Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pessimism and Self-Annhilation


By refining Rousseau’s and Nietzsche’s pessimistic account of human development, a deeper and more disturbing pessimism can emerge with a haunting prediction of human self-annihilation.  There is much to criticize in how both characterize civilizing forces. For instance, human evolution is not a zero-sum game as Rousseau suggests. The simplicity of their pessimistic remarks on the human condition draws first from value judgments about the human being. Both Rousseau and Nietzsche judge a human in its unmodified state to compare it to an earlier human being. This places false boundaries on the human. My goal is to treat technology as an extension of the human being and society as humanity becoming part of a larger more powerful organism.[1]


Section I: Rousseau's Pessimism

            Rousseau images that man began in an uncivilized state in which he was completely independence and happy. The man in the state of nature was strong enough to get its own food and fend off against predators. The civilizing process according to Rousseau has many consequences for man’s virtue.

(1)               Body: Responding to contemporary arguments that technology has benefitted mankind, Rousseau argues that on the contrary, technology has weakened humanity. Take medicine. The man in the state of nature must fight every illness with his own immune system (Rousseau 109). The civilized man has medicine to do the work for the immune system. As a consequence, the civilized man’s body adapts to the benefit of having medicine and no longer has as strong an immune system as a result (Rousseau 109-10). Because the civilized man is so much weaker, he no longer can return to the state of nature (Rousseau 106). One needs the strength to fight off illness, so he will just die. Of course, Rousseau’s criticism is wide ranging, applying to tools like hatchets to luxuries like umbrellas (Rousseau 106). Tools weaken what man can do with just their body and luxuries reduce man’s ability to tolerate natural conditions like rain.

(2)               Dependence: Since civilized man’s body is no longer capable of providing for itself, he depends on others to provide for him. Those controls over resources have power by virtue that they can make civilized man (3) miserable by depriving him of what he needs (Rousseau 127). By miserable, Rousseau means painful privation and the suffering of the body or soul, which he thinks could not reasonably apply to the savage who is a free being with a heart a peace and a healthy body (127). This power implies artificial (4) inequality that goes beyond the natural inequalities such as height (Rousseau 101). While all men in the state of nature are naturally equal, civilization has actually made man unequal despite popular opinion.

(5)               Morality: The most virtuous and most truly sympathetic is the man in nature because he least resists the impulses of nature which tell him what harm is (Rousseau 128-30). By sympathetic, I am referring to Rousseau’s claim that the primitive man’s ability to feel pity when he sees another suffer (Rousseau 130). While the primitive man does not know good from evil, he is not subject to universal dependence and obligations to receive everything from those who do not obligate themselves to give him anything in return (Rousseau 128). This natural pity cannot actually be destroyed by even the most depraved morals, but as civilize man created morality that went further and further from principles of harm, he became to justify harm and subjection of his fellowman (Rousseau 131). Rousseau claims civilized man has weakened this feeling of pity and divided it into the virtues (132). Virtues like generosity, clemency, and humanity are in fact just particular applications of the feeling of pity (Rousseau 131).

(6)               Ability: Another force contributing to this dependence and inequality is division of labor. Through the industrialization process, man more and more is made to do only one thing. This results in man becoming less capable at doing everything else. The savage must be able to do many things in order to be self-sufficient, which is another reason civilized man cannot return to nature and the happiness it offers.

(7)               Fear of Death: The primitive man gains nothing so loses nothing when it dies (Rousseau 115). Since humans have consciousness of their freedom to deviate from natures commands, their instinct of what Rousseau calls Perfectibility causes them to become tyrants over nature (115). This means that man deviates from his natural apish state when it seeks enlightenment, and when death comes it has to deal with the loss of all that he has gained (Rousseau 114-5). This is the source of civilized man’s fear of death.

(8)               Freedom: Because man has this instinct of perfectibility, he exercises his will on all of nature. This includes himself and other man. Rousseau considers this will over nature tyranny because Rousseau considers nature’s commands as constituting autonomy as an organism (Rousseau 113-5). When man dominates his or another’s nature, he is forcing that organism to do what it does not naturally want to do, thus slavery.

(9)               Domestication: Animals in the wild are strong, naturally brave, and resourceful, but domesticated animals are weak, fearful, and servile (Rousseau 111). Rousseau thinks that since we are not all that different from other animals, the same civilization has made man weak, fearful and servile as well in the same matter as domestication has made dumb housecats out of resourceful felines (110-11). Man is now weak (1 and 5), fearful (6), and servile (2, 4, and 7). This is a response to Hobbes who thought that the man in the state of nature was fearful of every slightest sound, as an extension a natural fear of death (Rousseau 107).

Section II: Nietzsche’s Pessimism

While criticizing morality from a different angle, Nietzsche surprisingly has many similar things to say about how society has become weak. For the sake of supplementing Rousseau rather than contradicting, I will focus only a few major points in Nietzsche’s criticism of modern society.

(1)               Slave Morality: During the time of ancient Greece, there was only a value system. These values were between good and bad. Good was life-affirming like strength, health, and beauty, and bad was life-denying like weakness, sickness, and ugliness. By virtue of being strong, the good were the masters. It was their natural position. This value system is what Nietzsche calls Master morality, but this morality should not be confused with the modern concept of morality which has concepts like evil and blame.

The weak also had a value system that is equally natural to them. Like the masters, the weak see themselves as the good, but they make the opposite of them evil because they blame the strong for their strength. Nietzsche uses the parable of the birds of prey and lambs. The birds prey on the little lambs, and the lambs naturally resent that the birds can prey on them (Nietzsche 44-5). The lambs believe that the less one is like a bird of prey and the more like a little lamb, the more virtuous one is (Nietzsche 44). On the other side, the birds do not hate the lambs, for nothing is tastier than a little lamb (This is a joke in the parable, but Nietzsche has a point) (45). As Nietzsche argues, we all are little lambs, except for perhaps a handful of Overmen. We are a society of the weak. This change from a society with both weak and strong to a society of only the weak began with the slave revolt.

(2)               Slave Revolt: Nietzsche argues that slave morality was a “most spiritual revenge,” where the weak[2] reevaluate the values of their enemies (34). Through the cunny that the weak has, they convinced the strong of these values of values, the evidence being that this is the morality of today. In this morality,

“‘The wretched are alone the good; the poor, impotent, lowly are alone the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are the pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone—and [the aristocrats], the powerful and noble, anre on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and [the aristocracts] shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned.’” (Nietzsche 34).

The impetus for this slave revolt is the “venomous eye of ressentiment” (40). Ressentiment is a psychological condition that arises from an unconscious that cannot regulate itself in the normal way (Nietzsche 39). The normal regulation is immediate discharge of will, but being weak and unhealthy, the slaves fail to regulate this. In other words, frustration, anger, and envy grow when the slave wants to do something but cannot because she is a slave. The unconscious finds another way to regulate this ressentiment, and in this case, it was inversion of morality. This inversion was so successful that now there is almost nothing but weak and weak-worshipping people on the planet.

Section III: Refining

            As I stated in the introduction, one of the big problems with Rousseau’s formulation is that it posits zero-sum game where all advancements have had a near equal drop in human strength. The flaw both have is that just because humans are physically weak does not mean the morality is merely a weak morality. Most importantly, both judge the human merely by his unmodified state. Humans have risen despite their birth bodies’ degeneration. The Perfectibility instinct of humanity has allowed humans to go beyond their mere bodies into new forms.

            Rousseau argues that humans are so much the weaker for their technology, but while this is the common case, a good number of humans have been able to go beyond the primitive man various respects. What Rousseau misses out that human strength in nature is not the maximum but merely sufficient for survival. Effort is what makes humans stronger, and civilized man is capable and does create obstacles that do not exist in nature in order to gain more strength. One could think of the weight lifter, but this most notably applies to the mind, which as a slavish people, we value as a generally non-endangering capacity.[3] While modern humans generally expend a far less effort than the savage, it is important to recognize that this degeneration is not a product of a zero-sum game.

            Morality is not merely value-orient but rather has a future component as well. The primitive man and the slave both only see the world in its present qualities. Since the weak have to think in order to accomplish something which they cannot immediately do, there is a need to teleological philosophy. Goals and hopes have allowed humankind to work together in a way that creates higher level of organization. Teleological thinking also transforms the body into a tool to be changed to fit the ends the human seeks. While the old value-oriented morality still exists, it is diminishing as society becomes more and more technological or rather transformative. Rousseau does not make a connection with the instinct of perfectibility with morality, and Nietzsche does not make this distinction between the old weak and the new weak. If they had, I think they might have created an even dark story of the direction humanity is going.

            Since the human body is but a tool on which the will acts upon, the will is not limited to itself. Rousseau gets near this when he discusses how humans dominate each other by forcing a deviation from nature, but he misses the present consequences of a will beyond the unmodified organization. It is not actually a distinction between natural and artificial but between organizational levels that Rousseau is actually referring to when he speaks of deviating from nature. Organizational levels like molecular, cellular, multicellular, intelligent, and societal are all natural. The civilized man operates on both the intelligent and societal level. The intelligent level organizes how the multicellular body parts operate, and it create and modify those body parts beyond the self-regulation of the multicellular level. To make a long discussion short, nothing is unnatural about what humans do to themselves because nature does not stop existing at an arbitrary organizational level. This taken into consideration, the will of modern man can increasingly enlarge itself through incorporation of tools, and while the unmodified body might be weak, even the couch potato has access to more power and strength than the primitive man could ever be capable of. Take the atomic bomb as the pinnacle of modern man’s might. No savage could destroy the world.

Section IV: The Ultimate Man

            In a refined pessimism, there is the story of our future, of our becoming the Ultimate man. Unlike Nietzsche’s Ultimate Man, this one cannot exist. By this I mean that to achieve the ultimate state is self-annihilation. There are two ways the ultimate stops existing.

First, the man achieves pure ego. This is obvious when considering the modern intellectual. They are basically heads with legs, where the only purpose of the body is to move their head to conferences. Ancient Greek intellectuals were far different. Take Socrates and Plato, both fought in wars. How many modern intellectuals could lay claim of having the constitution of a soldier. As technology improves, humans need less and less of their bodies. In the case of humanity’s future, computer technology may finally free humans from the limits of embodiment. Even now, it is not unheard of to have someone spend ninety percent of their time on the internet. This person has become an internet being through the will’s power of extension. It is important to note, that by becoming information on the internet, the will has become subject to all that entails. One, all information on the internet is delocalized and constantly moving. Second, this information is constantly cut, altered, and pasted as it transverses across cyberspace. In the anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character, Lain, is being from the internet who asks the existential question, “If I am nowhere, who am I?”(Prevost 186). This is half of the destruction of humankind.

The other half lies in the opposite, egolessness. This state occurs often during times of societal duress in which everyone drops their individual projects to join in a societal effort. This is the evolution into a societal being. The process towards a complete organization of humanity into society has been going on for thousands of years. First, humans subsumed their will into tribes. Next, they subsumed into towns with their professionalization. Later they subsumed into city-states and empires which gave the evolving societal organisms military power. Nations arrived much later but with them a truer organization towards society. Unlike a monarchy in which subjects are loyal to a human individual or family, loyalty towards a nation is importantly different. While nationalism is close to the transcendence of the teleological will to the societal level, humanity is still divided. The true ultimate evolution lies in globalization and world peace. It is only matter of time before the embryo of society finally becomes ready to be born, and with it, all divisions between humans will disappear, destroying individuality. The Ultimate man puts these two halves together and completely cancels himself out.

Works Cited:

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. Vintage Books: New York, 1967.

Prevost, Adele-Elise. “The signal of Noise.” Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human. Edited by Frenchy Lunning. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2008.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Edited by Roger D. Masters. Translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters. St. Martin’s Press: Boston, 1964.

[1] From the word organism, I am focusing on the aspect of natural organization and self-preservation.
[2] To avoid culture specific nature of Nietzsche’s criticism, I am generalizing Jews and the Priestly caste with “weak.”
[3] There are, of course, many cases in slavish religion in which thinking freely was considered dangerous, but to an ever greater degree since the Enlightenment that assumption has been challenge for a new value of intellectual achievement.

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