The Last Civilization

10 February 2011

Thursday


The subtitle of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, one of his most influential books, is Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, and in a strangely moving passage (section 214 of the same book) he referred collectively to himself and his readers as, “first born of the twentieth century.” Nietzsche was not a “futurist” in the sense we know the term today, but his philosophy was centered on the future.

Nietzsche’s conception of a future Übermensch who would supersede humanity as we know it today is of course one of the most well known and indeed notorious aspects of Nietzsche’s thought. In fact, just last night I watched the very entertaining and informative documentary Protagonist, in which the now reformed bank robber repeatedly stated that during his years of crime he believed himself to be a Nietzschean Superman. Whether you admire or despise the idea of the Übermensch, this was Nietzsche’s vision for what the future might be at its best. But this wasn’t the only future imagined by Nietzsche. He also imagined a worst case scenario for the future, and this worst case scenario was the Last Man (In German: der letzte Mensch).

In a couple of comments to my posts, Greg Lawson has drawn particular attention to Nietzsche’s Last Man. Mr. Lawson noted that Nietzsche’s Last Man appears in the title of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, so the idea retains a certain currency. Nietzsche’s exposition of the Last Man occurs in Section 5 of the preface of Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

They have something whereof they are proud. What do they call it, that which maketh them proud? Culture, they call it; it distinguisheth them from the goatherds.

They dislike, therefore, to hear of ‘contempt’ of themselves. So I will appeal to their pride.

I will speak unto them of the most contemptible thing: that, however, is THE LAST MAN!”

And thus spake Zarathustra unto the people:

It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the germ of his highest hope.

Still is his soil rich enough for it. But that soil will one day be poor and exhausted, and no lofty tree will any longer be able to grow thereon.

Alas! there cometh the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man—and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz!

I tell you: one must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: ye have still chaos in you.

Alas! There cometh the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There cometh the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.

Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN.

“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” — so asketh the last man and blinketh.

The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.

“We have discovered happiness” — say the last men, and blink thereby.

They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loveth one’s neighbour and rubbeth against him; for one needeth warmth.

Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbleth over stones or men!

A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death.

One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby.

They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled—otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” — say the last men, and blink thereby. —

And here ended the first discourse of Zarathustra, which is also called “The Prologue”: for at this point the shouting and mirth of the multitude interrupted him. “Give us this last man, O Zarathustra,”—they called out—”make us into these last men! Then will we make thee a present of the Superman!” And all the people exulted and smacked their lips. Zarathustra, however, turned sad, and said to his heart:

“They understand me not: I am not the mouth for these ears.

Too long, perhaps, have I lived in the mountains; too much have I hearkened unto the brooks and trees: now do I speak unto them as unto the goatherds.”

Nietzsche’s focus is on the contemptible Last Man himself, and his fellow last men, but I will observe that the Last Man, if and when he emerges from history will not emerge in a vacuum. The Last Man will be a product of the Last Civilization. The Last Civilization, like the Last Man, is contemptible, and smugly self-satisfied in its contemptuous status. Like the fool which Soloman said delights in his folly, so too the Last Man delights in his contemptible nature, and the Last Civilization delights in the Last Men it has produced desporting themselves as the contemptuous creatures they are. As the Last Man sees himself as the ultimate product of civilization, after which nothing more can possibly follow, so the Last Civilization understands itself as the ultimate civilization, and misunderstands is ultimacy as an expression of its “higher” nature.

Is it possible to discern in the present whether man is becoming the Last Man or Superman? And has our civilization turned a crucial corner to head decisively either in the direction of the Last Civilization or in the direction of Higher Civilization? Not long ago in The Very Idea of Higher Civilization I argued that contemporary industrialized civilization has not yet even begun to compete with the excellence of classical antiquity or the high points of medieval civilization. To date, industrialized civilization is not a peer-to-peer competitor with any civilization of the past.

This worries me, and I hope that it worries you, too. Industrialized civilization seems to be producing the conditions for the Last Man to someday reign, and therefore seems to be transforming itself in the Last Civilization. A simple, uninterrupted development of current trends would issue in precisely this fate. If contemporary industrialized civilization does not eventually produce the conditions of its self-transcendence and thereby justify itself through the creation of truly great works of civilization, distinctive of its milieu, then we will certainly evolve into the Last Man. Continued mediocrity is sufficient for the Last Man to triumph and to create (and be created by) the Last Civilization.

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I have long had it on my mind to write about the Last Man, and also to write about structural forces in industrialized civilization that tend toward the degradation of excellence. I had not planned to bring these two ideas together; this is something that just happened to occur to me today. So I still have (at least) two more posts to write on these topics separately, but these thoughts are not yet sufficiently mature to expose them to the light of day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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