German political philosophy

Let me bring some extension to a previous post. When I think of the political and philosophical tradition of the West, I think in relation to the Anglo-sphere, who run from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Michael Oakeshott and also Roger Scruton, who I will mention just to bring it up to the immediate present. This is the philosophy of freedom of the individual and human rights. It is pretty well unknown everywhere else.

I am less keen on the Continental tradition. In actual fact, I am not keen on the continental tradition at all. Perhaps I don’t know these well enough, since I won’t claim any deep knowledge of any of them. Still, for most people, the most they might know about the German philosophical tradition comes from Monty Python’s Australian Philosophy Department.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table

David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
’bout the raising of the wrist
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed,

So let’s do a little run-down, starting with Martin Heidegger.

Martin Heidegger (/ˈhdɛɡər,  hdɪɡər/;[12][13] German: [ˈmaʁtiːn ˈhaɪdɛɡɐ];[14][12] 26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976) was a German philosopher and a seminal thinker in the Continental tradition of philosophy. He is “widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century.” Heidegger is best known for his contributions to phenomenologyhermeneutics, and existentialism, though, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautions, “his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification”. Heidegger was a member and public supporter of the Nazi Party. There is controversy over the degree to which his Nazi affiliations influenced his philosophy.

There is, of course, no doubt about the extent to which his philosophy influenced his Nazi affiliation. Not to mention his massive influence on the Green Movement, to this day.

Heidegger’s later work includes criticisms of technology‘s instrumentalist understanding in the Western tradition as “enframing“, treating all of Nature as a “standing reserve” on call for human purposes.

Let me now add Ludwig Wittgenstein to the list. This is from a previous post of mine:

If you are interested in a genuinely plausible fifth (sixth?) Cambridge spy, Wittgenstein who was at Trinity is a better bet. This is discussed in an extraordinarily fascinating book The Jew of Linz published by my fellow Australian, Kim Cornish. The title comes from a phrase in Mein Kampf in which Hitler traces his anti-Semitism to a ‘Jew of Linz’ with whom he had gone to high school. Although the family had converted from Judaism, Ludwig Wittgenstein had, in one of the most amazing coincidences in history, gone to the same high school at the same time as Hitler. The book then argues that Wittgenstein had been the person who had recruited Philby and the others. This is from Kim’s Wikipedia entry:

‘The Jew of Linz (1998) is a controversial book by Australian writer Kimberley Cornish. It alleges that the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a profound effect on Adolf Hitler when they were both pupils at the Realschule (high school) in Linz, Austria, in the early 1900s. He also alleges that Wittgenstein was involved in the Cambridge Five Soviet spy ring during the Second World War….

‘Cornish also argues that Wittgenstein is the most likely suspect as recruiter of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring. The author suggests that Wittgenstein was responsible for British decryption technology for the German Enigma code reaching the Red Army and that he thereby enabled the Red Army victories on the Eastern Front that liberated the camps and ultimately overthrew the Reich.

‘He writes that the Soviet government offered Wittgenstein the chair in philosophy at what had been Lenin’s university (Kazan) at a time (during the Great Purge) when ideological conformity was at a premium amongst Soviet academics and enforced by the very harshest penalties. Wittgenstein wanted to emigrate to Russia, first in the twenties, as he wrote in a letter to Paul Engelmann, and again in the thirties, either to work as a labourer or as a philosophy lecturer. Cornish argues that given the nature of the Soviet regime, the possibility that a non-Marxist philosopher (or even one over whom the government could exert no ideological control) would be offered such a post, is unlikely in the extreme.’

Shall we try Hegel?

Hegel’s distinctions as to what he meant by civil society are often unclear. For example, while it seems to be the case that he felt that a civil society such as the German society in which he lived was an inevitable movement of the dialectic, he made way for the crushing of other types of “lesser” and not fully realized types of civil society as these societies were not fully conscious or aware—as it were—as to the lack of progress in their societies. Thus, it was perfectly legitimate in the eyes of Hegel for a conqueror such as Napoleon to come along and destroy that which was not fully realized….

The State is “objective spirit” so “it is only through being a member of the state that the individual himself has objectivity, truth, and ethical life” (section 258). Furthermore, every member both loves the State with genuine patriotism, but has transcended mere “team spirit” by reflectively endorsing their citizenship. Members of a Hegelian State are happy even to sacrifice their lives for the State.

How about Kant. Not that you can make sense of him without a few years of serious application, if even then, but let this be a taste. No natural law in Kant, that’s for sure, and he was certainly not a utilitarian.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant also posited the “counter-utilitarian idea that there is a difference between preferences and values, and that considerations of individual rights temper calculations of aggregate utility”, a concept that is an axiom in economics:

Everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. But that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity. (p. 53, italics in original).

A phrase quoted by Kant, which is used to summarize the counter-utilitarian nature of his moral philosophy, is Fiat justitia, pereat mundus, (“Let justice be done, though the world perish”), which he translates loosely as “Let justice reign even if all the rascals in the world should perish from it”.

If there is a more dangerous political-philosophy position anywhere among the supposedly great philosophers than “let justice be done though the world may perish” I have not seen it.

And there is, of course, Nietzsche. He was not an anti-semite, but he was hardly a democratic liberal seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. Since, unlike Heidegger, he didn’t wear a Nazi pin on his collar to the very end of the Third Reich, he is separated as much as possible from having had a direct link to Fascism by all right-thinking individuals who still find his philosophy attractive. Yet between his Will to Power and the search for the Superman, not to forget his disdain for the bourgeoise and the high regard he had among the Nazis, you cannot expect to find in him anything that seeks to create the open society and the largest expanse of personal freedom for the greatest number. From Influence and reception of Friedrich Nietzsche we find this from an American, although there is more there if you would like to look.

American writer H. L. Mencken avidly read and translated Nietzsche’s works and has gained the sobriquet “the American Nietzsche”. In his book on Nietzsche, Mencken portrayed the philosopher as a proponent of anti-egalitarian aristocratic revolution, a depiction in sharp contrast with left-wing interpretations of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was declared an honorary anarchist by Emma Goldman, and he influenced other anarchists such as Guy AldredRudolf RockerMax Cafard and John Moore.

And do I need to enter into a discussion of Marx and Engels, both of whom took their turgid idiocies from Hegel? And just to bring these closer to the present, we must not leave out The Frankfurt School who dominate our universities to this very day.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Laing and Jordan Peterson

All three authors – Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Samuel Laing (1812-1897) and Jordan Peterson (1962- ) – wrote in response to the same issue: the impossibility of literal acceptance of Christian mythology in the wake of the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. Both Nietzsche and Laing found a response in turning to the seventh century BC philosophical writings of Zarathustra – Laing literally with Nietzsche only metaphorically – while Laing and Peterson argue that the moral teachings of our Judeo-Christian ethic can be maintained through the careful reading of Biblical literature. Knotting the yarn a bit more, Nietzsche and Peterson argue that without Christian teaching, Western Civilisation will disintegrate. Nietzsche thinks that would be a good outcome, while Peterson (and Laing) believe it would be bad.

Today, whatever the actual historical circumstances may be, we celebrate the memory of the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Whether any of the events described in the Bible are literally true is unknowable, but almost no one alive today thinks of almost any of it, from Moses in the bulrushes to the ten plagues of Egypt, as anything but stories. But what is undoubted is that the recorded outcome led to the most important moral event in the history of the world, the receiving into the hands of the Jewish people, the Ten Commandments, whose impress for good on world history has been second to none, or at least as seen by Laing and Peterson, while from the perspective of Nietzsche, the consequence has been an unalloyed moral disaster.

Samuel Laing

Samuel Laing wrote the most astonishing book – Modern Science and Modern Thought – which was first published in 1885. He lived at a time when the scientific discoveries during the nineteenth century made it impossible to believe the literal accuracy of any biblical account. To quote:

There is no more room left for the supernatural in the fiercest tropical thunder-storm than there is in turning the handle of an electrical machine, or sending in a tender to light the streets of London by electric light. And the result is absolutely certain. In the contrast between the natural and the supernatural, the latter has not only been repulsed but annihilated. [Laing 1885: 243]

Morally, then, where are we left? Laing again:

The really religious writers of the present day are those who, thoroughly understanding and recognising the facts of science, boldly throw overboard whatever conflicts with them, abandon all theories of inspiration and miraculous interferences with the order of nature, and appeal, in support of religion, to the essential beauty and truth in Christianity underlying the myths and dogmas which have grown up about it; who above all, appeal to the fact that it exists and is a product of the evolution of the human mind, satisfying, as nothing else can do so well, many of the purest emotions and loftiest aspirations, which are equally a necessary and inevitable product of that evolution. [ibid.: 337-38]

And one more, just to see the point as strongly as it can be made. And he had the advantage of living through an era where the literal truth of Biblical accounts had not yet been shattered by scientific discovery.

Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was only published in 1859, and his views as to evolution, development, natural selection, and the prevalence of universal law, have already annexed nearly the whole world of modern thought and become the foundation of all philosophical speculation and scientific inquiry.

Not only has faith been shaken in the supernatural as a direct and immediate agent in the phenomena of the worlds of matter and of life, but the demonstration of the “struggle for life” and “survival of the fittest” has raised anew, and with vastly augmented force, those questions as to the moral constitution of the universe and the origin of evil, which have so long exercised the highest minds. . . .

To such questions there is no answer. We are obliged to admit that as the material universe is not, as we once fancied, measured by our standards and regulated at every turn by an intelligence resembling ours; so neither is the moral universe to be explained by simply magnifying our own moral ideas, and explaining everything by the action of a Being who does what we should have done in his place. [ibid.: 220-221]

We are therefore potentially morally at sea with no solid foundation on which to build a basis for any moral position whatsoever. This was the great question of the latter half of the nineteenth century for which answers had to be found.

Laing, and I shall suggest Peterson, have taken the side of our traditional morality which they believe has been anchored on an oral and written tradition that have descended to us through time. This is, loosely, the view of the political right. There is then a different tradition, found in the Marxist and Nietzschean traditions, that the only answers are those we make up ourselves and enforce through the will of the strong through the power of the state. Marxist ideology provides a false trail for political and economic construction, but it is from Nietzsche that the moral trail descends.


Nietzsche’s take starts from the same position as Laing. And it does cross my mind that Laing may be an unknown but still major influence on Nietzsche. It is an odd fact that in none of my various approaches to the world in the past have I ever found interest in Nietzsche’s works, and have been perennially left with the impression that he is someone whose writings are themselves a source of evil. But I may not have, until the last two weeks, opened anything of his in at least two decades, but with Laing’s next book having been The Modern Zoroastrians, which he prefigured in his Modern Science and Modern Thought, I was then immediately drawn to see what is inside Nietzsche’s own examination of this same philosophy. As it happens, there is no overlap at that level, but the parallels are nonetheless quite deep.

I began with the obvious, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and from there I continued with On the Genealogy of Morals. And while Zarathustra discusses “God is Dead”, which is more fully explored in The Gay Science, in the Genealogy of Morals we come face to face with his deepest anti-Christian and let me also note, some of the most shocking anti-Semitic writings you may ever find.

But first let me traverse the potential link to Samuel Laing. Both were living in the immediate post-Darwinian era, with Nietzsche providing the most striking phrase, but both reacting to a moral shift from a literal interpretation of Biblical events. For Laing, the Judean-Christian morality nevertheless remained as the bedrock irrespective of the provenance for the stories themselves. Nietzsche finds deep fault with the morality whatever may be its source, and wishes to see it overthrown. The first essay in the Genealogy of Morals  begins with these words:

Those English psychologists, who up to the present are the only philosophers who are to be thanked for any endeavour to get as far as a history of the origin of morality — these men, I say, offer us in their own personalities no paltry problem; — they even have, if I am to be quite frank about it, in their capacity of living riddles, an advantage over their books — they themselves are interesting! These English psychologists — what do they really mean? (Nietzsche [1887] 2013: 13)

My question here is not what do they mean, but who does he mean? And my suggestion is that Nietzsche is referring to Laing, who not only provided, in full, the opposite position with a complete defence of Western morality, but had himself focused on Zarathustra, using the more conventional name Zoroaster. The editor’s footnote to the above para [ibid.: 148-149] provides more than a dozen individuals to whom Nietzsche might have been referring, but the point is that no one knows. Let me therefore add Samuel Laing to the list of potential points of origin, and one with a lot more to recommend it since it is quite straightforward to see Nietzsche as specifically responding to Laing than to anyone else.

Nietzsche argues that the great moral disaster for the previous two thousand years had been the adaptation in the West of the Judaic moral codes as embedded in Christianity. It is these he wishes to seen thrown over and abandoned. The rule of the strong over the weak had been lost for two millennia, with the introduction of the slave morality with its ethic of pity and help for the poor and downtrodden. And here is a passage found in the Penguin edition that could not be found in any of the online editions, which meant it had to be typed out. But what is interesting is what it says and the phrase he uses. I cannot, of course, vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but you can see why others might have avoided it.

The pathos of nobility and distance, as I have said, the continuing and dominating collective instinct, and feeling of superiority of a higher race, a master race, in comparison to a subservient race – this is the origin of the opposition of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. . . . It is by virtue of this origin that the word ‘good’ is far from having any necessary connection with selfless acts, in accordance with the superstitious beliefs of these moral philosophers. [ibid.: 15 – my bolding]

The rule of the strong is the way of every civilisation but our own. Only in the Judeo-Christian world have those on the bottom of the pile ever mattered, and then only some of the time. A democratic political order can have no other origins than through a religious perspective that sees value in every human soul, in which each person is an equal, and in which each life counts for one and no life counts for more than one.

The influence of Nietzsche has been entirely sinister. His philosophy has had the most damaging consequences, for Jews looking at his effects narrowly via his well-known influence on the Nazis, and for the entire world since the nineteenth century.

Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson, more than a century after Laing, is trying to say exactly the same thing, and with the very same ancillary message.

The Bible stories, fairy tales, ancient myths and other readings from Western civilisation that we have been telling ourselves for thousands of years are chosen because they are reflections on the lived experiences of our ancestors, and provide us with answers and guidance for living in the world as it is, and at a deeper level that goes well beyond the superficial changes occasioned by our technological advances and the proliferation of modern gadgetry.

As an example of what you will find in Peterson’s book, here’s the opening para that leads off the discussion of Rule 7: “Pursue what is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)”:

“Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise.

“The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient.”

The obvious answer, perhaps, but the wrong answer. And what our biblical stories, along with so much of our mythology and philosophical reflection, represent are sets of instructions based on the observed successful life choices made by countless individuals over countless generations. The traditions are entirely based on lived experience as our human ancestors attempted to deal with the challenges they faced:

“Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became embedded in our stories.”

These stories delineate the straight and narrow, deviations from which are invitations to disastrous outcomes, not necessarily immediately but over time, and not necessarily for any individual but for societies as a whole. The book is a reminder that there is profound wisdom available to us all that will guide us through life.

And these stories began with the adventures of our own ancestors as they told the story of The Exodus. Whether the events themselves ever actually occurred or not, whether the Children of Israel ever did camp beneath Mt Sinai, the reality is that at some time the Ten Commandments were written down as the basis for the moral law of the Jews. And from the handing down of The Ten Commandments, that were themselves embedded within stories found in the various Biblical accounts describing how these rules might be applied, and which have been told and retold, and their meanings mined for messages about how to behave and how we are to live in moral communities with each other, we have absorbed our morality, even among those who insist they are complete atheists and will have no truck with deities and supernatural beings of any kind.

These powerful stories have given direction and guidance to the lives of hundreds of millions who have used Biblical accounts as a means to orient themselves through the various moral dilemmas served up by life.

The Seder

That is what the Seder is, a retelling of events within a moral setting. Whether God did tell Pharaoh to let his people go, the message that slavery is wrong has been passed through into the cultural DNA of the West. It has passed onto us, the belief that freedom is a paramount value. It has passed on a moral code that we have maintained for 3500 years, adapting it as circumstances have required, but based on the same values we have today.

And because of the spread of Christianity, it is these same values that have become the moral foundation for the richest and freest societies which have ever existed. What Nietzsche calls the “herd mentality” is literally what we think of as freedom. You personally matter. You personally count. Might is not right. The powerful do not have the moral right to do with us, who are less powerful, what they wish.

But these values are always in danger so it is during the Seder each year that we remind ourselves about the moral nature of the world we are in. And it is world we will only continue to inhabit if we listen to the stories of our own past and do what each of us can to defend these personal rights against those who would without any doubt take them from us, as the followers of Marx and Nietzsche would surely do if they could.

And Finally Peterson and Laing on Facing Life

Returning to 12 Rules for Life, the message is mainly for young men, where he instructs young males to get on with life by taking responsibility for those parts of their own lives they can actually make a positive contribution towards. This is a Peterson rant of some deep insight taken from one of his video interviews. As funny though it may be, and even though it is addressed to their teachers and not the young, the point is well directed towards anyone starting out in life, male or female:

“It’s what I tell 18 year olds. Six years ago you were twelve. What the hell do you know? You’re under the care of the family or the state, you haven’t established an independent existence, you haven’t had children, you haven’t started a business, you haven’t taken responsibility for anything, you don’t have a degree, you haven’t finished your course, you don’t know how to read, you can’t think, you don’t know how to present yourself, well Jesus, it’s not right to tell people in that situation that they should go out and change the world.”

Instead, his advice is to find something they can be personally responsible for and then show some responsibility. Grow up. Become mature. Be an adult! As it happens, but it is no coincidence, Laing’s final chapter is titled “Practical Life”. I will repeat the final para of the chapter, which is also the final para of the book, with the parallels and overlap unmistakeable.

And the conclusion I come to is, not that of the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ but rather that life, with all its drawbacks, is worth living, and that to have been born in a civilised country in the nineteenth century is a boon for which a man can never be sufficiently thankful. Some may find it otherwise from no fault of their own; more by their own fault; but the majority of men and women may lead useful, honourable, and on the whole fairly happy lives, if they will act on the maxim which I have always endeavoured, however imperfectly, to follow –


And this is just as true in the twenty-first century as well. We will always be fortunate to have been born in a civilised country, and where we are so blessed, we will have a duty placed on our shoulders to ensure that we do what we can to keep the places we inhabit civilised. And the final line was printed just as you see it, in the middle of the page, on its own, and all in caps.