April 27, 2018


Lincoln and Leo XIII against the Nietzscheans: Though from starkly different backgrounds, the two men remain pillars of the natural-law tradition, under assault from both the Left and the Right. (M. D. AESCHLIMAN, April 21, 2018, National Review)

We live in an unusually anomalous culture whose politics and economics are now dominated by Nietzscheans of both the Right and the Left, united particularly in their contempt for long-standing, traditional ideas of reason and ethics, which they believe they have "seen through" and exploded. With the plausibility implosion and waning of Marxism, their ascendancy has increased.

The Nietzscheans of the Right -- in-your-face social-Darwinist capitalists, or their servitors, whose Trumpery is now the national brand -- are the most obvious. The late Ayn Rand is one of their exemplars and heroines, and if they are literate enough to know her history among conservatives they bitterly resent the expulsion of her from their traditionalist ranks by William F. Buckley Jr. and his friend Whittaker Chambers, who denounced her in a notable essay in National Review in 1957. [...]

It was a tragedy of the first order for American history that the Union's and Lincoln's purging the nation of slavery and the restoration of a true, noble understanding of the theological-Lockean claims of the Declaration of Independence (all persons "created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"), achieved in the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments, were immediately succeeded by the emergence of social Darwinism, with its ruthless, amoral "robber barons" and segregationist and imperialist apologists for subordinating anew or eliminating allegedly "inferior races," a line of racialist-imperialist-immoralist belief and propaganda that was to find eloquent support in Nietzsche's ironic, temptingly transgressive rhetoric: "The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And we shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak -- Christianity." Historian Richard Weikart's fine study From Darwin to Hitler is one of the most thorough and eloquent recent treatments of the tragic, apocalyptic career of this line of thought, belief, and behavior. (See my review of it in NR, March 28, 2005).

The enduring coherence and moral orthodoxy of Lincoln's correction of the original pro-slavery evil and hypocrisy of the American Founding has found its great contemporary expositor and defender in the recently deceased Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015), in two of the greatest books of modern political thought, Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and A New Birth of Freedom (2000), and Jaffa has been a vitally important figure to natural-law-natural-rights conservatives. Praised by his friend William F. Buckley Jr., and shaping generations of students over his long life, Jaffa has often received high, eloquent, and discriminating tribute in the pages of National Review. Writing there in 1999, Michael Potemra praised Jaffa's Lincolnian universalism as "the lodestar" of his life: "The existence of America says to the whole world that every person has rights, and that when these rights are respected -- when liberty and justice prosper -- the human person flourishes." The late, brilliant, Niebuhrian American historian John Patrick Diggins (1935-2009) reviewed at some length Jaffa's second great Lincoln book, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, in National Review (February 5 , 2001), arguing that "no other scholar has scrutinized the main documents of early American political thought as thoroughly as Jaffa." Himself a distinguished historian and political theorist, Diggins calls Jaffa's book "as comprehensive as an encyclopedia and as exegetical as a scholastic treatise. Whether one agrees with him entirely or not, his argument that the ideas of Jefferson," purged of his hypocrisy, "and Lincoln represent an organic continuity is original and daring and deserves to be debated for years to come."

If Lincoln is the key American hero of the natural law, largely on the basis of his own experience, intuition, and reasoning powers, he is also the inheritor of it on the basis of his reading of the Bible, Euclid, Shakespeare, Blackstone's Commentaries, and the American Founding documents. From Shakespeare and life itself he knew the Machiavellian mind and tendency, in both political and economic life, at the latter of which he was notoriously late in success. And he was an anti-Nietzschean before Nietzsche wrote: avant la lettre. Obsessed with Shakespeare, whose Macbeth he was rereading in the last weeks of his life, he recognized the Machiavellian mind and sensibility: He warned early against the "Caesarism" that could usurp power and destroy the American republic. If Washington was an exemplary opponent and alternative to it, the serpentine Aaron Burr and the demagogic Andrew Jackson were dangerous illustrations of its perennial appeal.

One of the many ways in which Americans are well served by our anti-Intellectualism is in our hostility to Darwinism.

Posted by at April 27, 2018 7:39 PM