Ross is back — as a blogger, that is, after a well-deserved six-month hiatus. Riffing off of Peter’s lament that “our political debates will become indistinguishable from our health care debates,” becoming “permanently intertwined, going on and on, forever and ever, cable news without end,” Ross adds :

If I may borrow a theme from one of my recent columns , this is exactly what you’d expect politics to look like at the End of History: A permanent wrestling match over how best to divide up the spoils of progress, of which life-saving and life-extending treatments are the most valuable by far. It’s a testament to human achievement, obviously — science’s power over nature, capitalism’s triumphs over scarcity — that this kind of “who gets to live longest” wrestling match is even possible. But since the stakes are literally life and death, it stands to reason that the more power the government has to divvy up health care dollars, the more rancorous these debates will get.

If I may borrow an observation from one of my recent discussion sections, where I’ve taken a score of undergraduates on a brief tour of John Stuart Mill, this is exactly the sort of politics you’d expect if Mill, not the end of history, triumphed. In the column he references, Ross suggests
that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is — like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces, or a Nineveh without Yahweh to pass judgment on its crimes. Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility — as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.

Hence the penitent schlock of 2012 and associated entries in our great common collection of apocalypse porn. But consider that the frisson we get from our visions of ruin rubs, as it were, both ways: as a tremendous crunch of energy that sweeps away the torpor and stasis of our frictionless lifeworld, yes, but also as a vast release from the grinding pressure of the seemingly endless frictions that all the infinite coasting in the world can’t seem to eradicate. We sense a double fate that’s the worst of both worlds — all the grueling work and exhaustive detail of politics and policy today plus , from the perspective of the only partial sanctuaries we retreat into after hours, all the large-scale enervation and rootlessness of a culture without a telos. We take a look at, say, China — innocent in its exuberance, too busy living to care — and we sigh a very honest but only partially sincere sigh of jealousy. Michael Oakeshott’s ship of state, sailing on a course not even fated across an uncharted sea, turns out not to be a luxury cruise liner, no matter how hard we try to achieve the interactive zen of the Nation of Why Not . Someone has to pull those oars. Or shovel that coal. Or — alas! — refresh that gmail.

Mill, I think, knew this well enough. His project — like Tocqueville’s, though in a rather different way — was to preserve not just the possibility but the actuality of greatness in a time when we, whomever we are, are stuck with democracy. (Democracy, that is, meaning an inexorably self-consolidating and extending equality of conditions.) Both Mill and Tocqueville recognized that democracy altered the terms by which human greatness could be preserved, not just because democracy took away certain possibilities for greatness but because it affirmatively changed what it meant for a human being to be great. Yet where Tocqueville was wistful about the future of geniuses , certain that mores would soften and soften under democracy and worried that the springs of action would weaken along with them, Mill thought a certain kind of genius to be not only a rare type of greatness possible under democracy but one positively encouraged by it. Our crazy mixed-up world was to be loved in spite of its costs and consequences because it threw up, or threw off like sparks, a certain heretofore impossible kind of genius, one both encumbered and unencumbered by circumstances and his (or her) fellows like never before.

Nietzsche would describe this kind of genius and greatness as simply a matter of bearing, yet overcoming, all the ‘parasites’ of contemporary life — in this respect not too far off the mark from Mill. Yet Nietzsche recognized the way in which genius was the type of greatness most susceptible to democratization in a lowering, not elevating way. Mill seems to have missed this critical point completely. Nietzsche, prefiguring Freud, realized that theatrical genius — the ‘charisma’ of the actor — resonated with and reaffirmed the animating desires of democratic individuals in a way that led them toward a celebration of the release of energy that accompanied great increases and decreases of friction or tension itself. And since Nietzsche was a clever psychologist, he knew that our sensitivity to suffering was, no matter how much we devoted ourselves politically to the eradication of cruelty, relative: an ornate, sophisticated, subtle taste for experiencing the motion across the friction gradient — from rubbing ourselves and one another the wrong way to the right way and vice versa — would grow culturally prominent, probably dominant.

Now: while liberals like Tocqueville, Mill, Constant, and others feared above all that even hedonically active democratic indivduals would slip into torpor and a new barbarism by encouraging and accepting the rise of a despot, Nietzsche’s sinophobia (for all these theorists incessantly raised the specter of ‘oriental despotism’ in the face of our democratic future) extended to the fate awaiting the uncreative, bourgeois last man, but not to the democratic individual whose only faith was, as Rieff puts it in reference to Napoleon, “to his unrealized selves alone.” Where Mill and Tocqueville would look upon Napoleon as a death sentence for human greatness in democratic times — a recipe for frictionless, soft despotism — Nietzsche saw Napoleonic rule as the consequence and the cause of profound inner frictions, a clash of inner selves too psychically demanding and alluring to leave much time, energy, or interest for political participation.

The intertwining of our clashes over culture, politics, and science may go on indefinitely, but not without periodic resolutions or decisive victories and defeats. The fear that no side can win anymore, not even for a fleeting generation, is unwarranted. It is not so much fear as a guilty feeling attendant upon our hope that no side — including, of course, ours — will lose.

Articles by James Poulos

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