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.'"