From the last several posts, it may appear that I am somehow against modern times, against science, or want to revert to a mythical pre-modern golden epoch. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love living in a society where millions of people are saved from basic bacterial infections by penicillin. I also recognize the impossibility of ever turning back the clock. While we can learn valuable lessons from our ancient and medieval forebears, we can never wholly see the world through their eyes because we cannot unsee all that has happened in the last four hundred years. Even if we one day forget the World Wars, we would still be a people who have forgotten something that has happened rather than a people who simply live in ignorance of what will happen. Our perspective on the world will always be conditioned by all this that has happened even when we fail to notice it.
No, there is no going back, only going forward.
What I oppose is not the modern epoch, but modernism. And by this I do not mean just any philosophies that happen to have flourished in recent times. By modernism I mean to indicate a particularly destructive strain of thought which militantly seeks to evacuate the world of all transcendent sources of meaning (they would say, “liberate mankind from superstitions”).
This strain of thought takes different forms and adopts different strategies in different places. In one place, it shows up as an anti-clerical political movement. In another, it shows up as high-brow scoffing at representative or religious art. In another, it shows up as the New Atheists sneering at the ignorant masses. In still another, it shows up as the businessman who will hear nothing about religion because he does not think it efficient or profitable.
In all these forms we notice a common element of hostility and bitterness–just look at the expression on Richard Dawkins’ face when he describes his distaste for “bronze age superstitions.” Frequently, this militant vitriol is directed at Christianity specifically, while Islam gets a pass, but underneath I think we often find an abhorrence of all “believers,” all those who orient themselves toward a transcendent, spiritual world of meaning.
But what does all this have to do with the modern period, so that it makes sense to call this strain of thought “modernism”? Certainly, there have been skeptics and embittered, irreligious men in every age (e.g. Lucretius). What changed in the modern period? The key factor that gives this perspective the status of a movement with enormous social and political consequences is that it comes to be wedded to a particular historical narrative. No longer are the religious masses seen as ignorant rubes. Now, they are seen as the ignorant rubes of the past. Belief in an objective, transcendent order comes to be seen as “what people used to believe.” And the principle focus of history becomes the narrative of enlightened scientific progress little by little pushing back the dark fog of superstition. Consider, for example, the whole ethos of Carl Sagan.
Empirically, there are good reasons to believe that this historical narrative is just plain false. Religious people still overwhelmingly outnumber non-religious people, and when we consider the sociological data coming from the southern hemisphere, the trend seems to be going decisively in favor of belief. Furthermore, it has become a commonplace to point out that many of the great scientific advances that the modernist would champion were accomplished by devout believers who were motivated in their efforts precisely by their belief in a transcendent ground for the intelligible order of the cosmos.
Nevertheless, a kind of secular mythos has grown up around this narrative, and its power does not lie in its factual correctness. It attracts, I think, because of the ease with which this perspective allows one to simply discard all claims upon our loyalty coming from the past, all claims to duty or reverence, all pesky religious scruples—most of all it allows one to discard all worry about a final judgment, all thought that we may all, one day, inexorably and thoroughly, be called to account for our actions. All such concerns can be swept away into the dustbin of history. One need not even provide an argument against each of these concerns individually. A supercilious derisive pfff will dispatch the whole lot at once. After all, no one really believes all that superstitious cant nowadays—not in this trendy neighborhood anyway.
So I want to talk about history and the past, modernity and science, because they started it. My primary concern is simply the eternal, timeless truth. I don’t think Plato or Dionysius got it all right, and I don’t think it desirable to turn back the clock even if they did. But since the modernist would declare war on the past (or, what is worse, simply ignore it), we must match their hostility with a forceful, articulate defense. Furthermore, while we can recognize that our society is certainly preferable in many areas of medicine, technology, or justice, we can also recognize that in other areas we have gone astray and forgotten valuable lessons that our ancestors could teach us again. We cannot go back, but we can make our way forward by recovering and preserving all that was good and wise and true from the past.