National Catholic Register


The Immaculate Conception: A Quick Survey of Some of the Brains of the Nineteenth Century, Part 2

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 11/26/12 at 12:59 AM


Continuing our survey of the leading lights of Western thought in the 19th Century, we find the following seminal figures:

Friedrich Nietzsche

Schopenhauer had a huge influence on a number of philosophers, but perhaps his greatest disciple was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, too, proclaimed the death of God. However, Nietzsche was not content with Schopenhauer’s gloomy pessimism. If life was a power struggle, Nietzsche was not content to lose or call it a draw. He wanted to win! Watching a cavalry battalion march past during the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche had yet another of the many epiphanies that seemed to characterize nineteenth-century thinkers:

I felt for the first time that the strongest and highest Will to Life does not find expression in a miserable struggle for existence, but in a Will to War, a Will to Power, a Will to Overpower.( Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, The Young Nietzsche, trans. A.M. Ludovici (London: 1912), 1:235)

Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer, never doubted for a moment that our origins were the result of chance. However, he did not want to take chances with destiny. Since God was dead, we were on our own. Therefore, may the best man win. So Nietzsche proclaimed the doctrine of the Superman who imposed his will on the world and defined good and evil not by appeals to some mythical god but by his own Will to Power. Naturally, he hated Christianity as a “secret instinct of destruction, a principle of calumny, a reductive agent—the beginning of the end—and, for that very reason, the Supreme Danger.”( Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Francis Golffing (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), 11)

Others shared Nietzsche’s dream of a race of Supermen. But they sought to achieve it, not by the Will to Power, but by treating humans like livestock and improving the breed. This school of thought was not an aberration from Darwin’s thought but merely an elaboration of it. Darwin himself had made clear that:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes [that is, the ones who look the most like savages in structure] . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope. . . the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.(Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, pt. I, chap. 6, 201)

And so, at the conclusion of his Descent of Man, he points the way for the European race to become the Master Race or simply (once inferior races have been exterminated) the human race:

Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; butwhen he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes such care. [Therefore] both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind.(Ibid., pt 2, chap. 21, 402–3)

Francis Galton

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton could not have agreed more. Concurring with so many leading thinkers that we are creatures who owe our being not to God, but to a fortuitous collision of matter and energy, Galton built on Darwin’s work by founding a new science of human breeding that he called “eugenics.” Galton had no truck with the mysticism of the Judeo-Christian tradition (enshrined in documents like the Declaration of Independence) that “all men are created equal”:

I have no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality.(Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1870), 14)

Galton fancied himself a hardheaded scientific thinker. So he naturally constructed what seemed to him a scientific hierarchy of “grades” by which he rated the various races of homo sapiens. It turned out that Galton rated “Negroes” very low, commenting that “mistakes the Negroes made in their matters were so childish, stupid and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species.”( Ibid., 328) Happily for Galton, he himself belonged to the superior race of Anglo-Saxons, with its wonderful genetic traits capable of “producing judges, statesmen, commanders, men of literature and science, poets, artists, and divines.”( Ibid., 326) And, Galton believed, we must make it our goal to better the race still more by selective breeding and the weeding out of the “unfit.” Inferiors, he thought, should be treated “with all kindness” so long as they complied with the demand of their betters for celibacy. But if they dared to breed, “such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.”(Francis Galton, “Hereditary Improvement,” published in Frazer’s Magazine, 1873. Quoted in Nicholas Wright Gillham, A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 196–197)

Herbert Spencer

Others had a slightly different view of the state, though not of the human person. Herbert Spencer, for instance, had a more libertarian approach. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” He founded the school of thought called “Social Darwinism,” which advocated letting nature take its course (without the interference of government or religion) in eliminating the lower types of humanity in favor of the “fit.”

Many advocates of laissez-faire capitalism agreed with him, seeing the winners in the capitalist system as “fit” and the toiling masses in sweatshops, miserable and hazardous working conditions, and wretched poverty as the losers in nature’s colorful pageant of survival. Against backward religious obscurantists who advocated sentimental ideas like “blessed are the poor,” Spencer basically championed the notion articulated by an earlier Social Darwinist named Ebenezer Scrooge: “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Of course, insane philosophies beget insane reactions. The cruelty of laissez-faire capitalism, condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, begot an even crueler philosophy: Marxism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared with Feuerbach and Comte the grand nineteenth-century tendency to place systems over persons. Unlike Darwin, Galton, and others, they saw the human person as the result not so much of blind biological forces as of blind economic forces. Like all the philosophers just mentioned, they agreed that God did not exist, but they insisted utopia must come by other means than mere persuasion.

Marx confidently proclaims a sort of science of history and announces that he knows perfectly well where it’s going. We are, according to Marx, leaving the phase in history where the capitalist class controls the means of production and heading into that period where the worker, through the machinery of the communist state, will eliminate the capitalist class. Then the glorious worker’s paradise will dawn, and the omnipotent state will wither away. Religion, the “opium of the people,”( Karl Marx, “Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher, 1844) will no longer be necessary to assuage the bitterness of existence with lies about a nonexistent god. Instead, we will all live in equality according to the principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”( Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Of course, on the way, some eggs will have to be broken to make that omelet, but that’s just part of life in a world ruled by blind chance and force. The first thing that must happen is the elimination of God, since there’s not room in the universe for him and us.

Atheism is the negation of God and seeks to assert by this negation the existence of man.( Karl Marx, Aus dem literarischen Nachleass von K. Marx, F. Engels, and F. Lassalle (Stuttgart, Ger.: Dietz, 1902), 1:68, emphasis in the original.)

God is, for Marx, the great oppressor. That’s because, for Marx, the whole universe is defined by the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. You are either one or the other. And so, Marx, like the man who only has a hammer for a tool, sees every problem as a nail. His goal is to spur these inevitable historical processes along through revolt and class warfare until the last oppressor is destroyed and we all take our places as equals. To that end, he’s not shy about calling for violence to achieve his goal.

He advocated hanging capitalists from the nearest lampposts. In the newspaper he edited, Neue Rhenische Zeitung, he declared, “When our turn comes, we shall not disguise our terrorism.”( DeMarco and Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death, 125, emphasis in the original)

Yet he was curiously impersonal in his thirst for bloody revolution. Unlike most people, he did not have a passion for some abstract political cause out of devotion to some concrete individual who had suffered wrong. Instead, the abstractions seem to have been more real to him than actual human beings:

In Das Kapital, he writes, “I speak of individuals insofar as they are personifications of special classes of relations and interests.” One of his more celebrated axioms reads, “Men’s social existence determines their consciousness.” Men are not free; they are all socially conditioned. The individual person is swallowed up into the collective. (Ibid)

In short, the human person as such has no real dignity. He begins in the anonymity of vast impersonal economic forces playing out according to inexorable laws of history and he ends in much the same way. What matters is the triumph of the working class.

Sigmund Freud

Along with Marx and Nietzsche, a third figure from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century must be mentioned as well: Sigmund Freud. Though he rises to prominence well after 1854, he nevertheless fits the nineteenth-century mold of All-Explaining Ideological Certainty that marks this period’s various schools of thought. Indebted to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Freud likewise reduced human beings to being the result of purely material causes. As Jacques Maritain put it, “The whole of Freudian philosophy rests upon the prejudice of a radical denial of spirituality and freedom.”( Jacques Maritain, “Freudianism and Psychoanalysis,” in Cross Currents of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, ed. W. Birmingham and J. E. Cunneen (New York: Random House, 1984), 353) In other words, Freud claimed there was a purely materialistic (and usually unconscious and irrational) basis for pretty much everything. God was just a projection of daddy onto the big screen of the universe. Thus, Freud can, with astonishing hubris, sum up the entire religious experience of the whole human race in the words, “Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father.”( Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961) 43)

This same sort of radical reductionism is applied to the human person by Freud. What you think of as “yourself” is really just a jangling collection of conflicting impulses, typically tied up with some repressed desire. Every apparently “free” choice can be explained away as the result of natural, unconscious, and irrational drives or needs traceable back to some primeval state of the person or the race itself. This leads to some rather funny “explanations” for various human acts:

Freud states that Holy Communion is not what it is believed to be on a spiritual level but is strictly derived from the primitive state of mankind, when cannibalistic ceremonies were practiced. Receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, therefore, is merely what he terms “oral introjection”. Continuing in this vein, disciples of Freud have taught that mystical experiences of saints are the result of sexual frustrations, that saying the Rosary is unconscious masturbation, and so on.( DeMarco and Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death, 210)

This remarkable tendency to read minds and tell us our real motivations (rather than the motivations we ourselves state we have) is one of the major features of Freud’s thought. Freud and his school claim to possess the key to the inside knowledge of why everybody else thinks and acts. Freud’s mind, it goes without saying, is perfectly clear as he declares to others their secret motivations, repressed impulses, and hidden drives. This sort of infallibility was probably just as well, since Freud saw himself as the founder of a new and liberating religion:

In deliberating on the origin of religion, Freud came to the conclusion that something non-religious must have transpired in the distant past that provides its explanation. He concludes that the great crime of killing the father occurred, and this formed the basis for Judaism and subsequently for Christianity. In his papers on religion, and more particularly in Moses and Monotheism, he elaborates this daring hypothesis, one that, we might add, lacks even the slightest shred of scientific justification. As literary critic George Steiner has said of this hypothesis, it is a “piece of mythology, of controlling metaphor as vital to the agnostic world view of Freud as is the parallel metaphor of sin in the world view of theology.” Freud was proposing something more than science and philosophy. He was proposing a new religion, and he was its new Moses.( Ibid., 217)

Interestingly, Freud saw himself not only as another Moses, but as Satan.

Do you not know that I am the Devil? All my life I have had to play the Devil, in order that others would be able to build the most beautiful cathedrals that I produced.(Remark to colleagues quoted in David Baken, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1958), 132)

Notably, the man who identified himself with the devil “‘came back again and again to the fantasy of being raised fatherless.’ Fatherhood, for Freud, would represent the Superego and therefore a restriction of freedom.”( Op. cit., Architects of the Culture of Death, 219) In this, he sounded much like Marx, who praised Prometheus as “the first saint, the first martyr on the calendar of philosophy” (Karl Marx, “Third Manuscript: Private Property and Communism,” in Classics in Political Philosophy, ed. Jene M. Porter (Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice Hall Canada, 1997) , 567) by saying, “I hate all the gods. I would much rather be bound to a rock, than to be the docile valet of Zeus the Father.” (Karl Marx, Aus dem literarischen Nachleass, 1:68)

What does all this mean?  We will discuss is next time.  Stay tuned!