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Thomas Mann, "Against Thickheadedness and Retrograde Behavior: A Wish Made to Humanity" (1927)

Thomas Mann’s (1875-1955) ambivalence toward mass society and belated support of the republic derived from a tension between his aesthetic sensibilities and his political ideals. In this short essay, published simultaneously in Sweden and Berlin in December 1927, Mann warns of the growing threat of anti-civilized political barbarism, which he interprets as a consequence of a general lack in intelligence and willingness to learn from past mistakes.

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Making a wish to humanity, that is, to today’s human society, on the occasion of the New Year? And we are only granted one while there is so much to wish for? That means we have to make a focused and large-scale wish in order to cover everything desirable with this one wish. Let’s pull ourselves together then!

Intelligence – I think that’s it. I believe it has never been more necessary for the welfare of humankind – and particularly the European part of humankind – than today. And if I were asked to further define the kind of intelligence I am speaking of, the best I could do would be to call it a willingness of mind – in a spirit of conservation.

Today there is only one kind of conservatism deserving of its name. It is the one which protects our civilization from its demise, which wishes to “preserve” it in the face of looming catastrophes that would equal its annihilation. That these catastrophes are indeed looming should have become believable because of those that have already befallen it and which will have been merely the prelude to an unprecedented razing should human society, and specifically European society, believe the incidents that had descended upon it, and which it comfortably feels it is recovering from rather quickly, to be the end of the story, and that with regard to the future it could indulge in a kind of optimism allowing it any foolishness, any thickheadedness and retrograde behavior, any oafish arrogance as well as any silly play with fire. This kind of optimism, widespread among humanity, is absolutely misguided for the following reason.

There is at all times a considerable distance between reality or matter, the state the large majority of mankind still persists in and from which it hesitatingly transforms into new states, and the mind, that is, the level of insight already gained by the highest human achievements. Matter is tough, dull, suspicious, of necessity slow and cautious, hindered by itself, while the mind is lively and agile, passionate, impatient, and prone to weariness: it has often been the case that the mind was already “done” with a new idea and at least tempted to advance to new and more progressive things before matter had remotely caught up with it and begun to adjust to that level of insight which the mind was yearning to leave behind already; indeed, all its morality, its self-discipline, its sociability, and its goodness actually consists in not getting bored with ideas before they have been realized. For a reality forfeiting all contact with the mind, a mindless and godless, irredeemably retarded reality whose circumstances are in crass disparity with the “true”, i.e. intellectually achieved level of insight, would be in danger – and we are expressing ourselves coolly and calmly here – it would be doomed, by law of nature it would be exposed to certain dynamic reactions resulting from exaggerated and unhealthy tensions.

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