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We all know Nietzsche’s parable of the last man. Certain that democracy, science, and secular humanism would definitively reshape civilization, Nietzsche—or more precisely, Zarathustra—asks what kind of human being would result. His answer, dripping with sarcasm and contempt, is that ordinary humans would become a kind of insect, “a race as ineradicable as the flea-beetle,” a creature that would “make the earth itself small.” Here is Zarathustra’s lament:

Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.

     “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” the last man asks, and he blinks....

     “We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth...

     No shepherd and one herd! Everyone wants the same, everyone is the same; whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse...

     One has one’s little pleasures for the day and one’s little pleasures for the night, but one has a regard for health.

    “We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink.

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. But without, I hope, contradicting myself, I’d like to work the other side of the street for a while: to acknowledge the force of at least some criticisms of modernity and progress.


“We pacifists,” William James wrote, “ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetic and ethical point of view of our opponents.”

Perhaps the most important, though also the most fragile, success Enlightenment liberalism has had is the delegitimation, however partial, of war. The perception that the arbitrary power of absolute rulers facilitated needless and vastly destructive wars was a powerful impetus to popular sovereignty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culminating in the United Nations Charter. Though the charter has been repeatedly violated by the great powers (and not only by them), it is not quite a dead letter, and a global culture of respect for international law may be the most urgent cause any activist could devote her life to.

Even so, biology has its rights. In 1910, the last year of his life and only a few years before World War I put an end to the long European peace, William James wrote a pamphlet for the Association for International Conciliation, one of the many pacifist groups whose prominence in that period convinced many people that war between nations, being so obviously irrational, was therefore impossible. James’s essay, titled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” is a work of supreme pathos and wisdom. James himself was a pacifist, a founding member of the Anti-Imperialist League, a group formed to protest America’s military interventions in Cuba, Haiti, and the Philippines, and one of the most humane and generous spirits America or any other nation has ever produced.

James understood perfectly the folly—the “monstrosity,” as he called it—of war, even in those comparatively innocent, pre-nuclear days. But he also acknowledged the place of the martial virtues in a healthy character. “We inherit the warlike type,” he pointed out, “and for most of the capacities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank [our bloody] history.” “The martial virtues,” he continued, “although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods.... Militarism is the supreme theater of strenuousness, the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood; and human life with no use for strenuousness and hardihood would be contemptible.” “We pacifists,” he wrote with characteristic intellectual generosity, “ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetic and ethical point of view of our opponents.” To militarists, a world without war is “a sheep’s paradise,” flat and insipid. “No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more!” he imagines them saying indignantly. “Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet!” This, remember, was the era of Teddy Roosevelt, preacher of the strenuous life and instigator of splendid little wars. James’s pacifism may be common sense to you and me, but when he wrote, the common sense of Americans was mostly on Roosevelt’s side.

How to nourish the martial virtues without war? James resolved this apparent dilemma with a suggestion many decades ahead of its time: universal national service, every youth to be conscripted for several years of hard and socially necessary physical work, with no exceptions and no class or educational discrimination. This army without weapons would be the moral equivalent of war, breeding, James argued, some of the virtues essential to democracy: “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command.” I am sure James would have agreed that these are not the only virtues essential to democracy—he himself, with his anti-imperialist activism, exemplified an equally essential skepticism and resistance to authority. But I wonder if our contemporaries, who mostly need no convincing about the necessity of skepticism and resistance to authority, would also agree with James about the importance of valor, strenuousness, and self-sacrifice.

James wrote in America before World War I, a situation of almost idyllic innocence compared with that of the next writer I want to cite, D. H. Lawrence. The Great War, as contemporaries called it, was a soul-shattering experience for English writers. The complacent stupidity with which Europe’s governing classes initiated, conducted, and concluded that war, the chauvinism and bloodlust with which ordinary people welcomed it, and above all, the mindless, mechanical grinding up of millions of lives by a war machine that seemed to go of itself—these things infuriated Lawrence almost to madness. Like many others, Lawrence saw the facelessness, the impersonality, the almost bureaucratic character of this mass violence as something new and horrifying in human history. But more than all others in the twentieth century, Lawrence was the champion of the body and the instincts against the abstract, impersonal forces of modernity. Like Nietzsche, he marshaled torrents of impassioned prose against the apparently inexorable encroachments of progress. Here is a passage from “Education of the People,” published posthumously in the two volumes of Phoenix.

We are all fighters. Let us fight. Has it come down to chasing a poor fox and kicking a leather ball? Heavens, what a spectacle we should be to the ancient Greek. Rouse the old male spirit again. The male is always a fighter. The human male is a superb and god-like fighter, unless he is contravened in his own nature. In fighting to the death, he has one great crisis of his being.

     What is the fight? It is a primary, physical thing. It is not a horrible, obscene, abstract business, like our last war. It is not a ghastly and blasphemous translation of ideas into engines, and men into cannon-fodder. Away with such war. A million times away with such obscenity. Let the desire of it die out of mankind.... Let us beat our plowshares into swords, if we will. But let us blow all guns and explosives and poison-gases sky-high. Let us shoot every man who makes one more grain of gunpowder, with his own powder.

     And then let us be soldiers, hand-to-hand soldiers. Lord, but it is a bitter thing to be born at the end of a rotten, idea-ridden machine civilization. Think what we’ve missed: the glorious bright passion of anger and pride, reckless and dauntless.

In other words: fight when you must, when your blood boils over and your anger won’t be gainsaid. But fight face to face, hand to hand, in your own quarrels and in your own skin, as a responsible human being and not a machine, or worse, a machine-operator. I think James would have agreed with that. I’ll go further: I think Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Grace Paley, and maybe even Dorothy Day would have agreed. I believe that one can be—must be—both a feminist and an upholder of the martial virtues, just as James showed that one must be both a pacifist and an upholder of the martial virtues.


Today that ethos survives only in political speeches and Hollywood movies.

Modernity imperils another set of virtues, which are a little harder to characterize than the martial virtues, but are even more important. I don’t mean the bourgeois virtues, though there’s some overlap. I suppose I’d call them the yeoman virtues. I have in mind the qualities we associate with life in the early American republic—the positive qualities, of course, not the qualities that enabled slavery and genocide. In 1820, 80 percent of the American population was self-employed. Protestant Christianity, local self-government, and agrarian and artisanal producerism fostered a culture of self-control, self-reliance, integrity, diligence, and neighborliness—the American ethos that Tocqueville praised and that Lincoln argued was incompatible with large-scale slave-owning. Today that ethos survives only in political speeches and Hollywood movies. In a society based on precarious employment and feverish consumption, on debt, financial trickery, endless manipulation, and incessant distraction, such a sensibility seems archaic.

According to the late Christopher Lasch, the advent of mass production and the new relations of authority it introduced in every sphere of social life wrought a fateful change in the prevailing American character. Psychological maturation—as Lasch, relying on Freud, explicated it—depended crucially on face-to-face relations, on a rhythm and a scale that industrialism disrupted. The result was a weakened, malleable self, more easily regimented than its pre-industrial forebear, less able to withstand conformist pressures and bureaucratic manipulation—the antithesis of the rugged individualism that had undergirded the republican virtues.

In an important recent book, The Age of Acquiescence, the historian Steve Fraser deploys a similar argument to explain why, in contrast with the first Gilded Age, when America was wracked by furious anti-capitalist resistance, popular response in our time to the depredations of capitalism has been so feeble. Here is Fraser’s thesis:

During the first Gilded Age the work ethic constituted the nuclear core of American cultural belief and practice. That era’s emphasis on capital accumulation presumed frugality, saving, and delayed gratification as well as disciplined, methodical labor. That ethos frowned on self-indulgence, was wary of debt, denounced wealth not transparently connected to useful, tangible outputs, and feared libidinal excess, whether that took the form of gambling, sumptuary displays, leisured indolence, or uninhibited sexuality.

     How at odds that all is with the moral and psychic economy of our own second Gilded Age. An economy kept aloft by finance and mass consumption has for a long time rested on an ethos of immediate gratification, enjoyed a love affair with debt, speculation, and risk, erased the distinction between productive labor and pursuits once upon a time judged parasitic, and become endlessly inventive about ways to supercharge with libido even the homeliest of household wares.

     Can these two diverging political economies—one resting on industry, the other on finance—and these two polarized sensibilities—one fearing God, the other living in an impromptu moment to moment—explain the Great Noise of the first Gilded Age and the Great Silence of the second? Is it possible that people still attached by custom and belief to ways of subsisting that had originated outside the orbit of capital accumulation were for that very reason both psychologically and politically more existentially desperate, more capable, and more audacious in envisioning a non-capitalist future than those who have come of age knowing nothing else?

If this argument is true—and I find it painfully plausible—where does that leave us? An individual’s or a society’s character cannot be willed into or out of existence. Lost virtues and solidarities cannot be regained overnight, or even, perhaps, in a generation. Even our ideologies of liberation may have to be rethought. A transvaluation of values may be in order: faster, easier, and more may have to give way to slower, harder, and less—not only for ecological reasons but also for reasons of mental and moral hygiene. And even if we decide, as a society, to spit out the poisoned apple of consumerism and technological addiction, is there a path back—or forward, for that matter? If individual self-sufficiency and local self-government are prerequisites for human flourishing, then maybe it is too late.

I know of only one book that takes the full measure of the dilemmas I’ve been hinting at and goes on to show one way to a sane and stable future. It’s a utopian novel by Ernest Callenbach, called Ecotopia. It was published in 1975 and had a brief vogue before disappearing along with the rest of the counterculture of that era. It deserves better: it’s politically and psychologically astute, and ecologically far ahead of its—or our—time. But the utopian society it depicts, located in the Pacific Northwest, is made possible by the survival in that region of some of the very cultural traits and virtues whose obsolescence in the rest of the country I’ve been lamenting.


Do my apparently disparate-sounding worries have anything in common? Possibly this: they all result from one or another move on the part of the culture away from the immediate, the instinctual, the face-to-face. We are embodied beings, gradually adapted over millions of years to thrive on a certain scale, our metabolisms a delicate orchestration of innumerable biological and geophysical rhythms. The culture of modernity has thrust upon us, sometimes with traumatic abruptness, experiences, relationships, and powers for which we may not yet be ready—to which we may need more time to adapt.

But time is short. “All that is solid melts into air”—Marx meant the crust of tradition, dissolving in the acid bath of global capitalism. Now, however, the earth itself is melting. Marx’s great metaphor has acquired a terrifying second meaning.

And so has Nietzsche’s. If we cannot slow down and grow cautiously, evenly, gradually into our new technological and political possibilities and responsibilities—even the potentially liberating ones—the last recognizably individual men and women may give place, before too many more generations, to the simultaneously sub- and super-human civilization of the hive.

George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His selected essays, Only a Voice, will be published in 2023 by Verso.

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Published in the April 2021 issue: View Contents
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