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By David A. Eisenberg


The Montréal Review, January 2015


The rescue of the bull (2011) by Fran Recacha (www.franrecacha.com)


Democracies are not inherently utopian, but the aim of the modern democratic longing – an age of equality, free from privation and strife – unmistakably is.  That those who harbor this longing tend not to consider themselves utopians does little to confute the character of their aims.  Many of the greatest utopians of the nineteenth century disdained the title, but their reflections failed to repel the characterization. 

That the appellation does not enjoy more widespread appeal is little to wonder at.   The nineteenth century, perhaps the utopian century par excellence, was succeeded by the twentieth, during which so many transcendent dreams were translated into nightmarish realities.  The brief resurgence of the utopian vision at the end of the twentieth century that followed the fall of the Soviet Union was quelled quickly at the start of the twenty-first with the fall of the Twin Towers.  Humanity had not arrived at the utopian end of history; rather it was in the throes of the perennial clash of civilizations. To be utopian in such a climate was a sign of bad taste, if not outright imbecility.

Another reason why the utopian ascription is not more widely accepted in the present age is precisely the reason why many of the nineteenth-century utopian prophets spurned the epithet.  If utopias tend to be characterized as improvident, fanciful, implausible, and, in essence, impossible, the visions of luminaries such as Comte and Marx were rational, scientific, positivistic, attainable, and, in the end, inevitable.  Likewise, the aims of modern democracy are not chimerical, but conceivable.  Equality, an end to poverty, perpetual peace - these are not figmental longings realizable only in some imaginary realm, but are concrete aims that can be realized in the here and now, albeit not precisely now and here.  The modern utopian may not trust in the inevitability of these outcomes, but that does not belie the fact that he has more than a lukewarm faith in their realizability.  Would he uphold and pursue these ideals so persistently were it otherwise? 

The failures and horrors of past utopian ventures have informed, even if only tacitly, the approach of the contemporary utopian.  The path forward will be more moderate, the incline upward less steep. The tools of erstwhile utopians - revolution, forced collectivization, sudden and violent uprooting of traditions - will be jettisoned for more measured approaches. This too distinguishes the modern democratic utopian from his predecessors.  But while the means have been moderated, the end, ultimately, remains no less absolute.  This is not to say that the ends are identical, only that the utopians - be they the outspoken socialist visionaries of the nineteenth century or the more subdued democratic partisans of the twenty-first - agree on this: a limitation in progress is not to be brooked.  It is incongruous to think that the modern utopian would welcome the eradication of a good deal of scarcity without at least striving to stamp out the remainder - and likewise with the rest of his longings.  For those who seek to perfect society, imperfections are intolerable.  In the end, the will to utopia is uncompromising.

One should guard against thinking that this will is innate to humanity; that it is inane to highlight the modern longing for perfection because it is a longing that all peoples harbor. After all, what people would not long for an age in which the inequities and iniquities of life were relegated to the past?  But the fact of the matter is that whole ages and cultures have known nothing of this longing.  Indeed, it has been argued that utopia is a distinctly Western phenomenon, one that was born from the wellsprings of Western civilization (Athens and Jerusalem), which would entail that far from being an elemental part of human nature, the utopian longing first emerged in a particular time and place.  What is more, one cannot ignore the gulf that divides the classical utopia from the modern one.  In the classical world, the utopian gaze tended to look backward.  The Golden Age belonged to the past.  When that gaze, strictly speaking, was not directed backward, it was directed inward, which is to say the classical utopia was intellective, an object, or rather subject, of contemplation. The modern utopia, in contradistinction, is future oriented - the Golden Age is before, not behind us - and is not simply to be contemplated, but to be actualized.  An indomitable faith in  progress undergirds the modern utopian longing.

That faith may be indomitable, but it does not blind progress’s adherents to the dangers that line the road ahead.  There is an acute apprehension, one that sometimes borders on paranoia, that at any moment, our highest hopes can be blighted and our greatest achievements effaced.   Climatological calamities, ecological devastation, nuclear annihilation, pestilential decimation plague the modern utopian as potentialities that portend doom and elude man’s control.  Post-apocalyptic visions in literature and film, including those visions of a world overrun by mindless zombies that enjoy such popularity amongst putatively mindful people, paint a picture of a world where something has gone horribly wrong.  But there is a subtler and, in many ways, more ominous threat that looms in the utopian future, one that can be gleaned not by asking “what if something goes horribly wrong?” but “what if everything goes terribly right?”

This paradoxically ominous prospect was grasped with uncommon sagacity by two nineteenth-century thinkers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville. The pairing may seem odd.  One, the implacable opponent of democracy, the other, democracy’s unwavering, which is not say uncritical, friend.  But although ostensibly odd, the pairing is not arbitrary.  For notwithstanding the considerable and oftentimes insuperable differences that separate their thoughts, their musings display a profound concord with respect to the democratic march of history and what it signified for humanity, a concord all the more remarkable given Nietzsche’s indefatigable disdain for democracy and Tocqueville’s qualified reverence for it.  For both thinkers, democratic man was not superior to his aristocratic antecedent; the democratization of humanity was not synonymous with progress; and the democratic future, far from being an unambiguous bastion of hope and progress, was a source of dread and terror to those who unflinchingly and perspicaciously peered into it.

In no small part, what allows for this union of minds, particularly with regard to man’s utopian longings, is their shared appreciation for the multiformity of human nature and the widespread disregard for this conceit that pervades modern thought.  In the classical age, it was common for thinkers to reflect on the varieties of human beings.  Plato, or Plato’s Socrates, could discourse at length on different regimes and the types of human beings that correspond to them so that, for example, one could distinguish a fundamental difference between an aristocratic soul and an oligarchic one.  Aristotle recognized that different types of people pursue different types of lives, the three most notable being the life of pleasure, the life of politics and the contemplative life.  With a somewhat Manichean bent, Cicero did not tire of distinguishing the naturally good man from the naturally corrupt one.  

This human variegation is repudiated in modern thought.  One does not find in Hobbes, who not without reason considered himself the founder of modern political science, a distinction between types of human beings - between lovers of justice and lovers of pleasure and lovers of knowledge. Instead, human beings are depicted uniformly, monolithically. At bottom all human beings are avaricious, self-interested, prideful, and pugnacious and what motivates them all fundamentally is but one thing: the fear of violent death and the desire to avoid it, that is, the desire for self-preservation.  This reductionism is indicative of modern thought and the utopian longings that lie therein.  It is easier to solve the political problem for a people that are all alike than it is for a people that are substantively unalike.  It is not incidental that the political solutions proffered by modern thinkers, notwithstanding the differences between them, tend to be of the one-size-fits-all variety. 

There are of course exceptions.  Rousseau’s god-like lawgiver, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Marx’s economic determinism, which historically yielded a wide array of human types (patricians, plebeians, lords, vassals, nobles, peasants, bourgeois, proletarians), all expressly confound the uniformity that permeates the Hobbesian worldview. But insofar as the heterogeneity they espouse invariably yields to a triumphant homogeneity, these exceptions are no exceptions at all.  Rousseau’s lawgiver is required to recuse himself from the people he founds, lest he lord over them;  Hegel’s historical process synthesizes man’s dichotomous nature, thereby unifying it, and does so, moreover, in that dialectically and democratically curious fashion that gives victory to the slave rather than the master; and in an unmistakably analogous manner, Marx prophecies a future where the only meaningful basis for human differentiation – political economy - will be socialized and after the proletariat seizes power, humanity, in its final ascendancy, will become classless.  The rich heterogeneity that qualified humanity heretofore will be replaced with an unmitigated uniformity: this is the character of modern and, one might add, utopian thought.

This impending uniformity afflicted Nietzsche and Tocqueville in no small part because they foresaw that it would entail the diminution of man.  In marginalizing or ignoring the aristocratic spirit, modern thinkers misunderstood the nature of man simply.  They took a certain type, i.e. the democratic type, as being the paradigmatic or essential type and regarded other types as atavisms that needed to be overcome and consigned to the historical dustbin.  But it was precisely in those neglected types that Nietzsche and Tocqueville beheld a richness that, once cashiered, would impoverish humanity en masse.  It was moreover in the aristocratic type that both thinkers divined the genesis of man; the origins of a creature that transcended its animality. The danger that both thinkers espied was this: because it is to homo demoraticus that the age belongs and because this type considers itself the vertex of the evolutionary process, other, nondemocratic types are regarded as aberrations in need of correction or, that failing, condemnation.  Along with suffering, strife, scarcity and the like, “towering genius,” of the sort Lincoln referred to, will be relegated to the past.  Pronounced differences offend democratic man; inequality he abhors above all else.  This is why, as Tocqueville so percipiently observed, people in democratic ages willingly will sacrifice their freedom on the altar of equality.  This unrivaled advent of democratic man will result in a contraction of the human spirit, one that will threaten to return whence it came the being that had advanced so far beyond its brute beginnings.  

This danger, while evident in the denouement to which modernity hastens, cannot be appreciated fully unless one descries the origin of that movement, which is to say that one cannot understand the danger of mankind’s democratization unless one understands the nature of democratic man.  The animating principle of this human type, and one should add that it is the animating principle of the utopian type, is that life is bad and needs to be rectified.  This principle does not inhere in man simply.  Not all peoples regard life as being bad and in need of – or for that matter, even capable of - correction.  This animating desire is symptomatic of a people that is, in Nietzsche’s view, constitutionally deficient or degenerative or, as Tocqueville would have put it with a comparative touch of delicacy, weak and small.  In short, it inheres in those that find life burdensome and are unable to endure their burden. 

Even if one were to grant that the desire to improve life is universal, the improvements that the moderns seek to effect - equality, peace, overcoming of scarcity - are themselves not universally desired.  They reflect the values and predilections of a particular type of human being.  By what universal measure is peace greater than war?  It certainly was not greater for the Ancient Greeks, that society of athletes and warriors, to borrow Montesquieu’s memorable phrase, nor was it for the Romans whose greatness was predicated on conquest.  War – “the father and lord of all things” - was as desirable to the ancient Greeks and Romans as peace is to the modern utopians. 

This need not result in an irremediable relativism, for just as one could say that unremitting conflict would be deleterious to civilization, one too could say the same of perpetual peace.  The modern longings conceal a latent peril.  Their realization promises not to elevate man, to say nothing of perfect him, but to dehumanize him and to do so, both Nietzsche and Tocqueville suggest, irreversibly.  This is evident in Nietzsche’s vision of the last man, that ineradicable being that knows no ardent desires, has no lasting ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond sating the transitory and, in substance, animalistic pleasures of the day.   And it is no less evident in Tocqueville’s vision of a democratic future wherein the people,  possessed wholly by an insipid “love of present enjoyments,” will have become insensate to “those great and powerful public emotions that trouble peoples, but also develop and renew them;” a future in which societies will become “unchangeably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same mores, so that the human race will stop and limit itself;  [in which] the mind will fold and refold around itself eternally without producing new ideas,… man will exhaust himself in small, solitary, sterile motions, and …, while constantly moving, humanity will no longer advance.”

While pernicious in their own right, what makes the modern longings particularly portentous is that they have become realizable, thanks to the instruments that the modern utopian has at his disposal: modern science and the modern state.  The former will allow for man’s mastery of nature so that he no longer will suffer from want and the vicissitudes of fortune; the latter will effect the truly egalitarian society where no person will enjoy more than another and where all citizens will be allowed to pursue their everyday pleasures to their heart’s or, as the case may be, stomach’s content.

Both Nietzsche and Tocqueville recognized that there was something myopic if not mendacious about the modern perspective; that modern man’s perception of himself was colored by his appetites; and that modern science was no more the arbiter of truth than the modern state was the arbiter of justice.  Modern science affords an interpretation ofthe world, not an apodictic explanation of it. And it interprets the world with a specific objective, namely mastery.  This aim was expounded by the philosophic founders of modern science - Bacon and Descartes - who proclaimed that science would allow us to “enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe” and “make ourselves masters and possessors of nature,” which would conduce wonderfully to “the relief of man’s estate.”  And this aim in turn rests on an earlier postulation, that nature both can and ought to be corrected.  With such an underlying precept, science’s claims to objectivity appear farcical.  What is more, modern science signifies a simplification, even falsification of nature.  “Unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause, thinghood, being,” Nietzsche reminds his readers, are fabrications that we superimpose upon the world in an effort to simplify and thereby manage it.  As Tocqueville observed, “General ideas do not attest to the strength of human intelligence, but rather to its insufficiency, because there are no beings in nature exactly alike: no identical facts, no rules indiscriminately applicable in the same manner to several objects at once.”  The ultimate aim of science is less an understanding of the world than the manipulation of it.  As a result, it is reductionist.  Its interpretation of the world is shallow, if not meaningless.  This is not to discount the wonders it effects, but insofar as it strives to make everything calculable and controllable, it demands that everything be perceived uniformly - as something that can be calculated and controlled – and relegates everything that does not conform to its standards to the realm of feeling and opinion or worse still, folly and superstition.  Thusly weighed, nature and therewith man are impoverished, divested, in Nietzsche’s words, of their “rich ambiguity.”   Whereas ancient science catered more to the pleasures of the mind, modern science caters more to the pleasures of the body, and by doing so, by satisfying his baser instincts, it inclines less toward man’s elevation, than his degradation.  

This declivitous drift also stems from the modern state, that other instrument that, by maintaining a rational, orderly and egalitarian society, will permit the realization of our utopian longings.  As Nietzsche understood it, the modern state arose out of the ashes of the Church, and like the Church, it too demands obedience and ultimately idolatry, which is why Nietzsche referred to the state as “the new idol.”  Nietzsche’s concern was not so much that the state, as the highest goal of mankind, presages a relapse into paganism, but that it signified a relapse into stupidity.  The modern state is incompatible with humanity’s higher, nobler aims.  Culture and state are, as Nietzsche put it, antagonists.  Energy and resources are finite and a people that devotes itself to power politics, world trade and economics, will have less to devote to cultural advancement.  To be sure, the state pays lip service to culture by funding the arts, but its aim ever is its own exaltation as it can conceive of no goal higher than its own welfare and preservation.  As Nietzsche quipped, “what the money-makers really want when they ceaselessly demand instruction and education is in the last resort precisely money.”  And money for what? For security, for comfort, for material well-being all of which, when pursued immoderately or, should modern man’s aspirations be realized, secured in perpetuity, vitiate the soil that genuine human greatness and nobility require to grow.

This Tocqueville understood all too well.  When he surveyed the democratic future, the spectacle of universal uniformity saddened and chilled him and he could not help but pine for those earlier ages that were populated by noble human beings, when great devotions were known and lofty virtues practiced.  Tocqueville found solace in the belief that God willed such a denouement, that the democratization of humanity was a “providential fact” and that what appeared decadence in Tocqueville’s eyes was progress in God’s.  For Nietzsche, who heralded God’s death, this solace, of course, was not available.  But even for Tocqueville, this solace was tenuous and could not extinguish the “religious terror” that the sight of the democratic future inspired in his soul.  While the democratization of mankind was fated and could not be undone, Tocqueville did not share the determinism of many of his century’s utopian thinkers nor, for that matter, did he share their sanguinity.  The reason is that while the future’s democratic trajectory would prove inexorable, it remained to be seen whether that future would lead to “freedom or servitude, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”  Tocqueville’s solace rested on the understanding that “equality is less elevated; but it is more just, and its justice makes for its greatness and its beauty.”  But can one really contend that equality that results in misery, servitude and barbarism is more just?  Can one really glean in such a denouement greatness and beauty? 

Part of what made Tocqueville so unhopeful about the democratic future was the specter of the modern state, in which he beheld a new type of despotism.  Paradoxically, it would seem, this new form of despotism would be more absolute than all erstwhile despotisms while being less despotic. It would be, as Tocqueville designated it, a soft or mild despotism.  The state Tocqueville envisioned will not seek to brutalize its people: there will be no labor camps, secret police, show trials, or summary executions.  “Chains and executioners are the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed.”  Rather, through an inordinate number of detailed and complex rules, it will take great pains to regulate the lives of its citizens and will do so, professedly, in their interests.  It will provide and care for the people; from harm it will keep them; and it will go to great lengths to render them happy.  Indeed, as Tocqueville put it, one could liken it to paternal power, save for this one crucial difference: whereas a father prepares his children for adulthood, the state will seek to keep its citizens irrevocably fixed in childhood.  The state wants the people’s unquestioning obedience and the best way to ensure this is not by forcing their allegiance, but by fostering their dependence.

In no earlier age could such a despotism have been conceivable.  An obvious explanation is that all earlier ages lacked the requisite technology.  It would be impracticable to run a state with the precision, oversight and absoluteness that is embodied in the modern state in the absence of modern technology.  Everyone has to be on the grid, as it were, and there was no grid in the days of Louis the XIV, to say nothing of the age of the twelve Caesars. While doubtlessly true, this overlooks a more fundamental point, for there was no grid in Tocqueville’s day either and his inability to envision CCTV and the NSA did not prevent him from beholding this new face of despotism. What allows for the possibility of such a state is that as the democratization of humanity advances, people grow more and more alike; their thirsts become similar and smaller; familial and communal bonds dissolve so that individuals are left unmoored and isolated; and there are no secondary powers to mitigate the power of the state.  There only is the state and the people beneath it.   Insofar as the state protects the people and looks after them like a shepherd his sheep; insofar as it permits the people to pursue their harmless pleasures; and insofar as it panders to the principal passion that animates democratic peoples, namely the love of equality, the people are content and see no need to resist, which is precisely why, as both Nietzsche and Tocqueville augured, the state’s reign would be interminable.  For of what concern is it that the state will take away “the trouble of thinking and the pain of living” to people who want nothing more than to rid life of pain and trouble.  Is this not the aim of the modern utopian longing?  A state of equality, free from turmoil, where everything is well-ordered, well-maintained, well-regulated?  An age where there is no longer anything left to fear?

Nietzsche and Tocqueville illumine the dangers that repose in modern science and the modern state, but they invite us to consider a threat that is at once more fundamental and less evident and for that reason, all the more minatory: namely the danger that inheres in us, not as human beings per se, but as a particular type of human being – the democratic type.  Because modern man harbors an implicit, if not explicit, faith in progress, he tends not to question those precepts he prizes most. If we are not the pinnacle of progress, we are closer to it than those who came before us, and, accordingly, our principles are more just and enlightened than those of our forebears.  But Nietzsche and Tocqueville suggest otherwise.  And we ignore them at our own peril.  It is true that the peril we invite consists of unprecedented comfort, ease and security – not exactly the stuff perils are made of.  But for those who think that without trials and tribulations, there can be no greatness; that man is more than the sum of his material parts; and that meaningful fulfillment consists of more than the mere satiation of our appetites, the presumed placidity and apparent appeal of that peril make it all the more alarming.


David A. Eisenberg is Associate Director for Academic Affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.


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