Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
Of modern society's seminal critics, Nietzsche may well turn out to be the most farsighted: the problems he identified at the close of the 19th century are now truly acute and pandemic, issues for everyone, issues that no one has really mastered.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche posed an inspiration and a tribulation: the inspiration was the vision of moral/cultural/spiritual evolution, the idea that it was folly for presumptuous man to take himself as the terminus of all previous history. Never has man been more uninspiring — "human all too human" plumbs the pathos of the term for us, "human" now meaning nothing more than fallible and pathetic. Where is the nobility, the metaphysical uniqueness, the grandeur that the ancient Greeks and Jews invested in man? Is it our inevitable fate to become pygmies, insects, epigoni, ever-more diminishing mockeries of our ancestral aspirations?
Surely man was meant for transcendence, argued Nietzsche, as everything in the transient world of nature was meant to participate in a great dynamic order, species sustaining themselves by one individual after another surpassing and being surpassed? Nietzsche may have affected a revolutionary position, but he was one of the most traditional thinkers recent philosophy has managed to produce: a philhellene, crypto-Aritotelian, devout believer in normative natural law. He still believes it is possible and necessary for man to get beyond himself, to gain access to a perspective superior to this mundane and trivial order: man is meant to be a bridge between himself and an Uebermensch who fulfills and makes whole the feeble promises implicit in man. And the tribulation Nietzsche observes is man obstructing his own ultimate potential and responsibility, his own exercise of the powers of self-overcoming: instead of advancing toward that ideal, he hamstrings himself and makes of himself the lowliest, the minimal thing he can be — an economic animal, a conformist, a barbarian so obtuse that all the grand issues of Western civilization fly right over his head.
To Nietzsche the chief fallacy of modern thought and modern life is its absurd humanism, its attempt to take man uncritically as an ultimate of some sort. For all his antagonism to extant religion, Nietzsche is demonstrably a thinker who takes the premises of religion, the trans-historical viewpoint (sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity) radically seriously. He also takes historicism radically seriously: everything participates in the roiling currents of history, everything is a child of its time, everything takes its most profound orientations from its historical force — and whatever is not advancing is regressing. In the world of nature and history, there is no steady-state, there is only the dynamism of ascent toward one's prime or decline into decadence.
However acrid his pessimism about the real stature of modern society, Nietzsche takes the foundation of 19th-century optimism — the faith in historical progress — far more seriously than his glib contemporaries do. Whatever does not advance the cultivation of values, whatever is not dedicated to the improvement of man's society and thinking, is pathological: life has no neutral corner. Something vital in man and in society will atrophy if man reneges on his metaphysical duty to enhance the quality of values, the amplitude of good and evil of which man is capable. The very apathy of moderns about philosophical and moral matters, their presumption that life can be lived mechanically, instrumentally, perfunctorily, is evidence galore that a sociopathic ideological regime has subverted the purpose of human life and derailed the metaphysical design of evolution in general and history in particular.
Modern Europe had forfeited its claim to be the civilizational heir to Athens and Jerusalem. Modern life had wandered into a vast miasmal swamp, a historical sinkhole of amorality, barbarism, political and philosophical triviality. We are a people becalmed, paralyzed, inert, impotent, sterile: at the heart of the modern technological whirlwind is a stasis, a cultural standstill, the nihilistic envelope of indifference about just the most essential issues in human life — values, obligations, the cultivation of freedom and seasoned intelligence.
At once both to ridicule the futile and passionless personality this society has mass-produced and also to warn of the very real dangers to the whole dynamic of history posed by this self-centered creature — a consumer but no longer a producer of values, culture, and ideas, "a reader" as Nietzsche so scathingly describes him — Nietzsche gives this entropic mentality a name: the "Last Man." The obligation to improve and sustain a world-order, to nurture a culture to pass on to those who come after — this holiest of human tasks is as nothing in the eyes of this egocentric slug. He lives as he thinks, perfunctorily, just to get it over with: he is a dullard on whom the privilege of being alive is just as wasted as is the obligation of making oneself a thoughtful individual. "No shepherd and one herd!" writes Nietzsche. "Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same; whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse."
It is more than statistically significant, therefore, when mediocrity becomes a mass-phenomenon. It is an ideological eruption, the consolidation of a new personality-type — what Philip Rieff has called "psychological man," successor to medieval-religious man and ancient-political man — no longer possessed of even an inkling of character, moral concerns, political commitments, intellectual integrity, or the other earmarks of traditional individuality. This is the New Streamlined Man, and in his perspective all the traditional accoutrements of a fulfilled life (wisdom, piety, purpose, conscience, and the like) are only complications and obstacles: the New Man is a generic model, a creature so undeveloped and simpleminded as to take the breath away from any lingering old-model humans. It is for his sake that schools have been uniformly dummied down, books mass-produced by unvarying formula, and indeed books supplanted by far less taxing, far more passive visual media. It is to his standards of uncritical intelligence that quickie political commercials and impulse-ads are tailored. Get out of his way; he is the Marching Morons, and he can't begin to understand any of the problems he creates for other people and other nations.
"Live and let live"; "Judge not"; "Different strokes," and other appropriately simplified slogans predigest for the Last Man the precepts of his religion, relativism. He expects to be tolerated and he is tolerant, unless you happen not to share his religion: if you live or think in such a way as to reflect ill on the habits of others, if you think there is something objective about better or worse, then you are dangerous indeed. So if you find the tenets of his religion intellectually interesting, you'd better think again: they were never meant to appeal to or serve the interests of anyone who thinks. They are rationalizations against the very need for thinking: they are facile presumptions designed to quell the possibility of curiosity, inquiry, and discriminating judgment. They inoculate minds against subtlety, against the comparison of values and the ranking of values into a hierarchy; they militate against the very mode of thinking we call philosophy — you might as well shit in such people's midst as say anything serious — and most particularly, against any form of protest against this ideological status quo.
These slogans can be understood only in spite of themselves, because they mean to foreclose on the very prospect of understanding. They are the heat-death of intellectual and cultural life, the homogenization of the differences and conflicts that have traditionally sparked individuals into thinking. Just that kind of moral and political contest has forever been the lifeblood of healthy societies:
And you tell me, friends, that there is no disputing of taste and tasting? But all of life is a dispute over taste and tasting. Taste — that is at the same time weight and scales and weigher; and woe unto all the living that would live without disputes over weight and scales and weighers!—(Kaufmann tr.)
The Last Man, however, is what humans devolve into when they no longer care to endure the tensions of a purposing life: they care more about their own psychological indulgences than they do about the sublime structures of civilization. Hedonism, utilitarianism, materialism — these are the historical earmarks of the wholesale dissolution of will that we call decadence.
This is the whimper at the end of an eon, or better yet, the sigh: the will declines into comfort, the mind into a lukewarm bath of miasma. Moral and intellectual energy, the movement of spirit, is spent at last; the values that shielded the primal cultural urges from demoralization grow thin, errant, and senile. At the end of its productive life, Western mind is defenseless against the Slogan of all Slogans: Why Bother? — Why bother indeed? Why bother oneself, when sloth pays instant rewards? Why carry forward the burdens that dead people have passed on to us? Why live, why think, why assume responsibilities, why reproduce?
To hear these questions is like listening to an insane goddamned parrot: it is the mindless repetition of the word "why?" in the mouth of a person who has no respect or concern for the very meaning of why. "Why?" is not a serious question here, it is only a shrug, an evasion, a dismissal: it is like Pontius Pilate asking, "What is truth?" Why is defeated a priori, rendered futile by the very attitude that manipulates the term. Why was meant to provoke some deepset train of motives and questions, to animate and mobilize that organ the ancients thought was the very heart of self-movement (anima-animus-psyche). Why is a goad to stir up the roiling stew of sediments, to stoke up fires in the smithy of our souls. Spirit to the Christians and Nous to the Greeks was nothing if not a leavening and ferment, an inflationary urgency in our souls. What can the language of these ancient principles mean to moderns who have "procured abortions of the spirit," as Kierkegaard put it? Far too many have made an unnatural peace in the war that used to be their spirits: they have settled for a scraggly, barren bit of land that will not support life. They have settled. "...Not a few who wanted to drive out their devil have themselves entered into swine," Nietzsche tartly remarked.
To the impervious and obtuse, nothing matters: but precisely because they are obtuse, they project blame for this indifference on everything but themselves. Nihilism becomes a cosmic and metaphysical problem, anything other than the fault of self-anesthetized personalities. The Last Man inverts and repels all of the traditional characteristics by which human beings interpreted, comprehended, and evaluated themselves: in him, will has no integrity, no structure, no discipline; intellect has no coherence, no independence, no focus; and conscience utterly capitulates to circumstance and appetite. Modernism's legacy is a monstrous moral illiteracy that prevents us entirely from understanding what values are (in general or in particular) and why we need them; it has set in motion a period of decivilization, and its citizens are so bereft of standards as neither to understand nor care. In the Last Man's own self-interpretation, he is victim pure and simple: literary anti-hero, pathetic creature of circumstances he never willed, product of socio-economic conditions, hapless hod carrier for his genes, a being fallen even further below Adam's already fallen estate. This thundershower of pathos is only the way he wants to see himself, however; and if you agree with him however much, then you have been suckered into playing on his terms. His rationalizations are extremely contagious: they are sold as the wisdom of modernity to freshmen in English, Philosophy, Sociology, and other university courses.
The ploy of pathos is essential to the syndrome: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky all perceived this, independently of one another. The Last Man defends himself against the residual counterexamples of traditional humans with cunning that is close to genius: How can you criticize me, I'm so pathetic? And indeed he is: by comparison with any other archetype of character, he is a miserable wretch, a truly sorry specimen of human existence. But his cunning is, to perceive that this amounts to a rhetorical and moral advantage: he is pitiful indeed, because pity is his shield and his permit for moral goldbricking. Man as pathos, as hapless victim of forces he neither controls nor even understands — that is the exculpatory banner behind which the Last Man advances, and advances, and advances. He is free from criticism, free from the expectations of others, one of life's insulted and injured: that is what you concede when you pity him. In actual truth, pathos is here a contrived and calculated posture, as much so as in The Threepenny Opera, where rags, grime, limps, and boils are all so much dramaturgy, unionized and standardized assaults upon the conscience and purse of every passer-by.
The Last Man is master of only one culture, and that is camouflage: he appears innocuous, well-meaning, and hopeless. But his sincerity is able to be mobilized behind any sort of rationalization, and en masse he is vicious, intolerant, and unconscionable against any who try to prove alternative ways of life are possible. There is a venom in his bite, a motive (as Nietzsche perceived) of resentment against anything that reflects ill on his way of unthinking. In the Last Man's licentious era, only one absolute sin remains, and it provokes rabid reactions from all who have bought his ideology: it is the sin of "elitism" — the need and demand that occasional individuals will have for resources to feed their independence.
You've given this creature your educational institutions, your government, and very likely the key to your conscience. He wants one thing more, the same thing all despots want: it's not enough to have you in chains. He wants to see you kiss them and thank him.