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The “Philosophical Zombie,” Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” and Spengler’s “Fellah” by David Engels

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The “Philosophical Zombie,” Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” and Spengler’s “Fellah”

"Destruction" (1836) is the fourth in a series of five paintings entitled "The Course of Empire" created by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) in the years 1833-1836. The series comprises the following works: "The Savage State,” “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” “The Consummation of Empire,” “Destruction,” and “Desolation.”

In the field of recent philosophy, there is a thought experiment that bears the somewhat bizarre name of the “philosophical zombie.” The initial conditions are simple. Let us assume that there are beings who physically look exactly like all other human beings, behave in exactly the same way and cannot be distinguished in any sense from a human being, but who at the same time have no real self-awareness whatsoever, act on the basis of pre-programmed behavioural patterns or even remote control, have no knowledge of their own existence and are thus nothing but robots in the flesh, i.e. “zombies.” What would then enable us to recognise them as non-humans? And furthermore, how can we be sure that we ourselves do not belong to this group? Is not every human somehow a machine?

The purpose of this somewhat eerie thought game is a surprisingly serious one that runs deep into the realm of Christian theology. It is no less than an attempt to prove that we must presuppose not only the concept but also the reality of the ‘soul’ in order to understand at all what makes a human being a ‘real’ human being and not just a kind of robot, a “philosophical zombie.” Only if we assume that man, even beyond his biologically as well as educationally conditioned reflexes and the mechanics of his neuronal activities, possesses a superior, transcendent, eternal component that constitutes his true and genuine existence, is it possible to separate man from the “zombie” and to legitimise his claim to freedom and dignity.

But what makes this philosophical experiment interesting for us as conservative thinkers? To put it exaggeratedly, the theorem of the “philosophical zombie” can be seen not only as a metaphysical mind game, but also as a description of the reality of our present-day, to a certain extent post-historical and self-destructive Western civilisation. Many people do indeed seem to have lost, within a few generations, that indeterminable but fundamental “something” that actually makes them Westerners. For the number of those who feel themselves to be heirs of that wonderful civilisation and who want to make the material and immaterial treasure passed on to them by their ancestors their own and transmit it to their children is decreasing at an alarming rate from year to year. Not because hatred of our history has become a genuinely common sentiment (even though the group of those who welcome the decline of the West as a positive development is probably frighteningly high), but rather because more and more people have completely detached themselves from the collective belonging to our civilisation and our history. Outside of their individual advancement in life and the enjoyment of our hedonistic consumer culture, they entertain few actual interests and have thus already reached that status which Oswald Spengler, in his Decline of the West, referred to as “fellahdom”—a reference to the post-historical rural population vegetating amidst the ruins of Pharaonic Egypt.

Some readers will object that history is (supposedly) only the consequence of the political and other activities of various elites, while the broad masses were excluded from all active politics for many centuries and have only been more largely involved in political decision-making since the revolutionary period. Such a view, if true, would force us to regard the present as the culmination of a collective endeavour to shape the fate of our civilisation. But this view is historically wrong in several respects. On the one hand, the shaping of a civilisation is hardly limited to the participation in one-off, usually optional, democratic elections, but is something that expresses itself (or should express itself) in everyday life and work for the interests of the community. On the other hand, one glance at world history is enough to see with what fervour people in past centuries were prepared to sacrifice their possessions, to fight and, if necessary, even to die, not only for the physical survival of their community, but also for the defence and victory of their respective intellectual and spiritual ideals. 

Whether during the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the religious wars of the early modern period or the interstate conflicts of the modern era, countless people died fighting for something that seemed more important to them than their own lives. This was certainly a double-edged sword, since this enthusiasm could also be manipulated by forces that were hardly worth the effort; but it is nevertheless a testimony to the fact that Western history was not simply ‘endured’ passively by the majority of people, but actively and enthusiastically shaped by them to the last consequence. But who today would be prepared to put his life on the line not only for questionable goods such as the European Union, multiculturalism or gender ideology, but even for genuine values like democracy, the rule of law or private property? One need only look at Nietzsche’s images of the “last man” to understand the anthropological turn that is taking place before our eyes. Some readers may, of course, recognise civilisational progress in the fact that for most people, their survival is more important than the defence of higher ideals, even a sign of special enlightenment and commendable individualism. A look at the actual consequences of such cowardice, which is glossed over as pacifism, should, however, be enough to make such an interpretation obsolete. It is enough to recall the infamous phrase “Mourir pour Dantzig?” with which the completely demoralised French public cynically glossed over its lethargy in 1939 and thus made possible the initial expansion of the Third Reich in the first place, without which the Second World War might have taken a completely different course.

Most European are thus increasingly becoming “historical zombies,” outwardly indistinguishable from their fellow human beings, but in fact, due to their soullessness, eliminated as a positive and creative factor in the further development of their own civilisation, thus only creating an ever-increasing mass of dead weight, which makes the work of those who fight every day for the survival of their civilisation all the more difficult, perhaps even impossible. This has two consequences for the practical work of the last true Westerners.

The first of these consequences is a positive one insofar as it becomes clear that the antagonists of these patriots do not constitute a large part of the population in the sense conveyed by the latest slogan of the leftist establishment, “Wir sind mehr” (“We are more numerous”). Rather, they are also only a small minority, albeit one endowed with enormous powers. Hence, it is not a matter of winning a desperate ideological battle against the great majority of the Western population, but rather of asserting oneself against a powerful, but in fact vanishingly small number of people whose ambition is precisely not the preservation and fecundity of Western civilisation, but rather, albeit under the most diverse ideological guises, its ultimate destruction. If this ruling elite succumbs only once, and if it is then possible to use the classical means of political communication to the advantage of Western patriotism, the broad, “zombified” masses will also fall from one extreme to the other without even becoming aware of their own change of opinion, since their only activity consists in receiving and reproducing the arguments and narratives held out to them.

The other consequence of the facts presented is an insight into the extreme progress of the internal dissolution of Western civilisation. Civilisations do not always die because they are defeated by their external enemies, but because there is no one left who is willing to continue to stand up for them. Their extinction is not due to their material decline, but simply to the gradual disappearance of those people who are interested at all in their survival and are thus also prepared not only to use the existing structures, but also to continue to promote and develop them. But for several generations by now, the overwhelming majority of Westerners have renounced spiritual continuity with their past and consciously and positively perceived themselves as a post-historical mass to whom the 19th or 15th centuries are just as alien as the Aztec empire or the ruins of Zimbabwe, and who often enough even feel a certain subliminal sympathy for the latter and an unconscious aversion to their own past. This dramatic state of affairs is ultimately rooted in that “uneasiness in civilisation” which Freud famously noted, but which has now reached an extent where the sacrifice of one’s own instincts in the interest of the whole has not only caused vague “uneasiness,” but downright displeasure, even rejection (a rejection which might even stem from some unavowed sense of our own civilisational inferiority in comparison with the past…).

Even with the greatest effort, it will hardly be possible to win these people back for the West in any appreciable proportions. At best they will remain fellow travellers, of whom only a small, highly gifted offspring can, with appropriate encouragement and selection, be cautiously re-introduced to a creative appreciation of their own past. The task of the last Westerners will therefore not be to help the West return to an era where destiny is creatively shaped by the collective, but rather to set in motion the creation of structures that can maintain, guarantee and pass on the basic values of Western civilisation even as collective enthusiasm continues to decline. It is probably no coincidence that this state of affairs is reminiscent of the situation in the early Roman imperial period, when the people and senate of Rome had proved incapable of guaranteeing political, cultural, religious and economic stability and order, while the continued existence not only of the Roman Empire, but of the entire Graeco-Roman civilisation, rested essentially on the shoulders of the princeps and his confidants, without whom the Mediterranean world would have fallen into complete chaos, as Seneca already noted when he described the Roman principate as a kind of crutch without which the ageing republic would have collapsed altogether.

I am prepared for the objection that this outlook is anything but positive and that the reader is probably looking for hope in a new renaissance of European civilisation rather than the harsh realisation that even a victory of Western patriotism can only have a deferring effect in the context of the decline of the West. So be it. Obtaining such a postponement, however short it may be, is not only one of the unavoidable duties of every Western patriot. It is also the only chance we have left to pass on the fundamental values of the West not only to future generations, but also to future civilisations; just as the Greco-Roman civilisation, although it had entered a petrified phase since the Principate period, developed that definitive canonisation which has made Greece and Rome to this very day inescapable models of every other civilisation thriving in a Mediterranean environment. Making the West ready for those storms in which it will admittedly inevitably fall down sooner or later, and thus transforming its heritage into a beacon for even the most distant future, should therefore not be seen as an act of defeatism and resignation, but rather as a duty whose heroism and significance can be placed on an equal, perhaps even superior footing with those creations of the finer days of our past.

David Engels is chair of Roman History at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and senior analyst at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznań. His 2013 book, Le déclin (Paris: L’artilleur) compared the crisis of the European Union to the decline of the Roman Republic. He has also edited the collection, Renovatio Europae (Berlin: MSC Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2019), a manifesto for a conservative reform of the European Union. His most recent book is Que faire? Vivre avec le déclin de l’Europe. He is a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.