“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.
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.”