Greatness Without Cruelty: Young Nietzscheans should look to Tocqueville as a more politically responsible source for a new politics. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 11/29/23, Religion & Liberty)

[N]ietzsche 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.”