“Human existence has been shaken to its roots”
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a psychiatrist and philosopher who strongly opposed technocracy and the narrow totalitarian mindset of the modern world.
He complained that, in Western society, thinking was only encouraged if it was for a specific practical purpose.
He wrote in Man in the Modern Age: “There has arisen an enmity to culture which reduces the value of mental activity to a technical capacity and to the expression of the minimum of crude life.
“This attitude is correlative to the process of the technicisation of the planet and of the life of the individual, wherein, among all nations, there has been a breach in historical tradition so that everything has been placed upon new foundations.
“Nothing can continue to exist except that which finds its technical rationale in the new world created by the West, but which, though thus ‘western’ in its origin, is universally valid in its significance and its effects. Hence human existence has been shaken to its roots”. (1)
He wrote that the industrial capitalist way of life was built around the “unceasing activity” of consumer society, with its love of huge crowds, its worship of the rich and its “complication and brutalisation of the erotic”.
He added: “Lottery tickets are sold by the million; crossword puzzles become the chief occupation of people’s leisure. This positive gratification of the mind without personal participation or effort promotes efficiency for the daily round, fatigue and recreation being regularised”. (2)
Jaspers asked how the individual who found themself trapped in this world could ever hope to discover authenticity. The demands placed upon us were so exacting, he said, that it was almost impossible to cope.
Echoing Otto Gross’s psychological analysis, he said this was not so much of a problem for individuals who readily conformed and succumbed to outside pressure: “One who believes that everything is in order and who trusts in the world as it now is, does not even need to be equipped with courage.
“He complies with the course of events which (so he believes) work for good without his participation. His alleged courage is nothing more than a confidence that man is not slipping down into an abyss.
“One who truly has courage is one who, inspired by an anxious feeling of the possible, reaches out for the knowledge that he alone who aims at the impossible can attain the possible. Only through experience of the impossibility of achieving fulfilment does man become enabled to perform his allotted task”. (3)
These courageous individuals faced a difficult lifelong struggle in the face of a debased, dehumanised, decultured society: “Today the mental creator has, it would seem, to live, not merely as a solitary, but as if he were making a fresh beginning, in touch with no one, apart alike from friends and from foes. Nietzsche was the first outstanding figure of whom this terrible loneliness was the dominant characteristic”. (4)
Jaspers judged that a person of this kind was dependent on their own individuality to give them the necessary strength to break free.
He explained: “He must either advance to the frontier where he can glimpse his Transcendence, or else must remain entangled in the disillusionment of a self that is wholly involved in the things of the world.
“The demands made of him are such as assume him to have the powers of a titan. He must meet these demands, and must see what he is capable of in the way of self-development; for, if he fails to do so, there will remain for him nothing but a life in which he will have the advantages neither of man nor of beast”. (5)
Ultimately, he said, such an individual had no choice: “The reality of the world cannot be evaded. Experience of the harshness of the real is the only way by which a man can come to his own self. To play an active part in the world, even though one aims at an impossible, an unattainable goal, is the necessary pre-condition of one’s own being”. (6)
Although he rejected religious dogma and the idea of a personal god, Jaspers was deeply interested in Eastern, particularly Buddhist, spirituality and in mystic medieval Christianity.
Jaspers argued that we needed to draw on this timeless human wisdom in order to find our own sense of Existenz. “We do everything in our power to restore the eternal truth; we must plumb its very depths and, unconcerned over what is transient and historical, utter this truth in a new language”. (7)
Cutting ourselves off from that tradition and that truth, he warned, “is as if a man were deliberately to saw off the branch upon which he is sitting”. (8)
Authentic spirituality was not something that distanced people from real life, he stressed: “The life of truth in the realm of the spirit does not remove man from his world, but makes him effective for serving his historical present”. (9)
Video link: Karl Jaspers Interview (1968) – A Self-Portrait.
1. Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, trans. by Eden and Cedar Paul, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951) p. 120.
2. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, p. 50.
3. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, pp. 144-45.
4. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, p. 128.
5. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, pp. 176-77.
6. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, p. 178.
7. Karl Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, trans. by Ralph Manheim (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), p. 107.
8. Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, pp. 110-11.
9. Karl Jaspers, ‘Making Tradition Our Own’, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Meridian, 1972) p. 136.