The ancient conception of wisdom entailed a well-planned winding down of futile daily activities in order to reach a state of contentment through a life of measured soul-management. We are unfortunately a long way from the ideal of the Stoics and Renaissance humanists such as Montaigne. Instead, we cannot imagine our lives without a constant access to our close friends, remote acquaintances, work colleagues and the wider world of politics and entertainment. Nineteenth-century science opened a Pandora’s box of seemingly unlimited human achievements, celebrated in a growing popular literature ranging from Jules Verne’s imagined travels to the moon or to the centre of the earth down to H.G Wells’ ominous prediction of a world ruled by a committee of scientists in ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ (1933).
Scientific progress would surely give rise to a new and better mankind liberated from the tedium of manual labour and freer to explore its own hidden talents, a belief shared by Marx himself. Nietzsche, for his part, warned his readers against the lure of a scientific interpretation of life which substituted its own postulates for a far more elusive and complex philosophical reflection: ‘ Is it not possible that it should be the instinct of fear which enjoins upon us to know? Is it not possible that the rejoicing of the discerner should be just his rejoicing in the regained feeling of security?’ (‘The Gay Knowledge’, § 355). Isn’t it the same kind of soothing sense of security which is now sought after by billions of humans on their electronic screens, every second of the day or night, in a desperate quest for recognition.
Quantitative intensity is what contemporary mankind is looking for, be it in binge drinking, bungy jumping or playing the latest war video-game. A thrilling life is no longer about the quality of experienced pleasures but about the instant buzz felt by an agent reduced to the status of passive recipient. Moderation as the key virtue of ancient ethics has given way to addiction as the most extreme form of intensity seeking. Even the performance expected of employees in the workplace is beyond the quantifiable since everyone is meant to give more than 100% … of what? we don’t know! The moral intensity praised by Romantic poets like Byron or Coleridge pointed towards a new human transcendence, delivered from the old religious constraints. In their turn, existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche demanded of their readers a commitment to a higher level of self-awareness and self-respect. By contrast, the degree of intensity required by the postmodern world exhausts all possibility of transcendence by simply encouraging the round the clock pursuit of mindless, sterile pleasures.