HISTORY OF IDEAS Modernity – Free Ebook

Since the middle of the eighteenth century,
beginning in Northern Europe and then spreading

to every corner of the world, people have
become aware of living in an age radically

different from any other and which they have
called – with a mixture of awe and respect,

trepidation and nostalgia – ‘the modern
age’, or more succinctly, ‘modernity’.

We are now all inhabitants of modernity; every
last hamlet and remote island has been touched

by the outlook and ideology of a new era.

The story of our emergence into the modern
world can be traced in a number of fields

  • in politics, religion, art, technology,
    fashion, science – all of which have ultimately

contributed to an alteration in consciousness,
to a change in the way we think and feel.

This is some of what becoming modern has involved:

  • Secularisation:
    Perhaps the single greatest marker of modernity

has been a loss of faith – the loss of a belief
in the intervention of divine forces in earthly

affairs. All other ages before our own held
that our lives were at least half in the hands

of gods or spirits, who could be influenced
through prayer and sacrifice and who required

complex forms of worship and obedience. But
we have put our energies into understanding

natural events through reason; there are no
more omens or revelations, curses or prophecies,

our futures will be worked out in laboratories,
not temples; even the nominally religious

will – when it comes to it – dermur to highly
trained pilots and cancer specialists. God

has died and modernity has killed Him.

  • Progress:
    Premodern societies envisaged history in cyclical

terms; there was no forward dynamic to speak
of; one imagined that things would always

be as bad or as good as they had ever been.
There was no more change in human affairs

than there was in the seasons. Empires would
wax and wane; periods of plenty would alternate

with seasons of dearth. Yet the fundamentals
would remain. But to be modern is to believe

that we can continually surpass what has come
before; national wealth, knowledge, technology,

political arrangements and, most broadly,
our capacity for fulfilment seem capable of

constant increase. We have severed the chains
of repetitive suffering. Time is not a wheel

of futility, it is an arrow pointing towards
a perfectible future.

  • Science:
    We have replaced gods with equations. Science

will give us mastery over ourselves, over
the puzzles of nature – and ultimately – over

death. Careful calculations and the electrical
spasms of microscopic circuits will allow

us to map and know the universe. It is only
a matter of time before we work out how to

be immortal.

  • Individualism:
    To be modern is to throw off the claims of

history, precedent and community. We will
fashion our own identities – rather than being

defined by families or tradition. We will
choose who to marry, what job to pursue, what

gender to be, where to live and how to think.
We can be free and, at last, fully ‘ourselves’.

  • Love:
    We are Romantics, that is, we seek a soulmate,

an exemplary friend who can at the same time
be an intrepid sexual partner, a reliable

co-parent and a kindly colleague. We are in
revolt against coldness and emotional distance.

We refuse to remain in unhappy unions that
no longer possess the thrill of the early

moments. We will move boulders to find a spiritual
twin it can feel as if we have always known.

  • Cities:
    We have had enough of the narrowness of village

life. We don’t want to go to bed when the
sun sets or limit our acquaintances to the

characters we went to school with. We want
to move – along with 85% of the population

of modern nations – to the brightly illuminated
city, where we can mingle in crowds, observe

faces on underground trains, try out unfamiliar
foods, change jobs, read in parks, rethink

our hair, visit museums and sleep with strangers.

  • Nature:
    Premoderns lived in close proximity to nature;

they knew how to recognise shepherd’s purse
and make something edible out of pineapple

weed. They could tell when sparrows showed
up and what sounds short eared owls make.

They venerated nature as one might a deity.
But moderns don’t tremble before the night

sky or feel a need to give thanks to the rising
sun. We have freed ourselves from our previous

awe at natural phenomena; we are alive to
the sublimity of technology rather than of

waterfalls. The emblematic modern locale is
the 24 hour supermarket, brightly lit and

teeming with the produce of the four continents,
proudly defying the barriers of geography

and of the night. We will eat pomegranates
from Arizona and dates from the Sahel.

  • Speed:
    For most of history, the maximum speed was

set by the constraints of our own feet – or
at best, the velocity of a horse or sailing

ship. It might take three weeks to tramp from
London to Edinburgh, four months to sail from

Southampton to Sydney. In 18th century Spain,
the majority died within twenty-five kilometres

of where they had been born. Now nowhere is
further than twenty six hours away from us,

the contents of a national library can fit
onto a circuit the size of a finger nail and

the Voyager 1 probe hurtles at seventeen kilometers
per second through interstellar space, 21.2

billion kilometres from us.

  • Work:
    We are modern because we work not only to

earn money, but to develop our individuality,
to exercise our distinctive talents and to

find our true selves. We are on a quest for
something our ancestors would have thought

entirely paradoxical: work we can love.

Much of the transformation of modernity has
been exciting, thrilling even. Fibre optic

cables ring the earth, satellites guide us
across cities, new ideas overthrow rigid assumptions,

airports are conjured from the ground and
colossal energies are unleashed by the promethean

forces of chemistry and physics. The word
‘modern’ still rightly suggests a state

of glamour, desire and aspiration.

But the advent of modernity has – at the same
time – been a story of tragedy. We have bought

our new freedoms at a very high price indeed.
We have perhaps never been quite so close

to collective insanity or planetary extinction.
Modernity has wreaked havoc on our inner and

outer landscapes. We can pick up on aspects
of the catastrophe in a range of areas:

  • Failure:
    It was the French late nineteenth century

sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made
the sobering discovery of an essential difference

between traditional and modern societies.
In the former, when people lived in small

communities, when the course of one’s career
was understood to lie in the hands of the

gods and when there were few expectations
of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure,

the agony knew bounds; reversal did not seem
like a verdict on one’s value as a human

being. One never expected perfection, and
did not respond with self-laceration when

mishaps occurred. One simply fell to one’s
knees and implored the heavens. But Durkheim

knew that modern societies exacted a far crueller
toll on those who judged themselves to have

failed. No longer could these unfortunates
blame bad luck, no longer could they hope

for redemption in a next world. It seemed
as if there was only one person responsible

and only one fitting response. As Durkheim
showed, in perhaps the largest single indictment

of modernity, suicide rates of advanced societies
are up to ten times as high as those in traditional

ones. Moderns aren’t only more in love with
success, they are also far more likely to

kill themselves when they fail.

  • Envy:
    Modernity has told us that we are all equal

and can achieve anything: boundless possibility
awaits every one of us. We too might start

a billion dollar company, become a famous
actor or run a nation. No longer is opportunity

unfairly restricted to a favoured few. It
sounds charitable but it is a fast route to

an outbreak of comparison – and its associated
pain, envy. It would never have occurred to

a goat herder in seventeenth century Picardie
to envy Louis XIV of France; the king’s

advantages were as unfair as they were beyond
emulation. Such peace is no longer possible.

In a world in which everyone can achieve what
they deserve, why do we not have more? If

success is merited, why do we remain mediocre?
The psychological burden of a so-called ordinary

life has become incomparably harder – even
as its material advantages have become ever

more available.

  • Loneliness:
    Modernity has in a practical sense connected

us to others like never before but it has
also left us emotionally bereft, perhaps late

at night, on our own, in a corner of a diner,
like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting,

staring out at the darkness within and without.
The belief that we deserve one special person

has rendered our relationships unnecessarily
fractious and devoid of tolerance or forebearance

and stripped friendship of its value. The
first question we are asked in every new social

encounter is ‘What do you do?’ and we
know how much an impressive answer will matter.

We fall asleep in high-rise apartments with
views onto the distant headquarters of banks

and insurance firms – and wonder if anyone
would notice if we died. The first giant illuminated

advertisement – of a soda bottle – lit up
the darkness of Times Square in the spring

of 1904. It has been harder to sleep ever

  • Sentimentality:
    If it were not already so difficult, we are

asked – on top of it all – to smile continually,
to hope against hope, to have a nice day,

to have a lot of fun, to cheer on holiday
and to be exuberant that we are alive. Modernity

has stripped us of our primordial right to
feel melancholy, unproductive, surly, in despair

and confused. It has done us the central injustice
of insisting that happiness should be the

norm. Not for nothing did Theodor Adorno remark
that modern America had produced one overwhelming

villain: Walt Disney.

Though modernity may have made us materially
abundant, it has imposed a heavy emotional

toll: it has alienated us, bred envy, increased
shame, separated us from one another, bewildered

us, forced us to grin inauthentically and
left us restless and enraged.

Fortunately, we do not need to suffer alone.
Our condition – though it presents itself

to each one of us as a personal affliction

  • is at heart the work of an age, not of our

own minds. By learning to diagnose our condition,
we can come to accept that we are not so much

individually demented as living in times of
unusually intense and societally-generated

perturbance. We can accept that modernity
is a kind of disease – and that understanding

it will be
the cure.

Our book, A Replacement for Religion, lays out how we might absorb the best lessons of religion, update them for our times and incorporate them into our lives.

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