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The DRUCKER Lectures
ESSENTIAL LESSONS ON MANAGEMENT, SOCIETY, AND ECONOMY
By Peter F. Drucker, Rick Wartzman
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2010The Drucker Institute
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How Is Human Existence Possible? 1943
There has never been a century of Western history so far removed from an awareness of the tragic as that which bequeathed to us two world wars. It has trained all of us to suppress the tragic, to shut our eyes to it, to deny its existence.
Not quite 200 years ago—in 1755 to be exact—the death of 15,000 men in the Lisbon earthquake was enough to bring down the structure of traditional Christian belief in Europe. The contemporaries could not make sense of it. They could not reconcile this horror with the concept of an all-merciful God. And they could not see any answer to a catastrophe of such magnitude. Now, we daily learn of slaughter and destruction of vastly greater numbers, of whole peoples being starved or exterminated, of whole cities being leveled overnight. And it is far more difficult to explain these man-made catastrophes in terms of our nineteenth-century rationality than it was for the eighteenth century to explain the earthquake of Lisbon in the terms of the rationality of eighteenth-century Christianity. Yet I do not think that those contemporary catastrophes have shaken the optimism of these thousands of committees that are dedicated to the belief that permanent peace and prosperity will inevitably issue from this war. Sure, they are aware of the facts and are duly outraged by them. But they refuse to see them as catastrophes.
Yet however successful the nineteenth century was in suppressing the tragic in order to make possible human existence exclusively in time, there is one fact which could not be suppressed, one fact that remains outside of time: death. It is the one fact that cannot be made general but remains unique, the one fact that cannot be socialized but remains individual. The nineteenth century made every effort to strip death of its individual, unique, and qualitative aspect. It made death an incident in vital statistics, measurable quantitatively, predictable according to the natural laws of probability. It tried to get around death by organizing away its consequences. This is the meaning of life insurance, which promises to take the consequences out of death. Life insurance is perhaps the most representative institution of nineteenth-century metaphysics; for its promise "to spread the risks" shows most clearly the nature of this attempt to make death an incident in human life, instead of its termination.
It was the nineteenth century that invented Spiritualism with its attempt to control life after death by mechanical means. Yet death persists. Society might make death taboo, might lay down the rule that it is bad manners to speak of death, might substitute "hygienic" cremation for those horribly public funerals, and might call gravediggers "morticians." The learned Professor [Ernst] Haeckel [the German naturalist] might hint broadly that Darwinian biology is just about to make us live permanently; but he did not make good his promise. And as long as death persists, man remains with one pole of his existence outside of society and outside of time.
As long as death persists, the optimistic concept of life, the belief that eternity can be reached through time, and that the individual can fulfill himself in society can therefore have only one outcome: despair. There must come a point in the life of every man when he suddenly finds himself facing death. And at this point he is all alone; he is all individual. If he is lost, his existence becomes meaningless. [Danish philosopher and theologian Soren] Kierkegaard, who first diagnosed the phenomenon and predicted where it would lead to, called it the "despair at not willing to be an individual." Superficially the individual can recover from this encounter with the problem of existence in eternity. He may even forget it for a while. But he can never regain his confidence in his existence in society: Basically he remains in despair.
Society must thus attempt to make it possible for man to die if it wants him to be able to live exclusively in society. There is only one way in which society can do that: by making individual life itself meaningless. If you are nothing but a leaf on the tree, a cell in the body of society, then your death is not really a death; it is only a part of the life of the whole. You can hardly even talk of death; you better call it a process of collective regeneration. But then, of course, your life is not real life, either; it is just a functional process within the life of the whole, devoid of any meaning except in terms of the whole.
Thus you can see what Kierkegaard saw clearly a hundred years ago: that the optimism of a creed that proclaims human existence as existence in society must lead straight to despair, and that the despair leads straight to totalitarianism. And you can also see that the essence of the totalitarian creed is not how to live, but how to die. To make death bearable, individual life has to be made worthless and meaningless. The optimistic creed that starts out by making life in this world mean everything leads straight to the Nazi glorification of self-immolation as the only act in which man can meaningfully exist. Despair becomes the essence of life itself.
The nineteenth century thus reached the very point the pagan world had reached in the age of Euripides or in that of the late Roman Empire. And like antiquity, it tried to find a way out by escaping into the purely ethical, by escaping into virtue as the essence of human existence. Ethical Culture and that brand of liberal Protestantism that sees in Jesus the "best man ever lived," the Golden Rule and Kant's "Categorical Imperative," the satisfaction of service—those and other formulations of an ethical concept of life became as familiar in the nineteenth century as most of them had been in antiquity. And they failed to provide a basis for human existence as much as they had failed 2,000 years ago. In its noblest adherents the ethical concept leads to a stoic resignation, which gives courage and steadfastness but does not give meaning either to life or to death. And its futility is shown by its reliance upon suicide as the ultimate remedy—though to the stoic, death is the end of everything and of all existence. Kierkegaard rightly considered this position to be one of even greater despair than the optimistic one; he calls it "the despair at willing to be an individual."
In most cases, however, the ethical position does not lead to anything as noble and as consistent as the Stoic philosophy. Normally it is nothing but sugarcoating on the pill of totalitarianism. Or the ethical position becomes pure sentimentalism—the position of those who believe that evil can be abolished, harmony be established by the spreading of sweetness, light, and goodwill.
And in all cases the ethical position is bound to degenerate into our pure relativism. For if virtue is to be found in man, everything that is accepted by man must be virtue. Thus a position that starts out—as did Rousseau and Kant 175 years ago—to establish man-made ethical absolutes must end in John Dewey and in the complete denial of the possibility of an ethical position. This way, there is no escape from despair.
Is it then our conclusion that human existence cannot be an existence in tragedy and despair? If so, then the sages of the East are right who see in the destruction of the self, in the submersion of man into the Nirvana, the nothingness, the only answer.
Nothing could be further from Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard has an answer. Human existence is possible as existence not in despair, as existence not in tragedy—it is possible as existence in faith. The opposite of Sin—to use the traditional term for existence purely in society—is not virt
Excerpted from The DRUCKER Lectures by Peter F. Drucker. Copyright © 2010 by The Drucker Institute. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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