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The Great Exhaustion: Manned Space Flight and Philosophy

It is not difficult to imagine historians, several centuries from now, wondering how it could be that Americans, without really knowing how to do it, decided to go to the moon in eight short years. “What were they thinking?” these historians might exclaim!

Their amazement could take two forms, however, depending on how Americans today, and in the future, approach anew the question of our potential return to the stars. It is a question older than America itself. Philosophers as early as Rousseau in the 1750s, Tocqueville in the 1830s, and Nietzsche in the 1880s had foreseen that our fate would be to turn away from outer space. The terminology each used was different, as were their diagnoses and their recommendations. They feared the onset of what could be called the Great Exhaustion—a weariness, a loss of confidence, an unwillingness to risk much, a final and fatal self-satisfaction that would mark an end to human history. And, we can add, an end to any longing for a manned space program that reaches to the planets and the frontier beyond.

If we and those who follow us are unable to avoid the Great Exhaustion about which Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche warned, when future historians ask what were they thinking? they will mean, they were surely crazy; for we, men and women of the future, know that we are happiest when content with ourselves: when the longings and dreams and imaginings that might disrupt our Arcadian lives are confined to episodic experiences—at movies, thrill parks, sporting events—but never prompt us to go further. Psychological security, our future historians may yet conclude, is the true project of Humankind. And they may yet conclude this because their assessment would be that our troubled history brought too much suffering, too much death. It proved too costly, too risky, too frightening. The Americans who went to the moon in eight years were rash and reckless; they had just that spirit we men and women of the future have, at long last, expunged. We have Facebook and Netflix and Amazon Prime and food security and equality and global governance and climate stability. These are enough. We are satisfied with ourselves and the security we have collectively achieved. Why yearn for more; what more could there be? More senseless violence? After Americans went to the moon, they spent the next half-a-century cautiously developing space technology in low-Earth orbit. And, yes, they flirted with the idea of manned space-flight to Mars. But Americans finally came to their senses and gave up on the idea altogether. Even to have considered a manned mission to Mars, and beyond: What were they thinking?

But if men and women of the future are able to avoid the Great Exhaustion, what were they thinking? will mean what many of us still take it to mean—namely: Why did Americans, as a whole, lose interest in the idea of manned space-flight to other worlds far from home? Why, to put the matter in a slightly different light, did their aspirations become so small? Why were they unmoved by the prospect of the Great Liftoff into space that we, men and women of the future, were compelled to achieve?

To these two very different meanings of what were they thinking? the technologically-minded will object that science proceeds at its own pace. The technology needed to go to Mars and beyond cannot be conjured by fancy. Neither a disposition that favors the Great Exhaustion or the Great Liftoff accounts for the pace of technological development.

At any given moment, that is true. But that was true in 1961 when President Kennedy pronounced the American intention to go to the moon in eight years. What is possible in the way of technological development cannot be known in advance, at any given moment. But a certain disposition must be present if the pace of future advances is to be faster rather than slower. Technological development occurs by chance, through wonder, and by the force of necessity.  About chance, we can say nothing. Wonder is a disposition of mind and heart that pulls us out of ourselves. And the force of necessity is greatest when we have left our familiar home and ventured elsewhere. The latter two of these three, wonder and necessity, entail that we not be held fast in the self-satisfied grip of the Great Exhaustion. To be sure, technological developments can prompt wonder, and thrust us into novel situations where the force of necessity elicits further technological developments. But if humankind becomes wholly self-satisfied, it is doubtful that technological developments, should they come at all, will rekindle the longing for the Great Liftoff.

That is what we will consider here. Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche saw the problem off in the distance, in spite of the extraordinary technological advances of the 18th and 19th centuries when they lived. The Great Exhaustion might overtake us all, they thought, quite irrespective of what the 20th and 21st century bring in the way of technological development. The warning they place before us is that it may (soon) already be too late to recover; the burden is on us to prove them wrong.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” (or “First Discourse”) is perhaps the essay to which we should turn in order to find the earliest, tantalizing apprehension about the Great Exhaustion. In this 1750 essay, we discover two ideas worth exploring: first, the meaning and implications of nature’s resistance to man’s inquiry; second, the problem of “prosthetic man.”

Original frontispiece for Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.”

The first idea, intimated in the frontispiece, depicts a satyr receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus. The conventional account of that encounter, of course, is that man’s reception of the gift of fire from the god Prometheus betokens the development of techne, from which we derive the word technology. Today, we marvel at what we have achieved through technological means. Rousseau, citing a more ancient account of this gift, provides us with a different understanding. In his words: “Satyr, you will mourn the beard on your chin, for [the fire you have been given] burns when it is touched.”1 Rousseau inverts our self-congratulatory account of the gift of fire. He asks what it might mean that nature is so resistant to our efforts to understand her.  Might this be an arrangement by which we are protected from vices that are bound to emerge if our efforts to understand and tame nature are successful? Are there difficulties we cannot foresee? Nature intends to make us happy, Rousseau declares, but human beings make themselves unhappy whenever their desires exceed their capacity to fulfill them. The more we overcome nature’s resistance with technology, the more we are able to provide for ourselves. That would be well and good if we were satisfied with the material opulence at hand. But we are not. Our tastes become more refined the more civilizationally advanced we become. Where once desires were simple, now they are complex. In absolute terms, technological advances deliver more; in relative terms, because our burgeoning desires exceed our technological capacity to fulfill them, we are left with less. Scarcity, properly understood, increases the more we have.

This insight is not, strictly speaking, opposed to technological development; but Rousseau’s warning is clear: the deeper problem of human life is not that we do not have enough, but rather that if we have inordinate desires, no level of technological development will alone make us happy.

More follows from Rousseau’s cautions about technological advance. If nature is resistant to human efforts to extract her secrets, what sort of social and political arrangements will be necessary to do so? As technology advances, two things happen: first, the necessary social coordination to produce it increases; and second, the consequences of it going awry become ever greater. A wood fire requires little in the way of social coordination; and when it runs wild, a few houses or a village may be burned down. The use of petro-chemicals requires a much more complicated set of social arrangements. And the consequences of their extensive use are more far-ranging, extending across the planet itself. Indeed, village-level coordination will no longer do. A nuclear power plant requires even more social coordination (not least because of the need for nationwide, or even global, coordination for the storing of spent fuel). Moreover, the consequences of a nuclear power plant going awry are considerable. To come to the point: when things go wrong with simple technologies, you have high-frequency, low-amplitude events; when things go wrong with advanced technologies, you have low-frequency, high-amplitude events. That is why social coordination becomes ever-greater, the more advanced technology becomes. And yet, Rousseau’s heirs wonder, is the diminishment of human freedom entailed by ever-more-advanced technology worth the material advances it brings—advances that will be of little use for us if our desires continue to exceed our capacity to fulfill them?

For the manned space program, this brief reflection raises a very large question: in order for us to go beyond Mars, will the technologies required be so advanced that they will require global coordination to create and sustain them? Decades or a century from now, should we head out to the stars, will that enterprise need to be planetary in scale? The technology needed will certainly vastly exceed the level of sophistication that the multi-national CERN Accelerator has achieved. To put the matter in terms of science fiction, was Star Trek right—must we altogether put an end to the parochial idea of nations, if we are to go to the stars? For all of its cumbersomeness, is NASA perhaps not large enough? If the technologies needed to reveal nature’s secrets require ever-greater social coordination, and entail risks that require regulation and safety protocols that wholly order our lives, does this not set us up for the Great Exhaustion, Rousseau might wonder?

Rousseau’s second idea from the “First Discourse,” which helps us understand the Great Exhaustion, is what I have called “prosthetic man.” Consider the following passage:

How, indeed, do you think men whom the slightest need crushes and the slightest difficulty rebuffs would envision hunger, thirst, fatigue, danger, and death? With what courage will soldiers endure excessive labors to which they have not been accustomed . . . . Let no one raise as an objection against me the renowned valor of all those modern warriors so scientifically trained. I hear of their bravery on a single day of battle lauded, but I am not told how they endure excessive labor, how they resist the harshness of the season and the inclemency of weather. All it takes is a bit of sunshine or snow, the lack of a few superfluities, to dissolve the best of our armies in a few days.2

A prosthesis, of course, is something we put on. It is not, however, a mere externality; it is an extension, a supplement to what is, or must be, already there, now to be augmented. Thus, to use Rousseau’s example, warriors put on armor and weaponry in order to gain deflective and offensive capabilities that their bodies alone cannot provide. Rousseau’s apprehension is that the healthy supplemental understanding of a prosthesis will get lost from view, once we come to rely on the prosthesis as a substitute. “Scientifically trained” soldiers have strength, but unless they have courage, their strength is of little use.  Armor and weaponry are the prosthetic supplements to courage. They make for better soldiers only if those soldiers already have courage. Without courage, however, the supplement becomes the substitute, the stand-in imposture, and the paradox emerges: soldiers can give the appearance that they have much, while they are, in fact, little.3  To illustrate the point, Ellen Ripley, the heroine of Alien, could not have won her epic battle without the prosthesis she put on, but it would have been of no use to her unless she first had the courage to use it.

The development of courage takes time, as we know; donning the prosthesis of armor and weaponry is immediate. Therein lies the danger. In the modern age, we are always reminded of our weakness, and are always in a hurry. We are bound, therefore, to succumb to the temptation to rely on substitutes. Courage must come first; the prosthetic amplification only second. We moderns choose the second, and pretend the first is not necessary.

This problem of supplements becoming substitutes is evident everywhere around us. Because it is so pervasive, social media is among the best examples of the problem of “prosthetic man.” Friendship, as we know, is no easy achievement, in part because there is no manual for it. Friendship requires patience, generosity, forbearance, and forgiveness—and a long time to nurture each, in our actions, on the ground, in real-time. Social media purports to extend our network of friends, and to do so with ease. Through social media, we can have “friends” around that planet that we never see. Are these friends? If we already know, from lived experience, what friendship is, then social media can be the prosthesis by which we extend the range of friendships that we have. Dwell for long enough only on social media, however, turn it into a substitute for the sometimes difficult, often joyous, real-time activity that friendship involves, and something clearly has been lost. For the supplement to work, it cannot be turned into a substitute. Human knowledge and action, finally, require that we take the longer and more difficult course. The focal knowledge we gain or the actions we perform with prostheses depend upon the tacit inner knowledge we cannot fully name—courage, friendship, etc.—which must be present for the supplement to work well.4

How, then, is our willingness—indeed, our eagerness—to turn supplements into substitutes complicit in the Great Exhaustion? Rousseau anticipated that we could temporarily rely on our deeper tacit knowledge without replenishing it. Leveraging our tacit knowledge in the form of prosthetic extensions can go on for some time; and it may, for a moment, appear that we have, in fact, freed ourselves from the need of tacit knowledge altogether. Hence, the apparent sufficiency of the scientific soldier without courage, and social media “friends” without actual friendships. This apparent adequacy of substitute prosthetic power cannot be maintained forever, however.

Continuing to pretend that we can live with substitutes rather than supplements is akin to confusing the vitamins with the meal. Vitamins can supplement the meal, and make us stronger; but if they become a substitute for the meal, we rapidly become sick and die.

What Rousseau intimates, then, is not that the Great Exhaustion will take the form of a whimpering end to humanity. Quite to the contrary, it will take the form of a stupendous collapse, which will occur at the moment the ever-more-fantastic prostheses we don finally lose their link to the tacit knowledge that grounds them and makes them useful to us. To return to our social media example, imagine everyone on the planet someday being linked to everyone else in universal social media “friendship.” Having focused singularly on accomplishing this, having made this enterprise a substitute for on-the-ground, in-the-flesh friendships, what we will have achieved in the way of a substitute will finally have no meaning. The Great Exhaustion, on this reading, will occur because of a fantastic overextension; it will happen as a consequence of the futile attempt to turn the prosthetic supplements of the very sophisticated technologies that surround us into substitutes.

This idea has implications for the distant human future in space, should there be one. Consider the famous picture of a footprint on the moon from one of the Apollo missions. I say “footprint,” but as we know, it really was only an imprint from a space boot on the lunar surface. Why, then, does it have such a hold on us? What is its appeal? It can hold our attention only because of our pre-existing knowledge of what it feels like to walk barefoot on our own magnificent planet. The space boot that made the imprint on the lunar soil is the prosthetic supplement that allows us to extend ourselves outward onto other worlds. This “from-through” structure of knowledge, if you will—from our bodies, through our technological prostheses—means, first, that the distinction between “manned” and “unmanned” space exploration, while correct in one obvious sense, fails to take into account the “from-through” structure of knowledge that makes every mission a “manned” mission.

Why not, then, dispense with human beings in space altogether? This question has vexed policy-makers from the very beginning of the space program. The answer is that while the exploration of space requires the use of technological prostheses, we must be there, in space, or else our technological prostheses will become substitutes, not supplements, at which point the knowledge we gain ceases to be useful to us. That distant future is difficult to imagine now, because the “from-through” structure of our knowledge about space is still intact—the proof of which is that the footprint on the moon still moves us. But look again at the picture; absent our deep and unspoken tacit knowledge of what it feels like to walk barefoot on planet earth, it is but a picture of lines in the dust. The Great Exhaustion implied by Rousseau’s musings about “prosthetic man” point to a future in which that would be all that we can see—lines in the dust. And if that picture should, for us, become just lines in the dust because our prosthetic supplements have been turned into substitutes, it is difficult to imagine that we would want to go anywhere at all.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville’s great work, Democracy in America (1835-40), is also concerned with the Great Exhaustion, but works through the problem differently than does Rousseau. Rousseau was, for our purposes here, an epistemologist; Tocqueville was a sociologist, concerned about how what he called “democratic social conditions” would shape habits of thought, make certain ideas self-evident, and render others (like “inequality”) unthinkable. Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain,” Tocqueville writes. “Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.”5 There are tantalizing hints in the “First Discourse” that Rousseau had already foreseen the problem; but Tocqueville’s addition, if you will, was to understand that if modern life breaks the links that hold us together, we would have to deliberately reconstitute them, through face-to-face encounters in civic associations, if what he called “the democratic age” was to vindicate itself. In his words:

The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if government wholly usurped the place of private associations. Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal actions of men, one upon another.6

To his great credit, while his contemporaries in France in the 1830s were trying to repress the development of democracy because it led to disorder, Tocqueville saw far into the future, after the upheavals of a transitional age, to a time when there were no longer any ties that bind us together. When that happens, we come to the end of history.

People suppose that the new [democratic] societies are going to change shape daily, but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed with the same institutions, prejudices, and mores, so that mankind will stop progressing and dig itself in. I fear that the mind may keep folding itself up in a narrower compass forever without producing new ideas, that men will wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity, and that for all its constant agitation humanity will make no advance.7

It is important to pause here and clarify what his vision of the Great Exhaustion at history’s end looks like; while Tocqueville wrote this passage in 1840, it has proven to be quite prophetic.

[When I imagine this future despotism in America,] I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in the pursuit of petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists of his children and his personal friends . . . . Over these kinds of men stand an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful in detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment . . . . It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills, but it softens, bends, and guides them; it seldom enjoins, but prevents much from being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.8

How close are we to Tocqueville’s account of the Great Exhaustion today? The evidence surrounds us that his apprehensions were well warranted.9

Tocqueville’s assessment of the Great Exhaustion alerts us to the sociological arrangements that he thought likely to emerge in the democratic age, but which will be deeply destructive to liberty. Liberty, which the democratic age purports to nourish, ends up being quashed. And it ends up being quashed because of what could be called the “bi-nodal” social arrangements that are likely to emerge under democracy. Tocqueville worried that a very powerful administrative state would emerge and that the lives of citizens would become smaller and smaller as they disengage from their neighbors and withdraw into themselves.

We could, here, double-back on our observations about social media, and amplify them—for nothing more confirms Tocqueville’s worry that we would someday scorn our neighbors and fall into our own little soliloquys than the emergence of social media. For our purposes, however, let us turn to that other nodal point Tocqueville thought would emerge: the administrative state.

Over and again, Tocqueville warns against the social danger of administrative centralization. Not surprisingly, his greatest praise for the Americans is reserved for our decision to decentralize power and to enshrine federalism in the U.S. Constitution, not least by enumerating specific powers that Congress does have (See Article I, Section 8), but going no further. The rest—the matters of daily life—was left for the individual States that were party to the Republic to decide. If, instead, one opts for administrative centralization, the benefits of federalism are quickly undone.

[Administrative centralization] only serves to enervate the peoples that submit to it, because it constantly tends to diminish their civic spirit. Administrative centralization succeeds, it is true, in assembling, at a given time and place, all the available resources of the nation, but it militates against the increase of those resources. It brings triumph of the day of battle, but in the long run diminishes a nation’s power.10

But there is more. As administrative centralization takes hold, corporations soon learn that they can work with government agencies that have specific projects in mind, and with government regulators that have the urge to constrain-and-guide, in order to assure that just their corporate enterprise will gain favor. It is one of the painful ironies of America in the 20th century that the growth of governmental centralization was justified on the basis of the claim that corporations had become too large and too powerful. The unintended consequence has been that large corporations and the federal government have become so entwined that they effectively lock out smaller, emergent, enterprises that cannot overcome the barriers to entry that government regulations establish. The name for this arrangement, we well know, is crony capitalism. In the post-1989 order, where “globalization” captures the imagination, even more extensive “cooperation” between large corporations and government agencies, now intent on transnational coordination, has appeared. The current revolt against “globalization”—the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, the rumblings in Europe—is a not-surprising result.

With regard to manned space travel, the implications of crony capitalism have been obvious for some time. In the 1960s, NASA was young, and driven by the engineering challenges of getting to the moon and back, safely, in less than a decade. But NASA has not been immune from the larger forces at work that Tocqueville foresaw. We can argue about just where NASA is on the continuum between engineer-driven goal-specific missions, on the one hand, and being a veritable High Tech Corporate Special Interest Group Accommodation Administration on the other. But what we cannot argue about is the location on that continuum we are likely to find NASA in the future. The current, and contentious, debate about Asteroid Capture Missions can be seen as yet another distraction that keep corporate clients flush. Look over the NASA website.11 There are hundreds of different ongoing missions. To anyone who has carefully considered Tocqueville’s writings about the danger of administrative centralization, what NASA has become is not the least bit surprising.

“Cooperation” between government agencies and large corporations at the national level invites a host of questions. When such “cooperation” goes global, when we have international “cooperation,” the specter of “crony globalism” swiftly arises. No longer is NASA big enough; now NASA must coordinate with the European Space Agency (ESA), along with the larger corporations with which ESA “cooperates.”

In my account of Rousseau’s thinking about the meaning of nature’s resistance to human efforts to understand her, I suggested that one of the implications is that NASA will not be big enough, that we will need Star Trek-like global (and eventually trans-global) coordination to develop the technological capacity to go to the stars. Assuming, as Star Trek does, that human motives are beneficent—that we can, and will, work together, without darker motives, to develop technologies that allow us to reach into the heavens—such global coordination would redound to the benefit of all.

Yet when Tocqueville’s understanding of the dangers of administrative centralization during the time of the Great Exhaustion are brought to our attention, the arrangement suddenly looks deeply tainted. The desire for human beings to exercise power over each other is deeper than the desire to solve the riddle of nature. And, by corollary: the desire for power will often hide behind the pretext of solving the riddle of nature. If that turns out to be true, we will not get the happy and ever-expanding Star Trek future; we will get the plodding and lumbering of NASA and the ESA, and the endless deferral of an ambitious manned space program that, along the way, enriches less-than-courageous corporate clients implicated in these trans-governmental operations.

High-level social coordination should be able to bring to bear the resources of the whole world, to reveal nature’s secrets. That it does this so very slowly suggests that something else is at work. Tocqueville, who called himself “a liberal of a new kind,”12 thought that, far from this high-level social coordination bringing unambiguous benefits as its more narrow-sighted, ostensibly “neo”-liberal defenders claim, it would end up suffocating innovation. Rather than truly new developments occurring in rapid-fire succession, we would end up with endlessly derivative applications of existing understandings—to which we will add: to existing technologies. Welcome to the world of gadgets. As comedian Lewis Black says, “I know this can’t be the 21st century! Where’s my flying car?”

Might it be the case that global cooperation gets us only so far, but that to achieve real advances, serious competition is necessary—competitions between nations? We wistfully remember the grandness of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, which got us—meaning, we Americans—to the moon in less than a decade. Those of us old enough to have lived through that amazing and agonizing decade cannot forget, however, that the backdrop of the entire project was our national rivalry with the U.S.S.R.—a “rivalry” serious enough to involve the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. We should shudder to ask, but must: will manned-space exploration of the planets and the star require competition between nations again?  NASA proposes to have astronauts involved in a round-trip mission to Mars in the mid-2030s. If Russia and China suddenly leapt ahead, and appeared poised to complete that mission before us, would NASA still insist that we can go no sooner than they have already publically proposed?  That is doubtful. Through administrative centralization, a multitude of tasks can be coordinated; but through administrative centralization, neither innovation nor transformation will be encouraged.

 Friedrich Nietzsche

No understanding of what happened in Europe in the 20th century can be complete without considering the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. After Nietzsche, it is safe to say, philosophy is never quite the same. Some, like Heidegger, and those who followed his path, have opened doors that Nietzsche showed us but did not enter; others, seeking to repair the world that Nietzsche took apart, have sought to bolt those doors or pretend they are not doors at all. The natural sciences thrived during the 19th century; the human sciences, after Nietzsche, are still staggering in the 21st century. What did Nietzsche himself see? One need only peruse the Prologue to his poetic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) to understand his apprehensions about the Great Exhaustion that he thought had already befallen Europe in the 19th century. Here is an excerpt from the Prologue:

“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth [. . .]. A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death. “One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.” “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants, and is, the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”13

“The last man,” as Nietzsche calls him, is the person who is wholly self-satisfied, who, when invited to dream, to long, to risk, can only “blink.” The whole of human history is an account of human suffering and longing, and self-overcoming. Yet the “last man” wants none of it. He, like one of the two types of future historian we can imagine, looks back in disbelief on the manned space program that took us to the moon in eight short years. What were they thinking?

What makes the last man’s life pleasantly endurable, however, is, as Nietzsche put it, “a little poison now and then.” Here are the vicarious thrills of modern life—the sporting events through which violence is domesticated and choreographed; the movies that immerse us in worlds that attract but which, in our everyday life, we dare not imitate, for those worlds are inhabited by lives larger than ours make possible. Here, also, are the cinematic extravagances offered up by science fiction movies, which enthrall us for a few hours, and then allow us to leave satisfied that these vicarious offerings are just enough to allow us to endure diminished everyday lives that don’t demand the real thing. Nietzsche’s last man asks only for “a little poison now and then.” Himself small, he imagines more—but only episodically.

My account of Nietzsche here is cursory. Suffice it to say, that on his account, we Americans are his last men. Yet, therein lies the puzzle. Notwithstanding this claim, scholars of, and in, the 20th century have long asked why it is that Nietzsche’s shadow still haunts Europe but in America, almost not at all.14 Neither in philosophy nor in politics are there serious heirs to Nietzsche in America. Turmoil notwithstanding, America remained essentially cheerful in the 20th century, while Europe did not. Why was this so, and what does it mean for the question of what awaits a reply from us: which will prevail—the Great Exhaustion or the Great Liftoff?

A return to Tocqueville may provide an answer.

Enduring American Habits

One of the strengths of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is that while it alerts us about an impending Great Exhaustion, it also alerts us to countervailing habits, which constantly renew the American Experiment—in theory, even if immigration patterns alter the demographic makeup of the country. Habits, once established, endure, no matter who the carriers of them happen to be. Yes, it’s a remarkable claim. But it is a claim Tocqueville makes. Tocqueville thought that the Americans had, to invoke a now-archaic phrase, a national character. It did not pertain to race; it pertained to self-understanding and aspiration. The self-understanding was that America was a new experiment in human liberty. The aspiration was more modest: that practice—hands-on experience—would be needed to build this new world. These two together, Tocqueville thought, conjoined with the vast space in which they operate, illuminate the enduring features of our national character, and provide the way-points, I propose, for the future of the American manned space program.

National Character: The Unplucked String. About the new experiment in liberty, Tocqueville had noted that the earliest American Puritan writings already revealed that Americans saw themselves as citizens of a City Upon a Hill, a beacon in the darkness.15 This idea still orients our thinking today, even if in sometimes latent ways. This idea has given rise to hubris of the worst sort; but let us also admit that without this idea of leading the world to some better understanding of who we are and what we are called to accomplish, President Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation would have fallen on deaf ears. His was a City Upon a Hill speech, updated for a blossoming technological age. The very mixed heritage of this idea of a city on a hill cannot be side-stepped; but neither can the question of whether the idea is needed for Americans today, of quite differing pedigrees, to go “all in” on the manned space program. National character is like a string that vibrates at a certain pitch: pluck it and both good and bad things happen; fail to strike it at all, and your nation slumbers—peaceful, to be sure, but unmoved. It remains to be seen whether masking national character under the guise of something else—say, calling for a new “technological high ground”—is an adequate surrogate or just an impotent substitute.

The Scope of the American Enterprise. Tocqueville marveled at the scope of the American enterprise. Unlike the peoples of Europe in his day, Americans were forever involved in projects of improvement, big and small. The small projects he attributed to our desire for well-being. The large projects he attributed to the presence of the frontier. We thought big, because the space we occupied was big. Grand thinking requires breathing room. Indeed, Tocqueville thought that the entire history of Western political philosophy—from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, all of which advocated a moderation of desires—was almost irrelevant in the American context. In big spaces, it is appropriate to think big. The political geography of Europe and of the Mediterranean region demanded more constrained ambitions; not so in America. The closing of the frontier in this country, of course, diminished the prospect for grand enterprises. Yet lurking just below the surface of our now quiet, circumscribed lives lays a desire for open spaces and the freedom that accompanies them. Americans are rightly proud of the scale of their enterprises. Do we, today, live off of the interest, and pay little heed to the principal? Without regenerating the principal, the interest someday runs out. The principal must be regenerated, not in the realm of science-fiction fancy—Nietzsche’s “a little poison now and then”—but with real-life, hands-on, enterprises, on the frontier. Yes, there are considerable costs involved with manned space flight. We ought to turn the question around occasionally and ask: what are the costs associated with living out of character? I suspect that much of the current American malaise can be attributed to our dim awareness that we have a calling to develop the space frontier, but are not yet doing so on the grand scale that alone will satisfy us. There are few sufferings greater than living out a life at odds with oneself.

Social Compression. America today groans under the burden of having 320 million people all stomping with great agitation in one place. As our population increases, so does social compression. Tocqueville remarked that had the legislators who had expanded westward from Ohio stayed put in Connecticut, they would have become troublesome instigators rather than exemplary citizens.16 He was pointing out that even the best of laws and the most temperate of citizens are of no avail if there is not a relief valve to dissipate a people’s passions. Without available space into which to expand and make a world “our own,” envy and resentment—the twin vices of the democratic age—infect human relations, and invite the national government to increasingly impose uniform rules in the hope of averting tensions. It comes as no surprise that as social compression has increased, the role of national government has grown in step. Yet not even the best and most heartfelt efforts of legislators can to do more than offer palliatives unless social compression is diminished—either by decreasing the population in the same amount of space, or by increasing the space available for a growing population. As the world’s population grows, governmental power at the national and international level increases to maintain order. We don’t need social science to tell us this; Boyle’s Gas Law long ago alerted us to the direct relationship between compression and heat in a fixed volume. Allow compression to increase exponentially, and something will have to cool the mixture down. Government will increase in proportion to the heat generated; and more and more social programs will be needed to calm and to soothe. These will increase the burden on the national government, whose goal ought to be to diminish the compression rather than add to it—by growing ever-larger and more unmanageable. America cannot accomplish great things if its citizens are constantly looking over their shoulder with suspicion at each other, rather than looking off into the distance with a view to a labor they are called to undertake on the horizon’s edge. Social compression is a real and growing problem. Detractors of a manned space program should be reminded that we will not, in the future, solve our problems by keeping our feet firmly on the ground; we will just bump into each other with greater frequency and violence. Americans need space.

Withdrawal and Loneliness. Social compression is one side of our current dilemma; withdrawal is the other. It is worthwhile noting that for all of Tocqueville’s cautions about social compression, his greatest worry was the solitary withdrawal of persons into their own private spheres—to the detriment of themselves and others. Administrative centralization exacerbates this phenomenon, but a fuller account would also note that the withdrawal into ourselves, and our inability to build a world with our neighbors, necessitates that the administrative state step in to pick up the slack. That is why as democracies age, they tend to become more and more administratively centralized. The strong state and the lonely, withdrawn, citizen go hand-in-hand. The long-term consequence is the loss of vitality, innovativeness, and prosperity—in short, the Great Exhaustion. The well-spring of democracy is the initiative of its citizens. All efforts must be directed at bolstering it. Failing that, citizens will despair of the use of their freedom, and withdraw—perhaps consoling themselves once every four years, to vote for their leaders. I indicated earlier that Tocqueville thought one of the only ways to ameliorate this problem of withdrawal and loneliness was through civil society, through voluntary associations that gather citizens together over specific issues, for a time. A civic association is not a family, nor is it a political party. Unlike a family, it is voluntary; unlike a political party, it gathers citizens together over a single issue. Tocqueville thought that civic associations were the very lifeblood of democracy.

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different times—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and minute . . . . In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find a government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.17

Civic associations gather otherwise withdrawn citizens together, in order that together they may build a world. Forming such associations is both more difficult and more necessary as the power of the administrative state grows. The good news, Tocqueville thought, was that the Americans have an indefatigable need to form civic associations; and that once formed, they can breathe new life into a world grown tired and old. The Mars Society, for example, along with a host of other like-minded civic associations, aspire to do just that with respect to the manned space program. It remains to be seen whether these civic associations, and the ambitious and far-seeing outer-space oriented commercial enterprises that are as much a cause as a consequence of those civic associations, will successfully convince NASA—the very embodiment of administrative centralization about which Tocqueville warned—to reconfigure itself so that breathtaking progress in manned space flight can once again occur. More important still, these civic associations and their commercial counter-parts inspire wonder and hope that self-enclosed administrative centralization is not the final determinant of our fate.

Concluding Thoughts

A long and ominous arc of modern thought, well-known to philosophers but scarcely noticed by scientists, has been concerned with what I have called here the Great Exhaustion. Rousseau in the 1750s, Tocqueville in the 1830s, and Nietzsche in the 1870s saw it coming, and sought to diagnose its cause and identify an antidote. Any keen observer of the American manned space program is bound to wonder if some other explanation beyond technological limitation is needed to account for the abrupt slow-down after the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs of the 1960s. On the verge of the Great Liftoff into space, something happened that has yet to be adequately explained.

What happened, I suggest, is that the Great Exhaustion increasingly set in. This is not so much a non-scientific problem as a pre-scientific problem. That is, it is a problem of the disposition of the mind and heart, which bears on whether and how science and technology will be developed and used. Might we become so exhausted, Rousseau asks, that we eventually succumb to the temptation to use science and technological development as a substitute rather than a supplement? Or, as Tocqueville wonders, could we individually become so small and the administrative state become so large, that progress grinds to a halt because our aspirations become limited to entertainment and our science is guided down prescribed paths because of the corporate capture of the administrative state? Or, as Nietzsche wonders, might science someday no longer even be wanted, as longing itself disappears from the human race? These are serious problems, for which philosophical inquiry and wonder are needed if we are to understand the challenges before us. Here, I have charted the path we might follow. That path involves a consideration of the very real prospect of becoming overwhelmed by the Great Exhaustion—if we have not been so already. The countervailing hope, drawn from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, is that there are still intact habits on which Americans can and must draw if we are to avoid that fate, if we are to commence with the Great Liftoff into the age of sustained manned space flight to the planets, and to the frontier beyond.

1 Rousseau, “On the Question of Whether the restoration of the Arts and Science has contributed to the Purifying of Morals,” in The Major Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Scott trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 23. Hereafter, and above, “First Discourse.”

2 Rousseau, “First Discourse,” Second Part, p. 29.

3 In the 19th century, Marx would further develop this idea in his critique of capitalism. See Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 103: “That which is for me through the medium of money ¾ that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) ¾ that am I, the possessor of money. The extent of money is the extent of my power . . . . I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor” (emphasis in original). Money, on Marx’s view, becomes the universal prosthesis in the Age of Capitalism.

4 The terms, “focal” and “tacit” knowledge, are those invented by Polanyi, in the mid-20th century.  His insights, absent the terms, are already there in Rousseau.  See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

5 See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Henry Lawrence trans. (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 2, p. 508.

6 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 2, p. 515.

7 Ibid., Part III, Ch. 21, p. 645.

8 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part IV, Ch. 6, pp. 691-92.

9 For further elaboration, see my “Age of Exhaustion,” in The American Interest, November/December 2015, Vol. XI, No. 2, pp. 53-64.

10 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part I, Ch. 5, p. 88.

11 See

12 See Tocqueville’s letter to Eugène Stoffels, dated July 24, 1836, in Memoir, Letter, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862), Vol. 1, p. 381.

13 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Walter Kaufman trans. (New York: Random House, 1995), Prologue, §5, pp. 17-18.

14 The best thinking, by far, about this puzzle remains Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), especially Part Two, pp. 141-240.

15 See Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part I, Ch. 2, pp. 35-47.

16 See Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part II, Ch. 9, p. 282.

17 Ibid., Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 5, p. 513.

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