The Labyrinth of History: Tocqueville and Nietzsche on Agency, Excellence and Pride
Every concept of politics incorporates a theory of history, and every historical project incorporates some idea of political change. These connections are often implicit, however, and making them explicit reveals assumptions about history and agency which can alter ideas about freedom and politics. There is a tendency in modern political thought to find a philosophy in history--be it historical materialism, universal cosmopolitanism, increasing equality, progress, etc--which can explain all current developments in terms of a pattern and process that will continue into the future. Finding a systematic philosophy in history can limit the freedom and agency of individuals, however; by positing that history unfolds according to a certain discernible pattern, there is less space for men and women to act in the present to create an unexpected future.This dissertation focuses on the historical and political work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville, both of whom are deeply skeptical about the usefulness of these kinds of philosophies of history. Their criticisms are broadly similar: both think that when history is reduced to a discernible system, it becomes politically enervating. When history unfolds according to a certain predictable pattern, they argue, men and women are no longer the agents of history, but instead become unwitting participants in a larger movement towards some predetermined end. Only by preserving a space for uncertainty in history, Tocqueville and Nietzsche suggest, can there be room for freedom and agency in politics.
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