Tom Mellors shares his ambivalence about our herding instincts

Originally in : The School of Life’s Blog

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche observes that “for as long as there have been humans, there have also been human herds.” He considers humanity’s long history of obedience and concludes that “everyone on average is born with a need to obey, as a kind of formal conscience that decrees… ‘thou shalt!'”

The herd instinct may originate in our desire to become one with our community and surroundings but it can all too easily negate our individuality. It’s an instinct to fit in with the group and ‘to follow’. At its best an instinct that joins us in family groups, congregations, tribes, peoples, and nations. But at its worst an instinct responsible for youth gangs, celebrity worshipers, of people who “stick to a brand”, or submit to a dominant idea of how to live.

The dominant commandments in our “developed” society too often seem to comprise ‘thou shalt consume’, ‘thou shalt work and be successful’, ‘thou shalt desire’, and ‘thou shalt love thyself above all others’. Although these commandments are not chiselled into stone or scripture, they are proclaimed subtly from almost every billboard and television advert. John Carpenter’s cult film They Live incorporates this idea into its main plot. In the film George Nada, a homeless labourer in Los Angeles, finds a pair of sunglasses which reveal the true messages in the advertising around him. So when he looks at a billboard advertising something, all Nada sees is the words “Obey”, “Watch TV”, or “Marry and Reproduce”.

The humanist philosopher Erich Fromm often talked about the biblical creation story, with particular focus on Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. Fromm believed that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge they suddenly became aware of themselves as being separate from nature, while remaining in nature. This, he says, explains why they suddenly felt ashamed and naked. Fromm believed that humanity’s subconscious awareness of its disunited and separate existence is a source of guilt and shame, creating a deep desire to escape the feeling of loneliness. One way to overcome this loneliness is through conformity with the group and obedience. A quick scan of 20th century history provides many examples of where the herd instinct has become a religion and a goal in itself – few examples more destructive than Nazi nationalism.

The herd instinct today is a complex one, driven by strong narcissistic drives as well as the drive to obey and conform. The stories you hear in the news about absurd crimes committed over the gain of petty objects are arguably an example of when the tension between the need to obey and narcissistic desire fall out of balance. Yet to presume that all herds are exploitative would be to overlook the importance in life of smaller herds, such as family and friends. Confucius saw virtue in these groups, and he believed that familial duty especially helps individuals to cultivate personal and social harmony.

Nietzsche’s alternative to the herd is a life of extreme individualism which is supremely narcissistic. Rather than chase after extreme states of being – within or without of the herd – we should strive to negotiate a balance between the two.