Posts Tagged 'thus spake zarathustra'

Strategic capitulation and the Last Man.

In Second Game, a 1958 novella by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean, a human spy visits an isolationist alien planet to see what he can learn about the natives. He discovers a prideful, scrupulous, single-minded race who resent the human federation’s poking around in their star system uninvited.

robert silverberg editor great short novels of science fiction

When the spy is captured, his interrogators are unable to grasp his protestations of peaceful intentions. Their honour has been insulted. To refrain from war now would dishonour both sides.

Escaping captivity, the spy spends some time wandering around the aliens’ capital city. He comes to admire the natives:

I felt kin to them, as if these people had much in common with myself. And I felt that it was too bad that life was not fundamentally so simple that one could discard the awareness of other ways of life, of other values and philosophies that bid against one another, and against one’s attention, and make one cynical of the philosophy one lives by, and dies for. Too bad that I could not see and take life as that direct, and as that simple.

It is a “universal law”, declared Friedrich Nietzsche, that “a living thing can only be healthy, strong, and productive within a certain horizon.”

In “The Use and Abuse of History” he describes a man bounded by the assumptions and prejudices of his own time and place, ignorant of broader trends in history, philosophy, or aesthetics, his horizon “as narrow as that of an Alpine valley” – yet nevertheless standing forth “in unconquerable health and vigor, to the joy of all who see him”.

He compares that ruddy-cheeked yokel with his effete, cosmopolitan counterpart, who, with all his subtlety and refinement, is too discombobulated by his “continually changing and shifting” historical horizon to summon the courage to accomplish great things. For, says Nietzsche,

No artist will paint his picture, no general win his victory, no nation gain its freedom, without having striven and yearned for it under those very “unhistorical” conditions.

In his widely mocked, widely misunderstood book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama elaborated on Nietzsche’s meaning:

For history teaches us that there have been horizons beyond number in the past—civilizations, religions, ethical codes, “value systems.” The people who lived under them, lacking our modern awareness of history, believed that their horizon was the only one possible. Those who come late in this process, those who live in the old age of mankind, cannot be so uncritical. …

The last man at the end of history knows better than to risk his life for a cause, because he recognizes that history was full of pointless battles in which men fought over whether they should be Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic, German or French. The loyalties that drove men to desperate acts of courage and sacrifice were proven by subsequent history to be silly prejudices.

The spy in Second Game is, in effect, an envoy from the End of History. Realizing that war would be pointlessly devastating to all sides, he announces to the surprised aliens his intention to return home and advise his own government to surrender unconditionally.

But the Last Man has the last laugh. The spy has foreseen that the aliens will be judicious overlords. With their vastly smaller population their culture will soon be softened and tamed by contact with their new imperial subjects.

And so it comes to pass. The aliens are turned into Last Men indistinguishable from the humans who submitted to their overlordship.

Fatal enervation.

When I was putting together my Bibliography page a couple months back I was surprised to find that in the twelve years I’ve been blogging, I’ve never mentioned Francis Fukuyama – even though several of my posts deal with Fukuyamian themes in Fukuyamian ways.

francis fukuyama the end of history and the last man

I have mentioned Nietzsche, from whose Thus Spake Zarathustra Fukuyama borrowed half the title of his most famous book. I should confess that despite several valiant efforts I’ve never made it all the way through Zarathustra, which hasn’t stopped me from quoting (in a review of a C.P. Snow novel) the passage where the paradise of the Last Men is described:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

Writing in 1992, Fukuyama wondered whether the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the final triumph of the Last Men. As Rod Dreher put it in a blog post reflecting on “the victory of liberal capitalist democracy over communism”:

It turns out that liberal democracy is not an end point, but a means to an end. What is that end? Freedom? Okay, but freedom for what? Progress? Fine, but where are we going? Towards a world of radical individualism, of self-actualized hedonistic shoppers?

For thirty years, critics of Fukuyama’s book – many of whom seem not to have actually read it – have caricatured it either as a self-satisfied blurt of American triumphalism, or as a woolly-minded declaration of the dawning of a yuppie Age of Aquarius. Here’s the conservative polemicist Mark Steyn unflatteringly comparing it to P.D. James’ The Children of Men, which came out in the same year:

While Fukuyama was cooing that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, Lady James discerned, at the very moment of triumph, a fatal enervation in the “free world”.

Three decades on, The End of History is too ridiculous to read, while The Children of Men endures as a meditation on the west at sunset.

Actually, far from “cooing”, Fukuyama’s tone is sombre, even fatalistic:

When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra told the crowd about the last man, a clamor arose: “Give us this last man, O Zarathustra!” “Turn us into these last men!” they shouted. The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been “all about” these last few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens? Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dis-satisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution? [1]

Thymotic anger.

“In the Beginning,” – to quote one of Fukuyama’s chapter titles – was “a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.

Fukuyama wonders whether the liberal-democratic doctrine of equality can fully satisfy man’s desire for recognition, a drive he traces back to Hegel’s “first man” – a kind of aristocrat in animal skins, ready to go club-to-club with his fellow first men to force them to acknowledge his superiority. [2]

The strain of liberalism descending from Hobbes and Locke emphasized the necessity of constraining men’s sanguinary urges through the adoption of a social contract – a mutual agreement among the combatants to lay down their clubs and submit to be governed. In exchange they would enjoy security and the freedom to engage in mutually profitable economic activities. The desire for recognition – the cause of wars and civil disorder – would wither away, or be redirected into benign pursuits, like science, the arts, and the piling up of material wealth.

Fukuyama stresses the radicalism of this line of thought:

In the civil society envisioned by Hobbes, Locke, and other early modern liberal thinkers, man needs only desire and reason. The bourgeois was an entirely deliberate creation of early modern thought, an effort at social engineering that sought to create social peace by changing human nature itself.

As attempts to engineer human nature go, the liberal experiment was unusually successful. We live amid its results; hence, its radicalism is invisible to us. The bourgeois revolution has nevertheless provoked opposition over the years from thinkers like Hegel who believed that it had severed us from an essential part of our humanity.

Fukuyama discusses several of these thinkers, most of them familiar already to anyone who browses the kind of websites where the neuroses of modern liberalism are diagnosed. The Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, for instance, who in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” imagined an apolitical greengrocer signalling his conformity to communist doctrine by hanging a sign in his shop window declaring “Workers of the World, Unite!”:

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity.

Havel goes on to imagine that “one day something in our greengrocer snaps” and he begins to express his true feelings. He is swiftly demoted from manager to warehouse drudge, his children’s futures are threatened, he is persecuted by co-workers who care no more than he does about the unity of the workers of the world.

Nevertheless, by his rebellion the greengrocer has “enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.” A regime is propped up by the willingness of ordinary people to accept its baloney; when enough greengrocers rebel, the regime totters. As Fukuyama points out,

The man of desire, Economic Man, the true bourgeois, will perform an internal “cost-benefit analysis” which will always give him a reason for working “within the system.” It is only … the man who feels that his worth is constituted by something more than the complex set of desires that make up his physical existence … who is willing to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis regretted the emergence of “Men without Chests” – men governed by their brains and their bellies, lacking that intermediating element, seated in the chest, which is the source of magnanimity, and sentiment, and virtue, and courage:

It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

In Fukuyama’s view, it is this irrepressible “middle element” – borrowing a term from Plato’s Republic, he calls it thymos – that drives history in the direction of democracy. Ultimately, people won’t put up with being kicked around by communists or fascists or theocrats. They’ll rise up, kick back at the bullies, and set up a government that respects the dignity of each individual citizen – which is to say, a liberal democracy.

But the thymotic anger of greengrocers was only half the story of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. The other half was the unwillingness of the communist leadership to follow the example of their predecessors in unleashing the army against uppity demonstrators:

Once the Soviets indicated they would not intervene to prop up local allies in Eastern Europe, the only surprising outcome was the totality of the demoralization of the communist apparatuses in all of the Eastern European countries, and the fact that hardly anyone in the old guard was willing to lift a finger in self-defense.

Fukuyama implies that the communists’ horizons had been widened through exposure to contending ideas of the good. Like the risk-averse future humans in Second Game, they were no longer willing to engage in “pointless battles” over what form of government should prevail.

But communists share with Fukuyama the belief that history has a direction – that it moves inexorably towards a more just and rational form of social organization. They merely disagree about what conditions constitute justice and rationality.

Those communists who pragmatically switched sides in 1989, reinventing themselves as democratic socialists, might easily have rationalized their apostasy as a strategic capitulation. Perhaps they saw Eastern Europe’s apparent repudiation of their beliefs as nothing more than a switchback on the winding path leading onward and upward to the End of History.

equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place

30 years on from “the decisive collapse of communism as a factor in world history”. Source.

“History is bunk.”

Turning my copy of The End of History and the Last Man edgewise, I notice that the little coloured Post-Its I use to mark interesting passages – including most of the ones quoted in this essay – are concentrated in the last third of the book.

That’s the section where Fukuyama wonders whether the End of History would be a fit place for humans to live, or whether its inhabitants might “drag the world back into history” out of sheer exasperation.

Jumping back, the first section lays out Fukuyama’s argument that history has a direction – that however events play out in different parts in the world, in the long run all human societies will converge toward a single outcome, determined by innate human psychological drives and by the possibilities opened up by scientific advances.

In the second section, the one I find shakiest, Fukuyama lays out the conjecture that liberal democracy is the final form of government towards which history has been moving.

No doubt this seemed more plausible in 1992. But Fukuyama’s own thesis posits technological change as one of the factors that determines historical progress. Why shouldn’t future advances in technology drive new forms of social organization?

Consider the big-data-driven Social Credit system coming into shape in China, which will permit the government to pry ever more deeply into its citizens’ communications, financial dealings, and private thoughts, and penalize whatever the Party deems to be antisocial activities. Those with high Social Credit ratings will find their way through life smoothed, while those who persist in visiting the wrong websites, or interacting with the wrong friends, will be inconvenienced in subtle ways whenever they attempt to find work, to travel, or to make everyday purchases.

Fukuyama brings in another old friend from the anti-Woke comment threads, Alexis de Tocqueville, to predict how a democratic people – “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives” – might submit willingly to a novel form of tyranny:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. … [I]t provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Rod Dreher has been arguing that such a despotism is under construction in the western democracies – not, or not yet, under the direction of the state, but bit by bit through the actions of gigantic corporations devoted to “protecting” their users from contentious ideas. He calls this “soft totalitarianism”, and compares it to the antiseptic, chemically-pacified, sexually liberated future described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

In fact, a college literature professor told me that when he teaches Brave New World, few of his students recognise it as a dystopia at all.

aldous huxley brave new world

I can believe that. I recall how, as a teenage leftist in the early 1990s, I first encountered the chapter in which World Controller Mustafa Mond extolled the virtues of the society over which he ruled. I thought, “This all sounds okay, actually:”

“The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or loves to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”

When John the Savage, refugee from one of the few remaining domains of unconditioned humanity, contends that such a narcotized, conflict-free life seems to him unbearable, the World Controller cheerfully concedes his point:

“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Compassionate Mustafa Mond. His punishment of the novel’s heroes for instigating a riot is not imprisonment, not torture, merely banishment to an island where, he reassures them, they’ll dwell comfortably among others of their own kind – “people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own”. John the Savage he permits to live freely, despite his violent tendencies; the stability of the regime is not threatened by the presence of a lone Shakespeare-quoting madman.

Fair-minded Mustafa Mond. Even as he censors a “dangerous and potentially subversive” scientific theory, he reflects that it is a “masterly piece of work”, and quite possibly true. A pity; but the happiness of the people must be considered.

Clear-eyed Mustafa Mond, who in the well-known words of Our Ford proclaims that “History is bunk”, and waves his hand:

and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harapa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk — and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotoma and Jesus?

What is there in the above to offend the 21st-century progressive sensibility? True, we haven’t yet abolished family, though modern sentiment encourages us to apply the word to any close-knit group, related or not. We don’t yet sneer at love, though the high priests of progressivism declare that one can love any number of partners, successively or concurrently. We haven’t yet arrived at the free distribution of soma, though we do have cheap and ever-more potent marijuana; and for those who get themselves addicted to the harder stuff, enlightened opinion declares that the state should supply their substances free of charge, to ensure the addicts’ well-being.

Most importantly, we continue to exalt individuality – up to the point that an expression of individualism interferes with a less privileged individual’s feeling of security.

In “The Use and Abuse of History” Nietzsche described the attractive life of a herd of grazing animals, well-fed and content, knowing nothing of “the meaning of yesterday or today”:

Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it.

The horror that we might someday abandon the human “pride” that sets us apart from the animals, and regress to a state of herbivorous contentment, has been a recurring theme of the dystopian imagination from Nietzsche to Wells to WALL-E. Some of these fictions portray a rebel arising to jolt humanity out of its rut; others conjecture that once we’ve bartered away our thymos, it’s gone for good.

In the non-fiction realm, the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève – whose Introduction to the Reading of Hegel seems to have been Fukuyama’s main source of inspiration – thought that the diminishment of humankind to a species of domesticated animal was really nothing to worry about, if you took a sufficiently broad view:

The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And therefore, it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called—that is, Action negating the given, and Error, or in general, the Subject opposed to the Object. …

(Fukuyama suggests he’s being ironic there, but who can tell?) In Kojève’s view, the End of History meant the end of war – but also the end of art, the end of philosophy, even the end of wisdom. He was fine with it. After the Second World War he gave up the academic life and spent the remainder of his years, as Fukuyama puts it,

working in that bureaucracy meant to supervise construction of the final home for the last man, the European Commission. [3]

Fighting dragons.

Fukuyama was never a radical. These days he seems to be a resolute centrist, happy to help a Guardian reporter fulfill his weekly quota of anti-Trump gibes. Although in The End of History and The Last Man he’s ambivalent about liberal democracy’s prospects for delivering human satisfaction, he never really entertains the possibility that some other form of government might prove to be superior.

But suppose you’re a bit gloomier. Suppose you look ahead and foresee democracy degrading either into factional chaos or into “soft totalitarian” torpor.

Suppose you start to wonder whether Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is actually all it’s cracked up to be. As Curtis Yarvin puts it (dismissing the “of the people” part of the phrase as a mellifluous redundancy):

Suppose government by the people cannot actually deliver government for the people? Suppose we just have to choose?

What would government for the people look like? We, the people, seem to desire the life of Zarathustra’s Last Man – nothing more than the assurance of our “little pleasures for the day”. But is a government that satisfies all our lazy desires really governing for us?

We see that early in a democratic period, the real power of democracy (the power of the mob) greatly exceeds its formal power. Late in the cycle, this disparity inverts: the formal power of democracy exceeds its real power. Its peaceful, apathetic voters are not only not a mob—they are not even a crowd. These “last men” are too soft to even lift the swords of the primitive and violent ancestors who created their powers.

So those powers must and will be taken from them. In a monarchy where the king is weak, the king will be managed. In a democracy where the voters are weak, the voters will be managed.

In the next paragraph, he goes on to quote Tocqueville: “No form or combination of social polity has yet been devised, to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.” As you can see from the above, Yarvin – better known under his old pseudonym Mencius Moldbug – works from many of the same sources that inspired Fukuyama. But he arrives at the conclusion (premature, I hope) that liberal democracy is beyond saving; that it is incapable of securing our freedom either in the narrow sense – our freedom to think, speak, and worship as we please – or, more broadly, our freedom to be fully human beings.

Therefore we might as well start planning for whatever will replace it after its inevitable collapse. I’m a little fuzzy on what that’s supposed to be: Gray Mirror, the book which will supposedly lay out Yarvin’s political philosophy, is still being released, one long, long, loooong chapter at a time.

In the most recent installment, Yarvin riffs on Cicero’s dictum “Salus populi suprema lex”, or the health of the people is the supreme law

the original and correct principle of all government, famous for millennia, never changed and never improved on.

But what is this slippery thing, the salus populi? Does it refer only to physical health – the guarantee of ample food, warm clothing, and medical care?

Or should the definition be expanded to include psychological health – in which case, perhaps, the government would be justified in removing statues, books, ideas, and if necessary, disagreeable people, if by their presence other people are made unhappy?

Or is there a still more comprehensive definition of salus? One that encompasses not only the stomach and the mind, but C.S. Lewis’ “middle element”?

Yarvin indulges in a sci-fi thought experiment that might be held up against other dystopian visions of the End of History. He imagines the bored, aimless citizens of the near future voluntarily migrating into “sealed villages” – windowless buildings which might be located anywhere – therein to spend the remainder of their lives participating in fully immersive virtual reality adventures. These adventures would be characterized by their intensity:

It is not a coincidence that virtual worlds so often select premodern European social, political and technical parameters—and the older and more fantastic, the better. The most basic human sociology is that all human beings prefer, all things being equal, to live in guilds that fight dragons for a living.

The game designer, in this scenario, bears much the same responsibility for the salus of the virtual villagers as a government bears for its citizens. Yes, bug burritos could be pneumatically delivered to the villagers’ haptic VR pods to keep them in good physical health; drugs could be squirted into their nostrils to keep them pacified. But if their virtual lives are to be an improvement over their unsatisfying real-world lives, the villagers must be enabled to live in a fully human way – which entails the possibility of enduring setbacks, experiencing physical pain, even dying, in the course of their virtual adventures:

When we accept the realization that humanity is not and cannot be in a healthy, manlike condition in the absence of pain, violence and death—not a new revelation, not even a Nietzschean revelation, but one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy—we are forced to accept the general realization that the human experience is in every way shaped by essential difficulty. In hedonomic jargon, humans need disutility. … According to the principle of salus, our bodies must be exercised; our minds must be challenged; our characters must be tested; or we will be less human than we could be.

This thought experiment implies that if humanity should ever conquer all its difficulties, it may be necessary for whoever governs us – whether in virtual villages or in the real world – to devise artificial difficulties, to test our characters and give our lives meaning.

But what chance is there, really, that we’ll ever conquer our difficulties? Even in the unlikely event that all the world’s remaining tyrannies are overthrown, all the banana republics raised to western levels of democratic stability, all the pirates pacified, all the terrorists successfully won over to the doctrine of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – how long will that happy state endure? One last quote from Fukuyama:

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in a previous generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

Is that not exactly what we’ve been seeing of late? Conservatives like Rod Dreher are right to observe that their values and beliefs are under attack. Young people are no longer willing to live within the cultural horizon that bounded and oriented their ancestors’ imaginations.

Once the rebels have successfully smashed down the boundary markers and levelled the landscape, we’ll begin to discern the outlines of the new horizon, which will shape the deeds and imaginations of the next generation – their morality, and their sense of beauty, and their acts of courage.

This is the horizon which future rebels will struggle to transcend – and in struggling, we can hope, prove themselves human.

M.

1. If you missed the link above, Aris Roussinos’ article in UnHerd says everything I would’ve liked to say about Fukuyama’s conservatism, if I weren’t handicapped by my own discursiveness:

In his aristocratic distaste for the world summoned into being by the temporary triumph of liberalism, his Nietzchean disgust at the Last Man it has created, and his awareness of the stronger and more meaningful passions aroused by the prospect of struggle, sacrifice and glory, Fukuyama is widely at variance with the worldview ascribed to him. Were he writing in today’s more hysterical climate rather than in the early 1990s, he would more likely be accused of meandering towards fascism than of liberal triumphalism.

2. I should clarify that Fukuyama’s take on Hegel is, as he admits, heavily influenced by Alexandre Kojève, who uses the snappier “first men” in place of Hegel’s “modes of Consciousness that have not risen above the bare level of life”.

3. This essay is already bloated with quotes, but I can’t resist cramming in this fine piece of invective from the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. The subject is the respected interpreter of Hegel and engineer of European unity, Kojève:

This man was, in my view, a dangerous psychopath, who brought with him from Russia the same kind of nihilistic fervour that had inspired the Bolsheviks, and who took an exhilarated joy in the thought that everything around him was doomed. He could not set eyes on any human achievement without relishing its future ruin. He lived in a Götterdämmerung of his own imagination, wishing meanwhile to create the kind of post-historical, universal and bureaucratic form of government that would extinguish all real human attachments and produce the only thing he really cared for: the last man, the loveless and lifeless homunculus which he knew in intimate detail since he knew it in himself.

Last month, a bit of fruitless research for this essay led me to consider how the desire for recognition might manifest in a willingness to crowd fellow pedestrians off the sidewalk. Some months earlier, H.G. Wells’ dystopian classic The Sleeper Awakes inspired some thoughts on 19th, 20th, and 21st century morality. Since I’ve elected not to pass comment on today’s American presidential election you might be interested in what I was thinking on the eve of the previous one.

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

c.p. snow the light and the dark

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends. [1]

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

1. Update, Feb. 20, 2019. In Corridors of Power, a later entry in the Strangers and Brothers series set at the height of the Cold War, the narrator unconsciously echoes his old friend’s words. By this time, Lewis Elliott is a high-ranking civil servant in the defense bureaucracy whose anti-nuclear leanings attract suspicion from his own side’s spooks. Grilled about his youthful friendship with avowed Communists, he replies:

“I’m not emotional about the operations of politics. But about the hopes behind them, I’m deeply so. I thought it was obvious that the Revolution in Russia was going to run into some major horrors of power. I wasn’t popular with [my Communist friends] for telling them so. But that isn’t all. I always believed that the power was working two ways. They were doing good things with it, as well as bad. When once they got some insight into the horrors, then they might create a wonderful society. I now believe that, more confidently than I ever did. How it will compare with the American society, I don’t know. But as long as they both survive, I should have thought that many of the best human hopes stand an excellent chance.”

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe, making all my subsequent commentary redundant.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker