The Realism of which we speak--a generic term which we understand as inclusive of the various forms of "naturalism" and "positivism"--is in its simplest form, the doctrine that was popularized precisely under the name of "Nihilism" by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons. The figure of Bazarov in that novel is the type of the "new man" of the sixties' in Russia, simple-minded materialists and determinists, who seriously thought (like D. Pisarev) to find the salvation of mankind in the dissection of the frog, or thought they had proved the non-existence of the human soul by failing to find it in the course of an autopsy. (One is reminded of the Soviet Nihilists, the "new men" of our own 'sixties,' who fail to find God in outer space.) This "Nihilist" is the man who respects nothing, bows before no authority, accepts (so he thinks) nothing on faith, judges all in the light of a science taken as absolute and exclusive truth, rejects all idealism and abstraction in favor of the concrete and factual. He is the believer, in a word, in the "nothing-but, in the reduction of everything men have considered "higher," the things of the mind and spirit, to the lower or "basic": matter, sensation, the physical.
As opposed to Liberal vagueness, the Realist world-view seems perfectly clear and straightforward. In place of agnosticism or an evasive deism, there is open atheism; in place of vague "higher values," naked materialism and self-interest. All is clarity in the Realist universe--except what is most important and most requires clarity: its beginning and end. Where the Liberal is vague about ultimate things, the Realist is childishly naive: they simply do not exist for him; nothing exists but what is most obvious.
Such Realism, of course, is a self-contradiction, whether it takes the form of a "naturalism" that tries to establish an absolute materialism and determinism, or a "positivism" that purports to deny the absolute altogether, or the doctrinaire "agnosticism" that so readily discourses on the "unknowability" of ultimate reality; we have already discussed this problem in Section I of this chapter. But argument, of course, is purely academic in view of the fact that Realism, a logical self-contradiction, is not properly treated as a philosophy at all. It is the naive, undisciplined thought of the unreflective, practical man who, in our age of oversimplification, thinks to impose his simple-minded standards and ideas upon the entire world; or, on a slightly different level, the equally naive thought of the scientist, bound to the obvious by the requirements of his specialty, when he illegitimately attempts to extend scientific criteria beyond their proper bounds. In the latter sense it is, to adopt a useful distinction, "scientism" as opposed to legitimate science; for it must be understood that our remarks here are not directed against science itself, but against the improper exploitation of its standards and methods that is so common today...
Up to this point, however, we have failed properly to distinguish the second stage of Nihilism from its first. Most Liberals, too, accept science as exclusive truth; wherein does the Realist differ from them? The difference is not so much one of doctrine--Realism is in a sense merely disillusioned and systematized Liberalism--as one of emphasis and motivation. The Liberal is indifferent to absolute truth, an attitude resulting from excessive attachment to this world; with the Realist, on the other hand, indifference to truth becomes hostility, and mere attachment to the world becomes fanatical devotion to it. Those extreme consequences must have a more acute cause.
The Realist himself would say that this cause is the love of truth itself, which forbids belief in a "higher truth" that is no more than fantasy. Nietzsche, in fact, while believing this, saw in it a Christian quality that had turned against Christianity. "The sense of truth, highly developed through Christianity, ultimately revolts against the falsehood and fictitiousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and its history." Understood in proper context, there is an insight--though partial and distorted--in these words. Nietzsche, most immediately, was rebelling against a Christianity that had been considerably diluted by Liberal humanism, a Christianity in which uncompromising love of and loyalty to absolute truth were rare if not entirely absent, a Christianity which had become no more than a moral idealism tinged with aesthetic sentiment. The Russian "Nihilists," similarly, were in revolt against the romantic idealism of "superfluous men" who dwelled in a nebulous realm of fantasy and escape divorced from any kind of reality, spiritual or worldly. Christian Truth is as remote from such pseudo-spirituality as is Nihilist realism. Both Christian and Realist are possessed of a love of truth, a will not to be deceived, a passion for getting to the root of things and finding their ultimate cause; both reject as unsatisfying any argument that does not refer to some absolute that itself needs no justification; both are the passionate enemies of the frivolity of a Liberalism that refuses to take ultimate things seriously and will not see human life as the solemn undertaking that it is. It is precisely this love of truth that will frustrate the attempt of Liberals to preserve ideas and institutions in which they do not fully believe, and which have no foundation in absolute truth. What is truth?--to the person for whom this is a vital, burning question, the compromise of Liberalism and humanism becomes impossible; he who once and with his whole being has asked this question can never again be satisfied with what the world is content to take in place of truth...
If the Realist, therefore, shares in common with the Christian a single-mindedness and earnestness that is totally foreign to the Liberal mentality, it is only the better to join in the Liberal's attack on Christian Truth, and to carry out that attack to its conclusion: the total abolition of Christian Truth. What began half-heartedly in Liberalism has gathered momentum in Realism and now presses to its catastrophic end. Nietzsche foresaw in our century "the triumph of Nihilism"; Jacob Burkhardt, that disillusioned Liberal, saw in it the advent of an age of dictators who would be "terribles simplificateurs." In Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, with their radically "simple" solutions for the most complex of problems, the fulfillment of this prediction in the political realm has been well begun. More profoundly, Nihilist "simplification" may be seen in the universal prestige today accorded the lowest order of knowledge, the scientific, as well as the simplistic ideas of men like Marx, Freud, and Darwin, which underlie virtually the whole of contemporary thought and life.
We say "life," for it is important to see that the Nihilist history of our century has not been something imposed from without or above, or at least has not been predominantly this; it has rather presupposed, and drawn its nourishment from, a Nihilist soil that has long been preparing in the hearts of the people. It is precisely from the Nihilism of the commonplace, from the everyday Nihilism revealed in the life and thought and aspiration of the people, that all the terrible events of our century have sprung. The world-view of Hitler is very instructive in this regard, for in him the most extreme and monstrous Nihilism rested upon the foundation of a quite unexceptional and even typical Realism. He shared the common faith in "science," "progress," and "enlightenment" (though not, of course, in "democracy"), together with a practical materialism that scorned all theology, metaphysics, and any thought or action concerned with any other world than the "here and now," priding himself on the fact that he had "the gift of reducing all problems to their simplest foundations." He had a crude worship of efficiency and utility that freely tolerated "birth control," laughed at the institution of marriage as a mere legalization of a sexual impulse that should be "free," welcomed sterilization of the unfit, despised "unproductive elements" such as monks, saw nothing in the cremation of the dead but a "practical" question and did not even hesitate to put the ashes, or the skin and fat, of the dead to "productive use." He possessed the quasi-anarchist distrust of sacred and venerable institutions, in particular the Church with its "superstitions" and all its "outmoded" laws and ceremonies. (We have already had occasion to note his abhorrence of the institution of Monarchy, a determining factor in his refusal to assume the Imperial tide.) He had a naive trust in the "natural mom, the "healthy animal" who scorns the Christian virtues--virginity in particular--that impede the "natural functioning" of the body. He took a simple-minded delight in modern conveniences and machines, and especially in the automobile and the sense of speed and "freedom" it affords.