“There appear then to be two kinds of people: those who presume history has ended and those who do not presume history has ended.”
In a recent Merion West article entitled “It’s Nostalgia that’s Driving Modern Politics” author Matt McManus claims the “post-modern conservative” to be “the political nostalgiac par excellence.” No doubt our postmodern reality to some degree informs and animates most political movements, even those which claim to reject postmodern ideas and arguments. Many conservatives, for example, frequently champion the U.S. Constitution and the wisdom of the “Founding Fathers,” yet they often fail to account for the radical peculiarity of our times and the Constitution’s seeming inadequacy in many areas. Failing to address certain current realities does indeed leave such conservatives open to the charge of nostalgia.
More broadly, nostalgia signifies an incapacity to see and accept what Friedrich Nietzsche called “reality as it is.” In this regard any nostalgic political movement is merely one species of the much broader genus of political movements, which are animated by various levels of wishful or delusional thinking. These kinds of political movements are particularly characteristic of the modern world and are often motivated by some abstract ideal. And as Hannah Arendt and others document, an incapacity to see reality and a fixation on some abstract ideal are what characterize all totalitarian thinking.
I also think it is relevant to note that totalitarian movements themselves are almost always informed by a kind of nostalgia. Nazism is clearly an atavistic fantasy, and I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Marxist Communism is essentially a secular apocalyptic Christian myth. Moreover, I would characterize contemporary progressive visions of an egalitarian non-hierarchal society as nothing less than Christian Nihilism. Progressive visions of a truly just society resemble St. Augustine’s “City of God,” both visions are ideal egalitarian worlds free of suffering and conflict: one recognizing God, one not.
So what I’m getting at is this: the issue of denial of reality as it is is not simply a problem of nostalgia but a more general problem of our human tendency to resent reality and to imagine some deliverance from suffering and conflict. But what is reality as it is?
Professor McManus helpfully invokes Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man as a way of illuminating some of these issues. Fukuyama’s ideas are inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s own visions of what he calls the “last man,” who is the kind of human being who appears at the end of history. While Nietzsche’s visions have been eerily prophetic, I think Fukuyama’s understanding of Nietzsche is quite limited. Moreover, Nietzsche himself provides the greatest critiques of all ideas of the end of history.
So, has history indeed ended and must we now accept our postmodern condition as just the way it is? Fukuyama begins his very first chapter with a kind of declaration of the unbelievability of God as a force of history. Fukuyama, like most contemporary interpreters, presumes Nietzsche’s infamous “death of God” to be a kind of knowledge—we modern human beings now know that historical ideas of God are more or less human projections, which fulfill certain human needs. If God no longer plays a role in history, then we humans make our history. This hyper-awareness of ourselves as historical agents is what characterizes the end of history and the emergence of the last man. This kind of analysis, I believe, is not what Nietzsche means by the death of God.
To understand what Nietzsche means by the death of God, it is helpful to have an understanding of how Nietzsche conceives of history and what a human being is. Reality for Nietzsche is the play of forces, more or less strong forces and more or less weak forces. Analogously, human history consists of various kinds of human beings, who either affirm and embrace reality as it is or resent and shrink from reality as it is. Nietzsche sees historical Christianity as embodying a resentment against nature and reality as it is. Orthodox Christianity posits the existence of a “true” world, which is other than the experiential world of conflict, suffering, and change. This is why Nietzsche calls Christianity a “nihilistic” religion; it affirms something of which we have no experience.
Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the “death of God” is not simply about the collapse of an increasingly unbelievable Christian worldview and a return to experience and reason. What concerns Nietzsche is that the collapse of Christianity and the death of God would not be the end of nihilism but, rather, the fulfillment of nihilism. Nietzsche writes:
“Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones but by extreme positions of the opposite kind. Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature in aim and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary affect [my italics] once belief in God and the necessary moral order becomes untenable. Nihilism appears at this point . . .”
Nihilism for Nietzsche is manifested as “the highest values devalue themselves.” The search for certain truth ends in the unraveling of all truth. The collapse of the Christian world precipitates a greater psychological fragmentation—reality appears to have no knowable transcendent meaning, and the world fills with what Percy Bysshe Shelley called, “doubt, chance and mutability.” Modern human beings do indeed have an experience of the death of God and a loss of meaning. But Nietzsche’s death of God is not so much a form of knowledge as it is a psychological event.
Nietzsche is, in effect, affirming a kind of unity of history in that our modern secular psychological state represents a transformation of our historical Christian psychological state. He insists that we modern humans must now “pay” for our Christian heritage. Modern man rejects Christian explanations of how reality works and now relies upon science and human reason to explain and give order to reality. We begin to believe we can understand reality by breaking it into pieces. But science and reason do not achieve Nietzsche’s goal of “retranslating man back into nature.” Instead nature becomes accidental forces from which we can extract “useful information.” Nature becomes our “object” to be exploited, controlled, or even “saved” as we see fit. Again, as much or even more than ever, nature is something other than ourselves.
We don’t acknowledge ourselves as participants in nature. Instead, we have adopted what Nietzsche calls a theoretic world view which is in contrast with a tragic world view. The theoretic world view “. . . believes that it can correct the world by knowledge, guide life by science, and actually confine the individual within a limited sphere of solvable problems . . .” Our modern conflicting ideologies are little more than conflicting theories of how society should be constituted.
In our theoretical universe, the ascendant power of science, technology, and our rational bureaucratic systems to manipulate nature have generated tremendous disruption throughout the world. But it has also generated tremendous wealth. It is the bourgeoisie—energetic, materialistic, practical—who have ridden this wave of objectification and continue to ride this wave to this day. But this radical transformation of reality would ultimately produce a new kind of human being who would supersede the bourgeoisie as a dominant form. This is Nietzsche’s last man.
Anyone who bothers to read Nietzsche first-hand can’t help but notice that he commonly uses the term “modern” as pejorative.
Nietzsche’s last man is the human being who is fully adapted to our objectified reality. He presumes to have escaped the forces of nature and history, and he accepts the material world of the bourgeoisie but without his competitiveness or greed. The last man is, more or less, a bourgeois with a social conscience. After all, shouldn’t we be “inclusive”? Shouldn’t we “spread the wealth around”?
Anyone who bothers to read Nietzsche first-hand can’t help but notice that he commonly uses the term “modern” as pejorative. In Nietzsche’s prophesy of the last man, Zarathustra mocks, not the naïve who cling to the past, but precisely those skeptical modern human beings who are best adapted to the modern desacralized world of information: “What do they call that which makes them proud? Education they call it; it distinguishes themselves from goatherds.” Modern human beings are now educated for “unbelief” and this is now our own form of “divine naïveté.”
Fukuyama acknowledges the less than noble last man, but, presuming the end of history, he is resigned to accept and even sympathize with the diminished last man. In contrast, Nietzsche ridicules the last man precisely because he is oblivious to the ephemeral nature of his experience: “’We have invented happiness’ say the last men and they blink.”The smug hollow chested last man presumes to have attained some new pinnacle of understanding from which he looks down on the formally mad world of human history:“One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened; so there is no end of derision.” The egalitarian last man now knows all social distinctions and hierarchies are artificial and would reconstruct the world in his image: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily to the madhouse.” And above all, Nietzsche is contemptuous of the last man because he lacks the creative energy to accept the tragic nature of existence and generate a noble viable culture: “‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks.”
We have indeed gone through a time of cultural disintegration, and we have experienced a kind of psychological fragmentation. But we’ve confused our parochial and ephemeral experiences for reality itself. The last man sees nothing beyond himself. For Nietzsche, our experience of “nihilism” is not some great final insight or knowledge, but a “pathological transitional stage.”
The death of God as insight or knowledge is symptomatic of a kind of fragmented thinking which renders modern human beings incapable of apprehending the movements of transcendent forces and ourselves as part of those forces. The fragmented modern mind is incapable of seeing beyond its own historical moment; God appears dead, history appears to have ended, and all claims of truth are suspect. The last man sees last men everywhere. The fragmented mind only sees fragments. The fragmented modern mind is incapable of seeing how all human ideas are themselves manifestations of powers greater than ourselves. Or as Heraclitius says: the gods are invisible to those who no longer believe in the gods.
Fukuyama’s “end of history” is merely one of many “end-ofs”—“the end of metaphysics,” “the end of art,” “the end of nature,” “the end of metanarratives” and such. All such pronouncements, I am arguing, are not so much forms of knowledge as they are symptoms of human beings living in a certain environment at a certain point in time. We have become so abstracted and protected from the universal forces of conflict and change that we now take our situation for the one true reality. We are like former sailors who once spent their lives negotiating the forces of wind and water and establishing a relationship to those forces, but now find themselves as passengers on a vast luxurious cruise liner. Some of the sailors pine for the good old days of sail, but many others fully accept their new reality, many even declare “the end of sailing” or perhaps even “the end of weather.”And many further declare being a passenger on a cruise liner to be a particularly advanced form of seamanship.
Martin Heidegger once referred to Nietzsche as our “last thinker” and claimed that today we are “not yet thinking.” We are incapable of thinking because our fragmented ideological brains are incapable of simply observing the whole; we are incapable of observing the world as a vast symphony of conflicting forces of which we are always and tragically participants. Not surprisingly, Heidegger also makes reference to Nietzsche’s last man who lives, not in a world of thinking, but in a world of “ideation.” Thinking is grounded in experience (from the Latin “ex periculo,” “from danger”) but we live in a world dedicated to our abstraction from experience. We spend an inordinate amount of time projecting our ideological fantasies onto the world and little to no time contemplating the actual nature of experience.
Again, I agree that nostalgia is often a form of ideation which is symptomatic of our postmodern culture. But it does not follow that all references to the past are motivated by nostalgia or a denial of reality. We may consult the past as a way of seeing beyond our own ephemeral ideas; as Oscar Wilde once said, he who is ignorant of the past knows nothing of the age in which he lives.
There appear then to be two kinds of people: those who presume history has ended and those who do not presume history has ended. This appears to be the great conflict arising in our world. And what might we call this conflict? How about: History.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.