Conservatives: Who’s Your Daddy?

In his column this morning, David Brooks has a roundup of young conservative voices we should be listening to. He divides them into four groups: paleoconservatives, lower-middle reformists, soft libertarians, and Burkean revivalists. I want to focus on the last, for as is so often the case with Brooks, he gets it wrong—but in revealing ways.

Burkean Revivalists. This group includes young conservatives whose intellectual roots go back to the organic vision of society described best by Edmund Burke but who are still deeply enmeshed in current policy debates.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs is one of the two or three most influential young writers in politics today. He argues that we are now witnessing the fiscal crisis of the entitlement state, exemplified most of all by exploding health care costs. His magazine promotes a big agenda of institutional modernization.

It just so happens that I was reading yesterday a piece by Levin from the summer 2012 issue of The New Atlantis (h/t the kind reader who sent it to me; I can’t now find who you are) on the problem of health care and entitlement spending.

After the usual heavy breathing and hortatory throat-clearing that are characteristic of such think pieces on the right—”Our weaknesses and problems, no less than our strengths and advantages, are reflections of the society we are, and so to understand them we would do well to reflect upon the question of just what sort of society that is.”—Levin sets out the boiler-plate, one part Straussianism, two parts bullshit.

The ancients sought virtue, a life of excellence lived in and through the polis; the moderns (Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke) perpetrate “a lowering of aims.” The moderns see “the preservation and protection of life and of health as the primary functions of society.” Motivated by “safety and power,” they care nothing for the higher goods of religion or morality. Instead, they “assert for health a place at the very top of the heap of human goods.”

It’s the usual hash of modern political thought that you find in certain precincts of the Straussian right. What’s interesting about it is how Levin connects it to our health care debate and the market, and whom he draws inspiration from in doing so.

The health care challenge we face, insists Levin, is not merely the narrow economic problem of ballooning costs; that would be too pedestrian. It’s that we have so lost sight of other goods—excellence, justice, and so on—that we are willing to spend every last dime, and our children’s dimes, on staying alive, the world be damned. Because of “our disproportionate and even reckless elevation of health,” we have become the small people—our society the “vessel for self-absorption and decadence”—that we are.

That concern with self-absorption and decadence should tip us off to where we stand with Levin: not under the bright sun of the ancients or the Founders—or, pace Brooks, Edmund  Burke—but in the shadow of Nietzsche. (Setting aside the connection between Burke and Nietzsche, which I allude to in The Reactionary Mind.)

I’ve argued before that Nietzsche is the master theoretician of the modern right, but Levin makes it especially clear.

In understanding that liberal temptation, our best guide is not Descartes but Nietzsche, who described what could become of us in an age beyond responsibility, an age he believed was the inevitable destination of liberal societies. The degeneration of virtue in such societies, he argues, will atrophy our ability to plan for the future, our drive to work, and our interest in governing. In such a state, people will lack the noble aspiration to a virtuous life, setting their aims far lower, as Nietzsche writes. “One has one’s little pleasure for the day, and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.”

Our regard for health, it seems, can easily coexist with a society that we would not otherwise be proud of. Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods, such regard can become a vessel for self-absorption and for decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert present pain.

What makes Levin’s invocation of Nietzsche even more fascinating is that he sees the market as the antidote to this culture of decadence. Where Nietzsche loathed the culture of the market and of capitalism, modern conservatives who walk in his path have found a way around that hostility. They see the market as the proving ground of the heroic self, as the crucible from which a being of ancient excellence and moral virtue—or, if you’re jonesing for a more modern version, a tragic chooser of incommensurable goods—can arise. In Levin’s case, the market is the instrument by which our ravenous desire for health at any cost will be forced to confront the constraints of cost, leading us to prioritize our values—and creating a space, he hopes, for other values to emerge.

It’s not at first clear why Levin thinks such other values would emerge, given that he thinks we’ve lost sight of them, but at the end of his essay he draws what seems to be an unearned distinction between the people and the government, claiming that it’s not the citizenry that’s corrupt but the state. The institutions of liberal democracy can’t make hard choices, tied as they are to the base drives of politicians. But the market can.

After all, markets don’t just make expensive goods cheaper — they are also extraordinarily effective prioritizers, allowing many individual decisions to be made close to the ground. In the case of health care, that would mean having more critical decisions about spending made by patients, by families, and by doctors, and creating a strong incentive for those decisions that have to be made by insurers to be made in ways that will be perceived as fair by their customers.

Market solutions would by no means eliminate all the grave difficulties involved in prioritizing health care. There would still be rationing, there would still be times when being out of money means you are out of options, there would still be decisions made by insurance company bureaucrats that strike patients and doctors as unjust. But there would be far fewer than under a system that assigned rationing decisions to public officials and gave patients far fewer choices and far less control.

In a properly regulated but competitive insurance market, we would have a much better chance of actually prioritizing health among the goods we value. Because while liberal political institutions are unsuited to such prioritization, we liberal citizens are often up to it. Families, which after all are not liberal institutions, can make difficult choices — balancing the needs of different generations and the importance of different needs and wants — in ways that democratic political institutions often simply cannot.

Read that last paragraph carefully: “We liberal citizens are often up to it.” Why? Because we live in “families, which after all are not liberal institutions.” It’s the family, by which Levin means the anti-liberal or illiberal or non-liberal parental authority unit, that makes the difficult choices. So we have the market as the disciplining agent working with whomever controls the finances in the family (and we all know who that is) to create the conditions for a society that cares about something more than its health.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a project that seeks to explore the elective affinities between Nietzsche and neoliberalism, the hidden dialogue between the German criticism of decadence and the Austrian School’s celebration of capitalism. In the coming months, I hope to be publishing an article about this, but I’ve already given some hints of my views on that connection in various posts on Tumblr.

In the meantime, I urge you to take a look at Levin’s essay insofar as it gives you a good sense of the Nietzschean dimensions of contemporary conservatism, especially that “Burkean” conservatism which gets praised by the likes of David Brooks.


  1. The Raven November 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | #

    I am not so sure that Nietzsche agrees with you, or the conservatives, about his own meanings. My sense is more he mourned the authoritarian world, rather than supported. Many of the the quotes you give are ambiguous.

    • Roquentin November 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm | #

      These last few entries have made me a little wary of your interpretation of Nietzsche. While it certainly is fair to label him a reactionary (because in a lot of important ways he was), I feel this is a really narrow reading of his works and one that give his conservative interpreters more credit than they deserve.

      What of all the French left wing thinkers in the 60s and 70s who were heavily influenced by Nietzsche? Foucault? Deleuze? Derrida? Are these readings not valid? On the other hand, probably the greatest reactionary philosopher of the 20th century, maybe even the most influential thinker of the past hundred years, Martin Heidegger, was also deeply influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a huge 4 volume study of his works. What’s interesting to me is that people in conservative circles and libertarians in general want very little to do with Heidegger. There was a great Derrida quote in Of Grammatology about “offering up Nietzsche to Heidegger’s reading of him completely” (paraphrased). Maybe Heidegger really was the one who took Nietzsche’s questions and ideas to their logical conclusion and that’s something they’d prefer to forget.

      Not only that, there’s a certain way you can read Nietzsche in which he is trying to play the role of a prophet. From that angle his works are way less about establishing normative ethical standards than saying “this is what the 20th century will be like.” If you take this reading of him, he was much too right about how the dissolution of traditional Christian metaphysics and the system of ethics it held in place would play out.

      • The Raven November 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm | #

        Is Beyond Good and Evil is a rejection of normative ethics? The title, and my bit of reading, hints at that.

        BTW, I like your name. If I’d realized how many people lay claim to corvids, I might have chosen a different one, or at least a more distinctive one.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 8:13 pm | #

        Most of those post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida were honest and explicit about the fact that they ignored large chunks of Nietzsche’s corpus, in particular its political content. They were more in Nietzsche as the debunker of truth. Corey is simply putting focus back on those aspects they ignored.

        And while it’s true that Ayn Rand and Nietzsche’s Anglo-American and libertarian admirers on the right have often been vulgar, this isn’t true of the European right, where there has always been a long lineage of right-wing Nietzscheans. The Action Francaise during its early stages (pre-WW1) published admiring articles on Nietzsche — among his biggest boosters were Pierre Lasserre, Hugues Rebell, Georges Valois, and later Gustave Thibon. Maurras himself, though not profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, came to many similar conclusions regarding slave morality and Christianity, and observed that Nietzsche’s influence among the French youth was leading them to his, the anti-democratic, camp.

        In Germany, there was the Conservative Revolution, many of whom were deeply influenced by Nietzsche:

        For someone more contemporary, check out Alain de Benoist:

        All of these people are/were far more sophisticated than what the Republican Party and its hacks can offer.

    • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 7:56 pm | #

      I tend to agree with The Raven and Roquentin. Don’t descend to the vulgar “Nietzscheanism” of Rand or Levin (or, for that matter, Strauss. I detest “Nietzscheans”). If you do, you’ve allowed them to define the battlefield.

      And you know the consequences of allowing an opponent to define the battlefield.

      Their horizons of understanding are severely constricted, or so it seems to me. Don’t you also commit the error that he dreaded — of (mis)taking Nietzsche for something he was not.

      • Aaron November 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm | #

        To Scott and the Unkindness of Ravens:

        Which authors or interpreters of Nietzsche do you think do him proper justice? I’ve read Kaufmann and Lampert’s writings on him. Sorry to say Heidegger has always proved a bit too much for me, in particular his Nietzsche books.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm | #

        If you’re looking for scholarly books, try to find Domenico Losurdo’s recent book on Nietzsche. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English yet.

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 9:19 pm | #

        To Scott and the Unkindness of Ravens:

        Which authors or interpreters of Nietzsche do you think do him proper justice?

        I’ve eschewed all interpreters, and especially laughed at Hollingdale’s nonsense. I threw Crane Brinton’s book on Nietzsche into the trash bin. I’ve read Steiner’s Nietzsche: Fighter for Freedom with more sympathy, though, and I have Kaufmann’s book, but have never opened it (I will, though, just as soon as I’ve finished the German editions of Nietzsche). I haven’t yet really found one that resonates with how I understand Nietzsche, but I tend to approach Nietzsche from a “Blakean” perspective, and found that richly rewarding.

        Still, I’ve read anarcho-socialists who claim Nietzsche as a main influence, too, and Nietzsche’s influence on the 60s Left through Hermann Hesse seems to have been forgotten. I just read a very unsympathetic review of Bill’s recommended book by Lasurdo (1200 pages!?) at that made the claim that: “Nietzsche has been counterfactually forced to do double duty, as a rightwing nihilist and as the father of the value-relativist Left”… Well… so he has.

        You read lectures by Buddhists who assert that Buddhism made its entry into the West via Nietzsche, too, and recognise themselves in Nietzsche.

        Then there’s the very riddling, mysterious, controversial book Nietzsche is purported to have written while an inmate of the asylum called My Sister & I with some insisting it’s a fraud, and others insisting it is authentic Nietzsche. I lean slightly toward the latter view at this time, although with reservations. I’m sure conservatives lean the other way a great deal more emphatically and strenuously (for obvious reasons, if you read the book) which is maybe why I lean in the other direction. But, its authorship is presently inconclusive.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 9:25 pm | #

        That Paul Gottfried review in FirstPrinciples is critical but not unsympathetic. He notes on the first page that he mentioned Losurdo’s book precisely because he found him one of the more interesting exegetes on the topic.

        Note also the full concluding paragraph:

        “Still and all, Losurdo’s main point is not to “renazify” Nietzsche, that is, to blame his ideas for the crimes of the Third Reich or try to plot a developmental line extending from one to the other. Rather Losurdo argues that Nietzsche’s critique of the Left became the matrix for all rightwing movements in the twentieth century, to whatever extent that Right could be distinguished from older forms of opposition to the Left. In a confrontation with Michele Foucault and other representatives of the deconstructionist left, Losurdo shows conclusively that it is only by capriciously reconstructing texts that one could make Nietzsche something other than what he was, namely an aristocratic radical. Neither Losurdo nor I would defend all aspects of Nietzsche’s thought but it is imperative to note that it is derivative from rightist impulses and concerns. In no way is Nietzsche propagating a leftist worldview, and that does not change because he dared to call himself an “anti-Christian.” Christians of the Right are free to take or reject any part of his thinking, but to treat Nietzsche as a forerunner of student rebels of the 1960s or the present swarm of Obamaites is both ludicrous and dishonest. By now this capriciously made connection is becoming part of a program of deception. It is one in which quintessentially leftist notions are made into “permanent things” or “values,” while the anti-egalitarian Right is dismissed as Nazi or nihilistic. Nietzsche has been counterfactually forced to do double duty, as a rightwing nihilist and as the father of the value-relativist Left. This may be the most unjustified insult ever leveled against a brilliant European thinker.”

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm | #

        Need to keep in mind, too, that Nietzsche considered himself “posthumous” and untimely, and that his real meaning wouldn’t be understood or appreciated until some unspecified future date and generation — perhaps not even until his “two centuries of nihilism” had passed. (And he had the conceit to believe that, at that time, we would consider him the new caesura of history, marking history in terms of before and after Nietzsche…. Rosenstock-Huessy charged that this really exemplified Nietzsche’s jealousy of Christ).

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 9:44 pm | #


        Losurdo shows conclusively that it is only by capriciously reconstructing texts that one could make Nietzsche something other than what he was, namely an aristocratic radical.

        Indeed, except our interpretation of the meaning of “aristocratic” is conditioned by legacy thinking and the Age of Revolution. Nietzsche was a philologist, and much of his revaluation of values — his understanding of terms like value, virtue, “aristos”, and so on — is a restoration of what he deemed their authentic, biologically- rooted meanings in the pre-Socratic, before they were massaged into abstract ideals or moralistic principles.

        And, by the way, I hold that the conservative and revolutionary predilections or dispositions were already represented in the controversy between Parmenides and Heraclitus, or Being and Becoming, but that they have become so abstracted as “ideology” that we no longer recognise their origination. It was, for example, Parmenides who first asserted “thinking and being are the same”, and not Descartes.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 9:46 pm | #

        Exactly. What Nietzsche meant was that once the full implications of the death of God were grasped, the left’s notions of justice, equality, morality, universalism, democracy, etc. would slowly crumble as well because they no longer had any solid foundation. Some of them, particularly its vision of egalitarianism and fraternity and creating a heaven on Earth, had clear theological roots. Without God, the path was cleared for these to be destroyed as well.

        The eugenicist Georges Vacher de Lapouge expressed this much more bluntly:

        “It is obvious, to my eyes anyway, that if one eliminates the supernatural element from the universe, it is necessary to eliminate, at the same time, a number of fundamental notions–all of which were, in the past, deduced from supernatural tenets. All of morality and all of the ideas that serve as a base for law and for the political sciences, in their present-day conceptions, constitute a series of deductions of which the first term assumes the existence of a personal divinity…Remove all validity from this source, and there is nothing left.”

        Lapouge was much more of an orthodox Darwinist than Nietzsche was. Nevertheless, these excerpts from The Death of the Soul are interesting:

        In his lectures and written texts, Lapouge assumed his audience to be secular republicans who believed in Darwinism and in the inequality of human beings but were not brave enough to take these notions to their logical conclusion. “I take a malicious but vivid pleasure,” he wrote, “in catching the myriad errors in a number of recent articles that have appeared in the socialist, anarchist, or so-called democratic journals. In Darwinism, or in more general terms, in scientific doctrines on the origin of the species of the world, they have seen, above all, an argument with which to oppose religion and, here in France, an argument with which to oppose the church, which is creationist and dedicated to the text of Genesis.”

        According to Lapouge, they were all using science to disprove religion, but when science suggested a course of action that contradicted their own moral and/or eschatological universe, they refused to acknowledge it. “They have not understood,” he wrote, “that Darwinism applied to human beings in their social existence excludes for the future all elements of nonscientific social explanations, which is to say, it removes all supernatural causes from the general causality of the universe. When I say ‘they’ I mean the freethinkers, or those who qualify as such, because from the very beginning the churches have seen the consequences of these theories and have taken steps to denigrate them.” Lapouge used the word “supernatural” to imply anything spiritual or philosophical: anything that could not be proven by his science. Consider, for example, his discussion of human equality: “Some people, believing in the mystical principle of human equality, cannot bear it when one speaks to them of superior races. I am not even going to take the trouble to contradict them. It is perfectly useless to reason with minds that are thus turned toward the supernatural; only fictions have value in their eyes. I address myself only to those for whom facts have meaning, as do numbers, which are also facts, grouped and counted.”

        As he saw it, the republican postulates of fraternity and equality were based on the Christian idea that all God’s children are brothers; liberty were based on the idea that each human being has a distinct and significant soul, and charity and morality were God’s commandments. Many devoted republicans had similar misgivings: the republic did seem to have been based on Judeo-Christian ideals and philosophical tenets, from religious morality to the idea of individual free will. Like the freethinking anthropologists, other republican social theorists found new ways of justifying these notions, either scientifically or philosophically. Lapouge, however, was as angry at democracy as he was at Christianity, so he tried to salvage neither one nor the other from their damning mutual association.”

        Among his many warnings of crises and revolutions to come, Lapouge wrote that “our epoch of apparent indifference is the beginning of the greatest crisis of religion and morality that has struck humanity since it has begun to think.”

        “They only had a choice between a return, pure and simple, to the theological doctrines from which they had come or the acceptance, pure and simple, of the scientific explanation of social phenomena and the abandonment of all philosophical principles on which their political doctrine had rested. It is not toward science that they went. Their psychology is that of men who in times gone by would prostrate themselves in churches and light heretics on fire, and we are not the least surprised, as they are their descendants. Already liberals, socialists, and anarchists treat Darwinians as barbarians. So be it! The barbarians are coming, the besiegers have come to be besieged, and their last hope of resistance is to lock themselves up in the citadel they were attacking. The near future will show our sons a curious spectacle: the theoreticians of the false modern democracy constrained to shut themselves back up in the citadel of clericalism.”

        “If one no longer want the supernatural, it is necessary to be logical and to say: there is no good or bad, in and of themselves; nothing is just, or unjust. All our ideas of morality and law are due to circumstances of ancestral evolution and the social conventions that are the most severely sanctioned by opinion and by law have, in themselves, the exact same value as the rules to a game of cards.” As such, morality was not to be reestablished or propped up; rather, it was to be bravely rejected along with religion.

  2. Benedict@Large November 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm | #

    Where to start? First, Mr. Levin’s apparent fearless before the prospect of mortal illness is typical of the shallowness of libertarian thought: Someone else’s problem. Until it is their own.

    Second, Levin has OBVIOUSLY never worked in health insurance. If he had, he would understand that it was never designed to service a health industry where heroic care was both available and even occasionally effective. The utopian vision he espouses would actually result in a world where ALL extreme care would be denied anyone who could not pay for it out of pocket. [Note: As soon as you allow SOME, someone has to decide WHO deserves it and who doesn’t.]

    Third, since Levin loves the market so much, perhaps he can explain the justification for crimping the healthcare market off at the supply side, insuring that demand will ALWAYS exceed supply, forcing costs continually upwards?

    Typical libertarian. Create the strawman, and then slay it. And Levin even gets a paycheck for it. That wouldn’t happen in a real red in tooth and claw market.

  3. hidflect November 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm | #

    On Levin’s appeals to his own ideals. The more ephemeral and nuanced any prose becomes, the more I suspect the argument is total bull. One can destroy his mutterings with a few relevant words from reality such as: monopoly, regulatory capture, CEO pay, collusion, etc.

  4. Joanna Bujes November 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm | #

    Perhaps it’s time to re-read the Mass Psychology of Fascism — and its dependence on the celebration of suffering. Perhaps it’s time to re-write it in the context of a bankrupt consumer society.

    And thank you Corey. I have learned a lot from reading the Reactionary Mind, especially from your discussion of the sublime. An absolutely classic text for me now.

  5. troy grant November 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm | #

    I’ve never seen right libertarian cons address the endless unregulated concentration of wealth/power that lead to oligarchical and hegemonic dictatorships. Privatization and economic democracy can play together when all the people have the last word, not compromised politicians. Direct democracies always function best.

  6. liberty60 November 20, 2012 at 7:07 pm | #

    “Families, which after all are not liberal institutions, can make difficult choices — balancing the needs of different generations and the importance of different needs and wants…”

    What family is Levin talking about??None that ever existed, thats certain. Families have never “made difficult choices” in the sense that Levin is talking about. Those choices were made for them, by Church and Culture.

    The historical family structure wasn’t governed only by the patriarchal structure that everyone immediately thinks of, but by a thinly disguised social welfare state the modern day conservatives themselves would have hated.

    In nearly any such society, the medical, retirement, child care, and sustenance needs of the family were met by a system of obligations and positive rights that were voluntary, only in name.

    These positive rights were religiously or culturally mandated, and punishable by eternal damnation, or societal expulsion.

    No of course it didn’t work efficiently, or fairly- thats kind of why, when Social Security was proposed, it was immediately popular. Not because it worked better for the recipients, it works better for the contributors.

  7. swallerstein November 20, 2012 at 8:04 pm | #

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Nietzsche (by Brian Leiter, who has clear leftwing views) claims that Nietzsche has no political philosophy.

    • Bill November 20, 2012 at 8:15 pm | #

      And Brian Leiter is incorrect.

      • swallerstein November 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm | #

        Leiter’s point is that Nietzsche’s view is basically a rejection of politics, although there are scattered political opinions throughout Nietzsche’s work. However, according to Leiter, those scattered opinions do not constitute a political philosophy, since, as Leiter points out, Nietzsche has opinions about everything, from cooking to opera.

        Now, while I have read a bit of Nietzsche, I’m not a Nietzsche scholar. My impression is that it would be impossible to claim that Nietzsche has a leftwing point of view. From Nietzsche’s scattered remarks on political themes, one could read him as an anarchist or as a reactionary or, as Leiter does, as someone who is anti-political. In general, Nietzsche is a not a systematic thinker, although he is full of wit and insights into human nature and into the history of philosophy/religion.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 8:57 pm | #

        The argument of Losurdo’s book I mentioned above, which is around 1000 pages and thoroughly researched, including citations from both Nietzsche’s published work as well as his private correspondence, is that Nietzsche’s impetus was political, a reaction to the Paris Commune and the incipient democratic and socialist movements, and that this pervades his thought. They are not merely scattered opinions. They are what motivates everything else he writes. So you can’t fully grasp his philosophy without understanding Nietzsche’s politics.

        Leiter is wrong, and because of his own left-wing views and low opinion of the opposition’s intellect, in denial about this.

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 10:09 pm | #

        Nietzsche’s sole aim and purpose is to elevate what is life-affirming, and to “deconstruct” what is life-denying. Everything in Nietzsche orbits around this. The “political” only comes into consideration at all in Nietzsche in reference to this core concern. Therefore, he could still truly insist, without too much contradiction, that he was essentially “anti-political”.

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 10:18 pm | #

        …But you admit you haven’t read Losurdo’s book or considered the mountains of evidence that contradict your interpretation.

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm | #

        …But you admit you haven’t read Losurdo’s book or considered the mountains of evidence that contradict your interpretation.

        The mere fact that there are mountains of books, all contradicting each other, is sufficient proof only of confusion….

      • Bill November 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm | #

        You’re a fool. Some books are clearly more well-argued and well-cited than others. And some of the books taking a more unorthodox reading, such as A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy, *openly admit* that their readings are unfaithful and ignore large portions of what Nietzsche actually wrote.

        But this all lost on someone who chooses to live on lalaland and ignore facts he doesn’t like.

      • Scott Preston November 20, 2012 at 10:47 pm | #

        The mere fact that there are mountains of books, all contradicting each other, is sufficient proof only of confusion….

        There is only one way to interpret Nietzsche, and Nietzsche provided the key and index to that himself “Become what you are”. After that, books of interpretation, controversy, and “chairs of interpretation” are irrelevant, and almost comical — deserving of the Swiftian treatment.

        “Become what you are” is nothing else but what is today called “self-realisation” or actualisation.

        Ideology is not consciousness. This is what Heraclitus mocked in Parmenides and was misunderstood. He was called “the dark”, “the obscure” because he insisted on something that Nietzsche also insisted upon “the will to a system is a lack of integrity” — that is, the will to an ‘ism’ at all. Heraclitus insisted on the primacy of perception before mentation or ideation. And that is Nietzsche’s “overself” and “ego” distinction in Zarathustra. Upshot — ideology is not consciousness. It may even be the exact opposite.

      • Panda November 21, 2012 at 9:13 am | #

        I’d like to point out that Losurdo has been criticized, with good arguments if I dare to say so, for poor philology: totally groundless is, for exemple, his accusation of censorship to Colli e Montinari. A detailed review, with few exemples of his philological flaws, here: (only in italian, unfortunately). I’d say that a little caution is not unwise.

    • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 7:12 am | #

      “Fundamentally, we experience only ourselves” — and why wouldn’t that apply also to readings and interpretations of Nietzsche, too?

      Nietzsche already provided the key to understanding him. It was to suspend the cool, aloof, and detached attitude of the intellectual and enter into his own experience. That requires something more than interpretation. It requires a great capacity for empathy. Pity was contemptible because it conserved psychic distance. But empathy was, contrariwise, to enter into the Dionysian itself, in some ways.

  8. Corey Robin November 20, 2012 at 10:53 pm | #

    Just a quick note. First, the tone is getting a little hot; cool it down please. Second, I’m leery of claims that there’s only one way to interpret a thinker like Nietzsche, as I am of claims that Leiter is wrong. Great thinkers naturally elicit multiple interpretations; that’s part of their greatness. That doesn’t mean all interpretations are right, but different and contradictory ones can reveal elements. As for Leiter, his book and multiple essays on Nietzsche are very smart and I’ve learned a ton from them. He’s quite good on a number of topics — including Nietzsche’s positive relationship to the natural sciences, as well as why the Foucauldian interpretation is problematic — and I find him an indispensable guide. I highly recommend his stuff. I do disagree with him about the political dimensions of Nietzsche, in part b/c it is based on an idea of what constitutes political philosophy or theory such that many figures in the canon would not qualify. But to say he’s simply wrong — well, that’s not the best way to approach a scholar as rigorous and subtle as he is.

    • Bill November 20, 2012 at 10:58 pm | #

      I only meant that his views on Nietzsche’s politics, or lack thereof, are wrong. Not that he was wrong in all aspects of Nietzsche’s thought.

      Also, you’d have to admit that when someone’s argument basically boils down to “There are many books on the subject and they take many different stances, so I’ll just believe whatever I want without even considering counter-evidence and counter-arguments”…it’s easy to get a little frustrated.

  9. n November 20, 2012 at 11:01 pm | #

    there’s more interesting things to talk about. maybe Pareto for example.

  10. Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 9:28 am | #

    Every generation seems to imagine a different Nietzsche. Perhaps someone should write a book about that — “Imagining Nietzsche” — which attempts to bring these different dramatis personae into relationship with one another in some coherent way. There are only three or four masks to the man, and as it is, these personae resemble Blake’s four Zoas — the conflicting fragments of the disintegrate human. How does “the Eastern Nietzsche”, the Hindu visionary Sri Aurobindo, relate to the Nietzsche of Levin or Strauss? or Hermann Hesse? or Heidegger? etc. A biologist has a different understanding of Nietzsche from a physicist, who has another, and these are different still from how a Sioux man understands Nietzsche (which I’ve encountered, too). The integral Nietzsche is, as yet, the undiscovered country, it seems.

    • Corey Robin November 21, 2012 at 9:38 am | #

      Someone has written a book about that. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhangen’s *American Nietzsche*. And Stephen Aschheim’s book on Nietzsche in Germany.

      • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 10:56 am | #

        A meta-logic or meta-aesthetics of Nietzschean interpretation — “interpreting the interpreters” — is what I have in mind. Maybe those references have something of that approach. I’ll have a look. Thanks.

        On another, but related, note — the tension between the visionary and the reactionary seems to me the essential question, the two poles of the temporal axis of social relations. William Blake contra Edmund Burke, for example. But Nietzsche embodies the polarities in himself — as his “unique” (as he claimed) ability to “switch perspectives” (or perhaps modes of perception might be better).

        • Corey Robin November 21, 2012 at 10:58 am | #

          Well, you’ve read my book, so you know that I think reactionaries are visionaries, so I don’t buy into the premise of your question. Nietzsche is not peculiar in that regard. Yes, those citations are interpretations of the interpreters — really a history of the interpreters.

          On Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 10:56 AM, Corey Rob

      • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 11:17 am | #

        Well, you’ve read my book, so you know that I think reactionaries are visionaries, so I don’t buy into the premise of your question


        Actually, that’s the one part of your book’s thesis that I’m having trouble with, which is why I’m re-reading it a second time from scratch. The visionary is always oriented towards the future considered as a destiny or an appointment, the reactionary oriented towards a past or origin. This was modelled in the contest between Blake (the friend and benefactor of Tom Paine) and Burke, Blake’s “New Jerusalem” is erected against Burke’s “natural order of things”. They belong to different poles of time.

        But I’ll reserve final decision on that until after I’ve re-read Reactionary Mind with that foremost in mind.

    • Bill November 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm | #

      If you think Nietzsche is unique among reactionaries because of his contradictions, I suggest you read this essay on the Russian monarchist Konstantin Leontiev:

      • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 12:44 pm | #

        Actually, it was Nietzsche who claimed to be “unique” in his ability to “switch perspectives”. I’ll suspend judgement about that. Unless he meant something else by “switching perspectives”, I’m not sure why he thought it was so unique to him. He’s not the first, or the only one, to have consciously embodied and assumed, as a deliberate element of their autobiography, the contradictions of their times.

  11. swallerstein November 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm | #

    Dostoyevsky, in his fiction at least, assumes all the contradictions of his time too: think of the three Karamavoz brothers and the different ethical and philosophical positions each represents.

    What is it about the late 19th century that Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Leontiev all are capable of embodying the contradictions of their times?

    I can’t think of anyone before them who does that nor of anyone after them.

    Or maybe you folks have some earlier or later examples.

    • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm | #

      Or maybe you folks have some earlier or later examples

      Indeed. Shakespeare may have felt and observed that “the times are out of joint” in his own day, but it was probably John Donne who actually lived it. Remarkable poet. He was drawn backwards to the Age of Faith and drawn forwards to the Age of Reason, and felt himself crucified on the contradictions of his times. And, perhaps for similar reasons, Nietzsche signed his last letters “the crucified”.

      We tend to speak of “time” in the singular only in the absence of a discontinuity… when time seems like a straight arrow leading from the past into the future. But when future and past become discontinuous, as they do in any revolutionary age, we tend to pluralise it as “the times”. Crisis, critical, crux, crucial, crucifix, crucible, crossroads — all related words, and crossroads were always considered particularly evil places.

      I don’t know who said it, but there’s a saying “time makes hypocrites of us all” — that is, we lose integrity, so in a way we all enact the contradictions of our times. The trick is to do it consciously.

      Rosenstock-Huessy (as well as Blake) insisted we are fourfold beings living in a quadrilateral situation, always in a crucial or critical situation, because we lived inwards and outwards into the spaces (such as private and public, subject and object), and backwards and forwards into the times (past and future, origin and destiny). The present is always the critical juncture, in that sense, and we embody and enact the contradictory situation daily — only, that we now need to do this consciously.

    • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm | #

      I might add to the foregoing, that there was for Nietzsche a new problem that wasn’t really pronounced earlier — the incipience of the Global or Planetary Era in which different traditions, different human histories, different value constellations or gestalts, would necessarily meet face to face. I think Nietzsche anticipated the consequences of those kinds of problems, and also anticipated “the clash of civilizations” as a result. But I do not think the “clash of civilizations” can be pinned on him at all, for it seems he went out of his way to try to avoid it. His “be true to the earth!” is an attempt, it seems to me, to announce what might be called a “universal history” of the human experience of the earth as a whole as a replacement for the death of a universal God and “universal reason”. This “be true to the earth” is his formula for the unity of the planetary era.

      In that sense… the exact opposite of a reactionary.

  12. swallerstein November 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm | #


    Interesting reflections. There certainly is a green Nietzsche as well as the reactionary and the anti-political one.

    As to works of literature representing the contradictions of the age, I guess one can find that in most great literature: for example, The Oresteia of Aeschylus on the contradiction between older matriarchal gods and newer patriarchal ones; the Antigone of Sophocles on the contradiction between traditional family justice and a newer concept of justice based on the state; Shakespeare (especially Hamlet) as you say. I don’t know Donne well enough to comment on him.

    However, the first conscious attempt that I know of to embody those contradictions in one work is perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, where the voice of 18th century good sense and that of a revolt against that good sense confront in each other in dialogue form, both being facets of Diderot himself.

    • Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm | #

      However, the first conscious attempt that I know of to embody those contradictions in one work is perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, where the voice of 18th century good sense and that of a revolt against that good sense confront in each other in dialogue form, both being facets of Diderot himself.

      I’ll have to look for that. Thanks. Do you know Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought? Absolutely brilliant work, which seems so sadly ignored. Very worthwhile comparing Snell’s book to Rosenstock-Huessy’s short The Origin of Speech.

      • swallerstein November 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm | #


        Here’s an online version of Diderot:

        If you have a copy of Foucault’s History of Madness, he talks about Rameau’s Nephew quite a bit.

        No, I’ve never read the Snell book. Thanks for the reading advice.

  13. Scott Preston November 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm | #

    Corey… I’m still re-reading in The Reactionary Mind, and I thank you for this, as it’s a good book that has contributed much to my understanding of the reactionary mentality.

    However, when it comes to Burke’s aesthetics, you did not take into consideration William Blake’s profound attack on Burke’s views as being merely a reflection of Locke’s. Therefore, I think, you missed the antithetical relationship between the visionary and the reactionary. Blake explicitly attacks the “sublime” in Burke’s Treatise as belonging to delusion. “I read Burke’s Treatise when very young,” he writes, “I felt the same Contempt & Abhorrence then as I do now”. Blake detested Locke’s and Newton’s views, and merely saw them echoed in Burke.

    Some of this agonistic relationship Blake had with Burke is covered in Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, and some in Erdman’s William Blake: Prophet Against Empire. This is the missing element in The Reactionary Mind, because it also impacts on your understanding of Nietzsche’s aesthetics.

    • Theo December 1, 2012 at 10:03 am | #

      Would you be the same Scott Preston who was active on the No Logo list back in the days of neoliberal millenarianism? (Very interesting discussion btw)

  14. Seth Edenbaum November 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm | #

    “The ancients sought virtue, a life of excellence lived in and through the polis; the moderns (Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke) perpetrate ‘a lowering of aims.’ ”

    True enough.

    _Arguments for the nobility of greed are a recent development._
    If, by “recent” you mean 1705, you may be right.

    When Bertram realized he was responding to me, the original comment was removed. He forgot to remove his own.

    Liberals and modern conservatives are individualists; conservatives of the older tradition are not. They may recognize self-interest as a given but they do not defend it as a good.

    It continues to amaze me that American liberal college professors (as “intellectuals”) read all the Continental crap while ignoring the core arguments: the mockery of liberal self-aggrendizement and the liberal celebration of self-interest. Conservatism gave us grandeur and barbarism, pessimism and vows of poverty. Liberalism gives us optimism and the earnest morality of greed. You do understand that Foucault is mocking democracy?

    “First, I’m sympathetic, I really am, to the idea that people should work and consume less and that we should attend more to real life quality. But this doesn’t seem very realistic in my own life for two reasons: first, even if my employer were sympathetic (unlikely) I feel very hard pressed now to produce the level of research output necessary for me to stay competitive with other academics (not just in the UK, but elsewhere). I suspect this generalizes to many people in professional jobs: we couldn’t achieve the kinds of things we want to in our careers on those kinds of hours.”

    “I’d live the life of the mind, but then I couldn’t afford cable.”

    • Seth Edenbaum November 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm | #

      That’s no necessary defense of Levin. I’m reading the piece now. As far as Burke is concerned I wonder what he’d say of Levin’s opinion as the colonization of Palestine. And the AEI’s definition of capitalism is fundamentally medieval. Still…

      Daniel Callahan: “the research imperative”

      “Though unfamiliar to most scientists and the general public, the term expresses a cultural problem that caught my eye. It occurs in an article written by the late Protestant moral theologian Paul Ramsey in 1976 as part of a debate with a Jesuit theologian, Richard McCormick. McCormick argued that it ought to be morally acceptable to use children for nontherapeutic research, that is, for research with no direct benefit to the children themselves and in the absence of any informed consent. Referring to claims about the “necessity” of such research, Ramsey accused McCormick of falling prey to the “research imperative”, the view that the importance of research could overcome moral values.

      That was the last time I heard of the phrase for many years, but it informs important arguments about research that have surfaces with increasing force of late. It captures, for instance, the essence of what Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate for his work on genetics and president emeritus of Rockefeller University once remarked to me: “The blood of those who will die if biomedical research is not pursued will be upon the hands of those who don’t do it.”

      War communism in the war on disease.

      Modern conservatives are economic liberals; modern liberals defend social liberalism as measured by their own best intentions. Between Burke and Rawls I’d choose Burke. “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are words floating in a sea of language, their meanings change over time and from place to place. Without a knowledge of history there’s no understanding of either. Decartes wrote “History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but it does not deepen it.” Nietzsche’s professional title was not philosopher but philologist.

      The only valid attack on liberalism from the standpoint of the old conservatism comes from the left. Better a Luddite than a Benthamite in the googleplex.

      A contemporary Burkean quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes:
      “His account of the Communists shows in the most extreme form what I came to loathe in the abolitionists–the conviction that anyone who did not agree with them was a knave or a fool. You see the same in some Catholics and some of the ‘Drys’ apropos of the 18th amendment. I detest a man who knows that he knows.”

      That’s not the answer to John Brown, or Hamas, both of whom in retrospect seem necessary, though the latter has moderated as Israel has not. Zionists also know what they know, and they knew it first.

      Life’s a bitch.

  15. Steve White November 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | #

    This is nonsense. What Brooks is really saying when you chop out the fluff is to leave your health care in the warm and understanding hands of an insurance company. Let the insurance company make the decision about what care you are entitled to. No thanks.

  16. Seth Edenbaum November 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm | #

    “In an essay published in early 1879 called ‘The True Reason of Man’s Happiness’, al-Afghani denounced British claims to have civilized India by introducing such benefits of modernist as railways, canals and schools. In his defense of India, al-Afghani was ecumenical, praising Hindus as well as Muslims. Echoing Edmund Burke, who had asserted that Indians were people ‘for ages civilized and cultivated -cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods’, al-Afghani dismissively asked why the English ‘who suffered for long ages and wandered in wild and barbaric valleys’ should presume to speak of the ‘deficiency’ of the glorious ‘sons of Brahma and Mahadev, the founders of human sharias and establishers of civilized laws.’

    Al-Afghani went on to argue that the British improved transport and communication in order to rain India’s wealth to England and facilitate trade for British merchants. Western style schools, he argued, were meant merely to turn Indians into English-speaking cogs of the British Administration.”

    Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire
    ref, Nikki Keddie, Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghani: A Political Biography.

    To understand Brooks, this is all you need to know.

  17. Donna Gratehouse (@DonnaDiva) November 25, 2012 at 3:08 am | #

    “Read that last paragraph carefully: “We liberal citizens are often up to it.” Why? Because we live in “families, which after all are not liberal institutions.” It’s the family, by which Levin means the anti-liberal or illiberal or non-liberal parental authority unit, that makes the difficult choices. So we have the market as the disciplining agent working with whomever controls the finances in the family (and we all know who that is) to create the conditions for a society that cares about something more than its health.”

    So basically Dad is forced to decide if Grandma lives or dies. isn’t that just fucking awesome!

    • Seth Edenbaum November 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm | #

      “So basically Dad is forced to decide if Grandma lives or dies.”

      That would be the case even in a state with care from cradle to grave. care.

      A woman chooses to have an abortion. A family decides when a comatose child should be allowed to die. Hospice care was not invented by Republicans.

      Levin is defending a philosophy of modern economic liberalism, couched in the language of premodern conservatism.

  18. Theo December 1, 2012 at 10:35 am | #

    As far as I can see, Levin is mouthing high-minded guff. I want socialized healthcare so my disabled daughter can get life-saving medical treatment when she needs it (this has already been necessary on a couple of occasions – luckily I live in a state where pinkos have some influence. No private insurance firm would touch her) Apparently this makes me self-absorbed and decadent. What are the values that would emerge were I not so concerned about the continued health and well-being of my daughter? They must be pretty bloody marvelous.

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