Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
— Harry Lime
Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.
The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.
According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul’s Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.
He doesn’t mention him by name, but this is obviously one of Nietzsche’s central themes. In fact, it’s one of the themes that most effectively resist appropriation by those who would turn him into some kind of bombastic life coach. Given his conscious defiance of “systematic” thinking, it’s always risky to identify what he “really” meant, but if you ask me — and even if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway — I would say that Nietzsche was most concerned with culture, not individuals. Western liberal individualism was just more decadence as far as he was concerned. All his famous exhortations about the Übermensch were centered on the assumption that strong, healthy cultures would occasionally produce heroic individuals like a Beethoven or Goethe, whose artistic genius would redeem life for the rest of us, who are just here taking up space and doing the grunt work. This tendency didn’t go in reverse — heroic individuals did not regenerate weak, sickly cultures. Needless to say, he would have looked at our culture, seen a crass obsession with commerce, unhealthy individualism taken to the extremes of narcissism and solipsism, and a weak, neurotic concern with avoiding pain and injustice at all cost, and dismissed any further thoughts of cultural greatness with a disgusted wave of his hand. And yet, he might have said, for all your pride in your civilized harmlessness, you still have slave labor constructing your sports stadiums, and something very much like it building the technological gadgets which give your petty lives a semblance of meaning. You have no problem consigning countless millions of other sentient creatures to miserable lives and assembly-line deaths for the sake of your convenience. You can simply afford the luxury of removing cruelty from your immediate vicinity. Rationalist sleight-of-hand takes care of any uncomfortable remainders. Blood, you’re soaking in it. Always have been, always will be. The only question is whether you’re going to use it to produce transcendent greatness or self-loathing mediocrity.
However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.
Hopeful, indeed. Alan Watts used an odd-but-striking example that relates to this idea:
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
The cat wasn’t born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.
This, in turn, was one of Watts’s central themes — the idea that “good” and “bad”, “desirable” and “undesirable” are like the head and tail of the cat: inseparable. We simply aren’t able to stand up and look over the fence to see the entire cat at once, so to speak. We can’t attain the god’s-eye perspective from which we could see that no matter how hard we try to eliminate bad, unpleasant things from the world and preserve only the good things, it can never happen. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, like trying to figure out how the cat’s head “causes” the tail. To strain the metaphor further, our attempts to scrub the world clean of undesirable things would be like trying to separate the head and tail of a cat, only to have each head generate a new tail, and each tail develop a new head.
Somehow it appears that the cat mutated into a hydra. Well, no matter. The point is, the idea of “desirable” and “undesirable” as integers which can be increased or subtracted is one of the foundational myths of post-Enlightenment Western culture. You may say, “Well, I greatly prefer the ‘problems’ of a middle-class Westerner to those of a medieval peasant.” I wouldn’t disagree. But that’s still a value statement, not an objective fact. Likewise, it’s a value statement to say, “Well, I’m perfectly content with the way things are right now. They’re good enough. No need to risk unintended consequences by messing around with further attempts at optimization.” The point isn’t that we can’t ever agree on a way to live and coexist. The point is that any such consensus will likely have to leave our cherished rationality and objectivity behind.