A Vision Of Modernity As A Kind Of Collapse
and two responses to this vision
Long ago, in an age long past, the Western world was structured around “The Church”, an institution where a select group of experts devoted themselves to creating social and psychological direction and order for the world. Questions about the significance of life, the right thing to do in a given situation, how to soothe one’s weary heart in troubled times, all had at least some sort of answer available, and these answers were blessed by the best and deepest authority which we had.
Through fits and starts, this situation changed - the Protestant Reformation splintered the institution of The Church, and the Enlightenment took what authority The Church had and put it at the feet of human individuals. The emergence of Capitalism as a form of social organization brought with it an elevation of dynamism and technical mastery for its own sake - to survive, or at least to be rewarded and get ahead, one must be constantly thinking of new strategies to attain new advantages over other human beings, people who are not compassion-worthy fellow-sufferers but who are instead “the competition”.
So, in modernity, the task of figuring out what we are and how to live our lives lies squarely on our shoulders as individuals, within an atmosphere of innovation-competition. Problems that perplexed generations of dedicated experts are now left up to you to solve with your own limited power within your own limited lifetime, and your solution is also expected to be especially new and interesting. Something within us yearns for the relief of turning over responsibility for our existence and direction to a greater power, but without The Church we find ourselves grabbing on to whatever fads float our way, certainly to be left even more despondent than before when those fads inevitably perish. We value individual freedom, in doing so find ourselves with the freedom of someone floating by themselves in a vast and empty sea.
The above sketch outlines a story told by the traditionalist, with a major exception - beyond the social cohesion and existential direction provided by The Church, the traditionalist would assert that its teachings are True. Modernity has been a tremendous triumph of the forces of evil, turning generations away from God and towards themselves and against each other. The right and just thing to do is to use political power to blunt these evil and destructive cultural forces, to halt this devolution in its tracks with every tool available, to put people back on the right path even if you have to drag them kicking and screaming back into the light. Valorizing “Freedom” was a deviant innovation, something that future generations will see as a profoundly-regrettable stumble that sent millions of helpless souls tumbling away into the darkness.
As for me, I wouldn’t agree - I assert that we can have our cake and eat it too, freedom-wise; we can have liberty and autonomy and authenticity and also community and connectedness and common direction. What modernity gives us the opportunity to do is to create all of those things for ourselves consciously.
Our approach today has to be much more modest, however. Honoring human limitation would mean never again trying to create something with the ambitious sprawl of The Church, since it would only collapse under its own weight again. I think the traditionalist attempt to restore The Church to its former place and glory is a foolish attempt to double down on a failed strategy.
What works instead are smaller-scale communities of common purpose, where people set out to help each other solve problems where we all need help. People have a hard time joining communities for the sheer sake of having a community - there needs to be some common vision or ideal that the community generates, that people get out of participating in the community in a way they couldn’t conjure by themselves.
It’s certainly worth honoring the fact that, in the scheme of things, dealing with liberty in the way that we do today is relatively new, and with that novelty comes uncertainty and unexpected difficulty, but that these challenges are part of the package deal. They may appear formidable, at least at first, and we won’t always have the best solutions to these problems, but I believe that they are problems that we can and will figure out together.