In the course of what is now titled Continental Philosophy, three figures stand out as preeminent thinkers able to probe the innermost depths of the human psyche in a way previously unknown since perhaps Shakespeare: Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky. These three were more or less contemporaries, and all shared a similar fascinating interest—that of tearing down the ideological idols of their day, and in particular, the facade the individual post-Enlightenment “modern man” conceived himself to be. While these men certainly had differing worldviews and would likely have debated such grand topics as the precise meaning of God and man’s relation to Him in the universe, they shared a similar distaste for hypocrisy, lies and falsehood, and made it partly their authorial iconoclastic goal to tear away such veils.
Francis Bacon had made it his goal as an early Enlightenment luminary to tear down what he perceived to be idols in his Novum Organum — idols of the tribe, cave, marketplace and theater. Idols of the tribe meant the destruction of abstracted social ideals foisted upon reality; idols of the cave referred to myopic interpretations of reality according to a particular fancy of some individual academic; idols of the marketplace refers to the misappropriation of word and thing, assigning an undue identification between the two, assuming that out talking an opponent has then caused the reality of the topic under discussion to actually exist as such; and idols of the theater, where ideas are erected on a false presupposition of theology or metaphysical speculation, becoming ensconced in the public discourse.1 This tractate encompasses the impetus of the Enlightenment and its obsession with what Rene Guenon called the “reign of quantity.” Everything is measured and classified according to some quantitative stricture of man’s reason. Scientific knowledge, or more specifically, scientism, becomes the dominant paradigm by which all things are measured, be it religion, politics, economics and the marketplace. All things are in potentia capable of rational formalization and, like a big algorithm, all of humanity’s ills simply await the solution of the academy and its laboratory calculators.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky would take this same methodology and turn it in on itself. Is it possible that Bacon and his Enlightenment progeny were guilty of the very things he sought to destroy? Did the philosophes erect idols of their own? For Nietzsche, the influence of Soren Kierkegaard must first be mentioned. Kierkegaard had struggled with the complacency and formalism of the Lutheran official church of his day, resulting in an introspective journey that would cause him to even question the nature of the self. Kierkegaard did not, however, analyze the self from some kind of privileged, abstracted “scientific” view as is found in someone like Descartes and his cogito, but rather in the dialectical relationship of the self with itself and the other. In The Sickness unto Death, the self must come to despair (the sickness), and reveling in its own finitude, find solace in a relationship with an infinite God. For Kierkegaard, this is the only way to escape the continual dialectic fallen man is trapped in by virtue of being a son of Adam.
Critic Merold Westphal writes:
For these three secular masters of suspicion [Marx, Nietzsche and Freud], the illusions that must be unmasked are those of self-interest masquerading as duty and virtue, and egoism pretending to the world and to itself that it is altruism. Nietzsche’s example of the spirit resentment giving rise to a demand for revenge but posing as love and justice is a kind of paradigm. But sin is no more than selfishness vis-a-vis my neighbor. It is also the failure to love God with all my heart. Human self-deception now includes the will to autonomy from God alongside the will to dominance over my neighbor. Inevitably its introduction into the story adds the whole new dimension to the art of suspicion.2
Herein enters Nietzsche’s departure from Kierkegaard, while retaining his “art of suspicion.” Rather than succumb to a moral system that leads to inevitable failure and misery (the Christian scheme), fomenting in ressentiment and hatred for others under the guise of “love,” while plunging further and further into sickness to find “salvation” from the self that is supposedly created good by God, Nietzsche turns Kierkegaard’s suspicion on Christian morality itself, as well as upon the Enlightenment.
For Nietzsche, the Enlightenment had given rise to critique, or the art of suspicion, and in so doing, had tossed aside God. This is the meaning of the famous “God is dead” phrase.3 Rather than being a factual claim about what Nietzsche believed in regard to some ontological scheme (as its often misinterpreted to mean), it’s a descriptive statement about the current and future state of Western Civilization and its relation to the Judeo-Christian God. The Enlightenment had successfully critiqued previous metaphysical and theological assumptions inherited from the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, Augustine and Aquinas, only to find itself still seeking a grand narrative that amounted to the exaltation of an idealized and abstracted view of “man” or “mankind” or “humanity.” With Immanuel Kant, for example, extrapolating a categorical moral imperative should logically lead to a world government where humanity is guided by reason and harmony—a veritable scientistic utopia! Yet with Kierkegaard and then Nietzsche and Dostoevsky (as we shall see), we begin to see the problem with this abstraction.
Yet Descartes’ cogito was not something Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky could completely avoid. The seeds of individualism had been laid. Descartes, himself somewhat of a rationalist, could not have foreseen the existential dilemma his cogito would create, but his turning of man’s gaze in on himself to deconstruct the psyche would result in the existentialists deconstructing the mythos of the Enlightenment. Louis Dupre remarks:
For Descartes, the truth of nature becomes established in the mind’s reconstruction of it. The mind thereby functions as the mirror in whose reflection truth originates. But if so, how can it know itself, Gassendi wondered. The physical eye, incapable of seeing itself directly, nevertheless is able to see itself in the mirror, yet for Descartes, there is no mirror beyond the mind. If we do not know the nature of the mirror, however, how can we evaluate its capacity for reflecting the true nature of things? In this objection lies the entire problem of knowledge as representation. Unless the eye know itself, how could it know how (and, in the end, what) it reflects? What allows the mind to refer the mirrored image to an original if it ignores how it reflects the original? Descartes felt that the objection went to the heart of his theory, and responded that the mind’s mirror also reflects itself. Yet the mind possesses no more than an awareness of its existence. Does that suffice for justifying the knowledge of things in themselves through an act of representation? Locke perceived the difficulty and stated that the mind knows only its own ideas.4
Enlightenment thinking here begins to collapse in on itself. It begins to become evident that abstracted quantified measurement of all reality in a reductionist fashion—whether making all reality into matter or idea, ends in the same conundrum: solipsism. Solipsism is not the kind of position an Enlightenment rationalist would prefer to adopt, since it is a fundamentally irrational position. Kierkegaard recognized that the self was dialectically related to itself and other selves, and ultimately to the Other Self (God), and that its inability to find solace and meaning could only be had in, so he thought, a sort of individualistic justification by faith in the Lutheran scheme.
Nietzsche bites the bullet and simply rejects all of this in toto. In other words, why consider the self as evil, as Christianity does? Why accept that God requires a debt that can only be paid by first recognizing one’s own inherent sinfulness? Didn’t God know this about man (his infinite sinfulness) to begin with, and thus the payment of an infinite death by sacrificing Himself to pay Himself becomes an exercise in irrationality. Yet Christianity had, since the scholastic era and its byproduct (the Enlightenment era), been gradually arguing itself away from Christ’s redemption, into rationalism, and then by the same reasoning, rejecting rationalism by the arguments of reason itself. This quandary was not readily accepted by the deists and moralists of Nietzsche’s time, yet Nietzsche was not afraid to call out the deists and scientists for their contradictions on their own grounds.
If the Enlightenment meant that God was dead as an ontological reality, then there was no coherent reason to hold onto Christian moralism, and in fact these morals were themselves destructive and retrogressive to those who were strong. Christianity was slave morality par excellence, as he argued in the First and Second essays of the Genealogy of Morals, as well as in The Twilight of the Idols, and Antichrist. In fact, the entirety of Western Civilization itself had started from false presuppositions that began with ascetics like Socrates and Plato, who sought to flee the reality of the present into flights of fancy and abstractions. From Plato the West was given a dialectical nightmare which would take a few millennia to recover from, if it could even be called a recovery. The modern atheistic scientists were no better: In fact, they were worse for arguing for something more contradictory than those in “Christendom.” The Third Essay of the Genealogy takes up the absurdity Nietzsche sees in the “ascetics,” which includes the Enlightenment luminaries and the mediocre Germans of his own day.
For Nietzsche, the Enlightenment did cast off Christendom and its grand narrative that gave explanatory power to the seemingly random and harsh facts of life, but this was not an entirely lamentable fact. This removal of the idols of Bacon would be a tough pill to swallow and leads lead to a kind of nihilism, as Dostoyevsky noted, but for Nietzsche this results in a possible rise of an artistic elite who will create a new meaning. Man’s salvation would be found in art, and in aesthetics a new narrative and meaning might be presented. There was no determined necessity to this happening, of course. It is entirely possible that man might devolve, for progressive evolutionary theory is yet another Enlightenment myth: There is no law of progress present in the brute factuality of impersonal existence. For Nietzsche, this Overman would bring redemption again—as “Antichrist,” since in his analysis, Christianity is nihilism. It is the Christian narrative and its inherent contradictions, resentment and gradual degeneration, that has led Western man to nihilism and it is following upon this system’s dissolution that a new man would arise.5
Robert Solomon explains:
Aristotle had an ethos: Nietzsche leaves us with nothing. But Nietzsche is nevertheless the culmination of that whole tradition—which we still refer to as “moral philosophy” or “ethics”—which is based on a tragic and possibly irreversible error in both theory and practice. The error is the rejection of ethos as the foundation of morality with a compensating insistence on the rational justification of morality. Without a presupposed ethos, no justification is possible. Within an ethos, none is necessary. And so after centuries of degeneration, internal inconsistencies and failures in the Enlightenment project of transcending mere custom and justifying moral rules once and for all, the structures of morality have collapsed, leaving only incoherent fragments.6
Dostoevsky, however, remains a religious figure like Kierkegaard. A member of the Russian Orthodox tradition, in his younger years he was possessed by an optimistic, liberal view of human nature that would eventually morph into a more realistic, negative appraisal. In opposition to the classical liberal Western assumption that “humanity” can be raised up by education, and ever complex education at that, Dostoevsky’s writings give readers a window into the darker side of human nature that most would prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. The Enlightenment’s project, it must be recalled, was to tear away idols. Must not Western, hubris-filled man tear away this idol of the myth of his inward “goodness”? What of the inner darkness that results in atrocities? Why had the so-called progress of man resulted in ever-increasing warfare, upheaval and revolution, by Dostoyevsky’s time? If men are not a tabula rasa—blank slates upon which the correct imprinting by environment and education can create a harmonious, well-formed, mature individual, then what is man?
In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky gives a glimpse into the thoughts of a devious, vengeful, self-absorbed, slightly sadistic man. This petty man happens to be a typical man—a kind of everyman, yet a highly intelligent one. The force of the literary presentation lies precisely in the fact that it is a man we all recognize, since his faults are common to all humans, yet this is a highly intelligent person. But if this kind of petty selfishness is present even in the most intelligent, John Locke’s tabula rasa and the rest of the Enlightenment hopefuls and their idolized, abstracted smart man have simply replaced God with a new idol. Not only is there no abstracted scientist on a pedestal we can all aspire to; the fact is, most humans are petty, stupid and not even capable of abstract reasoning. The ones who are generally are selfish and self-absorbed. Dostoyevsky’s thinker mocks the idea that simply educating people and promoting “science” and “reason” will result in a better world:
They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls’ breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate. But yet you are fully convinced that he will be sure to learn when he gets rid of certain old bad habits, and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature and turned it in a normal direction. You are confident that then man will cease from intentional error and will, so to say, be compelled not to want to set his will against his normal interests. That is not all; then, you say, science itself will teach man (though to my mind it’s a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopaedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world.
Then—this is all what you say—new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the “Palace of Crystal” will be built. Then … In fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation.7
In a brilliant turn of logic in literary form, Dostoevsky takes the Enlightenment thinker to task for his scientism and rationalistic quantification, as if human nature operated like an algorithm. It doesn’t: humans are irrational and stupid more often than not, and no amount of education and environmental alterations will be able to cure flaws as simple as boredom, which often give rise to bizarre, irrational behavior. No amount of education has been able to eradicate sadistic atrocities committed by men, following upon a few hundred years of the West adopting the new gospel of man given by the Enlightenment prophets. And in the greatest turn of absurdity, the very thing the Enlightenment set out to do—to make reality rational to produce a better world, has ended up quantifying and reducing all reality to some monistic numerical tabulation of irrational, deterministic causation, resulting in the total denial of volition and will, absolutely. If all reality is a strict process of materialistic cause and effect, then free will is an illusion, and morals are thus also illusory. There can be no rational basis for morals on this assumption.
In conclusion it becomes apparent that all three thinkers—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky all contributed unique critical appraisals of the mythos of the Enlightenment. That mythos supposedly arose to give a primacy to human reason, the exaltation of science, the demythologization of superstition and religion, and the rise of “rational,” just, international political structures. What actually occurred was the overturning of the previous Christian mythos that provided Western Civilization with a cohesive grand narrative within which to situate the totality of existence. The collapse of this structure led immediately to the introspection of Kierkegaard and his dismal assessment of any hope of man finding himself until first coming to the end of himself and finding solace in the infinite God that transcends temporal, finite dialectics. For Nietzsche, the Enlightenment was yet another mythos that erected new idols in place of the old Bacon had supposedly torn down. Rigor in rationality in fact demanded that ethics be abandoned in favor or a new strong man arising who could create a new meaning. For Dostoevsky, the Enlightenment ate Christianity, and then ate itself, exalting reason to the point of creating utterly unreal, idealistic assessments of man himself. The supposed gospel of man had resulted in a deterministic denial of man that made the Enlightenment and its optimism impossible and absurd. And for Dostoevsky, as evidenced in Crime and Punishment, man would again have to come to the end of himself, like Kierkegaard had foreseen, before finding redemption again.
Read all of Jay Dyer’s work at Jay’s Analysis.
- Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum in The Portable Enlightenment Reader Ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin, 1995), 39-42.
- Westphal, Merold. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987), 106.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science #108in The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo Ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1989), 191.
- Dupre, Louis. Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press), 80.
- Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 95-6.
- Solomon, Robert. Living With Nietzsche: What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us (New York: Oxford, 2003), 128.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes From the Underground in Basic Writings of Existentialism Ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Random House, 2004), 213-14.