Saturday 13 March 2021

Stages of Nihilism - Realism


The Realism of which we speak--a generic term which we understand as inclusive of the various forms of "naturalism" and "positivism"--is in its simplest form, the doctrine that was popularized precisely under the name of "Nihilism" by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons. The figure of Bazarov in that novel is the type of the "new man" of the C sixties' in Russia, simple-minded materialists and determinists, who seriously thought (like D. Pisarev) to find the salvation of mankind in the dissection of the frog, or thought they had proved the non-existence of the human soul by failing to find it in the course of an autopsy. (One is reminded of the Soviet Nihilists, the "new men" of our own 'sixties,' who fail to find God in outer space.) This "Nihilist" is the man who respects nothing, bows before no authority, accepts (so he thinks) nothing on faith, judges all in the light of a science taken as absolute and exclusive truth, rejects all idealism and abstraction in favor of the concrete and factual. He is the believer, in a word, in the "nothing-but, in the reduction of everything men have considered "higher," the things of the mind and spirit, to the lower or "basic": matter, sensation, the physical.

As opposed to Liberal vagueness, the Realist world-view seems perfectly clear and straightforward. In place of agnosticism or an evasive deism, there is open atheism; in place of vague "higher values," naked materialism and self-interest. All is clarity in the Realist universe--except what is most important and most requires clarity: its beginning and end. Where the Liberal is vague about ultimate things, the Realist is childishly naive: they simply do not exist for him; nothing exists but what is most obvious.

Such Realism, of course, is a self-contradiction, whether it takes the form of a "naturalism" that tries to establish an absolute materialism and determinism, or a "positivism" that purports to deny the absolute altogether, or the doctrinaire "agnosticism" that so readily discourses on the "unknowability" of ultimate reality; we have already discussed this problem in Section I of this chapter. But argument, of course, is purely academic in view of the fact that Realism, a logical self-contradiction, is not properly treated as a philosophy at all. It is the naive, undisciplined thought of the unreflective, practical man who, in our age of oversimplification, thinks to impose his simple-minded standards and ideas upon the entire world; or, on a slightly different level, the equally naive thought of the scientist, bound to the obvious by the requirements of his specialty, when he illegitimately attempts to extend scientific criteria beyond their proper bounds. In the latter sense it is, to adopt a useful distinction, [9] "scientism" as opposed to legitimate science; for it must be understood that our remarks here are not directed against science itself, but against the improper exploitation of its standards and methods that is so common today.

Is it correct to call such a philosophy Nihilism? More precisely, is it Nihilism in the sense in which we have defined that term? If truth is, in the highest sense, knowledge of the beginning and end of things, of the dimension of the absolute; and if Nihilism is the doctrine that there is no such truth; then it is clear that those who take scientific knowledge for the only truth, and deny what ties above it, are Nihilists in the exact sense of that term. Worship of the fact is by no means the love of truth; it is, as we have already suggested, its parody. It is the presumption of the fragment to replace the whole; it is the proud attempt to build a Tower of Babel, a collection of facts, to reach to the heights of truth and wisdom from below. But truth is only attained by bowing down and accepting what is received from above. All the pretended "humility" of Realist scholars and scientists, these men of little faith, cannot conceal the pride of their collective usurpation of the throne of God; they, in their smallness, think their painstaking "research" of more weight than Divine Revelation. For such men, too, "there is no truth"; and of them we may say what St. Basil the Great said of pagan Greek scientists, "Their terrible condemnation will be the greater for all this worldly wisdom, since, seeing so clearly into vain sciences, they have willfully shut their eyes to the knowledge of the truth." [10]

Up to this point, however, we have failed properly to distinguish the second stage of Nihilism from its first. Most Liberals, too, accept science as exclusive truth; wherein does the Realist differ from them? The difference is not so much one of doctrine--Realism is in a sense merely disillusioned and systematized Liberalism--as one of emphasis and motivation. The Liberal is indifferent to absolute truth, an attitude resulting from excessive attachment to this world; with the Realist, on the other hand, indifference to truth becomes hostility, and mere attachment to the world becomes fanatical devotion to it. Those extreme consequences must have a more acute cause.

The Realist himself would say that this cause is the love of truth itself, which forbids belief in a "higher truth" that is no more than fantasy. Nietzsche, in fact, while believing this, saw in it a Christian quality that had turned against Christianity. "The sense of truth, highly developed through Christianity, ultimately revolts against the falsehood and fictitiousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and its history." [11]  Understood in proper context, there is an insight--though partial and distorted--in these words. Nietzsche, most immediately, was rebelling against a Christianity that had been considerably diluted by Liberal humanism, a Christianity in which uncompromising love of and loyalty to absolute truth were rare if not entirely absent, a Christianity which had become no more than a moral idealism tinged with aesthetic sentiment. The Russian "Nihilists," similarly, were in revolt .against the romantic idealism of "superfluous men" who dwelled in a nebulous realm of fantasy and escape divorced from any kind of reality, spiritual or worldly. Christian Truth is as remote from such pseudo-spirituality as is Nihilist realism. Both Christian and Realist are possessed of a love of truth, a will not to be deceived, a passion for getting to the root of things and finding their ultimate cause; both reject as unsatisfying any argument that does not refer to some absolute that itself needs no justification; both are the passionate enemies of the frivolity of a Liberalism that refuses to take ultimate things seriously and will not see human life as the solemn undertaking that it is. It is precisely this love of truth that will frustrate the attempt of Liberals to preserve ideas and institutions in which they do not fully believe, and which have no foundation in absolute truth. What is truth?--to the person for whom this is a vital, burning question, the compromise of Liberalism and humanism becomes impossible; he who once and with his whole being has asked this question can never again be satisfied with what the world is content to take in place of truth.

But it is not enough to ask this question; one must find the answer, or the last state of the seeker will be worse than the first. The Christian has found the only answer in God and His Son; the Realist, out of contact with Christian life and the Truth that animates it, asks the question in a spiritual vacuum and is content to accept the first answer he finds. Mistaking Christianity for another form of idealism, he rejects it and becomes a fanatical devotee of the only reality that is obvious to the spiritually blind: this world. Now, much as it is possible to admire the earnestness of the devoted materialist and atheist, not even the greatest charity can induce us to recognize in him any longer the love of truth which, perhaps, first inspired him; he is the victim, rather, of a love of truth that has gone astray, become a disease, and ended in its own negation. The motives of the Realist are, in fact, not pure: he claims to know what, by his own theory of knowledge, cannot be known (we have seen that the denial of absolute truth is itself an " absolute"); and if he does so it is because he has an ulterior motive, because he places some other worldly value above truth. The ruthless Realist and "truth-seeker" Nietzsche, seduced by a vision of the "Superman," ends in the evocation of the will to untruth and the will to power; Marxist Realism, for the sake of a revolutionary millennium, issues in a reign of lies and deceptions such as the world has never seen. The love of truth, frustrated of its proper object, is prostituted to an irrational "cause" and becomes a principle of subversion and destruction; it becomes the enemy of the truth it has failed to attain, of every kind of order founded wholly or partially upon the truth, and--in the end--of itself.

It becomes, in fact, a perfect parody of the Christian love of truth. Where the Christian asks the ultimate meaning of everything and is not content until he sees that it is founded on God and His Will, the Realist likewise questions everything, but only to be able to abolish all suggestion of or aspiration to anything higher, and to reduce and simplify it into the terms of the most obvious and "basic" explanation. Where the Christian sees God in everything, the Realist sees only "race" or "sex" or the "mode of production."

If the Realist, therefore, shares in common with the Christian a single-mindedness and earnestness that is totally foreign to the Liberal mentality, it is only the better to join in the Liberal's attack on Christian Truth, and to carry out that attack to its conclusion: the total abolition of Christian Truth. What began half-heartedly in Liberalism has gathered momentum in Realism and now presses to its catastrophic end. Nietzsche foresaw in our century "the triumph of Nihilism"; Jacob Burkhardt, that disillusioned Liberal, saw in it the advent of an age of dictators who would be "terribles simplificateurs." In Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, with their radically "simple" solutions for the most complex of problems, the fulfillment of this prediction in the political realm has been well begun. More profoundly, Nihilist "simplification" may be seen in the universal prestige today accorded the lowest order of knowledge, the scientific, as well as the simplistic ideas of men like Marx, Freud, and Darwin, which underlie virtually the whole of contemporary thought and life.

We say "life," for it is important to see that the Nihilist history of our century has not been something imposed from without or above, or at least has not been predominantly this; it has rather presupposed, and drawn its nourishment from, a Nihilist soil that has long been preparing in the hearts of the people. It is precisely from the Nihilism of the commonplace, from the everyday Nihilism revealed in the life and thought and aspiration of the people, that all the terrible events of our century have sprung. The world-view of Hitler is very instructive in this regard, for in him the most extreme and monstrous Nihilism rested upon the foundation of a quite unexceptional and even typical Realism. He shared the common faith in "science," "progress," and "enlightenment" (though not, of course, in "democracy"), together with a practical materialism that scorned all theology, metaphysics, and any thought or action concerned with any other world than the "here and now," priding himself on the fact that he had "the gift of reducing all problems to their simplest foundations."  [12]  He had a crude worship of efficiency and utility that freely tolerated "birth control," laughed at the institution of marriage as a mere legalization of a sexual impulse that should be "free," welcomed sterilization of the unfit, despised "unproductive elements" such as monks, saw nothing in the cremation of the dead but a "practical" question and did not even hesitate to put the ashes, or the skin and fat, of the dead to "productive use." He possessed the quasi-anarchist distrust of sacred and venerable institutions, in particular the Church with its "superstitions" and all its "outmoded" laws and ceremonies. (We have already had occasion to note his abhorrence of the institution of Monarchy, a determining factor in his refusal to assume the Imperial tide.) He had a naive trust in the "natural mom, the "healthy animal" who scorns the Christian virtues--virginity in particular--that impede the "natural functioning" of the body. He took a simple-minded delight in modern conveniences and machines, and especially in the automobile and the sense of speed and "freedom" it affords.

There is very little of this crude Weltanschauung that is not shared, to some degree, by the multitudes today, especially among the young, who feel themselves "enlightened" and "liberated," very little that is not typically "modern." And it is precisely upon the basis of a Realism such as this, in which there is no more room for the "complicated" Christian view of life and the supremely important realities of the spiritual world, that the grossest superstitions and the most blatant credulity can thrive. Well-meaning men think to forestall the appearance of another Hitler by an attack upon "irrationality" and a defense of "reason," "science," and "common sense"; but outside of the context of Christian Truth these values, constituting a Realism of their own, are a preparation for, and not a defense against, the advent of another "terrible simplifier." The most effective contemporary "simplifiers" are those who hold power in the Soviet Union, who have made a religion of "science" and " common sense"; and anyone who looks to those most superstitious men for the defense of any value worth defending, is sorely deceived.

Realism unquestionably belongs to the "spirit of the age," and all who feel themselves to be of that "spirit" have had to accommodate themselves to it. Thus humanism, which in a more leisurely age had a more "idealistic" and Liberal coloration, has itself found it necessary to . change with the times" and adopt a more Realistic tone. The more naive have founded a humanistic "religion" that identifies itself with the cause of "science" and "progress" and has made into dogmas precisely the self-contradictions we have already examined; [13]  it is men like this who are capable of seeing in Marxism too a kind of "humanism." But even in the most sophisticated of contemporary humanists, in the most urbane scholars and statesmen, the Realist tone is unmistakable. It is revealed, for example, in the invasion by scientific methods and attitudes of the last strongholds of the "humanities"; no contemporary scholar, in whatever field, feels secure unless his work is to the fullest possible degree "scientific" (which often means, of course, "scientistic"). Realism may be seen, again, in the stoical, worldly-wise, and often cynical tone of all but the most naive (or religious) of contemporary humanists; their imagined "freedom from illusion" has also been, in large measure, a disillusionment; they now "know better" than to believe in the "higher truths" that comforted their fathers.

Humanism, in short, has come to terms with Realism--and, so it thinks, with reality; in the passage from Liberalism to Realism the humanist sees not only a disillusionment, but a process of "maturing." The Orthodox Christian, of course, sees something quite different. If the function of Liberalism was to obscure, with the smoke of "tolerance" and agnosticism, the higher truths concerning God and the spiritual life, the task of the Realism we have been examining has been to annihilate those truths. In this second stage in the progress of the Nihilist dialectic, Heaven has been closed off from the gaze of men, and men have resolved never again to take their eyes off the earth, but to live henceforth in and for this world alone. This Realist resolve is as present in a seemingly innocent "logical positivism" and scientific humanism as it is in the obviously Satanic phenomena of Bolshevism and National Socialism. The consequences of this resolve are hidden from those who make it, for they involve the very reality to which Realism is blind: the reality both above and below the narrow Realist universe. We shall see how the closing off of Heaven looses unexpected forces from below that make a nightmare of the Nihilist dream of a "new earth," and how the " new man" of Realism will resemble less a mythological "fully-developed" perfect humanity than a veritable "subhumanity" such as has never before been encountered in human experience.

We must now explore the next step in the progress of the Nihilism that leads to these ends: Vitalism.

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