Contemporary Leveling in the Spirit of
C. Don Keyes
Richard A. S. Hall
Fayetteville State University
The cynic knows the price of everything and the
value of nothing.
remains except to endure the absurdities with heroic defiance to the end.
---Julian Victor Langmead Casserley
“Leveling” is the use of words or their
substitutes to denigrate an object (human or otherwise) by an individual person
or many, either an identifiable social group or the anonymous public. G. W. F.
Hegel’s moralistic valet who belittles a hero because he knows the mundane or
perhaps unsavory details of the hero’s life exemplifies the former, and Søren Kierkegaard’s belittling “public,” a collective,
anonymous crowd, which inspired this article, exemplifies the latter.
Kierkegaard anticipates Martin Heidegger’s
ontology of leveling. For Heidegger, the
“leveling down” [Einebnung]
of and by the everyday “they self” [das
Man] demands and preserves the ordinary and average, to the extent that all
that is successful or praiseworthy is denigrated to the ordinary. This process in itself is, for Heidegger,
part of what it means to exist, to be. In addition to this ontology, this essay
returns to Heidegger’s view of time, which is related to the problem of
Predispositions to Leveling Today
In 1989, one of the authors described
Kierkegaard’s leveling as self-consumption of the human species, along with
three additional types of value destruction: needling, reality distortion, and
Envy is possibly the most egregious
predisposition to leveling, according to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. It is psychologically prior to reflection, a
kind of innate covertness, the illusion that one is entitled to objects that
belong to another. Indeed, one of Nietzsche’s comments goes immediately to the
heart of the matter, as Helmut Schoeck’s quotation
from him shows:
a relatively short aphorism in Dawn of Day Nietzsche points out the
connection between envy and nihilism.
Under the heading ‘The world destroyers’ he writes: ‘when some men fail
to accomplish what they desire to do they exclaim angrily, “May the whole world
perish!” This repulsive emotion is the
pinnacle of envy, whose implication is “If I cannot have something, no
one is to have anything, no one is to be anything!”’
This suggests why envy or a peculiar mode of it
would plunder what it cannot possess. Some
kinds of it have an urge to diminish certain objects, regardless of who owns
them—whether a neighbor, one’s self, the state, or nature. Tall objects are especially vulnerable,
whether physically tall or high in some other way. There is the proverbial lunatic who wants to
shoot the moon down or blow it up, even though it has proven impossible (at
least up to now). Tall trees can actually be felled whether one’s own, a
neighbor’s, or those in publically owned forests. More abstractly there is “altaphobia” (a deliberately ugly neologism) or
fear of whatever is highest, best and noblest.
Kierkegaard characterizes leveling as the
process that always, “at its lowest equates itself
to the divisor by means of which every one is reduced
to a common denominator.”
Marx says it proceeds from a “preconceived minimum.” Granted that the preconceived minimum is
momentarily the lowest common denominator, degradation is dynamic, an unceasing
swirl downward, or, so to speak, a “downward bootstrapping.” Leveling does not have to seek a lowest common
denominator as much as it establishes one.
It acts as if it had a purpose when it dismantles what would
obstruct the plunge. It issues
linguistic prohibitions to make resistance seem obscene. It sets up a system of inverse oughtness, such
that one ought not to be elite. Levelers, both conservative and liberal,
skillfully wield the righteous sword to cut off the tongue of free speech of
anyone suspected of being “elitist.”
Such declivity comes from both the right and the left; triumphantly it
plunges downward on two political bandwagons at the same time, counterfeits of
conservatism and liberalism.
Leveling invariably plunders anything of high
value, for instance the beautiful as found in works of art and a variety of
natural objects. Some cruel children
(following a lead from Erich Fromm’s explanation of sadism) attest to the
beauty of a butterfly by tearing it to pieces.
One of the authors heard a man say, “See how beautiful that deer is. That’s the kind I love to shoot.”
Realms of Leveling/Degradation
An old Lutheran hymn
states something like, “The ancient dragon [Satan] lies in wait to spoil Church
and School and State.” The following analysis of degradation is not limited to
these three. Furthermore, they are considered primarily as functions and only
secondarily as specific institutions.
Church and State refer to the sacred and secular power, respectively,
and School to intellect.
Once, the church, despite its many faults, at
least safeguarded the sacred and helped build up the culture. Now it works hard at secularizing itself and
feels self-righteous when it “succeeds” by succumbing to the forces of cultural
decadence, as for example lowering the standards of music. Institutional
religion, as Nietzsche poignantly accused it, has been an accomplice in the
death of God. In ancient Greece athletic
contests, like the Olympic Games, were ways of honoring the gods. By contrast, today, the Church of America, a
kind of organized religion, worships balls.
It consists of a number of denominations depending on which ball it
honors. The celebrants of this religious
rite dribble, throw, and kick. They are beyond criticism. The worshipers of this established civic
religion rejoice in a sacred space, the stadium, a modern coliseum, where
deception and force are made visible.
As might be expected, leveling infects the
secular, political realm as well. One
form it takes is the denial of an objective and historically grounded political
reality. A piece by Ron Suskind in the New
York Times Magazine of October 17, 2004 illustrates this. Suskind had
interviewed a Bush aide concerning truth-telling in politics:
aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,”
which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your
judicious study of discernible reality.”
I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and
empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works
anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire
now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that
reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities,
which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of
you, will be left to just study what we do.
Political leveling not only puts itself beyond
criticism as shown above, but it also plays fast and loose with political
terms. This can be seen when pundits overlook the distinction between authentic
and counterfeit forms of “conservatism” and “liberalism,” terms that have been
so overworked as to become virtually meaningless. Authentic conservatism respects fair trade
and, as Julian Casserley says, would preserve the
cultural heritage. However, counterfeit
conservatism dispenses with both and preserves only laissez-faire for
businesses that redistribute wealth upward, from those who have less to those
who are already rich; some normalize even the tactics of organized crime to do
it. This leveled version of conservatism
is regressive and obstructionist, and quashes the free speech of those who try
to oppose it or even expose it.
Authentic liberalism would promote social justice and freedom of thought
and speech. However, counterfeit
liberalism regresses to an arbitrary mixture of anarchy and authoritarianism. On the one hand, it says, “anything
goes.” Yet on the other, it imposes the
tyranny of political correctness and limits free speech.
Anti-intellectualism, ironically, and most
disturbingly, is evident even in universities.
The function of intellect (noesis) is the elevation of minds above the irrationality of
archaic superstition and conventional stupidity. Those who are invincibly ignorant, and who
refuse to listen to anything new, have degraded intellect on account of their intolerance
disturbing case of anti-intellectual leveling came to the attention of one of
the authors of this paper. It occurred when a
professor from a department other than philosophy faulted the University for
allowing courses on Plato since Plato, in his famous Allegory of the Cave,
endorsed pedagogical “arrogance” by having the freed prisoner return to the
This is a blatant misrepresentation of why the
prisoner went back. At best it fails to distinguish between
interpretation and what the text actually says.
He reads something into the text that is manifestly not there. The freed prisoner, though fearing the
captives still underground, pities them—not to mention that the rulers compel
him to return because it is his duty.
Furthermore, the objector complained that Plato’s appeal to religion,
mystical experience and mythology are products of his own personality and
culture, and are therefore irrelevant to life today.
Finally, the critic advocated moral relativism
as if it were absolutely true. Morality,
he claimed, depends for its authority solely on the societies from which it
emerges and so cannot be universalized. However,
he then, inconsistently, gave certain relativist claims status as absolute
truth, and he demanded unquestioning assent to them. Some post-modernism is
intelligent and worthy of respect, but, in this case, the objector distorted
the reality of what Plato said and then debunked it in order to level the Western
intellectual tradition. He engaged in what might be called “logocide”—etymologically,
“the killing of reason and meaning.”
The leveling of the person consists in reducing the ontological status of personhood—indeed,
even of denying it—and concomitantly devaluing it, sometimes even killing it. Leveling,
even the lethal type, has insidiously invaded the practice of
psychotherapy. A man known to one of the
authors related (and gave permission to publish) his experience of how a series
of psychiatrists, psychologists, and a social worker had harmed him by causing
him to have several close calls with disaster, interfering with his family
life, and diminishing his ability to undertake his profession. His problem began when he failed to recover
from the culture shock of moving from the Chelsea area of Manhattan where he
lived and worked to a busy, inland American city where a number of its
residents derogated him as an
“intellectual.” One of the most extreme cases of shock concerned the
contrasting beliefs regarding music. The
prevalent belief there was that musical taste is nothing but the audible
expression of class consciousness. He liked
music of the pre-classical period, but disbelieved in class altogether, a
combination widely found in Manhattan.
He recognized the impossibility of explaining his musical taste and his
other differing beliefs to his neighbors and, to avoid confrontation, he turned
them inward, sinking into a deep depression.
As a result, he first sought psychiatric counsel, and when that failed,
he sought other types of psychotherapy, all of which failed to help him, but
instead made him more depressed.
The malpractice of which he was the victim
exhibited the following themes. One was
the identification of mental health with conventionality, but always
interpreting it only within the context of his new location. A second theme was the therapists’
overemphasis on shallow interpretations of Freudian defense mechanisms,
especially intellectualization and reaction formation. Most likely, some of the
patient’s statements were intellectualizations, but it would be a distortion of
reality to claim that all of his intellectual judgments were instances of
it. The patient did not give the author
permission to explain the specific ways in which the therapists brutalized and
persecuted him for being an intellectual.
So the following account is limited to reaction formation. As a hypothetical example, the therapist
would ask: “You like bubble gum, don’t you?”
And the patient answers, “I hate bubble gum.” The therapist then says: “You love bubble
gum!” Now, some strong statements could be reaction formations, but they are
not all inevitably so. Such discrediting
of the patient’s strongly held views by dismissing them as Freudian defense
mechanisms, interpreted in shallow ways, distorts reality.
In 1999, ten years
after the author identified the four types of value destruction (needling,
reality distortion, debunking, and leveling), he used the term “scavenging” to
mean leveling by means of one or more of the other three types.
The malpracticing “therapist” described above used all three to
level the victim. To scavenge is to bludgeon a person’s thesis, “no matter what
it is, with some crudely shaped antithesis. Such bludgeons include leveled stereotypes,
conventional ideologies, and informal fallacies.”
Scavenging in the present essay, however, is only incidentally an attack on
specific persons. It is mainly reality distortion that attacks our collective
perception of time and space.
1. Scavenging of
Scavenging in the
sense just mentioned is a leap beyond the leveled temporality of everydayness.
Heidegger’s leveled temporality, as the term is used here, is only the point of
departure for understanding the more extreme condition called “scavenging”
here. Heidegger distinguishes between
primordial, authentic temporality and the time of everydayness. His everydayness preserves the averageness in
which the “they self” [das Man] renders all that is extraordinary simply
ordinary. The ordinary experience of
time as a series of “nows” comes from the leveling
process, the “leveling-off” (Nivellierung) of
primordial, authentic temporality into present-at-hand everyday time.
Scavenging is not the leveling of primordial temporality into the “now” in
which one hops from one now to the next.
Instead, it is violence against the reliability, predictability, and
continuity of our everyday experience of time.
A recent theological
examination of contemporary despair says, “Our time is both the bitter tragedy
of its passage and the instability of what it is now. Time disintegrates. It
Logan Pearsall Smith speaks of what we have called scavenging in a fictional
episode from his All Trivia: “‘But Time,’ said another of the group,
‘sure Time is a worse nightmare. Think
of it! The Past with never a beginning,
the Future going on for ever and ever, and the little Present in which we live,
twinkling for a second, between these black abysses.’” The passage quoted continues:
“What’s wrong with me,” mused the third speaker,
“is that even the Present eludes me. I
don’t know what it really is; I can never catch the moment when it passes; I am
always far ahead or far away behind, and always somewhere else. I am not really here not with you…. My life is all reminiscence and
anticipation—if you can call it life, if I am not rather a kind of ghost,
haunting a past that has ceased to exist, or a future that is still more
shadowy and unreal. It’s ghastly in a
way, this exile and isolation. By why
speak of it, after all?”
However, the tragic
disintegration of experience endemic to time has been exacerbated in our own
day by the frenetic pace of our lives, which increases unabated. Its consequence is the loss of a coherent
world-view or image of reality adequate to its depth:
Another reason the images used in our time are
lacking in depth and seldom penetrate to archetypal levels (or when they do,
are immediately discarded as irrelevant) is simply the speed at which we
live. The fury of haste with which we
are impelled atomizes time and life in such a way as to isolate quite
effectively every event and experience.
Everything is made discrete, unconnected with a past or a future. It stands alone, with nothing under it. Going through experience as fast as we do, we
have not time to probe beneath the surface, to hold an event long enough in our
attention to break through to the sustaining mystery out of which it came, by
which it is sustained, and into which it may pour its meaning and mystery. In a world as hell-bent as ours, hell is
simply a void in which there are not images to support continuity or
significance; life becomes a storm of shadows, dreaded in coming, haunted in
The effects of
scavenging, as described above, have a parallel in the effects of frontal lobe
injuries on patients, which impair the patients’ ability to grasp meaning. A. R. Luria reports on a patient who “becomes
so distracted by irrelevant stimuli that he cannot carry out complex actions”
because “uncontrollable floods of inert stereotypes” overwhelm him. When Luria asked another patient to light a
candle “he struck a match correctly but instead of putting it to the candle…he
put it in his mouth and started to ‘smoke’ it like a cigarette.” Time scavenging on the culture at large
itself induces a pathological fragmentation in the population similar to that
in an individual noted by Luria in a medical context.
2. Scavenging of
E. E. Cummings
remarked, “Time is the autobiography of space.”
If so, then the scavenging of time might
reflect the scavenging of space—the disintegration and disassociation of time,
which renders it meaningless, may mirror similar processes in space. Scavenged space is in evidence all around us:
the decayed areas of many American cities, Detroit being a conspicuous example;
American highways blighted with unsightly billboards; haphazard urban planning
because of lax zoning laws; bleak tracts of suburban housing, stultifying in
their uniformity and dullness; and the degradation of the natural landscape by
the clear-cutting of forests.
The physical forces
of the degradation of the environment and overpopulation,
if not stopped, will likely cause the downfall of civilization independently of
the cultural processes described in the foregoing essay. Those processes of leveling certainly
contribute to the persistent scavenging of our natural world. The combined result of these physical and
cultural processes suggests that there is little hope for the survival of
The scavenging of the environment regrettably
threatens the whole of life, as we know it.
The exhaustion of natural resources, the decimation of species, and the
pollution of air, land, and water, have resulted in the potentially
catastrophic and irreversible phenomenon of global warming—which the
scientifically illiterate deny for political reasons. Various types of cultural
leveling described in the foregoing essay have also contributed to the problem,
such as reality distortion and debunking.
Even though the
self-consumption of the human race might seem inevitable, both for physical and
cultural reasons, the authors argue that we nevertheless have an ethical
responsibility to act as if this were
not so in the belief that our actions could make a real difference.
Kierkegaard’s “secret agents” know that those like themselves who try to stop
leveling will themselves be vulnerable to leveling, but their “plain-clothes
policemen” have nevertheless discovered covert ways of resisting leveling,
thereby obeying their ethical imperative, at the expense of their own
Only by suffering can the ‘unrecognizable’ dare to
help on the leveling process… He dare not overcome the leveling process directly…
But he will overcome it in suffering, and in that way express once more the law
of his existence, which is not to dominate, to guide, to lead, but to serve in
suffering and help indirectly.
Their actions spring from paradoxical faith in
the Biblical God. According to Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific
Postscript, faith requires risk:
risk, no faith… If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith,
but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in
faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty…
Faith means, “… that the individual relates
himself to something in such a way that
his relation is in truth a God-relation.” Our contemporary ethical responsibility, in the spirit of Kierkegaard, would be
to recognize the seeming inevitability of leveling, and our relationship to it,
so that we may leap over its destructive scythe. “The abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveler
makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade—and behold,
it is God who waits.”
Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper and Row, Torchbook
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper &
Row, 1962), p. 165.
 C. Don Keyes, Foundations for an Ethic of Dignity, (New
York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989). These types of value destruction often use
deprecatory language. Needling is cruelty expressed through words, often
gradually escalated in severity in a way that builds up the victim’s tolerance.
Reality distortion is deception about facts through causing illusions, positive
and negative hallucinations, and various irrational states of mind in the
victim. Debunking is deception about values through more or less deliberate use
of fallacious language. Leveling, as Kierkegaard describes it, includes
deprecation of once commonly held values by the public.
 Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A
Theory of Social Behavior (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1953), p. 216.
 Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 67.
 Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,
trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1972), p. 133.
 The following
criticism describes only some, not all, of the phenomena within the respective
 Julian Victor Langmead
the Service of Man: Technology and the Future of Man (Chicago: Regnery Company, 1967), pp. 9-10: With respect to
conservatism, Casserley distinguishes three types:
economic, political, and cultural. He defends the third as compatible with the
non-violent political left and even necessitating it. The reason is that authentic cultural
conservatism “is chiefly preoccupied with maintaining the momentum and identity
of specifically Western culture, including humane, scientific, aesthetic and
theological elements of the profoundest significance… In my judgment, this
third type of conservatism is far more significant than either of the others,
and it is this element of our past that can and should survive. The proper role
of conservatism is not to resist change in a stubborn misunderstanding of the
necessity of history, but rather to insist that all change be tactfully
assimilated or wholesomely digested.”
 Marx distinguishes
between authentic and counterfeit or “crude” communism, which “wants to do away
by force with talent, etc… The task of the laborer
is not done away with, but extended to all men… The crude communism is only
the culmination of this envy and of this leveling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard… the abstract negation of the entire world of
culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor
and undemanding man who has not only failed to go beyond private property,
but has not yet even reached it.” (Marx, 1972, pp. 133-134).
 Charles Don Keyes, Brain Mystery Light and Dark: The Rhythm and
Harmony of Consciousness (London and New York: Routledge Publishing,
 “The only time one
knows is the public time which has been leveled off and which belongs to
everyone—and that means, to nobody” (Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 477). The distinction between authentic and
everyday time was made clearly in the 1924 lecture The Concept of Time. To be human means to be always moving in the
direction of one’s own death. Dasein is “running
ahead to its past,” a past that is unique to me: “it is my past”
(12E, emphasis in original). The past is
a mode of being (“the authentic ‘how’ of my Dasein”),
and along with its ontological counterpart of the future, throws Dasein “back upon itself as still Dasein” (13E).
But, Dasein being thrown back on itself is
nothing other than Dasein’s return to the
ordinary, everyday existence that is so redundantly governed by clock
time. In a sense, the authentic
temporality can be seen as a dynamic process, whereby Dasein
“maintains itself in this running ahead,” which is Dasein’s
persistence in advancing towards its own possibilities and its own future. The inauthentic, or everyday temporality is
the static attempt to persevere in the “now,” and to treat Dasein’s
ordinary life as something that can be measured and even understood by temporal
quantities: “Dasein is there with the clock,
albeit only with the most proximate, everyday clock of day and night. Dasein
reckons with and asks after the ‘how much’ of time, and is therefore never
alongside time in its authenticity” (15E). Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, trans. William McNeill
(Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992).
 C. Don Keyes, “The
Immaculate Conception and Time: A Critical Epistemology of Faith,” The Anglican, Pentecost 2013: 21.
 Robert C. Baldwin and
James A. S. McPeek, eds., An Introduction to Philosophy through Literature (New York: The Ronald
Press Company, 1950), p. 443.
 Samuel H. Miller, The Dilemma of Modern Belief (New York:
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), pp. 33-34.
 A. R. Luria, The Working Brain: An Introduction to
Neuropsychology, trans. Basil Haigh (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 199;
Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi, The Three Pound Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 41-42.
 Baldwin and McPeek, An Introduction to
Philosophy, p. 442.
 A literal case of
leveling that is an apt symbol of cultural leveling at large is strip mining,
where the tops of mountains are sheared off to expose veins of coal
Nui (Easter Island) is now bereft of its aboriginal people because they denuded
the island of its forests, exposing the rich volcanic soil to erosion, thereby
effecting their own extinction. The sole
relics of this ancient civilization are the monumental moai
statues that bear mute witness to its demise.
This is the inexorable result of environmental leveling. In contrast to this scavenged space, one
could argue that there exists something like true spatiality. Examples of such space are those created by
the Adams brothers in their design of New Town, Edinburgh, a model of city
planning, and by Raphael in the mythical space represented in his School of
Athens. Kenneth Clark refers to this
fresco as “one of the most life-enhancing effects of space in art”
Clark, Civilisation (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969), p.
especially in poorer areas of the world, further levels the environment. Addressing this threat is now taboo from both
the left and right sides of the political spectrum. The triumphant left criticizes attempts to
curb overpopulation as an expression of the control of people by the
elite. The triumphant right, as typified
by some religious conservatives, criticizes these attempts because they see
them as contravening the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. However, both groups fail to recognize that
curbing population growth by artificial birth control is more humane and,
arguably, more ethically desirable than by Malthus’ alternatives of famine and
 Reality gets distorted
by politicians who try to convince the public that the preservation of the
Earth is less important than the preservation of profit by corporations. The deliberate use of fallacies (debunking)
occurs when unqualified individuals attempt to refute science with
pseudo-science, and cover over the whole problem with propaganda and political
gain. These problems will become more
critical, along with the increase in population, which will produce greater
demands on the already taxed environment.
 Kierkegaard, 1962, pp.
 Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postcript
to ‘Philosophical Fragments,’ trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna W. Hong (New
Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 204.
 Kierkegaard, 1962, p.