A Politics of Nietzschean Righteousness

“After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense frightful shadow. God is dead—but as the human race is constituted there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. And we—we have still to overcome his shadow!”

So said Friedrich Nietzsche, insisting that although God is dead to European man, there remains a new task of overcoming. How we escape God’s long shadow—whether we can escape it—is the subject of Mark T. Mitchell’s compact and compelling new book, Power and Purity. Mitchell, a longtime professor of government and now academic dean at Patrick Henry College, locates the source of our current woes—both in the academy and on the streets—in what he calls the “unholy marriage” of Nietzscheanism and Puritanism. He captures the reader’s attention by noting the extent to which we are beset by what he calls “Puritan warriors,” who occasionally go so far as to wish miserable deaths on their enemies (mostly “entitled white men”), not to mention mutilation of their corpses. Far from the margins of society, the people who utter such profanities often hold prestigious academic appointments. If a similarly-situated “entitled white man” had the audacity to say something half as offensive, the personal and professional consequences would be grim. Political theorist Harvey Mansfield has said that you can tell who has power in a society by who’s allowed to get angry. Right now, cultural and intellectual power in our society is skewed radically toward the moralist-warriors of the social justice movement.

As Mitchell notes, “The language of rights and the ideals of equality and democracy that pervade our political discourse are unimaginable apart from Christianity.” Even as we move toward a post-Christian age, we remain a “Christ-haunted culture.” The waning of orthodox Christianity has left us unmoored, grasping at the remnants for something to give our lives meaning. Secular progressives distort the conception of sin to focus almost exclusively on the sins of others, just as they possess an overweening confidence that they’re more virtuous than their ancestors. They are therefore “strikingly—and stridently—intolerant of the past.” Original sin has gone out of fashion, but social sin and political salvation are de rigueur. We live in an age of self-righteous secularism, “a toxic combination of the Nietzschean will to power and Puritan moralism.” Our problem, says Mitchell, is no longer moral relativism—if it ever was. It is, rather, moral absolutism. “Dreams of political perfection, once deferred to the heavenly kingdom, are reintroduced in the temporal realm. The longing for perfection—born of a Christian notion of heaven—is difficult to forget.” And so the Left now asserts itself in the name of an unattainable moral and political purity—a politics of litmus tests, virtue signaling, and the infliction of punishment without the possibility of forgiveness.

The Left and the Will to Power

We see this new politics in a thousand ways and places, from corporations to classrooms to the not-so-peaceful protests that dominate the nightly news. Conformity on all fronts is demanded, and woe unto those who do not conform. High-ranking corporate and academic officers (never mind ordinary employees) live in fear of being fired for holding views that would have been run-of-the-mill in the very recent past but are now deemed insufficiently woke for the tyranny of the present. Speakers invited to college campuses get canceled, or even pummeled. Government officials are harassed and intimidated in public places, and even in their own homes. The space for non-conformists increasingly contracts in a polity where moral and physical courage are in short supply. Marxists might have thought (with good reason) that businessmen would sell them the rope with which they would hang the last capitalist. Our present-day corporate and academic Nietzscheans—operating less from interest than misguided moralism—think that they can excommunicate the unrighteous one by one. And yet, they appear to believe that when the righteous come for them, there will be enough people left to speak up and halt the revolution just before it reaches the boardroom or faculty lounge.

In our Nietzschean moment, there can be no truth simply, and, as Mitchell points out, “rational discussion” is seen as “nothing more than the babbling of men either deceived into imagining a world infused by moral meaning or slyly employing the language of morality to assert their will to power.” Nietzsche even suggests we should “rise above faith in grammar.” Few who teach American students today will think we have failed to do so.

And so the Left opposes rational discourse with its own will to power, fueled by the distant echoes of “residual Puritanism.” Why debate when you can protest? Radicalizing Tocqueville, Nietzsche observes that democratic times, and ultimately Christianity, pave the way for the “herd” and all the flattened souls who comprise it—because they have nothing else to strive for. As Mitchell says, “They will voluntarily submit to their own emasculation, even wield the knife themselves, as they seek solace in the company and approval of others.” The success of liberal institutions undermines the very virtues and toughness required to build and preserve those institutions.

Nothing can bind us together as Americans if we cannot forgive and to some degree forget, but instead understand ourselves to be in a perennial debtor-creditor relationship with each other.

Following Nietzsche’s psychology, Mitchell suggests the will to power that emerges in late liberalism is often expressed through identity politics, wherein the putatively weak demand—and receive—this voluntary emasculation, relying on residual Christianity to convince the strong that justice demands it. Tom Wolfe foreshadowed just this phenomenon more than half a century ago, in his prescient essay entitled “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” Surveying the beginnings of the burgeoning racial grievance industry in San Francisco, he made it clear that we live in a society so decadent that it might produce an endless supply of “flak catchers” more than willing to be “mau-maued” by the angriest members of a braying mob. And so it has.

A Residuum of Christianity

“Once the strong are blamed, the weak experience liberation from any sense of responsibility for their own misery….The purity of grievance without personal responsibility unlocks a secret and previously untapped fount of virtue, for what could be more virtuous than a blameless victim?” But Mitchell notes this is a residuum of Christianity, a new religion without reconciliation, humility, or forgiveness—reduced simply to the radical equality of the will, and its concomitant emasculation. If the Christian God—who sacrificed himself—is dead, then inflicting pain on the weak can once again be a source of voluptuous pleasure. It was Nietzsche who “reclaimed the possibility of human sacrifice.” In fact, identity politics cannot tolerate forgiveness as it seeks to alleviate pain by constantly “lashing out.” To borrow from a great songwriter, love (and for Nietzsche, hate) is mainly just memories, and everyone’s got him a few. Nothing can bind us together as Americans if we cannot forgive and to some degree forget, but instead understand ourselves to be in a perennial debtor-creditor relationship with each other. Monuments might come down, but nothing can be erected in their place.

The weakest of all, the unborn—who do not yet have the capacity to will—are sacrificed to those who do. And technology only makes the demands of the will more incessant, as more and more of those demands can be effortlessly satisfied.

Mitchell points out that “higher” education plays an important role in this war on reason. “On many college campuses, Nietzsche’s Puritan warriors have taken over, and we see the devastating effects of the will to power married to a moral absolutism lacking any justification other than individual will subconsciously energized by a rejected Christian past.” This amalgam is as incoherent as it is unstable. It is not truly Nietzschean precisely because of its moralism and its demands for herd equality and tolerance—for some version of democracy. But professors should be careful what they wish for. As Nietzsche warns:

The overall degeneration of man down to what today appears to the socialist dolts and flatheads as their ‘man of the future’—as their ideal—this degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal…this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims, is possible, there is no doubt of it. Anyone who has thought through this possibility to the end knows one kind of nausea that other men don’t know—but perhaps also a new task!

Mitchell has done us a great service by locating the source of our national embarrassments in Nietzsche—a far more plausible candidate than John Locke. Locke and the American founding have, of late, been the sources of a cottage industry of ersatz conservatives who despise their country—and know as much about it—as the leftists they hold up as their enemies. Mitchell does not fall into that trap. He has instead produced a short, highly readable guide to the dislocations of our age. He even opens the possibility that our old, pre-Nietzschean institutions might have some life left in them. The book requires no training in philosophy—only a willingness to see, and a desire to understand, our remarkable moment. The author tries less to be authoritative than suggestive. And in this he succeeds brilliantly. Readers will find themselves clamoring for more—but this is as good a place as any to start.

The refreshing brevity of Mitchell’s work necessitates some shortcuts. For example, it’s important to note that the twisting of American Christianity to secular purposes is far more attributable to early Christian progressives—Richard Ely, Walter Rauschenbusch, Father John Ryan, et al.—than it is to the Puritans. So Puritanism is a poor—or at least radically incomplete—stand-in for the secular millenarianism that Mitchell describes.

Mitchell also notes that the “idea of heavenly perfection is far more seductive for a post-Christian people than for a people that has always been pagan.” As he argues that authoritarianism is the earthly instantiation of a post-Christian sensibility, he seems to come perilously close to suggesting that our deracinated Christianity is the more or less inexorable outcome of a long process of overcoming. So was Nietzsche right, after all? Does Christianity’s revaluation of all values inevitably result in…this? And, if so, why? Mitchell leaves us with the starkest of choices: “Nietzsche or Christ, Dionysus or the Crucified, the will to power or the will to truth.”

But perhaps Nietzsche himself gives us grounds for optimism. The land wherein the murderer of God dwells—like the murderer himself—is unspeakably ugly. The murderer says God:

looked with eyes which beheld EVERYTHING,—he beheld men’s depths and dregs, all his hidden ignominy and ugliness. His pity knew no modesty: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most prying, over-intrusive, over-pitiful one had to die….on such a witness I would have revenge….The God who beheld everything, AND ALSO MAN: that God had to die! Man cannot ENDURE it that such a witness should live. Thus spake the ugliest man.

Nietzsche says this man is to be found in a valley that all animals avoid, “even the beasts of prey.” The only exceptions are the fat green snakes that go there to die. The valley is known as “Serpent-death.”

Reader Discussion

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on September 02, 2020 at 08:23:17 am

Superb analysis of a book I will be reading. Especially interests me due to the Puritan connection, which the reviewer seems to minimize. My view is that much of today's radical leftism has roots in the secularized Puritan vision of an outward manifestation of an inward state of grace, which was required to vote in the commonwealth. That effectively undermined the orthodox Christian understanding of salvation by grace and converted it into a form of salvation by works, which, once secularized, led directly to the millenarian idea of creating Heaven on earth.

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Mark Tapscott
on September 02, 2020 at 21:32:38 pm

I too have Puritan roots. The Puritans in England and America were taken over by the Unitarians. The Unitarians of today are secular humanists. They are the Marxist Social Justice Warriors, and have been pushing Marxism in America since the 1800s. All of the "Liberal" religions have been infiltrated. There are pamphlets on the subject such as the "Communist Infiltration of the American Churches 1887-2012," by Christine Meinsen... and the Congregational Churches in America accepted Marxism in the late 1800s.
Nietzsche wrote the book "The Anti-Christ," a rant against Christianity with a replacement for it: Islam. Nietzsche loved war and warriors and that is why he didn't like Christians, and he also hated democracy and republicanism. The Puritans were for democracy and republicanism. Nietzsche, Fascists and Communists are all on the side of autocracy, tyranny, statism, and totalitarianism, and the Puritans were not...

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on September 02, 2020 at 08:33:42 am

Mr. Watson, that review was compelling and the book seems spot on. I am ordering it now. Thank you.

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Carl Brizzi
on September 02, 2020 at 10:08:08 am

For me, I have too many other books on my list and stack to read, to bother propelling this one to the top of the pile.
Based on being mentioned in a recent NRO blog post I have bought E. S. Corwin's [1928?] The "Higher Law" Background of American Constitutional Law, so if anyone here has things to say pro or con about Corwin, I would appreciate that feedback.

"The success of liberal institutions undermines the very virtues and toughness required to build and preserve those institutions." Presumably this means the application of the Puritan work ethic to a nihilistic project to dismantle our past civil and constitutional order; aka a secular religion. But whatever personal transcendent needs or drives in relation to a divinity are being met via religious adherence, religion also has a large social cooperation element. People and tribes that believed the same thing bonded more closely, cooperated to advance their communal needs (physical, social, and emotional), and were thereby more successful in advancing their gene pool and their cultural orientation. So the more absurd the beliefs being promulgated, the greater the commitment to the group and its success was being demonstrated when "recruits" adopted those beliefs (in reality or in pretense). The political left are not the only people pursuing absurd views and ideas (USSR, Cuba, Vietnam, CCP, et al.; and our associated domestic fifth columns) but perhaps they are more exposed to the wheat with the hallucinogenic mold on it that appeared occasionally in Europe and maybe in Salem in 1692.

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on September 02, 2020 at 10:26:33 am

As the resident promoter of Nietzsche's thought on this site, I must object to calling the Left "Nietzschean." It is true, as the author indicates, that they exemplify everything Nietzsche hated: the will to power disguised as an overweening moralism. It was Nietzsche who indeed identified this habit of humanity but he did not endorse it, he very strongly opposed it.

And he would be the first to recognize, and deplore, today's version of the "bad conscience" being coerced onto the herd in this country: https://pjmedia.com/instapundit/398101/

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on September 02, 2020 at 13:08:07 pm

The title bothered me too. We have to distinguish between Nietzsche psychology of the weak in Genealogy of Morals-- victim culture-- and his immoral overman. Nietzsche would despise the Wokefolk as much as he despised Christians and would despise Hitler, as victims or as failed escapees from convention.

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Eric B Rasmusen
on September 03, 2020 at 13:57:38 pm

Along these same lines, I was thinking of what Nietzsche says about forgetting in "Use and Abuse", and that he would probably argue that the Wokerati are prisoners of their own refusals to forget anything.

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on September 04, 2020 at 09:55:05 am

A great point. When the only foundation of your present power is the claim to powerlessness based on the powerlessness of your ancestors, when you can only sustain your present power by constantly asserting your historical powerlessness, you set up a paradox that cannot be maintained.

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on September 03, 2020 at 16:52:13 pm

Yes, I was very confused by this review. Drawing on the book, the reviewer points out various ways in which Nietzsche warned of some of the problems we are seeing. What is never explained (at least, to my satisfaction) is how Nietzsche caused them. In fact, occasionally the reviewer seems to suggest that this really has little to do with Nietzsche at all.

I feel like Nietzsche's name is tossed around as an all-purpose bad guy to get nods from conservative, especially religious conservative, thinkers. (And, for the record, I am a religious conservative thinker.)

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on September 02, 2020 at 10:49:13 am

The Mansfield quote is very good. What is its source?

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Eric B Rasmusen
on September 02, 2020 at 10:53:35 am

Reading this review fills me with hope. Here we have an erudite, well-written review of what sounds like a profound and insightful book, by professors from Patrick Henry and St. Vincent colleges, small places with not pretensions of "university". The Ivy humanities departments are filled with garbage, which makes one despair, but this shows that the real scholars remain, at small colleges. They might even be doing more social good there, with less pressure to act like famous scholars and more freedom to write about what they think is important rather than what leaders in their field thinks is important in the academic rat race. Too bad for them as far as salary and prestige, but maybe better even for them for a happy as well as a productive life.

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Eric B Rasmusen
on September 02, 2020 at 13:04:05 pm

I've started thinking about the Wokefolk too. My emphasis is on their desperate desire for Assurance of Salvation. I just added long excerpts from this book review to my notes at https://www.rasmusen.org/blog1/the-woke-religion-the-elect-and-the-lost-assurance-of-being-saved-wokeness-as-spiritual-regeneration-works-not-faith/ .

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Eric B Rasmusen
on September 02, 2020 at 14:38:25 pm

“When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

Pope Benedict’s Christmas Address 2012-

Today, Pope Benedict has become the oldest man in Salvational History to be Pope.

“Brindisi, Papa Benedetto! Ev-viva Papa Benedetto!”

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on September 02, 2020 at 16:53:04 pm

I'm not sure there is either Nietzcheanism or Puritanism in present day revolutionary thinking, but the influence of Christianity on the Woke is certainly at work in their demand for "reparations" for the sins of previous generations. As the original of belief in equality and mutual respect was stoic and Christian belief that all human beings are made in God's image, so the original of the demand for reparations was surely the Pauline doctrine of the need for redemption from the original sin of Adam and Eve .

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Max O Hocutt
on September 03, 2020 at 17:44:45 pm

not to mention a fools chase chance to get money

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on September 04, 2020 at 12:17:49 pm

Some interesting comments on Nietzsche.

1) Nietzsche is certainly someone I would enjoy having a few drinks with, as
2) I do not believe that he is who we think he is nor who he said he was.

"But what if Truth is a Woman?. She wishes to be conquered!
And in so "conquering" is it not likely that one may embellish or overstate ones case?
How much of Nietzsche's "overman" is hyperbolic? How much is intentional overstatement crafted to contrast the self imposed weakness of the Christian, the middle class and conventional Victorian age morality with a more confident robust epistemology, i.e., an "overman" when compared to the meek and conforming populace of the day.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on September 02, 2020 at 16:53:21 pm

[…] A Politics of Nietzschean Righteousness, by Bradley C. S. WatsonIn a review of the book Power and Purity. by Mark T. Mitchell’ […]

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