European Conceptions of the “New Man,” 1880–1930

European Conceptions of the “New Man,” 1880–1930

Stefanos Geroulanos

Stefanos Geroulanos' project focused on European intellectual and cultural history, a broad study of the trope of a “New Man”—the fantasy of a regeneration of human nature as this developed in European thought and culture from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. From the French Revolution until the end of World War II, and especially from the late nineteenth century onward, political, educational, and philosophical movements frequently made an appeal to the construction of a “new man” so as to explain their projects amidst a social, cultural, and intellectual failure or degeneration of the present age as they saw it, and so as to articulate their imagination and plan for a better future.

Stefanos Geroulanos' aim was to frame such figures as Henri de Saint-Simon, Ludwig Feuerbach, Richard Wagner, Auguste Comte, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, Gustave Le Bon, Ferdinand Leger, Ernst Jünger, and Alexis Carrel, the institutions and political movements they belonged to, and their utopian and practical efforts through a number of important nineteenth-century motifs: the “secular” theorization of authority; the Romantic conceptions of relations between the individual and forms of society and community (nation, class, etc), relations at once fulfilled and overcome in the world attributed to this "new man;" the understanding of human history and temporality as inflected by the concurrent dreams of a return to purity and a jump into the future; the rhetorics of leadership and genius, decadence and malaise; the promises of education; and the influence of such motifs had on, and received from, the history of science. A guiding concern throughout is the transformation of the idea from an eighteenth-century hope of human autonomy and equality, free society, and mastery of (rather than submission to) nature, to a mainstay in the Italian Fascist, Soviet, and German National-Socialist efforts to produce a new men and to offer, in art and thought, an image of the world this new man is supposed to build.

Within the context of the history of science, Stefanos Geroulanos was concerned in particular with embryology, social hygiene, biological anthropology, and psychotechnics, and the ways in which they influenced (and were influenced by) the imagination of the “right” human being, the good worker, and even the proper observer and scientist. His aim was to examine to the ways in which man was conceived as transformable in the nineteenth century, and the way in which, from his body and its image served as an archive of both biological and social history, ancient purity and modern decadence, a site on which the force of industry and technics could and did manifest. Evolutionary and pre-evolutionary biology is obviously an important background, but at this point Stefanos Geroulanos was more interested in researching the analogies between the individual organism and society, in cell theory, neurology, biology, and psychology, and in particular their use and evocation of models of history and cure; and scientific domains (such as physiognomy, biological anthropology, and early twentieth-century psychotechnics) that made use of a social and aesthetic ideal as well as theories of human history in order to structure and influence the imagination of the “right” human being, the good worker, and even the proper observer and scientist.