Long before modern clinical psychologists wrote detailed definitions of narcissism, the Roman poet Ovid penned the famous account of the legend of Narcissus.
The phenomenon of human beings being emotionally disconnected from others, or being unable to distinguish one’s self from others—what might be described as total self-interest and self-regard and nothing but self-interest and self-regard—is even older than that. Narcissism by any name is as old as human nature itself.
Some thoughtful minds have argued that we live in an age that is more thoroughly narcissistic than ever before, that our modern culture seems to fuel and feed and encourage narcissism.
Others, equally thoughtful, have argued that we live in a “postmodern” age, that ours is a postmodern culture where the notion of objective truth is mocked and scorned, where moral relativism and philosophic nihilism have become common prejudices among most people, the learned and unlearned alike.
I think there is truth (a very non-postmodern term!) in these cultural assessments, and I think there is a connection between them. Postmodernism leads to a culture of narcissism.
Postmodernism, which I understand to be the school of thought that emerged from the philosophic efforts of Friedrich Nietzsche and his most devoted student, Martin Heidegger, and others, and as the primary cultural influence emanating from developed, highly intellectualized Western nations today, contains three central features.
1. NOTHING OLD IS IMPORTANT NOW
For postmodernists, there is nothing old that is intrinsically important because there is nothing eternal or timeless. There is nothing that does not change. There is no being that remains the same being as time passes.
Postmodernism rejects the idea of being, it rejects that anything truly and forever is. Instead, postmodernism affirms that everything is in a state of becoming. Always. Everything is changing, always in flux, always in transition and transformation and evolution.
Everything is in the process of becoming something else. This is why Heidegger’s most important book is a philosophic critique of all forms of the verb “to be.” He thinks the verb “to be” is inherently false and misleading, because nothing is.
If nothing is eternal or timeless or immutable, if there is no being that remains the same being as time passes, then everything old can be relevant and important only for the time in which it emerged and for the way things were at that time.
A teaching by Aristotle about human things, for example, from the postmodern point of view, applies merely to the historical time and culture in which Aristotle lived. Because human beings are now different from the way they were in the days of Aristotle.
The same can be said about Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare, of anyone else from the past: Their teachings perhaps were important or at least insightful for their times, but not now, not for our time. Because human beings and all other beings are now different from the way they were back then.
See why nothing old can be intrinsically important today, according to postmodernism?
Further, if nothing exists without changing or transforming into something else, then truly nothing IS. The ultimate conclusion of postmodernism is that nothing is real because there is nothing permanent outside of ourselves by which to understand or judge or compare the fleeting, changing things we experience.
There are no timeless principles, no non-arbitrary standards of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. There’s nothing by which to measure whether change is forward or backward, progress or regress, improvement or decline. There is nothing by which to compare even ourselves so that we might know if we are noble or ignoble, magnanimous or the opposite, worthy of admiration or not.
In sum, there’s mere sound and fury, and only sound and fury, mere random phenomena that we experience in different ways ultimately signifying…nothing.
2. CREATING VERSUS DISCOVERING
The classical view of knowledge and the philosophic quest for it was that knowing, or learning, is an act of discovering.
The premise of all classical philosophy, even among those who disagreed with one another on particular topics, is that there is a world around us, a nature, what the Greeks called “physis” and from which we derive the English word physics. We are in the world and we are part of it and the world is all around us: we have a nature, as do other living and non-living beings in the world. The world has a nature.
Philosophy, or the quest for knowledge, was oriented toward the larger world around us, which included studying the nature of things as well as our own nature. The world around us and ourselves were things to be discovered.
Further, according to the classical view, if the objects of knowledge—that which philosophy aims to know—are external to us, or at least external to our minds, then they can be observed and studied by many people. And we who study a common subject can compare notes and talk and listen and learn from each other what the reason of some people figure out and what eludes the reasoning of others.
Knowledge, in others words, can be objective because it is discoverable, discovered, and then discerned through reason, which is common to human minds.
Postmodernism rejects all of this.
If nothing is, then there is nothing external to us. If there is nothing external to us, there is nothing to be discovered.
That is why postmodernism views learning as an act of creativity. Knowledge is created, not discovered. Which means that what one person or one culture claims to know has nothing to do with any objective, external standard of truth or reality, nothing that can be studied by others, known by others, discussed among others, or tested, verified or falsified.
What one person or one culture claims to know has everything to do with whatever beliefs one person or one culture has created for himself/itself. Belief, opinion, even prejudices and feelings, all become synonymous with knowledge in the world of postmodernism.
In short, the shift from discovery to creativity as the source of knowledge is a shift from objectivity to perspectivism. And that is our Western world today: Virtually any statement of any kind is viewed by others not as possible truth, but as mere perspective—none better or worse, none more “right” or “wrong” than others—each merely different based on different backgrounds and different cultural world-views of those with differing perspectives. Every claim to knowledge is reduced to some humanly constructed “ism.”
Nietzsche captured postmodernism perfectly when he wrote: “Facts? There are no facts. Only perspectives.”
3. WILL TO POWER
There are two competing sources of authority that emphasize the creative power of the will: Monotheistic religions that include accounts of a creator God, and postmodern philosophy.
Both for good reasons.
In the case of monotheistic religions, such as the Abrahamic religions, the idea that there is ONE world, ONE reality, ONE truth, springs from the idea that there is ONE God. And that ONE God is the ONE source of…everything. To say that we live in ONE UNI-verse, rather than multiple multi-verses, is to say that everything comes from ONE God.
Theological consistency, then, in addition to stories provided through accounts of special revelation, points to the idea that God is and must be the creator. For if ONE God is the ONE and ONLY creator, then everything that is, every being, flows from God. God is the ONE being that unites all of creation.
Theological consistency also suggests that God creates not merely the physical or material world that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, but God also creates immaterial reality. Whether it be the standard of right and wrong, the idea of love, or the principle of non-contradiction, everything that is had to be created, which means everything, including abstract standards, ideas, and principles, were created by the ONE God.
The act of creating, from a certain theological point of view, is an act of sheer, unbounded will. And will is power.
For postmodernism, the concept of the will is essential because postmodernism holds that knowledge is created, not discovered. Similar to the theological argument, creating knowledge, according to postmodernism, is an act of sheer, unbounded will. It is power. (In this regard, the popular cliché “knowledge is power” is far more postmodern than most people might know!)
Just as God cannot have any constraints on His power—he cannot be held judged by any standards or principles “above” or “beyond” Him because that would mean there’s something of higher importance than God!—so too there can be no limits to the power of the will for postmodernism when creating new knowledge.
For what would it mean to judge that a creative act of postmodern will is “wrong” or “mistaken?” It’d suggest that there is some standard or principle above or beyond the postmodern will—some standard by which the postmodern will is being measured or compared. And THAT would suggest something for postmodern minds to discover.
Yet, as we’ve discussed, postmodernism insists that there is nothing to discover, that knowledge is not discovered, it is created.
According to the precepts of postmodernism, therefore, there is nothing higher, nothing more important, nothing to guide or constrain the raw power of the will because there is nothing outside the will. Might literally makes right. Might creates right. The power to think or do something is the right to think or do that thing.
What matters most for postmodern souls, therefore, is exercising and expanding the power of one’s own will. Nothing else matters. Nothing. The entire focus of one’s self should be on one’s self and one’s own will to power.
POSTMODERNISM AND NARCISSISM
Understanding postmodernism helps us understand why ours has become a culture of narcissism. Postmodern men who have nothing outside of themselves of any importance, nothing they can study or discover, nothing to guide them, nothing from which they can learn, focus entirely on themselves.
In fact, they know nothing other than themselves. Truthfully, postmodern men don’t really know themselves very well because they have no standard by which to compare even the things within themselves, such as their own mind or their own character. How can a postmodern soul know if he is courageous? Wise? Just? Or moderate? By what standards outside of himself could he measure himself to know these things? He has no standards outside of himself!
Still, while the postmodernism limits their self-knowledge, postmodern men are thoroughly self-focused, self-absorbed, self-centered. Each postmodern man is the center of his own intellectual and mental world that he believes he creates for himself.
Postmodern men tend to have no moral, mental, emotional, or spiritual connection with other human beings. In a peculiarly postmodern way, postmodern men are not even aware that there are other human beings—they don’t really get that there are other beings with minds and lives and purposes and thoughts and feelings and experiences and self-awareness.
To the degree that postmodern men are conscious of others, they see them as extensions of themselves, or as mere tools to be used for accomplishing something postmodern man wants at the moment.
Woodrow Wilson was among the intellectual godfathers of the American progressive movement. He was steeped in the modern philosophy that prepared the way for postmodernism. (He also happened to be the first PhD elected President of the United States!) Of men and those with the will power to lead them, in an essay titled Leaders of Men, Wilson wrote:
“The whole question with (the leader) is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved: how shall he move them?”
Rhetoric, propaganda, and what used to be called “persuasion” are means of moving men. So are deception and lies and empty promises. And bribes. And brute force. For postmodern man, it doesn’t really matter. What matters are the results: Getting one’s way is proof of the superior power of one’s will. And there are no external constraints on or guides for one’s will. There is only the question of how much power one can muster.
Stated differently: Once we postmodern people persuade ourselves that there is no world outside of and around us, that beings have no unchanging essences or natures—that there are no beings, only becomings, only constant, aimless, purposeless change—then there is no human nature to discover, study, and know. Human beings become mere instruments to be conquered and controlled and used by those who will the greatest power. This is the simple yet profound lesson offered by C.S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man.
So postmodern man focuses on increasing his power over others, while ignoring the humanity of others, or viewing others as indistinguishable from themselves—not seeing others as separate, distinct free beings—or considering them as nothing but tools to be used. Certainly postmodern men feel little connection to others. Postmodern men are thorough narcissists. And narcissists neither know nor feel empathy.
The spread of postmodernism, formally in our schools and informally through our culture, explains much of the narcissistic culture in which we live today. Narcissism is on display every day in the people around us. Sometimes we even elect narcissists to high offices. We need only look outside ourselves to notice.
 I won’t call them “ideas” because it not clear that postmodernists believe in ideas. Certainly, postmodernists are no students of Plato. I also won’t say that postmodernism rests upon or flows from any particular intellectual foundation, because many postmodernists reject what they call “foundationalism.” These are among the challenges one confronts when trying to describe as some thing a doctrine of nothing.