History of philosophy I: ancient philosophy

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Primary Source: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797-98).
Secondary Sources: Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy, chap. 5; Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., chap. 22 (Pierre Hassner); Carl J. Friedrich, The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective, chap. 14.


Analysis: For Nietzsche, a philosopher worthy of the name is above all a man of power: “As soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself, it always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise. Philosophy is this tyrannical drive itself, the most spiritual will to power, to the ‘creation of the world’ ” (Beyond Good and Evil, 9).

Starting from these militant premises, Nietzsche sets about creating his own new morality, which he triumphantly proclaims to be “a philosophy of the future.” The strong man is able to make his own morality, his own system of valuation. The stronger he is, the less he needs to rely upon its acceptance, and the more spontaneous his judgments. Growing out of instinctive drives and urges in man’s nature (the so-called Dionysian dimension of life—biological or purely physiological), the strong man liberates himself from social convention and moral norms from whatever source. He becomes a norm unto himself.

The key concept in Nietzsche’s ethic is will. Since the main thing in life is to act, and to act vigorously, one must first build up a strong and independent will, a “will to power.” “The highest and strongest drives…push the individual far above the lowlands of the herd conscience.” The goal is “a high and independent spirit, the will to stand alone” (Beyond, 201). Nietzsche’s paradigmatic man is the “higher man” for whom life is a ceaseless struggle to exceed his past and to dominate over “decadent men.” Like the Swiss mountains he made his home, highness, loftiness, independence, spontaneity are evidence of a superior will, the will that deserves to make its own rules and ceaselessly remake them, never conforming even to its own precedents.

Such a man thrives on opposition and unfavorable conditions, for they provide the challenge, the battleground on which to gain ever more strength, hardness, aggressiveness. Life becomes active, ceaseless struggle to maximize one’s will to power (much like what Hobbes understood by life in a “state of nature,” but for Nietzsche, it was not to be replaced by “civil society” as something better; it was itself the desirable condition for man’s life on earth). The sole aim of life is mastery. Living is “wanting to be different,” wanting to “impose your morality, your ideal, on nature,” wanting “all existence to exist only after your own image.” Even nature is to be overcome” (Beyond, 9).

The only relevant question for social life is: Who will be master and who will be slave? Members of the “herd” are fit for servitude, submission, conformity, modesty, mediocrity. The traditional morality is for them because it is a product of fear, a feeble attempt at self-protection. The new morality of the higher man unmasks the old morality as a produce of the “herd instinct.” “Egoism belongs to the nature of a noble soul…. Other beings must be subordinate by nature, and have to sacrifice themselves” (Beyond, 265).

Having thus prepared readers for his proclamation of social norms (justice, law), Nietzsche issues this teaching: The life of the higher man transcends “the old morality; the ‘individual’ appears, obliged to give himself laws and to develop his own arts and wiles for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption” (Beyond, 262). Legality is one more means in the power struggle for domination. Nietzsche envisions “legal order…as a means in the struggle between power complexes” (On the Genealogy of Morals, II, 11). If justice is considered the basis of legal obligation, it is a justice that “derives from egoism.” Indeed, the higher man can say: “I AM justice” (Human, All Too Human, 92). And since the self has life to the extent that it has a will to power, justice is a function of power (again, Hobbes). Nietzsche argued that the origin of obligation is “the feeling of superiority, human pride” (Genealogy, II, 8). In the case of the higher man, great power yields “great justice” (Beyond, 213, 262).

To practice justice in social relationships is to impose measures and settlements (laws) on those with less power. Legality is the process of subduing: “The institution of law [is] the imperative declaration of what in general counts as permitted, as just (right), …and what counts as forbidden, as unjust (wrong)” in the eyes of the stronger power. “ ‘Just’ and ‘unjust’ exist, accordingly, only after the institution of the law…. To speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be ‘unjust,’ since life operates essentially, that is, in its basic functions, through injury, assault, exploitation, destruction, and simply cannot be thought of at all without this character” (Genealogy, II, 11).

What, then, must rights and duties be in this context? Rights are “recognized and guaranteed degrees of power…. The right of others is the concession of our feeling of power among those others. When our power is…broken, our rights cease; on the other hand, when we have become a great deal more powerful, the rights of others cease” (The Dawn, 112).

Evaluation: A great deal of consistency runs through these writings of Nietzsche over the ten-year period surrounding his “illness,” that strange psychosomatic condition that caused him so much pain and near despair, and ultimately led to his breakdown. One cannot, however, call them systematic. Nietzsche was not a systematic thinker or writer; his approach is that of a manifesto. He cannot, then, be said to have originated a systematic teaching about morality, justice, or politics.

Yet the strident and repetitious tone of his works has been extremely influential with 20th century man. He is regarded as one of the foremost existentialist philosophers of modern times. He played the role of prophetic spokesman of radical individualism, of “the autonomous man.” Writing partly in reaction to the unrestricted state preached by a series of philosophers from Machiavelli to Hegel, and partly against self-complacent bourgeois society, he rushed to the opposite extreme of the morally irresponsible individual who forms a world unto himself.

Nietzsche’s defenders have tried to absolve him of complicity in the crimes of German National Socialism and other totalitarian excesses predicated on the idea of a master race or a higher man. His twisting of moral heroism from the struggle to overcome base appetites to the struggle to impose them on others has been a prime agent in the construction of a psychological and ethical support for numerous political adventurers. Nietzsche claimed to have foreseen that the 20th century would bring climactic global struggles of unprecedented savagery. To a certain extent, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The logical outcome of Nietzsche’s “trans-valuation of all values” has been the rise of a new barbarism consequent upon the removal of self-restraint along with entitlement to unlimited satisfaction of base desires. It is difficult to regard him otherwise than as the mouthpiece of mankind’s oldest enemy, who in Nietzsche found a temperamentally well-disposed accomplice. The primitive outcry of pride, the “non serviam,” the urge to self-redemption, expressed itself in Nietzsche’s works through a great literary talent. His name has become symbolic of a new age where will replaces reason as the key to what is most human. We would follow at our peril this voice crying in anguished rebellion.

Primary Sources: Human, All Too Human (1878)—92, 96; The Dawn (1881)—112; Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1885-86)—9, 201, 213, 262, 265; On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887)—I, 14; II, 6, 8, 11, 12; III, 9, 28.
Secondary Sources: Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism; Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche’s Socrates and the Nietzsche chapter in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy; Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, part I; Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile, beginning of part VII.

JACQUES MARITAIN (1882-1973) French Catholic Convert

The quest for meaning requires full engagement with life through philosophy.

The fullest, most complete set of philosophical tools is to be found in St. Thomas

Aquinas’ reworking of Aristotle (Christian Philosophy)

Human problems can be understood and resolved only by recovering natural law and

recognizing its universal applicability to human life.

A correct social order can be built by understanding the relationship between the personal

good and the common good.

Human nature attains its full maturity in Jesus Christ (Christian Humanism).

Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau
ÉTIENNE GILSON (1884-1978) French Catholic

A correct history of philosophy can discover lines of continuity in the immense variety

of thinkers and schools.

The Christian Middle Ages are timeless and still teach true philosophy.

One finds the center of that history in the rational insights based on revealed truth as

developed by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Only in Christian philosophy does one find the correct relation between reason and

revelation; there is no philosophy without prior theological premises.

Historians need to leave a teaching and research institute to continue their work.

A Gilson Reader
YVES SIMON (1903-1961) French Catholic

Christian philosophers take an optimistic, positive approach; they leave this life in the

same way they lived it.

A good philosopher has to be an inspiring teacher, gifted in the skills of transmitting his

tradition and interpreting it in the contemporary context.

Practical philosophy is to be emphasized in order to move beyond cultural artifacts to

a firm rule of life that finds the right balance between work and rest.

No organized society (community) can live without a confident authority.

The principles of democratic society fit well in the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition.

Work, Society, and Culture
JOSEF PIEPER (1904-1997) German Catholic

The happiest, best adjusted philosopher is the one who engages in contemplation because

without it one cannot see the connection between reality and the good.

Plato and Aristotle, the classical roots of Christian philosophy, provide the best access to

the spirit and the letter of Thomism.

A common sense philosophy for small communities of Christians must see and achieve

the wholeness of man.

The human and theological virtues come together in St. Thomas’ philosophy of virtue.

An Anthology
MAX SCHELER (1874-1928) German Agnostic

The major task of philosophy is to study individual (personal) life and action.

The most interesting question is what guides persons to their moral choices in an ethical

system of values, ranked in order of their inherent goodness (worth).

Values are perceived in lived experience—not by the mind but by the heart (feelings).

Human persons act within a common order (commonality, community, solidarity).

We all bear collective responsibility for what is done (and left undone); therefore we

share a common guilt for whatever is wrong with the world.

Philosophical Perspectives
EDITH STEIN [ST. TERESA BENEDICTA] (1891-1942) German Catholic Convert

The achievements of secular phenomenology enter Christian philosophy when

synthesized with Thomism:

Personal experiences (feelings, emotions) have to be understood within the context of

objective reality: This is how we come to know who and what we are.

A philosophical account of the human condition is possible only through access to

God in contemplative prayer.

The search for truth (philosophy) is a means to achieve spiritual wholeness (holiness).

The practical task of Christian philosophers is to heal broken hearts in a broken world.

Self-Portrait in Letters
DIETRICH VON HILDEBRAND (1889-1977) German Catholic Convert

The infidelities of persons and societies result from the foolishness of contemporary


Right reasoning in philosophy depends upon correct believing in theology.

“Value” refers to what has excellence in itself; “reverence” is the correct response to it.

The aim of life is to incorporate into personal experience what has value in and of itself

(primarily, beauty).

At the heart of life is loving and being loved, which requires purity of heart.

The Art of Living
KAROL WOJTYŁA [POPE JOHN PAUL II] (1920-2005) Polish Catholic

The central crisis of the modern age is a crisis of humanism (the truth about man).

Papal magisterium on reason, truth, good, and freedom is based upon philosophical

work in the context of prayer.

In the light of Christian revelation, philosophers ought to focus on those fundamental

realities if they are to be understood correctly and practiced faithfully.

The social and political implications of Christian personalism can cure the godless

culture of contemporary society.

Memory and Identity

GEORGE GRANT (1918-1988) Canadian Anglican Convert

Modernity perverts natural justice (right/good in itself) by making it serve self-interest.

Uncontrolled technology is responsible for frightful consequences in the world;

the ground has to be cleared so that new flowers may grow in human culture.

Modern culture prizes easy enjoyment of high lifestyles devoid of substance.

A practical atheism lies at the root of the nihilism and hopelessness of modern man;

pessimistic hesitation cannot discover hopeful alternatives.

George Grant: Selected Letters
G. E. M. ANSCOMBE (1919-2001) English Catholic convert

The chief enemy of contemporary man is a pervasive culture of death.

Ethical ‘consequentialism’ (a sophisticated version of ‘the end justifies the means’)

amounts to nothing more than a new form of rationalization.

Intention is the principal element in evaluating the morality of human acts.

Justice (righteousness) has no substance unless it is an uncompromising, universally

applicable standard of human action.

Contemporary experimentation in bioethics betrays human dignity.

Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays [“Contraception and Chastity”]
CHARLES PÉGUY (1873-1914) French Catholic Convert

A stubbornly hopeful prophetic witness and religious mystic, he was a gifted poet

sensitive to the barbaric corruption of culture in modern times:

His work shows how and why modern men are but tourists in an alien land, unable to

settle down in a world that thwarts their most basic interests.

He also points to hopeful signs of future recovery through reconciliation.

Driven by a patriotic fervor and sense of heroic duty (akin to that of Joan of Arc),

he gave his life in defense of his native country.

Men and Saints
SIMONE WEIL (1909-1943) French Judeo-Catholic

A keen student of classical humanism, she looked for the antecedents of Christian culture

in the ancient Greek poets and philosophers.

She developed a religious, mystical metaphysics outside of organized belief systems

and independent of philosophical traditions.

Painfully sensitive to every injustice, her devotion to teaching was interrupted by social

activism and wartime protests.

She practiced a severe asceticism as personal witness to a disharmonious world and

gave up her life in solidarity with the victims of war.

Simone Weil: An Anthology
GABRIEL MARCEL (1889-1973) French Catholic Convert

He was a keen witness of the struggle of philosophical existentialists to overcome despair

and find a ground for hope in fidelity to the Christian tradition.

As a dramatist, he used a rambling, consciously unsystematic style to engage the errors

of contemporary ideologies.

His work expresses a preference for the ordinary language of concrete human experience

rather than intellectual abstractions.

He concluded that the way back to God lies through engagement with other men.

The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (“Autobiographical Essay”)
T.S. ELIOT (1888-1965) English Anglican Convert

A metaphysical poet, dramatist, critic, and essayist who moved in literary circles with

the aim of influencing the ideas that impact society.

Consciously counter-cultural, his suffering in the “wasteland” of Modernity led to a

personal struggle toward conversion.

His eventual goal was to rebuild society on the foundation of Christian principles as the

only viable alternative to the revival of paganism.

The Idea of a Christian Society
FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1925-1964) American Catholic

A strong woman, sane and witty, who explored the relationship between culture and

personality on the assumption that everything in life is always under construction.

The “good news” of salvation is best disclosed by jolting the reader to confront life’s

grotesque experiences.

Incarnation, death, and resurrection provide the basic themes for understanding the

truth of the human condition.

Prayer and suffering disclosed the intersections of faith and reason, grace and nature.

The Habit of Being (Letters)
WALKER PERCY (1916-1990) American Catholic Convert

In a series of philosophical novels he explored man’s dislocation in the modern age

and provided accompanying clarifications in essays.

His works combine existential questioning with a Catholic worldview in the cultural

context of the American South.

Engaging in a pathology of the soul, he presents a strong reaffirmation of human life

against contemporary dehumanization.

He combined culture criticism with Christian apologetics in the disguise of a pilgrim.

Conversations with Walker Percy
ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN (1918-2008) Russian Orthodox

He spent his life effectively resisting modern totalitarian ideologies by means of

poignant portrayals of their inhumanity in autobiographical fiction.

His diagnoses apply to the soft totalitarianism of western democracies as well.

His goal was to move beyond—and recover from—those experiences by confronting

directly the radical lies about man that ideology-based regimes are built upon.

The evil that upsets all efforts to rescue modern man cuts across nations and states,

classes and parties, to its origin in human hearts.

The Solzhenitsyn Reader

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