The Magazine

Bush vs. Nietzsche

The politics of evil.

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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One hundred and sixteen years ago Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced Western civilization ready to move "Beyond Good and Evil," the famous title of his last major book. George W. Bush begs to differ. In so doing, he has reopened one of the great controversies of modern times.

We are, says Bush, engaged today in "a monumental struggle between good and evil." It is only in these old terms, he believes, that we can make sense of our world. As Bush told the American people on September 11: "Today, our nation saw evil." Bush's conception of evil stands as a stark monument on the modern linguistic landscape, unsoftened either by the adjectival form, as in an "evil deed," or by the indefinite article, as in "an evil." The president speaks of evil, pure and simple.

Nor has Bush retreated from this rhetoric since September 11. He has extended evil from a description of the original acts to cover the general method used to carry them out (terrorism), the perpetrators and planners ("the evil ones"), the ideology that claims to justify these acts (a species of Islamic fundamentalism), and finally the nations whose deliberate policy might aid such actions (the "axis of evil"). The last phrase, spoken in January, still dominates political discussion in some parts of the world.

This is admittedly strange language. For conventional thinkers, who pride themselves on displaying subtlety and avoiding judgmentalism, evil presents a huge problem. It is not very subtle, and it can be terribly judgmental. Still, one of the most astonishing developments of the past six months has been not the resistance to the concept--though there has been much of that--but the widespread acceptance. Foreign leaders visiting Washington have followed in Bush's footsteps, sometimes awkwardly, occasionally laundering their words with expressions like "as the president has said." But in the end Chirac, Blair, and Putin all were heard to say "evil," and none left Washington visibly the worse for the experience. But it is not just among these semi-captive political leaders that the new language has taken hold. It has also begun to appear in some very unexpected places. In the aftermath of the brutal slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the Washington Post editorialized: "The evil deed of his killers will not go unpunished, . . . neither will his murder leave their evil ways unreported." Will the New York Review of Books be next?

Although the president's wordsmiths helped to craft some of his more elegant phrases, no one doubts that this language comes directly, almost uniquely, from George Bush. In fact, it is hard to imagine any other leader in the West, or for that matter any other individual with a plausible shot at becoming president in 2000, who would have framed the issue in this way. The fact is that a large part of George Bush's intellectual framework rests on a Biblical foundation.

Some other recent presidents have been conversant with Biblical thought--Jimmy Carter, for example, is a Sunday school teacher who knows his Bible through and through, while Bill Clinton, supremely versed in Scripture, managed to instruct the nation on redemption. But more than either of these--arguably more than any other president in American history--George Bush has been influenced to his core by his encounter with the Bible, which he revisited in a serious way during a mid-life reevaluation. Bush revealed as much in the campaign, in a debate in Iowa with his Republican rivals for the nomination. Asked "which political philosopher" was most important to him, Bush did not respond by naming his famous antagonist Friedrich Nietzsche, but instead stunned his audience with the terse reply: "Christ, because he changed my heart." This statement was deeply worrisome to many, not so much because they thought it was calculated as because they believed it was sincere.

But Bush has usually made a point of not discussing matters of faith in public. He has not, or not much, based his politics of evil directly on religious authority. He has invoked evil, to use philosophers' language, as a "natural category" designed to identify a real phenomenon. (Here too we should remember that Nietzsche's objection to the old morality was in the first instance an objection not to good as defined in revealed religion but to good as defined in classical philosophy, Christianity being merely, in his view, "Platonism for the masses.") Proof that Bush's use of the concept of evil has struck a powerful chord is that once he dared to introduce it, few have been able to offer compelling reasons why it should be thrown out. As the historian Simon Schama wrote: "If this isn't evil, then I don't know what is. And if people are going to use superlatives and say super-super-naughty-wicked-bad--and they are--then they might as well say 'evil.'"

PRESIDENT BUSH is neither an intellectual nor a theologian. He is generally unpretentious when it comes to big ideas. For all we know--unlike all of the political commentators in Washington--he may never have read Nietzsche. Still, his introducing the concept of evil may prove to be more consequential than anyone imagines. Its most distinctive aspect lies in what it suggests about causality.

The modern mind is used to breaking things down and assigning to every effect some material cause, such as, in the case of the current terrorist movement, deprivation, mistreatment, or mistaken policies. The explanation of evil refuses this approach. It offers itself as its own cause: Evil is not caused; it is a cause. To attribute explanatory power to a moral or spiritual substance (or, as some might prefer to put it, to a lack thereof) is today an unusual way of thinking, and it leads to the still more unusual conclusion that for certain ills there is no remedy to be found in ordinary social policy or therapy.

Two other connotations of the concept of evil draw at least implicitly on elements of religious faith, though not Christianity alone. One is the idea that in the presence of evil, resistance is a positive obligation. The situation cannot be left to slide; one cannot take satisfaction from having merely said the right things. Bush's politics of evil is meant to fortify resolve. It amounts to a declaration that deeds count more than words, and deeds are imperative: "This is the calling of the United States of America, . . . a nation built on fundamental values that . . . rejects evil. We will not tire."

Another connotation is that in the struggle between good and evil, the universe is not indifferent. As Bush said at the United Nations: "We're confident, too, that history has an author who fills time and eternity with his purpose. We know that evil is real, but good will prevail against it. This is the teaching of many faiths, and in that assurance we gain strength for a long journey." Those with faith surely will find solace in this view, while others must discover a way to proceed in the face of their doubts.

Bush's use of the concept of evil fits into an important debate in American thought that has been going on now for well over a hundred years. Led by John Dewey, a concerted effort was undertaken early in the twentieth century by many Progressive thinkers to throw out the concept of evil. The reason, as explained by the contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty, was that it "thwarted their notion of confidence in education and social reform." The Progressives saw evil as incompatible with their notion of the infinite perfectibility of man. If, however, the term evil had to be kept, these Progressives sought to empty it of its old content and redefine it (Rorty again) "as the failure of the imagination to reach beyond itself." In this use--or abuse--of evil, the term would become little more than a synonym for "unenlightened." An evil policy would be one that was unprogressive.

This pitiful plan to place us beyond good and evil, American style, failed. It could not do justice to the horrors people saw with their own eyes in the years following the Progressive era. Yet a residue of this thinking can still be detected. It may explain, for example, a curious blind spot in many of the commentaries on Bush's rhetoric, namely the assertion that no other president with the exception of Ronald Reagan has spoken of evil. (Reagan, who famously called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," would in this view be the exception that proves the point: Reagan and Bush are the two recent presidents who somehow missed the modern intellectual revolution.)

But in fact President Clinton referred fairly often to evil--in speaking of the Oklahoma City bombing, the murders of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd in Texas, the genocide in Rwanda, and the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovars. The absence of any notable reaction, then or now, to his language is striking. It points to the fact that the term evil is frequently used by modern commentators, even and especially those who professed dismay when Bush "revived" it. Whenever an awful deed can be thought of as a regressive action, whenever it can be associated with Fascism or hate crimes towards groups left behind, whenever it can be conceived as embodying an "older" way of thinking, modern intellectuals have no reluctance to speak of evil. But while such cases do in fact encompass evil, they do not exhaust the phenomenon.

What is unprecedented in Bush's language, then, is not that he uses the term evil, nor even that he has made so much of it, but that he has conceived of it, by modern standards, in an unconventional way. He has cast aside any residue of the Progressive idea of evil as a temporary phase to be overcome, and reverted to the older understanding of evil as an omnipresent part of reality. His reintroduction of this concept serves not only as an aid in the war against foreign terrorism, but also as a corrective to the dominant materialist tendencies in our own civilization that deny substance to the soul or a moral nature to man. This correction is the cultural linchpin of George Bush's new homeland security policy and promises to be one of his most enduring contributions.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor of "The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election."