“That Enormous Distrust of the Titanic Forces of Nature”: Understanding Climate Change Denial through the Lens of Nietzsche

The Phantom of the Opera

In a recent editorial at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir discusses the new documentary Merchants of Doubt in the context of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Ultimately, he hopes to answer the question of “why the right-wing counterattack against a previously uncontroversial scientific consensus [regarding climate change] has been so effective with the general public.” His argument is that climate change denial is fueled by a Dionysian embrace of death among the American populace, and that science fails to counter this denial because it relies too heavily on cool, rational, fact-based Apollonian argument. On the surface, this makes sense, as these are not necessarily misuses of these Nietzschean terms. However, through a closer examination, we will see that that the reverse is true: that it is actually a victory of Apollonian illusion that is keeping a large number of Americans from embracing (or confronting) the unadorned and unpalatable Dionysian truths of science and climate change.

Near the beginning of his essay, O’Hehir writes:

It may seem like a ridiculous leap to connect a scholarly work about ancient Greek culture published in 1872 with the contemporary rise of climate denialism and other forms of pimped-out skepticism, in which every aspect of science is treated by the media and the public as a matter of ideological debate and subjective interpretation.

Today’s Nietzsche scholars would certainly not find it ridiculous to turn to Nietzsche’s philosophical insights in order to shed light on contemporary issues, but they would definitely call into question the use of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest published work, as the crux of O’Hehir’s argument. The concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that are introduced in The Birth of Tragedy still resonate in our culture, to be sure. (And yes, I utilized these concepts myself in an analysis of The Lego Movie last year.) But Nietzsche’s views on science are clearer and much more evolved in his later works than they are in The Birth of Tragedy, and O’Hehir’s insistence that Nietzsche paved the way for science being treated as “a matter of ideological debate and subjective interpretation” is based, most likely, on a popular postmodern misreading of Nietzsche.

In his Nietzsche on Morality, in a chapter discussing the third essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, philosopher Brian Leiter addresses Nietzsche’s opinions on scientific truths:

There is no skepticism leveled here [the third essay] against the epistemic standing of scientific truths and thus nothing of the postmodern skepticism that recent, anachronistic readings have claimed to find in Nietzsche.

As Leiter strives to make clear, Nietzsche is “neither ‘against’ science, nor against ‘truth.’” This is an important point, as it is impossible to make sense of Nietzsche’s opinions on science without understanding what he actually thinks of it and what his true target is when he appears to criticize it. This target, according to Leiter’s analysis, is “the excessive valuation of truth characteristic of the scientific outlook.”

For Nietzsche, truth is not necessarily compatible with psychological well-being. Indeed, the excessive valuation of truth above all else can easily lead to what Nietzsche refers to rather bluntly as “suicidal nihilism.”

In an essay titled “Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits,” Nadeem J. Z. Hussain writes:

In his notes from the period right after The Birth of Tragedy, we see [Nietzsche] returning again and again to the thought that art might be an antidote or a response to the threat of practical nihilism generated by the natural sciences and their depiction of the world as lacking value in itself.

I wrote about this topic previously in my essay “Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics” (which is also an analysis of Aaron Ridley’s essay, “Perishing of the Truth: Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Prophylactics”). The point I want to make here, though, and which Hussain’s essay highlights, is that after writing The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche began to clarify his views on the relationship between science and art that he introduced in that book. Essentially, he believes that art (which provides meaning and value) can be used either to mask scientific truths (e.g., that life is inherently without meaning and value) or to make them more palatable. As he famously wrote in his notebooks, “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” With this in mind, we can return to The Birth of Tragedy, and it will become clear through this new context that Nietzsche wants to associate science and truth with the Dionysian, and art, image, illusion, form-giving, and value-creating with the Apollonian (the reverse of O’Hehir’s postulation).

O’Hehir writes in his piece:

Beneath the political, economic and tribal conflict over climate science lies a profound sense that what Nietzsche described as the “Apollonian” forces of social order, in this case being the book-learning of the professoriate and the rules and regulations of government, cannot contain or comprehend the chaotic and mysterious nature of reality.

Is it really true that these Apollonian forces “cannot comprehend the chaotic and mysterious nature of reality”? Or, instead, is the problem that, through science, we can comprehend the Dionysian nature of reality? Indeed, as O’Hehir writes: “There is certainly a heated cultural and political conflict over the issue of climate change, but there is no ‘scientific debate,’ no matter how many times Fox News hosts repeat that phrase.” The problem, as I see it, is that the science of climate change seems to tell only one story, one that people do not want to hear: we are doomed. There may be an Apollonian aspect to science (e.g., its reliance on reason and logic), but its failure is not an inability to make sense of the chaos of reality; its failure is that it does not know how to translate its more pessimistic Dionysian findings into a palatable message that can spur people toward optimism and change.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recounts a parable about King Midas learning the Dionysian wisdom of Silenus:

An ancient legend recounts how King Midas hunted long in the forest for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysos, but failed to catch him. When Silenus has finally fallen into his hands, the King asks what is the best and most excellent thing for human beings. Stiff and unmoving, the daemon remains silent until, forced by the King to speak, he finally breaks out in shrill laughter and says: ‘Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.’

Is this pessimistic and unwelcome message not similar to the doomsday scenarios of the climate change scientists? If we accept Nietzsche’s opinion that truth is not always conducive to life, would not the American populace, many of whom already cling to religious dogma as protection from this Dionysian truth, be better off (psychologically speaking) not hearing this?

Later in his essay, O’Hehir describes what he sees as the Dionysian impulse run amok in American society:

Guns and fast cars and pornography and a history of careless and rapacious wastefulness are all expressions of the Dionysian impulse rendered into commodities and commercial enterprises, as are Hollywood movies and the oil industry and the McMansion.

Conversely, I think that these things have little to do with the Dionysian aside from the fact that they serve to hide it from people, to bury it along with the dark scientific truths it brings with it. Indeed, these are simple distractions, Apollonian comforts. This is the orgiastic masquerade ball at the center of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”

To be sure, here is Nietzsche describing the society of Ancient Greece as one shielded with Apollonian pleasures from the harsh Dionysian truths of Silenus:

Nothing here reminds us of asceticism (Askese), of spirituality and duty; everything here speaks only of over-brimming, indeed triumphant existence, where everything that exists has been deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil. Thus the spectator may stand in some perplexity before this fantastic superabundance of life, asking himself what magic potion these people can have drunk which makes them see Helen, ‘hovering in sweet sensuality’, smiling at them wherever they look, the ideal image of their own existence.

This sounds to me very similar to the American society described by O’Hehir. But O’Hehir believes that this is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and that “Americans ‘reframe or ignore’ the bad news about global warming or guns or cigarettes or fast food not because they’re terrified to face death but because they embrace it […]” But this clearly runs counter to Nietzsche’s conceptions as we can see from these passages from The Birth of Tragedy.

I believe that my analogy to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” above can shed light on why the Apollonian and the Dionysian are such slippery concepts (ones that Nietzsche later abandoned as inadequate to his needs). An orgiastic ball certainly seems Dionysian on its surface (just as guns, cars, and pornography do), with its apparent emphasis on pleasure, intoxication, and reckless abandon. But the idea of a masquerade is essentially, and without a doubt, Apollonian, especially if it is ultimately being used to “mask” the Dionysian truth of the closeness of death from the happily ignorant revelers.

Here, again, Nietzsche describes quite succinctly how Greek Apollonian culture overcame the grim Dionysian outlook of Silenus:

[…] it first had to overthrow the realm of the Titans and slay monsters, and, by employing powerful delusions and intensely pleasurable illusions, gain victory over a terrifyingly profound view of the world and the most acute sensitivity to suffering.

This is exactly what is happening with the victory of climate change denial over the grim outlook of the climate change scientists. It is a victory of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, not vice versa. Indeed, the modus operandi of the merchants of doubt is that they employ “powerful delusions and intensely pleasurable illusions” to convince legislators and the general public that climate change is not real and that we are not on the road to extinction.

O’Hehir writes about how his views on this matter differ from Australian economist Clive Hamilton:

Clive Hamilton has written that the doubt-merchants find a ready audience because it’s “just too hard” for many people to face the truth about climate change: “When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them,” just as few of us confront our own mortality until we are close to death. OK, maybe – but there’s a note of condescension in that psychological truism that rubs me the wrong way, and I would suggest that his explanation goes nowhere near far enough. To return to Nietzsche’s terminology, Hamilton is framing the problem in terms of cool, Apollonian logic, and declining to notice the darker, Dionysian factors of the equation.

I would say that Hamilton’s assessment is actually closer to what Nietzsche would make of the situation. The truth can be quite terrible, and some people will happily cling to a well-reasoned but false narrative in order to protect themselves from it. I also think O’Hehir is wrong when he states that Hamilton is “declining to notice the darker, Dionysian factors of the equation.” On the contrary, I think that O’Hehir is declining to appreciate the Apollonian comfort of the lies that mute the darker, Dionysian truths of science. If Hamilton’s interpretation is condescending, that does not mean that it is also, therefore, an incorrect one.

In the Aaron Ridley essay that I reference above, he discusses the Apollonian art of priests, which I think very much resembles the art of the merchants of doubt under discussion:

[…] it is, [Nietzsche] claims, part of the priest’s ‘distinctive art’–his ‘essential art’–to present to his flock a vision of the world so compelling that certain ugly truths (for instance, that death is the end, that fortune is capricious, that morality is ours) become al­together invisible.

To rephrase the primary question O’Hehir is seeking to answer, how can scientists effectively counter this deceptive priestly art? How can they combat the merchants of doubt, whose comforting Apollonian delusions many Americans are so eager to embrace? How can Americans be made to value the Dionysian truth of climate change science to the extent that it does not stifle them with “suicidal nihilism” but emboldens them to enact meaningful changes to their policies and practices?

O’Hehir and I will at least agree that our scientists perhaps need a different approach. Perhaps they require a touch of the Apollonian themselves but for a more honest type of art, one that balances and merges the Apollonian and the Dionysian as the young Nietzsche observed in ancient Greek tragedy, an art that, according to Ridley, “somehow facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while actually abolishing their ugliness.” As Nietzsche writes in Daybreak, “It is not enough to prove something, one also has to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why the man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdom: and often in such a way that it sounds like folly!” With any luck, well-loved superstar scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (as opposed to abrasive and tone-deaf figures like Richard Dawkins) might just have what it takes to make science sexy enough for people to accept climate change and begin combatting it. If not, we know how the story ends: “And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.”

Further reading:

Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics