The Dialectics of Stonewall Jackson

Why the Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was one of the most dialectical men who ever lived

General Stonewall Jackson is one of the most dialectical men who ever lived. He is the ultimate rebel against the United States and yet also in the quintessential American. He died rebelling against this country, and yet he’s one of the most establishment figures there is—equally beloved by Bible colleges and military schools. He is probably the most popular Civil War figure other than Lincoln, and not only among Southerners. What American doesn’t know, and even love, or at least respect, Stonewall Jackson?

Jackson didn’t want slavery, but he owned slaves. He even taught slaves to read, which was against the law—and he fought a war to keep them enslaved. He was a pretty quiet, unremarkable, socially awkward guy in between the wars (the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, twelve years later). But in battle, leading the rebels against the Union, he would channel the will of God, pray for the blood of his Yankee enemies, and emit a kind of forcefield of invincibility around his troops—nobody could die as long as Stonewall Jackson was around. He was awkward in social situations outside of war, but in war, nobody inspired more faith in his men than he did.

Jackson is perhaps the ultimate example of American heroism. What other general is talked about in the same breath? Washington, Lee, maybe MacArthur or Eisenhower, but that’s a reach. Only the generals before the modernization and industrialization of warfare really count—nothing in the age of military machines has any spirit or mystery, or dialectics, to it. Only men like Washington, Jackson, and Lee can really be war heroes in the deep sense—they had little more than guns, horses, maps, and their wits.

What is the nature of military heroism? How can you be a hero? Doing your duty, no matter what. There are two ways to do your duty—absolute duty, or absolute defiance; following orders, or defying orders in service to a higher authority. And Jackson, dialectical as always, had both to the fullest. We might think of two kinds of heroism related to this, a kind of grim heroism associated with doing your duty no matter what, in service to military-bureaucratic authority—and a kind of elevated heroism, where you do your duty in accordance with God‘s will (or your conscience, which are largely the same thing in American military history) alone, where you’re inspired by God/conscience to know that what you’re ordered to do is not the right thing. You have access to a higher authority. A higher call.

Grim heroism is when you do your part, and stay within yourself and your role, to help the greater good that you’re serving. Successful operations always need people like that, willing to do what needs to be done. Elevated heroism is when you feel that you know what needs to be done because you serve a higher authority. And this is the greatest form of heroism, but it only counts if you end up being right about your hunch to disobey orders and follow a higher call.

Jackson followed orders to slaughter civilians fleeing Mexico City in the Mexican-American War, the ultimate example of grim heroism, duty as just following orders. But he also at another point defied orders to retreat, and fought off the Mexican cavalry against long odds—the ultimate rebel. This rebelliousness, however, was successful, and so is viewed as evidence that it was God’s will, and so is elevated heroism, rather than dereliction of duty. Since Jackson’s disobedience of an order was successful, it is viewed as not being disobedience at all, but rather obedience to a higher authority, and so an even more honorable form of heroism. But if it hadn’t worked, he would’ve just been disobedient and dishonored.

Elevated heroism requires a leap of faith—you don’t know it will be heroic when you do it, and heroism can only be attributed after the fact. So faith is a key aspect of this kind of elevated heroism, which should be no surprise, given Jackson’s profound, militant, faith in Christ—he is sometimes referred to as a Soldier of the Cross. This is another deeply American strand in Jackson—what is more American than the Christian sword? That’s how we’ve justified virtually all of our military adventures since the end of World War Two.

But we can also see another quintessentially American strand here in the analysis of elevated heroism, but one that directly conflicts with the leap of faith aspect. In the way that elevated heroism can only be recognized as such after the fact, if the act of disobedient heroism is successful, we can identify a kind of pragmatism. Pragmatism is the only philosophy invented in America, by Americans, for Americans, to explain, and perhaps to rationalize, the American way of life. In his book Pragmatism and Sociology, the Frenchman Emile Durkheim says, “Pragmatism indeed cannot entail a hierarchy of values, since everything in it is placed on the same level. The true and the good are both on our level, that of the useful...”

This definition of pragmatism brings Durkheim very close to Nietzsche’s philosophy of truth, as Durkheim acknowledges in his book—he describes Nietzsche as holding the position that the true is equal to the useful, and that when something is useful, it is true. That is the essence of pragmatism, and it describes Stonewall Jackson’s elevated heroism perfectly—since his disobedience worked, his act must have been true. If it hadn’t worked, it would not have been a true act.

This is, again, Nietzsche’s idea of truth. What other criteria could there be for truth, Nietzsche wonders? Truth is, as all things are for Nietzsche, grounded in this world, in life, in nature, in the body, in the experience of growing power, and not hidden off in some ideal Platonic realm of the Forms, or in heaven, or anywhere else. The fact that Jackson, a man who was so guided by Christ, could embody Nietzsche’s (who wrote The Anti-Christ) concept of truth so perfectly, is another dialectical twist to the man.

But perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising—perhaps it took a true believer in the American Christ, the most warlike Christ ever conceived, to fully embody and actualize Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche famously said of himself, “I am no man, I am dynamite.” But this was mostly meant figuratively—Nietzsche himself was not a good warrior, he was a volunteer medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, and got dysentery pretty quickly. He spent most of his life languishing in bed in various hotel rooms. Jackson, meanwhile, really was more dynamite than man—what else were his ecstatic explosions of Christian bloodlust in battle than that? Who else could emit a kind of protective forcefield over his men that was so powerful that they truly believed they couldn’t be killed when he was with them?

One of Nietzsche’s earliest ideas, and one that remained central to his philosophy, was his analysis of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements of existence, named after the gods Dionysus and Apollo. He identifies these two tendencies as the core of Greek culture, which was the truest, highest culture the world had ever produced, he thought. The Apollonian element provides order, law, and form to the chaos of existence—the Dionysian element celebrates chaos, disorder, drunkenness, destruction. Synthesizing or harmonizing these two contradictory impulses was necessary—and the key to power, the path of the Ubermensch.

Trying to hold these two tendencies together in one person requires the utmost strength, and is how power is built. But it also constantly verges on self-destruction—which for Nietzsche, is a small price to pay for the immortality you can achieve by tapping into the greatest reserves of power. As Nietzsche said, “You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”

This spiritual chaos is the chaos of trying to harmonize the two opposing foundations of culture, Dionysus and Apollo—and the dancing star is the power one achieves from this synthesis. Jackson generated a kind of dancing star of invincibility for him and his men, resulting from his deeply dialectical character. He turned himself into a weapon—a spiritual weapon, a soldier of Christ. Even though Nietzsche was a great critic of Christianity, the person of Christ himself Nietzsche held in higher regard. “In truth,” Nietzsche says, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”

Christianity, then, is much more the problem than the person of Christ. Christ himself was genuine, even Nietzschean—he engaged in the kind of self-destructive creative power that Jackson, and even Nietzsche himself, did. They sacrificed themselves by turning themselves into dynamite, into weapons—none of them were just men. Isn’t that the real story of Christ—turning yourself from a mere man, into a spiritual weapon. Nietzsche was a spiritual weapon of ideas, and Jackson was a spiritual weapon on the battlefield. Despite the obvious differences—Nietzsche had no interest in America, and nothing but contempt for Christianity as a religion—Jackson is perhaps, even though he is as Americana as it gets, and as Christian as it gets, one of the most Nietzschean figures.

Durkheim points out that Nietzsche is not just a pragmatist, even though his theory of truth—that what is useful for life is true—is the essence of pragmatism. As Durkheim writes, “There is, he [Nietzsche] says, one form of truth which is quite other than that described as true by the men of the ‘herd,’ a morality other than the ‘slave morality,’ a logic other than common logic. There is a truth which only liberated spirits can attain. The artist is the very type of this spirit…” So in this establishing of two planes, the common plane of use-value determining truth, and the higher plane of artistic truth beyond this common plane, Nietzsche departs from the pragmatism which he is so close to. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is thus grounded in the pragmatic notion that the true is what is useful for life, but is also constantly trying to transcend this, artistically, and chaotically—a chaos-led artist. In the same way, Jackson’s heroism is both pragmatic—it is truly heroic because it worked—and transcendent of the merely pragmatic plane; he was a god-led warrior.

In 1888, the last year of his sane life, Nietzsche started a correspondence with the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, one of the most respected and influential intellectuals in Europe at the time. Brandes told Nietzsche his interpretation of his philosophy, calling it a vision of an “aristocratic rebel.” Nietzsche fully agreed with this assessment. Stonewall Jackson is one of the best examples of an aristocratic rebel ever—he was literally a rebel against the Union, and he was doing it in defense of the aristocratic (slave) society of the American South.