Nihilism and “The Last Man”

In an earlier posting, I pointed out how nihilism comes in two flavours, as it were. Implicated in Nietzsche’s distinction between an “active” and a “passive” nihilism is the revolutionary and reactionary forms of nihilism. In the former, the future devours the past, and in the latter, the past devours the future. Anyone who is 100% conservative would be as much a nihilist (a decadent) as someone who is 100% revolutionary or “progressive”. The one devours the future, the other devours the past.

Any healthy human being is as much the conjunction or intersection of the seeming contradictions of past and future as they are of inner and outer. Every healthy human being is a crossroads, and often a coincidentia oppositorum of the healthy and diseased, too. For what else is the significance of the Buddhist’s “ultimate truth” that “nirvana and samsara are the same”?; or the Christian truth that “the body is the temple of the living God”?; or Blake’s insistence that a human being is a mysterious conjunctio oppositorum of eternity with time, the infinite with the finite?

Understand this, and you understand Heraclitus’s Logos, and why it was associated with “God on the cross”. The Logos on the cross — the “God on the cross” — is the archetype of Every Man as the “Eternal Adam” whose form spans the cosmos. This “God on the cross” is us. But what pathetic and shrunken creatures we have become.

My thoughts returned to this again this morning after reading another review  in The Guardian of Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twentieth Century, this one by Stephanie Flanders. There’s a passage where she addresses what she identifies as the key theme of Picketty’s book,

This is the “central contradiction of capitalism”, which he summarises with a Marxian turn of phrase: “the entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.”

Well, there is something here of the same theme in the notorious Citigroup “Plutonomy Memos” as I mentioned those earlier, but what I really want to focus on here is this useful turn of phrase “the past devours the future”, which corresponds to the “Age of Decay” in Carroll Quigley’s life-cycle of civilisations (as mentioned in the previous post on Late Modernity). The formal term for this devouring of the future by the past is, in fact, “decadence” and it is the disease of the reactionary. The reactionary prevents the future from arriving. The reactionary is, in fact, Nietzsche’s nihilistic “Last Man” in his Zarathustra.

The mood of the present times is very reactionary. It is not just the “prudence” or “go-slow” approach of the authentic conservative mood or its preference for “the old familiar” and the “tried and true”. It is the decadence of the reactionary, often characterised by deep resentment (or ressentiment) and an exaggerated nostalgia for a idealised by-gone era that probably never was. Today it goes by the term “denialism”, but what is actually being denied is the future or “the new”.

Left unchecked, this reactionary mood which devours the future (and is a form of nihilism) spells the end of a civilization. It’s happened many times before. The corrective to this nihilism is another kind of nihilism called “revolution”. What is called “the West”, in fact, has gone through a number of such cycles of reactionary decadence when it was on death’s door, but was responded to with a revolutionary resuscitation. In revolution, as Rosenstock-Huessy points out, the future is brought in by force and the past is “liquidated”. There was a “reset” as it were — Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Reformation, Agrarian Revolution, French Revolution, English Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and so on. Quigley discusses these various revivals in the making and re-making of “Western Civilisation” in his book Tragedy and Hope as does Rosenstock-Huessy in his great book Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man.

Revolutions devour or “liquidate” the past, while reactionary decadence devours the future. When “the times are out of joint”, as Shakespeare put it, society has polarised into “old” and “new”, past and future, reactionary and revolutionary now confronting each other in a decisive confrontation. An old consciousness confronts a new consciousness. Revolutions are not arbitrary. As Rosenstock-Huessy discovered, they arise spontaneously as life’s response to an already diseased situation of terminal decadence.

What Rosenstock-Huessy discovered in his survey of the modern revolutions was the lawfulness of revolution. That disclosure of a lawfulness to revolutionary upheavals or “irruptions” (as Gebser might call it) provides the basis for an art and science of social revolution, which is the theory and practice of change at the right time. Rosenstock’s “method” is to test the powers of time, in the form of conservative (evolutionary) or progressive (revolutionary) moods for their adequacy as responses, and to lessen the violence of change. If “the times are out of joint” (inarticulate, incoherent) and the equilibrium of things is disrupted, what is needed to restore or “heal” the times? He called this art and science of revolution “the synchronisation of antagonistic distemporaries”. Peace in society, he insists, is change at the right time, being neither too soon nor too late. Too soon is often the curse of the revolutionary, too late the curse of the reactionary.

Now, in connection with that I want to mention, too, what don Juan said was Castaneda’s chief impediment to becoming a “man of knowledge”. He put it as being something typical of the Western educated mind — “you rush when you should wait, and you wait when you should rush”. This is a issue of time and timing, and in that statement is a revelation about the proper relationship between the conservative and revolutionary or “progressive” moods. That is, we should combine these powers in ourselves rather than polarise them as “dualisms” or partisan interests. The “truth” is not to be found in one “position” (or “point-of-view”) or the other, but in their conjunction or relation.  So, this is where “coincidence of opposites” or a “both/and” logic becomes of particular relevance to our own lives.

The whole human being is this coincidentia oppositorum or conjunctio oppositorum maintained in dynamic equilibrium. The image of this dynamic equilibrium is the mandala. The mandala is, as Jung pointed out, the image of the realised “Self” or fourfold human. And in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “new philosophy”, this fourfold human is represented in terms of subjective (inwards), objective (outwards), “prejective” (forwards or “future”) and “trajective” (backwards or “past”) orientations and pre-dilections. In the healthy human being, human consciousness expands in four directions — backwards, forwards, inwards, and outwards. Thus the “cross of reality” is a mandala of the true human form — the fourfold human in William Blake’s terms

Rosenstock-Huessy's "cross of reality"

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

But, just as ego consciousness is capable of expanding to embrace all times and spaces backwards, forwards, inwards, and outwards, it is also subject to contraction and shrinkage, too. This contraction of consciousness we name “mean-spirited”, “narrow-minded” and “small-souled” or just the “point-of-view”. To be stuck on any one of these “arms” or axes of the cross of reality is ultimately a dead-end, and that is the situation of Nietzsche’s “Last Man” (or “Ultimate Man” in some translations). As Rosenstock put it, man’s freedom lies is his right to circulate through all four directions of reality. Indeed, even our responsibility to do so.

This mandala form reveals the pattern of the modern revolutions. Each revolution — the Lutheran, the English Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution — was an attempt to free one arm of the cross of reality and of the repressed human fourfold from the clutches of a reactionary despotism. Only taken together in their relationship do they form a pattern. Each succeeded and failed to the same degree because they specialised in only one aspect of the emancipation of the full fourfold human from the clutches of a decadent and reactionary past. They came to a dead end because they over-specialised, yet they all contributed to the making of what is called “the Modern Era”.

The principles behind each these revolutions can be interpreted in light of Jung’s “psychological types” — thinking, feeling, intuitive or sensate — of the fourfold human,

Jung's four psychological functionsThese same functions are often designated by such terms as “mind”, “body”, “soul”, and “spirit”, and each revolution of the modern age could be said to have been an overspecialisation of one at the expense of the others owing to an incomplete or insufficient comprehension of the human whole or essence, much as the ancient Greeks squabbled over what was the true “archon” or primal element — Earth, Air, Fire, or Water. (One might as well have argued over what was truer and more primary in the human — metabolic system, respiratory system, nervous system, or circulatory system).

Because these revolutions were only fragments of a whole, Rosenstock-Huessy felt that the series was incomplete, and that yet a “fifth” revolution was in the offing that would fulfill the unfulfilled promises of the earlier ones. This prospective “fifth” revolution (as I’ve discussed before) would congeal around the central theme of “health” — that is to say, the “whole”. This new constellation would correspond to “the integral” and, indeed, since Rosenstock-Huessy’s remarks on this in 1938, “holism” and “integralism” have become important principles of much contemporary thinking in terms of eco-dynamics, or as the dynamics of globalism.

Such a “fifth” revolution would close or “seal” the Modern Era and begin a new one (which is already being anticipated in various names — “New Age”, “Integral Era”, “Planetary Civilization”, “Empathic Civilization”, and so on). But it is also bringing with it a reactionary backlash from those who feel threatened in their identities, traditions, occupations, or social status. And sometimes this backlash is extreme in the form, say, of Anders Behring Breivik or al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who want to roll back the clock on the entire Modern Era itself. (Many people seem to fail to understand that Breivik and bin Laden were Siamese Twins having identical aims).

There is no question that human consciousness is presently undergoing a “mutation”, as Gebser anticipated some decades ago, and largely as a response to the emergence of the Planetary Era, and that the World Wars were the birth pangs of this new era-in-the-making. What the Lisbon Earthquake did for the Age of Faith, the Holocaust did for the Age of Reason. It forced a deep self-examination for those who dared it honestly.

If we collectively manage to survive our own follies and this present “transition” from old consciousness to new consciousness, the future for the planet is, I think, quite marvelous. But we have to develop the wisdom to know what to keep and what to cut away and cast off, that is to say, whatever does not serve the principle of health and well-being.

And I think if you now ask yourselves, what are the requirements for your own sense of well-being and learn to listen towards the answers, I think you may be quite surprised by those answers, and that what you merely thought you needed, is not what you really needed at all.



5 responses to “Nihilism and “The Last Man””

  1. James Luchte says :

    We are the Last Man.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I think if we want to be succinct (perhaps too succinct?), we can say that in the political constellation of Late Modernity, society is beginning to polarise around two banners — one banner is the familiar pyramid, the other is the mandala, and around these banners or symbols are congealing or precipitating the forces of reaction or the forces of revolution, respectively.

    If the mandala form is properly understood, then I think the victory of the “progressive” forces in time would be assured, for as Gebser insisted, a “new consciousness structure” (the integral) is capable of defeating an old consciousness structure that has become deficient (decadent). And this is where I think we are beginning to see some great changes — especially in the change from a three-dimensional to a four-dimensional cosmos (the switch from the cosmic number “3” to the cosmic number “4”).

    This shift from 3 to 4 (the higher gear, as it were) is the shift from the triangular/;pyramidal to the mandala form, and in those terms “3” is the number of reaction, “4” the number of revolution.

    (This is why I think Arthur Miller’s Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli is such a significant and important book — along with his book on Einstein and Picasso). Still, the “4” includes the “3” as part of its structure, of course. Hence Blake’s verse on the “fourfold vision” as including the twofold and threefold as well.

    When put in those terms, our situation at “the end of history” seems very simple to understand — a transition from “3” to “4”, and this is what Gebser would call the “irruption” of “the integral” or a “plus mutation” in consciousness. But it certainly has a lot of complex ramifications and implications.

  3. alex jay says :

    I’m not sure I have shared this before … however, it’s worth a read even if it’s just a refresher —

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    “Shrunken creatures” is a very correct psychic impression of a lot of people I meet these days.

    It also makes me think about what and who I am at any given moment and whether or not I am on the right track to what Jiddu Krishnamurti called “a deeply moral life.”

    Revolutionary and reactionary forms of nihilism, it seems to me, are mainly based on misguided emotions, thoughts, and intentions. So, confronting the nihilism of the Last Man must take place in these three realms: emotions, thoughts, and emotions.

    I’m not sure how accurate the personal philosophy I am developing is, but I call these three – emotions, thoughts, intentions – the shadows of man.

    We must confront The Last Man in the Shadows.

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