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The Bumpy Road From Rousseau to Revolution


Contrary to the expectations that might be raised by its main title, along with the cover portrait of Napoleon on horseback, this is not chiefly a book about either tyrants or violent revolutionaries. Rather, it forms the third part of a trilogy, of which the first volume discussed tyranny in the history of political thought from antiquity to early modernity, and the second offered a history of tyranny from ancient times to the present. In this book, Newell, currently a visiting professor at the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida, returns to the level of philosophy. He traces the “Philosophy of Freedom” initiated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a reaction against the perceived meaninglessness of “bourgeois” life, and then developed, and radicalized, by his German successors, notably Georg W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.

While Newell sees the ultimate influence of this philosophy, once transformed by Hegel’s three major successors, as problematic—even, indeed, helping to inspire Communist and Nazi tyrannies in the 20th century, along with radical movements like Russian nationalism and Iranian jihadism today—he observes at its core a necessary corrective to the excesses of today’s bourgeois individualism and cultural philistinism, which might offer a needed pathway back to the greatness of classical Greek thought and culture, and to the sense of individual and communal “wholeness” that today’s liberal polities are felt to lack.

As Newell recounts, in the late 18th century Rousseau initiated a reaction against the teachings of the great liberal political philosophers (most notably Thomas Hobbes and John Locke). He argued that their doctrines, which derived the standards of political legitimacy from a hypothetical “state of nature” prior to the establishment of government, while aimed at securing human beings’ inalienable rights, generated a dichotomy both within and among human beings, between individual and community, and between our longing for a lost natural freedom and the need to obey the commands of government for the sake of our security.

Like his successors, Rousseau looked back with admiration at the ancient Greek city, supposedly devoted to patriotism and virtue, nobility and beauty, in contrast to the base “utilitarianism” and materialism espoused by the Enlightenment. Yet Rousseau saw no means of literally restoring the classical outlook, in Newell’s account, because of the impact of modern physics, which portrayed nature as a realm of meaningless matter in motion, in contrast with ancient writers’ “metaphysical cosmologies.” He offered a set of partial solutions to the modern problem in the form of an egalitarian, democratic polity free from bourgeois economic competitiveness; a “natural” education that would facilitate a familial life remote from “alienating” concerns with popular opinion; and an individual solution, available only to a few people like himself, who are capable of withdrawing from society so as to devote themselves to the pleasure of the solitary contemplation of nature.

But while Rousseau saw the human problem as only incompletely soluble, his presentation of it encouraged subsequent thinkers to undertake more radical and comprehensive resolutions. The most influential of these in the late 18th century was Immanuel Kant, who endeavored to elevate human dignity, in the face of modern science’s removal of meaning from nature, by teaching an ethic of duty, through which, by obeying the moral command of pure reason—the “categorical imperative”—we transcend the natural world entirely, to enter the “noumenal” realm (a kind of replacement for the “Ideas” depicted by Plato’s Socrates) of genuine reality.

Yet Kant’s solution could not itself satisfy modern man’s need for completion, precisely because of its abstractness, or its repetition of the Rousseauean dualism between the natural world we inhabit and our longing for wholeness and meaningful freedom. One of Kant’s contemporaries, the poet Friedrich Schiller, presented as an alternative an “aesthetic” education through culture, inspired by the ancients, that would enable us to transcend utilitarianism, but without denying our natural desires. A more far-reaching and influential response, however, was offered by Georg W.F. Hegel, the founder of historicism.

Writing in the wake of the French Revolution—which, partly under the influence of Rousseau’s Social Contract, unleashed a reign of unspeakable terror across the nation (such as Rousseau had never intended), culminating in Napoleon’s despotism—Hegel endeavored to show how such anarchy was not needed in order to establish a legitimate polity that would secure the equal rights to freedom of all human beings, while affording them a sense of community that bourgeois individualism could not provide. Hegel argued that the sense of order that ancient writers had once found in nature could be located instead in the historical process, which had come to its completion in his own time.

Instead of being a series of largely random developments, history as Hegel portrayed it followed a necessary, rational progression, from ancient Chinese and Indian civilization, through the Greeks and Romans and the advent of Christianity, culminating in the establishment, in his time, of polities based on the principle of universal, legal freedom. While Hegel outlines this historical development in his lectures on the philosophy of history, Newell instructively focuses his analysis on The Phenomenology of Mind, in which the philosopher portrays the development of human consciousness over time, in a process through which no important insight is ever lost, but rather generates successive “shapes” that collectively enrich our consciousness. Newell also takes seriously the history of religion with which the Phenomenology concludes, seeing in it an antidote to the Romantics’ shallow disillusionment with modern science. In contrast to Nietzsche, Hegel portrays the modern age as embodying the reappearance of God in history, with the truth uncovered by reason harmonizing with the truth of Christian revelation (properly understood).

Newell concludes his chapter on Hegel with a treatment of Marx’s assault on the “Hegelian Middle,” that is, his endeavor to “bridge the chasm … between the real and the ideal” so as to “stave off … the demand for radical revolution.” While Marx is best-known for his asserted reversal of Hegel’s account of the relation between the advance of Spirit and the movement of political and economic life, Newell, emphasizing his youthful “humanistic” writings, which portrayed a future utopia without economic want, government, or class divisions, maintains that Marx “strenuously rejected … the idea that socialism’s appeal would be invalidated by capitalism’s success in improving” workers’ living conditions.

In fact, of course, it was free enterprise, not socialism, that generated the vast elevation in people’s quality of life beginning in Marx’s own time, and Newell exaggerates in speaking of the “frequent brilliance” of his economic analysis. Similarly, he waffles a bit by denying that Marx’s thought was “responsible for Stalinism in a direct causal sense”—only to acknowledge, a page later, that Marx’s partner Friedrich Engels “wrote the script for Lenin,” and that, just before his death, Marx gave his “blessing” to what became the Leninist program for violent revolution in backward Russia, despite its violation of Marx’s supposed “laws” of history.

A far more profound challenge to Hegel’s “end of history” thesis was posed by Nietzsche, who in one of his earliest essays argued that such an end, far from resolving the human problem, would obliterate our distinctive humanity. Unlike Marx, Nietzsche, as Newell observes, was concerned with the restoration of genuine liberal education, for its effect in promoting a meaningful life. But while that concern was one that he shared as well with Plato and Aristotle, as a historicist Nietzsche could not espouse a return to the classical understanding of the right ordering of the human soul as the goal of education. Instead, “Nietzsche identifies our capacity for wholeness entirely with our historical dynamism and experiences.” This led him to undertake a massive project for reconstructing human life on the basis of anti-Platonic and hence (as he understood it) of anti-Christian principles, grounded on the thought that life must be understood not as Platonic or Christian eros (for wisdom or for God), but rather as Will to Power.

Newell proceeds to offer an insightful analysis of Nietzsche’s “politics of greatness,” as expressed above all in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and his posthumously published Will to Power. But while appreciating Nietzsche’s profundity, Newell wisely counsels against contemporary attempts to soften his thought by turning him into “a feminist, democrat, and environmentalist,” ignoring his contempt for democracy and his forecast and even espousal of planetary warfare, which helps explain his great appeal to the Nazis. While Nietzsche no more intended mass murder (nor was he an anti-Semite) than Rousseau did, Newell rightly warns of the dangers that lurk in his “aestheticization of politics.”

Limits of space prevent me from tracing Newell’s intrepid but difficult analysis of the thought of Nietzsche’s successor, the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, who actually became a Nazi. Without holding that Heidegger’s thought can be reduced to his politics (which postwar apologists like his onetime pupil/lover Hannah Arendt tried to downplay), Newell notes his contemporary influence on extremist thinkers ranging from Frantz Fanon (who called for violent revolution as a “cathartic” act) to Ali Shariati, the “intellectual godfather of the 1979 Iranian revolution,” to Aleksandr Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s spiritual guide.

With Heidegger, it would appear that the “Philosophy of Freedom,” and possibly philosophy itself, has ended. Nonetheless, Newell concludes by denying the desirability of dismissing that movement in favor of a soulless liberalism expressed by Thomas Hobbes, or in its most decadent contemporary form by the dogmatic egalitarian-moral libertarian Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls. Still, Newell rightly defends liberalism in its broader sense (as expressed, say, by John Locke, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson) against its reduction to mere materialism and individualism. And he observes that liberalism today can still be enriched by the cultural legacy of the Philosophy of Freedom, including “its veneration for ancient culture” and for the formative influence of great art, music, and literature.

Tyranny and Revolution is a fine work of scholarship. My one major criticism would be that Newell too readily accepts the historicist premise that because modern natural science has apparently refuted the cosmology with which classical philosophy was tied, a return to classical principles is impossible. While he cites Leo Strauss’s remark that classical philosophy was inextricably tied to a teleological view of the universe that reason can no longer support, Newell seems unaware of the provisional character of that observation, as well as the likelihood that the apparently dogmatic character of Platonic/ Aristotelian “metaphysics” was largely rhetorical. In the first book he published in English, Strauss himself argued that the basis of Hobbes’s teaching lay in its political intent rather than its materialistic physics.

Strauss’s studies of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle emphasize the dialectical rather than dogmatic character of their thought. The writings of such scholars influenced by Strauss as David Bolotin (on Aristotle’s Physics), Ronna Burger and Lorraine Pangle (on the Ethics), and Mary Nichols (on the Politics) illustrate this point, and further pursue the course that Strauss opened up by which we might transcend historicism, renew the philosophic enterprise, and enrich our constitutional-liberal polity with an admixture of classical thought.

At the same time, a consideration of Greek political life as it was depicted by Thucydides, including its susceptibility to demagoguery and class conflict, along with its dependence on slavery, might moderate the temptation to adopt Rousseau’s rhetorically idealized portrayal of the ancient city, or to overlook the difference between classical philosophy and classical practice.

Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger

by Waller R. Newell

Cambridge University Press, 374 pp., $29.99 (paperback)

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science, emeritus, at the College of the Holy Cross.

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