Author: Matt McManus

Why We Should Read Nietzsche

In Ecce Homo, the autobiographical self-examination written shortly before his descent into madness on the streets of Turin in 1889, Nietzsche cheekily opined that he was a “destiny.” It must have seemed like an almost tragic act of self-aggrandizement at the time. When he collapsed near the height of intellectual powers, Nietzsche was a sick and lonely man. His books, many of them self-published at Nietzsche’s expense, were barely selling and he often depended on charity from his friends. A few years earlier Nietzsche’s one firm romantic attachment, Lou-Salome, had rejected his proposal of marriage and rebounded on vacation with the philosopher’s friend Paul Ree. His sister Elizabeth and her husband were increasingly flirting with forms of nationalism and anti-Semitism that the cosmopolitan Nietzsche found extremely vulgar. Ironically, she would assume responsibility for Nietzsche’s care throughout his illness, editing many of his books and falsely presenting her brother as a proto-Nazi icon. It must have seemed at the time that Nietzsche’s “destiny” was to live out his remaining days as a vegetative invalid and quaint …

Why We Should Read Marx

If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas.  Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation has enjoyed something of a renaissance in spite of the atrocities associated with his name. Indeed, even pro-capitalist outlets such as …

Why We Should Read Rousseau

At the end of January I wrote an article entitled “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers” for Quillette. I argued that liberals, whether classical or egalitarian, can find insights in the work of authors who—rightly or wrongly—have come to be associated with illiberal and even totalitarian movements. The four authors I examined were Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Although the general point that these authors contribute ideas of value was well received, the article was justifiably criticized for summarizing each individual’s positions too quickly. This resulted in a loss of depth and left some readers wanting a more thorough account of what was valuable in each author.  Over the next few months I will be publishing an article on each thinker, presenting an argument for their enduring contribution. Since even a few thousand words is hardly sufficient to scratch the surface of each thinker’s complex positions, the interpretation I will be presenting will be highly qualified. I will begin each article with a brief discussion on the controversy surrounding the individual author, and why their writing is associated with totalitarian …

How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers?

How should one read and interpret authors whose work has clearly become associated—justly or not—with totalitarianism? In recent years, this debate has included figures like the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm, who has received scathing criticism for his soft approach to various communist regimes, and the literary theorist Paul de Man. However, here I will focus on the work of four philosophers whose work provided inspiration to totalitarianism and terror—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. It might seem disconcerting to imply there is a problem with reading such authors. After all, an intellectual work isn’t especially interesting unless it forces us to look critically at sides of ourselves and our societies we have been unwilling to examine—the darker undercurrents of politics and the human psyche. This may be especially true if we wish to combat totalitarian and authoritarian impulses successfully. Looking at those who inspired or supported these movements can give us a better understanding of their appeal. Hannah Arendt remains one of the most probing and articulate analysts of twentieth century totalitarianism, …

On the Value of Truth

Many claim that we live in a “post-truth” era. Trust in major civic and political institutions is rapidly declining. People on all sides of the political spectrum dismiss the media as biased at best and little more than “fake news” at worst. The postmodern President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, and according to Politifact makes statements that range from “half true” to outright lies 83 per cent of the time. In an earlier article for Canada’s The Hill Times, I invoked the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and summarized these developments as a rising “Age of Bullshit.” Concurrently, our post-truth era has been marked with lamentations across the ideological spectrum by those who provide a variety of explanations for our climate of untruth. Many progressives and liberals pin the blame on manipulative conservative politicians such as Trump and Boris Johnson, interference by foreign governments and cyber-attacks, and politically biased media. Many conservatives, meanwhile, pin the blame on progressive activists, the rise of PC culture and oversensitivity, and…politically biased media. I have already …

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy

There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on. In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural …

On God and Politics: Comparing Žižek and Peterson

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? ~Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science Religion has long played …

The Virtue of Nationalism—An Internationalist’s Critique

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony. Basic Books (September 2017) 304 pages.  The last 30 years have witnessed many arguments about the end of nationalism and the nation state, ranging from Fukuyama’s end of history thesis to Thomas Friedman’s claim that globalization was making the world “flat.” But, as they say, reports of the nation’s death now appear to be exaggerated. Over the past few years, from Brexit in the United Kingdom, to the rise of right wing nationalists such as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the specter of nationalism looms once again. Yoram Hazony’s welcome new book The Virtue of Nationalism analyzes this political shift and offers a defense of its value. Hazony’s book is by far the most interesting and compelling articulation of the nationalist case put forward thus far. This makes The Virtue of Nationalism an important book, since those looking to defend the nationalist cause will surely want to arm themselves with its formidable intellectual resources, while …

Understanding Postmodern Conservatism: A Reply To Aaron Hanlon

“Truth is Not Truth” ~Rudy Giuliani, Meet the Press, August 20, 2018 On August 31, the Washington Post published an interesting opinion piece entitled “Postmodernism Didn’t Cause Trump. It Explains Him” by Professor Aaron Hanlon, an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. In his article, Professor Hanlon referred to my May 17 article for Quillette, “The Rise and Emergence of Postmodern Conservatism” as an example of a prominent tendency on to “blame” postmodernism for the rise of Trumpism. Hanlon describes this tendency at length midway through the article. I will quote him in full to avoid misrepresenting his position: Today, critics on both Left and Right are happy to wave their fingers at postmodern theory, so long as they can blame it for the Trump electorate’s unprecedented disregard for the truth. In Quillette—an online magazine obsessed with the evils of ‘critical theory’ and postmodernism—Matt McManus reflects on “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism.” From the Right, David Ernst contends that “Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself .” And from the Left, Kakutani recently wrote in the Guardian: “Relativism has …

What Is the Law?

Recent debates about the looming appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court have once again indicated the depth of disagreement amongst American jurists and politicians about what legal officials should do and which legal interpretations are valid. Should a state have an interventionist Court or a restrained one? Is an interventionist Court one that takes a pragmatic approach to the law, or one that stresses paying attention to the so called ‘original meaning’ of legal texts? The intensity of these debates reflects the power granted to many legal officials in the American constitutional order. At different times, judges have handed down enormously consequential decisions that impact the way civil rights are understood, determine whether or not abortion will be legal and accessible, help us to understand the structure of American democracy, and so on. Americans are not alone in deliberating on these hot button issues—criticism of the power of legal officials, and discussion about what constitutes legitimate legal interpretation, also rage in Canada and on the European continent. These debates belie deeper and more complex questions …