Few have beheld the character of the modern age with greater perspicuity and profundity than have Nietzsche and Tocqueville. Resisting the positivistic inclinations of his century, Tocqueville posited that what defined modern society essentially was not its industrial or economic or scientific makeup, but rather its democratic constitution. This insight had less to do with the structural or institutional composition of democratic society than with the spirit that animates it. “The principal passion” that impels people in democratic times is “the love of equality,” a passion that ultimately is unslakable, and indeed grows more insatiable the more it is satisfied. For Tocqueville, the democratization of humanity was “a providential fact” that could not be undone.
Nietzsche likewise divined the democratic character of the modern age—“the masters have been disposed of... the common man has won.” But for Nietzsche, who considered himself a force majeure for having cleaved the history of mankind in two, it was not simply nineteenth century thought that he confounded, but the values of the past two millennia, which is to say, the very values upon which western civilization rested. It is because those values have maintained sway for two thousand years that the fate of humanity now lies in the hands of a specific type of man, namely the democratic type, who in turn ushers in the ascendancy of the most despicable type of man—the last man. Sated with the ease and order with which he has endued existence, the last man has no great longings or lasting ambitions. His arrival signifies the ultimate diminution and degeneration of man beyond which the prospect of human greatness effectively vanishes forever.
Such a denouement was understood all too well by Tocqueville, who feared that in the democratic age, “man will exhaust himself in small, solitary, sterile motions, and that, while constantly moving, humanity will cease to advance.” Notwithstanding the prodigious, and oftentimes, insuperable differences that divided Tocqueville and Nietzsche, their musings display a profound concord with respect to the democratic march of history and what it signified for mankind—that democratic man was not superior to his aristocratic antecedent; that the democratization of humanity was not synonymous with advancement; and that the democratic future, far from being an unmitigated bastion of hope and progress, was a source of dread and nausea for those who sincerely and perspicaciously peered into it.
The aim of this disquisition is to descry what inspired such dread in each of their souls and how mankind had arrived at such a moment of foreboding. It begins with an investigation of the modern project, whose principal players, notwithstanding the scorn they heaped upon pre-modern thought, ultimately advanced that thinking insofar as they not only failed to call into question, but unremittingly championed the two most radical ideas to have emerged from Athens and Jerusalem: the supremacy of reason over instinct and the inherent equality of all men. Attention then is given to a type of man that the moderns either forsook altogether or purposefully sought to marginalize, namely the aristocratic type. Following this exposition of aristocratic man is an account of the revolutions that brought about his downfall—first in spirit and later in deed—namely the Socratic, Christian and French revolutions. The final chapter is an explication of democratic man.