The discoveries of bacteria, viruses, genes that pre-disposed people to certain disease, etc. presented terrors to mankind which were unseen and were (for a long time) entirely uncontrollable. Then there were Freud’s theories of man’s unconscious mind which apparently caused him to act in abberant ways regardless of the rational and moral choices of his conscious mind. Man was evidently no longer the captain of his own ship or the master of his own fate but was rather the helpless pawn of unseen forces.
At one time he might have turned to God for help. But Nietzsche had announced that “God is dead” and some had taken his word over God’s. Also, if man were no more than a glorified ape, he could not hope to surpass the lower animal nature, red in tooth and claw, victim and victimizer. Being a highly evolved ape ostensibly freed man to act as he pleased without God’s Judgment, but also robbed man of God’s protection in this life or heavenly reward in the next. Man’s progress began to seem like a bad trade-off for his former faith, peace, joy, hope, validation and self-improvement.
Then there was a thing called Entropy (dissipation of energy). It seemed that energy never disappeared, yet could not be recovered in its original form either. Therefore, by implication, it appeared that the universe always tends to disorder (rather than ordered by God as once believed). This further implied to some that the universe would eventually run down like a cheap wristwatch. If the universe were out of order and running down, how was human progress possible? Even if it were possible, what did it matter?
Max Planck added to the upset by showing that nothing is solid. Instead, quanta (packets or energy) hold all material together. This Quantam Theory was saying that all we see or touch is an illusion. The repercussions of this startling announcement reverberated through the arts and philosophy as much as the scientific community. Indeed man, himself, was not even a solid unit but particles held together by energy – there, yet not there.
Freud had postulated that repression of negative thoughts or actions into the unconscious mind caused psychotic issues later. Many were quick to mis-interpret this as scientific license for acting as one pleased rather than using self-control. Self-control was beginning to look “dangerous”. Frederick Pearls would later say that clinical depression was “frozen rage”.
Some of these theories and discoveries had come in the 19th Century, or course, but when added to later 20th Century ones, the concoction was explosive. The masses were evidently not as affected by all this to any great degree at first. Far fewer people were college-educated than now and there was not the barrage of news from the electronic media we now enjoy (or hate).
Up until World War I (1914-1918) there was a general sense of man’s progress and an admiration of science. Only with the mass horror of World War I was it realized that man’s scientific progress had made such a war possible. However the artists and intellectuals were rivetted by the new science and its terrifying implications for man. In the following blog this will be discussed.