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Marvin Perry
Baruch College, City University of New York

George W. Bock, Editorial Associate


Geneva, Illinois

Palo Alto



Princeton, New jersey

Modern Consciousness: New Views of
Nature, Human Nature, and the Arts

The modern mentality may be said to have passed through two broad
phasesan early modernity and a late modernity. Formulated during
the era of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the outlook of early modernity stressed confidence in reason, science, human
goodness, and humanity's capacity to improve society. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a new outlook took shape.
Late modern thinkers and scientists achieved revolutionary insights
into human nature, the social world, and the physical universe; and
writers and artists opened up hitherto unimagined possibilities for artistic expression. These developments produced a shift in European
consciousness. The mechanical model of the universe that had dominated the Western outlook since Newton was altered; the Enlightenment view of human rationality and goodness was questioned; the
belief in natural rights and objective standards governing morality
was attacked; rules of esthetics that had governed the arts since
the Renaissance were discarded. Shattering old beliefs, late modernity
left Europeans without landmarkswithout generally accepted cultural standards or agreed upon conceptions of human nature and life's
The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries
were marked by extraordinary creativity in thought and the arts. However imaginative and fruitful these changes were for Western intellectual and cultural life, they also helped to create the disoriented, fragmented, and troubled era that is the twentieth century.




While many intellectuals continued to adhere to the outlook identified

with the Enlightenment, some thinkers in the late nineteenth century
challenged the basic premises of the philosophes and their nineteenthcentury heirs. In particular, they repudiated the Enlightenment conception of human rationality, stressing instead the irrational side of
human nature. Regarding reason as sovereign, the philosophes had defined human beings by their capacity to think critically; now thinkers
saw blind strivings and animal instincts as the primary fact of human
existence. It seemed that reason exercised a very limited influence over
human conduct, that impulses, drives, instinctsall forces below the
surfacedetermined behavior much more than did logical consciousness.
The problem of irrationalism is manifold. Some thinkers, recognizing the weakness of reason, continued to value it and sought to preserve it as an essential ingredient of civilized life. Others, concentrating on the creative potential of the irrational, urged nourishing the
feelings, which they considered vital to artistic creativity and a richer
existence. Still others, rebelling against the insistence of scientists and
positivists that a calculating and analytical reason was the supreme
arbiter of knowledge and the only path to certainty, took a more extreme position. The truths discovered by the intellect, they said, were
less profound than those grasped by our interior sentiments. Like the
romantics, proponents of the nonrational placed more reliance on feeling, spontaneity, instinct, intuition, and other nonrational sources of
knowledge than on reason. They belittled the intellect's attempts to
comprehend reality, scorned the liberal-rational tradition, praised outbursts of the irrational, and in some instances lauded violence.
The new insights into the irrational side of human nature and the
growing assault on reason had immense implications for political life.
In succeeding decades, these currents of irrationalism would become
ideologized and politicized by unscrupulous demagogues, who sought
to mobilize and manipulate the masses. The popularity of fascist
movements, which openly denigrated reason and exalted race, blood,
action, and will, demonstrated the naivet of nineteenth-century liberals, who believed that reason had triumphed in human affairs.
Friedrich Nietzsche
The principal figure in the "dethronement of reason" and the glorification of the irrational was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (The Bettmann Archive)

(18441900). Most of Nietzsche's writings are not systematic treatises

but collections of aphorisms, often vague and sometimes containing
internal contradictions. For this reason, his philosophy lends itself to
misinterpretation and misapplication, as manifested by Nazi theorists
who distorted and exploited Nietzsche to justify their theory of the
German master race.
Critic of European Values Nietzsche attacked the accepted views and
convictions of his day as a hindrance to a fuller and richer existence
for man. He denounced social reform, parliamentary government, and
universal suffrage, ridiculed the vision of progress through science,
condemned Christian morality, and mocked the liberal belief in man's
essential goodness and rationality. He said that man must understand
that life, which abounds in cruelty, injustice, uncertainty, and absurdity, is not governed by rational principles. There exist no absolute standards of good and evil, no timeless principles, whose truth can be


demonstrated by reflective reason. The higher world of metaphysics is

a myth; so too is the Christian heaven. Nothing is true. There is only
naked man living in a godless, chaotic, meaningless, and absurd world.
The strong must face this reality. The weak cannot, so they invent
fables about a higher reality and a future life.
Modern bourgeois society, said Nietzsche, was decadent and enfeebleda victim of the excessive development of the rational faculties
at the expense of will and instinct. Against the liberal-rationalist stress
on the intellect, Nietzsche urged recognition of the dark mysterious
world of instinctual desires, the true forces of life. Smother the will
with excessive intellectualizing and you destroy the spontaneity that
sparks cultural creativity and ignites a zest for living. The critical and
theoretical outlook has for too long stifled the creative instincts. For
man's manifold potential to be realized, he must forgo relying on the
intellect and nurture again the instinctual roots of human existence,
Nietzsche said.
In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), his first major work, Nietzsche offered an unconventional interpretation of ancient Greek culture. Traditionally, scholars and philosophers had lauded the Greeks for their
rationalityfor originating scientific and philosophical thought and
for aspiring to achieve balance, harmony, and moderation both in the
arts and in ethics. Nietzsche chose to emphasize the emotional roots
of Greek culturethe Dionysian spirit that springs from the soil of
myth and ritual, passion and frenzy, instinct and intuition, heroism
and suffering. He maintained that this Dionysian spirit, rooted in the
nonrational, was the source of Greek creativity in art and drama. Greek
tragedy declined, said Nietzsche, when serenity, clarity, order, structure, form, and cold calculationthe Apollonian spiritpredominated
over noble ecstasy and creative intuition. Greek tragedy was killed by
a life-undermining rationalism.
Nietzsche attributed to Socrates the rise of a theoretical outlook, of
scientific thought, which seeks to separate truth from myth, illusion,
and error. He said that this scientific outlook, which began essentially
with Socrates and attained its height in the Hellenistic Age in Alexandria, had become the basis of modern culture. Modern westerners
value the theoretical man and not the man of instinct and action,- consequently, they do not appreciate the creative potential of the nonrational side of human nature. But, said Nietzsche, we are beginning to
recognize the limitations of science and of the cognitive faculty itself.
Kantian philosophy, in particular, has produced doubts about science's
claim to the attainment of certainty.
Whereas the current optimism had treated the universe as knowable,
in the presumption of eternal truths, and space, time, and causality as
absolute and universally valid laws, Kant showed how these supposed


laws serve only to raise appearance . . . to the status of true reality,

thereby rendering impossible a genuine understanding of that reality....
Socratic culture has been shaken and has begun to doubt its own infallibility.1

Christianity, with all its prohibitions and demands to conform, also

crushes the human impulse for life, said Nietzsche. Christian morality
must be obliterated, for it is fit only for the weak, the slave. The
triumph of Christianity in the ancient world, he said, was a revolution
of the lowest elements of society, the meek, the weak, and the ignoble
to inherit the earth from their aristocratic superiors. It was nothing
less than an attempt of the resentful slaves and the slavelike plebeians
to prevent superior people from expressing their heroic natures and to
strike back at those noble spirits, whom they envied. The worthless
rabble did this by holding that the needy, the weak, the poor, and the
lowly are good and blessed, by condemning as evil the very traits that
they lackedstrength, assertiveness, ability, and a zest for lifeand by
making their own base, wretched, and life-negating valuespity, kindness, self-denial, the pursuit of heaventhe standard for all things.
Then they saddled people with guilt if they deviated from these contemptible values. What a clever act of revenge against their superiors! This transvaluation of values engineered by Christianity, said
Nietzsche, led to a deterioration of life and culture. In The Anti-Christ
(1888), Nietzsche wrote:
Christianity . . . has waged a war to the death against this higher type of
man. . . . Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, illconstituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative
instincts of strong life. . . . Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity
stands in antithesis to the basic emotions which enhance the energy of
the feeling of life,- it has a depressive effect. One loses force when one
pities. . . . Christianity is a revolt of everything that crawls along the
ground directed against that which is elevated.2

But, adds Nietzsche, these virtues of love, compassion, and pity are
really only a facade; they hide the Christians' true feelings of envy,
resentment, hatred, and revenge against their superiors, betters, and
tormentors. One reason why the lowly aspire to heaven is that there
they will take their revenge; they will be able to peer into hell, as Aquinas noted, and take pleasure in the torments of the damned, including
their old enemies.
Although the philosophes had rejected Christian doctrines, they had
largely retained Christian ethics. Nietzsche, however, did not attack
Christianity because it was contrary to reason, as the philosophes had,
but because it was a "declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the
will to life."3 By blocking the free and spontaneous exercise of human

instincts and making humility and self-abnegation virtues and pride a

vice, said Nietzsche, Christianity gave man a sick soul. These depraved ideals of blessedness, piety, righteousness, suffering, and salvation have made us miserable. In short, Christianity put out the spark
of life in man. This spark of life, this inner yearning which is man's
true essence, must again bum.
"God is dead," proclaimed Nietzsche. God is man's own creation.
There are no higher worlds, no transcendental or metaphysical truths,
no higher morality that derives from God or nature. Dead too are the
secular ideals of natural rights, scientific socialism, and faith in inevitable progress. All the old values and truths, both secular and religious, have lost their intelligibility; they are merely bankrupt sentiments devoid of certainty. But we need not despair, said Nietzsche. The
death of God and of all transcendental truth can mean the liberation
of man. Man can surmount nihilism by creating new values that further his instincts for life and foster self-mastery. In the process, he can
overcome the deadening uniformity and mediocrity of modern civilization; he can undo democracy and socialism, which have made masters out of the cattlelike masses, and quash the shopkeeper's spirit,
which has made man soft and degenerate.
European society lacks heroic figures, said Nietzsche. Everyone belongs to a vast herd but there are no shepherds: "in the dwarfing and
levelling of the European man lurks our greatest peril, for it is this
outlook which fatigueswe see today nothing which wishes to be
greater, . . . the process is ... towards something more . .. comfortable,
more mediocre."4 European culture has been debased by a crude materialism. The vulgar masses have imposed their tastes and values on
all phases of life.
The Superman Europe can be saved only by the emergence of a higher
type of man, the superman, or overman, who would not be held back
by the egalitarian rubbish preached by democrats and socialists. "A
declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed," said
Nietzsche, to end "the dominion of inferior men." Europe requires "the
annihilation of suffrage universe!-, i. e., the system through which the
lowest natures prescribe themselves as laws for the higher."5
Europe needs a new breed of rulers, a true aristocracy of masterful
men, "a new order of rank." The superman is a new kind of man who
breaks with accepted morality, which only negates life, and creates his
own values. He does not repress his instincts but asserts them. A selfdetermining individual, he liberates himself from the fetters of old
values and traditions and asserts his prerogative as master. Free of
Christian guilt and throwing off the crushing burden of his own psy-

chological past, he proudly affirms his own being; dispensing with the
Christian "thou shalt not," he instinctively says, "I will." He dares to
be himself. Because he is not like other people, traditional definitions
of good and evil have no meaning for him. He does not allow his individuality to be stifled, but makes his own values, those that flow
from his very being and enhance his life. He relishes and exudes power.
He knows that life is purposeless but lives it laughingly, instinctively,
adventurously, fully. The superman represents the highest form of life.
The superman exemplifies the ultimate fact of life, that "the most
fearful and fundamental desire in man [is] his drive for power,"6 that
human beings crave and strive for power ceaselessly and uncompromisingly. It is perfectly natural for human beings to want to dominate
nature and other human beings, even to inflict pain on them. This will
to power is not a product of rational reflection but flows from the very
essence of human existence. As the motivating force in human behavior, it governs everyday life and is the determining factor in political
life. The enhancement of power brings supreme enjoyment: "the love
of power is the demon of men. Let them have everythinghealth, food,
a place to live, entertainmentthey are and remain unhappy and lowspirited; for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied. Take
everything from them and satisfy this and they are alrriost happyas
happy as men and demons can be."7 The masses, cowardly and envious,
will condemn the superman as evil; this has always been their way.
Thus, Nietzsche castigates democracy, because it "represents the
disbelief in great human beings and an elite society/'8 and Christianity,
for imposing an unnatural morality, one that affirms meekness, humility, and compassion.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) had declared that beneath the conscious intellect is the will, a striving, demanding, and imperious force that is the real determinant of human
behavior. In contrast to Hegel, who identified ultimate reality with
reason, Schopenhauer viewed will, an all-encompassing force that pervades even plants and animals, as the the essence of reality: "the will
is the thing-in-itself, the inner content, the essence of the world. . ..
every man is what he is through his w i l l . . . for willing is the basis of
his inner being."9 In contrast to the philosophes, who saw human
beings as fundamentally rational, Schopenhauer held that the intellect
is merely a tool of an alogical and irrational will: "The intellect . . . .
is unable to determine the will itself, for the will is wholly inaccessible
to it, and, as we have seen, is for it inscrutable and, impenetrable."10
Life is an endless striving to fulfill ceaseless desires. Schopenhauer anticipated Freud when he declared that dark and blind animal impulses,
not reason, are a human being's true essence. Schopenhauer sought to

I [rationalism

repress the will, which he considered to be the source of human unhappiness. He urged stifling this striving, aimless life-urge that keeps
us in the throes of desire like an unquenchable thirst.
A profound pessimism underlay Schopenhauer's philosophy. If the
will is not gratified, we suffer pain; if is is too easily satisfied, we experience terrible boredom. And fear of death gnaws us.
Man, as the most complete obj edification of that will, is ... also the
most necessitous of all beings: he is through and through concrete willing and needing; he is a concretion of a thousand [needs and wants). With
these he stands upon the earth, left to himself, uncertain about everything except his own need and misery. . . . With cautious steps and casting anxious glances round him he pursues his path, for a thousand accidents and a thousand enemies lie in wait for him. Thus he went while
yet a savage, thus he goes in civilised life; there is no security for him.
The life of the great majority is only a constant struggle for this existence
itself, with the certainty of losing it at last. But what enables them to
endure this wearisome battle is not so much the love of life as the fear
of death, which yet stands in the background as inevitable, and may
come upon them at any moment.11

"I understand him as if he had written especially for me,"12

Nietzsche said of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche learned from Schopenhauer to appreciate the unconscious strivings and impulses that dominate human behavior, but he rejected Schopenhauer's negation of the
will, his flight from life, and his pessimism. Regarding the will as a
source of strength, the wellspring of human creativeness and accomplishment, Nietzsche called for its heroic and joyful assertion. Affirmation of the will permits us to redeem life from nothingness.
Nietzsche saw a necessity for the expansion of energy and heroism,
not a necessity for resignation and the pursuit of nirvana, as Schopenhauer had advocated.
Supermen cast off all established values. Free of all restrictions,
rules, and codes of behavior imposed by society, they create their own
values. They burst upon the world propelled by that something that
urges people to want, take, strike, create, struggle, seek, dominate.
Supermen are people of restless energy who enjoy living dangerously,
scorn meekness and humility, and dismiss humanitarian sentiments;
they are noble warriors, hard and ruthless. Only a new elite, which
distances itself from the masses and holds in contempt the Christian
belief that all people are equal before God, can save European society
from decadence. At times, Nietzsche declares that supermen, a new
breed of nobles, will rule the planet; at other times, he states that they
will demonstrate their superiority by avoiding public life, ignoring established rules, and refraining from contact with inferiors.

Nietzsche in Perspective The influence of Nietzsche's philosophy is

still a matter of controversy and conjecture. Nietzsche brilliantly expressed the spirit of an age in which all areas of thought and culture
were pitting life force and soul against positivism and scientism, intuition and instinct against reason, and daring and adventure against
bourgeois conformity, comfort, and smugness. Nietzsche discerned,
says Franz Kuna, a British literary historian, "beneath the surface of
modern life, dominated by knowledge and science, . . . vital energies
which were wild, primitive and completely merciless."13 The release
of these vital energies in the twentieth century almost hurled Western
civilization back to a state of barbarism.
Perhaps better than anyone else, Nietzsche grasped the crucial problem of modern society and culturethat with the death of God traditional moral values had lost their authority and binding power. In a
world where nothing is true, all is permitted. Nietzsche foresaw that
the future, an age of nihilism, would be violent and sordid. "For some
time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a
catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to
decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach
the end."14
Nietzsche is part of a general nineteenth-century trend that sought
to affirm the human being and earthly aspirations rather than God or
salvation. There is no God, Nietzsche declared, values and norms do
not derive from a transcendental realm outside ourselves. We must respond to this crisis of existence, he said, by facing ourselves and our
lives free of illusion, pretense and hypocrisy, by standing on our own
two feet, and forging our own way. We do this, he said, by rejecting
conventional beliefs and ways of living and choosing our own Values
the values that we can feel and live by without deception or rationalization. Nietzsche's rejection of God, metaphysics, and all-embracing
historical theories (Hegelianism and Marxism, for example) that attempt to impose rational patterns on the past and the present is crucial
to the development of existentialism and postmodern thought (see
Chapters 11 and 12).
But no social policy could be derived from Nietzsche's heroic individualism, which taught that "there are higher and lower men and that
a single individual can . . . justify the existence of whole millennia."15
Nietzsche thought only of great individuals, humanity's noblest specimens, who overcame nihilism by overcoming themselves, mediocrity,
and the artificiality of all inherited values; the social community and
social injustice did not concern him, and the average human being had
no value for him. "The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so."16 Surely




these words offer no constructive guidelines for dealing with the problems of modern industrial civilization. Nor can we find anything helpful in Nietzsche's condemnation of equality. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85), the prophet declares: "With these preachers of equality
will I not be mixed up and confounded. For thus speaketh justice unto
me: 'Men are not equal.' And neither shall they become so! What
would be my love to the Superman if I spoke otherwise."17 Nietzsche's
view that society is merely "a foundation and scaffolding by means of
which a select class of beings may be able to elevate themselves to ...
a higher existence"1* is a warrant for ruthless domination and exploitation.
Nietzsche had no constructive proposals for dealing with the disintegration of rational and Christian certainties. Instead, his vitriolic attack on European institutions and values, immensely appealing to central European intellectuals, who saw his philosophy as liberating an
inner energy, helped erode the rational foundations of Western civilization. Thus, many young people, attracted to Nietzsche, welcomed
World War I; they viewed it as an esthetic experience and thought that
it would clear a path to a new heroic age. They took literally
Nietzsche's words: "A society that definitely and instinctively gives
up war and conquest is in decline"19 and "Ye shall love peace as a
means to new warsand the short peace more than the long.... Ye
say that it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you:
it is the good war which halloweth every cause."20
Nazi theorists tried to make Nietzsche a forerunner of their movement. They sought from Nietzsche a philosophical sanction for their
own will to power, contempt for the weak, ruthlessness, and glorification of action, as well as for their cult of the heroic and their Social
Darwinist revulsion for human equality and endorsement of cruelty.
Recasting Nietzsche in their own image, the Nazis viewed themselves
as Nietzsche's supermen: the new aristocracy, members of a master
race who, by force of will, would conquer all obstacles and reshape the
world according to their self-created values. Were they not engaged in
the liberation of the instincts and the "transvaluation of all values"
that Nietzsche had urged, in which nothing is true and everything is
permitted? Some German intellectuals were drawn to Nazism because
it seemed a healthy affirmation of life, the life with a new purpose for
which Nietzsche had called. Thus, Alfred Baeumler, a German academic and fervent National Socialist, lauded Nietzsche as the philosopher of heroic youth:
The foundations of Christian moralityreligious individualism, a
guilty conscience, meekness, concern for the eternal salvation of the
soulall are absolutely foreign to Nietzsche. . . . The Mediterranean religion of salvation is alien to and far removed from his Nordic attitude.


He can understand man only as a warrior against Fate. . . . We call

Nietzsche the philosopher of heroism.... One must have the need to be
strong, otherwise one will never be. ... We Germans . . . . understand the
"will to power." . . . If today we see German youth on the march under
the banner of the swastika, we are reminded of Nietzsche's . . . [appeal to
youth). And if today we shout "Heil Hitler!" to this youth, at the same
time we are hailing Nietzsche.21

Nietzsche himself, detesting German nationalism and militarism,

scoffed at the notion of German racial superiority, disdained (despite
some unfortunate remarks) anti-Semitism, and denounced state-worship. He would have abhorred Hitler and been dismayed at the twisting
of his idea of the will to power into a prototype fascist principle. The
men that he admired were passionate but self-possessed individuals,
who, by mastering their own chaotic passions, would face life and
death courageously, affirmatively, and creatively. Such men make great
demands on themselves. Nevertheless, as Janko Lavrin points out,
"Practically all the Fascist and Nazi theories can find some support in
Nietzsche's texts, provided one gives them the required twist."22 Unfortunately, Nietzsche's extreme and violent denunciation of Western
democratic principles, including equality, his praise of power, his call
for the liberation of the instincts, his elitism, which denigrates and
devalues all human life that is not strong and noble, and his spurning
of humane values provided a breeding ground for violent, antirational,
antiliberal, and inhumane movements. His philosophy is conducive to
a politics that knows no moral limits.

Fyodor Dostoevski
Like Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevski (1821-1881), Russian novelist and
essayist, attacked the fundamental outlook of liberals and socialists.
In contrast to their view that human beings are innately good, responsive to reason's promptings, and capable of constructing the good society through reason, Dostoevski saw human beings as inherently depraved, irrational, and rebellious.
Notes from Underground In Notes from Underground (1864), the
narrator, the Underground Man, rebels against the efforts of rationalists, humanists, positivists, liberals, utilitarians, and socialists to define human nature as essentially rational and good and to reform society so as to promote greater happiness. He rebels against science and
reason, against the entire liberal and socialist vision, and he does so
in the name of human subjectivitythe uncontainable, irrepressible, whimsical, and foolish human will. Human nature, says the