In the last post of my recent series of Spengler, I noted how the historian used the phrases “human insects” and “human vermin” in his book The Hour of Decision. Spengler was not alone in the use of dehumanising language to refer to his fellow countrymen. The Nazis were fond of referring to others as vermin but then so were the communists of the time. Meanwhile, the propaganda of the world wars often portrayed the enemy as an animal of some kind. Not much has improved since then, either. Social media these days is rife with the same dehumanising tone.
It seems to me that this phenomenon is related to another which is implied in Spengler and that is the rise of the individual-ego. Spengler gives the leaders and the experts of a country the right to use citizens as mere “objects”. This is an express violation of Kant’s moral imperative which stated that humans should always be treated as subjects and never objects. But nobody cared about such ethical niceties in the early 20th century. And they still don’t, as the last three years has shown.
This trend to egotism can be seen in the developments in storytelling from ancient times til now and which I also looked at recently in the comparison between ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespearian tragedy. For our purposes here, there are three categories that are relevant in such stories and the wider culture they represent: the individual, the family and the collective (society).
Ancient Greek tragedy, and Greek society in general, is generally seen as giving birth to the idea of the individual and therefore also the ego. The birth of the hero as a distinct character from the chorus seems to have come out of the Dionysian rites that gave rise to Greek tragedy. But those rites were a collective phenomenon and thus the original appearance of the individual in Greek theatre was still counterbalanced by the strong presence of both the family and the collective.
The collective was represented directly on stage in Greek tragedy by the chorus. The individual is distinguished from the chorus but not severed from it.
The tension in Greek tragedy is not between the individual and their family or the collective but of all of them against fate or the gods. Thus, the chorus would often console or advise the main character since they were on the same team. The collective was there as a moral support to the hero. This is very different from the stories we see today.
We can trace the development from ancient times to ours by looking at Shakespeare’s tragedies. In Shakespeare, the collective is all but absent. Although Shakespeare sometimes used a “chorus”, it was nothing like the Greek chorus. It was usually a single person who functioned as a narrator and certainly not as a counterweight to the hero.
The family is often represented in Shakespeare. But, almost universally in the tragedies, the individual and the family are at loggerheads. Romeo and Juliet’s love is ruined by their families’ quarrel. Desdemona marries Othello against her father’s wishes and dies later as a result. The Hamlet family is destroyed by its lust for power. A similar lust for power causes Macbeth to kill Duncan who, as king, is the “father” of his people. The subsequent carnage destroys any potential for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to have a family of their own.
We see a similar breakup of the family due to the wilful behaviour of the hero in Faust, Don Juan, Don Giovanni, even Don Quixote, and numerous other works of this time. It’s possible to read such works as moral warnings about excessive individualism but, as Spengler pointed out, the opposite was mostly true and the daring behaviour of the hero was seen as exciting and stimulating. This was the celebration of the individual-ego at the expense of both the collective and the family.
By the time we get to modern Hollywood movies, it’s fair to say that the individual-ego now exists independently of the collective and the family. If Macbeth or Don Juan could still be viewed as a warning about excessive individualism, the warning no longer exists in modern storytelling where the collective and the family become Spenglerian “objects” to be used as the ego sees fit.
Consider The Matrix. At the beginning of the movie, Neo is alone. Any connection with his own family is unknown and he is neither married nor has a family of his own. The collective in the movie, the others who live in The Matrix, consists of people who are completely de-humanised. They are nothing more than human batteries. Moreover, as Morpheus points out, most of them cannot be “saved” because their minds couldn’t handle it.
What this amounts to is a green light to do whatever you want with them including blowing them away in orgies of violence. After all, such people are literally providing energy to The Matrix and The Matrix is the enemy. This mindset is almost identical to that taken in the ideological battles of the 20th century and we can hear the same implied idea today any time “the system” is blamed for some injustice.
Scenes of extravagant violence are so common in Hollywood that James Cameron was able to satirise them in Terminator 2. That movie presents an interesting twist on the theme of the family breakdown since it amounts to a recreation of the nuclear family with the T-800 in the role of father who has to learn how to be human including being taught by John Connor that it’s, errr, not appropriate to just murder people in cold blood. Who knew?
The Terminators have been programmed (ideologically?) to treat humans as just things to be used, ignored or removed at will. They might be “on different sides” of the ideological fence, but their methods are identical. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth went mad for having treated Duncan as an object instead of a subject. But for the robot-humans in Terminator or The Matrix, such moral issues are of no real concern.
The individual-ego has come a long way from its birth in the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece where it was still safely enmeshed in the family and the collective. The modern West now represents the other extreme and it’s fair to say that we are taking it about as far as it can possibly go. The individual now reserves the right to make the collective bow to its will and to create its identity in complete independence of the collective and even the family. If that means standing all nature, all history and all morality on its head, then so be it.