Irrationalism: The Philosophic Climate of Opinion

Irrationalism: The Philosophic Climate of Opinion. A philosophy whose immediate political implication was national expansion by war must of necessity be an adventurers philosophy. By no rational calculation either of individual happiness or of tangible national benefit could such a purpose be made plausible. It must assign a mystical rather than a calculated value to national greatness, some remote and glittering goal of national creativeness that would at once allay the individual’s moral scruples and persuade him to accept discipline and heroism as ends to which no rational purpose need be assigned.

In short, it must set up will and action as self-justifying. In the thought of the nineteenth century there was no lack of ideas that contributed to such a philosophy. The enemies of fascism and national socialism generally described these movements as a revolt against reason, and its theorists not only accepted but underscored this description.

Their writings were filled with assertions that life controls reason, not reason life; that the great deeds of history were performed not by intelligence but by the heroic will; that peoples ate preserved not by thought but by a herd-instinct or a racial intuition inherent in the blood; that they rise to greatness when their will to power surmounts its physical and moral handicaps.

Similarly they consistently represented the desire for happiness as a despicable motive, in comparison with heroism, self-sacrifice, duty, and discipline. The democratic ideals of freedom and equality, and the civil and political liberties of constitutional and representative government, were represented as the outworn remnants of philosophical rationalism, which reached its culmination in the French Revolution. Barren Intellectualism was the standard term of contempt by which fascism and national socialism described all rival political theories, whether liberal or Marxian.

Philosophic irrationalism had formed a persistent strand in European thought throughout the nineteenth century but it had been marginal, in the sense that it had appealed to artists and literary men rather than to scientists or academic scholars, and it had been critical, in the sense that it had reflected a mood of dissatisfaction and maladjustment.

Modern industrialized society has rarely been a congenial home for artists or mystics. Irrationalism was born of the experience that life is too difficult, too complex, and too changeable to be reduced to a formula, that nature is driven by dark and mysterious forces opaque to science, and that a conventionalized society is intolerably rigid and superficial.

Against intelligence, therefore, it set up some other principle of understanding and action. This might be the insight of genius, or the inarticulate cunning of instinct, or the assertiveness of will and action.

However described, this force was contrasted with reason as a being creative rather than critical, profound rather than superficial, natural rather than conventional, uncontrollable and demonic rather than methodical. The patient weighing of evidence and the systematic search for fact are bourgeois virtues beneath the dignity of the genius or the saint.

Though an irrationalism of this sort had rarely had any positive political or social implications, it had combined two tendencies that were at once logically opposed and emotionally compatible. It had been a cult of the folk or the people or the nation, and it had been a cult of the hero or the genius or the great man. Sometimes it had imagined the folk collectively as the bearer and-source of civilization; from its spirit emerges mystically art and literature, law and government, morals and religion, all marked with the spiritual qualities of the national soul.

In Germany especially this cult of the Volk had been characteristic of literary romanticism. Long before the French Revolution Herder had contrasted genuine folk-thought with the cosmopolitan rationalism of the French and English Enlightenment.

The cult of the Volk had been implied in the conscious idealization of medieval art in contrast with the pseudo-classicism of the Eighteenth Century, in the revived appreciation of folk poetry and folk music, and in the Germanism of historical theories of constitutional law and political institutions. In its capacity as the creator of culture the folk was imagined to act collectively rather than by individual invention.

Yet it’s same romantic tendency of thought might take the form of the most extreme individualism, since all that is really great in art or politics was often imagined to be created by the heroes or the rare great minds that from time to time emerge from the soul of the Volk.

Hero-worship was an authentic quality of romantic thought from Carlyle and Nietzsche to Wagner and Stefan George. In this form of individualism reverence for the folk collectively was curiously combined with contempt for the masses individually. The individualism of the hero is the opposite of democratic egalitarianism.

He despises the utilitarian and humanitarian virtues of ordered bourgeois life; he has a pessimistic contempt for comfort and happiness; he lives dangerously and in the end he meets inevitable disaster. He is the natural aristocrat, driven to creation by the demonic powers of his own soul, and after the inertia of commonplace minds has destroyed him the people worship him.

The intellectual progenitors of this type of irrationalist thought in nineteenth-century philosophy were Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Schopenhauer saw behind both nature and human life the struggle of a blind force which he called will, an endless striving without purpose, a restless and meaningless effort that desires all things and is satisfied with nothing, that creates and destroys but never attains.

In this swirl of irrational force only the human mind builds up a little island of apparent order in which the illusion of reasonableness and purpose has a precarious footing. Schopenhauer’s pessimism was based upon a moral intuition of the vanity of human wishes in such a world, the littleness of human effort, and the hopelessness of human life.

In particular it was rooted in contempt for the little values and virtues of the Philistine, the smugness, self-satisfaction, and complacency of the undistinguished and the vulgar, who imagine that they can bind the incomprehensible forces of life and reality with rules of convention and logic.

This purblind spiritual pride Schopenhauer believed, not altogether justly, to be embodied in his rival Hegel. Against the logic of history he set up the creativeness of genius, of the artist and saint, who master the will not by controlling it but by denying it.

The hope of mankind lies not in progress but in extinction, in realizing that struggle and achievement are illusions. This release he imagined to be attained either through religious asceticism or the contemplation of beauty, which is consciousness without desire. The morality of everyday life Schopenhauer derived from pity, the sense that suffering is inevitable and that all men are essentially equal in their misery.

This curious blending of irrationality and humanitarianism, of will and contemplation, was broken apart by Nietzsche. For if life and nature are truly irrational, irrationality ought to be affirmed morally as well as intellectually. If achievement is meaningless, in any sense other than that human nature is blindly driven to strive, men can only accept, and if possible accept joyfully, the striving in place of the achievement; the value lies in the struggle and even in the very hopelessness of the struggle.

Not pity and renunciation but the affirmation of life and the will to power are the inner forces of personality. The commonplace, the smug, and the hypocritical, Nietzsche agreed, are as contemptible as Schopenhauer had said, but it is the hero rather, than the saint who transcends them.

All moral values must be trans valued accordingly in place of equality, the recognition of innate superiority; in place  of democracy, the aristocracy of the virile and the strong; in place of Christian humility and humanity, hardness and pride; in place of happiness, the heroic life; in place of decadence, creation. This, indeed, as Nietzsche insisted, is no philosophy for the masses, or rather, assigns the masses to their proper place as beings of a lower order whose healthy instinct is to follow their leader.

Once this healthy in is corrupted, the masses create only a slave morality, a fiction of humanity, pity, and self- abnegation, which in part reflects their own inferiority but is more truly a subtle poison, an invention of servile   to sterilize the powers of the creators. For there is nothing at the common man hates or fears so much as the disruptive force  originality. The two great embodiment of such a slave morality Nietzsche found in democracy and Christianity, each in its own way apotheosis of mediocrity and a symbol of decadence.

Nietzsche snacked the vocabulary for terms of violence to describe his hero,  superman, the Big Blond Beast, who tramples down opposition, spies happiness, and creates his own rules. But what commended philosophy to revolutionists of all kinds, and especially youthful revolutionists, was his indictment of the Philistinism and vulgarity Of the modern bourgeois.

Despite the obvious similarity of Nietzsche’s ideas to the philosophy thy of fascism and national socialism, the relationship was not so as has often been supposed. Critics were often disposed to see him the sources from which the ideas of the two movements were mainly drawn.

Fascists and national socialists themselves were not willing to admit this derivation, partly because some of the affinities ere genuine and even more, perhaps, because they needed the prestige of a great writer to supplement their own literary production, which was not in fact very distinguished. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler was averse to being regarded as a superman and both sincerely felt and indeed professed contempt for the masses whom they led.

Both could find in the trans valuation of values a politer phrase for moral cynicism. Fascists and national socialists alike were not inaptly cast the role of new barbarians, not softened by over-civilization of oral renunciation, and both publicized themselves as the redeemers of a decadent civilization.

They shared with Nietzsche a sincere hatred of democracy and Christianity. In important respects, however, they had to use him with caution and his writings could be safely circulated only in carefully selected anthologies. Few writers in the nineteenth century had been so contemptuous of nationalism, which he regarded as little better than a vulgar prejudice. Nietzsche’s chief pride was in being a good European.

No German writer had been so bitterly critical of the Germans of the Second Empire, whom he described as slave-souled and who needed, he thought, an inter mixture of Slavic blood to redeem them. The only periods of European history that Nietzsche admired were the Italian Renaissance and the France of Louis XIV.

Finally, though he often said harsh things about Jews, he was not altogether anti-Semitic. He once described the Jews as the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe. No national socialist quoted Nietzsche’s aphorism, Gut deutsch sein, heisst sich entdeutschen.

The irrationalism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was almost wholly moralistic. There existed in nineteenth-century philosophy, however, other tendencies more closely related to science which were also in some sense irrationalist. These were often designated by such vague words as pragmatism and positivism. They grew in general from two sources the biological discovery that reason or intelligence, like other mental faculties, could be regarded as a vital process that had a naturalistic origin in organic evolution, and the logical discovery that scientific procedure, even in the exact sciences included postulates and assumptions that were not self-evident in any rationalistic sense but could be more easily described as matters of convention or convenience.

These two tendencies were common properties of much philosophy in the nineteenth century but they found their most popular exponent in the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Unlike Nietzsche’s aphoristic moralizing Bergson’s irrationalism was a systematic use of reason to undermine reason and a highly intelligent criticism of the pretensions of scientific intelligence to be a source of truth. On its critical side Bergson’s Creative Evolution was an analysis designed to show that intellect is merely a factor in biological adaptation which has a pragmatic or instrumental use in the struggle for life and the control of man’s environment.

Utility rather than the attainment of truth is the function of science. This negative criticism, however, merely cleared the ground. Bergson’s main purpose was to show that intelligence is the servant of the life-force, an obscure cosmic drive not unlike Schopenhauer’s will or Hartmann’s Unconscious. Only intuition can directly apprehend the world as what it really is an indefinable, unpredictable, super rational creative force.

Bergson supposed the mind to be natively endowed with such an intuition, akin to instinct and more deeply rooted in life than is reason, but largely atrophied in human development by man’s over-dependence on intelligence. He also imagined that the intuitive powers might be recovered and made a methodical instrument for attaining metaphysical truth, but he was quite unable to say what the methods were. In point of fact his appeal to intuition was simply an invitation to a kind of vita list mysticism in biology and psychology as well as in philosophy.
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