Tag Archives: democracy

Paradox as an Aid to the Discovery of Reality: Lefort on Tocqueville

Claude Lefort credits Tocqueville with an “astonishingly free speech,” which arises from his readiness to move behind the “circle of his theses” (35). Tocqueville is not afraid to “overturn his own affirmations,” and “gladly heads down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place.” His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to rendering a portrait of social reality as complex and dynamic. But as Lefort points out, the movement of Tocqueville’s thought verges precariously on self-contradiction. The well-known section in Democracy in America decrying the dangers posed by the tyranny of the majority in the United States is followed by a chapter dedicated to the legal profession, where the reader comes across the beliefs and habits that constrain and combat the drift toward the despotism of mass opinion. The profession of the law in the United States fosters admiration for competence and expertise and instills a “sense of permanency” that was formerly provided by the aristocratic hierarchy. The practice of trial by a jury of one’s peers diffuses and reinforces the belief in the rule of law, even among the “lowest classes,” so that the entire population becomes accustomed to thinking and deliberating on matters like a “judicial magistrate” (41). Thus, in contrast to the fear of the power of democracy to bring the citizen down to a lower level of thought and feeling, Tocqueville gives striking account of how American citizens raise themselves to a higher level of thinking by their judicial institutions.

A more striking example of how Tocqueville qualifies, complicates, and then reconciles with a previous assertion is found in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, where he at first describes the selfishness, short-sighted ambition, and venality of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie on the eve of the French Revolution, but then in a characteristic reversal, praises them for the virtues that they were able to demonstrate, and not in an insubstantial measure either. “The nobles, we learn, ‘retained even in the loss of their old power [to the monarchy], something of their ancestors’ pride, as opposed to servitude as to law.’” The clergy “has shone so brilliantly by its courage and its independence,” that Tocqueville asks if “there has ever been a clergy… more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time, more faith.” To the rising middle class Tocqueville ascribes a “spirit of independence,” and although the bourgeois was driven by vanity and eager to protect his newfound privileges, the “pseudo-aristocracy” he formed with his compatriots was able to produce some of the virtues of a “real aristocracy” (62).

Tocqueville’s method can be called realist, in that he is not concerned with championing any particular political or ideological outlook, but is instead devoted to doing justice to depicting the main features of an age that has arisen in the wake of unprecedented social and political upheavals and that is still caught up in the process of transformation. One could also call his approach “charitable,” in the sense that he strives to find something positive and admirable in developments which fill him with dismay and dread. It enacts perhaps the very sort of intellectual freedom that Tocqueville views as vitally necessary to check the power of mass opinion in a democratic age. One may have no choice but to accept democratic equality, but without intellectual freedom, democracy becomes deprived of its self-correcting mechanisms. Tocqueville’s method, with its attentiveness to paradox, moreover gives his work a novelistic quality, in which the idea of democracy, or aristocracy, emerges with the degree of concreteness and ambiguity that we would associate with a character in a nineteenth-century realist novel. But this ambiguity of course does not hinder knowledge, as it emerges from the nuanced analysis which he devotes to his themes. Democracy in America and Ancien Regime, which rely on the outlook and values of the vanquished aristocracy to give flesh to the democratic age, anticipate in striking ways the essayism of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his great unfinished novel about the collapse of the Habsburg Austria.

Text cited:

Claude Lefort, “Tocqueville: Democracy and the Art of Writing,” Writing: The Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words


He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Apocalypse of the Therapeutic: The Cabin in the Woods and the Death of Mimetic Desire

More fatal than the other six.

Deadlier than the other six.

Note: This is a draft of an article submitted to an essay collection focusing on the work of René Girard.

Readers of René Girard are familiar with his thesis that the primary source of conflict in the modern, secular world is rivalry, which is no longer constrained by the sacred hierarchies and sacrificial practices that defined the archaic community. For Girard, the danger posed by the escalation of rivalry and competition in modernity is the necessary and unavoidable consequence of the demystification of sacrificial violence. Although the Bible has succeeded in dispelling the essential illusion on which the efficacy of sacrifice depends, this moral breakthrough has at the same time deprived human beings of the beliefs and mechanisms that enabled them to control violence in times of crisis. The Judeo-Christian revelation has the effect of leaving the world more at the mercy of rivalry and antagonism than ever before. Whereas the hierarchy of class and networks of interlocking duties formerly restrained and moderated competition, whether by curtailing the material aspirations of the common people or by channeling ambition into otherworldly directions, modern society, by removing these social barriers, exacerbates feelings of envy and resentment as equality becomes the defining value.[1] Modernity, in drowning the ambitions of the nobility and the devotions of the religious in the icy water of equality and egotism, brings men to face the real conditions of their life and relations with each other, which for Girard means unconstrained antagonism.

The disappearance of sacrifice leaves only “mimetic rivalry,” which is prone to “escalate to extremes.”[2] According to Girard, the breakdown of the sacrificial illusion leaves modern societies hovering on the brink of apocalyptic calamity, in which the outbreak of mimetic conflict can easily escalate into the effort to annihilate entire peoples. Human beings are thus left with a stark dilemma, in which they must choose between becoming “reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries” and resigning “themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity.”[3] Although he framed this either-or during the penultimate decade of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the globe, Girard has continued to insist on the relevance of this formula for the crises of the present – the war on terror, ecological destruction, and economic meltdown – on the basis that they remain subject to the possibility of apocalyptic escalation. Yet in his recent books, Girard’s remarks imply that a different interplay of forces might be at work in contemporary consumer society and that his model of mimetic conflict may require some rethinking in light of present-day realities. In one dialogue, he admits that it might be the case that “contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire,” a development which he had earlier regarded as unthinkable: “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings.”[4] Similarly, in his discussion of anorexia, Girard observes that “our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us.” It is thus “no wonder” that “many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps of a peculiar type of boredom.”[5]

What happens when one loses the willingness or the capacity to copy the desire of the other? The only alternative to mimetic desire that Girard offers in any detail is its overcoming: the spiritual liberation in which one renounces rivalry and gives up the fantasy of one’s exceptional status in a manner that evokes and encompasses the Christian experience of conversion. Can the loss of desire, and the impulse to drop out of an increasingly ferocious competition for status be grasped within Girard’s paradigm of mimetic rivalry, or does it call for fundamental revisions to his theory of imitative desire? Indeed, other theorists such as John Gray and Jean Baudrillard take as their point of departure the dilution and enervation of desire in a society characterized by unprecedented affluence and the dissolution of taboos and prohibitions. In taking up the question of what causes these mechanisms of mimetic desire to unravel in the absence of a spiritual revelation, and how a narrative portraying such a collapse might lead us to reconsider or revise Girard’s theory of violence, I will examine a recent metafictional work of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods, as well as the work of Gray, Baudrillard, Pierre Manent, and Philip Rieff. These thinkers focus on the kind of nihilism which Girard, I will argue, underestimates.

The dissolution of mimetic desire that takes place without reference to a spiritual conversion is likely to be a tale of horror, as it points to a psychic condition where there is neither hope nor anything one desires. Yet one of the chief emotions evoked by horror cinema has been the intense desire to live. Carol Clover observes that the “final girl,” the courageous and intelligent female who alone among her friends escapes death at the hands of the serial killer or monster, demonstrates an “astonishing will to survive” in withstanding brutal tortures, repeated reversals of fortune, and severe injuries to escape her assailant and even to defeat him.[6] But recent horror narratives feature endings where no one is spared a violent death, including children and infants, or depict evils that are so overwhelming as to drive characters to suicide. In The Mist (2007), which deliberately evokes monster movies from the more optimistic decades of the American century, a father shoots his own young son to prevent him from being killed by the grotesque creatures that have entered the earth from another dimension. In the comic The Walking Dead (2003-present), the climax to one of its major story arcs breaks a taboo of mainstream entertainment by depicting, in a panel that takes up the entire page, the killing of the hero’s wife and infant daughter. It is an ending that Gerry Canavan describes as the “moment” when “the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut” and “all hope is lost” in the series.[7] Such depictions of suicidal despair are not limited to comics and popular films, nor is the despair merely suicidal – in the art film Melancholia (2011), written and directed by Lars von Trier, the depressive heroine curses all life as “evil” and welcomes the impending destruction of the earth in a collision with another planet.

We could account for the fascination with such unrelievedly bleak narratives in terms of the demand for novelty, since nothing ages more rapidly in modern mass culture than spectacles of violence and transgression, and so even more shocking images must be contrived in order to arouse the interest of the viewer. But these representations of crushing hopelessness and despair evoke the finality of extinction itself, a turn which also indicates the exhaustion of novelty itself. But is it possible to grasp this fixation with extinction and annihilation, an event which is impossible to integrate into any psychic framework or symbolic system, as yet another instance of the escalation of mimetic desire that for Girard defines the modern, post-sacrificial age? Can the “traumatic reality of extinction,” which in Ray Brassier’s view not only erases the future but also voids the past of any meaning, become a proper object of mimetic rivalry?[8] Or could it be that sacrificial murder does not constitute the most foundational form of violence after all, and that there is a violence that is more anterior and thus more foundational still, one which would generate the desire for annihilation itself?

Maybe it gets worse when man finally becomes man to man.

Maybe it gets worse when man is no longer wolf to man.

One of the most promising narratives with which to unravel these questions is the recent horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by him and Joss Whedon (2012). As a work of metafiction, the film operates as a playful, self-reflexive satire when it is not offering up scenes of carnage, but its resolution has special relevance for Girard’s theory. For The Cabin in the Woods culminates in the failure, with apocalyptic consequences, of a sacrificial ritual. Moreover, this apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humankind, results from a decision that, within the moral universe of the film, appears wholly justified and legitimate. The film opens with the clichéd premise of five undergraduates traveling to a remote and isolated house in the country for a weekend of partying. Each of the students evokes a distinct social type, corresponding in turn to the archetypes from whom the sacrificial victims must be drawn: the athlete, the prostitute, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. The five friends inadvertently summon demonic creatures that attack them in the order one expects in a horror film. But the film also reveals that these creatures are being controlled by a group of technicians working in an underground bunker beneath the cabin of the title. The technicians belong to the American branch of an organization charged with arranging the slaughter of the young as part of an ancient ritual to appease the dark gods that slumber deep beneath the earth. If these “ancient ones” are not satisfied by the bloodshed, they will rise up and destroy all human life on the planet.

The Cabin in the Woods alternates between two storylines. In the cabin and the surrounding environs unfolds a familiar horror scenario, in which the students, in the course of drinking and playing truth-or-dare, come to explore a hidden basement. Descending into the dark and sinister cellar, they come across strange artifacts, which exert an irresistible fascination on the group. By handling these items, the friends cause undead ghouls to emerge from the depths to murder them. In the underground complex, on the other hand, the managers and scientists meticulously orchestrate the events above-ground. They monitor the vital signs of their victims, use chemicals to tamper with their hormonal levels, alter the temperature in different sections of the forest, and prevent escape by blowing up a tunnel. The entire operation takes place in a high tech bunker that calls to mind NASA or perhaps more properly NORAD, given that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet the banter between the two chief administrators is made up mostly of ribald jokes and risqué observations about their co-workers as well as the five doomed youth. They run a betting pool in which the various departments (engineering, maintenance, accounting, R&D, bio med, digital analysis, security, electrical, psychology, etc.) make wagers over which murderous creature will be chosen by the five victims as their executioner.

Both storylines are defined primarily by their comic elements. In the case of the five friends who are to be offered up to the dark gods, the humor arises mostly from the disparity between them and the roles they are forced to play as part of the sacrificial ritual. Jules, the woman who is given the role of the whore in the rite, is in fact a studious pre-med major, and so the organization resorts to adulterating her hair dye to reduce her intelligence and weaken her inhibitions. She shocks her friends with her wantonness when, during a game of truth-or-dare, she plays at kissing the head of a wolf mounted on the wall. She becomes so swept up by her role that her tongue makes contact with that of the decapitated trophy. Later, when she sways erotically to a song with sexually wanton lyrics, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of the virgin, Dana, and the scholar, Holden, gaping in shock and embarrassment. The athlete Curt makes crude remarks about Jules’ sexual desirability and then rubs into Marty’s face the fact that he and not the latter will be having sex with her. Marty, who as the fool is the only male in the group without a female counterpart, is not insulted but puzzled by Curt’s bluster, which he finds uncharacteristic of him. When Dana expresses skepticism toward Marty regarding his suspicions that they are being observed and influenced by shadowy forces, he reminds her that Curt is a serious student who is receiving a full academic scholarship. While Dana and Holden for the most part do not conflict with the roles assigned to them, Marty perhaps fits too well the role of jester for the purposes of the ceremony. Although his head is in a cloud of marijuana smoke for the first half of the film, he is the only one of the five to suspect that something is gravely awry. Indeed, Marty’s behavior proves disruptive and unpredictable to those in the control room, and his words and actions on several occasions threaten to ruin the ritual altogether.

"Your human needs disgust me."

“Your human needs disgust me.”

While the scenes focusing on the young victims usually involve an irony that is not always humorous, the scenes in the control room play out as a black comedy in which the lewd and coarse repartee of an upstart tech firm or too-big-to-fail investment bank is transposed into an institution charged with performing human sacrifice. Making bets on how the victims will be butchered and eager to watch the woman assigned the role of the whore engage in sexual foreplay, the personnel working for the organization in Cabin in the Woods fail for the most part to display the solemnity and reverence one would expect from murderous cults that commit atrocities to placate dark gods. Instead, we are presented with a series of humorous episodes in which the chief administrators, Sitterson and Hadley, make crude remarks laced with sexual innuendo, gyrate their hips to the music played by their victims, and otherwise display an arrogance that would be insufferable if the nature of their work were not straightforwardly horrifying. Only two employees demonstrate a degree of seriousness about the operation. Mordecai, the grim and repulsive old man whose job is to give the young victims fair warning about the sinister history of the cabin – is turned into the butt of a joke when he calls the control room to confide to Hadley his worries that the ritual could turn out badly. Daniel Truman, who is the new head of security, is secretly horrified by the proceedings and keeps to himself, refusing to take part in the betting pool or to celebrate with the others when it appears that the sacrifices have been succeeded in propitiating the evil gods.

At the premature celebration of their success, the lower-rung employees complain about not receiving overtime and make pathetic romantic overtures to each other, while the video screen above them shows Dana being thrashed by a ghoul. It is thus with elation and delight that the viewer takes in the destruction of the complex and the slaughter of its personnel, after Dana and Marty, who also survives the attack of the undead, release all the monsters from the menagerie. What follows is a spectacular encyclopedic montage of post-1970s horror film, as demonic creatures and fantastic beasts set about massacring the employees. Swarming into the complex, the monsters voraciously dismember, devour, impale, stab, strangle, and set fire to panic-stricken scientists in lab coats and managers in button-down shirts. A wraith pulls a guard’s soul from his body, while goblins tear apart their victim and throw half of the bisected corpse against the camera. Zombies feast on mutilated scraps, while a ballerina whose face is made up of fangs pirouettes through the carnage. The sadomasochistic demon from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser tortures an employee hanging upside down from the ceiling, and the face-hugger from Alien leaps onto the shoulders of its prey to implant its lethal egg. The film cuts between direct shots of the carnage and images of the massacre shown on multiple video screens used by the security system, lending a documentary immediacy to the massacre of the organization’s personnel.

In unleashing the monsters on the organization charged with sacrificing them and their friends, Dana and Marty cause the ancient gods to reawaken. An encounter with the director of the organization, played in a cameo by Sigourney Weaver, almost convinces Dana to kill her friend Marty for the sake of saving humankind. In a nod to Carol Clover’s ground-breaking study of horror films, the ritual stipulates that all the designated victims must perish except the virgin, who herself need not die but only suffer. The timely intervention of a werewolf prevents Dana from firing the gun she has aimed at her friend. In the final moments of the film, the two friends, bruised and soaked in blood, reconcile and huddle together to share a joint while the complex collapses around them. The final image of the film is of a giant hand rising from the depths to smash the cabin.

The two groups portrayed in the film – the attractive victims slaughtered above and the leering workers below – are not enmeshed in mimetic rivalry with each other, but it is nevertheless the case that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. It is properly inconceivable for the members of the organization to place themselves in the role of the sacrificial victim, just as Dana and Marty are stunned by their discovery of the organization seeking to offer them up to vicious gods. Although Dana aims her pistol at Marty when informed that the salvation of the world depends on his death, she hesitates because she cannot quite assume the subjective position of the director who urges her to murder her friend. The film accordingly does not stage the “destruction of differences” or allude to the threat of reciprocal violence, both of which for Girard serve as key conditions for the recourse by the strife-wracked community to sacrificial violence.[9] Instead, the characters are too weighed down by their own perspectives to be swept up into the orbit of envy, imitation, and disavowal that enables one first to identify with the object of sacrifice, then dismiss the doomed other to his fate, and finally reap the fruits of sacrifice. The inability to respond imaginatively to the other, even if the ultimate purpose is to ensure his or her murder, appears to sap the qualities needed to bring the brutal and pitiless ceremony to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the brief moment when Hadley expresses his awe and admiration for the pluck and resolve shown by Dana to keep fighting even in the face of impossible odds comes to an abrupt end when he is distracted by the arrival of his subordinates bearing liquor to celebrate the completion of the ritual. Similarly, the one occasion on which Sitterson behaves with solemnity is when he mutters an anxious and fearful prayer of supplication to the ancient ones just after the zombie family has butchered the unfortunate Jules, their first victim.

These latter scenes reveal that the ceremony of sacrifice has degenerated into a sterile, utilitarian exercise. It has become, in the absence of reciprocity, a vacuous, contractual operation which is destined sooner rather than later to run off the rails. The element of reciprocity for Girard both exacerbates rivalry and hastens the recourse of the community to finding a scapegoat in order to prevent conflicts from escalating  into the war of all against all, the ultimate expression of reciprocal violence. The absence of reciprocity in the film, by contrast, has the effect of depriving the organization of perhaps the only effective countermeasure to the possible uncovering by the young victims of the apparatus behind their suffering and death. If a member of the organization were selected to be slain as part of the ritual, perhaps by fulfilling the archetypal role of the adult who makes a courageous but futile effort to save the young victims, then perhaps the director might have succeeded in persuading Dana to save humankind by appealing to her sense of guilt. On the other hand, the neglect of the organization of the advantage of participating in the sacrificial ritual as victims alongside the doomed youth conceals a form of violence that, though notably lacking in mimetic character, sets in motion an outcome perhaps no less destructive than unchecked mimetic rivalry.

The new head of security is in no mood to party.

Only the new head of security is in no mood to party.

For the belief of the technicians in efficiency is far stronger than their awe of the sacred or their fear of annihilation. They are willing to have others die for their sake, but they are unwilling to do everything in their power to prevent the worst of all evils. Indeed, it never occurs to them that there might come a time for them to do everything in their power, because to this point at least one of the rituals, which play out in multiple locations across the globe, including Stockholm, Rangoon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, has always managed to succeed. The ugly reaction of the administrators to the shock of learning that the Japanese team, which had hitherto a perfect record of success, is so unabashed as to be comical: Sitterson leans over the video monitor, screaming out obscenities at a group of intrepid elementary school-age girls holding hands in celebration after having defeated a demonic spirit: “The Japan group should have had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?” The technicians in The Cabin in the Woods thus exemplify the subjective position in which one is willing to have others suffer and die for the sake of one’s own comfort and well-being but is unwilling to put at risk one’s own life and well-being, even for the sake of defending one’s self. They only come around to fighting for their lives when it is too late and the instruments by which they secure their safety and well-being – or the entities they have instrumentalized for this purpose, turn against them. Such a disposition is not the consequence of mimetic desire running rampant or of its magnification in the competitive capitalist market, but rather of the death of desire, in which the will and attention required for purposeful action are dissipated in advance by the constant need to keep one’s eyes from glancing at an obscure verdict against oneself.

According to John Gray, what endangers desire is the immense affluence achieved by the industrialized world. The high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy that has spread across the globe since the late 1990s is distinguished by the fact that it depends not on “stimulating demand,” but instead on “inventing new vices.”[10] The most characteristic products of an economy “driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty,” which requires the “manufacture” of ever more “exotic needs,” are S&M clubs and drugs like Viagra and Ecstasy. But we would be wrong, argues Gray, to understand the ceaseless production of transgression as the consequence of the cheerful and insouciant pursuit of hedonism. Rather, “designer drugs and designer sex” are not “just aids to pleasure” but more importantly function as “prophylactics against the loss of desire.” Provocation and transgression, and their constant escalation, have become economic necessities in a race to forestall the satiety that would cause the economy to unravel. Yet the constant exposure to formerly forbidden spectacles and experiences cannot stave off the uneasy thought that such a way of life cannot have a healthy and peaceful future ahead of it: “The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.”[11]

This secret suspicion, and the directionless anxiety it arouses, is what supplies most of the humor in the sequences set in the underground facility, as we come to realize, with a touch of uneasy identification, that Sitterson and Hadley have been unknowingly laughing at their own violent deaths. But the virulent effects of this festering doubt do not spare their intended victims either. Marty, in one of his marijuana-induced soliloquies, gives voice, on the level of everyday wise-cracking, to the sentiment that the social and economic order is undeserving of continued existence: “Society needs to crumble, [but] we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.” Indeed, it is the decision of Dana and Marty to doom the world that make evident the peculiar psychic deadlock created by this verdict. For although their treatment at the hands of the organization is clearly outrageous and unjust, the two friends do make a choice that goes against the good of all. Yet, the film depicts their refusal to sacrifice themselves as the logical and natural response to a social order that needs to commit inhuman violence for it to continue. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice have become accordingly inconceivable where the only choices are to betray one’s friends or die as a dupe for gloating jackasses. On the other hand, even if one accepts that the decision they reach is an unavoidable one, it is hard to suppress the thought that the two friends arrive at it with inordinate haste. Dana and Marty, in subjecting the world to a cruel demise, are not constrained by the hope that there might be some uncorrupted quarters of human life – for example, the principle that children are innocent of adult vices and should not be punished for the wrongdoings of their elders does not factor at all in their deliberations.

In The Cabin in the Woods, it appears that humankind is annihilated in a fit of thoughtlessness, which evaporates all doubts as well as their not inconsiderable benefits, by protagonists who have come to the realization that there is nothing enviable about their own existence. The ending of the narrative thus poses a fundamental challenge to Girard and his theory of violence. For Girard, what is to be feared most in the demystified, modern age are manifestations of what Nietzsche called active nihilism, exemplified by mass ideological movements that embark on cataclysmic, self-defeating attempts to restore the practice of sacrifice. The collapse of Soviet communism has not caused the threat of planetary conflict to diminish by any appreciable degree. Rather, Girard characterizes the era of globalization as one in which “mimetism has gained ground since 1945 and is taking over the world,” with radical Islam as the most conspicuous form of “violent imitation” that has become the “rule today.”[12] The denial of sacrifice in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, implies that the dangers of passive nihilism, having to do with the weariness and decline of the powers of the spirit, should not be underestimated. Indeed, passive nihilism, the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings, has become more widespread than the more vigorous and energetic varieties of nihilism in those parts of the world pacified by globalization.

In contrast to the heated and passionate violence borne of rivalry, Baudrillard argues that the violence endemic to the global system of interconnected markets and interdependent economies derives from the impulse to prohibit violence. The global system, spearheaded by the West, seeks to impose a society “in which conflict is virtually banned and death forbidden.”[13] It aims at establishing a monopoly that would subject all cultures to an “unforgiving law of equivalence.” But such an undertaking to proscribe violence is self-defeating and doomed to end in catastrophe, not so much because it stokes mimetic passions and harnesses them to a project of domination, but rather because the global system seeks to universalize itself at the very historical moment when the ideas and values that constitute and legitimate this universality – “human rights, democracy, and freedom” – have become drained of substance.[14] The neglect of “symbolic equilibrium” means that, like the hapless individuals running the sacrificial organization in Cabin, we can no longer properly conceive of being placed in a situation of “having to do everything in our power,” even if it looms right before our eyes. Far from being a sign of our freedom or a proof of our moral progress, Baudrillard likens our exemption from sacrifice to the condition of slavery, in which we have been stripped of the right to give a part of ourselves back to the “technical system of generalized exchange and general gratification.”[15] The deeper source of violence in the global system lies in the fact that globalization is a project advanced by a “culture that has lost its values” and “can only take its revenge on the values of others.”[16] Operating under the horizon of consensus, the global system cannot conceive of the other as anything other than a criminal, and its understanding of itself as “obvious Good” means that, unlike traditional empires, it cannot even conceive of the long-term advantages or strategic prudence of allowing the enemy a right to his otherness.[17] The other, has become an entity whose difference is a temporary aberration and who is fated to share the same pleasures and to submit to the same appetites as oneself.

The destruction of values does not require the exercise of deadly force to proceed, and it can also be carried out by people who have no idea of what they are doing and who possess no awareness of the impact of their actions. Baudrillard’s account of global violence goes a long way toward explaining why Marty and Dana, though lacking malevolent or vengeful intentions, nevertheless act with a hubris that is invisible to them. For the judgment whereby they condemn the world rests on the certainty that the emptiness of their lives, as well as those of their persecutors, is the ultimate destination of modernity. Although they are quick to recognize the global system as destructive and sterile, they nevertheless cannot help giving their assent to its values in their conviction that the deprived will become just as depraved and as undeserving of life as the wealthy should they themselves ever attain wealth and status. They are, in effect, the products of a culture that, in the words of Meic Pearse, has “excommunicated all cultures” but their own, as well as their own “past.”[18] Dana and Marty might chafe at having to be attired in the mantle of the virgin and the motley of the fool for the purposes of the ceremony, but they fail to realize that these costumes are draped over the nakedness of a still more radical commission, that of the mediator, which confers on them the imperial prerogative not to envy or copy the beliefs and dispositions of the other. Accordingly, they find it natural to suppose, or to cling to the conviction, that they have circumnavigated all human desires and found them empty. This belief, to be sure, has nothing to do with arrogance in any conventional sense, because it presumes that human beings are incapable of resisting or rising above their appetites. In other words, it considers its foundations base enough and lowly enough to nullify any accusations of elitism or oppression.

Such an attitude is in essence totalitarian, as it issues from an act of closure toward vital and enduring human realities. It denies that human beings are capable of dedicating themselves to ends and objectives that transcend self-interest. For although Dana and Marty make uneasy references to the need for “a change” and to give “someone else a chance,” the film makes clear that the other for them can be nothing other than demonic. Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, the totalitarianism of the present, which, in accordance with what Philip Rieff calls the therapeutic, is based on the eradication of all “renunciatory modes” and “creedal constraints.”[19] It does not impose moral demands on the people for the sake of creating a new society or incite them to persecute targeted minority groups or mobilize them for war. Instead, it is a totalitarianism of the individual, centered on his desires as well as his feelings of powerlessness, which operates through a volatile and contradictory pair of injunctions. On the one hand, the individual is told that it is hopeless to struggle against his weaknesses and appetites. To be human is to submit to nature. No one can sincerely believe that one can have too much money, or that anyone would forgo the sexual opportunities that come with an improved social status. On the other hand, he is also told that, in addition to being equal to others in his submission to nature, the only thing that stands in the way of his efforts to raise his status is an unjust status quo. To be an individual is to be free of the bounds of nature, since nature is merely a social construction that can be reshaped and re-engineered to alleviate one’s resentments and grievances.

These contradictory injunctions comprise the divided and ambivalent heart of a totalitarianism that operates by means of inflated pride and low moral expectations, yet this very deadlock serves as the fuel for a staggeringly prosperous economy. But as Stephen L. Gardner points out, such an economy requires a “vast amplification” of personal and public debt to keep the resentments and grievances of individuals from boiling over and destroying society.[20] The capitalist market succeeds in transforming “envy, jealousy, resentment, rage,” and the other forces that endanger human societies into sources of profit, but it cannot escape periodic crises created by imbalances of appetite and the flagging of desire, or, more disastrously, by the onset of self-hatred when the population becomes poisoned with disgust at the spectacle into which it has made itself. [21] The strategy that capitalism adopts toward the debts it accumulates and the social crises it sets in motion can only be one of postponement, but the longer it puts off the day of reckoning, the more devastating this reckoning will be when it finally arrives.[22]

In The Cabin in the Woods, this strategy of postponement is shown arriving at its inglorious demise. Desire can no longer be sustained, in spite of the brutal fates to which the adults are willing to abandon their children. Like other varieties of the katechon, institutions which employ measured doses of force and fraud to stem the tide of chaos that would otherwise sweep away the possibility of commodious living, the capitalist market serves to distract human beings from the dark truths regarding their conditions of life, postponing in effect their confrontation with the violent foundations of social existence. Girard frames the exposure of this elemental violence as an apocalyptic encounter: the individual, upon being confronted with the violence that founds the community – and continues to contribute to its well-being – may shrink from the implications of this disclosure and double down on his or her defense of sacrificial practices, a path which Girard on numerous occasions emphasizes will lead to global destruction.[23] The other choice at this moment of cataclysmic danger is to renounce violence in manner that Girard associates with the Gospels. The endings of such films as The Cabin in the Woods and Melancholia imply that Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred.

It is difficult to imagine that this third response would not be far more common than the other two, as it belongs to those who have become convinced of the pointlessness of all communal purposes and who lack the will and inclination to commit themselves to a spiritual discipline.[24] In other words, it is the response proper to passive nihilism. After being deprived of the distractions afforded by an expanding capitalist market, such individuals are henceforth delivered over insignificant and helpless to an evil that strikes them as pervasive and omnipotent. They cannot find a way to integrate this knowledge into a historical narrative, whether Hegelian or realist, or a spiritual framework, such as the Augustinian doctrine of the fallenness of humanity. They are thus plunged into guilt at having been the beneficiary of cruelties and injustices while being unable to take consolation from the virtues and struggles of the past. Thus, far from imagining that they can take meaningful action on behalf of victims undergoing persecution and oppression, they appease at most their guilt by consenting to piecemeal measures that are likely to worsen strife and escalate conflicts but do not at the outset appear to erode their standard of living. The revelation, moreover, that domination is the way of humankind leads them not to renounce domination altogether but to maximize the petty dominations, sexual or economic, that they believe will never rise to the level of a communal or political purpose. Such individuals end up doing what the founding myths sought to prevent men and women from doing, which, in the words of Manent, is to “stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.”[25]

This “stumbling” may take men and women back to the cruelty of their origins, but for all the turmoil and despair it stirs up in them, it does not serve to deepen their sense of historical identity. They are not led for the most part to wonder about how previous generations might have dealt with such knowledge, and why it would not have triggered in them the same response of overpowering horror. The monsters of the contemporary imagination cause them to revert directly to cannibalism without experiencing an interval of mere barbarism. The horror they evoke reflects our collective decision to feed on ourselves. For the immobilization of perspective is a consequence of the pact that the totalitarian individualist has made with himself or herself to salvage his or her pride from humiliation, which Gardner calls the “definingly democratic passion,” the “sense of nothingness experienced in self-comparison to others.”[26] It is to defend his or her pride as the final redoubt of a brittle and precarious identity, rather than to embrace a spiritual discipline based on compassion for the other, that the therapeutic individual heeds the Girardian commandment not to copy the desires of the other.

[1] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 137.

[2] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 198.

[3] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 136.

[4] René Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 251.

[5] René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, trans. Mark Anspach (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), p. 36.

[6] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 36.

[7] Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative,” Extrapolation 51.3 (Fall 2010): 444.

[8] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 239.

[9] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 127.

[10] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 163.

[11] Ibid., p. 160.

[12] René Girard, Battling to the End, pp. 42, 13.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (Verso: London, 2003), p. 98.

[14] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[15] Ibid., pp. 102-103.

[16] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[17] Ibid., p. 100.

[18] Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 51.

[19] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 15.

[20] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy, ed. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 95.

[21] Ibid., p. 109.

[22] Ibid., p. 95.

[23] See for example Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 180 and 251, Battling to the End, p. 103, Evolution and Conversion, p. 237.

[24] Stephen L. Gardner, “The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man,” in Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 232-233.

[25] Pierre Manent, “La leçon de Ténèbres de René Girard,” Commentaire 5.19 (Autumn 1982): 462. Translation mine.

[26] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt,” p. 96.

Tocqueville and the Either-Or of World-Creation

Time flies when you’re constructing a new universe.

In one of the most interesting passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out the hard distinctions between aristocracy and democracy.  In considering what separates the old order from the new, he sounds a bit like an author setting out to create a science-fiction universe, or least as a philosopher giving advice to a fiction writer about the creating coherent and credible alternate universes.  Here is the section in which Tocqueville describes the defining traits of aristocratic societies:

“What are you requiring of society and its government?  One must be clear about that.  Do you wish to raise the human mind to a certain lofty and generous manner of viewing things of this world?  Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions?  Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion?  Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom? Do you crave poetry, reputation, glory?

Are you intending to organize a nation so that it will exercise strength of purpose over all others?  Are you giving it the aim of undertaking mighty projects and leaving an impressive mark upon history, however its efforts may turn out?

If, in your estimation, that should be the main objective of government, do not choose a democratic government because it would not steer you to that goal with any certainty” (286).

As for democracy, its merits and limitations are of an almost entirely different order:

“But, if it seems useful to you to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity upon the necessities of physical life and to use it to foster prosperity; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if you aim to create not heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vice rather than crime and to find fewer splendid deeds provided you have fewer transgressions; if, instead of moving through a brilliant society, you are satisfied to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, in your view, the main objective for a government is not to give the whole nation as much strength or glory as possible but to obtain for each of the individuals who make it up as much well-being as possible, while avoiding as much suffering as one can, then make social conditions equal and set up a democratic government” (286-287).

These passages are indicative of what I consider to be Tocqueville’s realism, in which he not only reflects on the respective advantages of the two forms of society, but also specifies their respective shortcomings and how these deficiencies are at the same time bound to what he finds meritorious in each system.  Aristocracy is by far the more extreme arrangement: tremendous injustices side-by-side with glittering achievements, in which intense devotion, unconditional commitment, and deep piety are balanced out, as it were, by debauchery and transgression.  Democracy, on the other hand, seeks to look after the good of the many, which yields a milder and more relaxed society, where virtue can be joined to happiness through good habits and reasonable and moderate aspirations.  Tocqueville is clear about the trade-off involved in building a society in which the majority can enjoy well-being and prosperity: democratic culture will be far less brilliant and much more materialistic than those produced by aristocracies.  The fact that aristocrats are prone to dissipation and excess also make them capable of demonstrating a “haughty scorn” for material comforts and therefore of displaying “unusual powers of endurance when ultimately deprived of them” (616).

For Tocqueville, what matters most in an aristocracy is a “lofty idea” of man it raises up for itself.  It is not any artist or general but Blaise Pascal, demystifier of the superiority of the nobility by asserting its basis on convention, who for Tocqueville exemplifies the highest fulfillment of the aristocratic drive for splendor and greatness.  Democratic societies, on the other hand, exist within a materialistic horizon, in which lofty ambitions and tyrannical injustices alike have become alien.  In a sense, Tocqueville is saying that if one lives in a democracy, one cannot hope for more than a wide distribution of well-being.  One must make peace with the reality that great and outstanding works of human genius, like the political revolutions that produce democracies, will become rare.

The value of Tocqueville’s thought for contemporary politics consists in how it may shake us free of the currently accepted constellation of designations and values that structure the oppositions between left and right, Republican and Democrat.  Perhaps environmentalism, which seeks, if not to “inspire scorn” for consumer goods, at least attempts to make us more open to the idea of living with less, contains a strong aristocratic dimension, which is not surprising if we consider that it is generally the well-off who espouse environmentalism as a kind of lifestyle choice.  Perhaps it makes more sense to view socialism, which entails imposing limitations on the aspirations of those seeking to increase their wealth, in certain vital respects being much closer to aristocracy than to democracy.  Democracy itself is hostile to the principle of authority as such, with the consequence that democratic peoples, by their nature, cannot allow “any innovator to gain and exercise great power over the mind” (745).  Whereas it is authority that allowed for the abuses of the aristocracy, its erosion under democracy is what, Tocqueville predicts, will serve to immobilize political life in democracy.  It is hard not to regard Tocqueville as a prophet when surveying the current political landscape:

“It is generally believed that new societies will change shape day by day but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same customs, with the result that the human race may stop moving forward and grind to a halt, that the mind of man may forever swing backwards and forwards without fostering new ideas, that man will wear himself out in lonely, futile triviality and that humanity will cease to progress despite its ceaseless motion” (750).

Text cited:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Religion and the Conservation of Historical Otherness

What is religion in the postmodern world?  Religion has been widely regarded as a source of oppressive authority, a body of outmoded superstitions that constrain the capacity of individuals to utilize their freedom and thrive in a liberal, pluralistic society.  This view has been moderated in recent years, as a number of secular thinkers have credited religion as being the source of the moral values that are indispensable for the stability and well-being of liberal democracy, such as the golden rule or compassion for the poor.  But I find that the predominant approach to religion taken by secular intellectuals is one of attempting to domesticate and rein in an unruly and potentially destructive force.  The most urgent question for them is how to make faith, as it were, housebroken – i.e. how to harness its altruistic and humanitarian impulses for socially beneficent ends while curbing its powers elsewhere, so that it would not seek to impose constraints on individual liberty or otherwise stifle the ceaseless pursuit of novelty in consumer society.

Such a project necessarily assumes that religion can be divided between its enlightened varieties, those manifestations of spirituality that are accepting of other beliefs and take a relaxed attitude towards social mores and practices, and its strident and menacing forms, usually fundamentalist, which are bent on burdening non-believers with their oppressive values and irrational restrictions.  Enlightened religion has made its peace with the modern world, and obeys the principle of “this far, and no further.”  Reactionary fundamentalist religion is so unsettled by the relentless erosion of taboos in modernity that it appears ready to pay the price of economic competitiveness to restore the discarded and abandoned social and sexual norms.

On closer inspection, however, the task of making religion safe for secular democracy (as well as, one might add, capitalism) appears more daunting than one might expect, since it requires arriving at the correct balance whereby religion is strong enough to supply crucial moral intuitions (be kind to others, help the less fortunate, defer gratification) that cannot be generated by a purely secular rationality, but yet is left weak enough so that it is in no position to threaten to curb the untrammeled freedom which has come to define liberal individualism.  One must contend furthermore with the concern that the “good,” pluralistic expressions of religious belief usually represent diluted forms of faith and practice.  Such a spirituality, which has become so harmonized with modern life so as to become interchangeable with it, is incapable of supplying a corrective to the corrosive forces of the age and is fated to disappear with the passing of the present epoch and its values.

For Alexis de Tocqueville, it only makes sense to speak of the salutary effects of Christianity inasmuch as the religion and its values exist at a distance from the commercial preoccupations of democratic society.  Democracy gives rise to a bustling society given over to commerce, in which men almost always meet others who are like themselves and in which their material success give them scant incentive to recognize and fathom the forbidding ideas and arduous experiences that were essential to the formation of their world.  Only religion could preserve a dimension of otherness in a society defined by commerce and dominated by affluence.

In Tocqueville’s view, the emergence of democracy itself is a theological mystery.  As such, he gives a definition of religion that can be understood as thoroughly atheistic: “When, therefore, any religion has put down deep roots in a democracy, be careful not to shake them; rather, take care to preserve them as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times” (Democracy in America, 632-633).  Like many contemporary social theorists, Tocqueville’s view of religion is oriented toward its social consequences, its social and economic utility, yet he underscores here that it is not primarily its moral or ethical dimension which is to be valued, but rather the historical consciousness it provides.  Religion is what prevents the democratic and capitalist subject from being fully enclosed in the social and cultural horizon created by its activity.  Religion, specifically Christianity, gives democratic men and women access to a radically different perspective that runs counter to the restless pursuit of material goods and worldly success.

What is accordingly truly other to capitalist democracy is not a vision of its possible improvements and modifications, such as socialism or communism, but rather aristocracy.  Religion is an artifact of aristocratic centuries, in which hierarchy was a constant, harsh and unavoidable presence in everyday life.  But what does a sociopolitical order, founded on rigid social divisions and irrational codes of privilege, have to offer than democracy does not?  As Pierre Manent observes in his study of Tocqueville:

“Aristocratic society, which is founded on a false idea of freedom, on bizarre notions of honor, which particularizes men, causes them by the same token to live together and exalt the higher parts of the soul.  Democratic society, which is founded on the just idea of liberty, whose notions of honor increasingly approximate universal notions of good and evil, which ‘generalize’ men, separates and weakens the higher parts of the soul.  The false idea of nature elevates the nature of man and stimulates exalted achievements – in thought and politics, above all.  The true idea of nature dulls the nature of man and makes him incapable of exalted enterprises that are proper to his nature – elevated thought in particular” (Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74, emphases mine).

Aristocratic society has hierarchy as its guiding principle, but this means that the “power of one man to govern others” extends to realms beyond considerations of political rank.  The lack of egalitarianism in aristocracy has its noblest and most splendid consequences in the realm of thought.  The habit in aristocracies of commanding and obeying is conducive for the realization of philosophic and artistic genius.  Democratic society, by contrast, strives incessantly to suppress the awareness of inequalities and looks only to money as the only indisputable measure of distinction.  Manent locates the incommensurable difference between aristocracy and democracy in the idea of influence: “Because [aristocratic societies] are extremely inegalitarian, great personal influences can make themselves felt… The social convention that recognizes great individual influences opens space in which great natural influences, owing to strictly personal talents and merits of individuals, can be exercised” (Tocqueville, 77).  In aristocracies, the law of superiority means that people take it for granted that men ought to influence one another, including those who may lack the distinction of birth but who rise to exert authority by cultivating their abilities and gifts.  Democracy, on the other hand, holds that no man is superior to any other, and so “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Tocqueville, 79).  Democracy thus tends to “stultify” human nature, as democratic society is “constantly preoccupied with organizing men so that they are unconscious” of their inequalities, a necessarily “endless” task which compels individuals to “veil in themselves and ignore in another all sentiments, qualities, actions that tend to contradict this equality” (Tocqueville, 79).

While the Christian belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being is often regarded as the source of the modern concept of equality, the Christian view of the soul cannot be described as democratic.  In Christianity, it is aristocracy (or monarchy) in Plato’s sense that provides the pattern for the right order of the soul, whereby the believer is called to recognize the love of God as the supreme authority that rules over his or her desires and capacities.  The democratic soul in the Republic, by contrast, is defined by the absence of a single ruling power and by its insistence that all desires must be “honored on an equal basis” (561c).  It could therefore hardly be called Christian at all.  In Plato’s dialogue, the form of the soul corresponds to the regime that shares its name, i.e. the citizens of an aristocracy possess aristocratic souls, the citizens of an oligarchy oligarchic souls, the citizens of a democracy democratic souls, etc.  For Tocqueville, the inward, spiritualized hierarchy of Christianity makes possible the coexistence of democracy with the aristocratic soul.  Indeed, Tocqueville contends that it is best for a democracy to be populated by citizens who have aristocratic souls.

But an aristocratic soul that inhabits a democracy will necessarily exist in tension with this political regime.  For it is the will of the human spirit to “harmonize the earth and heaven” (Tocqueville, 107).  Religion accordingly serves as a force that restrains and moderates the corrosive effects of individualism and materialism, but it can do no more than hold back overwhelming powers that are bent on vanquishing it, subjugating, colonizing and manipulating it for its own indifference to higher purposes.  The power of democratic society over religion sterilizes religion and deprives it of its capacity to serve as the repository of historical consciousness, as a body of ideas from which it is possible to reconstruct the perspectives and values of the aristocratic past.  For Nietzsche, the nascent liberal Christianity of his time had lost sight of the “dread” and the “belief in human unworthiness” that drove Pascal, who was central influence on Tocqueville, to formulate his wager, and instead justified itself according to the “great benefit,” “enjoyment,” and “soothing effects” it offered.  Such a religion, which sought its proof in “pleasure” and not “force,” was in Nietzsche’s view a “symptom of decline,” leading to an “opiate Christianity” that has “no need of that dreadful solution, ‘a God on the cross’” (Late Notebooks, 89-90).

The old saying that politics creates strange bedfellows must surely apply to the history of ideas – shifts in social values can reveal alignments and affinities between ostensible adversaries or between critics and the targets of their critiques.  Thus, the more distant Christianity grows from beliefs that in the eyes of the present age are irrational, arduous, and strenuous, the better this unapologetic defender of aristocratic values can fulfill the unlikely role of the defender of an uncomfortable and troubling orthodoxy.  It is instructive in this respect to look to Eric Voegelin’s commentary on Nietzsche, in which the latter emerges as a mystic of historical immanentism, for whom the union with God is replaced by union with distinct historical personalities: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Bismarck, Goethe, and perhaps most importantly, Pascal (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 271).  Nietzsche is not so much a historicist as a mystic who seeks to “transform himself into an epitome of the experiences of humanity to the point that the historically unfolding spirit becomes incarnate for its actual present in his person; his person must become the medium of transition of the spirit into the future of humanity” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 265).  By “living through” the experiences of the past, the individual will “learn best where humanity in future should or should not go.”

Voegelin’s reservations about Nietzsche’s historical mysticism not surprisingly have to do with the possibility of misinterpretation, which is exacerbated by the thinker’s own “weakness in drawing empirical images of the actions of the immoralist” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 296-297).  Moreover, Nietzsche’s mysticism is ultimately a defective one, because he “was incapable of the transcendental experiences” which are infused by the Christian idea of grace (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 257).  Yet, Nietzsche, in developing an array of “countersymbols” of the Christian religion, maps out in the movements of his this-worldly mysticism the “transfigured reality” of the soul once it has overcome “the world in which man lusts for life” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 258).  The most profound apologist for Christianity, Pascal, thus emerges as the thinker he followed most closely.


Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner.  Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Eric Voegelin, “Nietzsche and Pascal,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 25: The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck.  Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Ortega y Gasset’s Defense of Elitism

It is easy for contemporary readers to be put off by the unapologetic elitism of José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega’s book, first published in 1930 in Spain, details the emergence and lays out the defining characteristics of the subject produced by hypertrophied democracy, the mass man. The mass man, who is the product of the prosperity and ease produced by industrialization, is born into a complex and highly refined civilization that he nevertheless believes to be a “spontaneous and self-producing as Nature (64)” Mass man, in other words, is a barbarian or primitive who takes for granted the intellectual labors and historical struggles that underpin the technological breakthroughs of the modern age. He manipulates and uses the instruments of the industrial age as though they were magic wands or flying carpets. The stunning advancement of scientific progress have given rise to a human type that takes for granted the conveniences and affluence that such technological achievements have made possible, remaining steadfastly oblivious to the “artificial, almost incredible character of civilization.”

The mass man is defined by three main interlocking traits:

1. His existence, being free of burdensome constraints and excessive hardship, leads him to believe that this situation of ease and abundance is normal and that, moreover, he is entitled to his conditions of life remaining so.

2. He derives a sense of power and success from this impression, so that he regards himself as content. He is self-satisfied, “delighted with himself” (45). His self-satisfaction and essential complacency lead him to reject any “external court of appeal” (70). He thus feels that his opinions are in no way inferior to those of any other individual, and therefore that he has the right to hold an opinion against any evidence of knowledge or evidence that might contradict it. In other words, learning and wisdom cease to be intelligible for him, since these terms imply that opinions must become subject to the judgment of higher principles.

3. Mass man, in rejecting any higher principle of authority beyond himself, looks naturally to action as the means to resolving conflicts. Taking action means imposing the truth he has found in his opinions directly on the world, disregarding thereby the existence of other ideas and the human beings who espouse them.

In theorizing the emergence of this new human type, Ortega y Gasset had in mind the supporters of mass ideological movements of fascism and Bolshevism, though at this point, he could deride fascism and its followers as something of a joke, a kind of nihilistic venting at liberty by small-minded and petty individuals whose attack on parliamentary democracy depended on their conviction that political liberty was ultimately ineradicable. That is to say, their hatred of democracy rested on the belief that they could in the end do nothing to overturn it — a catastrophic faith indeed. But Ortega’s insight does not pertain only to fascist or other authoritarian political systems, rather it points to a troubling dynamic within democracy itself: the tendency to level any and all distinctions.

Ortega, in defending authority, does not fall back on the distinction between rich and poor, or between the hereditary aristocracy, which he ridicules for being wasteful and feeble-minded. Rather, authority is bound up with the recognition of merit as such, which in philosophic terms takes the form of the search for truth. The superior man, as distinguished from the common or mass man, is the individual who puts his life at the service of a higher principle that places great demands on him. It is instructive to quote at length Ortega’s striking comparison of the two types:

“we distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he does not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as a discipline — the noble life. Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us — by obligations, not by rights. Noblesse oblige. ‘To live as one likes is plebeian; the noble man aspires to order and law’ (Goethe) (44-45).”

Ortega’s elitism is not based on existing social hierarchies, but rather on the readiness of an individual to look beyond himself and conquer himself in order to serve a higher aim. Such an individual does not plead and press for his rights but conquers his privileges: “private rights or privileges are not, then, passive possession and mere enjoyment, but they represent the standard attained by personal effort.”

Dedication to such a principle gives one good reasons for not being altruistic, or for not living a life that is gnawed away by guilt over one’s privileges or riddled by resentment. But is it not the case, however, that the image of the man of excellence in postmodern society has become so fantastic as to be discredited? Has not demystification become second nature to mass man in the era of postmodernity, so that any appeal to nobility is typically condemned as a cover for brutality, exploitation, and oppression? In a way in which Ortega might have foreseen with horror, the masses have largely colonized the elites, with the result that the values of the elites are now largely the same as those of the masses, with one crucial exception: the elites are now distinguished by their superiority at making money and achieving technological innovation. Discipline is only good or worthwhile insofar as it enables an individual to make money. Even our more ostensibly intellectual and spiritual occupations bow to this singularly unbending law dictated by the mass man.

So, is the idea of nobility as presented by Ortega altogether obsolete, if not laughable? I suppose it is if one believes that the frivolity and doctrinal resistance to hierarchy of the current age are themselves paradoxically eternal. Nobility, we might say, is always good in and of itself, but only in certain ages does it come to be seen as useful, and thus it meets with approval in those times among those who in prosperous and comfortable times would ridicule it.

For Ortega y Gasset’s defense of elitism, finally, is also a defense of education as such. Since mass man believes he is entitled to his opinions, in rejecting the demands of any external authority, he is immunized against the persuasion of scholars and teachers. When mass man reads, he does not read with the goal of “learning something new” but rather out of the need to pronounce judgment on a work if it is not in accord with the “commonplaces” he holds as his opinions (12). Likewise, progressive liberalism, which has become in the US the preserve of an elite, is more concerned to reinforce its doctrines rather than to face up to harsh truths and the demands they impose.

Text cited:
José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.