Nietzsche in the Context of the Liberalism of Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

This a reflection work I am doing at a present for a workshop, the workshop will become a book, all going well.  What I write here is distinct from what I am writing for the workshop, and proposed book, as blogging is different kind of writing.

The liberalism of the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries is coming to terms with the transition from the models of antiquity, known from antique historians and philosophers, to the commercial societies, the civil society and the legal innovations of the period in which they were living.  Commerce was an important part of ancient republics, and we cannot understand the ancient republics without understanding the role of commerce.  However, the ancient writers themselves were not entirely happy with commercial society as they understood it.  Commerce was inferior to aristocratic disposal of property that had existed over time.  This attitude even permeates the thought of someone like Cicero, though he was the provincial aristocracy in in Arpium, a city which had been only recently Romanised.  A bit later, Seneca, who was extremely rich in part through money lending, never gives much of  a place to commercial life in his writing.

Plato thought rulers should be propertyless and that the money making classes, however rich, should be considered below soldiers in status.  Aristotle was less extreme, but still favoured the limitation of inequality to a ration of 5 to 1 in the best political community, and thought of property as something better used than traded.  In the 18th and 19th centuries writers like Hume, Smith, Humboldt and Constant thought of strong transferrable property rights and the pursuit of commercial wealth as essential to liberty, and to the growth of moral community.  For the antique authors, money is part of desire, and that is inferior to reason, so that liberty means indifference to money, liberty from its influence on reason.  Given the commercial realities of the ancient Greek states, and of Rome, we should bring some scepticism to the writing of the ancients on this matter, but we should also see that liberty can never just be a matter of pursuing subjective preferences, for money or anything else.  That is liberalism can only be complete if it recognises that human flourishing has a communal and political aspect.  In practice, no one, or hardly anyone, has denied that we should care about things other than more money, or more of any source of pleasure.  Some forms of writing about liberty my have some difficulty in dealing with that though, because they start with the subjective pleasure satisfying preferences of isolated individuals.

Nietzsche stands for a kind of individualism which is stronger than that of antiquity, in its concentration on the life of an isolated self.  The exemplary individual in Nietzsche experiences isolation of a kind that is strange from the antique point of view, but does have some roots in ascetic philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope.  That kind of asceticism was taken further in Christianity, and there is a bit of the Christian ascetic in Nietzsche.  However, the experience and positive evaluation of isolation and self exploration, with no God given purpose is something than can only arise after the social evolution.  There could be no Nietzscheanism without Rousseau’s isolated savage or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  That is there could be no Nietzscheanşsm without the civil society which promotes individualism and privacy to a hitherto unknown degree, and without the writers like Constant and Humboldt who saw the ancient state as admirable in many respects, but as threatening to self-determination.  That threat was also present in the modern state in other forms.  The threat posed by the ancient or modern state could only be posed in that way because the modern state was more and more distinct from the authority of custom or of the sacral.  The power of the people was defined not as the gathering of individuals in the city centre, or the defence of popular custom, but with regard to representation of a dispersed people in central institutions, and new enlightened laws.

For Nietzsche, we should value an individuality which is only possible in the modern world, though he never directly acknowledges that, while looking bak to ancient possibility of an integrated individual in an integrated culture.  Laws best come from custom according to Nietzsche though he also questions the way that custom institutionalises cruelty, and then develops into forms of law distant from individuals.  The element of respect for custom can be found in 18th and 18th century liberal thought, but so can an interest in legal innovation for social progress.  The two could seem consistent by posing an evolutionary model, but even that cannot disguise the growing abstract and invented nature of law.

Nietzsche tries to get beyond the arbitrary, and external, nature of law by advocating a heroic legislation of  a grand politics over the future of Europe, or the inner capacity for self-command.  There is a rejection of commercial society as what makes us devote ourselves to the needs of others in order to make moony.  We lose autonomy in the wish to sell to others.  What Nietzsche offers as alternatives are partly the return of antique virtues, those of the solider and of hospitality.  None of this makes sense outside the evolutional of liberal thought and Nietzsche’s affirmation of some part of it behind the aggressive anti-liberal rhetoric.  We could say that he is closest to liberalism where liberalism is closest to antique republicanism, or at least concerned about the need to find forms of community to equal antique republics, as we see in a very persistent concern with the loss of military virtues, and sometimes of antique ideals of friendship.  The liberal thought of the time partly grows out of notions we find in Giambattista Vico (The New Science Concerning the Common Nature of the Nations) and Adam Ferguson (An Essay on the History of Civil Society) where there is an exploration of oscillation between heroic violent freedom and popular freedom under law, in which both have benefits and harms, an which can never be integrated.  There is a strong element of that in Montesquieu and Rousseau as well.

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