In The State in education – Part II: social warfare, we looked at the promise of state-sponsored education and its failure, both socially and as a purveyor of knowledge. The next step is to examine the university, especially since higher education is deeply linked to modern society and because the public school system purports to prepare its students for college.
First, though, there should be a little history on higher education in the West for context since Nietzsche assumed that everyone knew it when he made his remarks in Anti-Education. The university as an abstract concept dates to Aristotle and his Peripatetic School. Following his stint as Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle returned to Athens and opened a school at the Lyceum (Λύκειον) Temple. There, for a fee, he provided the young men of Athens with the same education he had given Alexander. On a side note, this is also a beautiful example of capitalist equality: a royal education was available to all in a mutually beneficial exchange; Aristotle made a living, and the Athenians received brains.
The Lyceum was not a degree granting institution, and only by a man’s knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, language, and debating skills could one tell that he had studied at the Lyceum. A cultural premium on bragging rights soon followed, though, and famous philosophers opening immensely popular schools became de rigueur. By the rise of Roman imperium in the Mediterranean around 250 BC, Hellenic writers included their intellectual pedigrees, i.e. all the famous teachers they had studied with, in their introductions as a credibility passport. The Romans were avid Hellenophiles and adopted everything Greek unilaterally, including the concept of the lyceum-university.
Following the Dark Ages (and not getting into the debate over whether the time was truly dark or not), the modern university emerged in 1088, with the Università di Bologna. It was more of a club than an institution; as Robert S. Rait, mid-20th century medieval historian, remarked in his book Life in the Medieval University, the original meaning of “university” was “association” and it was not used exclusively for education. The main attractions of the university as a concept were it was secular and provided access to books, which were prohibitively expensive at the individual level before the printing press. A bisection of the profiles of Swedish foreign students enrolled at the Leipzig University between 1409 and 1520 shows that the average male student was destined either for the clergy on a prelate track or was of noble extraction. As the article points out, none of the students who later joined the knighthood formally graduated, but the student body is indicative of the associative nature of the university.
The example of Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctoral degree, awarded by the University of Padua in 1678, illuminates the difference between “university” at its original intent and the institutional concept. Cornaro wrote her thesis independently, taking the doctoral exams and defending her work when she and her advisor felt she was ready. No enrollment or attendance at classes was necessary, deemed so unnecessary that she skipped both the bachelor and masters stages. What mattered was that a candidate knew the subject, not the method of acquisition. Even by the mid-19th century, this particular path remained open to remarkable scholars, such as Nietzsche since Leipzig University awarded him his doctorate on the basis of his published articles, rather than a dissertation and defense.
Education’s institutionalization, i.e. the focus shifting more from knowledge to “the experience,” accompanied a broader societal shift. Nietzsche noted in Beyond Good and Evil that humans have an inherent need for boundaries and systemic education played a very prominent role in contemporary man’s processing of that need:
There is an instinct for rank which, more than anything else, is a sign of a high rank; there is a delight in the nuances of reverence that allows us to infer noble origins and habits. The refinement, graciousness, and height of a soul is dangerously tested when something of the first rank passes by without being as yet protected by the shudders of authority against obtrusive efforts and ineptitudes – something that goes its way unmarked, undiscovered, tempting, perhaps capriciously concealed and disguised, like a living touchstone. […] Much is gained once the feeling has finally been cultivated in the masses (among the shallow and in the high-speed intestines of every kind) that they are not to touch everything; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep away their unclean hands – this is almost their greatest advance toward humanity. Conversely, perhaps there is nothing about so-called educated people and believers in “modern ideas” that is as nauseous as their lack of modesty and the comfortable insolence in their eyes and hands with which they touch, lick, and finger everything [….] (“What is Noble,” 263)
The idea the philosopher pursued was the notion that university attendance conveyed the future right to “touch, lick, and finger everything,” a very graphic and curmudgeonly way of saying that a certain demographic assumed unjustified airs.
Given that in Anti-Education, Nietzsche lamented the fragmentation of learning into individual disciplines, causing students to lose a sense of the wholeness, the universality of knowledge, what he hated in the nouveau educated, if we will, was the rise of the pseudo-expert – a person whose knowledge was confined to the bounds of a fixed field but was revered as omniscient. The applicability of Socrates’ dialogue with Meno – the one where teacher and student discuss human tendency to lose sight of the whole in pursuit of individual strands – to the situation was unmistakable, something which Nietzsche, a passionate classicist, noticed. The loss of the Renaissance learning model, the trivium and the quadrivium, both of which emphasize an integrated learning matrix, carried with it a belief that excessive specialization was positive; it was a very perverse version of “jack of all trades, master of none.” As Nietzsche bemoaned, the newly-educated desired masters without realizing that all they obtained were jacks. In this, he foreshadowed the disaster of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s unwholesome belief in “experts.”
The philosopher squarely blamed the model of the realschule, with its clear-cut subjects and predictable exams, for the breakdown between knowledge acquisition and learning. While he excoriated the Prussian government for basing all public education on the realschule, he admitted that the fragmentation of the university into departments and majors occurred at the will of the people. This was a “chicken or the egg” situation: Was the state or broader society responsible for university learning becoming more like high school? This was not a question Nietzsche was interested in answering since he cared more about consequences. However, he did believe that the root was admitting realschule people to university in the first place. Since such a hypothesis is very applicable today, we will examine it in the contemporary American context next.
In the article The State in education – Part I: A History, we examined Friedrich Nietzsche’s opinion of the Prussian public school system and his concern when it became the model framework for public schools, both in Germany and in the world. To summarize quickly, the philosopher held that state-funded schooling was an act of social warfare – students, taught to aspire beyond their capabilities, would become resentful and angry, making them susceptible to propaganda and manipulation. Although Nietzsche did not use the term “welfare state” in the educational context, his predicated his denouncement of public education on the idea that it was a form of welfarism and increased state control.
For historical placement, it is important to understand what resources existed for parents pre-public schools. More importantly, it is also important to understand the difference in curricula and their final goals. Before the late 18thcentury, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the advent of educational “experts,” there were only privately funded schools – many of which were free to those in need – which provided a classical education.
There are two definitions, both equally correct, of “classical education.” The first literally signifies an education based on Latin and Ancient Greek and all the literature in those languages; associated with this definition are skills in music, art, drama, declamation, oratory, and debate, all of which the Romans considered essential to a well-rounded education and which they included as formal subjects in their schools. By the early 19thcentury, this education also carried the expectation that the student could easily acquire most modern European languages since to varying degrees they were all based on the classical languages.
The second definition of “classical education” focuses on the acquisition of a mental toolkit with the goal of enabling the student to think deeply and carefully throughout his life. This system is divided into the trivium and the quadrivium, roughly corresponding to the primary and secondary school levels of the modern system.
The organisation of the quadrivium was formalised by Boethius, and this structure endured for more than a millennium. It was the mainstay of the medieval monastic system of education, which had a structure of seven subjects – the seven liberal arts – comprising the quadrivium and the trivium. The trivium was centered on three arts of language: grammar, for ensuring proper structure of language; logic, for arriving at the truth; and rhetoric, for the beautiful use of language. Thus the aim of the trivium was goodness, truth, and beauty.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), an Oxonian classicist and author, explained in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the trivium is the more crucial of the two since it provides all the skills needed to be an independent thinker and learner. In her essay, she also detailed a scheme whereby the modern institutional schools could implement the trivium in place of contemporary curricula. She recognized, though, the unfortunate tendency of 20thcentury society to prefer for “education” to have a concrete banality, with parents focusing on what their children could “do” with a subject.
The quadrivium, though elucidated by Boethius (480 – 524 AD), was based on the writings of the philosopher Proclus (412 – 484 BC), whom the Renaissance men and women relied upon when they incorporated the quadrivium into formal education. The subjects of the quadrivium are: arithmetic, music, geometry, and cosmology (sometimes listed as astronomy). As Dr. Lynch noted, mathematician Morris Klein described these subjects as “pure,” studying as they do, the abstract and the relationship between the concrete and the metaphysical. In philosophical terms, the trivium is aristotelian and the quadrivium is platonic.
Before turning to the subject of Nietzsche’s Cassandra-like predictions and the loss of classical learning in America, we must briefly look at the history of institutional education since it is the primary component of the American version. As Dr. Lynch remarked, the classical education remained alive in the European Catholic monasteries and convents, which acted as an early form of boarding school.
The schools associated with religious houses were open to all, regardless of rank or income, and did not necessitate a commitment to religious life at the end. That said, it was primarily the nobility who took advantage of the monastic and convent schools, more, in all honesty, because the principle of religious sanctuary meant that the children were secure from predation in times of unrest than from any love of learning. Although there was no prestige associated with this type of education, under these conditions, it became a noble prerogative but not necessarily ennobling in itself. Despite aristocratic mamas and papas seeing education as much less important than sanctuary, the result of this symbiotic relationship was that the upper classes really were better educated than the middle and lower ones, laying the foundation for the educational class war that Nietzsche identified in the 1800s.
Let us fast forward past the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, all of which had profound effects on education, though always within the classical framework, and look at the roots of American public education. The concept of publicly funded education occupied Thomas Jefferson, who initially supported it unilaterally, then opposed it, then compromised (Hegel would be proud) by suggesting that grammar schools might be locally funded and universal but anything beyond that had to be either private or competitive entry, if publicly funded. In general, the Founding Fathers took a laissez-faire view on education, focusing on the aspects of freedom and personal choice. This truly enlightened attitude did not last.
By the 1830s, progressives, including Horace Mann, fell under the spell of the Prussian system. In the 1840s, Mann used his position as Secretary of the (Massachusetts) Board of Education to introduce public schooling. Post-Civil War, in the 1860s, he used his position as a US Congressman to make public schooling compulsory, while homeschooling his own children in a stunning display of “for thee but not for me” hypocrisy. In 1848, as Secretary of the nascent Board of Education, Mann opened his report with these words:
According to the European theory, men are divided into classes, – some to toil, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn. The latter tends to equality of condition; the former, to the grossest of inequalities. Tried by any Christian standard of morals, or even by any of the better sort of heathen standards, can any one hesitate, for a moment in declaring which of the two will produce the greater amount of human welfare, and which, therefore, is more conformable to the divine will? The European theory is blind to what constitutes the highest glory as well as the highest duty of a State …
The truth is that Mann openly declared that the public school’s purpose is to render control to the state. The awful truth is neatly dressed in a virtue signaling garb that makes reference to religion and God (I challenge anyone to find a single passage in the Bible where God says “go build a public school.”). Buried in this paragraph is one of the major fallacies that afflicts contemporary American society: linking formal education to earning power and social worth. This particular problem we will address in a subsequent article, but it is important to know that promoting this fallacy was a crucial part of the mandate of state-run education.
At the same time as Mann was advocating mass education and social equalization on one side of the Atlantic, on the other side, Nietzsche exposed its flaws:
Let me tell you what I think characterizes the vital and pressing educational and pedagogical questions of today. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansionand disseminationof education; the other is the drive for the narrowingand weakening of education. For various reasons, education is supposed to reach the widest possible circle – such is the demand of the first tendency. But then the second tendency expects education to give up its own highest, noblest, loftiest claims and content itself with serving some other form of life, for instance, the state (Anti-Education, Lecture I).
The conflation that most concerned Nietzsche was that mass literacy did not equal mass education since the connection between reading and thinking was lost. For him, nothing epitomized this more than newspapers and journalism – “Journalism fulfills its task according to its nature and as its name suggests: as day labour.” Everyone learning to pretend to the laurels of the literate, through simply being able to decipher words on a page, created a societal need for professional intellectual caulkers:
It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge: education’s expansion and its narrowing. The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism – a substance as sturdy and permanent as the paper it’s printed on – to grout the gaps between every form of life, every social position, every art, every science, every field. The newspaper epitomizes the goal of today’s education, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages.
Systemic education was the death of the Renaissance man. It created a strange world where everyone could read but no one was learned. This intellectual world is the United States today.
After Mann forced compulsory education on the American people, the literacy rate, previously rising, declined, an event which occurred in Europe as well when Great Britain and France followed Germany’s lead. When angry parents, appalled at the poor quality of the new “free” education, withdrew their children to place them in private schools, Mann launched a media war against them, branding them un-American elitists and/or social malingerers and starting a social shouting match that continues to the present. Discovering that parents, naturally, disregarded name-calling when their children’s future was at stake, the progressives brought the state apparatus in the form of taxation to bear.
Today, the United States ranks in the middle percentiles in education internationally. The nation is behind all of east Asia, even very poor countries like Vietnam, and most of Europe, including poor Eastern European countries. According to the report, over 40% of American high school seniors rate “below basic” for science and mathematics, which by extension indicates an inability to read and reason adequately (both subjects are more tests of those two skills than anything else at that level). Yet the nation houses the greatest number of elite universities and institutions of higher education in the world. The American people have known since the early 20thcentury that public school graduates could not enter these institutions and thrive – Sinclair Lewis’ book Babbitt describes beautifully the dichotomy existing between 1920s middle-America and the push for an elite education – yet only now has the public decided that this is a problem, but only on superficial grounds. No one is interested in discussing the foundational flaws that result in American students lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts.
We are aware through personal experience that the skills of the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium are gone. We can cry in vain after the American reading public, which, before the advent of public schools and their version of literacy, created one of the first best seller phenomena with James Fenimore Cooper and later devoured the works of Edgar Allen Poe – during his life writing high literature was lucrative. Just as extinct is the British public that devoured Jane Austen with such an insatiable hunger that she could not keep up. The people whose appetite induced Charles Dickens to exploit it with publishing deals that paid him by the word are gone; for that matter, the ability of the reading public to recognize and delight in Dickens’ colorful language and skillful use of words is moribund – alas the trivium! The rage for reading and, by extension, autodidacticism in Britain reached such a pitch that, in the words of a Mises Institute commentator,“England eventually passed a paper tax [raising the cost of books] to quell a public the leaders felt was too smart.” A public too interested in books is not a contemporary problem.
In his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump described the public school system as having “failed so many of our beautiful young people.” In context, the sentence implied that the public school is supposed to turn out competitive, educated smart people. There is a question to this statement, though: Is it really a failure if a system cannot accomplish that which it was never designed to do? On the contrary, if one takes Mann’s opening report as a plan of action, the American public school has succeeded fantastically. Now everyone is equal in mediocrity and lack of knowledge. One of its missions has not been achieved: forcible creation of a classless society. We will examine the causes of this failure next since it relates to Nietzsche’s predictions of unhappiness for those who believed in state-mandated educational equality.
In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.
Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.
As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.
On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.
Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.
Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!
Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.
It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.
The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.
At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.
- Barry has a book review of Nietzsche’s political thought in the Los Angeles Review of Books!
- (check out Barry’s 2014 NOL post on Nietzsche’s contributions to the liberty canon)
- a good analysis on the Arab cold war between 2 sets of American allies
- a great analysis on the Kurds, the Yazidis, and Turkey
- the Zanzibar-North Sea swap
- walruses, the Arctic, and science
Note: This was written about 18 months ago and posted on my now-defunct blog. I figure it might be worth reposting, mostly for posterity.
Throughout most of my youth, like the majority of middle-class Americans, I was raised as a Christian. As an argumentative and nerdy teenager, much of the intellectual energy throughout my adolescence was dedicated to the fervent apologetics of the Christian faith. In my eyes, I was trying to defend some deep, correspondent truth about the Lord. Today, I realize that was mostly youthful self-deception. I was trying to make beliefs I had made an epistemic and personal commitment to due to my social situation work with the experiences of the modern world I was thrust into. There is nothing wrong with my attempts to find some reason to cling to my contingent religious beliefs, and there is nothing wrong with people who succeed in that endeavor, but it was wrong for me to think I was doing anything more than that—something like defending eternal truths I knew certainly through faith, which I did so dogmatically.
As the title of this post suggests, my quest to make my religious beliefs work was ultimately unsuccessful, or at least have been up until this point (I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’ve reached the end of my spiritual/religious journey). For a variety of personal and intellectual reasons, I have since become a sort of agnostic/atheist in the mold of Nietzsche, or more accurately James (not Dawkins). Most of the point of this post is to spell out for my own therapeutic reasons the philosophical and personal reasons why I have the religious beliefs I have now at the young age of twenty. To the readers, this is ultimately a selfish post in that as the target audience is myself, both present and future. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this autobiographical/religious/philosophical mind vomit. Please, read it as like you would a novel—albeit a poorly written one—and not a philosophical or religious treatise.
Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning of my childhood. But to understand that, I guess it’s better to start with my mother and father’s upbringing. My mother came from an intensely religious Baptist household with a mother who, to be blunt, used religion as a manipulative tool to the point of abuse. If her children disobeyed her, it was obviously the influence of Satan. Of course, any popular culture throughout my mother’s childhood was regarded as the work of Satan. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this caused my mother some religious struggles that I inherited. My father came from a sincere though not devoted Catholic family. For much of my father’s young adulthood and late adolescence, religion took a backseat. When my parents met my father was an agnostic. He converted to Christianity by the time they married, but his religious beliefs were always more intimately personal and connected with his individual, private pursuit of happiness than anything else—a fact that has profoundly influenced the way I think about religion as a whole.
Though neither of my parents were at all interested in shoving religion down my throat, I kind of shoved it down my own throat as a child. I was surrounded by evangelical—for want of better word—propaganda throughout my childhood as we mostly attended non-denominational, moderately evangelical churches throughout my childhood. My mother mostly sheltered me from my grandmother’s abuses of religion, and she reacted to her grandmother’s excesses appropriately by trying to make my religious upbringing centered on examples of God’s love. However, her struggles with religion still had an impact on me as she wavered between her adult commitments to an image of an all-loving deity with the remnants of her mother’s conception of good as the angry, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament. She never really manifestly expressed the latter conception, but it was implicit, just subtlety enough for my young mind to notice, in the way some of the churches we chose in my youth expressed the Gospel.
At the age of seven, we moved from Michigan to the heart of the Bible belt in Lynchburg, VA, home to one of the largest evangelical colleges in the world: Liberty University. Many of the churches we attended in Virginia had Liberty professors as youth leaders, ministers, and the like, so Jerry Falwell’s Southern Baptist conception of God which aligned closely with my grandmother’s was an influence on me through my early teenage years. Naturally, religion was closely linked with political issues of the day. God blessed Bush’s war in Iraq, homosexuality was an abhorrent sin, abortion was murder, and nonsense like that was fed to me. Of course, evolution was an atheist lie and I remember watching creationist woo lectures with my mother while she was taking an online biology course from Liberty (she isn’t a creationist, for the record, and her major was psychology, which Liberty taught well enough).
Though it certainly wasn’t as extreme, some of the scenes in the documentary Jesus Camp are vaguely like experiences I had around this time. I was an odd kid who got interested in these serious “adult” issues at the age of nine while most of my friends were watching cartoons, so I swallowed the stock evangelical stance hook, line, and sinker. But there was something contradictory between my mother’s reservations about an angry God and refusal to push my religious beliefs in any direction thanks to the influence of her mother, my father’s general silence about religious issues unless the conversation got personal or political, and the strong evangelical rhetoric that the culture around me was spewing.
Around seventh grade, we moved from Virginia to another section of the Bible-Belt, Tennessee. For my early high school years, my interest in evangelical apologetics mostly continued. However, religion mostly took a backseat to my political views. With the beginning of the recession, I became far more interested in economics: I wanted an explanation for why there were tents with homeless people living in them on that hill next to Lowe’s. My intellectual journey on economics is a topic for another day, but generally, the political component of my religious views was slowly becoming less and less salient. I became more apathetic about social issues and more focused on economic issues.
It was around this time I also became skeptical of the theologically-justified nationalistic war-mongering fed to me by the Liberty crowd in Virginia. We lived near Ft. Campbell and I had the displeasure of watching family after family of my friends ruined because their dad went to Afghanistan and didn’t come back the same, or didn’t come back at all. The whole idea of war just seemed cruel and almost unjustifiable to me, even though I still would spout the conservative line on it externally I was internally torn. I would say I was beginning to subconsciously reject Christianity’s own ontology of violence (apologies to Millbank).
It was also around this time, ninth grade, that I began more systemically reading the Old Testament. War is a common theme throughout the whole thing, and all I could think of as I read about the conquer of Israel, the slaying of Amalekites, the book of Job, and the like were my personal experiences with my friends who were deeply affected by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, there was skepticism and doubt about how God could justly wage war and commit cruel mass-killings in Biblical times.
Around tenth grade, I became immaturely interested in philosophy. I’m ashamed to admit it today, but Ayn Rand was my gateway drug to what would become an obsession of mine up until now. I loved elements of Rand’s ethics, her individualism, her intense humanism (which I still appreciate on some level), and of course her economics (which I also still appreciate, though they are oversimplified). But her polemics against religion and her simplistic epistemological opposition between faith and reason put me in an odd position. What was I, a committed evangelical Christian, to do with my affinities with Rand? Naturally, I should’ve turned to Aquinas, whose arguments for the existence of God and his unification of faith and reason I now can appreciate. However, at the time, I instead had the misfortune of turning to Descartes, whose rationalism seemed to me seemed to jive with what I saw in Rand’s epistemology (today, I definitely would not say that about Rand and Descartes at all as Rand is far more Aristotelian, ah the sophomoric follies of youth). Almost all of my subsequent intellectual journey with religion and philosophy could be considered a fairly radical reaction to the dogmas that I had bought at this time.
I had fully bought perhaps the worst of Rand and Descartes. Descartes’ philosophical method and “proofs” of God, with all the messy metaphysical presumptions of mind-body dualism (though I might’ve implicitly made a greater separation between “mind” and “spirit” than Descartes would’ve), the correspondence theory of truth, quest for certainty, and spectator theory of knowledge, the ego theory of the self, and libertarian free will. From Rand I got the worst modernist presumptions she took from Descartes, what Bernstein calls the “Cartesian Anxiety” in her dogmatic demand for objectivism, as well as her idiosyncratic views on altruism (though I never really accepted ethical egoism, or believed she was really an ethical egoist). The flat, horribly written protagonists of Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead I took to be somehow emblematic of the Christian conception of God (don’t ask me what in the hell I was thinking). Somehow, I couldn’t explain it then coherently and cringe at it now, I had found a philosophical foundation of sorts for a capital-C Certain belief in protestant Christianity in God and a watered down Randian ethics. Around this time, I also took an AP European History class, and my studies (and complete misreadings of) traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism reinforced my metaphysical libertarianism and Cartesian epistemological tendencies.
Around this time, my parents became dissatisfied with the aesthetic and teachings of evangelical non-denominational churches, and we started attending a run-of-the-mill, mainline PCUSA church my mom had discovered through charity programs she encountered as a social worker. I certainly didn’t buy Presbyterianism’s lingering affinities for Calvinism inherited from Knox (such as their attempt to retain the language of predestination while affirming Free Will), but the far more politically moderate to apolitical sermons, as well as focus on the God of the New Testament as opposed to my Grandmother’s God, was a refreshing change of pace from the evangelical dogmatism I had become accustomed to in Virginia. It fit my emerging Rand-influenced transition to political libertarianism well enough, and the old-church aesthetic and teaching methods fit well with the more philosophical outlook I had taken on religion.
In eleventh grade, we moved back to Michigan in the absolute middle of nowhere. Virtually every single protestant church within a twenty-mile radius was either some sort of dogmatically evangelical nondenominational super-church where the populist, charismatic sermons were brought to you buy Jesus, Inc.; or an equally evangelical tiny rural church with a median age of 75 where the sermons were the somewhat incoherent and rabidly evangelical ramblings of an elderly white man. Our young, upper-middle-class family didn’t fit into the former theologically or demographically and certainly didn’t fit into the later theologically or aesthetically. After about a year of church-shopping, our family stopped going to church altogether.
Abstaining from church did not dull my religion at all. Sure, the ethical doubts I was having at the time and the epistemological doubts caused by my philosophical readings were working in the background, but in a sense, this was my most deeply religious time. I had taken up fishing almost constantly all summer since we lived on a river, and much of my thoughts while sitting with the line in the water revolved around religion or politics. When my thoughts turned religious, there was always a sense of romantic/transcendentalist (I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman in school at the time) sublimity in nature that I could attribute to God. Fishing, romping around in the woods, hunting, and experiencing nature became the new church for me and was a source of private enjoyment and self-creation (you can already see where my affinities for Rorty come from) in my late teens. Still, most of my intellectual energy was spent on political and economic interests and by now I was a fully committed libertarian.
Subconsciously earlier in my teens, but very consciously by the time I moved to Michigan, I had begun to realize I was at the very least on the homosexual spectrum, quietly identifying as bisexual at the time. The homophobic religious rhetoric of other Christians got on my nerves, but in rural northern Michigan I was mostly insulated from it and it never affected me too deeply. Since I assumed I was bi, it wasn’t that huge a deal in terms of my identity even if homosexuality was a sin, which I doubted it was though I couldn’t explain why, so I never really thought too deeply about it. However, it did contribute to my ethical doubts about Christianity further; if God says homosexuality is a sin, and Christians are somehow justified in oppressing homosexuality, how does that bode for God’s cruelty? It became, very quietly, an anxiety akin to the anxieties I was having about war when I moved to Tennessee.
Though abstaining from church didn’t cheapen my experience of religion, my exposure to my grandmother’s angry God did. Up until that point, I had mostly been ignorant of her religious views because we lived so far away; but moving back to Michigan, as well as some health issues she had, thrust her religious fervor back into my—and my mother’s—consciousness. The way she talked about it and acted towards non-Christians reeked of the worst of I Samuel, Johnathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Jerry Falwell rolled into one. My skepticism towards the potential cruelty of the Christian God caused by my experiences with war and homophobia were really intensified by observing my maternal grandmother.
The year was 2013, I had just graduated from High School, I had just turned eighteen, and I had chosen my college. I had applied to some local state school as a backup which I only considered because it was a full-ride scholarship, my father’s alma-mater, the University of Michigan, and Hillsdale College. After the finances were taken care of, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the upper-middle class, the real choices were between Michigan and Hillsdale. For better or for worse, I chose the latter.
My reasons for choosing Hillsdale were mostly based on misinformation about the college’s mission. Sure, I knew it was overwhelmingly conservative and religious. But I thought there was far more of a libertarian bent to campus culture. The religious element was sold to me as completely consensual, not enforced by the college at all other than a couple vague comments about “Judeo-Christian values” in the mission statement. I wanted a small college full of intellectually impassioned students who were dedicated to, as the college mission statement said, “Pursuing Truth, Defending Liberty.” The “defending liberty” part made me think the college was more libertarian, and the “pursuing truth” part made me assume it was very open-minded as a liberal arts education was supposed to be. I figured there’d probably be some issues about my budding homosexuality/bisexuality, but since it wasn’t a huge deal at the time for me personally, and some students I’d talked to said it wasn’t a big deal there, I thought I could handle it. Further, I suspected my major was going to be economics, and Hillsdale’s economics department—housing Ludwig von Mises’ library—is a dream come true (my opinion on this hasn’t changed).
If I ever had problems misunderstanding the concept of asymmetric information, the lies I was told as an incoming student to Hillsdale cleared them up. The Hillsdale I got was far more conservative than I could ever imagine and in a ridiculously dogmatic fashion. It was quickly revealed to be not the shining example of classical liberal arts education I had hoped for, but instead little more than a propaganda mill for a particularly nasty brand of Straussian conservatism. The majority of the students were religious in the same sense of my grandmother. Though they would intellectually profess to a different concept of God than my grandmother’s simplistic, lay-man Baptist understanding of God as an angry, jealous judge, the fruits of their faith showed little difference. My homosexual identity—by this point I’d abandoned the term “bisexual”—quickly became a focal point of my religious anxiety. Starting a few weeks in my freshman year, I began to fall into a deep depression, largely thanks to my treatment by these so-called “Christians”—that would cripple me for the next two years and that I am still dealing with the after-shocks of as I write this.
Despite the personal issues I had with my peers at Hillsdale, the two years I spent there were hands-down the two most intellectually exciting years of my life until that point. My first semester, I took an Introduction to Philosophy class. My professor, James Stephens, turned out to be a former Princeton student and had Richard Rorty and Walter Kauffman as mentors. His introductory class revolved first around ancient Greek philosophy, in particular, Plato’s Phaedo, then classical epistemology, particularly Descartes, Kant, and Hume, and a lot of experimental philosophy readings from the likes of Stephen Stitch and Joshua Knobe. The class primarily focused on issues in contemporary metaphysics which I had struggled with since I discovered Rand—like libertarian free will and theories of the self—epistemological issues, and metaphilosophical issues of method. Though only an intro class outside of my major, no class has changed my worldview quite as much as this.
In addition to the in-class readings, I read philosophy prolifically and obsessively outside of class as a matter of personal interest. That semester I had finished Stitch’s book The Fragmentation of Reason (which I wouldn’t have understood without extensive talks with Dr. Stephens in office hours), worked through most of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, basically re-learned Cartesianism, and read Hume’s Treatise. By the end of the class, I had completely changed almost every element of my philosophical world view. I went from a hardcore objectivist Cartesian to a fallibilist pragmatist (I had also read James due to Stitch’s work with him), from a fire-breathing metaphysical libertarian to a squishy compatibilist, from someone who had bought a simple referential view of language to a card-carrying Wittgensteinianist (of the Investigations, that is).
Other classes I took that first semester also would have a large impact on me. In my “Western Heritage” class—Hillsdale’s pretentious and propagandized term for what would usually be called something like “History of Western Thought: Ancient Times to 1600”—I essentially relearned all the theology I had poorly understood in my high school AP Euro class by reading church fathers and Catholic saints like Augustine, Tertullian, and, of course, Aquinas as well as rereading the likes of Luther and Calvin. Additionally, and this would have the most profound intellectual influence on me of anything I have ever read, I read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty in my first political economy class cemented my epistemological fallibilism (although, I also read Fatal Conceit for pleasure which influenced me even more).
Early on that year, after reading Plato and Augustine, I began to become committed to some sort of Platonism, and for a second considered some sort of Eastern Orthodoxy. By this point, I was a political anarchist and saw the hierarchical and top-down control of Catholicism as too analogous to coercive statist bureaucracy. By contrast, the more communal structure of Orthodoxy, though still Hierarchical, seemed more appealing. To paraphrase Richard Rorty on his own intellectual adolescence, I had desperately wanted to become one with God, a desperation I would later react to violently. I saw Plato’s ideas of the Forms and Augustine’s incorporation of them into Christianity as a means to do that. But as I kept reading, particularly James, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, the epistemological foundations of my Platonist metaphysical and theological stances crumbled. I became absolutely obsessed with the either-or propositions of the “Cartesian anxiety” and made a hobby of talking to my classmates in a Socratic fashion to show that they couldn’t be epistemically Certain in the Cartesian sense, much to the chagrin of most of my classmates. You could’ve played a drinking game of sorts during those conversations in which you took a shot every time I said some variation “How do you know that?” and probably give your child fetal alcohol syndrome, even if you weren’t pregnant or were a male.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I had turned more explicitly to theological readings and topics in my interests. (Keep in mind, I was mostly focusing on economics and math in class, almost all of this was just stuff I did on the side. I didn’t get out much in those days largely due to the social anxiety caused by the homophobia of my classmates.) My fallibilist/pragmatist epistemic orientation, as well as long with conversations with a fellow heterodox Hillsdale student from an Evangelical background, wound up with me getting very interested in “radical theology.” That semester, John Caputo had come to Hillsdale to discuss his book The Insistence of God. I attempted to read it at the time but was not well-versed enough in continental philosophy to really get what was going on in it. Nonetheless, my Jamesean orientation had me deeply fascinated in much of what Caputo was getting across.
My theological interests were twofold: first, more of an epistemic question, how can we know God exists? My conclusion was that we can’t, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant—what matters is the impact the belief of God has on our lives existentially and practically. This was the most I could glean out of Caputo’s premise “God doesn’t exist, he insists” without understanding Derrida, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Foucault. I began calling myself terms like “agnostic Christian,” “ignostic Christian,” or “pragmatist Christian” to try and describe my religious views. This also led me to a thorough rejection of Biblical literalism and infallibility, I claimed it was more a historical document on man’s interaction with God from man’s flawed perspective.
But, now in the forefront, were questions of Christianity’s ethical orientation that had lingered at the back of my mind since the early teens: why did the Christian God seem so cruel to me? I had resolved most of it with my rejection of Biblical infallibility. Chances are, God didn’t order the slaughter of Amalekites, or Satan’s torture of Job, or any of the other cruel acts in the Old Testament—the fallen humans who wrote the Bible misunderstood it. Chances are, most of the Old Testament laws on things like homosexuality were meant specifically for that historically contingent community and were not eternal moral laws and God of the New Testament, as revealed by Jesus, was the most accurate depiction of God in the Bible. Paul’s prima facie screeds against homosexuality in the New Testament, when taken in context and hermeneutically analyzed, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it today (I found this sermon convincing on that note). God sent Jesus not as a substitute for punishment but to act as an exemplar for how to love and not be cruel to others. I could still defend the rationality of my religious faith on Jamesean grounds, I was quoting Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism more than the Bible at that point. I also flirted with some more metaphysically robust theologies. Death of God theology seemed appealing based off of the little I knew about Nietzsche, and process theology to me bore a beautiful resemblance to Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order. Even saying it now, much of that sounds convincing and if I were to go back to Christianity, most of those beliefs would probably remain in-tact.
But still, there was this nagging doubt that the homophobic, anti-empathetic behavior of the Hillsdale “Christians” somehow revealed something rotten about Christianity as a whole. The fact that the church had committed so many atrocities in the past from Constantine using it to justify war, to the Crusades, to the Spanish conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials, to the persecution of homosexuals and non-believers throughout all of history still rubbed me the wrong way. Jesus’ line about judging faith by its fruits became an incredibly important scripture for me with my interest in William James. That scripture made me extremely skeptical of the argument that the actions of fallen humans do not reflect poorly on the TruthTM about the Christian God. What was the cash value of Christian belief if it seemed so obviously to lead to so much human cruelty throughout history and towards me personally?
That summer and the next semester, two books, both written by my philosophy professor’s mentors coincidentally enough as I had independently come across them, once again revolutionized the way I looked at religion. The first was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the second was William Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Psychologist, Philosopher, Antichrist which I had read in tandem with most of Nietzsche’s best-known work (ie., Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Genealogy of Morals, and, most relevant to this discussion, The Antichrist).
Rorty had destroyed any last vestiges of Cartesianism or Platonism I had clung to. His meta-philosophical critique of big-P Philosophy that tries to stand as the ultimate judge of knowledge claims of the various professions around me completely floored me. His incorporation of Kuhnian philosophy of science and Gadamer’s hermeneutics was highly relevant to my research interests in the methodology of economics. Most importantly for religion was his insistence, though more explicit in his later works I had noticed it fairly heavily in PMN, that we are only answerable to other humans. There is no world of the forms to which we can appeal to, there is no God to whom we are answerable to, there is no metaphysical concepts we can rely on to call a statement true or false. The measurement of truth is the extent to which it helps us cope with the world around us, the extent to which it helps us interact with our fellow human beings.
Nietzsche’s concept of the Death of God haunted me, and now that I was beginning to read more continental philosophy some of the concepts in Caputo that flew over my head began to make sense. The Enlightenment Project to ground knowledge had made God, at least for much of the intellectual class who were paying attention to the great philosophical debates, a forced option. No longer could we rely on the Big Other to ground all our values, we had to reevaluate all our values and build a meaningful life for ourselves. Additionally Nietzsche’s two great criticisms of Christianity in the Antichrist stuck in my mind. Nietzsche’s critique that it led to the inculcation of slave morality, a sort of resentiment for the “lower people” didn’t quite stick because it seemed cruel. But his view that Christianity’s command to “store our treasures in heaven” took all the focus off of this world, it ignored all those pragmatic and practical results of our philosophical beliefs that had become so important to me thanks to Matthew 7:16 and William James, and instead focused on our own selfish spiritual destiny did stick.The first critique didn’t quite ring with me because Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian, and to be honest quite cruel, attitude seemed as bad as what I saw the Christians doing to me. But his criticism of Christianity’s afterworldly focus on the afterlife rather than the fruits of their faith in this life posed a serious threat to my beliefs, and helped explain why the empathetic, homophobic hatred I was experiencing from my classmates was causing so much religious anxiety and cognitive dissonance.
(Note: Clearly, I’m violently oversimplifying and possibly misreading both Nietzsche and Rorty in the previous two paragraphs, but that’s beside the point as I’m more interested in what they made me think of in my intellectual development, not what they actually thought themselves.)
Still, through most of my sophomore year, I tried to resist atheism as best I could and cling to what I saw as salvageable in Christianity: the idea of universal Christian brotherhood and its potential to lead people to be kind to each other was still promising. Essentially, I still wanted to salvage Jesus as a didactic exemplar of moral values of empathy and kindness, if not in some metaphysical ideal of God, at least in the narrative of Jesus’s life and his teaching. Ben Franklin’s proto-pragmatic, yet still virtue ethical, view on religion in his Autobiography lingered in my mind very strongly during this phase. I still used the term “agnostic Christian” through most of that time and self-identified as a Christian, but retrospectively the term “Jesusist” probably better described the way I was thinking at that time.
I came to loathe (and still do) what Paul had done to Christianity: turning Jesus’ lessons into absolutist moral laws rather than parables on how to act kinder to others. See, for example, Paul’s treatment of sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians. Paul represented the worst slave-morality tendencies Nietzsche ridiculed to the extreme, and the way he acted as if there was only one way—which happened to be his what I saw as very cruel way—to experience Jesus’ truth in religious community in all his letters vexed me. Additionally, I loathed Constantine for turning Christianity into a tool to justify governmental power and coercion, which it remained throughout the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, Enlightenment-era absolutism, and into modern social conservative theocratic tendencies in America.
But the idea of an all-loving creator, if not a metaphysical guarantee of meaning and morality, sending his son/himself as an exemplar for what humanity can and should be still was extremely—and in many ways still is—attractive to me. I flirted with the Episcopalian and Unitarian Universalist churches, but something about their very limited concept of community rubbed me the wrong way (I probably couldn’t justify it or put my finger on it).
Clearly, my religious and philosophical orientation (not to mention my anarchist political convictions) put me at odds with Hillsdale orthodoxy. I started writing papers that were pretty critical of my professor’s lectures at times (though I still managed to mostly get A’s on them). These essays were particularly critical in my Constitution (essentially a Jaffaite propaganda class) and American Heritage (essentially a history of American political thought class, which was taught very well by a brilliant orthodox Catholic Hillsdale grad) classes. I was writing editorials in the student paper subtlety ridiculing Hillsdale’s homophobia and xenophobia, and engaging in far too many Facebook debates on philosophy, politics, and religion that far too often got far too personal.
In addition, in the beginning of my sophomore year, I came out as gay publicly. With the Supreme Court decision coming up the following summer, never had Hillsdale’s religiously-inspired homophobia reached such a fever-pitch. I could hardly go a day without hearing some homophobic slur or comment and the newspaper was running papers—often written by professors—claiming flat out false things about gay people (like comparing it to incest, saying that no society has ever had gay marriage and the like). The fruit/cash value of Jesus’ teachings was quite apparently not turning out to be the empathetic ethos I had hoped for, the rotten elements of the Old Testament God which my grandmother emphasized, the Pauline perversions, and Constantine’s statism were instead dominating the Christian ethos.
At the end of that academic year (culminating with this) I suffered a severe mental breakdown largely due to Hillsdale’s extreme homophobia. By the beginning of the next school year, I was completely dysfunctional academically, intellectually, and socially; I was apathetic about all the intellectual topics I had spent my entire thinking life occupied with, completely jaded about the future, and overall extraordinarily depressed. I’ll spare the dirty details, but by the end of the first month of my Junior year, it became clear I could no longer go on at Hillsdale. I withdrew from Hillsdale, and transferred to the University of Michigan.
That pretty much takes me up to present day. But coming out of that depression, I began to seriously pick back up the question of why Christianity—even the good I saw in Jesusism—no longer seemed true in the pragmatic sense. Why was this religion I had spent my whole life so committed to all of a sudden utterly lacking in cash value?
I found my answer in Rorty and Nietzsche one cold January day while I took a weekend trip to Ann Arbor with my boyfriend. I sat down at a wonderful artisan coffee shop set in a quaint little arcade tucked away in downtown Ann Arbor, and was re-reading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty’s continued insistence that “cruelty is the worst thing you can do,” even if he couldn’t metaphysically or epistemically justify it, seemed to be a view I had from the very beginning when my doubts about the Christian faith started thanks to my experiences with the victims of war.
Now, I can say that the reason I’m not a Christian—and the reason I think it would be a good idea if Christianity as religion faded out as a public metanarrative (though not as a private source for joy and self-creation that my dad exemplified)—is because Christianity rejects the idea that cruelty is the worst thing you can do. According to Christian orthodoxy (or, at least, the protestant sola fide sort I grew up with), you can be as outrageously, sadistically, egomaniacally cruel to another person as you want, and God will be perfectly fine with it if you believe in him. If Stalin would “accept God into his heart”—whatever that means—his place in paradise for eternity is assured, even if he had the blood of fifty million strong on his hands.
I have no problem with that per se, I agree with Nietzsche that retributive justice is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for revenge. Further, I agree with Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender in saying “Revenge is like a two-headed rat viper: while you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.” As an economist, the whole idea of revenge kind of seems to embrace the sunk cost fallacy. I still regard radical forgiveness and grace as among the best lessons Christianity has to offer, even forgiveness for someone like Stalin.
What seems absurd is that while Stalin could conceivably get a pass, even the kindest, most genuinely empathetic, and outstanding human being will be eternally damned and punished by God simply for not believing. For the Christian, the worst thing you can do is not be cruel, the worst thing you can do is reject their final vocabulary. When coupled with Nietzsche’s insights that Christianity is so focused on the afterlife that it ignores the pragmatic consequences of actions in this life, it is no wonder that Christianity has bred so much cruelty throughout history. Further, the idea that we are ultimately answerable to a metaphysical Big Other rather than to our fellow human beings (as Rorty would have it) seems to cheapen the importance of our other human beings. The most important thing to Christians is God, not your fellow man.
Of course, the Christian apologist will remark that “TrueTM” Christianity properly understood does not necessarily entail that conclusion. No true Scotsman aside, the point is well taken. Sure, the concept of Christian brotherhood teaches that since your fellow man is created in God’s image harming him is the same as harming God. Sure, Jesus does teach the most important commandment is essentially in line with my anti-cruelty. Sure, different sects of Christianity have a different view of divinity that are more nuanced than the one I gave.
But, again, if we judge this faith by its fruits, if we empirically look at the cash value of this belief, if we look at the revealed preference of many if not most Christians, it aligns more with my characterization than I would like. Between the emphasis on the afterlife, the fundamentally anti-humanist (in a deep sense) ethical orientation, and the belief that cruelty is not the worst thing you can do, I see little cash value to Christianity and a whole bunch of danger that it is highly apt—and clearly has been empirically—to be misused for sadistic purposes.
This is not to say Christianity is completely (pragmatically) false. I also agree with Rorty when he says the best way to reduce cruelty and advance human rights is through “sentimental education.” The tale of Jesus, if understood the way we understand a wonderful work of literature—like Rorty himself characterizes writers like Orwell—should live on. It may sound corny and blasphemous, but if “Christian” were simply the name of the Jesus “fandom,” I’d definitely be a Christian. I also certainly don’t think Christianity is something nobody should believe. The cash value of a belief is based on the myriad of particular contingencies of an individual or social group, and those contingencies are not uniform to my experience. However, from my contingent position, I cannot in good faith have faith.
Perhaps it is a sad loss, perhaps it is a glorious intellectual and personal liberation, and perhaps it is something else. Only time will tell. Anyways, 6,325 words later I hope I have adequately explained to myself why I am not a Christian.
Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.
One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.
Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.
In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.
In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”
Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.
It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”
This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.
Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.
Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.
Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.
In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.
3 die after attending HARD Summer rave near Fontana (http://lat.ms/2aKrN6q)
I just attended this concert, and lived. There was around 150,000 people. HARD Summer is an annual festival for electronic dance music, ordinarily thrown in the Los Angeles fairgrounds but moved to Fontana this year. Three twenty-year olds died during the two day event, presumably from drug overdoses; another two died last year, and eight have died from drug-related causes within LA county since 2006.
The intuition is simple: drugs are so popular at concerts is because it is one of the very few public places to actually engage in use without fearing legal consequences; few people get arrested while hidden in a crowd. Recreational effects are secondary, because recreational considerations account for all gatherings. It’s also a great way to make new friends, and factors as part of the culture, etc. The criminalization of drugs means that they are taken covertly instead of publicly, and thus much more dangerously and ignorantly. So, concert-goers, to satisfy their adventurousness and recreational fixation, must purchase their drugs in the streets and sneak them through security, instead of buying them safely inside from some reputable dealer. And there are cops on the premises, and not medical practioners and drug safety experts. (Cops that are especially incompetent with public health, as this article suggests.)
And so young adults die at these events, and their parents blame the management, the county, the city – for “failing to protect” the rave’s attendees from pushers distributing drugs. A lawsuit was filed last month, citing negligence and wrongful death, in the case of woman who consumed “what she believed to be pure ecstasy,” after she died of multiple drug intoxication. The promoter’s owner, Live Nation, the city, the County Fair Association, down to the security, Staff Pro, face the suit. There could possibly be a measure of protective failure. The management doesn’t make promises or guarantee welfare to the individual attendees, but the police, also known as public safety officers, were not able to effectively use CPR, according to a witness in the parking lot. In California, law enforcement is required, under Police Officers Standards and Training, to be accredited to perform CPR. Yet, even if legal responsibility was on the officer, moral responsibility rests on no one.
The risk-taking behavior was entirely in the hands of the attendees. Health as a consequent of personal risk-taking is inherently a personal responsibility. When consuming drugs – which are infinitely more dangerous because of criminalization – the consumer also incurs a perceived risk (based on subjective probability), proportionate to several external factors. One of these factors is the hospitality and security of the local environment. If it could be shown that assurance of protection had been made on behalf of nearby staff or officers, resulting in a reasonable estimation of security, a moral duty would be invested. No such guarantee existed though. On a side note, the staffers even provided free water, which is actually rare at these events, and vital for safe drug use. (But not as an antecedent necessarily resulting in safety, nor even enough to lower the perceived risk substantially such that otherwise drugs would not be consumed.)
The parents of the deceased twenty-year olds are planning to sue whoever could legally be held accountable, but I think it’s easy to see the difficulty in assigning meaningful blame. I know, also, that many people, more reasonable than the parents but not wholly impartial, want to blame the consumers themselves. I don’t think it is an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths, simply for trying to squeeze more pleasure out of a state-suppressed existence. There exists responsibility, but the blame is incalculable and worthless to investigate. Who can rightfully be held accountable? The event organizers, for trying to suppress drugs but inevitably failing at whole prohibition? The pushers, in their harsh realism, living dangerously to supply wealthy and risky (but competent) young adults with their demands? The drug “kingpins”, for functioning productively in an open market with high demand, with full consent of all involved parties? The basement scientists, for discovering new chemical arrangements – agents that can be used medicinally as well as recreationally; agents that are inherently neutral to their alteration, route or variety of consumption? The Earth, and Nature itself, for creating the ingredients? I believe the chain of thought concludes with a puritanical condemnation of human nature. Human nature as something to be escaped, battled with religion or values; at the very least it must be vehemently detested by society. This is the conclusion of those who would want to sue others for their children’s use of drugs.
There are those too, that want to simply change the United State’s drug culture: our alcoholism, our designer drug scene. This not through laws necessarily. It’s worth pointing out, however, that whenever someone expresses the desire to change a cultural aspect, he or she can only be saying, in veiled language, that their ideology should replace the current ideology. There is no society, there are only individuals in that society; talking about battling “society” can only mean pushing on a new ideology to others. Society’s temperament and exclusive nature can be chalked up solely to psychological states in the brains of its members. When recognized as a useful fiction to describe coordinated groups of people, instead of an emergent quality, cultural attitudes can be critized. Otherwise, writing polemics about society, and not individuals in the social sphere, makes clear an authoritarian intent: group all these people together and inflict my rules; empower me with merciless authority; subjugate dissenters to anonymity.
(For a brief aside, this is one of the idealistic problems of progressive movements: their unceasing condemnation of an unreal entity. The great majority of people blame their problems on society. There’s a classic idiom, occasionally attributed to Neitzsche, that “God is in the details”; used to stress the significance of detail, it can also be used rather literally to describe man’s desperate search for God. In early history, the Western world thought its God lived in the clouds above, e.g., the tower of Babel. After the invention of the telescope, the world moved its God back to outer space. Now, with our advanced technology, we can see billions of light-years into space – with ourselves at the radius of the observable universe, of 45 billion light-years – and still cannot find God. So, the theological theories have changed (now God is “all around us,” or “in another dimension,” and he breaks the laws of physics and logic). The way that people brood on their social problems is similar. Without the ability to accurately pinpoint an antagonist, the invincible figure of Society is summoned to scapegoat problems that may not have any material instances. Thus, “institutional” is really a synonym for “individual.”)
It is detestable to enforce, legally or idealisticaly, a new ideology upon others. But the true moral repugnancy of this entire situation, rather than resting on event administrators, rests on those that would sue others – and thus attempt to prevent another 149,997 people from having a good time next year – for a grand payout because they cannot cope with their children’s choices, after they themselves raised them.
Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically, though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.
This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):
It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work, and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.
Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.
Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.
In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.
For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here. I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.
Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.” 
What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.
 Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”
 In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.
 Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.
 For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.
The air in Kathmandu is so foul and fetid that within one day I began to cough up mucus, and then to congest, and finally to feel ill to my stomach. But, that may have been the water. Regardless, I am holed up in an Israeli cafe in Thamel, the backpacker ghetto, and I have done quite a lot of reading this afternoon. Here are a few bits of recommend reading:
1. From the blog Absolute Irony, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick
A discussion on an interesting phenomenon in some philosophy: the destruction of one’s own philosophy through one’s own philosophy, in order to produce a renewed perspective on the familiar that one has been philosophizing about. Something of a discourse on method, if you will. A good read if you have the time.
2. From the McGill Daily, “Everything is problematic”: My Journey into the Center of a Dark Political World, and How I Escaped
A reformed radical leftist’s dissection of radical leftism. Read through the boring personal parts to get a good bead on the sort of fundamentalist ideology fashionable on the radical left.
3. From The Imaginative Conservative, Distributism in the Shire: The Political Kinship between Tolkien and Belloc
I was ignorant until this afternoon about what distributism is, though I think it has something to do with equitable distribution of property using legal means, rather than through violence. The insight into Tolkien’s views was rather more interesting to me, but take from it what you will.
4. A wiki devoted to “Anglish,” or what the English language could have been, had Britain not been introduced to words of French, Latin, and Greek origin. I find the development of language fascinating, as well as the backlash to that development, such as this most extreme form of English linguistic pluralism.
A first in this series, a discussion of literary texts rather than a text covering political ideas through philosophical, historical, legal, or social science writing. One good reason for the new departure is simply that the sagas of Iceland have become a focus of debate about the possibility of a society with effective laws and courts, but no state.
It has become a celebrated case in some pro-liberty circles largely because of an article by the anarchy-capitalist/individualist anarchist libertarian thinker David Friedman (son of Milton) in ‘Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case’, though it has also been widely studied and sometimes at full book length by scholars not known for pro-liberty leanings. I somewhat doubt that Iceland of that era could be said to have purely private law, but I will let the reader judge from the descriptions that follow.
Other important things also come up in discussing the sagas. There is the issue of how much political ideas, political theory, or political philosophy just reside in written texts devoted to theories, institutions, and history, and how much they may reside in everyday culture, collective memory, and the literature of oral tradition. This becomes a particularly important issue when considering cultures lacking in written texts, but nevertheless has ethics, law, and juridical practice of some kind. The modern discipline of anthropology has provided ways of thinking about this, but rooted in older commentaries on non-literate societies, as in the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and indeed the texts by Tacitus, considered here last week, on ancient Britons and Germans.
The Icelandic sagas present the ‘barbarians’ in their own words, though with the qualification that the sagas were largely from Pagan-era Iceland and then were written down in Christian-era Iceland. You would expect some alterations of a kind in the sagas as they are transferred from memory and speech to writing, and the religious transformation may have led to some element of condemnation of the old Pagan world colouring the transcription.
Nevertheless we have tales of Pagan warrior heroes in a society with very little in the way of a state, written down only a few centuries later (maybe three centuries), which is a lot closer in time than the absolute minimum of seven centuries between whatever events inspired the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the writing down of the oral tradition in the eighth century BCE.
The comparison with Homer is worth making, because the Sagas present warrior-heroes whose extreme commitment to the use of individual violence to maintain and increase status echoes that of the heroes in Homer. The all-round enthusiasm for inflicting death and injury as a way of life, and a basis of status, may of course lead us to regard these as more action heroes than moral heroes. In the Homeric context, and discussions of other pre-urban societies dominated by a warrior aristocracy, the word ‘hero’ often has a descriptive political and social aspect, which is more relevant than any sense of moral approbation in the term hero.
The classic discussions of warrior ‘hero’ societies since Homer and Tacitus are Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1744) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and these should be seen in the context of Enlightenment writing on ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ stages of history. Nietzsche’s contribution comes from the time in which anthropology is beginning to emerge as a distinct academic discipline, tending at that time anyway to concentrate on ‘primitive’ peoples.
The Sagas give a literary impression of a society in which the state has not developed as an institution, which could be regarded as evidence of ‘primitiveness’. However, the Icelanders had originally left the monarchical state of Norway, which features heavily in the Sagas, and they were in touch with the monarchical state of England, in a sense which could include Viking raids, as well as warrior service to Anglo-Saxon kings. So it would not be correct to say that the Icelanders were at some early, simple stage where they did not know anything different, as they had chosen to reject monarchical institutions, or at least had never found it worth the trouble to go about creating a monarchy with a palace, an army, great lords, taxes, and law courts appointed from above.
What the Icelander had was a dispersed set of rural communities, in which there were no towns. The centre of the ‘nation’ was not a capital city, but an assembly known as ‘althing’, which combined representative, law making, and judicial functions, with the judicial function predominating. There was not much in the way of political decision-making since there was no state, and the laws were those that existed by custom, not through deliberate law-making.
The judicial function was exercised through judgements, which were essentially mediations on disputes that could also be brought before lower level assemblies-courts. The right to participate in the assembly with a vote was restricted to a class of local notables, though not a hereditary aristocratic class.
Judging by the Sagas, the judgments of the Althing may have been influenced by the numbers present on either side, particularly if they were armed. Only one person was employed by the Althing, a ‘law speaker’, whose compensation was taken from a marriage fee. At least in the earlier years of the Icelandic community, from 870 to 1000, there seems to have been nothing else in the way of a state. Conversion to Christianity in about 1000 led to tithes (church taxes) and a good deal more institutional interest in what religion Icelanders might be practising. In the thirteenth century the tendency towards more, if still very little, state was completed by incorporation into the domains of the King of Norway.
The Sagas do not give a complete institutional description, but are a large part of the evidence for what is known about pre-Christian Iceland. The stories of warrior-heroes and families often takes us into the judicial life of the community, as violent disputes arise. There is no police force of any kind, so disputes initially dealt with by force, including killing.
Sagas which concentrate on warrior heroes suggest that considerable property and local influence could be built up through individual combats in which the winner kept the property of the loser, that is the person who died in the combat. The more family based sagas suggest that at least some of the time, combat might lead to the loser ceding some land rather than having to fight to the death.
Presumably, in some cases, the warrior honour culture led to anyone challenged to combat being forced by custom to agree to do so, which gave particularly effective warriors a chance to become major land owners through willingness to issue challenges. The warrior-oriented sagas really suggest a society in which some part of the population were constantly using deadly violence to protect and advance their status, or simply in reaction to minor slights on honour, and the use of such violence could lead to the killing of a defenceless child.
The use of murderous violence against those unwilling, or unable, to fight back was deterred and punished to some degree by a system of justice which was in large part voluntary. There was no compulsion to attend the Althing, or lower assemblies, and no means to enforce attendance except the violence of those wishing to make a legal complaint, should they wish the accused to be present. The punishments, even for the most extreme violence, were never those of physical punishment, prison, or execution.
Judgments required economic compensation, or at the most extreme outlawed the guilty party, who appears to have been largely given the time and opportunity to leave Iceland unmolested before the most severe consequences out outlaw status could be applied. Outlawing of course removes legal protection from the person punished who can therefore be murdered, or s subject to some other harm, without a right to legal complaint. Outlawing often seems to have been the result of non-payment of compensation demanded by the court.
The judicial system was essentially voluntary, and judging from the sagas a lot of disputes were settled by private violence, which could include murder of supposed witches and torture of prisoners. Victims of violence, or other harms, were only protected by law as far as they or their friends, neighbours, or families, were willing and able to go to court, demand an official judgement authorising punishment, and enforce it.
Slavery was normal, but there was some legal protection of slaves, in so far as anyone in their community was interested in ensuring enforcement. Jealousy and competition between neighbouring families may have helped produce legal protectors for the socially weak, but this is maybe not the most reassuring form of protection.
For liberty community fans of the example of Iceland from 870-1000, it is a example of how anarchism can work; that is, it is an example of how there can be law and a judicial system without a state beyond judicial assemblies and the one employee of the most important assembly.
Medieval Iceland was a functioning society, which was perhaps not as sophisticated as England, France, the German Empire (Holy Roman Empire), the Byzantine Empire (which appears in the Sagas as the Greek Empire), or caliphate of Cordoba, just to name the most powerful European states of the time, but did leave a significant literary legacy in the Sagas, as even the most violent warrior-heroes wrote poetry some times. It was a rural seagoing trading community, in which violence was no more prevalent than other parts of Medieval Europe, and a tolerable existence was maintained in the face of a very harsh nature.
The arguments for a less enthused attitude toward Iceland as a liberty-loving model include the very simple nature of the society with no towns, the existence of slavery, and the lack of comprehensive enforcement of law. In general there is the oddity of taking as model of anything a situation in which there was no protection from violence, and no other harms, unless someone or some group with some capacity to exert force, brought a case to the attention of the court and was able to enforce any decision.
Medieval Iceland was a society in which violence was not always punished and where those inclined to use violence for self-enrichment could live without consequences, either through ignoring laws, or making use of laws and customs, which created opportunities to take property on an issue of ‘honour’. The courts and laws of Medieval Iceland were maybe adequate for creating some restraint on a community containing a significant proportion of Viking raiders regarding murderous violence on a systematic scale as legitimate and even as an honourable way to increase wealth.
On the whole I lean more in the second direction, I certainly see no reason to see near-anarchist Iceland as better for liberty in its time than the self-governing merchant towns of the Baltic, the Low Countries, and northern Italy. There is no evidence that Medieval Europeans were ever inspired to take Iceland as a great example of anything. The intermittently contained violence of slave owning landholders is not a great justification for the semi voluntary legal system, and near non-state.
Having said that, the emphasis on justice as mediation, and on punishments limited to exile and compensatory payments, does have something to say to those who prefer to limit the power of the state over individuals, who wish to prevent the punishment of crime become the reason for an incarcerating state, trying to extend that model of power into every aspect of social life.
The system of law without state compulsion did not succeed in sustaining itself beyond a few centuries, but that is enough to suggest that there are some possibilities of viable modern national communities existing with less of a centralised state and coercive judicial-penal-police apparatus than is now normal. The limitations of Saga Icelandic liberty apply to the antique slaveholding republics, and in some part to European states and the USA when some forms of liberty were increasing while plantation slavery was expanding. The Icelandic Medieval example is at the very least worth contemplation with regard to the possibilities of limiting the coercive state.
Note on texts. As with other classics, many editions are available and I usually leave readers of these posts to find one in the way that is most convenient for them. In this case though, I would like to point out the following extensive and scholarly edition, which includes some useful historical background as well as literary discussion.
The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Viking [hah Viking!]-Penguin, New York NY, 2000.
The political interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a constantly fraught issue. Amongst other things he has been taken as an anti- or non-political thinker and as responsible for the worst aspects of German politics in the twentieth century. However, that latter view is not supported by any Nietzsche scholars.
The reasons for that include his opposition to the anti-Semites of his time (after a youthful leaning in that direction with regard to culture rather than race) and his opposition to the militarist-statist-nationalist aspects of Prussian and German politics in his time, again after early leanings towards culturally oriented nationalism. The tendency to put culture above the state and take it as something of a replacement for politics was constant.
The anti-politics is itself not incompatible with some kinds of libertarian and classical liberal thinking, though in Nietzsche’s case it goes along with a constant inclination to talk about power, the state, and other politically charged issues. He was stateless for most of adult life, as he had to renounce Prussian citizenship to take up a Professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1869, not long before the King of Prussia became the Emperor of a newly unified Germany, dominated by Prussia. Nietzsche himself was in any case from a part of Saxony, annexed by Prussia early in the nineteenth century.
In any case, Nietzsche did not present himself as a Saxon or a Prussian after leaving Germany and only lived in Germany after 1889, when he was incapacitated by paralysis, now generally believed to the the result of a brain tumour, and was looked after by his mother and sister. Nietzsche did not have any citizenship after moving to Basel and though it was easier to travel round Europe in those days without a state issued passport, it is still a remarkable position.
Nietzsche was not completely free of racist assumptions, but hardly to a degree at all unusual for his time, and he did not see race as a suitable basis for analysing the Europe of his time, since he thought races had become completely mingled in antiquity. He was inclined towards various forms of elitism, sometimes in a quite extreme way as when he claimed admiration for the Indian caste system, though in a very brief provocative way.
On the whole his elitism was devoted towards the self-creation of an individuality of great strength, great plural possibilities and the capacity to unify those possibilities in creation and in a creatively lived life. He had anxieties about mass culture and the rise of democracy, but there is not much to separate his substantive concerns from the general concerns of liberals of the nineteenth century, as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and democratic mediocrity in culture in Democracy in America.
Nietzsche is sometimes referred to as the definitive anti-liberal, but a lot of this rests on associating liberalism with egalitarian (i.e. left, progressivist) liberalism. If we look at the classical liberals from Locke to Mill (who is a bit transitional between the two broad liberal approaches), we of course see that egalitarianism at least with regard to distribution of income and property, is not a central goal. There is growing interest in expanding legal and political equality beyond an aristocratic elite to the population as a whole, and criticism of aristocratic, monarchical, guild, and merchant-financial wealth where linked to political-monopolistic-protectionist privileges.
Nietzsche regards threats to personal, intellectual and cultural excellence as a possible outcome of democracy, but is also critical of the traditional state, referring to it sometimes as monstrous, and allows for the possibility of it becoming much reduced through transferring functions to the private economy. He was concerned that liberalism might betray liberty by building institutions which constrain the original liberal ideas. So he was not a complete critic of liberalism, but rather sets out ideals of self-development and individual flouring which are likely to be constrained by the state.
Though he mentions the possibility of replacing state functions with private economic activity, he was critical of commercial spirit. He feared that commercial orientation tends to reduce individual capacities, because of the ways in which it leads to individuals concerning themselves with the wants of other individuals. For most pro-liberty people, this is Nietzsche accurately identifying something good about capitalism and then rejecting it, which does at least leave Nietzsche as a good analyst.
Beyond this though, Nietzsche who never advocates a socialist economy or a return to pre-capitalist economics, is doing something similar to his criticism of liberal political institutions. He is showing that liberal commercial society both sets up an ideal of strong individuality, which it needs and then undermines it through the constraints of economic life. So the reason for a critical attitude towards capitalism is recognition of the tension between the kind of individuality produced by earlier societies which revolves around struggling with nature for survival and often wars with other states, and the kind of individuality produced by working to provide more than the mere means of survival for others in societies based round rising economic prosperity.
This tension was recognised by classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Nietzsche takes further the concern that individualism requires an individual self-directed struggle for increased physical and psychological capacities, and that the culture of commercial society produces an economic elite that seems hardly distinguished from the mass in its personal style and culture, so fails to provide any example of greatness and excellence in these respects.
A classical style liberal of the twentieth century, Joseph Schumpeter (most famous as author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942), argued that individualistic capitalism tends to undermine itself through the creation of corporate bureaucracies, where commercial constraints may become separate from much decision making, and where individual creativity is stifled. Many liberty oriented thinkers have noted the tendency of capitalists to undermine capitalism by seeking a privileged relation with the state, so accepting the mediocrity of state imposed uniformity.
Nietzsche was hyperbolic and expressive and little informed about economics, but the hyperbole has a precise aim in drawing our attention to problems, and Nietzsche’s cultural capacities (including a strong interest in natural sciences) made him sensitive to some features of capitalist and democratic societies, which need to be counteracted if excellence is to flourish.
If one thinks that liberty merely, only, and purely means lack of state constraint, Nietzsche’s thoughts may not seem so meaningful. However, if we see liberty as including not only restraints on state power, but the value of individual pursuit of excellence for its own sake and to produce individuals who are not conformist and state-centered, then Nietzsche must be one of the great thinkers about liberty.
As with Kierkegaard, it is difficult to recommend a single major Nietzsche text on political thought. On the Genealogy of Morality tends to be the starting point for discussion of his political ideas, but covers many other topics, and Human, All Too Human contains his thoughts on the possibility of a reduced state in a commercial society. Untimely Meditations, Dawn, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, and The Gay Science are the other books of Nietzsche, and all contain passages discussed by commentators on Nietzsche and politics.