by ALEX ROMEO
There are basically two types of people in the world.
First, there are the vast majority of human beings who both Plato and Nietzsche refer to as “the herd,” because they live out their lives like glorified cattle. These sorts seek pleasure at every turn and avoid discomfort at all cost. They dress well, look cute, live in tastefully furnished homes in the right sorts of neighborhoods, and sincerely enjoy the company of their equally shallow family and friends. They love their gods—but not so much that their devotion gets in the way of their pleasure-seeking—and they are convinced that they are good men and women who will be deservedly rewarded after death.
The herd listens only to the most popular music, reads only the most popular books, and assents to only the most popular ideas. Because members of the herd are completely unreflective, they have no original ideas of their own and instead parrot whatever truths and ideals are fashionable at any given moment. They are detestable because they are so smugly satisfied with their lives that they couldn’t imagine living any other way than they do. And when they die, even their corpses look and smell great.
The herd is all around us. Its members are omnipresent, like roaches, scurrying to and fro, buying, consuming, gorging themselves, fucking, shitting, and spawning future generations of fat, self-satisfied morons like themselves.
Although most members of the species Homo sapiens belong to the herd, there is another type of human being that is far more rare. This type goes by the name “underground man”—to use Dostoyevsky’s terminology. Unlike the common rung of humanity, underground men (or women) are characterized by a heightened sense of self-conscious awareness. They understand their own human motivations, and, because of this, they know that they are shits—weak selfish, vain, petty, and immoral. But they also know that all human beings are shits. The only difference is that underground men are AWARE of just how loathsome and despicable they are, even if they lack the will or the courage to do anything constructive about this fact.
It might not seem like much to recognize one’s own limitations, but in fact, such self-conscious awareness is precisely what separates real men from beasts. An underground man may be just as morally corrupt as a member of the herd, but at least he KNOWS that he is corrupt. And this knowledge offers some slim chance at redemption, even if an underground man never chooses to take advantage of it.
Whereas members of the herd are typically filled with smug self-satisfaction, underground men are always characterized by their fundamental contempt—contempt for themselves, to be sure, but even more so for members of the odious herd. Jesus admonishes his followers to love others as they love themselves. But underground men are filled with such self-loathing that it is impossible for them to feel anything other than pure, unadulterated disgust for all of humanity.
I know what you’re thinking: It sounds a bit pathetic to spend ones time snidely bitching about the foibles of ones fellow human beings. It is petty, to be sure, but underground men don’t really have much of a choice. If they could just zone out from reality the way members of the herd do, they might be capable of some degree of compassion, or at least tolerance. But the heightened self-consciousness that underground men possess makes it impossible to ignore the gross stupidity and immorality of their fellow human beings.
Perhaps you think that such a wholesale condemnation of humanity is too harsh—that human beings really aren’t as vulgar and shallow as an underground man believes them to be. In fact, they are much worse. The very attitude of smug self-satisfaction that characterizes a herd mentality is responsible for all of the evils that we experience as inhabitants of this fragile world. The herd needs to live in complete comfort, so we have endless wars to secure the natural resources—fossil fuels in particular—needed to ensure their comfort. The herd plunders the planet’s natural resources, spews tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and renders the planet inhospitable for future generations. But does anyone really care about this? Of course not! That kind of realization would get in the way of all the fun we are supposed to be having; it would inject a note of reality into the sublime fantasy in which all members of the herd desire to live. An attitude of unmitigated contempt is the very least that one should have for a species so unenlightened, so selfish, so cruel that it would subject its own future generations to a harsh struggle for survival in a world debased by human greed.
Underground men are no better than their counterparts in the herd, but, as I have said, at least they recognize their own hypocrisy and weakness. They hate themselves for it, and as a result are endlessly conflicted and tortured. The suffering that comes from authentic self-awareness, however, at least offers the slim chance of redemption. When despair becomes horrific enough, underground men will either be forced to take decisive action to change their condition in life or be forced to terminate their own lives. The despair that comes from self-awareness, I’m afraid, offers no other options for those who have the fortune—or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it—to reside in the underground.
Even in death, however, the underground man is superior in every way to a member of the herd. The total lack of self-consciousness possessed by members of the herd may seem like a blessing, but in fact it is the ultimate curse. There is no escaping death. And when death comes to one who has lived his life completely immersed in the pleasures of the world, you can be well assured it will be a horrific death indeed.
If one has a choice, then, one ought to choose the underground every time over the lush grazing fields of the herd, despite the suffering that comes from dwelling in the underground. But, if you are able to read this, you’ve probably already chosen. And more likely than not, you’ve chosen to belong to the herd.
I would tell you how sorry I am that you’ve made such an unenlightened choice, but you probably wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about anyway. That, after all, is precisely what it means to belong to the herd.