The Downfall of Idealism

By Mann, Thomas | UNESCO Courier, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Downfall of Idealism


Mann, Thomas, UNESCO Courier


In this second excerpt from the address he gave in 1935 at a meeting organized in Nice by the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation on the theme of the education of modern man (see previous issue), the German writer Thomas Mann has harsh words for the moral waywardness of the masses and their betrayal of the intellect. This text, written almost sixty years ago at the time of the rise of Nazism, is in some ways still strikingly topical. The third and final instalment will appear in next month's issue.

THE First World War was not the prime cause of the impoverishment of European civilization. It only accelerated and accentuated it. It was not the war that threw up the gigantic wave of eccentric barbarity and demagogical, primitive brutality that is overwhelming the world; it only enlarged and intensified its blind rage. Modern man is both the victim and the product of the disorganized and confusing as well as exciting and exhilarating impressions that assail him. The fantastic development of technological expertise with its triumphs and disasters, the blare and thrills of sporting records, the exaggerated importance and remuneration given to crowd-drawing "stars", the boxing matches fought for fabulous prizes and held in vast arenas before huge crowds--these are some of the characteristic features of our time, along with the decadence and decline of concepts that are edifying and salutary in their severity, such as culture, the mind, art and ideas. These are the conceptions of the bourgeois age, the glad rags of nineteenth-century idealism.

In fact the nineteenth century was above all a period of idealism. With a certain emotion we see today just how idealistic it was. It not only believed in the benefits of liberal democracy but in socialism, a socialism that would elevate the masses, instruct them and have them participate in the advantages of science, culture and art, in short, in civilization. Today we are convinced that it is more important and also easier to dominate the masses by increasingly perfecting the crude art of using their psychology, i.e. by replacing their education with propaganda, not, it would seem, without the intimate consent of the masses, who can easily be swayed by dynamic propaganda that seems more modern and more attractive to them than any educational idea. The masses are organizable, and it can be seen that they always accept organization gratefully, whatever the spirit behind it may be, even if it is the spirit of violence. Violence is a principle that greatly simplifies things; it is no surprise that it should be understood by the masses.

If these modern masses were merely primitive, if they only consisted of happy, naive barbarians, it would be possible to get along with them and hope for something, but they have two qualities that make them quite simply appalling: they are sentimental, and they are disastrously philosophical. The mind of the masses, imbued with noisy modernism as it is, speaks in romantic jargon. It talks of race, the earth and blood, a stack of old ideas both traditional and pious. . . . The result is a hypocritical blend of sentimentality and popular stupidity bathed in mawkishness, a triumphant combination that characterizes and defines our times.

THE IDEALISTIC REBELLION

Things are even worse concerning the masses' philosophical system. Of course, they didn't invent it; it has trickled down to them little by little from the intellectual spheres above. The role played by the mind for several decades now has been extremely remarkable. It has turned against itself, has begun to indulge in irony at its own expense and has pathetically abdicated in favour of life and the generative forces of the unconscious, of the dynamic, and of the subterranean deities, those august and dark creative forces whose maternal breast is the sacred source of all life. …

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