The death of God
Emile Durkheim, the great French sociologist who thought like a German – perhaps because he was Jewish and born in the borderland between the two countries – can help us unravel what the death of God means. God, Durkheim (1915) explained, is a personification of society. Religion is sacred because society must protect the principles on which it is based. The afterlife is a metaphor for the living influence the dead person has through the effect of his or her past deeds and relationships upon society. Thus, to become an atheist is to resign from the community, and indeed my own empirical research has found that atheists (like myself I must admit) have an unusually weak sense of personal connection to other people, including weak social obligations (Bainbridge 2005). Of course there are different conceptions of what a community is, and Durkheim's contemporary, Ferdinand Tönnies (1957) distinguished community (Gemeinschaft) from society (Gesellschaft), so it is possible to have somewhat well-ordered social relations without community. However, Durkheim (1897) argued that excessive individuation was objectively pathological.
Thus when Nietzsche withdraws from society, God becomes unreal for him. So too, for Zarathustra and the existentialists. So too, for transhumanists. I cannot cite exact data, but I wager that transhumanists have less stable, less intense social bonds than the average person. My unsystematic experience in transhumanist meetings and groups is that they are a collection of very individualistic individuals, often unwilling to cooperate meaningfully with each other for more than a short time. This marks them as Apollonians, and many of them seem to get more passionate about logic than about anything else. These observations are not intended to be insults, but assessments of how transhumanism fits into Nietzsche’s scheme.
Apollonian transhumanists would naturally be enthusiastic about the more apparently rational routes to transcendence, biotechnology and computer technology. Accordingly, they would be less enthusiastic about the psychotherapeutic and utopian routes – again Apollo versus Dionysus. Yet logic on the level of synthesis suggests that all four routes are equally necessary. Any essay about Nietzsche must be based on the fundamental concept of culture, and transhumanist culture appears to be Apollonian. However, cultures often are most creative when they fuse, or interact in a grand dialog that enriches them both.
That is the second tragedy of the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust! Yes, millions of innocent people were killed, and that primary tragedy was an incalculably great loss to them and to humanity. But the second tragedy was also a shame: the alienation of two cultures that had much to give each other: German and Jew. This is relevant to Nietzsche both because the Nazis treated him as one of their own, and because his philosophical system reveals much about the tragedy. It is relevant to the relationship between Nietzsche and transhumanism because it highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between the Übermensch, the posthuman, and the Master Race. The first section of chapter LXIII in Zarathustra contains two provocative references to Jews:
Populace-hodgepodge: therein is everything mixed with everything, saint and swindler, gentleman and Jew, and every beast out of Noah’s ark.
Ne’er sank the world so low! Rome now hath turned harlot and harlot-stew, Rome’s Caesar a beast, and God – hath turned Jew!11
The first of these raises the often unasked question: Why Zarathustra? Why would Nietzsche choose this character to write a book about? He was the historical figure and religion-founder commonly named Zoroaster in English. Zoroastrianism is dualist, conceptualizing the universe as a cosmic struggle between opposites. The first quotation from Zarathustra above decries the mixture of opposites, almost like the kosher pollution that occurs when meat and dairy products are mixed (Douglas 1966). The second quotation seems anti-Semitic but is actually rather more anti-Christian and laments the decline of Pagan deities like Apollo and Dionysus.
The Belgian-Jewish-French neo-Durkheimian structuralist anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1962, 1967, 1970) claimed that thinking in terms of dualities is a universal human habit, built into the structures of the mind. Yes, it is found everywhere, but it is not universally significant. Some cultures and minds rely more upon it than others. One of his book titles, The Raw and the Cooked, illustrates this style of thinking. Sometime when you are eating sashimi with Japanese people, ask them whether it is raw or cooked? Has a salad been cooked? If cooked means heated: no. If cooked means prepared: yes. If it means both: maybe.
The Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy actually incorporates two mental methodologies that may be more important in Jewish and German culture (or continental European culture, recalling that Nietzsche was ethnically Polish and “France” is named after a Germanic tribe) than for example in Anglo-Saxon culture. One is the dichotomy, and when The Process sought a cultural symbol for dualities it adopted the ancient Hebrew mysticism around the two pillars of the temple of Solomon, Jachin and Boaz. Had they been drawing more heavily upon Asian traditions, they might have used Yin and Yang. The other, related conceptual habit is ideal types, most forcefully enunciated by German sociologist Max Weber (1949; Stark and Bainbridge 1979) when he introduced the church-sect duality into the sociology of religion. An ideal type is like a self-conscious stereotype, as of German and Jew, used for intellectual analysis of possibly more complex realities.
Yes, stereotypes can have evil consequences, even if they are a necessary feature of human thought (Allport 1954; Bainbridge 1995). The injustice of German upon Jew in Europe was not very much more fierce than the injustice of White upon Black in the United States, although perhaps the latter spread its harm more thinly across a greater number of years and people. “Black and white” is the standard English metaphor for a dichotomy, although Anglo-Saxons prefer to think in terms of a spectrum, first studied systematically by that English genius, Isaac Newton, when he held a prism up to the light of the sun. Again, ideal-typical dualities may be more influential in some cultures, but they are found everywhere, often imported when a native culture is weak in them. For example, Germanic ideal-typical dualities were imported to American sociology by Talcott Parsons (1937), who studied in Germany, and by Robert K. Merton, a Jewish-American sociologist greatly influenced by Durkheim's theory of anomie.
Prior to writing about how God was a personification of society, Durkheim had written two books discussing anomie, a concept very close to alienation in meaning that has been very influential in sociology, perhaps precisely because different sociologists have been able to give it different meanings for their own purposes. He introduces it near the end of his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society and devotes extensive attention to it in his 1897 book, Suicide. Both books relate to Nietzsche’s thesis about the death of God, because they concern the development of cosmopolitan or fragmented societies that offer poor platforms for consensus about the sacred.
In Suicide, Durkheim sought to prove that sociology is important because it can explain variations in suicide rates when psychology cannot. He does so by presenting what amount to three ideal types that describe different factors that lead to self-murder. It is worth noting the irony that chapter XXI of Zarathustra begins with the admonition, “Die at the right time!,” yet Nietzsche himself failed to kill himself when he had his great mental breakdown, which would logically have been the right time for him. One of Durkheim’s forms of suicide would not have been appropriate, however, altruistic suicide, because it constituted the sacrifice of one’s life for the benefit of society. Both of the other main types could easily have applied to Nietzsche.
Anomic suicide resulted from the loss of cultural values, in Durkheim’s system, and egoistic suicide resulted from the loss of stable social bonds such as friendships and family ties. Later sociologists have had difficulty distinguishing the two, because each pathological condition seems to imply the other. Some of the virtues of Apollonialism may be seen as compensating for anomie, egoism, and alienation. Notably, the reliance upon logic to determine moral standards or reasonable courses of actions can substitute for merely doing what the ambient culture demands, for people who are estranged from that culture.
Merton’s (1938) formulation of anomie emphasizes two cross-cutting dualisms that both reflect the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, if we continue to stress the asocial-social definition of it that Nietzsche got from Schopenhauer. On a deep level, according to Merton, people may either accept or reject the values of society. On a more superficial level, they may accept or reject society’s norms. But the values of a society are the goals people are supposed to seek, and the norms are the means they are supposed to follow to achieve the goals. A conformist accepts both society’s value and norms. A ritualist rejects the values – perhaps because the individual is unable to achieve them because of incompetence or unfair discrimination, while still following the norms. A retreatist, like a hermit or street bum, rejects both, and this category might include both Nietzsche and Zarathustra. The fourth category, innovation, involves seeking society’s goals but without following the norms. Merton placed creative scientists and artists in this fourth category, but before we rush to place transhumanism there, we should know that the most numerous kind of people he called innovative in this sense were criminals.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1972) applied a similar kind of thinking to the question of what factors commit people to a society, using utopian communes as her example of extreme commitment. She identified six factors, which can be combined into three dimensions, each of which requires giving up an aspect of individualism and receiving the corresponding aspect of collectivism. First, people sacrifice individual material rewards such as money by making an investment in the collective. Second, renunciation of individual social relationships replaces them by group communion. Third, along the dimension of personal identity, mortification of the self leads to transcendence through the group. Each of the most successful communes, as measured by how many years the commune survived, was highly religious. This reinforces Durkheim’s belief that high-solidarity societies must of necessity have a religious basis.
It is not safe to stop this analysis of dualism in Nietzsche’s predicament without mentioning that dualism itself is only one of at least two alternatives. Recall this proverb: The lumper and the splitter met on the street. The lumper proclaimed, “There are two kinds of people, lumpers who place everything in a very small number of categories, and splitters who make many fine distinctions across many categories.” The splitter disagreed, saying, “Two kinds of people is a gross underestimate.” So, if we admit the possibility of just two categories, what is the second one, different from dualities?
The obvious alternative to static dualities is dynamic networks. As if to show that cultural stereotypes have their limits, perhaps the key person in the history of social network research was a Rumanian-Austrian-Jewish-American named Jacob Moreno, who competed with Freud by devising psychodrama group therapy, and who offered his new science of social networks to the world, calling it sociometry, in a marvelous 1934 book provocatively titled Who Shall Survive? Setting aside the fact that his grandiosity led him late in life to talk directly with God, his fundamental idea was actually quite reasonable. The First World War had demonstrated that humanity had reached the brink of collective madness – a diagnosis later confirmed by the Second World War – and a new science of society was required to cure this otherwise fatal malady. Sociometry analyzed society not in terms of mutually-exclusive ideal types arranged in dualities, but in terms of social network connections between individuals.
This mode of analysis was very well suited to Anglo-Saxon culture, which since the time of Adam Smith (1776) had preferred to think of social relations as economic markets or social systems based on millions of tiny interactions between individual people, rather than in terms of large categories (Iannaccone and Bainbridge in press). Continental Europeans are lumpers; the English and Americans are splitters, relatively speaking. A key concept of the Chicago School of Sociology was social disorganization, comparable to Durkheim’s anomie-egoism but based in a much more concrete image of social instability in the relations surrounding the individual (Anderson 1923; Thrasher 1927; Faris and Dunham 1939). More recently, Mark Granovetter (1973) launched an entire new industry of social network research by focusing on how fine details in the shape of a network – especially its degree of interconnectivity – shaped the fates of individuals.
However, even as Moreno helps us escape dualities, he reminds us that there may be no alternative to utopian thinking, given that humanity continues to face horrendous social dangers of which a Third World War is only the most readily imaginable. Where, then do the Apollonian transhumanists stand in relation to the Dionysian routes across the Great Abyss? Is not crossing on a rope bridge composed of four strands better than trying to balance on just one or two, especially when the strands themselves are fraying and tempestuous winds are blowing?
Transcendence or alienation?
Why does my title speak of Nietzsche’s tomb? Nietzsche said God is dead. God said Nietzsche is dead. Both were correct. Why does my title speak of burglary? Because we take ideas from Nietzsche without permission, and use them in our own manner for our own purposes.
We cannot be certain what Nietzsche himself would have said about transhumanism or its connection to his own system, in great measure because much of what he wrote was gloriously incoherent, in the way that poetry can mean more than it says by leaving much to the imagination. Pro-Wagner or anti-Wagner, Apollonian or Dionysian, healthy or morbid, from moment to moment he was any combination of these. If we cannot translate his words exactly, but are influenced by them, do we distort or do we plagiarize? I suggest the best thing to do is draw upon Nietzsche’s work as a resource, chiefly to identify issues that transhumanists must face, rather than as a guide for the direction we must go.
One organizing principle for Nietzsche was the will to power. A Wikipedia article on the subject describes this elegantly: “The will to power describes what Nietzsche believed to be the main driving force in man; achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life, these are all manifestations of the will to power.”12 As the article notes, this idea was central to Alfred Adler’s (1929) version of psychoanalysis, and (as it happens) Adlerian therapy combined with Scientology to form the initial self-transformative vision that motivated The Process described above. Both The Process and Scientology express the wills to power of their founders, through dominance of other people, but The Process had the flavor of Dionysianism, whereas Scientology was more Apollonian. The Buddhist mode of existence seeks power in retreat, and one might hope that the Zarathustran mode seeks power through mutual engagement, even though Nietzsche himself, and his character Zarathustra, failed in this. Is it possible for transhumanists to exercise their own will to power, without doing it at the expense of other people, through admirable accomplishments rather than domination?
The road to Hell is marked with many warning signs. Consider how the Nazis treated the Jews, not physically but conceptually (Bainbridge 1985). German society was fragmented by region and social class, and it underwent repeated shocks from the defeat in the First World War through the financial disasters of 1923 and 1929. Nazi ideology was actually a synthesis of right-wing and left-wing; “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Yes, the Nazis allied themselves with the more traditional right-wing political party, the Nationalists. But the form of society they created might be called industrial feudalism, in which people with political connections exercise individual power over major industries, and that is today the case in the two largest post-Marxist societies, Russia and China, the latter of which remains avowedly Maoist. Truth to tell, both wings of ideology use ideas cynically to control the masses.
The twentieth century was a great debate among three competing systems: Capitalism, Marxism, Fascism. Many people falsely believe that this was a moral contest, and the “right” faction won, western Capitalism under American hegemony. My own view is that while I vastly prefer living under the American system, it is no more moral than the other two. It won the contest simply because it began with more resources and territory. Both Marxism and Fascism have intellectual foundations – equally logical in my view – that their proponents cast in moral terms. Of course, Nietzsche would remind us that moral arguments are typically just rhetoric designed to give power to the moralizers, as he stated forcefully in The Genealogy of Morals.13
It is remarkable that contemporary intellectuals give far more credit to Marxist ideas than to Fascist ones. Partly this is the accidental result of the order in which the two systems were defeated by Capitalism; Marxism lived longer, so far more Marxist books were published. The two systems murdered comparable numbers of people, but the Nazis made the mistake of persecuting the Jews, whereas Marxism was founded by some of them. By killing many Jews, the Nazis drove the rest out of Europe and gave some of the brightest of them good motivation to propagandize against the Nazis even long after Hitler had committed suicide. The ironies are legion. Two of my Harvard mentors, Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell were sons of Jewish immigrants (as was Merton), deeply affected by the Holocaust. They began as socialists, published books against the political right wing (Bell 1963; Lipset and Raab 1970), and then morphed into Neoconservatives whose disciples pushed America further in the direction of Fascism under George W. Bush. Nietzsche would have loved the tragic elements in their stories.
What, then, is the intellectual core of Nazism, if we can wash the blood off their small library of books to read them clearly? It begins with Spengler’s (1926-1928) observation that, like Rome before it, European civilization seemed to be falling. Spengler was something of an idealist, in the philosophical rather than moral sense of the term, and he believed that every great civilization is founded on a single idea. The fundamental idea of western civilization, he suggested is boundless space. It is worth pointing out that one legacy of Nazism is the spaceflight movement, born in the V-2 rocket program of Wernher von Braun, who by and large was a good Nazi, despite being investigated by them for possible treason (Bainbridge 1976).
More to the point here, Nazi theoretician Alfred Rosenberg (1930) argued that the way to save Europe was to re-establish a strong cultural consensus, a myth for the twentieth century. Critics of Nazism have long noted that it sought to restore the old gods of totem and taboo (Viereck 1941), but German gods rather than Apollo and Dionysus.
Cultural revival is actually a reasonable strategy for a falling civilization. The Russian-American sociologist, Pitirm A. Sorokin (1937-1941), who fled Russia for his life when the Bolsheviks took over, expanded on this idea to suggest that great civilizations can go through multiple cycles of rise and decline. He did not use Nietzsche’s terminology, but his ideas were quite similar. A civilization begins in a bloody period of conquest by one particular set of beliefs, what Sorokin called an ideational period but could just as easily been called Dionysian – except drinking blood rather than wine. As the civilization matures, it loses its passionate faith and gradually becomes cooler, more rational, even more scientific, what Sorokin called the sensate period but could have called Apollonian. Then the civilization falls, setting the stage for another ideational period.
This suggests the uncomfortable possibility that transhumanism might merely become a footnote in a future history comparable to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). No transhumanist would want to follow the Nazi strategy for cultural renewal, because transhumanists are better prepared to plant the seeds of the civilization to follow the next Dark Age, than to harvest the corpses of the impending collapse, and because despite their heated debates they are actually rather non-violent by nature. How can we organize the New Civilization, bringing people together, without making the terrible mistakes of Fascism and Marxism?
Perhaps with cynical intent but very cleverly, the Nazis used their anti-Semitism to bring Germans together under their banner. Their stereotype (ideal type?) of Jews was a synthesis of both capitalist and communist, money-lender and rabble-rouser. Thus the stereotype combined the things both left-wing and right-wing Germans hated about each other, and encouraged them to hate the Jews instead. Jews after all were a German minority and thus both capable of representing the things the Germans hated about themselves, and dispensable because their numbers were relatively small.
This rhetorical tactic was facilitated by the fact that Jews have symbolic significance for Christians. Throughout history, this has led Christians to be either anti-Semitic (Glock and Stark 1966) or philo-Semitic (Edelstein 1982), but not to treat Jews are what they really are, namely people. To the extent that the Jews really thought of themselves as “the chosen people,” they became a target for the Nazis, who claimed that title for themselves. If the Nazis had really been able to prove they were the Master Race, they would have defeated that enemy race that lived just off the European continent and spoke a mongrel Germanic language, which is to say the English. But, failing that, it was much easier for them to defeat the Jews instead. Thus, much of the claim to power by the Nazis really expressed their most profound weakness.
What does that tragedy have to do with transhumanism? First, transhumanists have already learned the lesson that they must not presume already to be posthumans, superior to everybody else, and should not seek to rise up by climbing on top of others. Yes they must proclaim transcendence of the current human condition as their ideal, and this irritates people who do not share their hopes.
For many transhumanists, Christianity is a cop-out that pretends transcendence has already been achieved supernaturally, so there is no need to pursue it by means of science and technology. For their part, anti-transhumanists may find it useful to defame transhumanists as Nazis, and the ambiguities around Nietzsche merely cloud that issue. A war may be brewing, in which the Christian establishment seeks to suppress transhumanism, energized by the agonies of a falling civilization. As a tiny minority, the transhumanists would do well to remember the suffering of the Jews.
The best defense is knowledge. To the extent that transhumanists debate the tough issues, on the basis of close study of the evidence and logical discussion, they will be best prepared to communicate with and at times persuade people who are not – or not yet – transhumanists. Nietzsche helps here by raising some of the most thorny issues, and issues that are painful if fully grasped, as is generally the case for thorns. Thus it is entirely appropriate that the first generation of transhumanists have chiefly been philosophers. They deserve the greatest honor, and the movement will continue to benefit greatly from later generations of transhumanist philosophers.
It may be time to begin to transcend philosophy, however. Instead of merely standing on this side of the abyss and contemplating the other, we should step out on the ropes – all four of them – and begin our terrifying journey across to the other side. The ghost of Nietzsche would dance along beside us!