Wisdom of the Moderns: How We Have Arrived at Nihilism

This past semester was a whirlwind of reading and writing for me. I spontaneously decided that I wanted to extract a liberal education from my university experience, and took three philosophy classes, each one extremely different. I took Introduction to Political Philosophy, in which we studied Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and Weber. I took Wisdom of the Moderns, in which we studied Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Mill, Nietzsche, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Rand, and a few others. And I took Theories of Gender and Sexuality, in which we studied numerous feminist (and related) thinkers, including Beauvoir, Bem, Wittig, Fanon, Foucault, Butler, and Fausto-Sterling. Needless to say, it was rather overwhelming, and I imagine I am going to process it for years.

But I wrote many essays in this period, and instead of just saving them to my computer and never looking at them again, I figured that I would put them to good use. So I will post them every once in a while. I don’t promise that they are great in either form or content, but perhaps they are interesting. I also don’t promise that they necessarily represent my own views. I wrote them primarily to get a good grade, and this means a little (or a lot) of catering to the professor. Finally, some of them required a “works cited” page plus citations, and some did not, and for those that did not, I am not going to add one. I hope you enjoy.

In both Leo Strauss’s introduction to Natural Right and History and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, it is observed that the world has slowly moved into a rejection of Absolutes. They both postulate that over the course of the 20th century, Western Civilization has decided that the millennia-old concepts of natural right, objective right and wrong, and a common grounding for justice are unbelievable, and they both see this as a serious problem. However, the two thinkers differ in how they account for the rise of nihilism in modern times. Strauss provides an explanation by following the logical extensions of one central idea. Johnson does so through an analysis of the intellectual environment created because of certain scientific discoveries and political events.

Strauss begins his exploration by noting that modern social science does not really believe in the concept of natural right anymore, but rather it believes that “all men are endowed by the evolutionary process … with many kinds of urges and aspirations.” Consequently, we have lost the “standard of right and wrong … with reference to which we are able to judge of positive right.” This is all fine and good, until we inevitably have to consider whether a certain law or decision is just or unjust. For example, can we study the Final Solution without considering whether it was just or unjust? Without an absolute standard, we can only appeal to “the ideal adopted by our society.” This gets us nowhere, as the systematic extermination of an entire people group might be wrong according to American values, but not according to Nazi values. Going further, Strauss stated that since we can know nothing of justice, then we must consider all actions by all individuals to be just; “Only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason.” But this implies that intolerance is not in accordance with reason, therefore we do not have a natural right to be intolerant. In this way, even tolerance can be seen to be intolerant towards intolerance, so tolerance and intolerance become equal values on the principle of relativism. That is, all values ultimately end up equal. This is virtually the same as saying no values have value, which is nihilism. The only principle then becomes “the uninhibited cultivation of individuality.” According to Strauss, the outcome of all this is that “the more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less we are able to be loyal members of society.” Finally, says Strauss, we have reached a moment of intense crisis. But we must not run, terrified, into the arms of natural right just because we need it to be true in order to live. “Utility and truth are two entirely different things.” The real issue is whether or not the universe is “teleological”, whether it has a goal or purpose. Natural science seems to suggest there is no meaning in the universe, but in order to create decent societies, we need to affirm that there is meaning and direction in human actions. So, we end up saying there is no telos in the realm of physics but there is a telos in the realm of moral philosophy. This is the grand intellectual dilemma that we must face, especially if modern science is the highest authority in our world.

Johnson approaches the subject by looking at the intellectual environment over historical time. The opening sentence of his essay states, “The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse … confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.” This “new theory” was Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Although it was a merely scientific discovery, this shocked people’s conceptions of the world. Johnson says, “For most people, to whom Newtonian physics … were perfectly comprehensible, relativity never became more than a vague source of unease …. All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres.” Thus, the nonexistence of absolute motion became a metaphor for the nonexistence of absolute justice; “Relativity became confused with relativism.” Einstein himself believed firmly in absolutes of morality and reality, but his ideas on these matters were overlooked. At the same time that Einstein was astounding the physics world, Freud was shocking other audiences. Although “his methods of therapy have proved, on the whole, costly failures,” his writing was beautiful and witty, and he won Germany’s highest literary award. In addition to his work on dreams and sexuality, Freud made it a point to provide compelling psychological reasons for religion to exist as merely a human construction, or even delusion. All of these radical new imaginings were occurring along with the introduction of atonal music, Surrealism, and Dadaism. Johnson points out that all of these movements created an age of “Gnosticism claiming to peer through the empirically-perceived veneer of things to the hidden truth beneath.” Also at this crucial period in the beginning of the 20th century, World War I broke out. This war revealed the profound capacity of man for violence against his brother. In turn, a deep pessimism emerged, as can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s works. In a letter to Bertrand Russell, Conrad said, “I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything convincing enough to stand up for one moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Another dire effect of catastrophic war was a doubt of the sacredness of private property. “Desperate times call for desperate measures” and the urgency of war undermined the long-held subscription to fundamental right of private property. All these things, Johnson says, show why it was almost inevitable for the educated West to have lost faith in its absolutes.

In conclusion, both Strauss and Johnson believe that Western Civilization has gotten off track because of its embrace of relativism in matters of Truth and Justice. They both seek to show how we arrived at this point. However, they show this in different ways. Strauss explains the situation in terms of the history of political philosophy, beginning with an account of the modern rejection of natural right. Johnson accounts for our condition by recalling the numerous ways in which scientific discoveries and political events created an environment in which relativism would be almost impossible to avoid.


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