The Evolving Manichean Principle
When asked what the goal of modernity overall was and still is, sociologist Carlo Bordoni candidly replied that besides the touted aims of liberation, progress and rationalism, it is the impetus to create something new.1 He further expounds that, just as much as it was in modernity’s interest to change the minds (‘la nostra testa cambi’)2 of people at the advent of the age of reason, the present confusion is to be used for an equally daunting task.
Given the above admission from an avowedly passionate modernist, we must acknowledge that we are currently beyond the point of lamenting the general debasement of life goals as well as the disenchanting attitudes modernity brought regarding the human family. Modernity’s antagonistic stance has extended its reach beyond cultural exteriorities of structure to the endemic inner-directedness of its agents. In other words, it has succeeded in the profound reconceptualization of the human character. With the completion of this last step, the usurpation of human life for its own purposes, modernity enters the stage of its ideological completion – spiritual entropy.
The ideologues who introduced the mechanistic metaphor into philosophy and thereby equated technology with metaphysics embarked on their task with lucid awareness. They knew that in order to reformulate metaphysics, they needed to create ‘a new man’.3 But standing in their way was the medieval measuring of man by aretê, the value of moral excellence, whose spiritual unity was practised through the execution of moral conscience.
The man of aretê was the product of the heroic societies of the Norseman, of the Homeric epos, and of the aesthetics of the Renaissance. The individual of these times acquired his moral agency through the alignment of his character with actions.4 The pre-modern world internalized the fact that morality always had a social embodiment, and that its ideational reconfiguration will always be endemic, in that it will inevitably lead to the reconfiguration of the entire social environment. To be more precise, it had knowledge of the historical regularity that shows its gruesome consequences in growing extremes today: the fact that moral and spiritual atrophy precedes social decline at all times.
The cultivation of virtue therefore requires the conception of a particular human being as well as a particular social structure.5 The measure of how far we have expurgated ourselves from such conceptions has been sufficiently substantiated by the studies of anthropologists like Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Gorer on the character of the modern man.
What we see emerging today, however, is not so much the rise of personality disorders, as their intensification and prolific spread across vast numbers of society. In other words, we are witnessing the divorce of life-encouraging from life-devouring metaphysical principles, the ultimate dichotomy of good and evil manifested in the form of human consciousness – the Manichean principle. At this point, criticism directed only at modernity’s institutionalized nature is not only inconsequential but outright dangerous in that it ignores the devastation occurring in the human spirit at large. Only a criticism that aims at a cathartic recapitulation of modernity, one that is willing to entertain a much more radical admission, will be able to avert the collective spiritual derangement we are facing, allegorically exemplified in Scripture by ‘mankind in the abyss’. What is needed is the intellectual acknowledgement that at the heart of the modern project – as in all totalitarian ideologies – lies the impetus to redefine human nature metaphysically, and to create an engineered creature that is spiritually commensurate with a deadening system and intellectually congenial to its ideological trajectories – a bestiary, a modern Homunkulus.
The Creation of the New Beast
The spiritually bereaved human is nowadays the real carrier of modernity’s philosophy of death. Man as a ‘human criterion’ has ceased to exist. The self has been ‘democratized’;6 it poses as an antagonism, an antithesis, to its own unified self. It does not take and does not identify with any position or standpoint; it can only judge and reductively negate, for it itself is ‘criterionless’.7 Due to its atrophied spiritual dynamism, it only knows how to emote but not how to discern. As it faces a plasma of other fragmented and spiritually desolate selves, it engages in manipulative role-plays that sustain the appearance of superficial civility because it does not know how to otherwise contain the subliminally felt anger and anxiety of a life that is lived exclusively on the basis of a ‘war of all-against-all’8 and unbridled competition for resources.
With the help of a process that Jacques Ellul calls ‘technical convergence’,9 man has been absorbed – just like everything else in the simulation of modern cosmology – as a functional metaphor into modernity’s grand mechanistic scheme. His spontaneity, his idiosyncrasies, and everything that expresses his uniqueness and authenticity have been eradicated. In a world in which synthetic simulacra replace the sense of aesthetics, uniqueness (Einzigartigkeit) and authenticity – the ‘singularity’ of a particular individual – is inevitably replaced by ‘singleness’ (Einzelheit)10 undifferentiated from the singleness of others. Men has thus been likened to the commodities he consumes; he has become synthetic himself.11
Debased into a ‘synthetic being’,12 he no longer exists in a singularity; his nature is conceptualized in the idea of the masses. He is a ‘man of…plurality’.13 In order to be allowed an existence in the current ‘liquid modernity’,14 human life needs to be reduced to its lowest, most instinctual, denominators. It has to undergo a process of standardization in order to conform to modernity’s mechanistic reign. Progress hereby gains a new definition: it is no longer exclusively concerned with technology, but becomes a metaphysically justified process of de-humanization.
Eliade argues that the more modern man tries to reclaim his primordial spiritual nature, the more he is drawn to look for substitutes in order to compensate for his spiritual bereavement.15 In the absence of things sacred, modern man turns to the vapid forms of undefined pleasure, regardless whether it comes from exposing oneself to mindless entertainment or engaging in any form of rape, murder or other socially aberrant behaviour.16 The value of his impulses and the forms he obtains them from have all been equalized. In his spiritual and intellectual torpor, he is pinned down by the irrefutable prosaic dictum of his existence, driven to find more excessive forms of his unclaimed desire for excitement in increasingly antisocial ways of social conduct17
The novelty in the appearance of the metaphysically engineered new bestiary is not the display of madness in its enactment of aberrant social behaviour. The novelty is that pathology is now developed under the guise of normalcy, perfectly adapted to the contingency of everyday life.
Whereas antisocial behaviour has been regarded as a solitary phenomenon afflicting only a small percentage of the population, our times show that it has superseded the individual and risen to a collective social malaise. Rather than showing signs of a singular discontentment under the duress of civilizatory stresses,18 as in the beginning of the 20th century, today’s forms of pathology show signs of a conscientious engineering of the human spirit into its antagonistic self as a mass phenomenon.
Madness is no longer allocated to the socially desolate or to a specific gender, but is represented by mankind as a whole, as a cosmological prototype. What we are facing today is the manifestation of the eschatological Beast, Nietzsche’s last man, or Rudolf Steiner’s collectivist allegory of the ‘evil race’19. In the same way in which Scripture’s Adamic Man can be understood as the archetype of mankind living in perfect harmony with divine order and purpose, so can the New Beast be regarded as the allegorical antipode in the tradition of Biblical exegesis as the emanation of the seed of Cain. The Fall into Sin is hereby completed, history finds closure, albeit on hellish grounds.
Overcoming the Philosophy of Death
At the root of the creation of the new spiritual bestiary is Western society’s descent into metaphysical – and even more poignantly – moral illiteracy. Madness of the masses follows a similar pattern as individual pathology in that rational motivation proves inefficient to provoke erratic behaviour. In order to accomplish metaphysical engineering at a collective level, the masses therefore have to be liberated from any kind of spiritual depth and steered exclusively towards impulsive behaviour. Liberationist movements, as modernity’s operative hallmarks, facilitated such metaphysical alienation by removing religious and ethical sentiments from the collective consciousness. Where the metaphysical transformation took place, moral restriction could no longer be activated in the collective spiritual repertoire. The process of rationalization took over any remnants of such internal disputes. Despite Descartes’ contestation on methodological doubt, there is no hint to be found that scepticism is an inherent feature of the human mind.20 If resistant ideas are to be activated, they have to possess a primordial existence in the human spiritual tapestry. By reconfiguring metaphysical certainties integral to the human soul, modernity obliterated mankind’s spiritual autonomy. When a proper understanding of metaphysics is stripped away of its moral connotations, individual choice becomes obsolete. Free will, as well as man as a moral agent, ceases to exist.
The salvaging of spiritual integrity will be the first challenge that Western society would have to overcome in order to avert its cultural annihilation. Despite the profundity of metaphysical turmoil in today’s world, it is the task of critical minds to reclaim humanity’s immutable essence and lay claim to human dignity by redefining philosophy as a life-affirming science that can reconcile the metaphysical breach modernity has brought upon mankind.
In such endeavour, moral literacy will serve as a proper metaphysical grounding, and is therefore a more potent social corrective than intellectual reason. What makes a man worthy of partaking of the human experience, says C. G. Jung, is not that he is good, but that he has the freedom to choose the good in a world of negating evidence. The quality that predisposes a human being to this choice is not intellectual prowess but grace. Since grace is an attribute of a freely given love, it is also the ultimate expression of pulsating life. Any attempt to conceptualize life should therefore return to its place of metaphysical dwelling – a vitalistic philosophical abode – a philosophia vitae.
1Brodoni, Carlo. Interview by Andrea Coccia. LinkIesta, 4 March 2017, https://www.linkiesta.it/it/article/2017/03/04/carlo-bordoni-la-modernita-e-finita-e-non-sappiamo-ancora-cosa-ci-aspe/33434/.
3Here, the reference to Lenin’s Homo Sovieticus is made.
6Ibid., p. 32.
7Ibid, p. 33.
8Christopher Lasch uses this term in his work The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Interestingly, we originally find it in the eschatological description of Rudolf Steiner’s interpretation of the Apocalypse. See: Steiner, Rudolf. The Apocalypse of St. John: Lectures on the Book of Revelation. Trans. Anthroposophic Press, USA, 1993.
9Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Translated by John Wilkinson. New York, Vintage Books, 1964, p. 391.
10Simmel; Georg. ‘Individuum und Gesellschaft in Lebensanschauungen des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts’. Beispiel der Philosophischen Soziologie. 1917.
11Hamilton, Monika. ‘False Complacency’. Critical Journal. Issue 1, Oct 2014.
12Hamilton, Monika. ‘The New Synthetic Man’, 2018.
13Ellul, p .391.
14Baumann, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Hoboken, Blackwell, 2000.
15Eliade, Mircea. Das Heilige und das Profane. Berlin, Rowohlt, 1957.
16Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York, Norton, p. 69.
17Ibid, p. 51.
18See for example: Freud, Sigmund. Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. Berlin, Fischer, 2001.
19Steiner, The Apocalypse of St. John. 1993.
20Friedmann, Max. Über Wahnideen im Völkerleben – Grenzen des Nerven- und Seelenlebens. Heft 6–7. Wiesbaden, Bergmann, 1901, p. 304.