Politics & Policy

Lincoln and Leo XIII against the Nietzscheans

President Abrama Lincoln in 1864; Pope Leo XIII in 1898 (Library of Congress)
Though from starkly different backgrounds, the two men remain pillars of the natural-law tradition, under assault from both the Left and the Right.

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

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

But shrewd immoralism and the will to power — what Saint Augustine called the libido dominandi — have always been with us and were highlighted from the Renaissance onward by partisans of Machiavelli and their opponents. The Machiavellian worship of earthly glory and the will to power by Christopher Marlowe has been frequently contrasted with the candid, courteous, classical-Christian ethical nobility of William Shakespeare, as explained and discussed in a long and eloquent tradition of literary commentary on Shakespeare, and of teaching and productions of his work, that have shaped and nourished four centuries of English-speaking people, including Abraham Lincoln.

The eloquent, cosmopolitan Irish diplomat, editor, scholar, and man of letters Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917–2008) published a brief but brilliant volume of political thought in 1972 entitled The Suspecting Glance, and Faber and Faber has recently republished it (2015; though with an unfortunate and unhelpful “Appreciation” of him appended). It deserves very wide readership, particularly because of its first three chapters: “The Ferocious Wisdom of Machiavelli,” “An Anti-Machiavel: Edmund Burke,” and “Nietzsche and the Machiavellian Schism.” This is moral and cultural commentary of a high order, written by a noble individual who himself played important diplomatic, educational, political, and editorial roles in Ireland, Africa, New York, and London.

O’Brien leaves no doubt that Machiavellian immoralism was a great inspiration to Nietzsche, and he rightly shows no respect for the endless scholarly industries that would explain away or invert the meaning of their post-moral views of human life: the human person conceived either as wolf or fox, using force or fraud, and thus the predatory master, or as credulous sheep, and thus the prey. Shakespeare’s villains — Edmund, Goneril, and Regan (King Lear), Iago (Othello), Richard III, and the Macbeths — are cautionary depictions of Machiavellians, written in defense of the moral universe and Christian lovingkindness, and his Ulysses’s great hymn on deference and godly order in Troilus and Cressida is the heart of his mind, spirit, and worldview. (See my “Why Shakespeare Was Not a Relativist and Why It Matters Now,” Journal of Education 180, no. 3, 1998).

The right-wing, social-Darwinist Nietzscheans, in clear descent from Machiavelli, are therefore perennially easy to identify, if not easy to oppose, with their endlessly inviting power, success, and glamor, and their dominance of so much of our economic and social life, whose images have been massively augmented in potency and appeal by the pagan audiovisual culture of television and film. It was a tragedy of the first order for American history that the Union’s and Lincoln’s purging the nation of slavery and the restoration of a true, noble understanding of the theological-Lockean claims of the Declaration of Independence (all persons “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”), achieved in the three post–Civil War constitutional amendments, were immediately succeeded by the emergence of social Darwinism, with its ruthless, amoral “robber barons” and segregationist and imperialist apologists for subordinating anew or eliminating allegedly “inferior races,” a line of racialist-imperialist-immoralist belief and propaganda that was to find eloquent support in Nietzsche’s ironic, temptingly transgressive rhetoric: “The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And we shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak — Christianity.” Historian Richard Weikart’s fine study From Darwin to Hitler is one of the most thorough and eloquent recent treatments of the tragic, apocalyptic career of this line of thought, belief, and behavior. (See my review of it in NR, March 28, 2005).

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

Though Leo was a priest and classical-Christian humanist, an artist and scholar, brilliantly trained in Latin and philosophy, he and Lincoln were alike in having what Blaise Pascal called the ‘esprit de finesse,’ the mental disposition to see things steadily and integrally.

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

It wasn’t until 1878, 13 years after Lincoln’s assassination, that the Italian Gioacchino Pecci, long-time archbishop of Perugia, became pope as Leo XIII, yet Pecci was only a year younger than Lincoln. He too had seen close up the political, ideological, and military conflicts  of the 19th century, in Italy, Belgium, and France. Frail and 68 years old at the time of his election, as the historian Carlton J. H. Hayes pointed out, he “was not expected to live long, . . . but within his emaciated body resided a brilliant mind and an iron will.” He lived and served as pope for 25 years, until his death in 1903.

Men more utterly unlike in background, culture, and education than Lincoln and Leo XIII would be hard to imagine, yet a profound link unites them. Though Leo was a priest and classical-Christian humanist, an artist and scholar, brilliantly trained in Latin and philosophy, he and Lincoln were alike in having what Blaise Pascal called the “esprit de finesse,” the mental disposition to see things steadily and integrally, the capacity to understand principles, propositions, and practicalities, to conceive ethical and human realities, and prudently to adjust means in the service of absolute ends and aims of conduct and policy. Leo’s encyclicals, especially Aeterni Patris (1879) and Rerum Novarum (1891), recovered the classic natural-law tradition deriving from the Greek philosophers and Saint Thomas Aquinas and applied it to the affairs of the modern world. If Harry Jaffa would have us see Lincoln as an Aristotelian-Euclidian natural-law thinker by a kind of brilliant, sustained intuition and meditation on lived experience, our great contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre has seen Leo’s resurrection and application of Aristotelian-Thomist thought as the necessary resource for the only rational way out of our modern intellectual-ethical-political quandaries and anomalies (Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 1990). William F. Buckley Jr. saw this tradition of Lincoln and Leo represented in the Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths and wrote about it frequently in National Review (e.g., “Nihil Obstat,” January 28, 1961, reprinted in NR, December 11, 1995). He also used its classic phrase “right reason” (recta ratio), “reason rightly used”  — something at once epistemological and ethical — to denote what he tried to do in his own popular journalism and the magazine he founded.

The anomalous consciousness of our age has largely emerged from the wholesale adaptation of Nietzschean epistemological and ethical thinking by a host of left-wing French ‘deconstructionist’ and post-modernist thinkers.

For what Lincoln understood by brilliant intuition, and Leo understood by profound education, erudition, and cultural formation, was that what the ignorance, neglect, or desertion of traditional philosophical reasoning would do, and did, was destroy the foundations for any truly just and civilized order. Lincoln’s speeches are models of philosophical-ethical reasoning, prudential documents but also foundational ones, eloquent with a modesty, candor, and brevity at an infinite remove from the rhetorical inflation of standard 19th-century political oratory. Leo’s encyclicals are models of careful rational-moral analysis of political, social, and cultural problems, and serve as the model for the great Thomist revival of the later 19th and 20th centuries that gave us thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, John Courtney Murray, Pope John Paul II, Richard J. Neuhaus, and Hadley Arkes.

It is the contemporary Jewish scholar Samuel Moyn who has shown in two powerful books, most recently Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia, 2015), how absolutely central were the 20th-century popes, Maritain, and President Jimmy Carter in the formulation and defense of universal human rights in the 20th century (see my “Human Rights in Midair,” NRO, March 29, 2014). An observer of good will might think, after the catastrophic events of 1914–1990, that this should simply be a matter of commonsense decency at this late stage in human history, after that “second fall of man” that commenced nightmarishly in 1914. But such an observer would be wrong: which is where the Left Nietzscheans must enter the story.

On the face of it, a knowledge of Nietzsche’s works would seem to indicate that he could not be construed as a left-wing thinker: He was not an egalitarian or a utilitarian, a socialist or a left-liberal. But the anomalous consciousness of our age has largely emerged from the wholesale adaptation of Nietzschean epistemological and ethical thinking by a host of left-wing French “deconstructionist” and post-modernist thinkers who have had a vast influence on the Anglo-American intellectual and cultural world over the past 50 years, especially but not only in the humanities and social-science departments of Western universities. One of their ugliest labels for traditional thinking is “foundationalism,” which is to say the largely consenting participation in the very old and durable Western “logocentric” tradition, commenced by Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, that Nietzsche so profoundly hated: what Matthew Arnold called “the old but true Socratic thesis of the interdependence of knowledge and virtue.”

Conor Cruise O’Brien argues persuasively in The Suspecting Glance (1972) that “the gentle Nietzscheans” constantly tried to excuse and de-fang the most obviously irrational, anti-rational, and anti-ethical statements of the Teutonic master, led prominently by Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann in his influential Portable Nietzsche (1954 et seq.). But since O’Brien wrote, the Left Nietzscheans have established in the culture, the publishing houses, and the universities what Michael Polanyi called a pervasive “moral inversion” — having invalidated all traditional “logocentric” ideas of epistemology and ethics, any consistent basis for ethics, they do not, like the Right Nietzscheans, simply dismiss ethics as a fraud, or use it hypocritically for fraud; instead they fiercely assert ethical demands based on identity politics and an analysis of power relations, an analysis that actually lacks any coherent logical or fiduciary basis for moral generalization per se. But this is a thematic-performative self-contradiction: If there is no basis for ethics, for transpersonal and inter-subjective norms, then do not assert ethical criticisms and imperatives.

Even decent agnostics and pragmatists sometimes recognize the problem. The contemporary intellectual historian Thomas L. Haskell regards Nietzsche’s attack on objectivity, “logocentrism,” altruism, and intellectual chastity as “a cultural calamity. . . .  Morality is what suffers most from the devaluation of [such] practices, but such practices are also indispensable to the pursuit of truth” and “the very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda.” One of Nietzsche’s most profound, self-refuting insights is found in Twilight of the Idols (1888): “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” Including, of course, the grammar of that sentence itself: tu quoque!

Our dominant economic Right Nietzscheans, proud of their success (through whatever combination of hard work, shrewdness, ruthlessness, dishonesty, and luck), are Calibans incapable of seeing themselves in any normative or ethical way, criteria in which in any case they do not believe.

The strange, immoralist-moralistic mental world of the once-upon-a-time “gentle Nietzscheans” has changed temperature from fussy pedantry and some degree of embarrassment at the Master’s utterances to a full-throated moralistic style that was pioneered in the early 20th century by D. H. Lawrence (see Colin Milton, Lawrence and Nietzsche: A Study in Influence). In John Carey’s penetrating study The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (1992), Carey argues that only two major British intellectuals during this entire 60-year period resisted the transgressive catnip of the Nietzschean bacillus: Arnold Bennett and G. K. Chesterton. And Chesterton combines the inheritance of the Thomist and Catholic revival in England with the powerful intuition and “esprit de finesse” of his beloved Dickens and the wisdom of the central English literary tradition (see Chesterton’s short anti-Nietzschean essay “On Reading”).

For the thoughtful person of goodwill who is unfamiliar with the Nietzschean cultural dynamics of our time — on the face of it so tortuously counter-intuitive — the Left Nietzscheans must seem both unintelligible and incredible. A very valuable, detailed study of one of them is David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). The intense absurdism of so much contemporary literary and visual and musical art is cognate with these developments in the humanities and social sciences. The libertarian Right Nietzscheans and the radical Left Nietzscheans are in the ascendant in our culture, throughout the West, and it is little wonder that many Eastern Europeans and Muslims see the “globalizing” West as toxic and destructive. We might adapt an adage about Shakespeare’s brutal Caliban (The Tempest): Our dominant economic Right Nietzscheans, proud of their success (through whatever combination of hard work, shrewdness, ruthlessness, dishonesty, and luck), are Calibans incapable of seeing themselves in any normative or ethical way, criteria in which in any case they do not believe; our Left Nietzscheans are Calibans who see themselves in the mirror, and outraged, miscellaneous moral fury, blind and vehement and voluble, is their response.

Reviewing the first edition of the Aristotelian-Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre’s great book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory in Partisan Review (1984), the philosopher Charles Taylor titled his piece “Aristotle or Nietzsche?” Blessedly, we still have traditional philosophers and critics such as Taylor, MacIntyre, Hadley Arkes, Thomas Nagel, Roger Scruton, E. D. Hirsch Jr., and Sir Christopher Ricks — and magazines such as National Review — but the legacy of Lincoln and Leo XIII, their literary, rational, and ethical counter-insurgency, is as fragile and embattled as it is indispensable and precious in our nasty, noisy, Nietzschean contemporary cultural condition.

M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, author of a book on C. S. Lewis (1983, 1998), soon due out in French translation, and editor of paperback editions of novels by Charles Dickens and Malcolm Muggeridge. His essay “The Real Nietzsche,” a review of Erich Heller’s The Importance of Nietzsche, appeared in the magazine The World and I in January 1990.

M. D. Aeschliman recently retired after 25 years as professor of Anglophone Culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and is also professor emeritus of education at Boston University. The third edition of his The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism was published in 2019 and in French translation this year. In 1987 he edited a new edition of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 novel Winter in Moscow.


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