Revolutionary Man

4 July 2012

Wednesday


It is always a pleasure to celebrate the armed struggle of the American people against the oppression of the Old World, with its true believers in autocracy, hierarchy, patronage, and privilege, and its Old World tolerance of corruption, ineptitude, and failed institutions.

The emergence of revolutionary man — Homo revolutionibus — in history is no small matter. This idea that was first given concrete embodiment in the American Revolution has gone on to shape not only the politics of the world ever since that time, but moreover to shape the very idea of humanity itself — what humanity is, what humanity ought to be, and what humanity might reasonably hope to become.

In the PBS documentary Liberty! The American Revolution, there is a quote that makes clear the anthropological dimensions of the advent of the American Revolution:

As the British army fell to the American rebels commanded by Washington and laid down their arms at Saratoga, they saw for the first time the face of their conquerors. Row upon row of plainly dressed citizen soldiers. Old men and young boys. People of all colors. Ordinary Americans. A British officer would write that he felt he was “looking at a new race of men.”

I tried to find the original source of this quote, but I have not yet been successful, so that British officer in question must remain nameless for the time being — a nameless, faceless representative of the Old World tradition of individuals subordinated to arbitrary royal authority. Yet this British officer was not so blind to an incommensurable paradigm that he could not see the emergence of something new in history.

A parallel formulation of the American project as productive of a “new race of men” is found in Crèvecoeur:

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Great changes in the world indeed. Such changes have already occurred, and further changes continue to shake both the New World and the Old. Wherever today there is entrenched privilege and power, there is also to be found a popular insurrection against this entrenched power. It does not matter the extent to which power seeks to co-opt the masses and to take for itself the mantle of the people — such charades are easily seen through by revolutionary man.

To what extent may we identify this New Man, revolutionary man, with that other New Man of the modern world, the Übermensch? In other words (the words of Borges, to be specific), to what extent are all of us of the Western Hemisphere vernacular supermen?

Precisely to the extent that we seek to make ourselves over as revolutionary men and to overcome the corrupt, all-too-corrupt taint of the Old World and its old institutions that have no claim upon us but tradition, revolutionary man and the Übermensch are one and the same.

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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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Becoming What We Are

18 January 2010

Monday


Today is not the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King jr., but it is the day that his birthday is celebrated in the United States as a national holiday, so we will take this occasion to consider an aspect of King’s thought, but only by way of an unlikely digression.

One of the great themes in Nietzsche’s thought is that of becoming what one is. Nietzsche conceived this as the ultimate quest and fulfillment of individuality. The Übermensch is a man who has become what he is. Nietzsche’s intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo, was subtitled, “How One Becomes What One Is.” In Ecce Homo Nietzsche wrote:

The fact that one becomes what one is, presupposes that one has not the remotest suspicion of what one is. From this standpoint even the blunders of one’s life have their own meaning and value, the temporary deviations and aberrations, the moments of hesitation and of modesty, the earnestness wasted upon duties that lie outside the actual life-task.

One recognizes in this passage many of the familiar devices that Nietzsche uses to shock the reader into thinking for himself, to question not only the conventions of society but also to question the conventions that one tacitly sets up for oneself. Such questions must be asked if one is ever to become what one is. Complacency spells the end of all becoming.

One would not say that Dr. Martin Luther King jr. was a Nietzschean figure. He had to have been energetic and driven to achieve what he did achieve, but King was apparently sincere in his Christianity and African-American Christian churches and traditions were central to the civil rights struggle in the US.

King belonged to a very different intellectual tradition than Nietzsche. Indeed, it would be interesting to know in detail what figures like King and Gandhi thought of Nietzsche, if they ever expressed themselves on the topic, and it is amusing to imagine how Nietzsche might have characterized or even caricatured men like King and Gandhi.

Despite the chasm between King’s Biblically-inspired thought and his American-inspired rhetoric and Nietzsche’s classically-inspired thought and European rhetoric, however, I see at least one common thread: becoming what one is.

King made the motif of becoming what one is central to one of his most famous speeches, the “I Have a Dream” speech, an address delivered at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963. But there is a twist: King’s conception is a communal reformulation of Nietzsche’s individualist imperative of becoming what one is. Nietzsche’s becoming what one is became with King becoming what we are:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

And later,

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

There is, ringing in King’s words, the imperative of becoming, of becoming what we are. For America to “…live out the true meaning of its creed…” would be for America to become what it is. And I would argue that for any society or community of people to become what is it to become, that the several individuals that constitute that society or community must each and every one become what they are. With this in mind we are better prepared to understand the continuation of the passage from Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo quoted above:

Expressed morally, to love one’s neighbor and to live for others and for other things may be the means of protection employed to maintain the hardest kind of egoism. This is the exceptional case in which I, contrary to my principle and conviction, take the side of the altruistic instincts; for here they are concerned in subserving selfishness and self-discipline.

Thus, even in Nietzsche himself, becoming what one is and becoming what we are would seem to be integral developments.

Now for a step even farther afield. There is a figure in Buddhist thought known as a Bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism (less so in Theravada Buddhism) a Bodhisattva is a partially enlightened being that chooses to delay its own attainment of ultimate enlightenment in order to conduct others on the path to enlightenment. I am fascinated by the very idea, and I cannot think of a similar conception realized in any other tradition. But that does not mean that we cannot appropriate the idea of a Bodhisattva for our own thought.

In the context of becoming what one is, figures like King and Gandhi are secular Bodhisattvas who have taken a non-egoistic path, delaying their own opportunity to become what they are, in order to guide communities toward becoming what they are, and, in so doing, the Bodhisattva and the community so guided together become what we are.

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