On Modernity

More than anything, “modernity” is an “attitude” with its own particular telos, to borrow from Foucault. But if modernity is an “attitude” rather than something physical or tangible, how can it be defined or described? Also, what accounts for its manifestation? One can argue that an attitude or a social disposition is accompanied by a particular discourse and set of thoughts, which in turn need to be identified and analyzed.

Nietzsche’s summation of modernity through the proclamation of “God is dead” is perhaps an enunciation of modernity’s basic attitude. One can argue that Nietzsche was not suggesting that God was dead in a literal sense. Rather, by suggesting that God was “dead,” Nietzsche was basically arguing that morality was dead in a modern age, and as a result any claim to morality or religiosity in a modern age amounted to hypocrisy. Foucault insinuated that the Nietzschean proclamation of “God is dead” stems from a rejection of the telos of the entire modern project, by stating: “To the decentring operated by the Nietzschean genealogy, it opposed the search for an original foundation that would make rationality the telos of mankind, and link the whole history of thought to the preservation of this rationality, to the maintenance of this teleology, and to the ever necessary return to this foundation.”

Thus, according to modern logic, the rejection of modernity is linked to a rejection of something more basic, namely, “reason” or “rationality” itself. Conversely, the affirmation and espousal of modernity is essentially the affirmation and espousal of “reason” or “rationality.” However, the question which arises is: how does one go about defining “reason” or “rationality”? In the Western philosophical tradition, Immanuel Kant is credited for having set the contours of “reason” by arguing that reason amounted to one’s “inner voice” which in turn commanded and guided the actions of an individual towards worthwhile goals in life. Kant added that what is commanded by reason is also necessary, and what is needed to be done by virtue of reason is considered a “categorical imperative,” which stands in stark contrast to the “hypothetical imperative” of a utilitarianism that is essentially shaped by moral subjectivity.

By being able to follow the “inner voice” of reason, Man is essentially free, according to Kant. Also, by adhering to reason, Man is no longer bound by the despotism of ancient thought processes stemming from religion and culture. Moreover, by virtue of reason, one can truly know, and when one knows, one will not err. Furthermore, by subscribing to the notion that the universe has no inherent design or purpose to fulfill, Man is then free to employ reason for the pursuit of his own creative ends in life. Fichte captures the “attitude” of the early modern period by stating: “I am a member of two worlds, that is to say, of the material, ruled by cause and effect, and of the spiritual, where ‘I am wholly my own creation.’”

In essence, scientific progress and human reason – from the start of the European Renaissance and well into the modern period – have been in a constant “dialogue” with religion and culture, to borrow from Fernand Braudel. Faith in human progress and reason rather than religion and culture during the European Renaissance and modern period spurred a philosophical outlook known as “humanism,” which in turn led to a renewal of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. By and large, Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy had been lost or masked with ecclesiastical interpretations of theology during the reign of the Catholic Church and absolute monarchs in the Medieval period. Only with the advent of the printing press in the late 1400’s did Greek and Roman philosophy renew itself and spread through the vernacular, thus spurring the European Renaissance and the modern period that came subsequently.

It is important to note that humanist thought – with its emphasis on human progress and reason – neither denies the existence of God nor submits to religion passively. Nevertheless, humanist thought is “anthropocentric,” which considers human beings to be the primary agents in world history and the sole determinants of their own destiny. This mode of thought stands in stark contrast to the “theocentric” thought process of ancient religions and cultures which put God front and center as the sole determinant of human destiny and history. One key feature of humanist thought is that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is first built on earth, and this single thought alone may have served as the impetus for modernization in the Western world. Whereas Catholicism, Puritanical Islam, and Asian religions like Buddhism and Taoism stress the importance of abandoning this world for the next one, humanist thought resulting from the European Renaissance changed the basic logic of these ancient thought systems by encouraging the adherents of humanism to strive for the best of both worlds.

Thus, in a nutshell, a modern attitude or thought process implies that an emphasis and focus on this world is “reasonable” or “rational,” whereas an emphasis and focus on an imperceivable afterworld is “unreasonable” or “irrational.” In the early renaissance period, Sir Francis Bacon was one of the first philosophers to sing the praises of modernity and technology. Along with a number of other philosophers such as Newton and Locke, Bacon would set the foundation for the long-standing British empirical tradition within both modern philosophy and the modern sciences. Empiricists like Bacon left an indelible mark on Western philosophy and science by contending that true knowledge had to originate from sensory experience. On the other hand, a number of Continental philosophers known as the “rationalists” such as Descartes and Leibniz would argue that knowledge has to follow from a priori concepts, ideas, principles, or truths. Only through Kant would British empiricism and Continental rationalism be synthesized by virtue of Kant’s proposition that knowledge is the result of experience as well as the actions of the mind upon human experience.

Nevertheless, the modern mind was essentially borne out of the natural philosophy of Bacon, who proposed that genuine scientific inquiry needed a method and adherence to “facts” that were totally detached from religion and superstition in order to determine what reality actually is rather than what it is imagined to be. In turn, reality is defined as the totality of everything that exists. Nature is then the most important element of reality, and if one were to truly understand nature through a legitimate scientific method, one could perhaps control or subdue nature for the betterment of the human condition, according to the empiricists a la Bacon. As Martin Heidegger wrote, the essence of technology and thus the modern sciences as the progenitor of technology is “enframing,” which in turn translates into the ordering of nature. However, Heidegger argued that with this ordering of nature through technology comes a certain “danger,” and the “saving power” comes through “aesthetic-mindedness” and art.

Before Heidegger, it was Nietzsche who would argue that the emphasis on empirical science and the conquest of nature in the modern age was borne out of fear rather than spirit. Nietzsche, in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” wrote the following about fear as the impetus for modern science rather than a genuine interest in scientific inquiry: “For fear – that is man’s original and fundamental feeling; through fear everything is explained, original sin and original virtue. Through fear my virtue also grew, that is to say: science.” Nietzsche added: “Such prolonged ancient fear, at least become subtle, spiritual, intellectual – today, I think, it is called: science.

But as Fernand Braudel has suggested, there are three modes of humanist and thus modern thought. For one, there is Renaissance Humanism whereby organized religion is replaced with a revival of philosophy from antiquity. Second, there is Religious Humanism whereby religion is separated from a church or clergy and is made into a purely private matter. Third, there is Revolutionary Humanism whereby intellectuals lead the overthrow of an established state that is lagging in its modernization efforts. Politically speaking, some humanist thinkers contend that modernity could be achieved without liberal democracy as long as a monarch or despot becomes a philosopher.

There are also a number of thinkers who have asked the question of why modernity – with its twin pillars of science and industrialization – first developed in Europe instead of the Islamic world and Asia. The answer – when delving into European philosophy and history and then comparing it with the philosophy and history of other civilizations like Islam and Asia – becomes quite obvious. As mentioned before, due to a change and tectonic shift in European philosophy and logic which committed Europeans to having “the best of both worlds” rather than abandoning this world for the next, economic and social conditions would change and in turn foster scientific progress. In Britain and the United States in particular, the economic and social conditions were ripe for rapid scientific progress in the 19th and 20th centuries, which in turn would spur industrialization and its accompanying rise of living standards. Fernand Braudel viewed industrialization as consisting of four stages: steam, electricity, internal combustion engine, and nuclear energy.

For one, political stability resulting from relative isolation from the rest of the world enabled both Britain and the United States to foster the economic and social conditions for modernization and industrialization. Isolation and political stability enabled Britain to mass produce and flood the international markets with British goods and products in the 19th and 20th centuries, thereby decreasing the costs of production and in turn enabling the rise of other British industries such as shipbuilding. Also, as the development and maturation of a key industry spurred the creation of other industries, financial capital would then become the key feature of Western societies. Thus, the combination of industrialization by mastering one industry and then using the surplus to spur other industries – along with the accumulation of financial capital stemming from industrialization and the establishment of a national bank and gaining access to foreign markets and resources through colonialism – spurred modernization efforts in Europe before any other region of the world.

Despite the emphasis on free-market economics in the Anglo-American world, the state must play a role in a society’s modernization efforts. Otherwise, individuals will not have the capacity nor the incentive to actualize or invest in broad-based industrialization. But once broad-based industrialization has taken root and diversification has reached its limits, a society is faced with two choices. For one, a society can carry out a militarization project and thus engage in power politics abroad. Or, a society can focus on spurring mass consumption, leisure, and social services at home. The United States, in the 21st century, had the luxury of taking both routes but instead took a lopsided approach in favor of hyper-militarization and power politics abroad, whereas Western Europe focused on social services and leisure for its people.

As the history of the West has shown, power politics ends as a futile enterprise when taking into account the two total wars in the first half of the 20th century in Europe, as well as the failure of America’s hegemonic wars in the 21st century. In sum, the inclination of modern people to trek towards either total war which results from unbridled anger stemming from the lack of a spiritual dimension or towards hedonism that is enhanced by unhindered credit and debt and in turn caters to insatiable material appetites for both food and sex demonstrates some of modernity’s pitfalls. As David Hume argued, reason is merely a “slave” of the passions.

Because of these self-evident pitfalls within modernity, Nietzsche was perhaps justified in equating modernity to decadence in his most famous work titled “The Will to Power.” Nietzsche wrote: “If this [the modern age] is not an age of decay and of diminishing vitality, it is at least one of the indiscriminate and arbitrary experimentalizing – and it is probable that out of an excess of abortive experiments there has grown this general impression, as of decay: and perhaps decay itself.” What diverts individuals and groups away from the fatalistic outcomes of hedonism and total war in modernity is perhaps what the German romantics call the “Absolute Spirit.” Given the spiritual dimension of Man, natural laws are not to be identified in the “dead” material world; rather, natural law is to be identified within the human spirit, as suggested by Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation of romantic discourse. Nevertheless, modernity – like any other economic, social, and political phenomenon – has its fair share of both proponents and opponents, even within the Western philosophical tradition as demonstrated by Bacon on one hand and Rousseau and Nietzsche on the other hand.

In a sense, modernity – with its end result of either hedonism or power politics – is an espousal of realism, whereas a commitment to both culture and religion is in essence a commitment to a romantic state of being. But in a modern situation whereby hedonism or total war are the only two options, many people are groping and searching for an alternative and a “third way.” Charles Taylor correctly intuited that “in the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were cross-pressured, looking for a third way.” Thus, some people are simply looking for an alternative to crude modernity, with its hedonism, agnosticism, snobbery, and quasi-liberalism on one hand, and crude nationalism as a manifestation of anger, conspiracy theories, hypocrisy, and collective frustrations on the other hand.

What constitutes a “third way” is a moral and practical regimen that fosters a balance between both the material and spiritual dimensions of Man. At the core, however, is a search for meaning amidst meaninglessness. Or perhaps the search is aimed at finding eternity amidst transience. There is, however, something that is central to a modern lifestyle, which is the ‘routine’ that serves as the source of both ‘ennui’ and meaninglessness. But ultimately, it is the inevitability of death that explains both meaning and the lack thereof, which in turn prompts an “immanent revolt” against “the primacy of life” within modern discourse to borrow from Charles Taylor. Also, Man is in a situation where the “grand narratives” of both modernity and religion have lost their luster and grounding and as a result both grand narratives are being questioned and scrutinized. If one were to know the “narrative” that underpins human history, one could perhaps act in response to a set of well-defined circumstances. Yet, everything is in a state of flux, and as a result the issue of certainty and order remains outstanding.

Remarkably, many individuals privately welcome a critique of modern life and wish to hear a spiritual discourse, but “the monopoly of secular time over public space is unchallenged” according to Charles Taylor. In closing, by taking these circumstances and facts into consideration, it would perhaps be fruitful if American leaders eventually emulated the rest of the Western world by focusing on internal economic and social development. Our leaders must focus on educating the public and providing social services as well as legislative measures that would improve the quality of life of Americans instead of being bogged down in futile power politics abroad, especially in a time of economic and social turbulence resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

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