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.
Wouldn’t the Renaissance be the start of the metaphysical decline and skepticism of the West, rather than an epoch of its cultural health and confidence?
The paragraph you are referring to talks about the ‘aesthetics’ of the Renaissance, not the Renaissance itself. ‘Arete’ means excellence pertaining to talent and knowledge as well. That’s why you have the Renaissance Man as an all-rounder in layman’s terms.
The Renaissance, it seems to me, was rather a historically equivocal moment. Though it cannot be denied that it gave rise to the godlessness of secular humanism, which in its turn inspired the Enlightenment and the long downward turn of the West, yet the vigour and vitality which is represented by its art, its letters, its men, bears such striking resemblance to Antiquity that in many cases one cannot dispute the name that was given to the entire epoch. Many of its movements and false starts, which were smothered not by anything innate to it, but rather by historical accident and the caprice of chance, might have blossomed into something much more beautiful and much nobler than what actually followed. And in the same breath, it must also be considered to what extent the Counter-Reformation is responsible for squandering some of these best elements of the Renaissance.
I think however that one’s judgement of the Renaissance hinges decisively on one’s judgement of Christianity in general; its quality stands in inverse proportion to that quality of that faith.
The definition of aretê transcends the concept of excellence we use today. In the past, the concept functioned as a rationally coherent and ethically sound axiom, i.e. to the Greeks, it had an ontic bearing on life.
When you are evaluating a specific period in history, you always have to keep in mind that any conceptual demarcation is the product of modern thought. The idea of hermetically closed belief systems, existing in incongruously separate realms, was foreign to the pre-modern world. In contrast to our current contingency-based understanding, the Greeks created concepts, whose validity had been deducted from an ‘a priori’ intellectual apprehension of the Whole.
With the Renaissance and its heavy leaning on classical antiquity, aretê played a major role in Western self-understanding. Without it, the republics of Florence, Genoa, and Venice would not have been possible. Neither would the Imperial Knight of the Holy Roman Empire have existed. Even Girolamo Savanorola, if you look into archives, enjoys at times a very different historical reputation, distinctively apart from being the crazy reactionary popular science makes him out to be.
There is certainly so much more to say. Thank you, gentlemen, for commenting!
One more thing, although obvious, needs to be reiterated since it is pertinent to the core of the issue: assuming that historical periods or schools of thought existed as encapsulated homogeneous units will always result in a crass misreading of history. This is true for the Renaissance as well as for any other constitutive tangent of Western culture, including ancient Greece, Christianity, and Modernity.
An excellent point. I think this is one of the major weaknesses of historiography as such – whether it be historiography of the left, or some potential historiography of the right, such as Julius Evola proposed. (I would to some extent include the ‘cyclical notion of history’ in this latter category, insofar as it is taken to represent an iron ring which can never under any circumstances be broken.) Historiography at least tends toward intellectualistic simplification of historical periods into neat, clearly divisible chunks, the inner contradictions or conflicts of which are dismissed as being either the residues of past epochs, or else purely accidental and transient occurrences, which do not in any way call into question the true and historically determined ‘meaning’ of these epochs.
Apart from being somewhat simplistic, this leads easily to determinism and fatalism, which is, from the historical perspective, utterly debilitating. More yet, it feeds precisely into the idea of History, history reified into a mysterious and semi-divine power, which is nothing if not a modern invention, and which must absolutely be dismantled if Modernity itself is ever to be overcome.
To take but the example which has occasioned this discussion, the Renaissance, it seems to me that there are any number of strands within it which might have resulted in a fundamentally different kind of social order than that which emerged. Many of these possibilities to my eyes were essentially promising, and their loss was essentially tragic, as they were truncated by historical developments or accidents originating primarily in the North (e.g., the Gutenberg press, the Reformation, the introduction of ignoble firearms into warfare, the 1527 sack of Rome). Those who uncritically adore the Renaissance overlook the ways in which its secular humanistic element fed directly into the modern streams of scientism, democratism, liberalism, etc. – that is, into that polluted river of modernity in which we are presently aflood. Those who condemn it take these same elements as its essential elements, and neglect instead the way in which it really does represent, for instance, before the Counter-Reformation, a reawakening of classical antiquity, the rebirth of Platonic philosophy after a long period of Christianized ‘Aristotelianism’, a resurrection of the Spirit of Rome, a resprouting of certain still vital pre-Christian, even Pagan roots of the West, etc. And this is to mention only a very small number of elements of a deeply heterogeneous, complex, indeed equivocal period.
Put shortly, I see no contradiction in accepting both Ms. Hamilton’s qualified praise of the Renaissance, and Mr. Bolton’s just critique of the same.
Thank you, John.
In order to clarify though, I do not disagree with you, Mr. Bolton, in the pejorative evaluation of the Renaissance as an intellectual seed of the subsequent moral disintegration of the following centuries. Regarding the specificity of the context as well as the brevity of the article, I referred to it – as Mr. Simmons has rightly observed – in the form of aesthetics, in which the concept of aretê has its place, if one wants to be scientifically accurate.
Its conceptually dual nature (as per Homer’s definition) venerated not only reason and moral fortitude, but also physicality in the form of liberal arts. It is the latter that made the artistic astuteness of a Brunelleschi or a Masaccio possible during the Renaissance.