At the beginning of my paper, I invite you to imagine a scene from one of the most important works found in German literature. It's one of the last scenes in the second part of Goethe's tragedy Faust.
As you will certainly remember, Faust promoted by Mephistopheles - the devil himself - has become a very successful man in military, political and economic matters. At the end of the drama the former scholar Faust is a very rich businessman who by now ought to be happy and satisfied. That's what he has tried to be all his life. At the beginning of the play Faust was sure that happiness would be an unattainable aim for him. So he made a bet with Mesphistopheles saying that he would never enjoy a single happy moment in his life.
I would like to draw your attention to the scene where Faust has almost gained all that is humanly possible. But still he is not satisfied enough to long for one single moment to continue. Right now four allegorical, grey women appear in front of Faust's house. They are called Want, Guilt, Care and Need. (1)Want stands for poverty, Need for scarcity and Guilt is not meant in a moral sense but in a mere economic one.
None of these women is able to enter Faust's house. Turning shadows of nothing they have to leave and to surrender. The only one to remain is Care - "Sorge" in the original German text.
"Care" could mean "worry" as well as "consideration". I personally prefer to translate Care with Worry, because for one thing it is a much more expressive term and then I think that this is exactly what is meant by Goethe.
Now back to the allegory. Care (Worry) is convinced that Faust's palace is exactly the right place for her to stay. Faust tries to get rid of her, but she stays and blinds him. In the following short monologue Care (respectively Worry) says something that seems very interesting to me concerning the theme of worry as crucial element of the spirit of modern social systems. She says that once a man is in her possession he could never derive any benefit from all the earthly goods. She goes on that he will starve even if he lives in plenty and luxury, because he only thinks about the future and thus all his wants and his sorrows will never come to an end. (2)
In the next scene we meet Faust standing in front of his palace, listening to the noise caused by the Lemures (zombie-like creatures working for him). The Lemures should drain the shore of the sea to gain new land usable for agricultural purposes. Faust imagines himself gaining power even over the endless ocean. The illusion of occupying the borderless expanse of the sea finally makes him happy and he says the fatal words about the present moment: "linger on, thou art so fair!" (3) By saying this, Faust has lost his bet and dies, for these were the conditions of his bet with Mephistopheles. If he ever says these words, he will perish at once: "The clock may stop, the pointer falling, and time itself be past for me!" (4) So are his words in the first part of the play, which now become reality.
Because of his blindness Faust could not know that the noise he heard was not that of his imaginary project but the noise of the Lemures digging his own grave. Hence the reason of his happiness is just a delusion.
Well now, why do I tell you this old story, this literary fiction? What can we learn from it concerning current social questions and actual life in today's society?
I am convinced, that Goethe was not only an excellent poet, but also a profound and precise observer of the social changes happening during his lifetime. Faust II was completed by the nearly 80 years old poet in 1828. Up to then he had been a witness of early technical revolution and industrialisation and of an immense growth of the European population. He had been a witness of the French Revolution and of the gradual change from protectionism and mercantile-economy to free market-economy. New and revolutionary technologies like the steam engine had been worked out. Paper money had been established and the bank-business had boomed like never before. All this had initiated a development that finally led to the modern liberal market society of today's industrialised western world.
For this, although at the first glance Faust seems to be an old fashioned character, we can take him so to say as the prototype of modern man. So I think we will make illuminating discoveries concerning the spirit of modern society by reflecting about some of the features of this fascinating character.
By the way, whenever I use the term "spirit of society" I refer to Max Weber who defines the spirit of a society as the complex realm of correlations of the social reality forming a special shape of culture, which includes religious faith and outlook on life. (5)
So let us analyse some aspects of Faust as it is presented to us at the end of the tragedy:
1) Faust is a very successful man. We have to acknowledge the fact that in regard to economical standards his career is superb.
2) Faust is a blind man, blinded by worry.
3) Faust is a very dynamic future-oriented man, looking ahead, wasting no time; finally however losing every time.
4) Faust is a man who has made a deal with Satan by reason of the inability to find any satisfying answer to all his burning questions.
So if it is true that Faust is a prototype of modern man we have to scrutinize whether we may find these characteristics in the modern - perhaps post-modern - enlightened man who is citizen of a liberal democracy with free market-economy as well? I will try to answer this question by comparing the literary fictitious character with the reality of the western world we are living in.
It's beyond doubt that modern, western societies are successful. It would be defeatism to deny it. It is possible to represent a Rousseauistic romanticism, glorifying a natural way of life without the corrupting influences of culture, of course. But a position like this taken by people sitting in warm and cosy apartments, having the best infrastructure at their disposal, using best medicine, modern media and a lot of technical equipment can't be convincing. It's rather an affront to all the people who can't have such a way of life.
Western societies are rich. Even the majority of the poor people being part of these societies are almost rich compared with people living in parts of Asia, Latin-America or in subsaharan Africa. This, of course, does not justify our ignorance of their so-called relative poverty, which is indeed a real social problem and violates the dignity of the people concerned. Anyway the idea of trickling down of the benefits of economic growth to the bottom of the social ladder does not really fit. But nevertheless western standard is an advantage also for the poor in our societies.
Furthermore, economic welfare seems to be the source of political freedom. It is a matter of fact: the richer a society the weaker the outlooks for despotic systems are to survive. Up to now no democratic state has declared war on another democratic state. For this a lot of political scientists are convinced that there is not only a causal connection between wealth and freedom, but also between wealth and peace. (6) In this sense economy seems to become a new kind of "euangelion", a modern type of redeeming gospel and it's rules seem to shape a better morality.(7)
But what about the negative effects of our modern society? One may point out the erosion of communitarian values, the "economisation" of all social relations or the disastrous destruction of ecological environment. These effects do exist. But whoever demands any improvements or modifications of the shape of western lifestyle, is faced with a real ethical dilemma, if these modifications jeopardize progress and economic growth. Ethical demands and commandments appear to become immoral if they are discovered to be hindrances for technical and economic development. On the other hand everything accelerating economic growth and technical progress seems to be socially and morally justified. This is a typical Faustian pattern I think.
This leads us to the second point I mentioned above: Blindness.
Faust is blinded by the allegorical character called Care. His sorrows, his worry make him incapable of realizing the world as it is. Is it reasonable to assert, that modern western societies or the people living in these societies are blind in the same way?
Well, Walter Benjamin doesn't talk about a society blinded by worry, but still turned mad by it. He says that worry is the mania of our time (8) and points out the astonishing phenomenon that people in rich, technically well-equipped western societies feel insecure to an enormous degree. This insecurity (which is not based on real threats) is the source of worry.
One could say: Even if that is a correct observation, it is not specific to modern societies and has nothing to do with a specific social spirit at all. It is just a situation caused by the precarious nature of our world.
To my mind, this is a completely wrong view of the problem concerned. I suppose that at some time at the beginning of modern era a fundamental change in the spirit of European society took place. It is impossible to reconstruct the history of such a complex development now. (9) But let me depict a little example to illustrate what I mean.
The English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) uses pieces of ancient and medieval tradition in his work sometimes but interprets them in a complete new way. (10) He, for example, adopts the traditional sentence, well known in medieval philosophy: "Natura dedit omnia omnibus".
Hobbes quotes it literally in De Cive. There he uses this sentence to describe what he calls the natural law. The original meaning of "natura dedit omniaomnibus" is that nature - understood as well-done creation of god - contents sufficient goods for everyone. The fact, that there is abject poverty and need among men, was interpreted as a result of misguided human action. In theological terms; it was interpreted as harvest of sin. In his Leviathan (Chapter XIV) (11) Thomas Hobbes interprets the quotation "natura dedit omnia omnibus" in a completely different way. To him it means the right of every man to every thing. That of course, sooner or later, results in scarcity of resources and goods, because all the people will make a claim on everything. If that is the starting point of human society, it is unavoidable that everyone becomes everyone's enemy. If every man is given a natural right to every thing the world we live in can only be an inhospitable and scanty place.
Presupposing the scarcity of necessities of life, another English philosopher - David Hume (1711-1776) - arrived at the conclusion that society could only be a union of individuals appropriate to satisfy their needs for material goods.
In his Treatise of Human Nature (III,II) Hume writes, that possessions we have acquired by our industry and good fortune "... are both expos'd to the violence of others, and may be transferr'd without suffering any loss or alteration; while at the same time, there is not a sufficient quantity of them to supply every one's desires and necessities" (12). Based on this he continues arguing:" ... the improvement, ..., of these goods is the chief advantage of society, ..." This, of course, is an interpretation that differs widely from the older tradition. St. Augustine for example defines the social body of a people as community bound together by sharing a common love of the same objects.(13) The moral quality of the people depends on the quality of these objects. Unlike Hume for Augustine it is not necessary that they are material, earthly and for this limited goods. Of course also in Hume you will find another type of goods, related to the internal satisfaction of our minds. But they are not relevant to the social dimension of human life at all. People do not remain united because of any shared aim or ideal. The only target they have in common is to optimise their individual ability to acquire and protect property. This cut-back of the concept of society and human nature has become crucial for western intellectual history and also for the social reality. The British scholar of political history Larry Siedentop depicts this fact writing: "... western societies are no longer grounded in shared beliefs. The implication is that what holds them together now are shared interests arising from consumer wants and the radical interdependence springing from an advanced division of labour. The pursuit of wealth, it is held, has replaced belief as the cement of society in the West." (14)
The kernel of the approach is, that limited goods - as was already pointed out by Augustine - are a permanent source of conflict. This means that in case of a deficiency of basic goods human society can not be anything but a constant conflictive arrangement without decisive relationships of any positive kind.
Nowadays we are astonished to recognise, that during long periods of history people did not see the world to be so incomplete, although the need - even of simple and basic goods - was much more significant than today. Among others Marshal Shalins described this in his Stone-Age Economics. (15)
So what can we pick up from these considerations concerning our issue?
Scarcity of resources and goods is a very influential element of social reality. There is an old tradition describing this scarcity as a result of the behaviour of free human agents. Freedom remains decisive even if man is influenced by original sin as it is suggested in Christian tradition. Hobbes too understood scarcity as a result of human behaviour. But in his concept homo homini lupus corresponds to the created nature of man. Therefore no responsibility is left to man and selfishness is just human. Thinkers who adopt this approach have to understand selfishness both as crucial problem and as the mainspring of human society.
In my opinion the essential point is that we do not only have to realize a change in the understanding of the human nature and the nature of the whole world in such theories, but also a change in the understanding of god. Although he was still accepted as creator of the world, he was no longer seen as a friend of all he had created and as the summum bonum desired by all human beings as their final aim. On the contrary, now god was imagined as a powerful but arbitrarily acting tyrant. Now creation was seen as an initial act of a deistic clock-worker, whereas according to the biblical tradition creation is an ongoing activity of a present and careful god who accompanies human history. This god for example is depicted by the prophets when they compare JHWH with a man who saves and provides for an abandoned child (Ez 16, 5-8) or with parents who caress their baby and will never forget it (Hos 11,4). God was still supposed to be powerful, but his loving fatherhood (motherhood) had been forgotten. This marks an essential break in the intellectual history of the occident.
Of course, all this could be considered a pure theological problem with no importance for people who have decided not to be believers of any god or transcendent power. But the approaches of Hobbes and Hume have clearly shown us that the effects of the change - I have tried to point out above - on the very realm of social life are significant.
As soon as god as summum bonum, god as plenty of being - in which the whole world participates - disappears, mankind is forced to become a hostile crowd of egoistic and potentially violent individuals. The main reason for this is not the limited nature of the given world, but the fact, that without any transcendent lighthouse to help us to orientate ourselves, the envious glance at our neighbours becomes the central spur to act. This impulse has no limitation at all and for this each realm of goods is necessarily considered as inferior an each fulfilled wish remains found wanting.
For this I argue that worry which confuses us - remember; Benjamin calls it the mania of our time - is an effect of the changed conception of god, that is far from the biblical one. But there is a further question to be answered: Does a lifestyle characterised by infinite worry make us blind?
Well, in this context "blindness" does not mean: to see nothing. It means to see only special things; in other words: to see things only from a very special point of view. At first glance this seems to be an inevitable result of basic social differentiation (16). Every specialization requires the restriction of a multitude of various viewpoints. A good physician usually would not be a good lawyer or mechanic and no one expects him to be. We expect that everyone knows his own job well. But the blindness I am talking about means more than this.
Let me explain it with an example. In German it is en vogue to use the word "Sachzwang" in economic and political arguments. I am not sure whether "factual constraint" is the accurate equivalent in English. However "Sachzwang" means that certain circumstances force individual or collective agents to make decisions and do actions in a particular way. So only a few options are (or seem to be) left to choose from. The circumstances of a society formed by people who's main goal is self-protection make it reasonable to behave self-centred. Even if someone wants to act in an altruistic way, it would be impossible for him as long as any single man is supposed to act egoistic. The only possible alternative for the individual that seems to exist is to bear high costs or even perish. That's the idea of "Sachzwang".
For this we can summarize, that the assumption of necessary, scarcity-caused rivalry leads to an "economisation" of the whole realm of human existence. The homo oeconomicus becomes the concept of man hold by the mainstream of current economists. What is more, the resourceful, evaluating, maximising nature (17) of this homo oeconomicus becomes the pattern of general human behaviour: first in politics, as depicted in Anthony Downs Economic Theory of Democracy, then in ethics and the daily life as argued for example by the American economist and Nobel-Price-winner Gary S. Becker or the German moral-philosopher Karl Homann. (18)
Human beings acting like homines oeconomici keep sliding into situations of the so-called "prisoner's dilemma". In such situations decisions which are known to be (ethically) wrong have to be taken - even if they provoke bad consequences for the actor himself and/or for the community concerned. They have to be taken to avoid disadvantages in the struggle for scarce goods. There is no way out of this trap; none but confidence and trustful cooperation. Who however would trust in a situation of common competition that is accepted as a matter of fact by everyone?
Each of us knows such dilemma-situations very well from the experiences of the daily life. We are surrounded by a destructive form of competition caused by unreal and imaginary dangers and threats. Thus we are terribly afraid that another person may diminish our chances. And occupied with sorrows we will never have enough chances. In this way a lot of human resources are lost in economic enterprises as well as in scientific research or in politics. The advantages and benefits of cooperation can not be utilized as long as each collaborator is seen as potential competitor. For example excellent ideas or solutions found to a problem will be kept hidden as long as possible to prevent someone else from harvesting the fruits. Another outcome of destructive competition is that everyone tries to keep mistakes and failures far away from him. Blame-management - that means to spend your time managing your blame and credit and not managing the tasks necessary to produce a product or service (19) or solve a problem - becomes an increasingly important activity.
Thus there is no real benefit from a way of life dominated by sorrow; not even in business.
That's what "blindness" means to me. Our perspective on reality is enormously diminished by a special kind of world-view, but non the less we are convinced to have a comprehensive knowledge of it, gathered from empirical hard facts. But what is the meaning of hard facts in social contexts? At least since the famous book of Berger and Luckmann (20) we should know that in the end each social reality is a manmade construction. And this construction is based on convictions and habits of previous and present limbs of the social body including their religious faith.
Another type of blindness connected very closely to this unquestioning obedience to self-evoked realities can only be mentioned in passing. I mean the blindness of worried, self-protecting individuals in regard to the victims of common competition. You can't say that these victims are not recognised. Modern societies are very sensitive to victimisation. But the snag is that in general no one feels responsible for them, no one feels guilty of making victims. That's due to everyone's conviction to decide and act in a way that is natural, reasonable, necessary and unavoidable to survive.
What's about the third characteristic of Goethe's Faust? Let me briefly discuss the aspect of time and time-management. I described Faust as man with foresight who used his time very economically. Non the less in the end, having lost his bet with Mephistopheles, he loses all his time. Is this also true of modern man?
Friedrich Engels said that basically every scarcity is scarcity of time. That is due to the expiry of time that forces us to make decisions, to pay opportunity costs (21)
for every thing we want to acquire. If that is true, I think it is self-evident, that saving time is an integral part of the behaviour of a man spurred on by worry.
But I would like to mention a further dimension of our time-management as well. If any transcendent aim as motivation for human behaviour is missing, future could not be seen as promise any longer. It is rather a threat then. Because future means to come closer to the final end - one's own end and the end of history as well. If life - the life we are living at the moment - is supposed to be our last and only opportunity (22) we will try to use every second of this time, which, of course, causes an enormous speeding-up of modern life from which an ever-increasing number of people suffer. On the other hand we try to expand the time of this live as much as possible, which leads to a wide-spread denial of death in western societies.
In Hobbes' and in Hume's philosophy the fear of death is depicted as basis of human behaviour and, therefore, the decisive foundation-stone of social order. The difference between mortal animals and mortal humans is the fact that human beings are aware of their mortality. Hence fear of death is inevitable connected with consciousness. This idea became a very influential concept in philosophy as well as in social sciences. One of the thinkers refusing this position because of it's unchristian mode is Sören Kierkegaard. In his opinion, fear of death is not a natural precondition of human behaviour but a result of the broken relationship between god and man. As Charles Bellinger formulates, the mainspring of fearful and despairing human behaviour in Kierkegaard is not the denial of death, but "... it is the denial of the fullness of life to which God is calling each person." (23) For the authors of the biblical book of Genesis this denial of fulfilment of life through god causes sin and further on death. Fear precedes rather than follows the awareness of mortality. At this point we can see the close connection between human behaviour - also in social affairs - and the assumed concept of the deity again. Even such a basic matter as the limitation of lifetime is not just a fate that could not be modified. It is rather the consequence of a variable social spirit that has been changed indeed.
The situation of a society characterised by the fear of the end is paradoxical. Threatened by the final and ultimate end man has to find his luck within the few decades of his lifetime. But he will hardly find it, because he is preoccupied with the concern not to be efficient and quick enough. The yearning to fill his live let him hurry from one event to another, from one intimate relation to another, from one conviction to another and so on. What he will ever miss is a moment of satisfaction or happiness. That's exactly the mode of life portrayed by Goethe's Faust.
What is more: the more time one saves, the less is left. Like Faust we loose our precious time just at the moment we guess to have multiplied it - for example by the attempt to rule the future by planning ahead, risk-calculation, insurances and so on.
Once again there seems to be no alternative. Under these circumstances the dominant imperative - as Heinz von Foerster defines it (24) - is: act in a way that further opportunities emerge. The question of the quality of these opportunities does not really matter; quantity is important, a quantity that makes us believe that there is no end. What we try to reach is an everlasting presence but unfortunately we are never present there but busy producing a new now in advance. That's what is called bad eternity.
These considerations of anxious time-management lead us to yet another kind of blindness. It is a blindness described by Alasdair McIntyre depicting the social character of the so-called "manager". (25) The "manager" (by the way this type of character could not only be found in economy) is an agent who is aware of the very next step to take; Max Weber would call him an expert. His single steps he takes very efficient and reasonable. But hardly ever will he reflect on where his decisions take him in the end and what their long running consequences are. Hence the worried and hurried-up man is forced to go his way in a short-sighted mode.
It's obvious that going ahead in a hurry while being short-sighted if not blind is dangerous and even self-destructive.
The last feature characterising Faust I have mentioned is his deal with Satan. That this relation to the devil could be one of our own traits you will hardly accept, even if you are willing to agree with my arguments up to now. Nonetheless I do maintain that it is so. I am aware of the problem of talking about a deal with Satan still avoiding a useless fundamentalist concept of the devil as a bad smelling guy wearing horns and a tail.
A number of modern scholars, also in social sciences (for example Max Weber, Niklas Luhmann or René Girard, to name only three disparate thinkers however being in agreement in this single point) try to stress one idea by using the term Satan or devil. They want to draw our attention on paradoxical structures that are characterized by their internal disunion.
If we call such phenomena diabolic, Satan is a reality of modern society indeed. (26) As the mentioned authors I do not intend to paint a one-hundred-percent negative picture of our modern world. The crucial point is that our attempts to solve urgent problems of living together are conflicting: they reduce problems by increasing them.
The main purpose of modern economy for example is to subdue scarcity, but the means it uses continuously reproduce scarcity. The invisible hand of the market should gain peace and a common wealth for egoistic and envious individuals but the market does not work without envy. And thus it contains an everlasting source of dangerous and violent conflict. Another example is the attempt to deal with technical risk by using more elaborated technical means. The probability of disastrous mistakes and catastrophes is increasing the more complex and sophisticated technical systems are. Interactions between different systems or a system and its environment become more opaque. Nonetheless we try to solve our problems like air- and water-pollution or the global warming by technical development.
Such diabolic structures of the social system, such vicious circles will exist as long as we try to satisfy our desires - which are eternal on principle - with limited items or goods. In biblical language such an attempt is called idolatry. The idols harshly criticized by the prophets in the Old Testament were made by craftsmen but in the end their servants were in their power even it was out of the power of these wooden gods to do anything to help their admirers.
So let me conclude my essay with a short summary. Societies lacking the possibility to relate themselves to any form of transcendence tend to create idols which are supposed to redeem the society from its threatening tensions. But as far as these tensions spring from unlimited human longings and desires man-made, mortal deities necessarily have to be insufficient. Furthermore, even if there is any social relevant idea of a transcendent deity, this can still be a kind of idol. In a biblical perspective that occurs whenever god is made a competitor of mankind by distrust. Just that is the worrisome sting, brought into human life by Satan in accordance with the biblical narration. Such idolatry is not only a spiritual problem, but one that has an enormous impact on the whole realm of social reality. It transforms our perception of space and time, that means the perception of the world we live in and it transforms our behaviour in the world, especially the behaviour towards our neighbours. Thus we should not ignore the religious dimension of man if we intend to reflect and to form the shape of social systems.
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1. Goethe (1986) lines 11384-11397.
I quote from the German text of the play ibid. lines 11453-11466:
„Wen ich einmal mir besitze,/Dem ist alle Welt nichts nütze,/Ewiges Düstre steigt herunter,/Sonne geht nicht auf noch unter,/Bei vollkommnen äußern Sinnen/Wohnen Finsternisse drinnen,/Und er weiß von allen Schätzen/Sich nicht in Besitz zu setzen./Glück und Unglück wird zur Grille,/Er verhungert in der Fülle;/Sei es Wonne, sei es Plage,/Schiebt er's zu dem andern Tage,/Ist der Zukunft nur gewärtig,/Und so wird er niemals fertig."
3. Ibid. line11582
4. Ibid. lines 1705-1706
5. Cf. Weber (1920) 30.
6. Cf.Fukuyama (1999) 17-19. Fukuyama recognices a "democratic syllogism" which formulates a causal connection between democracy, peace and economic development. Sen (1999) holds that individual freedom and economic wealth are closely interrelated.
7. Cf.Dumouchel (1999) 180.
8. Cf. Benjamin 1974, 697f
9. The reasons of this shift are not easy to recognize. One crucial point - I think - could have been the corruption of Christian church in the time of confessional quarrels and religious wars. The biblical god, the contents of the gospel and Christian ethics lost their credibility. For this a lot of pagan ideas filled the spiritual gap, even if people further felt Christian.
10. Cf.Nonnenmacher (1989) 22.
11. Cf.Hobbes (2000) 91.
Hume (1964) 261.
13. Cf. Augustinus XIX,24 ( 41997) 578: "Populus est coetus multitudinis rationalis, rerum quas diligit concordi communione sociatus: profecto ut videatur quails quisque populus sit, illa sunt intuedo quae diligit. "; cf. Elshtain (1995) 23.
Siedentop (2001) 209.
15. Cf.Doumochel (1999) 192-206.
16. I refer to the works of Herbert Spencer an Emil Durkheim using this term of differentiation. The German social scientist Niklas Luhmann modified the term in a very individual way we don't have to take into consideration here.
About this theme cf. Kirchgässner (1991).
18. Cf.Downs (1997); Becker (1971); Homann/Suchanek (2000).
19. Cf.Grote/ McGeeney (1997) 71.
20. I refer toBerger/Luckman (1977).
The value of all the other goods or services that we must give up in order to get one special good is called Opportunity costs.
22. I refer to Annemarie Gronemeyer's book, titled „Das Leben als letzte Gelegenheit".
23. Bellinger (2001) 40.
Foerster (1981) 60:"Handle stets so, dass weitere Möglichkeiten entstehen."
25. Cf. McIntyre (1984) 26-33.
The meaning of the Greek word diaballein is to split or to confuse.