April 20, 2021


Last Men and Women: Are some virtues casualties of progress? (George Scialabba, March 25, 2021, Commonweal)

Plenty of others besides Nietzsche have expressed misgivings about the likely character of democratic citizens, and these critics have not all been opponents of democracy. (I'm using "democracy" here to mean the whole Enlightenment program: not just political equality but also feminism, pacifism, human rights, and the welfare state, along with a chastened belief in, and modest hopes for, moral and material progress.) Tocqueville's reservations are well known: "The general character of past society was diversity," he wrote. "Unity and uniformity were nowhere to be met with. In modern society, however, all things threaten to become so much alike that the peculiar characteristics of each individual will be entirely lost in the uniformity of the general aspect." Even John Stuart Mill fretted that "the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.... At present individuals are lost in the crowd." Criticisms of mass society and mass man swelled to a roar in the twentieth century: Durkheim, Spengler, Schmitt, Ortega, Lippmann, Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, MacIntyre, Bloom, and many, many others.

Most of these criticisms I reject, not for their often-powerful diagnoses but for the illiberal prescriptions that usually accompany them. I agree with Richard Rorty's admirably forthright solution to the supposed dilemma of democratic mediocrity: to wit, "even if the typical character types of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom." We can and should separate the private from the public, self-creation from tolerance, the pursuit of perfection from democratic politics. As Rorty famously elaborated:

From Plato through Kant down to [Habermas and Derrida], most philosophers have tried to fuse sublimity and decency, to fuse social hope with knowledge of something big.... My own hunch is that we have to separate individual and social reassurance, to make sublimity [unlike tolerance] a private, optional matter. That means conceding to Nietzsche that democratic societies have no higher aim than what he called "the last men"--the people who have "their little pleasures for the day and their little pleasures for the night." Maybe we should just make that concession, and also concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by "rationality"). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people's chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it on their own time, and within the limits set by On Liberty. But such opportunities might be quite enough.

That, broadly, is where I also stand--with the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs, and against Straussians, religious conservatives, national-greatness neoconservatives, Ayn Randian libertarians, and anyone else for whom tolerance, civic equality, international law, and a universal minimum standard of material welfare are less than fundamental commitments. 

There are three obvious problems with the Last Man theory, two of which were always evident and one that has only rounded into clear view in recent decades: 

(1) the notion that changes in the character of society can change the nature of Man.  This is, of course, the dream of all utopians, from Marxists to Islamists to Nazis to Trumpists to Progressives, that if you just give them enough control over the levers of society that they will spit out the new and improved man. But human nature--having been bequeathed by God--is intransient, as even He found to His frustration.

(2) that societies structured along prior lines produced anything more than general "mediocrity."  We celebrate the greatness of a Greece or a Rome because we remember and have access to the works of a few of their poets, playwrights, philosophers, and leaders, conveniently ignoring the fact we've forgotten the great unvariegated mass of their fellow citizens, particularly those who actually labored.  Where is there room in subsistence living for much more than "mediocrity"? Somewhere in Greece there was a particularly adept olive picker.  The greatest picker ever to walk down the street.  No one recalls him.  We recall the men who engaged in no labor.  And we recall the men listed above, who fretted about a rising tide of mediocrity, likewise, because they had the leisure time to do so.  They were not jotting down their thoughts after 16 hours in a coal mine. 

(3) which brings us to the contradiction at the heart of Last Man-ism, so clearly on display in our current age: at the End of History we require so little labor that Man has nothing but time for his enjoying and creating his pleasures.  Consider lockdown: nevermind the sheer volume of excellent culture we all consumed, look at the explosion of hobbies, crafts, etc. that our expanded leisure time triggered. Folks learned to cook, to bake, to woodwork,  to paint, to do puzzles, to cycle, to cross country ski, to garden, to do yoga, to play musical instruments, to brew beer, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.   Given the time to do so, we all created.  

The Last Man turns out not to be much different than the men throughout history who had leisure time or, at least, did not have to labor to sustain themselves.  The End of History does not change human nature: it changes human life. The affluence that liberal society produces affords time, liberty, and opportunity for men to indulge their interests and passions where we had historically been prevented by the time clock, government power, and restrictive social structures from indulging ourselves.  

So is this Utopia?  Does every man seize this moment and improve himself and create worthwhile crafts?  Hardly.  Do plenty of men do nothing with the opportunity and just sit around blinking?  Sure.  Deprived of the gift of having to work so hard you have no opportunity to think, do some now contemplate themselves and find the specter so unsatisfying they turn to drugs and alcohol to escape the self?  You bet. Has human nature changed in some fundamental way that means I am any less mediocre than my liberal ancestors before me? Not a whit.  Is The Wire the equal of Shakespeare? Does a chicken coop cast shade on the pyramids? Is a Tweet as insightful as The Rambler? Does jogging every day rival Pheidippides? Is coaching youth sports the same as tutoring Alexander?  If you can bake a loaf of bread and dry some jerky are you a virtual frontiersman?  Pish posh. But are the lives that include all these endeavors and the consumption of all the culture our society produces unworthy in any meaningful way? Or would they rather be the envy of everyone who came before us, not least of the philosophers who thought themselves "Above Average," almost entirely because of their privileged lifestyles, now become common? if this be mediocrity, give us more, faster. 


Posted by at April 20, 2021 7:09 AM