What is Modernity?

I’ve written a bit about modernity over the past couple of years, and in fact, I think the entire QNUW project at this point could be defined as a reaction against it.  But the concept is a tricky one, because it’s a term for the very air we breathe in contemporary society.  And it’s not something as simplistically defined as “the present day” or even “the present operation of things,” since those would imply that modernity is a definition related to a period of time rather than a term that applies to specific systems of ideologies.

At its root, modernity is the rejection of God.  Put less concisely, it’s an ideological rationalization of moral misbehavior which has led to the rise of sophisticated systems of thought that run antithetical to the teachings of the Church.  While there exists in Catholic teaching the Modernist heresy, modernity is a broader—albeit related—subject that extends beyond the contemporary boundaries of the Church itself.  Where the heresy is concerned, a different post is required—and I’m not equipped to write that.  You can read Pius X’s encyclical on the subject yourself, though.

The definition seems simple enough to say, but in reality, it’s quite convoluted to sort out, because its entrenched in our entire social ethos.  It affects our politics and our economics, it affects what we consider to be public space and discourse, private property, and labor.  It has shaped the philosophies of the last four hundred years and, as a result, steered intellectual and upper-crust life into a dialectic that would have been utterly alien to the classical mind.

How did we get here?  What comes next?  What actually is modernity?  Let’s take a look.

History – Nominalism and the Reformation

There are always people—usually armchair historians like myself—eagerly looking to figure out where things went wrong, as if ascribing a date to the event illuminates its reality as a catastrophe on the scale of the sinking of Atlantis.  The reality, as always, isn’t always so simple.  The shift towards the modernist way of thinking did not come from a single event or person, as it was a large-scale ideological shift that took a while to sneak its tendrils into the European way of life.

Now that said, benchmarks should still be remembered.  The First World War, for instance, or the French Revolution—both events that would have been impossible without the influence of modernity driving so many people mad.  But obviously modernity didn’t really start there; in fact, especially in the case of World War One, the only way that could have started was if the ideologies promoted and fielded by modernity had already saturated Europe.

An argument can certainly be made that modernity really began as an ideological movement sometime around the fourteenth century, when William of Ockham’s nominalist writings flourished across the scholastic world and nominalism itself reached its maturity.  Martin Luther’s stunt in Wittenberg, about a century and a half later, could very easily be attributed to the rise of nominalism.  Much of Luther’s writings are filled with the nominalist ideas precipitated by the sort of metaphysics explored by William of Ockham, Abelard, etcetera, but the key difference was Luther’s practical application of a metaphysic divorced from reality.  It culminated in one of the most damaging socio-political schisms in European history, permanently dividing Europe in a way that even the Eastern Schism of the eleventh century hadn’t managed to do.

It’s important that this division of Europe was not a merely political one, as the Eastern Schism turned out to be.  It became a fundamentally ideological one.  The rise of Lutheranism and Calvinism, coupled with the rebellion of the Anglican rite into its own anti-papal schismatic sect, indicated the rise of nation-churches—a slightly less imperialistic variation of caesaropapism that the early Church had fought for centuries, particularly in Constantinople.  In Anglicanism this is in fact codified into law.  In other cases, such the Church of Sweden, the handling of national church administration is delegated to a largely democratized council.  This remains the same in principle, however, as the nation has taken precedence over the spiritual body of the church.  Any claims of apostolic succession, much less that these protestant national churches are the body of Christ, remain as ludicrous as they are demonstrably false.  No mystical body of Christ, in whose Church He is king, can claim a national priority of the Church’s governance over—at the very least—the extra-national spiritual patriarchs, much less the Holy See itself.  The various conflicts between Catholicism and the Orthodox rites notwithstanding, they agree at least in principle on this point.

All of this is important to remember, because it means that prior to the Luther’s Reformation, the faith across Europe, particularly Western Europe, was not a matter of political agreement.  The King of France partook of the same communion and the same mass as the peasant in Hungary; the belief in the intercession of the saints remained the same for a nobleman in Spain as it did for a blacksmith in Norway.  The religious life of Europe was a mostly-contiguous whole which was integrated into the political matrix in the form of how the Church’s magisterium and tradition informed secular governance and legislation.

It’s hard to communicate exactly the importance of this distinction, because the contemporary world has lost all ability to entertain the notion of an integralist society.  For those who are interested, I encourage you to seek out Before Church and State: A Study of the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX by Andrew Willard Jones.  In any case, the important takeaway here is that the Reformation’s political schism across Europe also fragmented the very nature of religious belief—in fact it politicized it, and in so doing, attempted to subject the revelations of apostolic doctrine to the material and temporal rulings of Kings and, eventually parliaments.  The spiritual place of the Holy See as extra-political grounded the nature of political hierarchy as an extension of observable hierarchy in nature.  Remove that, and the leveling impulse of egalitarianism knows no restraint.  It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from the Thirty Years War to the English, American, and French revolutions.

The important bit is this: the Reformation set the stage for modernity to begin to prosper, because the Reformation undid the crucial and complicated admixture of the political, social, and religious spheres of medieval life, sundering them into differently-ordered parts and inverting the hierarchy.  The political schism helped trigger the moral schism that followed—if the church is beholden to the nation, after all, then the same should hold true on the smallest level of family and morality; ethics should be beholden to individual liberty—which is simply another way of saying that desires should hold the reins of the human will, and that all conceptions of the truth must first be rationalized within the context of these desires.

In a presentation at George Washington University back in 1996, E. Michael Jones put it very simply: “Either you conform your desires to the truth, or you conform the truth to your desires.”  St. Augustine said as much more than a millennium and a half ago.

Philosophy – The Early Moderns and the Enlightenment

Too frequently are we taught in schools that the summation of Western philosophical thought begins, effectively, with Descartes.  At least in the sphere of public education, the Greeks are usually taught as little more than a prelude to the Early Modern period of European thought; the Classical and Hellenistic thinkers are brushed over as unimportant figures of an outdated and superstitious period, and the various titans of Catholic Scholasticism are virtually unmentioned in most curriculums.

Instead, the beginning of knowledge is taught with the words “cogito, ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am.  This summarizes a bulk of his meditations that comprise his Discourse on Method (1637), and indeed, he assigns the phrase to be his first principle, from which, presumably, the rest of his system of thought should flow.  The problem should be obvious, however; according to Descartes’ own skepticism, the world can’t be proven—nor, really, can God.  For a school of thought named rationalism, the most rational common-sense approach to life—that the world exists and that you are part of it—can’t even be proven!

This of course stands in direct reaction to most of the philosophical tradition of the West up until that point.  While the scholarship of Aristotle and Plato predate the Gospels by a few hundred years, the general summation of Western metaphysics can be found at the beginning of St. John’s: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  The Word, so hesitantly translated, is logos: order, wisdom, comprehensibility.  The world, in other words, is preexistent to the human ego, and the world is fundamentally knowable and comprehensible because the world is an ordered world.  Without order preexisting in the world, human consciousness would have no way of being ordered enough to perceive it, much less act upon it.

For the Greeks, and for the Christians that followed them, the world existed before Man did, and God created the world.  For Descartes, the world exists only inasmuch as the ego of a man is willing to believe in it.

This is an important distinction, as it follows from the inversion of the political-religious hierarchy that preceded it.  If the nation can define the religious life, then that means the people can define the Church.  But what are the people guided by in their definitions?  One could posit that they’re guided by reason, but reason is tethered to a will, and the will is assuaged by passions.  Moral systems can temper those passions and guide the will’s operation of reason, but moral systems are taught according to an extant political and social order.  If the premier source of moral dogmas is dispensed with, what source can a secular society turn to in order to maintain a consistent moral framework?

Secular society cannot answer this question, because secularism denies the existence of afterlives or transcendent realities.  Some blend of utilitarianism or short-circuited virtue ethics tend to take the place of the natural law, and as a result moral teachings collapse into the sort of backwards promotion of indulgence and impulsiveness we see today.  The secular humanist could stand up against the tide and proclaim the benefits of holding off on impulsive behavior, citing social harmony and long-term benefits as the reasons to do so, but such decrees ring hollow absent the magnitude and finality of eternity.  If the only punishment for immoral behavior is living, at the most, a few short decades in discomfort before vanishing into the oblivion of nonbeing, why bother saving for the future or cultivating an upstanding moral character in your children?  Why even have kids in the first place?

The passions of the will—desires—are thus unleashed.  Suddenly, Freud starts to make sense.  The Existentialists start to make sense.  The lumbering half-dead dementia patient of an intellectual tradition that traces its lineage to Nietzsche all starts to make sense.  Without significant moral consequences to one’s actions in life, there ceases to be significant reasons to prohibit dangerous and shameful behavior.  Forget that the system’s method of finding or understanding the truth is all backwards.  Forget that the entire presence of moral teachings today spring from the starting point of convenience rather than virtue.  Rationalization is the name of the game, and any sufficiently guilty person can easily use rationalization to juggle cognitive dissonance for most of his life.  By the time it dawns on him that he’s simply been lying to himself, the system has extracted from him everything it needed, so it’s off to the mental institution or the nursing home with him.  Or nowadays, to the psychiatrist and the pharmacist.

What Comes Next?

I really have no idea.  Addressing the direct problem requires of most people within the West to address their own problems.  Modernity has been so successful in its takeover because it preys on personal pride and the ease with which pride can subjugate reason to the human will.  As St. Augustine reminds us, “a man has as many masters as he has vices,” and modernity has succeeded not merely in proliferating vice, but by inverting the hierarchy by which vice is even recognized.  Liberty, classically understood as the means by which men could come to know the good and worship God, now is just a platform for pornographers, schlock-makers in the entertainment industry, and journalists to contort the truth (but I repeat myself).

Moral conscience has been subsumed beneath this principle—a principle that follows directly from Descartes’ first principle; after all, if I can prove I exist but remain generally skeptical of the world around me, then the only actions I can take responsibility for are the ones I commit myself!  Because it remains self-evident that the world does, in fact, exist, it shouldn’t be hard to see how theories of morality, politics, and even metaphysics could spring out of this.  Maybe what Descartes was saying wasn’t that he had arrived at his first principle by way of reason, but rather by way of wishful thinking.

So the only way to effectively combat the modernist impulses is to address it at the source and return to the very schools of thought that it originally combatted.  It means first acknowledging the existence of sin and then taking steps to avoid and alleviate it in your own life.  It means adhering, as best as a modern man can, to the natural moral order of the world.  Where is one able to even find any of that, though?  Where does someone even start?  You aren’t going to find it in self-help books written by half-mad pseudo-intellectuals, nor in bastardized new age practices of convoluted pagan services.  And you certainly won’t find it on the bathroom floor of a club, at the bottom of liquor bottles, or nested somewhere in the related videos section of a porn site.

But as it turns out, you’d be in luck.  As it turns out, there’s a two-thousand-year-old institution that has been charged with keeping the fire lit, so to speak, and as it turns out, it even has outlets open on every continent on the planet, in every country in the world, though some of them don’t have buildings and many of them are underground.  It’s almost as if, funnily enough, the order that established and maintains the world knew, in His infinite wisdom, the gravity of sins and the propensity to stray or contort the moral law, so He decided to partake in the ultimate sacrifice that could alleviate some of that burden and draw so many lost souls back into communion with the truth and the good.

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