This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 4: The righteous person

Submitting to what is allowed in this aggressive way, claiming a right to one's own welfare, still only involves su style="text-indent: 0;"ccess in economic and political life for a minority of people, and hypocrisy is not the reason for this either. But this minority see some reason to think the world of their proper personality, which they do with the appropriate combination of modesty and pride: their own righteousness — together with a bit of luck — has brought about the fulfillment of all their material needs, making these needs appear virtually irrelevant in light of the spiritual and aesthetic pleasures that transcend them.

However, losers, too, particularly in view of their crappy situation, need not do without this ideal of themselves. The fact that their voluntary commitment to the principles required to participate in society doesn’t pay off for them confronts them with a clear alternative. Either they take an objective look at the world in which they come up short, hit upon the reasons why, and struggle against the contradictions they are saddled with; or they hang on to their moral point of view, believe in their own hypocrisy, and adopt the attitude with which they can continue in all freedom to chafe under the rule they accept. In the second, and these days the normal case, they then consider themselves decent, hardworking people, who just can't afford anything because they've had some hard luck and landed in a world that completely fails to honor their hard work and decency. In view of the modest yield it brings, they accommodate their daily renewed resolve to go along with everything by having a good conscience. Of course, they can only have this by continually struggling against the bad conscience they get when comparing the requirements of bourgeois life, its criteria for success, with their “failure” to meet them. In their characteristic combination of self-incrimination and consolation, the subordinated individuals of modern society reflect on themselves. They take shelter in the idea of being excellent personalities despite all their more or less useless efforts — and judge themselves and others with this idealistic criterion that is mocked in practice by the importance of every ordinary person. In this way, the free will comes to have the sorry pleasure of constantly deciding between being ashamed of its own failure and cultivating the appearance of enormous merit. It confronts the rest of humanity as a judge, enviously accusing everyone of pretending to a nonexistent greatness and advising that they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

4.1. Self-confidence: The virtue of failure and pride in success

Educated people, but not only they, think that a person needs self-consciousness. They aren’t referring to the simple fact that people are conscious of themselves as beings distinguished from the rest of the world, and reflect on their consciousness of objectivity — they really mean self-confidence. Even those fully unacquainted with psychological theories are well aware of the quintessence of the relevant doctrines; from the arena of political agitation, where the nation's favorite leadership zealots get lots of publicity showing off their fine characters; from the sports scene, where the people's darlings always lack self-confidence when they blow it — and from “their own experience” at school, at work and in their love lives. What is always meant by this ominous psychological possession is the customary manner in bourgeois society by which the moral self declares himself responsible for his achievements and what they have gained him, or for his failures. He thinks more or less highly of himself in view of the practical thwarting of his ambitions — and most people regard their self-confidence not as the product of their conforming, but as the indispensable precondition for success.

On the one hand, by thinking this way, a self-aware subject escapes the scathing judgment that he is simply a nobody when he acts in agreement with social requirements, at the same time that some of his wishes fall by the wayside. For this, he distinguishes between his real achievements and successes, and his abilities: he claims to know that he is capable of more than he has actually achieved. On the other hand, he can't help noting that he has always practiced troth and probity, and will do so until his cool, cool grave,[1] even though he falls flat on his face. In this way, he adds the idea of the goodness he exudes to that of his fine capabilities. In everyday, practical life, most people's merits are rated rather low and each working day presents a tough settlement of accounts; yet individuals, with the self-confidence they’ve gotten, indulge in a balance sheet of the reverse kind, at least theoretically. The bourgeois self has made the standards of society its own so perfectly that he credits himself with meeting them, even and particularly when it doesn't pay. He takes comfort quite simply in being a great guy, and even lets this consolation be administered by those who exploit him. At regular intervals, the gentlemen at the top of the democratic hierarchy say how important craftsmen, farmers, plumbers and guest workers are, and that it doesn't matter at all if they don't have any higher education.

4.2. Conscience: Shame and impertinence

In cultivating the ideal that the individual forms of himself, he blithely stands up for his freedom. When he insists on his righteousness, he declares his willingness to continually meet the standards of bourgeois society, and in his pride, he regards himself once and for all as responsible for everything that comes as a result of his acts. This has consequences for the “interpretation” of the failures he ends up with: a moral person immediately discovers his deficiencies and defeats in the form of direct self-incrimination. He takes no stock in self-criticism; instead, he is used to translating all his mistakes and failures into a guilty conscience. The shame that befalls a jerk equipped with this “self-confidence,” i.e., any brought-up individual, no longer requires the judicious distinction between an effort thwarted by a competitor, the government or some other important authority, and the poor execution of a plan, clumsiness, or a wrong course of action arising from a lack of knowledge or practice. No such distinction is required because shame is not based on a judgment of one's own doings, but on the application of the official standard for success to what one has accomplished. Someone who has made a maxim of life out of his will to reap success in compliance with the constraints of capitalistic life and only in that way, and who idealizes himself in fulfilling this maxim, disgraces himself only before his own principles — which he regards as anything but subjectivized constraints.

In the feeling of shame, which arises in the wake of a mistake as well as on the occasion of a violation of the manners one advocates, the individual discovers the truth of his “calculating” character, which he otherwise asserts with the saying, "You can't argue with success!" He stops his calculating behavior; and in the interest of his interests, which he really cannot keep neglecting so dreadfully, he then quickly turns to impertinence. This, rightly, does not refer to the methods of hypocrisy, but to the failure to use them. The methods a person uses to change his bad conscience into a good one are accepted and common: that compilation of a thousand good reasons why he had absolutely no choice but to act so as to actually displease his conscience. This is how a person excuses himself to himself and to others, who obviously harass themselves with the same ideals and apply them as a standard to everyone who gets in their way. Demonstrating one's good conscience, presenting one's excellent attitude and abilities, makes it unnecessary to take the tiresome detour of exhibiting the shame one drags around because one constantly notices how little reality there is to the ideal of the righteous character. This is how modern individuals run around, not only with a lot of self-doubt but also as braggarts, creating before all and sundry the semblance of being really something else and managing one great feat after another. False consciousness appears here directly as a lie: about one's own achievements, success and merit, about one’s honorable intentions and about the big plans one is pursuing, while one is just managing to get along in the world in the most ordinary way, as this world order dictates.

4.3. Practical feeling as the organ of prejudice

The fine achievements of the bourgeois mind, on becoming habitual, constitute the firm stock of the emotional life available to a moral individual. Practical feeling, the form in which willing intelligence directly appears, acts as the judge of everything that an individual experiences, by making one comparison after another — between his own attitude transformed into judgments about objectivity, and what the rest of the world says and does. It is not just only when he introduces his commentary on the world with the popular phrase, “I think…,” that he turns his “self-confidence” into an organ of judgment, which means only that the bourgeois subject assesses friend and foe, law and order, wage, price and profit, man, woman and child using nothing but prejudices. The bourgeois righteous person takes the liberty of appraising every gesture and pronouncement of his contemporaries according to whether it complies with his moral materialism, or is nothing but a damn nuisance. In the process, the few criteria that he employs as a proponent of successful decency get so thoroughly jumbled in accordance with his principle that one could think he had no principles.

Thus others can always be sure of being suspected of hypocrisy, bragging and definitely egoism, no matter what they actually say — but sometimes suspicion is also suspended, and then the stupidest specimens of the species enjoy the trust of their fellow men. A public office, their privileged position, maybe even their inferior one, will work wonders. Politicians, superiors and influential relatives enjoy a very different assessment basis for what they achieve and represent than some ordinary creature, who might make the same pronouncements as a cabinet minister or scientist but isn't one. What is respectfully accepted from the one is considered presumptuous or insulting from the other — and this is due to the fact that a moral person takes it for granted that there just are differences between people, and “consequently” also in what should be thought and demanded of them. The moral opportunist calculates his dependencies, those that already exist or are expected, and pushes the appropriate button with the certainty of a sleepwalker.

The valet's perspective[2] is no longer the prerogative of spiteful historians, but enjoys widespread application — as it should in a democracy without privileges. Quite ordinary people knock other people's deeds as they see fit, without making the slightest argument, and make no secret of their envy; they brag about acquaintances in better circles while at the same time making malicious remarks about those who trigger their pride. They bestow on subordinate figures around them the compliment of being “nice” — but when someone comes along and asserts the opposite of what they think without an introductory “I think” or “I feel” so as not to have really said anything, i.e., without expressly expressing his most uncertain taste, he has gambled away all sympathy without his opinion being scrutinized at all — unless of course he's a statesman. Then he is not only allowed to trumpet fascist phrases without qualifying them in the least; if he announces with no trace of self-doubt that the people in the country must live healthier and work harder, then that's just the better part of a party’s election program. If, in a break between his legislative or governmental activities, he comes out with the slogan that anyone who simply insists on his opinion, and has a critical one at that, is first of all dogmatic, and secondly must expect to be suspected of being a violent criminal, well-bred citizens do not, for instance, return the accusation of violence, but are instead enormously pleased with the important man's pretended insecurity. It's not hard to make out what is driving the democratic soul here; it's the materialism of ordinary little people who would like to prescribe their willingness to submit as a duty for others (cf. Chapter 6).

The morality of pluralism in science

Even in the area of science, manners like these are the only desirable ones. Here, too, arguments are not brought forth freely on the assumption that other scholars are surely also interested in correct statements about their subject and therefore attach some value to proper criticism. The psychological-moral side of pluralism in science consists in the remarkable achievement of individuals actually intent on the authority of knowledge inventing all sorts of idiotic arguments for skepticism: they make politeness and hypocrisy comme il faut even in the intellectual domain by fundamentally suspecting their own ideas of being in error, in order to confront everyone else's theories with the same fundamental reservation without a trace of sensible objection. The point of thinking like this is to obtain recognition for any rubbish one can get printed — and no one means recognition for the objectivity of the thoughts, of the knowledge. The “possibility of error,” the widely feigned concern about hubris and dogmatism, is used as a weapon by every hypothesis or “model” maker to secure a place within the treasured spectrum of free intellectual achievements. There is no disputing about the truth, but rather an organized exchange of very interest-driven, and for that reason interesting “concepts,” and this “dispute” over knowledge interests, i.e., over a barbarism, has its own jargon and imperatives. Here too, disinterest in knowledge and in the criticism of errors is not what is considered impertinent, but rather the intention to eliminate falsities and replace them by truths. Any argumentation that is not offered dubiously and thereby taken back the moment it is put forth is considered (a harbinger of) violence. Sentences like the following from a review, incidentally also found in the author's preface, are the universally binding practice: “All in all, more questions are raised than answered, which is important and good, since of course we still have no absolutely certain knowledge about this topic.” Hence, books are written and welcomed as proof of ignorance, and it never occurs to anyone that an unclear point might be cleared up and knowledge gained. In this business, it is not even necessary to acquaint oneself with the object under debate — the object is introduced and dispatched as a problem, which equally satisfies both the writers’ modesty and greatness…

4.4. The virtue of prudent submission: “Reason.” Heart versus mind, and vice versa

The moral individual thinks nothing at all of reason, because in his righteousness, he celebrates himself as the incarnation of reasonableness. His self-confidence demands that he dismiss every insight into something as “dull theory,” and fend off every materialistic impetus to oppose the conditions he wants to comply with as an attack on his freedom. Any such stirrings in the vicinity of a decent citizen are automatically met with the admonition, “Be reasonable!” — and this definition of reason of his as prudently going along with things has masses of fans even in wartime, when it is a matter of life or death for one’s own country. He shows this definition to be legitimate by referring to the slim prospects of success in swimming against the tide, and in normal times also with a variant of the commandment to practice tolerance. A person willing to conform is quick to set himself up as an advocate of principles he declares to be his own, without ever having come up with them himself despite all his unmitigated inventiveness — he even defends the political power he “tolerates,” certifying it is a mere “reaction” to the “unreasonableness” of others. If everyone behaved the way he did, the good man claims, there would be no need for any restrictions on anybody, because everyone would control themselves on their own. This is how righteous people, who have found contentedness with their discontent, blithely claim the title “reason” for themselves when, in terms of what they are actually saying, they legitimate every proceeding against their recalcitrant contemporaries. And from the standpoint of this reason, other people’s rebellion appears to them as an act of “mere” emotion, of uncontrolled indignation, even as unjustified “morality.” Conversely, the same people are also ready to make the opposite accusation when those attacked in such a way account for the content of their concerns, showing that they are reasonable. Then they refer to the immediacy of their feelings, acting as if the mere attempt to convince other people of something, to win them over with arguments instead of ingratiation, were rather “inhumane.” In the name of the “reason” they practice, which they understand to mean the “natural” acceptance of the conditions imposed on them, they pose as feeling individuals, while their critics are unfeeling deadbeats, and in the end they invent the danger of a “cold rationality” — which means about the same thing as “ruthlessness” and “claim to power.” The moral subject, who with his discontentedness become habit ends up esteeming himself, being content with the “reasonableness” of his opportunism, thus easily comes up with the conflict between heart and mind, between emotions and intellect. Depending on whether he is defending the content of his views and deeds as an emotional attitude befitting human beings, or propagating it as a generally widespread and “therefore” reasonable use of his mind, this subject takes the liberty of celebrating emotions one moment and in the next breath demanding calculation . And indeed both in the name of reason. So it is not at all surprising that communists are one time dismissed as idealistic nutcases with good intentions, while other times foamed at as dangerous guys who are out to dupe people with the intellectual trickery of dialectics and have no reverence for anything, because they would like to put a gag on mankind. A personality convinced of his righteousness will of course not stand for either thing and insists on the freedom he so thoroughly enjoys — and since this enjoyment is not to be had without remorse, it takes place as a self-righteous demonstration of one's own excellence that proves itself so nicely on women and children, foreigners and minorities. This demonstration looks somewhat different towards those who call the shots; and even in the face of successful competitors, the materialism that people so decently deny pops up in the form of both a bad and a good conscience: as shame and envy…

4.5. Virtuosos of good conscience: Nietzsche and the Christian individual

Nietzsche, who hated morality and the resulting techniques of self-denial like poison, hit on the mistake, in view of the ubiquity of such a dreary kind of individuality, of placing the will in opposition to morality — as if a (free) will were not at work in the moral subject. Hence he paid homage to the “genuine” will, conceiving an ideal of freedom to be enjoyed by mankind once it were to shake off the “shackles” of morality. The adulation of a free will not subject to any imperative, of the vigor of uninhibitedly decisive individuals, brought him the stupid accusation of being a forerunner of Hitler. This accusation, leveled above all by leftist upholders of “the social aspect” (yet another formula for the abstract commitment to cooperation), testifies to how enthusiastic about morality the intellectual giants in the academic community of professional scholars are: when Nietzsche declares that he couldn’t care less about values and intends to revalue them all, the only thing that occurs to them is that this would be a mortal sin. So also in this case, they don't bother raising a proper objection, because they favor the beneficial effects of ethical repression.

Yet, in the attacks of a Nietzsche on the moral subject — summarized in aphorisms such as, “What is the seal of attained freedom? No longer being ashamed in front of oneself”[3] — one might notice two things.

Firstly, that although the decision about freedom is fully up the individual here, it’s not just that he is restricting himself, but rather incriminating himself on the basis of a conflict with an entity that is foreign and hostile to his will; for Nietzsche, there exists no objective reason, power or rule, that constitutes the starting point for the practice of self-control. This critic of morality has a very psychological way of thinking, in that he resolves the morally operating will into an underlying free will and the shackles confining it. This spares a thinker who calls for the end of being ashamed from any thought of the higher authorities that exist independently of the individual, dispose over means for applying pressure and dictate to the free will the good conduct that the individual then displays in his righteousness and corresponding conscience. Secondly, that the motto, “Don’t be ashamed anymore!” is expertly followed by moral subjects, precisely because they are moral. The Christian, for whom Nietzsche has so much contempt, is nothing short of a virtuoso in the art of ridding himself of shame. A Christian makes a clean sweep of his bad conscience in a rather cunning way, detaching it from all his individual misdeeds at once by calling himself a sinner as a matter of principle. First, he extends it to everyone — “We humans are sinners!” — only to raise himself above all nonbelievers by precisely this confession. With penance and confession, he casts off the burden of conscience and qualifies for the realm of the just at Jesus’ side. Then, on the workdays that follow, he becomes aware of his sinning nature again, in order to set out once more on his inner way to salvation with the usual self-righteousness…

4.6. Weltanschauung as an honorable substitute for knowledge. Superstition, daydreams and role models

The Christian seesaw of opportunistically up- and downgrading one’s own and other people’s sins is admittedly also mastered by average citizens less versed in the Bible. If someone actually does criticize something about bourgeois dealings, he is without further ado a communist and ought to put his own house in order — and before he knows it his own house lies at the foot of the Ural Mountains. One can say whatever one wants to a person who focuses on his righteousness and is even proud of it, because he is firmly convinced he doesn’t need to listen to anything from anyone anyway. He preserves his freedom to imagine the course of the world his way, virtually as a matter of honor he will not be deprived of. Conversely, that does not mean that he sets any store by his judgment; rather, from among the opinions offered him every day by newspapers and television, he adopts as his own those opinions that best correspond to his opportunism along with the attendant disappointments. He gauges every remark another person makes 1) according to the importance of who is speaking, and 2) by the potential consequences that it, were it true, would have for his own way of life, which is otherwise settled. In short, he believes the interpretations of capitalistic events that agree with his attitude — and, conversely, he maintains his attitude to be the necessary consequence of his weltanschauung, which he likes to present as a proven insight into human nature, as his concept of man.

This already betrays the point of the respective edifices of ideas: despite all the low opinions that a modern person concocts about his contemporaries, he does not fail to make out the necessity for all institutions and customs alongside his own exceptional status. At the same time, it hardly bothers him that the measures for order he welcomes do not prevent the transgressions he despises. As a stout reactionary — and this means everyone with a weltanschauung — he makes do with the construct, “Where would we be if …” and shows himself to be very understanding of all the constraints he submits to — of course only because of everyone else, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to control themselves at all. Showing his usual skill in hypocrisy, he agrees “in theory” with idealists of all stripes while maintaining that their fine intentions are obviously not to be realized “in practice.” They run aground on “human nature,” which is the ruin of all good ideas. When construing the necessities that lend plausibility to the correctness of the way he lives, no idea is too stupid as long as it somehow serves to “explain” why he can’t accomplish anything that great — but for the same reason gives him the solace of knowing the secret of the ways of the world and their unpleasantness. Rather ordinary citizens hold to conspiracy theories in matters of world politics, to obscure hypotheses about their illnesses, and to fabulous knowledge of all the reasons behind public life. In the middle of the twentieth century, not so long after the era when Enlightenment struck certain minds — who were convinced that knowledge was a useful thing — there is not only faith, by which people imagine a God after their own image, but also plenty of superstition and expertise in the stars.

The same subjects, who harbor ridiculous notions to come to terms with the fact that they count for nothing much but are theoretically full masters of the situation, additionally indulge in pretty fantastic daydreams, in which they accomplish really great things, showing themselves and everyone else how well they conform to the ideal of their ability and virtuousness. And they discover their dreamed-of achievements as reality in other incarnate personalities who represent something, serving particularly for youth as role models, so that some people get on the nerves of everyone around them as dopey copies of their idols, a movie star being just as suitable as Dad.

4.7. Morality philosophy-wise: Where would we be, then?

The unequivocally highest subdivision of freedom, freedom of thought, shows a touching concern for good morals. These are on principle a concern in all the human and social sciences, in which the bourgeois world, i.e., everything a modern individual declares his agreement with in his attitude and his good conduct, is portrayed as being absolutely necessary and natural and human. And especially a concern in a branch called “ethics” or “practical philosophy,” which deserves to be called very impractical. For it seeks to justify morality as a technique suited to “man.” In today’s think shops, this is not taken as explanation, whereby the moral handling of all antagonisms — between state and citizens, the classes, old and young, man and woman, and so on — is traced back to a reason. Ethical philosophizing undertakes no less than to deduce morality as the indispensable foundation and purpose of all social life, over and above the real reasons that after all exist in practice and have long since been made known in explanations of the economic and political rule of capital (cf. Karl Marx, Capital I–III, and GegenStandpunkt publications on The Democratic State, Imperialism, and Fascism). These enthusiasts of moral authority do not ask questions of the caliber, “What may man do?” or “What should we do?” etc., in order to shed light on prevailing morality, both as obeyed and violated; they act completely as if the world had been waiting for them to discover the principles of decent conduct, so that our earthly existence could receive a Knigge[4] worthy of “Homo sapiens,” “zoon politikon”[5] and “cogito ergo sum.”[6] They see the achievements of free will rather a priori in its self-restraint — quite as if it had nothing more important to do! They are fanatics of conditional nonviolence, of peace on earth that would come if only “people,” all of them, would practice restraint toward others. None of these philosophers has ever been rude to a politician ruthlessly pursuing peace, a foreign minister addicted to development aid, an army general, or a capitalist trading and investing in the East or South — instead they constantly lecture all people as such, since people are all the same to an idealist. For philosophical exercises, all sorts of tiresome borderline situations are dreamed up in the area of conflict between right and duty, situations that constantly revolve around murder and mayhem, and forever portray the world as a problem of legitimatizing self-defense — everything from euthanasia to war is gone through, but of course only in terms of exquisite pangs of conscience, never as judgment about state mandates to kill.

At universities, people pore over the brilliant question of whether one should lie! — and waste not one spark of intelligence on why people lie like mad, while at the same time are convinced of the short legs of knowingly false statements. The problem is tackled “concretely” in advanced classes: everyone imagines a person on his deathbed who you may tell in all conscience that he will win the next six-day race. (Why should one take one’s dozing grandpa, of all people, seriously when one does not even deal honestly with normal people who still brush their own teeth?) When all problems of this caliber are happily solved, that is, the code of good conduct suitable for mankind is finally finished with help from Kant and Christian compassion, some crusaders for the humanity that comes from morals remember or notice something else: that in the name of morality, power is exercised and quite a few things tend to be done that are neither healthy nor uplifting. So the fellows from the ethics front do end up giving some thought to reality, in their own abstruse way. With all their idealism, they demand that state terror (which of course has to be: homo homini lupus![7]), which neither in war nor peace stops at the will of insufficiently righteous individuals, present itself legitimately! The arch-democratic idea of a morally impeccable supervision of individual materialism (= egoism) might then even include a philosophical critique of rule — that turns out accordingly: following Plato, a longing is expressed for kingly philosophers or philosophically versed rulers whenever the exercise of power of past or pres­ent regimes is not to the taste of the ethicist who always stands up for rule qua morality, whenever it puts a strain on his good conscience when it comes to humanity. Or he warns against “overestimating” human reason and — while sublimely abstracting from all the terror that gave birth to democracy and that democracy spreads around the world — argues for democracy in the name of “critical rationalism.” The “argument” being that democracy is based on the insight into the human, all-too-human propensity to err! The relevant nuances of this fairly impractical position of “practical philosophy” toward the world are well received; philosophers, because they speak out for the state as a moral subject, are never suspected of subversion — even though their theoretical humanism now and then reaches different conclusions than do practical and “responsible” politicians when it comes to the environment, abortion and nuclear power. Politicians in turn pick up bits of argumentation from the philosophy shop to exhibit their bad conscience, which thereby recovers its good standing. They simply act as if rule and business were the same for them as for the intellectual elite: a moral mission.

4.8. Moral mania in literature

The presumptuousness of philosophical minds, who justify ethics for their contemporaries, is fed by a luxurious ignorance of the reasons why a considerable majority on the globe have neither food nor morality, and why the majority of the civilized minority have morality guaranteed and thus food only conditionally. However, these practical philosophers have a substitute for knowledge in stock that does the trick: a low opinion of “human beings” and their nature, but a high one of themselves as genuine humanists. Their gift of reflecting about everything that could make “our coexistence” tolerable is proof to them of their exclusive humanity, which they then bestow on people intent on higher nonsense: they are the professional representatives of good and bad conscience, taking loving care of the ideals of bourgeois society apart from its real life, and discovering an imperfect Eden of human rights and duties in the mores of the Free West.

Unfortunately, the thinkers are almost outdone by the writers when it comes to morality. As people who consider their subjective impressions important enough to give them an objective existence in a beautiful form separate from their innermost experiences; as admirers of the power of their imagination, which continually “compels” them to convey their personal images of the world to utter strangers; as most exquisite individualists who think their sensorium[8] has managed to cull the secrets great and small of the conditio humana,[9] and so in their own way — without the detour of science — maintain the identity of their thoughts with what goes on in the world — as subjects of a special literary history, these artists have invented quite a few plots and conflicts. However, they have but rarely succeeded in showing in their stories what is really driving the protagonists they have thought up. Their characters are usually involved in contradictions of by far the noblest caliber, so that their morality is not shown as such, but as the highest purpose and life-and-death problem of the literary figures. The canon of national bourgeois literatures, from the classics to the modern, consists mainly of elaborate illustrations of some constellation or other of conflicting principles: right, duty and inclination are at loggerheads; honor, love and country get in each other’s way; knowledge and power, life and death, or simply good and evil, are at each other’s throats, so that the poor dramatis personae run around as mere allegories.

This suits the professional literary interpreters just fine, because anyway they are always only searching for “meaning” in the “heritage” that they argue about classifying; but — to make another across-the-board judgment — it also testifies to the fact that most artists subject their imagination to the very personal requirement that it enable them to “come to terms with their state of mind.” This technique, which has become a profession in bourgeois society, of seeing one's own creative soul as a very special form of righteousness, as deeply felt humanity itself, and palming off its problems on the reading public for their edification, is evidenced not only by the works of this luxurious species, but also by their forewords, prologues in the theater, their methodological writings on art, their exchange of letters, and the madmen and suicides among poets. There is a complete scale here: from the romantic soul who despairs of the world but still loves it; to the artist constantly problematizing himself, worrying about his integrity as much as his recognition; to the bards of social misery, which they notice to be a contradiction to the wealth of a society that pays for poets, so that they get a bad conscience and lament poverty with verses — all the way to the modern prattling on about the poet’s social roles, missions and responsibilities, where eyeing the public has become the socially acceptable desire to get a message across, the literati have provided lots of evidence that they and their business are what really matter to them, and that they on no account intend to abuse their minds making a free judgment about the world. So to this very day they are still grappling with the pathetic alternatives of their fancy, whose sole freedom consists in deciding whether to present the impossibility of happiness or its realization in their edifying opuses. After Brecht’s simpleminded achievement of explicitly making the failure of morality, human goodness that has no place (yet) in the world, the object of his writings, there was only one transition left to make: to illustrate the psychological “problematics” by putting the war between heart, mind, real self and screwed-up will on the agenda, and impress the stamp of modern theories of man and his striving for “self-realization” on the products of artistic imagination once and for all. The story of literature’s moral mania is not amusing, not even in its inevitable attempts to be immoral; and not terribly uplifting either, unless it comes along without pretension: as a western, a mystery or a work of science fiction, where there is no need for any doubt about what message is being conveyed by a sheriff, a criminal or a robot…


[1] Ludwig Hölty: “Üb’ immer Treu und Redlichkeit / Bis an dein kühles Grab.” Set to music by Mozart.

[2] The valet’s perspective: Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit (VI. C. c.), mentions a French saying, “there is no hero for his valet (il n'y pas de héros pour son valet de chambre).” Modern historians, in the spirit of the valet, are enamored of presenting the ordinary aspects of the lives of their “great men.”

[3] The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft) No. 275

[4] Knigge: etiquette manual. After Adolph Freiherr von Knigge 1752–1796, On Human Relations (Über den Umgang mit Menschen) a treatise with the reputation of being the authoritative guide to behavior, politeness and etiquette.

[5] Aristotle: “urban/political animal.”

[6] Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”

[7] Latin: “man is a wolf to man,” Hobbes, Leviathan.

[8] Sensorium: entire sensory apparatus.

[9] Latin: human condition.