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.