Friedrich Nietzsche was particularly contemptuous of the mediocrity which, in his view, prevailed among his contemporaries. His philosophical ideal of individuals knowing themselves so thoroughly that they were able to soar above the rest of the human ‘herd’ has become offensive to our modern conception of democracy and equality. But what if democracy was inherently and inescapably a breeding ground for a type of feckless, navel-gazing individuals, wallowing in their self-confessed limitations while enjoying the benefits of a benevolent state?
Nietzsche’s call for a new ‘aristocracy’, capable of reviving the highest ideals lost in the mist of early European history, is itself a contradiction as the sickly philosopher lived the life of a recluse, shunning direct contact with his contemporaries and being closer to his meditative ‘Zarathustra’ than to the fearless ‘Overman’. After Kierkegaard, also at war with his age, Nietzsche lamented the loss of higher values for the sake of a tedious but risk-free existence.
Modern democratic societies extoll the virtues of the common or average man. The Latin word ‘mediocritas’ first meant an ‘intermediate state or amount’ but also ‘moderation’ as celebrated by Aristotle and his praise of a moral balance, poised between excess and scarcity. Originally neutral, the word ‘mediocre’ gradually acquired negative connotations, implying inferiority and even baseness. In our competitive world, who wants to be labelled a ‘mediocre’ student, teacher or worker?
During his 1831 visit to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville perceived possible cracks in a triumphalist self-proclaimed egalitarian society. For the French observer, American Democracy may become such a well-oiled machine that its citizens grow complacent and show a dangerous detachment towards the running of their political institutions. Although he held a strong faith in the future of democracy, Tocqueville feared the emergence of a form of ‘soft despotism’ which instead of preparing its citizens to intellectual and moral maturity, would keep them in a perpetual state of mindless infancy.
Modern individualism and its relentless obsession with material comfort, numbs any human aspiration to intellectual curiosity or spiritual progress. The ‘Comte de Tocqueville’ did not believe in the return of the aristocratic virtue of ‘honour’ as described by another aristocrat, ‘le Baron de Montesquieu’. He resigned himself to the hope that only religion could, somehow, elevate the spirit of democratic citizens and provide meaning to their uninspired lives.