We are living in a period of nihilism, of cultural nihilism—no doubt there are many who would prefer to describe it as one of cultural revolution, of cultural change. But many of those who prefer the word revolution are also likely to tell you that they do not look forward to revolution; and as to change, many more are convinced that change as such is desirable, than that it is possible to get something they particularly desire. There is a feeling that one is right only when attacking, whatever be attacked, and that one is wrong only when defending, whatever it be one defends. And with this feeling there has come a mounting violence in the kinds of rhetoric employed, a violence, which, by the way, does not seem adjusted to any special or favorite target; it is not exclusively directed against governments and their representatives. Thus, it is not only the violent who are violently attacked nowadays, but also, and sometimes especially, those who have made a point of being moderate. These are days when as a result of having given thought to some matter, one is likely to be accused of not having made up one’s mind. Throughout the field of what we call culture, the negative, violently at work, continues to affirm itself, while the positive negates itself, and is either faltering or mute.
The cultural nihilism we are witnessing today began, of course, before this age, which, however, it characterizes. If the arts and sciences are now under attack, yet attacks of this sort are by no means new, nor are the ideas that are advanced to justify them. It has been said that whatever date one gives for the beginning of some trend can always be set aside in favor of some earlier date, and it may be that the dating of any trend cannot but be arbitrary. For my own part, I cannot think of any better date for the modern and even contemporary assault on culture than 1749, called by the philosopher Ernst Cassirer the “midpoint of the enlightenment,” when Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his violent and impassioned attack on the arts and sciences, which he accused of having weakened and depraved humanity, of having destroyed man’s innate sense of manners, artistry, order and justice, and of ignoring the real needs of men while arousing desires that never can be satisfied. This discourse, says Ernst Cassirer, “shook eighteenth-century rationalism to its very foundations.” The attack has been repeated many times of late, but no version of Rousseau’s discourse has equaled the original in eloquence or in finesse. Rousseau gave his attack on culture the most exquisite expression, so that Voltaire wrote him: “Never has anyone employed such wit to turn us into dullards … you are like Achilles, inveighing glory and like le Pere Malebranche, who with brilliant imagination wrote against the imagination….” And Voltaire added: “after reading your work one almost feels like going down on all fours. Howe...
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