'The Conventional Lies of Civilization' by Max Nordau (1883)

A selection from The Conventional Lies of Civilization by Max Nordau, 1883.

This work, along with Degeneration, takes shape on the brink of the 20th century, in the culture of the
Fin de si├Ęcle, between the Franco-Prussian war and the conclusion of "the long 19th century", which began with the French revolution, and ended with the Great War (c.f. Spengler on the relationship between these two apparently remote events).

See here for some background material and a selection from his Degeneration (1892).

Note: in the preface to the 6th edition (1884) the author cites an official decree of the Imperial Council of Vienna condemning the book and forbidding its sale in Austria.

Preface to the First Edition

This book claims to be a faithful presentation of the views of the majority of educated, cultivated people of the present day. [...] Notwithstanding this fact, the author knows that many people will hold up their hands in holy horror when they read it, and not the least ostentatiously those who find their own most secret sentiments expressed in it. This is the very reason why the author believed that it was necessary, that it was imperative upon him, to write this book. The greatest evil of our times is the prevailing cowardice. We do not dare to assert our opinions, to bring our outward lives into harmony with our inward convictions... . [...] This lack of sincerity and manly courage prolongs the period of falseness, and postpones indefinitely the triumph of truth. The author at least wished to fulfill his duty to himself, to truth, and to his comrades in sentiment. He has expressed his convictions openly and without the slightest hesitation. If all those who are dissembling acting contrary to their convictions, diplomatizing and feigning were to do the same as the author, they would find perhaps to their amazement that they formed the majority in many places, and that it would soon be to their advantage to lead sincere and consistent lives, instead of their present careers of hypocrisy and double dealing."


Culture and civilization are spreading and conquering even the most benighted regions of the globe. Those countries where darkness reigned but yesterday, are to-day basking in a glorious sunshine. Each day witnesses the birth of some new, wonderful invention, destined to make the world pleasanter to live in, the adversities of life more endurable, and to increase the variety and intensity of the enjoyments possible to humanity. But yet, notwithstanding the growth and increase of all conditions to promote comfort, the human race is to-day more discontented, more irritated and more restless than ever before. The world of civilization is an immense hospital-ward, the air is filled with groans and lamentations, and every form of suffering is to be seen twisting and turning on the beds.


In Germany Socialism, with myriads of tiny teeth, is stealthily gnawing at the columns that uphold the structures of State and society... . The Antisemitic movement was merely a convenient pretext for the gratification of passions which do not venture to show themselves under their true names among the poor and ignorant-- it cloaked their hatred of property owners, among those who enjoy privileges inherited from mediaeval times-- among the aristocratic classes, it disguised their jealous fear of gifted rivals in the race for influence and power, and the romantic idealizing youth saw in it a means of satisfying a certain extravagant and false ideal of patriotism that longs not only for the political unity of the German Fatherland, but also for an ethnological unity of the German people.

In Austria we see ten nationalities arrayed against each other, each seeking to injure the others by all the means at its command. In every state, even in every village, the majority are trampling the minority under foot. The minority succumbs when resistance is no longer possible, and counterfeits a submission which conceals a secret intensity of rage that makes them long to compass the destruction of the Empire, as the only possibility of relief.

The lack of harmony between government and people, the deadly animosity between different political parties, the fermentation going on in certain classes of society, are only manifestations of the universal disease of the age, which is the same in all countries, although its symptoms are characterized by various local names in different places, such as Nihilism, Fenianism [Irish Republican movement], Socialism and the Antisemitic or Irredenta movements [i.e., 'Greater Germany']. Another and by far more dangerous form is the depression, uneasiness and breaking away, which characterize the mental attitude of every fully developed man who has attained to the heights of modern culture, irrespective of his nation and allegiance or non-allegiance to party or state. This pessimism is the keynote of our age as a delight in mere existence was of the classic ages, and ultra piety of the mediaeval period. Every man of culture feels this sense of irritating discomfort which he ascribes to some slight, casual cause, inevitably the wrong one, unless he analyzes his feelings with unusual care—it leads him to criticise and harshly condemn the varying phases of our modern social life. This impatience upon which all outside influences seem to exert an exciting and even exasperating effect, is called by some nervousness, by others pessimism, and by a third class, skepticism. The multiplicity of names describes but one and the same disease. This disease is visible in every manifestation of modern culture. Literature and art, philosophy and positive knowledge, politics and economy, all are infected by its taint. We discover the very first traces of its existence in the literature of the latter part of the last century, as any disturbances or changes in the conditions of mankind are detected first by the delicate perceptions of a poetic temperament. While the upper classes were following an uninterrupted round of corrupt gayeties, making their lives one prolonged orgy while the self-sufficient bourgeoisie saw nothing beyond the length of their own noses and were stupidly content with the way things were going, of a sudden Jean Jacques Rousseau lifted his voice in a ringing appeal for deliverance from his surroundings which yet had so many attractions. He preached to the world with enthusiasm, of a return to a state of primeval nature, by which he was far from meaning a return to primitive barbarism, but only a change to something diametrically opposed to the actual state of things. His cry awoke an echo in the hearts of all his contemporaries, as when a certain note is struck, all the chords in the instrument which are attuned to it, are set vibrating—a proof that Rousseau's longings pre-existed unconsciously in those around him. Rakes and Philistines alike began to cultivate their yearnings for primeval nature and life in the wilderness; they formed a comical contrast to the ardor with which they still sought and enjoyed all the super-refinements and gilded vices of the civilization they professed to despise. German Romanticism is descended in a direct line from Rousseau's longings for primeval nature. It is however a feeble Rousseauism, which did not have the courage to go to the end of the path upon which it had entered. Romanticism does not go as far back as the prehistoric epoch, but stops at a more accessible point, the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages as painted by the Romantic School in such glowing colors, are however, as far removed from the actual Middle Ages of history, as Rousseau's primeval nature was from the actual times of prehistoric man. In both cases their ideal world was to be constructed in the same way, with everything now existing replaced by its opposite; in both cases their ideas betrayed a conscious or instinctive fundamental conviction that any change from the present must prove an improvement upon the present condition of affairs. By tracing further the genealogical line of this literary tendency, we arrive at French Romanticism, which is a daughter of the German school; and later we come to the Byronic disgust with the world, which forms a separate branch of the same family. From the Byronic line are descended the German pessimistic poets, the Russian Puschkin, the French Musset, and the Italian Leopardi. The family trait in their mental physiognomies is their tragic discontent with the realities of life, which one vents in pathetic moans, another in bitter scorn of self, and a third in enraptured yearnings for different and more perfect conditions of life.
And does not the literature of our own generation, the literary productions of the two last decades, betray an attempt at escape from our age and its disappointments? The public demands novels and poems that treat of the most distant countries and epochs. ...or if it bestows its favor upon a work that announces its subject as modern, it must recommend itself by a certain false, sickly, sentimental idealism; it must be an attempt to clothe human beings like ourselves, with certain attributes that make them as our imagination delights to picture them, but as no one ever saw them in reality. The light literature of England has long since ceased to be a faithful mirror of real life. When it is not describing with gusto, crimes and scandals of all kinds, murders, burglaries, seductions or testamentary frauds, it portrays a model society, in which the members of the nobility are all handsome, dignified, cultivated and wealthy; while the lower classes are honest God-fearing people, devoted to their superiors, the virtuous among them being graciously praised and rewarded by Sir This or Sir That, while the wicked are locked up by the police-- in short, a society which is in all respects an absurd idealization of the dilapidated, tottering structure of society as it exists in England at the present day.

All around us we notice a general sense of uneasiness and a mental irritation, which assumes in one mind the form of grief or anger at the unbearable state of affairs in this world, and in another, produces a decided longing for a change in all the conditions of modern life.

Ancient art is characterized by a pleased enjoyment of nature; modern art by a self-tormenting dissatisfaction with her.

Pessimism is also the fashionable coloring of thought now in philosophy, not only in the established philosophies taught in the universities, but also in the private systems of philosophical thought and enquiry, which every person of culture has built up for himself around the important problems of the day. In Germany, Schopenhauer is God and Hartmann [see here for a selection from his Philosophy of the Unconscious] is his prophet.

This same disease of the age shows itself in the realms of political economy in a different but no less significant form. We seek in vain among the rich a feeling of security in regard to their wealth and of simple enjoyment of it; neither do we find among the poor that patient acquiescence in the poverty which appears so inevitable and unchangeable to human eyes. An undefined fear of approaching danger haunts the man of wealth; he sees a menace in the present condition of men and affairs, indistinct but none the less real, so that he has come to look upon his possessions as a loan that can be demanded from him, without reprieve, from one moment to another. The poor man in consumed by envy and greed for the wealth of the privileged few; neither in himself nor in the existing arrangement of the world and society, as he has learned to understand it, does he discover any convincing reasons for the fact that he is poor, and hence excluded from the table of life's pleasures. He listens with fierce patience to a voice within him which whispers that his rights to the blessings of this life are as good as any man's. The rich man is dreading; the poor man is hoping and working to bring about a change in the present condition of property ownership. The faith in a continuance of its present state has been rudely shaken in the minds of all, even in those who will not acknowledge their secret doubts and anxieties.

This universal mental restlessness and uneasiness exerts a powerful and many-sided influence upon individual life. A dread of examining and comprehending the actualities of life prevails to a frightfully alarming extent, and manifests itself in a thousand ways. The means of sensation and perception are eagerly counterfeited by altering the nervous system by the use of stimulating or narcotic poisons of all kinds, manifesting thereby an instinctive aversion to the realities of appearances and circumstances. [...] This is the cause of the constant increase in the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, shown by statistics, and of the rapidity with which the custom of taking opium and morphine is spreading. It is also the reason why the cultivated classes seize upon every new narcotic or stimulant which science discovers for them, so that we have not only drunkards and opium eaters among us, but confirmed chloral, chloroform and ether drinkers. Society as a whole, repeats the action of the individual, who tries to "drown his sorrows in the flowing bowl." It seeks oblivion of the present, and grasps at anything that will provide it with the necessary illusions by which it can escape from real life.

...statistics prove that the number of suicides is increasing in thy highly civilized countries... .

A dull sensation of irritation, sometimes self-conscious, but more often only recognized as a vague, irresistible discontent, keeps the aspiring in a state of gloomy restlessness, so that the struggle for existence assumes brutal and desperate phases, never known before.

We lament the disappearance of characters. What is a character? It is an individuality which shapes its career according to certain simple, fundamental moral principles which it has recognized as good, and accepted as guides. Skepticism developes no such characters, because it has excluded faith in fundamental principles. When the north star ceases to shine, and the electric pole vanishes, the compass is of no further use the stationary point is gone to which it was always turning. Skepticism, also a fashionable ailment, is in reality but another phase of the universal discontent with the present. For it is only by becoming convinced that the world is out of sorts generally, and that everything is wrong, insufficient and contemptible, that we arrive at the conclusion that all is vanity, and nothing worth an effort, or a struggle between duty and inclination. Economy, literature and art, philosophy, politics and all phases of social and individual life, show a certain fundamental trait, common to all a deep dissatisfaction with the world as it exists at present. From each one of these multitudinous manifestations of human intelligence arises a bitter cry, the same in all cases, an appeal for a radical change.


The question here arises: Is this picture true of modern times alone? Does it not also represent the characteristics of all previous ages?

It often seems to a superficial observer as if the selfish ambition of some party leader, to which the multitudes were wholly indifferent, were the sole power that set some of these revolutions in motion. But I do not believe in the justice of thus identifying these movements with their leaders. [...] ...revolutions are freshets intended to equalize the ideals of the people and the actual conditions of life. They are never arbitrary, but obey certain physical laws, like the cyclone, which re-establishes the equilibrium of air, disturbed by violent changes in the temperature, or like the waterfall, which is constantly striving to bring two bodies of water to the same level. As often as there is found to be too great a difference between the wishes of the people and the actual reality of things, in obedience to the laws of nature a revolution takes place; it may be dammed up artificially by the organized powers for a while but not for long.

The Roman plebeian looked upon himself as the unjustly despised and disinherited son of a wealthy house, and merely demanded his seat at the paternal board, and his share in the family discussions-- the thought of rebelling against the surrounding conditions of political and social life, never occurred to him. He was proud of them, and... although he glanced with reverential awe at the aristocratic and senatorial families above him, he could experience a sensation of self-esteem and satisfaction when he looked down upon the multitudes of slaves and freed-men beneath him.
Far deeper was the discontent of those slaves who rose in insurrection again and again, during that corrupt age when the republic was being merged into an empire, protesting with their life-blood agavnst the existing arrangement of society, in battles whose tragic pathos is beyond description. In those nameless multitudes who form the living pedestal for the grand figure of Spartacus, we discover for the first time, traces of that burning doubt whether everything that is, must of necessity always remain so.

It is not until as late as the French Revolution that we find a people to whom the existing state of affairs appeared so entirely unsatisfactory that they were willing to make any sacrifices, pay any price, to have it changed. For the first time in the history of mankind, we see an extensive, popular uprising not directed against single abuses, but against the general conditions of things, in their entirety. [...] It was an explosion which took effect not only upon isolated weak points, but upon the whole surface exposed to it, and
brought down in ruins the entire structure of society. [...] It is true that the incongruity of the then existing circumstances must have been felt with fearful intensity by all, and have caused intense suffering, to have produced such an attempt at complete annihilation, yet we notice in this great Revolution, one trait which makes it impossible for us to look upon the mental attitude of man at that period as so wretched as at present. This trait is the prevailing, inexhaustible optimism. [...] This youth fulness, even childishness, of hope and illusions, this delight in the outlook into the future, is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon connected with the great Revolution.

We learn from our rapid scanning of the past centuries, that the present tone of thought is without precedent. History contains the record of but one moment that reminds us of our own in this respect, and this is that period of the death agony of the ancient world. [...] That dismal time when the Roman Empire was tottering to its fall, and paganism in its death throes, is the only period in which we meet with the same depression, the same restless spirit of investigation and fault-finding, the same skepticism in superficial and pessimism in deep minds which characterize our own highly civilized age.


Whence comes this mental distress common to all civilized peoples? To what cause can we trace the development of this unparalleled irritation and embittering, which prevails with such alarming severity among all the thinkers of an age which seems to offer even to the poorest, a wealth of material and intellectual pleasures, such as no monarch of former times was able to procure.

Every word that we speak, every action, is a direct lie against that which we acknowledge as truth in our hearts. Thus we are always parodying our own selves, and acting a perpetual farce, which wearies us to death, in spite of our being accustomed to it, which requires a constant denial on our part of every one of our most cherished beliefs and convictions, and which, in moments of introspection, fills us with disgust and contempt of our own conduct and of everything around us. We assume at every opportunity a costume that looks to our own eyes like a fool's jacket but which we wear with apparent satisfaction and a thousand airs and graces; we counterfeit outward reverence for certain persons and things, which appear to our innermost hearts, as absurd in the highest degree, and we cling like cowards, to certain conventionalities, whose utter incongruity we feel with every fibre of our being.
This perpetual conflict between the existing conditions of the world and our secret convictions, has a most tragic reaction upon the inner life of the individual. We seem to ourselves like clowns, who set others to laughing by the jokes, which to them are so flat and stale. Ignorance is easily combined with a kind of animal sense of
comfort, and we can live happy and contented, if we accept all our surroundings as necessary and right. The Inquisition, in rooting out doubt with the sword and the stake, intended to benefit humanity in its own way, by saving to man his pleasure in existence. But as soon as we recognize the fact that the hitherto cherished institutions
have lost their vitality and are all out of date, that they are empty, foolish phantoms, partly scarecrows, partly theatre properties, we experience the horror and longing for escape, the discouragement and disgust which would fill the mind and heart of a living man locked in a vault with the dead, or of a sane man imprisoned with lunatics, obliged to humor their vagaries, to escape physical violence.
This perpetual conflict between our ideas, and all forms of our civilization, this necessity for carrying on our existence in the midst of institutions which we consider to be lies these are the causes of our pessimism and skepticism. This is the frightful rent that goes through the entire civilized world. In this insupportable contradiction we lose all enjoyment of life and all inclination for effort. It is the cause of that feverish sense of discomfort that disturbs the people of culture in all countries today. In it we find the solution to the problem of the dismal tone of modern thought.