its main question-What is the best life? (Z, II: 8).
Wherever pre-modern thought interpreted itself accurately-that is, platonically-it saw itself chiefly as moral or political philosophy, the striving to answer common sense's chief question, for only a satisfactory answer to that question could legitimate any other "theoretical" or "practical", activity. By locating the heart of pre-modern thought in its moral intention (BGE, 6), Nietzsche demonstrated his unique awareness of the centrality of platonic apotheosis of common sense for that thought.
The death of god means that common sense and the platonism inspired by it is willful creation and not self-subsistent truth. The death of god is nothing intrinsically mysterious or far-fetched, although-or because-it is a deeply personal and incommunicable experience. It is the realization, inherent in one's experience at any moment, that whatever one perceives or thinks is nothing apart from consciousness of it. Anything-this table, that star, the Pythagorean theorem, the nature of man or god-is nothing but acts of consciousness. The same is true of one's "self" or "soul" or "mind." All that exists are random, essentially unconnected acts of consciousness, impressions as Hume called them. Consequently the question of what acts of consciousness are or what causes them, like all questions, has the same nihilist answer-or lack of answer-in a world in which god is dead. Prior to Nietzsche's radical modernity, even so-called modern thinkers still believed in the possibility of impartial, objective "facts" (JS, 57-8, 112-14; Will To Power [WTP], 481). This belief sprang from their faith that their immediate awareness of such things was an awareness of something which somehow exists apart from one's awareness of it. Their faith implies a commonsense world in which (inner) "selves" grasp (outer) "things" or "facts." The nihilist experience unmasks as illusory this whole commonsense world.
Nietzsche emphasizes that nihilism is primarily an experience, something personal and uncommunicable, depriving one not only of "others" but of one's own "self" (WTP, 635-6, 682; BGE, 12, 16-17, 23; Z, II: 9), for neither selves nor others exist if god is dead. Although immediate experience never reveals anything but atomized, unrelated acts of consciousness, the herd instinct or common sense, the product of countless ages of mankind's random, chaotic development, creates the illusion of a common world. Thus Nietzsche denies the worth of anything communicable, any Platonic-Christian idea or, in more contemporary terms, any democratic-humanitarian ideal: god is dead!
Appropriately Zarathustra finds the Ugliest Man, the murderer of god, in the land of death. His realm is characterized by terrifying ugliness and desolation, for his slaughtering of god leaves him with nothing but random, essentially unconnected acts of consciousness. Only around a god-a common principle of unification-does everything become a coherent community, a world, and not a chaos of meaningless, atomized impressions. The Ugliest Man's uncompromising atheism leaves him with no self and no world to be shared with other selves. Genuine communication requires a world, and without a god, there can be only chaos or nothingness, but no world. In the words of the traditional marriage union, the Ugliest Man has rent asunder what the now-murdered god had joined together.
In the decisive respect, the Ugliest Man's deep need for privacy-for isolation from any divine or human community-is not so much the result as the cause of his murder of god. That murder, a radical atheism, is sparked by the nihilist realization that nothing exists but chaotic acts of consciousness. This realization is modernity's heart-or heartlessness!
The impossible effort to combine this nihilism with strong moral or political needs leads to the Ugliest Man's shame at his atheism's abysmal amorality or immorality. The strength of those needs prevents him from perceiving that nothing is ugly or beautiful, noble or shameful, moral or immoral-if god is dead. What Nietzsche calls the shadows of the dead god still rule the Ugliest Man's soul, precluding an uncompromising atheistic eradication of the need for "god"-that is, for any morality or community (JS, 108-9, 124-5; Twilight of The Idols, IX: 5).
Those shadows compel the Ugliest Man to initiate the worship of a jackass for those who prefer "to worship god in this form rather than not pray at all!" (Z, IV: 17-18; Genealogy of Morals [GM], III: 28). Not to have a god (even if it be only a jackass or a stone), not to pray, means to be left with the empty privacy of one's consciousness-without a self, without a world. The Ugliest Man fears this complete privacy, the isolation of radical atheism. Like the Pale Criminal, the immensity of his deed is too much for his communal or common-sense needs.
Zarathustra's Pale Criminal simply wants to murder for murder's sake. However, his common sense persuades him to steal something from his victim. Otherwise his murder will seem insane; common sense demands a goal, a good, for any rational act. When the Pale Criminal is condemned for murdering in order to steal a few dollars, he cannot defend himself: "His soul wanted blood, not theft: he thirsted after the joy of the knife! His poor reason, however, did not fathom this madness and persuaded him: 'What does blood matter!' she said; 'Don't you at least want to steal along with it? To take revenge?' . . . So he listened to his poor reason: her speech weighed him down like lead-therefore he robbed as he murdered. He did not want to be ashamed of his madness" (Z, I: 6). The reasons demanded by common sense are unavailable in the nihilist reality.
The Ugliest Man's murder is far more radical than the Pale Criminal's, which kills only one man, for the death of god means the destruction of mankind, of any human community, whether within one's own self or country or race or all mankind. It isolates the Ugliest Man in the nothingness created by radical atheism. The horror of this isolation prevents whole-hearted acceptance of that atheism, driving men to revere mere jackasses, shadows of the now-dead god. The politically loudest form of this jackass worship in modernity is the democratic-socialist effort to embrace the Christian morality while destroying the last vestiges of the traditional Christian faith responsible for that morality.
Contemporary democrats and socialists despise traditional Christian orthodoxy while asserting the supreme goodness of its compassion for suffering, impoverished mankind. They insist that men have a natural right not only to life, but to freedom and equality! (GM, III: 24; Z, II: 6-7). If they were truly atheists, they would experience no compelling reason to champion those rights or, for that matter, any morality. Like the Pale Criminal, they need their morality in order not to appear insane to a reason informed by common sense. Morality in all its forms springs from dread of radical, incommunicable atheism.
The Ugliest Man cannot bear the all-intrusive pity of modern egalitarians, their compassion for all weakness and suffering. That pity is the political form of the universal love of the god murdered by him. He can endure no witnesses-least of all compassionate ones-of his nihilist isolation. On the contrary, he wants to remain alone in the privacy of that isolation, unencumbered by the need to measure himself by Plato's good, or to be "saved" by Christian compassion or by democratic-socialist secularizations of that compassion. That compassion in all its forms implies a moral standard, a god, linking all men-even and especially the lowest and most degraded-in a common world. Without the Christian god, contemporary egalitarian concern for suffering mankind is trivial sentimentality. The same criticism holds true, however, for the Ugliest Man's heroic pride in his self-contempt and for Zarathustra's praise of that pride: "Never did I find someone who despised himself more deeply: that too has greatness" (Z, IV: 7; II: 3). That self-contempt is meaningful only if some standard of beauty or greatness-some god-exists in the light of which the ugliness of uncompromising atheism is seen to be low and shameful: If the Ugliest Man (or Zarathustra) were a genuine atheist-if he had murdered god once and for all-he would dismiss both his shame and pride as groundless. Radical atheism precludes the existence of anything but chaotic acts of consciousness. Privacy's heart is the essentially incommunicable experience of that atheism.
Piety or morality make that privacy impossible, for around a "god" atheism's radical emptiness is transformed into a world, a community in which selves exist and communicate with other selves in virtue of their common humanity. No god exists or can exist for modernity's atheism.
Prior to that atheism, privacy was unknown because no need for it was experienced. The old Greek word for privacy was "idiocy," inability to share in the common (or commonsense) world made possible by "god." While the need for privacy is better known in modernity, it remains anathema to the vast majority who, like the Ugliest Man and the Pale Criminal, appease their dread of it by worshipping some jackass-that is, by committing themselves to some morality. Thus terror at privacy's emptiness compels them to understand their "selves" in terms of a community created by Platonic ideas, the biblical god, Jeffersonian-Marxist egalitarianism, Hitler's master race, etc. This need for community makes them pre-modern, however modern or even avante-garde they may seem to fellow jackass worshippers. Communal or political needs, commonsense needs, are at home only in pre-modern thought. Modernity's incommunicability arises from its radical privacy.