The Nietzschean Wager

"Fascism and the Sexual Revolution"

One does not normally look to car bumper stickers for serious moral insight, but one such came to my attention recently, which said, "If you're living as though God doesn't exist, you'd better be right" To compound my surprise, before I came to this room, I visited the toilet downstairs, where some crouching sage had inscibed the words, "There must be life before death". Fortuitously, these are both examples - though from different points of view - of the dilemma raised by what I have called the Nietzschean wager. But before I move to an explanation of what I mean by the Nietzschean wager, let me recall an earlier related coinage. The seventeenth century mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal formulated an argument which is now known as Pascal's wager. The argument runs like this: If I live as though God exists and I have an immortal soul, and it turns out to be true, I will have gained eternal life; if not, I will at least have lived a virtuous life. What Pascal is saying is that it is a safe bet to live a religious and moral life. What I mean by the Nietzschean wager - and as far as I know, this term has not been used before - is the complete inversion of the logic of this argument. It goes something like this: If I live a virtuous life based upon the empty promises of religion, I will miss the chance to enjoy this life, the only life that I have. Needless to say, this is a position which many people in our modern secular society have bet their future - that this is all there is to life, so we had better enjoy it.

Western society has shown perodic swings between times of religious fervour and times of hedonistic abandon. I remember also from my times as a student that life was lived between self-indulgence and the quest for meaning in life. It is not my intention here to unconditionally support Pascal's argument. His view of the religious life is certainly open to criticism, and Pascal was notorious for his self-neglect, and died at the age of 39. My intention is, rather, to argue that some of the most destructive forces in the modern world have been unleashed by the Nietzschean wager.

Some of you may have been surprised, fascinated or even infuriated by the sub-title of my talk "Fascism and the Sexual Revolution". In most people's minds no two forces could represent such opposite poles of human historical experience: fascism as the epitome of fanatical hatred, totalitarianism and genocide; the sexual revolution as a liberating movement for love, peace and pleasure. However , I shall argue that they are linked philosophically through drawing inspiration upon the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (from whose name the title of my talk has been chosen) and historically throught their roots in a nineteenth century racist ideology and cultural movement. Though the rise of fascism and the sexual revolution are separated by a generation, they draw upon a common pool of ideas outside the mainstream of Western religious and moral traditions - ideas exemplifying what I have called the Nietzschean wager - interpreted in light of different political and economic circumstances.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche deplored Christian morality, which he described as slave morality, and declared that 'God is dead'. In its place he resurrected the morality of the pre-Christian heroic age of the ancient Greeks, the morality of 'the will-to-power' (Will zum Macht), and raised up the idea of the 'superman' (Übermensch) as one who lives beyond good and evil. Nietzsche represented at a philosophical level a revival of pre-Christian pagan mythology. He compared two outlooks on life that he called the Apollonian and the Dionysian (after the greek gods Apollo and Dionysius), which represented respectively the rational and the sensual. Nietzshe rejected the apollonian values as stultifying and a fetter to the life force, and embraced the dionysian values of impulsiveness and immediacy. Thus, through a selective interpretation of myth Nietzshe became an advocate of irrationalism and hedonism. He called for a programme of the transvaluation of all values, meaning essentially the rejection of Christian ethics and its replacement by the pursuit of iconoclastic lifestyles. Nietzshe contracted siphyllis as a student, endured periods of madness during his adult life and died in an asylum for the insane.

If I have painted a somewhat negative picture of Nietzsche and his ideas, I do not hesitate to say that it is because I believe that his influence upon contemporary culture, and the intervening period, has been indubitably pernicious. This is not, however, to deny his importance, for, excepting Karl Marx, he is the philosopher who has exerted the most influence on the 20th century, though his influence is largely invisible. Nietzshe's nihilism and romanticism found expression in the work of Martin Heidegger, one of the giants of 20th century philosophy, whose ideas have been taken up successively in the contemporary schools of phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism and post-modernism. Considering the place which these schools hold in the contemporary debates over politics, society, education, morality and the arts, we can see why, several generations removed, Nietzsche's ideas continue to exert a powerful influence today.

The intellectual foundation of racist ideologies in the twentieth century come from the Eugenics movement. Eugenics comes from the greek words meaning "good breeding". It developed in the late 19th century in England, out of the Victorian concerns with class and empire, where these coincided with social Darwinism and thw widespread interest in animal breeding programmes. The Eugenics movement was founded by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and a committed Darwinist, and quickly became widespread troughout America and Europe. Its aim was to improve the intellectual, moral and physical stock of the human race. Two strategies developed. One was to stop people with undesirable traits from reproducing, so-called negative eugenics. The other was to encourage people with good traits to reproduce, naturally enough referred to as positive eugenics. Negative eugenics was employed in the United States until the time of the Second World War, and in Sweden (and to a lesser extent in Norway) until the mid-1970's. It involved compulsory sterilization of certain groups within those societies deemed to have undesirable traits. Positive eugenics was practiced principally in Britain. Even today high profile academics, such as Nobel Prize winners, are encouraged to donate to sperm banks, on the presumption that they are contributing to the improvement of the human race.

The demise of negative eugenics occured - understandably enough - through its appropriation to Hitler's programme of racial purification. Here it coincided with, and gave spurious theoretical support to, the idea of the Superman. The fatalism, nihilism and will-to-power of Nietzsche's philosophy harnessed German nationalism, sense of inferiority and resentment to the conquest of other countries. Once Hitler's National Socialists had consolidated their power they began the systematic extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other undesirables. Thus Fascist ideology and practice represented the cross-breeding and monstrous mutation of Nietzschen philosophy and eugenics. In an interesting footnote, Martin Heidegger joined the National Socialists in the mid-1930's, and was given a political appointment as Rektor of Heidelberg University, although he later renounced this affiliation. The supposition is that Heidegger's own philosophical position, as an interpreter of Nietzsche, led him to sympathize with National Socialism's declared goals.

The Eugenics movement gave rise to another important phenomenon of the twentieth century, which was the Sex Education movement. All the founders of the Sex Education movement belonged to the Eugenics movement. Their aim was to prevent so-called undesirable or culturally inferior people from having children. To this end they advocated contraception and abortion and campaigned for the development of a contraceptive pill. To make this thinly-veiled racist policy socially acceptable, they had to propagate the myth of the separability of human sexuality and reproduction and undermine the traditional view that a lifelong relationship of marriage between a man and a woman is the normative context for sexual fulfillment. To achieve this, the Sex Education movement has campaigned for the relaxation of divorce laws, a tax system which is disadvantageous to married couples, and compulsory sex education for all children, among other things. These are now established facts in most Western countries.

Two of the authoritative academic works cited in support of sex education are Alfred Kinsey's reports on human sexuality in the early 1950's. Kinsey surveyed 18 000 people and stated among his conclusions that: 10% of men are homosexual; 70% of men have had sex with a prostitute, and up to 45% of men have extra-marital affairs. All these so-called facts are false, and Kinsey's methodology was criticised by some of the leading psychologists of the day, including Abraham Maslow. Fully 25% of Kinsey's survey group were, or had been, prison inmates, 5% were male prostitutes, and the majority were volunteers which, one would suppose, would have biased the survey to those with a strong interest in sex. Recent surveys show that, for example, a more realistic figure for male homosexuality is about 1%. Despite the fraudulent findings of Kinsey, his reports were used to undermine normal expectations about sex and went on to have a profound effect on personal morality. Kinsey's reports are still cited today as a justification for the introduction of sex education into the school curriculum of developing countries.

People, and particularly young people , have a strong tendency to be impressed by the claims of empirical naturalism. That is, if a claim is advanced that a certain type of behaviour is natural, and an attempt is made to justify this claim by appeal to a range of facts, there is a strong tendency to induce and reinforce the very behaviour that one is claiming to demonstrate. For example, in the heyday of neo-Conservatism in the 1980's, one frequently heard exhortations to greed as natural, good and beneficial to society, the outcome of which was to inspire in its listeners an adherence to economic self-interest, a self-interest which was, in reality, both morally repugnant and of no lasting benefit to society. In regard to human sexuality, Kinsey's reports fell upon an audience initially shocked at their indication of a world which they had scarcely imagined, but within a decade they had begun to transform the moral landscape. In the 1960's the programmes of the Sex Education movement fed into a social climate in which individual experience and freedom from traditional restraints were paramount, and the sexual revolution was born.

Forty years on we are now in a position to evaluate the fruits of this revolution. In the economically-developed West a figure of 50% for the divorce rate is not far off the mark. In Scandinavia it rises to 80%. The number of different sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS) has increased 10 times since the 1950's. Illegitimate births and teenage pregnancies have risen dramatically and there has been a marked increase in pre-marital and extra-marital sex. Most responsible psychologists acknowledge the dangers of too-early sexual experience on the development of the human personality. Research indicates a strong correlation between early sex and a host of problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, depression, suicide, divorce and patterns of abuse within the family. And the correlation between the value-free sex education advocated by the Sex Education movement and the incidence of early sexual experience is well-established.

In the last few years a loosely-defined movement known as post-modernism has emerged, which embodies many Nietzschean insights and much of the worldview that developed around the sexual revolution - a philosophical\ cultural nihilism bolstered by radical individualism. Post-modernism has a declared programme: to overthrow subject-centred rationalism, phallocentric patriarchy and techno-industrialism. Its principal philosophical school, deconstructionism, holds, in the words of its leading exponent, Jacques Derrida, that in a consideration of literature, science, art, theology or the law, there are no contexts outside of the texts in which their subject matters are written. That is to say that the texts refer to nothing established a priori, but are the object of endless play and interpretation. The critic of Shakespeare is not less than Shakespeare; science is the expression of social stratification; the law a game of meaning, the interplay of metaphor and irony. Post-modernism represents the maturity of the hedonistic, that is the dionysian, aspect of Nietzsche's thought, with its championing of the absolute right of everybody to live as they please, free of any traditional or moral restraints. But while this view is embraced as enlightened by many today, its genesis from the same Nietzschean legacy which gave rise to fascism in Hitler's Germany is largely unacknowledged. Sometimes, though, the seamier side of Post-modernism is exposed. When Paul de Man, a deconstructionist and advocate of the view that there is no historical responsibility, was discovered after his death to have been a wartime Nazi collaborator, it resulted in some serious reconsideration in literary theory circles.

The genealogy of philosophical and social movements is complex, and this does not pretend to be an exhaustive account. However, I believe that the twentieth century phenomena of fascism and the sexual revolution, on the surface so diametrically opposed, are - more deeply - united, in their rejection of Christian morality and their uncovering of a pre-Christian mythos and morality. They constitute aspects of a single movement which was given its intellectual form in the nineteenth century, in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Sexual liberation is accepted by many people today as normative. I hope to have demonstrated that this is not at all because it is natural to human beings, but it is, like any other position, an ideological one; and to accept it is to have accepted the Nietzschean wager.

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Et foredrag Don Trubshaw holdt på et CARP-møte på Universitetet i Oslo, oktober 1998

C.A.R.P."Fascism and the Sexual Revolution"World C.A.R.P.
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