Posted: July 15, 2014
NIHILISM CHALLENGED . . .
To the Editors:
Harry Neumann has a problem. And his concerns should be the concerns of all thinking men aware of the crisis of our age. While Thomas Pangle and Harry Jaffa squabble over the bones of "Leo Strauss's legacy," Neumann's recent essays treat a genuine political problem of the greatest significance. Since no response to the problem of Harry Neumann's nihilism appears forthcoming, I will briefly treat this vexing issue myself.
Let me be clear at the outset, I am no expert on what Neumann has written to date. However, I do know that like a good gothic thriller, his essays chill me to the bone. Even more significant than the dread which permeates Neumann's work, is the likelihood that Nietzsche's nihilism, as popularized by Neumann, is moving from its birthplace in the Old World, and now seeking a foothold in the New. Hence, it is not so much Neumann's writings that give me pause, but their alluring attraction on our polity, in however popularized a form. This, and not the moral indignation of cantankerous sophists, is the true crisis of our age, a crisis that colors the works of both Strauss and Neumann. What? Could Strauss's legacy be Neumann's nihilism?
Neumann's position is clearly stated in "Political Philosophy or Nihilist Science? Education's Only Serious Question" (Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa). I need only detail his more crucial points here. All previous approaches to knowledge or wisdom are radically defective. Only the nihilist scientist's perspective of ultimate reality is correct. All other views are interpretations, mere political propaganda, utilized by men wittingly or unwittingly to bolster their specific cause. Political philosophy (the term Neumann uses as a catch-all phrase for these various interpretations) fosters a spirit of hatred and revenge, perpetuating an endless cycle of political violence in the tenacious defense of one's own interpretation of reality. Ultimate reality is nihilistic; it is nothing but random, meaningless experiences. Neumann's preferred word for a true nihilist insight of the world is phantasmagoria.
Despite attempting a rehashed version of Schopenhauer's philosophy, Neumann's perspective is nevertheless unique among his living philosophic compatriots. Why then has he been greeted with resounding silence in these circles, with regard to the stark dichotomy between political philosophy and nihilist science that he proposes? Is Neumann the black sheep of the Straussian family? Perhaps better to compare him to the deranged family member who is hurried upstairs when company comes. And yet, from time to time, he embarrassingly escapes, most recently in the Jaffa Festschrift, and in "Liberal Education: The Beckmann Retrospective" (The Claremont Review of Books, Summer 1985).
Take, for example, the recently published Natural Right and Political Right (edited by Thomas Silver and Peter Schramm, Carolina Academic Press, 1984). In his article written for that collection, sandwiched in between shining examples of the political philosophy which Neumann has called "jackass worship" is the piece mentioned above on nihilist science. In this essay we are told that Straussians, including the man the volume is dedicated to, Harry Jaffa, are still engaged in the futile venture of trying to rescue political philosophy from the nihilism at its core. While these pseudo-scientists struggle to comprehend the dialogue between ancients and moderns or philosophy and politics, they neglect the only thing worthy of serious consideration. The vital question is the choice between nihilism or political philosophy. This question, it must be admitted, is one not even seriously considered by the Straussians, at least not in public at any rate.
Apart from whether Neumann's perspective is in any sense "correct" (he argues that the will to prove nihilism's "Tightness" is a lack of integrity), it is nevertheless a dangerous posture to assume in public. In his essay on Max Beckmann (Do nihilists always grimace like stormtroopers?), Neumann asserts that only nihilist science deserves to be taught to the young-that any other quest for wisdom is defective or intellectually dishonest. In an age where our polity is seriously challenged by forces threatening to tear it apart, nihilism's "nothing-is-forbidden, all-is-permitted" doctrine seems almost perverse. But as educators, Neumann suggests, we have a duty to seek out this holiest, indeed only, truth. In all fairness to Neumann, his colleagues have a tremendously oversimplified view of the monster nihilism, finding it in places like impressionist paintings, B movies, etc. This oversimplification of a complex issue is the other extreme of Neumann's indignation over his colleague's simpering answer to his student's request for genuine knowledge.
But is nihilist science genuine knowledge? If so, ought this wisdom to be disseminated publicly? These are the real issues. Ultimately, Neumann's claims regarding nihilist science are as groundless as those of the pseudo-sciences that he indicts; particularly Thomism and Christianity. In other words, Neumann's arguments, as tantalizing a description as they may seem to our sometimes despondent culture, are simply assertions. We might just as well assume that Christian Science's Weltanschauung is an accurate representation of reality, as opposed to nihilistic science, for all the demonstrative proof we have of either.
Besides all this-and perhaps this was Strauss's reason for his inability to reject revelation in the face of nihilism's claims-Christianity allows room for hope. Even were we to accept Neumann's nihilism in our heart of hearts, it is hardly a doctrine on which to base a political society.
Since all selection of principles to live by is presumably random anyway, then why not choose Winston Churchill's option? In 1948, in Norway, Churchill said:
The flame of Christian ethics is still our best guide. Its animation and accomplishment is a practical necessity, both spiritually and materially. . . . The accomplishments of Christian ethics in our daily life is the final and greatest word which has ever been said. Only on this basis can we reconcile the rights of the individual with the demands of a society in a manner which alone can bring happiness and peace to humanity.
We must never allow room for that public despair which is so fatal to the existence of a political community. Such despair is at the heart of nihilism. After all, Churchill had seen nihilism's abyss and rejected it. To him it was a peculiar secularized hell. The difference with Neumann's nihilistic hell is that he inverts the old Christian notion. Rather than try to avoid the nihilist's hell, one longs for its maw, and an existence of superfluity.
Neumann must be addressed. It is no use pretending that his ideas and their grounding in the reflections of his forefathers are not there; the potency of his ideas is far greater than the mere reveries he claims they are. Nihilism is knocking on the door of America. And once America's proud spirit is extinguished, that last best hope of mankind, what remains?
- Paul A. Basinski
Graduate Assistant, Political Science
State University of New York, Buffalo
. . . AND DEFENDED
Harry Neumann's Response
"Nihilism: Objections and Answers"
Since around 1980 I have defended nihilism in various publications. Here I want to state and answer objections by Basinski and others. First (I), nihilism's meaning is given; then (II), the objections and my answers.
Nihilism means that nothing-and only nothing!-has an identity or nature, a being not subject to radical change at any moment. No natural or divine support exists to reinforce the common-sense faith that anything is more than nothing. Nothing is more than what it experiences or what is experienced about it. Nothing is more than empty experiences (thoughts, perceptions, feelings, etc.), impressions as Hume called them.
Nihilism is not solipsism nor does it make man the measure of all things. The nihilist "self" or "man" which experiences its "world" is itself no more than empty impressions. It too is nothing.
Objection: If nihilism is true, is it not itself another empty impression?
Objection: Is it not contradictory to say that nihilism is both true and yet nothing more than an arbitrary impression, a mere prejudice?
Objection: Does not this prove it false?
Answer: No. Any faith in anything's being something rather than nothing, any desire to live rather than die, is self-contradictory. The self that it contradicts-anything's true self!-is reality's nothingness. Life in all its manifestations is, and must be, self-contradictory. Refusal to acknowledge its self-contradictory character is at the heart of all mankind's self-delusions or prejudices, especially of all moral-political passions ("values"). Bigotry is unavoidable for men (or beasts) determined to be something, rather than nothing!
Objection: Why are empty experiences nothing? However arbitrary or meaningless they are, must there not be something or someone to experience them?
Answer: No. The faith that this or anything else must be so is itself nothing but another empty experience. This includes faith in any distinctions, including those between truth and falsity, right and wrong, arbitrary and non-arbitrary, freedom and slavery.
Objection: Then the claim that everything is nothing is itself nothing? The claim that everything is arbitrary impressions itself is arbitrary?
Answer: Yes-as well as any claim or desire to be or to do anything.
Objection: Does not your claim that nihilism is true require a nonarbitrary distinction between truth and falsity?
Answer: No. The gist of your objections implies that genuine communication and community is possible. It implies that the "we" who communicate and "things" communicated - including this exchange! - are more than nothing. In reality they are meaningless impressions, dreams whose dreamers are themselves dreams.
Objection: Why communicate then?
Answer: There is as little nonarbitrary reason to communicate as to do anything. All striving to do or be anything arises from a nihilist will to overpower nihilism, the will of nothing to be more than nothing. Like everything else that will is nothing.
Objection: What about science? philosophy? liberal education? moral excellence? civilization itself?
Answer: Genuinely liberal education liberates from the uplifting propaganda ("consciousness raising") which makes those things, or anything else, appear to be more than empty impressions. That propaganda is a travesty of genuine education or science. The main goal of any truly academic philosopher should be to oppose the always-powerful, pseudo-academic forces spreading this propaganda.
Objection: Is your opposition to this propaganda, as you call it, more than nothing?
Objection: Then why oppose one nothing to another?
Answer: There is no more reason to do this than to do anything else. Any effort to be or do anything is self-contradictatory. In this universal aimlessness, "I" will to make "myself" and my "students" as aware as possible of the truth about "themselves" and their "world" or "worlds." This always unwelcome confrontation seems to me to be the goal of any academic institution worthy of the name. I realize that this confrontation, genuine self-knowledge, is not immune to life's basic nothingness. Yet it is preferable to the cowardly effort of pseudo-academics to bury themselves in established "disciplines" or "methodologies" and thus avoid confronting the harsh truth about themselves and their world.
Objection: Can anything be really preferable in a nihilist world?
Answer: No-nor more true or more real.
Objection: That means that any savage aware of reality's void is, solely by virtue of this awareness, as scientific-as knowledgeable about reality-as an Aristotle, a Newton, or an Einstein?
Answer: Yes, even more knowledgeable if that savage realized, as they evidently did not, the impossibility of genuine communication-especially of scientific findings.
Objection: Is there no nonarbitrary reason for condemning a Gorbachev, a Hitler, or a Khomeini? Do such monsters really know as much about science or education as a Socrates or an Einstein?
Answer: No nonarbitrary reason exists for anything. Nobody's moral-political passions ("values") are more than empty prejudices. Strongly political or moral men use all available force and propaganda to discredit opposing prejudices ("values"). Life is a war of conflicting bigotries. Nothing is more bigoted-and thus more effective politically and morally-than the claim to want to be free of bigotry! The desire to obtain impartial, impersonal findings is either self-delusion or moral-political propaganda.
Objection: All this makes sense only if reality is nihilist. Perhaps it is, but why are you so sure? Why not be an agnostic instead of an atheist?
Answer: You touch the crucial point. Here the paths of men part. Either you believe (1) that nothing, including yourself, is more than what is experienced about it or (2) that things, including yourself, exist in themselves apart from what is experienced about them. To me, it is obvious that there are only experiences or impressions but no "things" or "beings" apart from experience. So far as I can see, neither side can "disprove" the other to the other's satisfaction. Their conflict concerns what constitutes the first principle, the basic premise, of any proof about anything.
Objection: What is obvious to you denies common sense and is, as such, crazy.
Answer: Common sense and craziness, like anything else, are nothing but empty impressions. Your faith in their being more does not make it so.
Objection: Nor does your insistence on reducing them to nothing make it so! Don't you freely admit that your insistence on that (or on anything else) is mere bigotry?
Objection: Even if nihilism is true, is it not wiser politically to publicly maintain a Christian condemnation of it?
Answer: Why Christianity? Like nihilism, Christianity and liberalism invite the same devaluation of political commitment in favor of private salvation however that salvation (happiness, "self-expression") is interpreted. Both Christians and liberals experience themselves primarily as private individuals, not as patriotic citizens prepared to fight their enemies at home (civil war) and abroad. How can one hate the Russians and Chinese as enemies, if one sees them as children of the same god or as individuals endowed with the same rights as one's self to life and liberty? Then one's main concern is to have dialogues or business dealings or summit conferences or joint prayer to enlighten them about our common humanity-anything to avoid the harsh political decision to hate them as enemies! This encourages the popular Christian-liberal distinction between Russia's leaders, who may be our enemies, and the Russian people who are, or ought to be, free individuals like ourselves and with whom we therefore have no quarrel.
Unlike Americans who are educated-that is, indoctrinated-to accept such distinctions as gospel truth, the Russians view them as effective propaganda ploys in their on-going war with America. Contrast the magnitude of American Christian-liberal protest against our wars in Vietnam or Central America with the lack of any effective Russian opposition to their wars in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1969), Poland and Afghanistan. Unless Afghans accept Russian rule, the Russians place no value on sharing a common humanity with them! For Russian policy is political, not Christian or liberal. Christian-liberal policies may bring victory in heaven or in wars against poverty. Insofar as anything is predictable in a nihilist world, they surely will bring political-that is, military-disaster.
In reality's void, all choices are arbitrary. I choose to encourage political, rather than Christian-liberal, decisions by Americans. They should be educated to realize that their political enemies at home and abroad cannot be their private friends. If Russia is to be defeated, Americans must be taught to think politically, not privately.
The heart of politics is not prudent or pious calculation of private interest. Prudence is only a means to political ends. The heart of politics or morality is clear in General Spears's description of the spirit informing Clemenceau's life and death (Assignment to Catastrophe, Vol. II, p. 238). When the French forces were awaiting Ludendorff's attack in 1918, they had left a large zone in front of their main line garrisoned by a few troops with orders to stand and die (in order to trick the Germans into believing that this was the main French force). Clemenceau visited the doomed troops.
He spoke to them in his gruff way, not minimizing the sacrifice being asked of them. Their fate would have been his had he had his way, and the men knew it. They said nothing but presented him with a bouquet of such wild flowers as grow on the parapets of trenches. . . . Clemenceau, who was the toughest, the hardest and perhaps the most cruel man I have ever met, who had but one love, France, sobbed. . . . When he died, that faded posy was found in his desk with the instruction that when he was buried standing, as was his wish, it should be placed over his heart.
- Department of Philosophy
A Reply to Harry Neumann
Neumann is a radical historicist. Unlike Nietzsche, he appears unconcerned with destroying "the protective atmosphere within which life or culture or action is alone possible" (Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 26).
Life or the truth, never both, said Nietzsche. Neumann asserts that he has chosen the truth-let life be damned. However, as his reply suggests, his deliberate acceptance and promotion of nihilism as a doctrine is itself a political activity, albeit one he chooses to couch in terms like arbitrary, meaningless, etc. By betraying his original purposeless or nihilistic intent, Neumann demonstrates how we all choose life, so long as the will to live is in us. Sadly, Neumann's half-hearted nihilism cannot lead to a better or more moral existence. It leads to a plane where acts like shoving elderly women down stairs (as his teacher Schopenhauer did) or butchering innocent lives by the millions (his "bigoted" pseudo-nihilist Nazis), cannot be distinguished from one another.
Finally, Neumann's assumption is incorrect that Christianity's global piety devalues public commitment, making it less able to defend itself from aggression. As Clemenceau sent untold numbers to their death in 1918, so another pugnacious fighter, himself a Christian, was responsible for the deaths of thousands in World War II. But rather than suggest such slaughter was meaningless politics, Winston Churchill chose the protecting atmosphere that makes death in battle glorious, and shelters political society from the storm that half-hearted nihilists like Neumann might wish on it.
Churchill had a will to survive and never surrender, but reconciled this spiritedness with Christian compassion. It was this combination of piety and martial valor that informed Britain's efforts in that island's darkest hour. Churchill agreed, Nazism must be crushed, but: "I will not say without mercy, because God forbid we should ever part company with that-but at any rate with zeal and not altogether without relish" (Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour, p. 50). (One last note. The volume of Spears that Neumann cites is, in fact, dedicated to Winston Churchill.)
Harry Neumann's Rejoinder
No man can avoid nihilism or be a half-hearted nihilist. Everything (including all moral-political dreams) is nothing but empty impressions. Our only difference is Basinski's need, shared by most Christian-liberal academics, to hide his nihilist nakedness behind "the protective atmosphere" of humanitarian fig leaves. I prefer Kierkegaard's frank admission that Christian faith in salvation from reality's nothingness is a desperate leap into the impossible! In any case, the need for those fig leaves is as arbitrary as anything else. Liberal education is the always-repellent effort at liberation from that need. Intellectual honesty is as unwelcome and probably as impossible as Kierkegaard's faith.
Life is a war of conflicting faiths or prejudices. Its inherent bigotry is compounded by the illusion that one's political or academic cause really promotes "a better or more moral existence." Such claims are either self-delusion or propaganda.
If one subtracts Basinski's need for those fig leaves, we are not so opposed. Like my nihilism, his Christianity or liberalism devalues American resolve to win the war against Russia (like most professors, Basinski never mentions that war) Churchill noted (The Gathering Storm, p. 321) that Chamberlain's Christian abhorrence of war encouraged Great Britain's decay into the mini-Britain of appeasement and Munich: "It is baffling to reflect that what men call honor does not correspond always to Christian ethics."
For Christians or liberals, war is honorable only when it does not hamper personal salvation (contrast Matthew 16:26 with Psalm 137) or when it is a war to end all wars. To paraphrase Machiavelli: However patriotic they may seem, they actually love their souls (or selves) more than their fatherland (consider Rousseau's Social Contract, IV:8, "On Civil Religion" and Nietzsche's Antichrist, 57-62). Patriotic nihilists, on the other hand, are permeated by the realization that nothing in heaven or on earth except their own desperate resolve sustains their patriotism. It was in tribute to this resolve that Clemenceau's heart was covered with that faded bouquet, not with a Christian cross or a humanitarian manifesto.