Modernity and Alienation

“We do not need atomic bombs at all – the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today.”

Martin Heidegger

A Philosophical Overview of the Separation of Persons

by Alex Pernsteiner

Alienation means to be separated or apart from something from which one should not be separated. Some interpretations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictate that, with the expansion of the universe, all the bodies within the universe will spread out until a more or less homogeneous concentration of matter in the universe is reached. As galaxies move further and further away from each other, the galaxy structures themselves begin to decay and dissolve, and, over the course of billions of years, the matter within them spreads out evenly throughout the universe, as each body moves further and further away from every other. An observer who came about many billions of years in the future may even observe that all matter in the universe is so far away from her as to be beyond the limits of observation, as every heavenly body speeds away from her faster than the speed of light. The observer would find herself entirely alone within the universe, unable to see anything at all around her and shrouded in darkness.

Are we trending toward a similar kind of infinite separation in our contemporary world? One of the most worrying paradoxes in modern society is the inverse relationship between our increasing connection to diverse areas of the world through technology is neatly matched by our accelerating separation from our own communities, or even, in some sense, ourselves. This phenomena — the distancing of the individual from everything around them — is what philosophers refer to when they speak of alienation. Many of the most important thinkers of the modern age have concerned themselves in large degrees with this mark of modernity, among them Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt. It is my contention that the processes of alienation are among the most pivotal and central forces for change in society, and thus that an understanding of the role of alienation is crucial for an understanding of the modern age. This essay will not provide a comprehensive overview or solution to the problem; it seeks only to point out some facets of this trend and what a solution might look like.

One of the first and greatest thinkers on the alienation of modern life was Friedrich Nietzsche who was enthrallingly concerned with a particular type of alienation common to many existentialist thinkers: the alienation of a person from life itself. For Nietzsche, the danger of nihilism is that it separates man from his own life, making him discount the value of the things of this world (often in favour of some higher world). This nihilism separates man from his wishes and dreams and wants, increasingly alienating him from his own desires and loves until humanity itself passes away. Alienated man is replaced by Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” passionless and thoughtless creatures closed off from the wonders of the world. These Last Men have been so alienated from their own lives and passions that they no longer have any passion at all; their separation from their own loves has rendered them incapable of loving. Seeing this potential for nihilism spreading around him, Nietzsche devoted his life to proclaiming the arrival of the Overman, the last hope for humanity to stand over the Last Man as a bastion of true humanity.

While Nietzsche clearly accuses religion (particularly Christianity) of being one of the deepest manifestations of nihilism in culture, he saw these same alienating tendencies within the ideas of even secular culture, remnants of our Christian heritage. As he wrote in The Gay Science, “God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow. And we – we must still defeat his shadow as well!” This is what I interpret to be the purpose of Nietzsche’s philosophy; to combat alienation and nihilism wherever it resides. And the startling conclusion that he reached was that nihilism penetrates our culture deeper than many are comfortable admitting; by the time Nietzsche wrote, alienation had already become a force capable of influencing all of modern society. He later wrote:

The greatest recent event – that ‘God is dead’; that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable – is already starting to cast its first shadow over Europe…some kind of sun seems to have set; some old deep trust turned into doubt…our world must appear more autumnal, more mistrustful, stranger, ‘older’.

Nietzsche tied the modern rise of alienation and nihilism to the loss in our old beliefs, specifically our collective belief in God, or at least in some transcendent reality which bound all things together in some “great chain of Being”.  This was the belief by which our ancestors in times past made sense of the world; their relationship with God provided them with meaning and direction for their lives, as well as a place within their communities. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty about the world and the place of the individual within that world. With the rise of the Enlightenment and the modern age, however, a change had occurred, the ramifications of which would not be felt for centuries. Enlightenment rationalism had taken all foundations of human existence and introduced doubt into them. The restructuring of societies, the deposition of kings, and the refoundation of all things on new foundations had produced the setting sun of which Nietzsche speaks. The authority of the past is lost, and, as Toqueville put it, “as the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind wanders in obscurity.” We are left in a position in which the foundations for our lives have been uprooted, and nothing yet has filled their place.

Nietzsche was not necessarily a political thinker, but perhaps the most worrying aspects of this alienation can be seen in the social and political arenas. Corresponding to the separation of people from their own lives, we also see a growing separation between members of societies and public squares. To understand this, it would behoove us to take a look at another German philosopher, the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt. 

As a refugee fleeing the rise of the Nazis in her native country, Arendt had seen firsthand one of the greatest devastations that has come upon humanity. She dedicated much of her life to understanding and describing exactly how such evil can occur, and what we might be able to do to stop this terrifying menace from ever again appearing. What she concluded first and foremost was that something had to be done about the problems of alienation which had been burrowing their way into our political framework for generations, and which were only given full manifestations in the dictatorial regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Politics, to Arendt, is based at its most elemental level on the polis, the public square in its purest form. In the polis, citizens encounter each other as citizens, as humans, and work together to solve the problems of the society. The unspoken premise behind this organization is that there is a common stake in the problems of society; the polis is meant to find the solutions to the problems which all members of the society face in common. As such, a community is formed based on a group of people seeking to live together in harmony. The polis, in a sense, creates a common world which we all share. As the polis separates, however, this polis becomes fractured. We no longer share a common world with those around us. A person in this alienated society no longer encounters his fellow citizens as citizens; there is nothing common between them apart from where they both happen to be. There is no longer any idea of community between them. Any relations that exists between them are what Heidegger called “technical”, merely in pursuit of a personal gain.

What is it that leads to this “world alienation”, as Arendt referred to it? Perhaps not so surprisingly, Arendt claims that this alienation grows from the same place that Nietzsche thought modern nihilism had been growing, namely, from the modern separation from history. History has lost its authority to the modern age; none of the old ways of life have any validity anymore in our exponentially changing society. In the modern age, “all that is solid melts into air”, and we are left without guidance from history in facing our completely new problems. As Arendt puts it, this leaves us in a “gap between past and future”. It is in this gap that we must choose what we will do, and the increasing separation from history leaves us stranded from all agreed-upon forms of public life. Arendt described this with an analogy: in the past, society was like a dinner party gathered around a table, with understood ways of interaction and a common center around which all members oriented themselves. The modern age, in contrast, is the same dinner party, but without the table. We now lack the established center which we all had grouped around, and we are left in a gap in which we must create our own center.

To Arendt, as to Nietzsche, this was the task given to us as members of the modern age: to create a new form of life, a new way of relating to each other to curb the growing separation we are driven towards. We cannot appeal to the past, which gives us no solutions to the entirely new problems we face today. But it is in this gap between the past and the future that this problem presents itself to us, to create a new basis of society on which to base our future. Any such center that we may be able to create would not only need to be a center which binds the community to itself, but in and through which the individual herself may reorient herself to herself, becoming more intimately a part of not only the social world, but also the world of her desires and wishes. This is our herculean task, and our failure to succeed would have irreversible consequences.


Heidegger, Martin. “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai, 1976): 193-219. Trans. by W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (1981), ed. T. Sheehan, pp. 45-67.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House, (1974): 167.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. quoted in Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1993), 7

Marx, Karl. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, (1978): 476.

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, (1993): 13.

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