At the end of the l9th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, according to one of his most profound students, “sought, by a new beginning, to retrieve antiquity from the emptiness of modernity and, with this experiment, vanished into the darkness of insanity.” Only a few years later, the First World War – The Great War, as it was called at the time – made it obvious to two of the greatest writers of the time that, with “the emptiness of modernity,” Europe itself had descended into madness.
Paul Valery, one of the most famous French writers, understood that beyond the millions of men slain, something had broken, something fundamental had changed.
“The illusion of a European culture has been lost,” he wrote in his l9l9 essay, ‘The Crisis of the Mind.’ Instead of a culture, there was nothing but disorder in the mind of Europe. What made this disorder? “The free co-existence, in all its cultivated minds, of the most dissimilar ideas, the most contradictory principles of life and learning.” In l914, just before the war broke out, “Every mind of any scope was a crossroads for all shades of opinion; every thinker was an international exposition of thought.”
In the absence of a culture, a way of life that believed in itself, the mechanical and technological forces let loose by modern science had been building a world of its own. Valery believed that in a very short time – and remember, this was written in l919, just after the Russian Revolution – we might see a “strictly animal society, a perfect and final anthill,” which would turn man into nothing more than a replaceable part of the social machine, instead of a complete individual with a mind of his own.
Three years after Valery wrote his essay, Robert Musil, who came from a country defeated in the war, and whose classic work, A Man Without Qualities, is still being read, described the same thing, a Europe gone mad, in a way that bears a remarkable resemblance to life in America today.
“It’s a Babylonian madhouse: a thousand disparate voices, ideas, and tunes assault the wanderer’s ear from a thousand windows at once, and it is clear that the individual is turned into the playground of anarchic forces, and morality and the intellect disintegrate.”
And then The Great War came, and with it a lesson in what the emptiness of modernity had done, a lesson in how easily, and how quickly, a civilization can commit suicide. The war revealed that humanity is “astonishingly more malleable than we had been accustomed to assume.” The war had demonstrated “in one monstrous mass experiment how easily human beings can move to the most radical extreme and back again without experiencing any basic changes.”
What was left of the belief, the belief that everyone had once shared, in the unique worth of every human being? Vanquished by science. Statistics, machines, mathematics, numbers – “this sandhill of facts and anthill mold of humanity,” wrote Musil, using the same metaphor as Valery, “had today won out….Never again will a homogeneous ideology, a ‘culture’ arise in our western society as our own.”
Paul Valery and Robert Musil were trying to describe the breakdown of belief, of standards, of culture, traditions that had been built up over centuries, millennia. The old traditions had become questionable; there were no standards left. The idea of better and worse, good and evil, the difference between what is higher and what is lower, the distinction between what was art and what was trash, between what is noble and what is base, had disappeared. Everyone was now free to judge everything for themselves. The world, and everything in it, had become provisional.
Valery and Musil described better than anyone then writing the “emptiness of modernity,” and the catastrophe it caused, but neither of them even attempted to discover the cause of what they had both witnessed: the fragmentation, the multiplicity of conflicting thoughts, the “international exposition of thought” in everyone’s mind, the “Babylonian madhouse” Europe had become.
There were those who did not need The Great War to tell them the world had gone mad. There were a few who saw it coming; who, because of their knowledge of the past, the ancient past, understood what was about to happen; how the world, or, more precisely, the West, had lost its reason. In l825, at the beginning of the industrial age, Goethe not only foretold the coming barbarism, but insisted that “we are already in the midst of it.” He explained that, “Wealth and alacrity are what the world admires and what everyone strives for. Railroads, express mail services, steam ships, and every possible way of facilitating communications are what the educated world wants in order to overeducate itself, though as a result it persists in its mediocrity. Of course it is also the result of universality that an average culture becomes base.” The 19th century would be characterized by “quick-witted people who, equipped with a certain adroitness, feel their superiority over the masses even if they themselves are not capable of what is highest….We will, together with perhaps just a few, be the last of an epoch which will not return very soon.”
What Goethe thought barbarism, others like Hegel and, after Hegel, Marx, thought nothing more than the necessary stages by which history, now written with a capital H, moved toward its inevitable end. All the wars and revolutions, all the blood and hatred, all the short lived ambitions of vain politicians and selfish men of business, were really nothing but steps on mankind’s journey toward human freedom. Through the wonders of the new science, and an instinct for acquisition that was no longer regarded as a sin, everyone would have the equal right to live in whatever way they wished.
Rousseau, who more than anyone was responsible for the French Revolution, thought this the worst thing that could have happened, the loss of what was most important in the interest of what was easiest to obtain. “Ancient politicians invariably talked about morals and virtue, those of our own time talk only of business and money.” And then he added, “With money one has everything, except morals and citizens.” The “emptiness of modernity,” as it turns out, began five hundred years ago.
It began with the new, now the old science, in the l7th century when the belief in an ordered universe was replaced by the belief that the world as we know it is the result of forces that are themselves not rational. It started with the attempt to find the end of things in the origins of things, the attempt to find the meaning of things in the meaningless motion of matter; a return, as it were, to the principles of the pre-Socratics, atomists like Democritus: random chance that somehow leads to a grand design, an infinity of minuscule parts forming and reforming themselves into an intelligible whole, guided by something unknown, the many gods of Hesiod and Homer, or the one god of Christianity. It is the higher mathematics, the world converted into the handmade work of numbers, numbers by which nature is not so much discovered as forced into the useful, and usable, patterns of human design. Nothing has a nature; there are no unchanging and unchangeable beings. There is no human nature, only a drive to change, to become different than we are. The nature of the human being has become endlessly perfectible. History has a meaning after all.
The new, now the old science, changed everything. It changed physics, and the principles of the new physics changed the principles of the new politics. It changed who we are, and, more importantly, it changed who we thought we should be.