Heroic Vitalism

I was prowling the library at the university here today, which is cozy, cute and functional — just like the rest of this pseudo-city. Though I had some practical materials to find, I always browse around for stuff on my “topic” — vitalism. Well, it’s really more than a topic, since it has the broader outlines of a “world-view”. There are, of course, many world-views out there (we used to call them “philosophies”), but some have greater appeal than others — they resonate more clearly in the mind. For me, vitalism has that effect.

So it was a pleasant surprise that I happened on a nice summation of the vitalist doctrine at it’s most extreme — a charicature of “Heroic Vitalism”. It is a passage from a book by Eric Bentley, A Century of Hero Worship, reproduced as the model of analysis for the writings of the 19th century Russian thinker Leontev in Stephen Lukashevich, Konstantin Leontev (1831-1891): A Study in Russian “Heroic Vitalism” (New York: Pageant, 1967):

“There is no creed of Heroic Vitalism. Heroic vitalism is a faith, a dynamic Weltanshauung…Its roots are in despair, therefore it despises all optimistic systems. But it respects the fact and the masters of fact, and thereby surpasses pessimism. Its roots are in evolution and therefore it is aloof from the static thought of the eighteenth century. But it is less a science of biology than a religion of metabiology, a religion of Dionysian life and energy. Its roots are in a deep sense of individuality which has been growing since the Renaissance. But it assails the idea of human equality and issues a warning against the belief that the crew should control the captain. Its roots are in the classical sociology of the Greeks, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, a sociology which regards society as a vital organism and which compares a culture to harmonious music, a human body, a ship, or a cosmic system.

The great ideas of the older liberalism were gradualness and regularity. The great idea of Heroic Vitalism is Difference. Where the old liberalism depicted uniformity, smoothness, rectilinear progression, Heroic Vitalism depicts difference, uneven leaps, and recurring cycles. The liberal stressed equality, gradualness and the perfectibility of an improving mankind. The Heroic Vitalist stresses inequality, and evolution for him is salutatory, history is cyclical…Man struggles for existence, the fittest survive, nature is red in tooth and claw, the army is the prototype of the state, politics are the continuation of war by other means, action is preferable to thought, suffering is ineradicable, happiness is incompatible with greatness: these are the truisms of Heroic Vitalism.” (xiv-xv).

Not for the faint of heart, but perhaps that’s why vitalism is tied to romanticism (and neo-romanticism) by a number of authors (me included). Does that make it impractical and untenable in the real world. Sure…That’s why it’s a world-view, not the world-view. But if that view takes root, grows, blossoms…

Expression is such a challenge sometimes, and vitalism is a pretty odd complex of ideas, but I keep finding new pieces of the puzzle, new instruments to add to the orchestra. If I ever get my act together I’ll go back and refine my own view of this collage of consciousness. Finding something like this always lights the spark to do that.

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