As I am riding in public transit, wading through a crowd to get on the elevators or watching a group of strangers get drunk at a pub I often find myself feeling deeply contemptuous and nauseated by what humanity has become. No particular act by any agent triggers this sense of contempt, rather it seems to arise when I encounter a group of strangers acting in some banal, coarse or ordinary way. Furthermore, this feeling is not unique to me, but rather seems to be an element of industrial and post-industrial life. Many people speak of the way in which humans have become a herd, or sheep. Furthermore, we can see in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Tocquevelle as well as the literature of Dostoevsky and Lawrence a sense in which modern civilization has dwarfed humanity. For example, in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover Connie states the following when she encounters life in contemporary England:
“Tevershall! That was Tevershall Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead,-but dead. Half-corpses all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an underworld. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted, smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah, God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness and now there can be no fellowship anymore! It is just a nightmare.” (Lawrence, 181-182)
The particular vitalist tact on diminishment that Lawrence takes is of no interest to me here, but what is important is the sense that we get from Connie that man has been diminished and dwarfed as industrial civilization has progressed. Lawrence’s writing reinforces the presence of the experience of a sense of diminishment of humanity as a significant element of industrial and post-industrial life.
It is easy to dismiss this sense of the diminishment of mankind as navel gazing nostalgia for a different age, but whether or not this sense of the diminishment of mankind represents a valid critique of modern civilization we find ourselves encountered by this feeling. Thus we need to understand where this sense of diminishment originates and what underlies it. I will argue that this sense of diminishment of humanity is brought upon both by a valid judgment that certain forms of greatness have been banished from the world as we have moved towards industrial, liberal democratic societies, and by the experience of humanity as a mass of strangers. Furthermore, I will argue that it seems that this sense of diminishment gives us a false impression of the value of humanity, because through engagement with particular others we discover that while perhaps certain virtues have been banished from the world of man, mankind still has admirable qualities worth cherishing.
On one hand the sense of the diminishment of mankind does represent a valid judgment and longing for previous forms of excellence, greatness or virtue. For example, the ethic of the warrior that was central to the feudal aristocracy has generally been purged from our society, as the more egalitarian social forms of industrial or post-industrial liberal democracy would be endangered by these traits. The ethic of the warrior which allows one to face death head on and use violence to punish any foes that stand in the way of oneself or one’s cause would surely make somebody a threat to public order, a deeply unsavory employee and a citizen who could not be worked with. Consequently, for those who are drawn to admire the greatness of the warrior ethic the inhabitants of industrial and post-industrial societies will be diminished because of their feminine passivity and inability to use their physical strength and capabilities to assert their status. Furthermore, other virtues have also been purged from our world to greater and lesser degrees including ascetic ways of life, Roman or Athenian forms of civic devotion, magnanimity, and aristocratic generosity. Those who are drawn to admire any of these virtues cannot help but see modern humanity as diminished because it lacks these qualities. Thus, it seems that at least part of the experience of the diminishment of mankind represents the valid judgment that an admirable and desirable virtue or quality has been purged from industrial society and because of that human beings have been reduced in their dignity.
Contrastingly, another source of our sense of the diminishment of mankind is the experience of human beings as a mass of strangers. A central facet of life in industrial and post-industrial society is we often find ourselves confronted by masses of strangers. For example, when we take public transit we often are surrounded by a mass of humans that we do not have any pre-existing relation with. This also occurs when we go to register our vehicles, go to buy groceries and do many other common things. In this experience of the mass of strangers we see the acts of these strangers, but from the outside. We do not see why this person is taking public transit and why they push in front of us, or passively let everyone ahead before they enter. Furthermore, when encountering the mass of strangers we tend to see people engaging in actions that are completely ordinary, banal or mundane. None of the actions that tend to occur in spaces where we encounter the mass seems to stand out as extraordinary, excellent or great. I cannot think of a time in which I have encountered the mass of strangers and have been impressed by the greatness of some act. Most of the acts that occur in this context are not bad, but they are completely ordinary and unimpressive. Consequently, because of the ordinariness of actions that occur when encountering the mass, and the fact that we have no access to the internal, possibly impressive, motivations of the others within the mass, the value of humanity is not revealed through encounters with this mass of strangers. Thus, this experience of humanity of a mass of strangers tends to give rise to a diminished image of mankind as we tend to witness only ordinary actions in this context, and we do not see the possibly praiseworthy motivations of individual agents for their ordinary actions.
The experience of the mass of strangers does us a disservice as it makes us think that human beings are far more diminished than they in fact are. As was noted above when we encounter the mass of strangers we see humanity in a context in which any of humanity’s redeeming qualities are not immediately visible. One context in which the valuable qualities of humanity become far more apparent is through our engagement with concrete others. Typically when we engage with particular others we are not nauseated by their minute stature and diminishment. Rather, as we develop a deeper understanding of the person through conversing with them and getting to know them their valuable qualities reveal themselves. Even if we never become friends with this other we still will typically begin to find certain qualities that we can admire with them whether it is their confidence, courage, generosity, sense of humour, sensitivity, compassion, determination or integrity. It is through these small ordinary human engagements and conversations that we realize that the sense of diminishment we feel towards humanity may be correct in noting that certain virtues are no longer possible, or prevalent, but that this sense of diminishment does not mean that human beings are now something to be looked on with contempt. Put slightly differently, these engagements reveal that the valuable qualities of currently existing humans and through so doing show that while certain values may seem lost, value has not been eradicated from humanity.
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 1st ed. New York: Chatham River Press, 1984. Print.