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  • 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 since.

  • - 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.

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

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HISTORY OF IDEAS - Modernity

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    Summer posted on 2020/07/30
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