“The crowd,” observed the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” In every land, capable governance and personal success are finely nurtured by individuality. Today, the crowd-man or crowd-woman rules unopposed, supreme and unchallenged, in America.
There are accessible reasons. Our democracy now rests on the sovereignty of unqualified persons. A retrograde authority, these crowd-men and crowd-women have “slipped back,” in the words of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, “through the wings, and on to the age-old stage of civilization.”
This incremental and largely unnoticed “slippage” into the mass – a phenomenon also recognized by the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel – has tangible consequences. Most plainly, no country so fearful of independent thought, so fervidly torn between its deafening public proclamations of exceptionalism and the twisting estrangements of its people, can take itself seriously as a still-advancing civilization. Nor can it realistically aspire, at least without certain proper and prior reversals of personal growth, to restore a dignified grace upon itself.
Once upon a time in America, every barely-attentive adult could recite at least some Spenglerian theory of decline. Today, at a very different historical moment, at an acquiescent national juncture when the whole riddle of human destiny has been reduced to vulgar and degrading entertainments – when the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo have casually supplanted the Western Canon – virtually no one can recognize The Decline of the West.
Deeply frightened and repelled by the demanding expectations of genuine learning, we Americans proceed blindly, in stubbornly reassuring lockstep with entire legions of others who lack vision, and who, like us, are exhausted from the ascendant rhythms of personal forfeiture.
Now fully accustomed to surrender as persons, we eagerly devour our once enviable convictions, not from any genuine hunger for learning or virtue but from a viscerally crude and utterly basic instinct. This primal inclination is not comparable to any mythic or heroic human struggles for redemption. Rather, it can be likened to what animates the legendary worm in the fruit.
No society, even “exceptional” ones, can coexist with a “crowd” that masquerades as a democracy. Unless we should finally become willing to oppose the shrill mass, a living solvent of conformance and mediocrity, we Americans will continue to find too little air to breathe.
For now, confusing the statutory right to vote with a real democracy, we Americans shrivel helplessly into an ever more joyless and lonely crowd. Within this abjectly hapless “bundling” of souls, a term used by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, our citizens will seek further comfort and consolation, not in any worthwhile patterns of growth but in a shamelessly aggressive and deliriously common illiteracy.
Every mass society, we may learn insightfully from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, loves to chant in chorus. Unsurprisingly, “we the people” continue to seek a comforting resonance in banal slogans, raw commerce, and blatantly empty witticisms. Oddly enough, this always-boisterous search for an elusive happiness, amid convulsive shrieking and stark imitation, would be less perilous, if it did not proceed, at its very heart, from a bewildering ailment.
What is this malady? In other words, what is our true pathology?
At the most critical “illness” levels of national despair, politics and government have become pretty much beside the point.
In this battered land of clichéd wisdom, copycat violence, “knockout games,” and dreary profanity, there remains, at bottom, a recalcitrant and metastasizing sickness of the soul. Ironically, our national debility of personal surrender to multitudes lurks unhidden, most notably in its conspicuous hatreds of intellect, individualism, and learning.
“Alas,” observed T.S. Eliot, in a still-unheeded warning, “Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless.”
Incomprehensibly, at their very deepest pertinent levels politics and government remain extraneous to what is most important. America’s vast ocean of personal addictions, now much rougher and more threatening than any conceivable national programs for reform, is deep enough to drown entire libraries of uplifting music and sacred poetry.
In an earlier and foundational national history, both liberals and conservatives read Lucretius, Cicero, Grotius, Vattel, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and, later, Blackstone. Excluding the 18th-century English jurist, whose refined thoughts were to become the indisputable starting point of all American jurisprudence, Thomas Jefferson read them all.
I have been a university professor for more than 42 years. My students are much less interested in high thinking than in high net worth. Given an opportunity to earn impressive incomes without even continuing their formal education, an overwhelming majority would unhesitatingly grab at the offer.
How do I know this? I asked them.
In our later national history, some time shortly after the once-celebrated literary ascendancies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of true accomplishment earned high marks. Then, young people strove to rise “originally,” not by incessantly craving expensive and mostly unnecessary goods, but as confident proprietors of an exemplary American Self. Although Emerson and his fellow New England Transcendentalists taught that the flip side of high thinking must be “plain living,” our citizens typically seek private wealth above any other competing objectives.
With few exceptions, wealth is generally taken as our ultimate form of personal validation, as thoroughly incomparable evidence of “success.” Years ago, economist Adam Smith, now so often cited by “free market” advocates who don’t understand Smith’s 18th-century writings, concluded that wealth is most energetically sought not because of its intrinsic purchasing power but on account of its special capacity to elicit envy. Later, Emerson had expressed a similar idea, when he advised that “foolish reliance upon property” is the result of “a want of self-reliance.”
In the final analysis, the “warmth of the mass” promises each American crowd-citizen a concocted but still convenient defense against unbearable loneliness. Yet this seductive mass also defiles whatever is wondrous, gracious, and generous in this, or in any other society. Already anticipating this development, Charles Dickens observed, in 1842: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country [the U.S.], in the failure of its example to the earth.”
Dickens, of course, was spot on. We Americans have protected our political freedom from the most visible and insidious kinds of tyranny and oppression. For this, we deserve credit. At the same time, we have wittingly sacrificed our coequal obligation to become fulfilled persons. Openly deploring a life of any greater meaning and purpose than one of ritual accumulation, we shamelessly substitute reality shows for real literature, and, still more obsessively, confuse relentless social networking with happiness.
In our sorely blemished democracy, a system of governance driven by what “elite” political theorists have called the “iron law of oligarchy,” those individual Americans who would choose disciplined thought over “fitting-in” must accept “punishment.” Usually, this ironic sanction is delivered as some form of ostracism (social or professional), and also in some corollary forms of “aloneness.”
“The most radical division,” observed Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity…. those who make great demands on themselves…and those who demand nothing special of themselves…”
Our democracy is a masquerade, because its current foundations are built upon sand. Now it is high time for camouflage in the inert American mass to yield to being-challenged-in-the-world. In essence, only those individuals who would still dare to reject an insistently demeaning amusement society can offer America its most enduring hope.
Significantly, these rare souls can seldom be found anywhere in politics, universities, or corporate boardrooms. Such souls are to be found, to be sure, but we must learn precisely where to look.
The strength and courage of a needed inner-directedness can never lie in holding an advanced degree, or in engaging others in assorted contests or contrivances of language. Indispensable qualities of originality must be sought, instead, in the complementary powers of intellectual independence, social justice, and spontaneous empathy.
Adam Smith saw in capitalism not just an admirably rising productivity but also the required foundation for political liberty. He also understood that a system of “perfect liberty” – what we might presently call an ideal democracy – could never be based upon a smug and facile encouragement of needless consumption. The inexorable laws of the marketplace, he reasoned, demand a palpable disdain for vanity-driven buying. For Adam Smith, the main problem of dangerously orchestrated hyper-consumption was not economic or political but psychological.
It was a problem of unresisted absorption into the mass.
For Adam Smith, contrary to widespread misunderstandings of his complex thought, “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase that would later be used by sociologist Thorsten Veblen, must never be taken as evidence of economic or political progress. It follows that while the crowd call of American democracy may remain loud, crass, and even disturbingly persuasive, we the people must keep up the struggle against the suffocating mass, purposefully, and, above all, as authentic individuals.
Then we Americans could perhaps lay bare the essential ingredients of a democracy that offers more than the sum total of individual souls fleeing breathlessly from themselves. Then, finally, we could fashion a democracy that is far more than a demeaning and ultimately destructive masquerade.
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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