Frightening Totalitarianism

I am never sure whether I should lament the state of the world or be complacent about it. For, on the one hand, everything is going to the dogs and on the other, I am a happy man.

Part of my happiness derives, of course, from intimations of approaching apocalypse: There is nothing quite like them for cheering oneself up. That is why I bought a book the other day by Chantal Delsol, the distinguished French philosopher, called La haine du monde (Hatred of the World), in which she maintains that there is in modern, post-religious Prometheanism more in common than we might like to think with totalitarian regimes of the past. Admittedly, we have no state-organized terror, no gulags or concentration camps, this being a very important and significant difference that ought not to be forgotten. But on a philosophical level, at least, there is something in common between our totalitarian regimes and our democracies, as Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel discovered to their chagrin.

According to Delsol, that something in common is the belief that the world is there to be made, and that nothing is given. For the Promethean, the past is nothing but a catalogue of crime and folly, as Gibbon said, and the world nothing but the material for the manufacture (by them) of perfection. There are no intrinsic limits to man’s destiny; there is no tragic dimension to his life. He can make anything of himself that he likes and is, therefore, perfectible. It supposedly follows from the fact he is perfectible that he ought to be perfected. Perfected not spiritually, not on some other metaphysical plane beyond this material world, but here and now. Liberation is the achievement of total, permanent, and unchanging happiness, from which such inconveniences as conflict and death have been banished.

I sympathise with what she says. In her opinion, the current fashion for transhumanism is the latest form of mad Prometheanism which underlay totalitarian regimes. Transhumanism is only another manifestation of the desire to make the New Man, the Old Man being so unsatisfactorily inclined to defects both of mind and body. All hitherto existing men have been but pale apologies for the glorious creatures of the future, who will be half biological and half electronic. Just as Marx thought that man would only become truly human once communism was achieved (such matters as private property and class conflict having deformed him and made him less than human), and as the Nazis dreamed of a perfect race of blond beasts uncontaminated by bad blood, so the transhumanists dream of creatures of eternal life whose powers will make Usain Bolt seem like a sea urchin and Einstein a child with severe mental handicap.

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