Friday, October 23, 2009

Adam Kirsch Clarifies The Last Man

Life On Venus: Europe’s Last Man

Adam Kirsch

There are not many moments in history when it is possible to worry that the world has become too happy for its own good. One such moment came in Europe during the late nineteenth century, when the Napoleonic Wars had receded into the distance and the First World War was still hidden over the horizon. For a brief period, it became possible to believe that the West was headed for a condition of permanent peace; that technology, democracy, and globalization were driving a virtuous circle that no atavistic violence could disrupt.

This vision never came very close to becoming a reality; the late nineteenth century was, after all, the era of communism and anarchism, imperialism and scientific racism. It is remarkable, then, to consider how many of the greatest writers of the period were exercised by the possibility that reason, progress, and material well-being—in short, the bourgeois order—might destroy the human spirit. The definitive statement of this view was offered by Nietzsche in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he summons the specter of the Last Man—or, as R. J. Hollingdale renders it in his translation, the Ultimate Man:

The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Ultimate Man, who makes everything small. His race is as inexterminable as the flea; the Ultimate Man lives longest.
“We have discovered happiness,” say the Ultimate Men and blink. . . .
They still work, for work is entertainment. But they take care the entertainment does not exhaust them.
Nobody grows rich or poor any more: both are too much of a burden. Who still wants to rule? Who obey?

Both are too much of a burden.

The twentieth century, of course, did not turn out to be the age of the Last Man after all. The two world wars and the global violence of the Cold War demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction that irrationality and cruelty, which Nietzsche feared were dwindling resources, still flourished in abundance just underneath the thin crust of modern civilization. But then came 1989 and the end of history—or at least The End of History and the Last Man, as Francis Fukuyama put it in his influential book. It is almost always referred to simply by the first part of its title; to his critics, Fukuyama is the man who declared “the end of history,” triumphally and, needless to say, prematurely.

But the second part of the book’s title is actually more telling, and more representative of Fukuyama’s argument. No sooner had humanity emerged from a century of hot and cold wars than Fukuyama was resurrecting Nietzsche’s admonition that a world of peace and prosperity would be a world of Last Men. “The life of the last men is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates,” he pointed out. “Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the species homo sapiens?”

While Fukuyama appreciates the seriousness of the Nietzschean warning, he hears it from the perspective of a partisan, not a foe, of liberalism. The danger he foresees is not simply that bourgeois democracy will cause human beings to degenerate, but that degenerate human beings will be unable to preserve democracy. Without the sense of pride and the love of struggle that Fukuyama, following Plato, calls thymos, men—and there is always an implication that thymos is a specifically masculine virtue—cannot establish freedom or protect it:

It is only thymotic man, the man of anger who is jealous of his own dignity and the dignity of his fellow citizens, the man who feels that his worth is constituted by something more than the complex set of desires that make up his physical existence—it is this man alone who is willing to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers. And it is frequently the case that without such small acts of bravery in response to small acts of injustice, the larger train of events leading to fundamental changes in political and economic structures would never occur.

When Fukuyama published his book in 1992, he was specifically concerned about the loss of thymos among Americans. Today, his predictions about the debility of the post-historical world still pass for common currency among neoconservatives; what has changed, dramatically, is the consensus view about where that post-historical world can be found. The American response to the 9/11 attacks—the war on terror, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have banished any fear that America might grow passive and debellicized. The opposite complaint is much more likely to be heard, especially from European critics of America. And partly for that reason, it is to Europe that Americans now look for examples of the Last Man. The opposition of Europeans to the Iraq War, from a neoconservative perspective, all but epitomizes the inability “to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers” that Fukuyama warned about.

This was the essence of Robert Kagan’s argument in Of Paradise and Power, published in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War. Europe, Kagan wrote, “is turning away from power” and “entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity,” while the United States “remains mired in history.” He dwelled, in terminology purposefully reminiscent of Nietzsche and Fukuyama, on the psychological frailty, the thymotic decay, of contemporary European society. “The real question,” he writes, “is one of intangibles—of fears, passions, and beliefs.”

Kagan’s much-quoted formula, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” is a more or less overt accusation of European effeminacy. Or, as James Sheehan puts it, in more value-neutral terms, in Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: “The eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity and power. As a result, the European Union may become a superstate—a super civilian state—but not a superpower.”...

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