When Rudyard Kipling penned “The White Man’s Burden” in the closing stages of the nineteenth century the collective psychology of Europeans was assured. Their lives were defined by God, King and Country, along with the rigid belief systems of Christianity and the defining societal task of industrialisation. Everybody, aristocrat and peasant alike, understood the purpose of life and the quest to ascend to God’s right-hand side at its conclusion, civilising the Third World in the process, if at all possible. An over-simplification, perhaps, but the point remains; Europeans (The White Man) had clearly defined purpose and a pious explanation for all their trials and tribulations. Despite conventional historical analysis to the contrary, the enlightenment had not yet caught up with the Western psyche or rather, its logical conclusion had not yet been arrived at. What had been considered certainty for 1,500 years up until that point remained as such, neatly packaging a ready-made structure for the world in the form of Christian teaching.
Now, however, the story is much changed. When Friedrich Nietzsche said that “God is dead (and we have killed him”, first in The Gay Science (1882) and then, most famously in his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-91), this was not celebratory as many believe, nor was it an accurate description of current events at that time. Rather, it was a premonition diagnosis of the societal consequences of this fact. For at that time, God was not dead in the eyes of the general public. Nietzsche was ahead of his time in terms of his anti-Christian viewpoints, and the nihilism he warned of would have appeared like scaremongering to the average reader. The hallmark of the great intellect he possessed was this ability to foresee the logical conclusion of wider trends, something which is surprisingly difficult to do. He rightly believed that the enlightenment would strip the Christian God from the lives of the masses, removing their once-cemented moral code and purpose, leaving them open to a life devoid of any meaning or structure. Today, modern Western society has ensured Nietzsche’s ascending status from philosopher to prophet. Today, Westerners have descended into materialistic nihilism, devoid of any moral code outside the realms of money and vacuous pursuits of illusionary happiness. No longer does Western man have great projects to strive for, but rather the contemptible hedonism foisted upon him by quasi-feudal capitalism. This has left society sick and weakened, as if suffering from a collective terminal cancer of the mind.
One may sensibly ask at this point exactly how this relates to God being dead. Well, the (only) beautiful thing about Christianity is that it takes away existential suffering, if only through an illusion of the mind. It provided a neatly structured belief system that underpinned one’s entire world, providing explanations and instructions for all things one may encounter. This released Europeans from the responsibility of asking life’s big questions, for they were already explained in the tales and parables of the bible. In the 20th century, Europeans came to reject this simplistic explanation of the world but, as Nietzsche accurately predicted, this has led to an existential crisis of the collective consciousness.
Europeans today are no longer the self-assured, confident race that colonised the world and held a firm view of civilisation. No longer are we convinced in our virtue by simplistic dogma and doctrine. No longer do we have recourse to an all-encompassing set of rules and regulations. This makes us weak, divided, insecure, endangered and capable only of myopia. In a sense, we are the victims of our own intellectual prowess; enlightenment thinking, which has taken centuries to reach its logical conclusion, has many virtues that enabled Europeans to achieve things nobody thought possible. It has enabled us to maximise our material wealth, enjoy comfortable standards of living, find liberation from dogmatic, archaic moral dictates and strive for scientific advancement previously slandered as heresy. The consequence of this, however, is the price at which it came. This exercise in intellectual and cultural broadening has shattered our prior illusion of Christian structure. The product of enlightenment thinking is that it is entirely incompatible with belief in the Abrahamic faiths, throwing European man into a state of permanent existential crisis. Thus, we find ourselves devoid of a purpose, without a reason to live, other than to satisfy base material desires and vapid endeavours. No longer do we strive for God’s right hand, nor do we fear an eternity in the fiery depths of hell should we depart from the biblical moral code.
Other peoples and nations not of Europe look to us with envy. They admire the material advancements we’ve achieved, the scientific progress and social liberation, but little do they realise the curse that accompanies them. Those not of Europe still enjoy traditional belief systems which underpin their existence and provide purpose for their lives. For instance, the Arab world and much of the Indian subcontinent has become more fanatical about their Islamic belief than ever before. Those of India, Myanmar and the surrounding region enjoy Hindu teaching and Buddhism as a way of life, and this rejection of religious doctrine appears anathema to them. Yet they hold the White man in bitterness and envy, without realising that he is cursed to live on this earth without meaning.
An interesting phenomenon seen in the 20th century is that of ideological substitution. After all, the 20th century was the rise of ideology; Fascism, Communism and National Socialism came to the fore around the world, and these ideologies have many religious qualities about them. A hypothesis is that peoples around the world turned to these ideologies in a subliminal attempt to find structure and Higher Purpose that had since departed from their lives. These ideologies represented an all-encompassing Weltanschauung complete with comprehensive answers to life’s big questions. In the modern world, vacuous neoliberal capitalism has defeated these ideologies to reign supreme; only international pariahs like North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China, still stand strong with their radical ideological worldviews.
Yet in the final analysis, the White man has long been stripped of any illusion of Higher Purpose by the victory of nothingness over ideology. We are cursed to live lives of materialistic splendour and spiritual depletion. This should serve as a warning, not a source of envy, to those around the world who seek to ape our way of life. We may have discarded these illusions and false prophets in pursuit of progress, yet as a result we are no happier. Indeed, we had no such existential crises in times gone by, when we may have been misguided but still retained some sense of purpose and spiritual health. Thus, it must be said that those of the Third World who look to ape our enlightened ways should think again and think carefully. And those amongst us in the West who seek to import these “unenlightened” Third World beings and convert them to enlightened materialistic atheism should, too, take stock of the great act of psychological cruelty they’re attempting to inflict on their social experiments. To strip away the traditional belief systems of these peoples would be to merely infect them with our curse. Unless one wishes everyone else around him to be in misery, simply because he is himself, this cannot be considered a fair or just action. Because of our unique enlightenment history, the White Man is cursed to be cursed alone – and this is how it must remain.
And it must be stressed in the fiercest way that lamenting the passing of Christian belief systems is not appropriate in this scenario. Simply suffering the withdrawal symptoms of spiritual lapse is not a sufficient reason to vigorously reembrace the old ways. In any case, such a feat would be impossible. Even the meanest intellect will be aware that once something is known, it cannot be unknown on a societal level. The collective consciousness of European peoples is simply unable to discard centuries of progressive enlightenment thinking, and nor should it strive to.
Instead, the ambition of our peoples must be to adapt and survive in the modern world despite this curse. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist philosopher, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” This means that our curse is a question of morality and responsibility. We no longer have another being responsible for our existence, the paternal figure of Christ our Saviour, nor do we have an authoritative text telling us how we must behave to be considered righteous. This means that we must, as individuals and as a collective, define our own moral principles (Nietzsche, Sartre) and structure our lives and society in such a way that meaning and purpose can once again be found. We must do this in a way that complements, not rejects, enlightenment thinking. To quote yet another existentialist, Martin Heidegger, we must learn to be in the world in an authentic manner, so that we may quell individual and, therefore, collective anxieties and sources of sadness. Only through clear and self-defined principles, as a result of living authentic and harmonious lives, can we rediscover what the meaning, purpose and spiritual happiness that those generations before us once had.