Transcendent Individualism as Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationalisation.



Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.

The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.

I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.

The Transvaluation of European Thought

Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeoise life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.

Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.

Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.

One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.

The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’

The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.

How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.

How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires and inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.

A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.

Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.

Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’

Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.

The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Fuhrer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.

I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.

That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.

The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.

Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which  emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.

The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.

To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.

Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.


  1. I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
  2. The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
  3. Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
  4. It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to an believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.


Selected Bibliography

Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001

Ernst Bertram (2009[1918]). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online):

Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608

Richard Jenkins (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32].

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique


‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.


The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.


Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32].

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.