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The folly of man

Books

The folly of man

Three books touching on atheism 

Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic (Princeton, 2018) is a biography of the scholar best known for his attempt in 1950 to change the reputation of Friedrich Nietzsche from proto-Nazi to humanist existentialist. That’s tough sledding, because Nietzsche’s hero was the Übermensch, the superior person who possesses a will to power and does not let thoughts of mercy turn him aside from his struggle. Nietzsche’s villains were compassionate Christians who practiced charity toward the poor and the weak.

Kaufmann tried to turn Nietzsche’s emphasis on mastering others into a drive for self-mastery, much as some Muslims turn jihad from conquering others to conquering the self. Corngold in turn tries to make his subject seem more mellow than Kaufmann’s heated attacks on Christianity suggest. This double-marinating makes the biography unreliable, but its 744 pages illuminate academic prejudices.

The 170 tightly written pages of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) are far more useful. Gray, himself an atheist, recognizes the weaknesses of “the new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, which he calls a throwback to the 19th century that “contains little that is novel or interesting.” He then pulls apart “secular humanism, a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history,” and ends that chapter with a vivid look at Ayn Rand, who rejects Christianity’s concern for others.

The third folly Gray names is “the kind of atheism that makes a religion from science, a category that includes evolutionary humanism, Mesmerism, dialectical materialism and contemporary transhumanism,” and often has a racist element. (Gray points that out in the writings of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire.) But that’s not all: In the next chapter Gray critiques “modern political religions, from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism,” and shows how Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky had beliefs as murderous as Josef Stalin.

Gray’s fifth folly is “the atheism of God-haters such as the Marquis de Sade,” who wrote, “The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.” Gray also writes about William Empson, who thought the devil was really God and made Eve the heroine of Genesis. Gray finally says what kind of atheism he likes—that of academic atheists like George Santayana, Arthur Schopenhauer, Benedict de Spinoza, and Lev Shestov—but he seems despairing and concludes that “belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts.”

Atheism in theory and practice always has bad results, sometimes leading to communism, fascism, or a general decadence, which David Weir assesses in Decadence: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018). His historical chapters on Rome, London, Paris, and Berlin describe societal debacles that fed off each other: In 1926 Berlin had 100,000 female and 35,000 male prostitutes, along with so many Communists that Berlin was “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow.” Nazi propagandists styled their party the alternative to both decadence and leftist dictatorship.

That’s relevant to contemporary decadence because Weir ends his book with a look at a fictional French alliance of leftist and Islamist opponents of decadence, and their success in roping in a professor by promising him three wives, one of whom is an excellent cook. As Washington life more and more resembles that of ancient Rome, we have cause to wonder who’s next: Caligula, Nero, or Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius now made famous by the movie Gladiator.

BOOKMARKS

Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now (FSG, 2018) provides amusing anecdotes from the top editor for 20 years of The Guardian in London, but no clear directions for positive remaking. Princeton professor Lee Clark Mitchell academically ponders Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre (Nebraska, 2018). Mark Coppenger’s A Skeptic’s Guide to Arts in the Church (Wipf & Stock, 2018) includes good thinking concerning 20 questions, starting with “Doesn’t the use of visual art risk violating the second commandment?” —M.O.