David A. Eisenberg. Nietzsche and Tocqueville on The Democratization of Humanity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022.
In today’s political rhetoric, “democracy” is the abracadabra phrase brandied about by magicians, also known as politicians and pundits, as if democracy is intrinsically benign and has no problems entailed within it. Except for small-minded people like those who populate the mainstream media and cable news, the universalization of democracy does not entail any intrinsic benignity to it. On the contrary, there are many problems about democracy even if it is best of all the other terrible and imperfect governmental forms (to paraphrase Churchill) that humans govern themselves under. If we are destined to democracy, as Alexis De Tocqueville believed, can we escape the encroaching chains of what so many of us now sense which he sensed two hundred years ago: democratic despotism?
At first glance, pairing Tocqueville with Friedrich Nietzsche as antidotes to our contemporary democratic malaise and despondency seems odd. Tocqueville, though a friendly critic of democracy, accepted democracy’s inevitable triumph. Nietzsche, by contrast, was a rabid anti-democrat; he was a man whose political vision entailed the combination of modernist self-creation and antique aristocratism. Nietzsche, therefore, didn’t accept democracy’s inevitable triumph but hoped that through constant struggling and self-overcoming, the Übermensch would rescue civilization from the brink of absolute destruction wrought by democracy’s triumph and give to the world a new aristocratic ethos and polity.
To understand our current crisis of democratic despotism, which can also be understood as democracy’s actual triumph in lines similar to Patrick Deneen’s assessment of the contemporary backsliding of liberalism as a result of its own success, David Eisenberg takes us back into the heart of a political philosophy of souls. Starting with Plato and Aristotle, the classical Greek tradition recognized the universal nature of man as a rational and political animal but granted a distinction in souls which led to some to theorize of an aristocratic soul in man, alongside the tyrannical soul, the appetitive soul, the spirited soul, and so forth. Moving forward to Machiavelli, including interspliced commentary on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, the distinctiveness of souls is utterly eviscerated in favor of a mass soul, “democratic man,” in which the appetitive and base nature of humanity is universalized which achieves the egalitarian anthropology so essential to democratic politics and consciousness. In short, the leveling of humanity in egalitarianism was a race to the bottom of human life: man as a purely appetitive creature seeking comfortable peace be it through the security state of Hobbes, the economistic commonwealth of Locke, the neo-Lacedemonian collective of Rousseau, the universal-global republic of Kant, or the end of history polity of middleclass burghers of Hegel.
But there is also much more to the story of this egalitarian leveling of humanity away from the honorific and noble—those dreaded but unique souls of Homeric antiquity—to the openly pathetic Last Man of Nietzsche’s prophetic warning and the democratic despot that worried Tocqueville. Despite the particularity and uniqueness of souls granted in the Platonic and Aristotelian vision of human nature, within the very heart of post-Socratic philosophy lay the seed of egalitarian destruction: for man is not just a political animal bound to the unique polities he finds himself a citizen of. Man is, above all else, for Socrates and the post-Socratic tradition of Greek philosophy, a rational animal and rationality is universal. “Reason proves the great unifier and leveler,” notes Eisenberg.
In Socratic rationalism, Nietzsche saw the “tragic” break with the heroic man of Homeric myth and pre-Socratic philosophy in the likes of Heraclitus. Precisely because Socratic-Platonism, even Aristotelianism and its derivatives including Stoicism, posit the universal rationality of human nature, the very seeds of egalitarian destruction are laid in the revolution of the mind wrought by Socrates. It wasn’t a surprise, to Nietzsche, that the universal rationalism of post-Socratic philosophy was then subsumed and elevated in Christianity—hence Nietzsche derision of Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.”
The revolution of Christianity did even more than Socratic philosophy to bring about humanity’s democratization. Socratic philosophy still held to the distinction of souls inherited from Homeric times, but Christianity’s doctrine of imago Dei eventually discarded with the concept of particular souls in favor of a universal soul granted to each human. Or so the story goes. This story, however, is not as straightforward as some say, including Eisenberg who follows Tocqueville and Nietzsche and their contestable readings of Christian egalitarianism.
First, Christianity’s doctrine of the soul wasn’t truly codified until very recently. Traducianism, the view that souls were passed down by sexual propagation (generationism) and that there were, in fact, distinct souls between the reprobate and the elect, had significant influence in the patristic era and wouldn’t be slowly dispensed with until the early modern period. Furthermore, it was only with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council that the creationist account of the soul, the equality of all souls created by God, was enshrined as official church teaching.
Additionally, the doctrine of the image of God didn’t confer intrinsic dignity to humans as often said. The image of God in man, as Augustine says in De Trinitate, is the “rational intellect,” very much in line with the rationalism of Platonic philosophy. This rational intellect didn’t confer human dignity, it simply meant that humans were unique among all other creatures in being able to live a life in accord with the moral law established by God for human flourishing. It wasn’t until the early modern period, especially after the abolition of slavery, Victorian moral reforms, and the social gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century that Christians reinterpreted their doctrine of the image of God to mean an unequivocal and univocal sense of human dignity. Christianity, for a very long time, held its humanist implications of being created by God in tension with the reality of the burden of sin and lust wherein a contempt for human existence was part and parcel the Christian tradition too.
It isn’t so much, as Tocqueville and Nietzsche suggest (which Eisenberg simply follows), the doctrine of the soul that led to democratization in Christianity but the brotherhood of man in charity that furthered the egalitarian revolution. Love of neighbor forced a greater sense of solidaristic egalitarianism in Christianity than the contested doctrines of the soul; it didn’t matter if your neighbor was rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, male or female, all were deserving love because of the commandment of Christ to love God and neighbor as yourself. The command to love all because “God is love” and love is an expression of the divine command actualized in life had nothing to do with debates over the soul which persisted for over a thousand years in Christian theology.
Nevertheless, what Tocqueville and Nietzsche both saw in Christianity’s egalitarian theology despite their admittedly contestable interpretation of how it manifested itself, did have historical ramifications: Christianity proved, for a myriad of reasons, a sharp tool for the advancement of egalitarian consciousness and the end of the conceptualized aristocratic soul of antiquity. The emphasis on moral equality is elsewhere recognized by Tocqueville and briefly commented on by Eisenberg which seem to recognize the moral egalitarianism which is, in this reviewer’s estimation, more the real reason for Christianity’s egalitarian revolution than the long-contested history of Christianity’s understanding of the soul.
The egalitarian impulse of rationalism and the egalitarian demand of human solidarity through an ethic of love provided by Christianity reached an ironic climax in the French Revolution wherein the rationalism and the innate egalitarianism of man reached its sublime manifestation in violent revolution. Here, Eisenberg does a commendable and important job in bringing Tocqueville’s reflections on the French Revolution to light, especially in reading L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution which should be companion reading alongside Democracy in America. The French Revolution was simultaneously the culmination of the Socratic germ of egalitarian rationalism mediated through Enlightenment philosophy and Christianity’s egalitarian brotherhood of love while also transcending both in its full-throated embrace of the materialistic rationalism of Enlightenment progress and attacks on institutional Christianity. The child of Socratic rationalism and universal love sought to kill its parents while retaining its inheritance.
Moreover, the French Revolution forever destroyed—in a way that Socratic philosophy and even Christianity did not—the aristocratic structure of politics and understanding of life which persisted into the early modern era. Democratization, then, not only means the advancement of a political construct known as democracy but a leveling of how we understand and pursue life. In that leveling of life we must also ask, alongside Tocqueville and Nietzsche, if this leveling of life is a mark of human progression or regression?
This returns us to the distinction between “aristocratic man” and “democratic man.” It is here that the fruit of Eisenberg’s scholarship is richest. Implicit in Eisenberg’s reading of Tocqueville and Nietzsche is a rejection of the notion of progress, change happens—yes—but change should not be synonymously associated with mere progress. In Nietzschean consciousness, the advent of Platonic philosophy, then Christianity (most especially), marks degeneration for it is only through the aristocratic ethos and the aristocratic soul that humanity advances—as Nietzsche proclaims in his celebratory readings of Homer and Heraclitus vis-à-vis the post-Socratic Greeks and his reflections on the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.
Aristocratic man, to put it simply, is the man or soul that struggles to bring order and value out of chaos and meaninglessness, “In assigning a value to things, aristocratic man establishes an order where hitherto there was none.” Few such men are imbued with that spirit of courage; thus, they are always in the few—aristocrats, or best men. Those who are in this aristocratic pantheon of souls and who have labored tirelessly to bring order from chaos and meaning where there was none (it is precisely because there is no meaning that creating meaning from nothing is to be understood as heroic) have always been honored and celebrated as superior souls and specimens compared to the sad, sorry, lot of broader humanity. Nietzsche’s celebration of struggle for the will to power is not, as Eisenberg importantly notes, a callous celebration of cruelty but a recognition of selbstüberwindung—the self-overcoming of chaos and nothingness to forge order and meaning out of the nihilistic cosmos instead of submitting to the chaos and nothingness that pervades our cosmos or becoming servile slaves to those who have established some sense of order and meaning in life. (We must remember, for Nietzsche, self-overcoming is perpetual; the aristocratic, heroic, soul can never be satisfied with what one has and must continually struggle to create new order after new order.)
In Tocqueville, aristocratic man has duties and obligations to his fellow humans—especially those under his direct stewardship on the manor. The binding of humans together through noblesse oblige, however naïve Tocqueville’s reading may have been, meant that in aristocratic consciousness there was a sense of togetherness marked by duties to others rather than the self-centered egoism of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. This duty and responsibility bound humans together in a commune of solidarity even if it was a hierarchal one. This sense of duty and responsibility also gave meaning to life, especially the aristocratic life.
The decision of aristocrats to continue the practice of noblesse oblige and the aristocratic soul’s constant struggle to bring order out of chaos and value out of valuelessness is what made aristocratic man great in the eyes and minds of Tocqueville and Nietzsche. The aristocratic temperament, either in its perpetuation of duty and responsibility (Tocqueville) or self-struggle and self-creation (Nietzsche), is what brought actual progress to the world and life if we can ascribe a sense of progress to Tocqueville and Nietzsche. Without the aristocratic temperament, there is nothing to live for, nothing to die for, nothing to strive for.
The opposite to aristocratic man, the Last Man in Nietzsche, is what Eisenberg terms “democratic man.”
For Tocqueville, democratic man is characterized by his relentless rationalistic pragmatism which realizes itself for purely materialistic purposes. And no people were finer specimens of this manifest reality than Americans. Tocqueville himself noted that Americans applied the philosophy of Descartes to their daily lives so perfectly even though few had ever read Descartes and even fewer would have known who Descartes was. The economization of Cartesian pragmatism in America meant that American democratization entailed a materialization of life, one in which the chief aim was the reduction of bodily harm at the expense of spirit and soul—though America’s long poetic love affair with Christianity ensured that the life of spirit and soul remained strong despite the materialistic application of American “common sense” to daily living.
Nietzsche, who characterized democratic man as the Last Man (the final becoming in a history of degeneration rather than progress), takes an even more pessimistic attitude. Whereas for Tocqueville Christianity granted a certain élan against the materialization of life occurring because of democratization, Nietzsche’s full-throated hatred of Christianity made him blind to seeing any spiritual or soulful positivity in the Christian legacy. Base democratization was, for Nietzsche, a byproduct of Christianity. (Interestingly enough, Marx also saw human rights and democracy as a secularized child of Christianity.) The rationalistic egalitarianism of Platonism, which would tend toward pragmatism by default, when married with the egalitarian outlook of humanity in Christianity, then advanced by the new science and economism of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and John Locke, ensured a “prioritization [of] what is lower” in life. That call to aristocratic greatness in struggle and the expression of one’s will to power was replaced by “the comfort of the many” which advances the democratic cause.
The French Revolution may have been a watershed moment in human history, but are we still living through its “seismic” and “sweeping” ramifications? One of the curious things about the French Revolution vis-à-vis the American Revolution was the centralized role of the state in the revolutionary fervor. In fact, the democratic spirit that was part of the French Revolution was decidedly and always totalitarian and despotic in character. (Don’t tell that to the partisan hacks of “democracy” on the legacy media though.)
Today, we seem to be living through the residual manifestation of democratic despotism, much to the chagrin of embarrassing public intellectuals like Max Boot and Bill Kristol or the talking heads of CNN who parrot “democracy” in their writings or on their show as if it is a magical phrase that ensures moral and political superiority to any and all opponents. Today’s ideology of democracy seems to have more in common with the bloody Jacobinism of the French Revolution than the far milder republicanism of the American Revolution. But what theorists and analysts of democracy have always known, from Plato to Tocqueville and Nietzsche, is that democracy has always had a potentially despotic spirit and character to it. In the Greek past, this was tempered by the aristocrats and oligarchs so loathed today in our worshipping upon the altar of egalitarianism. In early modernity, that same despotic spirit was curtailed by Christianity as recognized by Tocqueville and more recently by Isaiah Berlin. Now, however, both restraints are gone or quickly fading with respect to Christianity. All that is left is the soft despotism of the (democratic) state.
Eisenberg’s assessment of the “mild despotism” of democracy in Tocqueville’s analysis is what is most fruitful in this book, especially in light of contemporary political circumstances. “The aggrandizement of the state looms large in Tocqueville’s thought” as our author notes:
A number of factors in the age of democracy lend themselves to the establishment of mild despotism. For one, there is the sheer enormity of the state, Its scope portends to be total: no part of the political and social milieu will lie beyond it. The art of administrative centralization—not to be confused with governmental centralization—will be further and further perfected so that no citizen will be able to evade the yoke of the central state, which will seek to govern every aspect of life.
This, of course, is done in the name of democratization and economic security and comfort. It seems, per Tocqueville and Nietzsche, that the triumph of the low life of economic comfort which must occur in democratization necessarily entails the triumph of the cold, rationalistic, centrally planned, bureaucratic state. (We mustn’t forget that Nietzsche was also highly critical of state bureaucratism). “The degradation of man and the aggrandizement of the state go hand in hand. As individuals grow more diminutive and disconnected, they become less capable of fulfilling their own needs and increasingly turn to the state to fulfill those needs,” writes Eisenberg in carrying forward Tocqueville’s analysis to its contemporary situation. In the aggrandizement of the state, mild despotism grows—replacing churches, charities, and civic and civil associations that once manifested the vitality of civil society now swept away by the burgeoning growth of the bureaucratic agencies of the centralized state.
Tocqueville and Nietzsche saw what democratization entailed: the end of the lofty and “noble” way of life of the soul. Democratization leads to the triumph of the base, the lower, and the ignoble. In this triumph of the mundane, the techno-scientistic state of rational planning grows and grows and grows. Democratic sentiment destroys all intellectual opposition because the idea of difference is offensive to the small-minded and puny, generally resentful, democratic soul.
Is this cause for despair? Perhaps. But Tocqueville and Nietzsche equally call us to go beyond despair and to recover what democratization is trying to eradicate but that will only be eradicated if we permit it to be destroyed. The life of the spirit and soul is in the hands of each individual. You can still resist the mild despotism if you have the soulful strength within you.
David Eisenberg’s new book is a provocative, insightful, and much-needed return to genuine political analysis and diagnosis in the twenty-first century as we still deal with the aftermath of 1789, 1945, and 1991. While one might quibble over bits and pieces of the, at times, uncritical acceptance of Tocqueville and Nietzsche as if they are perfect readers of the issue of democratization, the work is profoundly important in the context of our contemporary malaise and political struggles. History hasn’t ended. Democratization is continuing in the sense of politics being about the lowest common denominator of rationalistic economism. But the problems now being revealed can equally be a cause for hope: hope that a new spirit of life rises to the challenges posed by the aggrandizement of the base and crude and the mild despotism of the democratic state seeking to squash any residue of the great soul left in contemporary humanity. Rising up to that challenge is certainly a noble aspiration.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More