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The Cult of the Colossal

Young's Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City 1908. Rob Ketcherside / Flickr.com

The cult of the colossal means kowtowing before the merely “big”–which is thus adequately legitimized as the better and more valuable–it means contempt for what is outwardly small but inwardly great, it is the cult of power and unity, the predilection for the superlative in all spheres of cultural life, yes, even in language. It is only since Napoleon’s time that the adjective “great” or “grand” begins to make its telling appearance in expressions such as “Grand Army,” “Grand Dukes,” “Great General Staff,” “Great Powers,” and begins to demand from men the proper respect, and Europe is actually just as much intoxicated as America by expressions such as “unique,” “the world’s biggest,” “the greatest of all times,” “unprecedented.” To this style of the time correspond, in equal degree, the unexampled increase in population, imperialism, socialism, mammoth industries, monopolism, statism, monumental architecture, technical dynamism, mass armies, the concentration of governmental powers, giant cities, spiritual collectivization, yes, even Wagner’s operas.

Since the cult of the colossal reduces qualitative greatness to mere quantity, to nothing but numbers, and since quantity can only be topped by ever greater quantity, the intoxication with size will in the end exceed all bounds and will finally lead to absurdities which have to be stopped. Since, moreover, different quantities of different species can only be reduced to a common denominator by means of money in order to render them comparable in the race of outdoing each other, the result is a tendency to measure size by money pure and simple–as, for instance, in the American seaside resort, Atlantic City, where in 1926 I found a gigantic pier simply being christened “Million Dollar Pier.” Thus we find very close bonds of kinship between the cult of the colossal and commercialism.

While this time the world was gained, the soul suffered considerable damage in the process. The abrupt change from the concerns of the spirit to material affairs was bound to result in the withering of the soul. By abandoning humanism one lost the capacity for making man the measure of things and thus finally lost every kind of orientation. Life becomes de-humanized and man becomes the plaything of inhuman, pitiless forces. This results in “the abuse of greatness … when it disjoins remorse from power” (Julius Caesar II, I), hence the increasing indifference to all matters of collective ethics, hence scientific positivism and relativism, which represent such a radical departure from the certain sense of values possessed by the eighteenth century. It further leads to a fanatical belief in a mechanical causality even outside the processes of nature; to the love of mathematics (which the eighteenth century, in contrast to the seventeenth, did not favor, at least not during its latter part); to social laws such as Malthus’ “law of population,” or Lassalle’s “immutable law of wages”; to the oriental-baroque flirtation with fate; in brief to determinism which not only is raised anew to a philosophic dogma, but also dominates sociology, be it in the garb of Marx’s materialist view of history, be it in that of geographical determinism, as first developed by Ritter and Ratzel and finally raised in geopolitics to a veritable geographic romanticism, or be it finally as biological or even merely zoological determinism, the final degradation that could be reached along that path.

It is rather fascinating to follow this secular spirit in all its varied manifestations and to discover traces of it even where one had hardly expected it. Let us ignore the difficult field of the history of art, and look more closely into the scientific activities of the nineteenth century: it is incontestable that the decidedly ontological, cosmological and objectivist view which the nineteenth century had of the world, in contrast to the anthropological and subjectivist view of the eighteenth century, was bound to engender that scientific attitude which we call “positivism,” and it is just as undeniable that it is closely linked to “relativism,” the refusal to hold an opinion, the cool and seemingly objective registration of facts. It is also related to that type of scholar so characteristic of the nineteenth century, with his ceremonious gravity, his antiquated outlook, his love of great systems, schools of philosophy and gigantic works of learning, to whom brevity and a pleasing style are signs of shallowness.

These qualities had been regarded likewise by the pedantic and stilted seventeenth century, so completely different from the cheerful and loquacious eighteenth century, which loved essays and apercus, and in which even a man like Kant did not consider it beneath his dignity to write Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, to say nothing of the merry pranks of a Lichtenberg. Just as typical is the concomitant difference between the scholar’s life in the eighteenth century–sociable, characterized by extensive correspondence, dinners and disputations–and the masterful dogmatism of the scholars of the nineteenth century, each of whom reigned as despot over the circle of his disciples, bitterly opposed to all the other intellectual despots. How symptomatic of the eighteenth century that the aphorisms written by the physicist Lichtenberg for the “Goettinger Pocket Calendar,” and Samuel Johnson’s table talk, as recorded by his friend Boswell, are still among the reading we most enjoy! Where would we find this later in the nineteenth century?

What nineteenth century science lacked in the final analysis was the courage to be simple and natural, a courage which this neo-baroque century of the colossal lacked in every other respect as well, because it had lost the human measure. We must refrain from following this trait through the various branches of science, such as the natural sciences, or history, where the collective concepts were smothering the concept of man, or medicine, which at that time earned for itself the reputation of treating the disease and not the patient, or finally jurisprudence. But we cannot omit mentioning two exceedingly telling traits by which every century in the history of thought usually gives itself away.

The first concerns the estimation in which the great “strong men” of world history are held at a given period: the Caesars, the imperators, conquerors and tyrants. The value which an era places on Caesar, Alexander, Cromwell, Richelieu or Napoleon, typifies it as a whole and there is nothing more characteristic of the century of the colossal than that, like the seventeenth century before it, it looks up, awe-stricken, to this type of man and his works. While in the sixteenth century (which, in its turn, is so very similar to the eighteenth), Montaigne had reproached Caesar most disrespectfully for “l’ordure de sa pestilente ambition,” and whereas Montesquieu had bluntly talked of the “crimes de Cesar,” and Lichtenberg had even resignedly spoken of the “biggest and fattest oxen that draw the crowds at the cattle fair,” the nineteenth century again beings to discourse mysteriously on the “missions” of the conquerors and to build up a veritable cult around the Caesars. Even Mommsen wrote his Roman History in this spirit, as did Droysen his history of Alexander the Great, while it is one of Jacob Burckhardt’s valid titles to fame that he bravely upheld the standards of true historical greatness and at an early date opposed the Napoleon cult which has finally been exploded in our days. Hand in hand with the over-estimation of the successful, we find a corresponding under-estimation of those who, like Demosthenes, offered unsuccessful resistance to the conquerors. It is a hopeful sign for our own time that it has again brought the yardsticks of the eighteenth century down from the attic and begins to note the negative side of the conquerors and their deeds, that it criticizes the imperators and tyrants–the Alexanders, Caesars, Richelieus, Napoleons and others of their kind–and sees their opponents (from Demosthenes and Cato to Talleyrand, Madame de Staël, and Constantin Frantz) in a new light. It is only today that we have reached the point where, following in Gibbon’s footsteps, we are once more prepared to add up dispassionately the terrible liabilities of the Roman Empire.

The second point in which the centuries tend to show a characteristic difference is in their relationship to primitive man, to the so-called “savage,” and here, too, ideas on “greatness” play a decisive role. Here, too, we find a decisive contrast between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which the latter quite clearly appreciated. It was in keeping with the human spirit of the eighteenth century to see in the primitive first of all the human being and to compare him quite impartially with civilized man, and that held good not only for the primitive but also as for all non-European peoples (the Turks, Persians, Chinese), for whom there existed genuine and highly respectful interest. Therefore, Rousseau’s glorification of the primordial state must definitely be considered together with the Persian Letters of Montesquieu, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, with the enthusiasm for the Turks (of the Genovese painter Liotard, for instance), the Robinson Crusoe type stories and China’s deep influence on eighteenth century culture. In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, Hobbes bases his doctrine of the absolutism of the state on the sentence “homo homini lupus” (which in the eighteenth century Shaftesbury quite rightly declares to be an insult to the wolves), and thus, from a negative estimate of man’s primordial condition, arrives at the “Leviathan” of the absolutist state; and here, too, the nineteenth century follows in the footsteps of its penultimate predecessor, though in a somewhat different spirit and on different grounds. With an amazing lack of anthropological understanding and on the basis of the evolutionary doctrines peculiar to the nineteenth century, one now delights in picturing primitive man as a roaming beast, on an altogether different level from modern man, particularly since the latter has been broken in by civilization and the state. This attitude is in keeping with the intellectual imperialism which undervalues the constants in the human soul, an imperialism which prompted the nineteenth century to brutal meddling with primitive and foreign cultures and did not let it rest before it had raised them, clothed in calico and top hats, to its own giddy heights; yet withal it did not realize that it acted from its own deep seated inhumanity and soullessness. It is all the more typical that our own time has, as we know, completely reversed its attitude in these matters; not only with the aid of improved ethnological knowledge, but also from a newly awakened interest in man and a deeper psychological understanding, it has rediscovered in the primitive a human being not so very different from the eighteenth century conception; and if one recalls the panegyric intoned by Montaigne in honor of the Red Indians one recognizes in this our kinship to the sixteenth century.

If we now review once more all the many signs which today point to a repudiation of the nineteenth century, and at the same time to a renewal of the interest taken in the best of what the eighteenth had to offer, we are inclined to come to the extraordinary conclusion that in the history of human thought a rhythm of two centuries seems to obtain and that each century takes after its grandfather. We are far from establishing this at once as a social “law,” for that would indeed mark us as unregenerate children of the determinist nineteenth century. At most we can venture the comforting assumption that an excess of stupidity will in the end always correct itself and wisdom will be re-established. However this may be, we cannot but acknowledge that affinities between the spirit of the centuries do exist and that much what today strikes us as new and full of promise, is the better part of the newly discovered heritage of the eighteenth century; and here we may add the hope that we may avoid copying its many disastrous mistakes, errors and blunders.

There is no doubt that the wind has turned and that a new spiritual climate is developing, of which we dare to predict or at least to hope that its main characteristics will not be unlike those of the eighteenth century. In the midst of all the cultural refuse of the nineteenth century with which we are still encumbered our great hopes and efforts are directed towards the true twentieth century, which is still before us. Whatever the individual aspects of that new century may be, one thing seems to be certain: it will have no room for the cult of the colossal.

Adapted from The Social Crisis of Our Time (1950) with permission from the Mises Institute. Wilhem Röpke (1899-1966) was a German-Swiss economist and social thinker.

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