4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity

Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (German: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer; also known as Wanderer Above the Mist) is an oil painting composed in 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. Edited.

Listers, modernity developed as a rejection. Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will. The following list views modernity through the lens of political philosophy and maps a step by step development of how modern man slowly lost faith in reason. The primary source for this list is an essay entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity” by Leo Strauss. Strauss was a political philosopher who almost single handedly returned these questions of modernity to academia. Though not a Catholic, Strauss’ critique of modernity has resonated with the faithful and serves as an excellent starting point to discuss the problems of modernity.1 One note of caution. Modernity and modernism are distinct concepts. Modernity is a historical term indicating the post-medieval world. Modernism is a Catholic term indicating an amalgamation of principles that are in error. For example, all men born in modernity would be moderns, but only those who follow modernism would be modernists. This list is a primer on how modernity developed and why it is now in crisis.

 

1. The First Wave of Modernity

Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.
Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.

The project to emancipate the human will from all externalities begins with an exiled Italian politician named Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527). Machiavelli advocated an abandonment of the old “imagined republics” of the pre-moderns. The imagined republics were, inter alia, Aristotle’s polis governed by nature and nature’s virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, & fortitude – and the Kingdom of God as articulated in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In the West, particularly after St. Thomas Aquinas, nature and divine revelation were seen as compatible and formed one ordered cosmological whole. The state or polis existed so that all men may live well and live virtuously. Under Machiavelli, however, two radical concepts were constructed. First, he jettisoned any cosmological ordered whole in favor of treating different sciences as isolated bodies. For example, for Aristotle or Aquinas their writings on politics are unintelligible without their writings on ethics. In contradistinction, Machiavelli held “political life proper is not subject to morality.”2 Second, Machiavelli reinterpreted virtue. No longer was virtue a good habit, but rather it was the cunning ability to gain and maintain power within the political sphere.3

What Machiavelli did for the prince, Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) did for all citizens. Continuing the emancipation of the human will from all externalities, Hobbes held that nature imported no morality to man. The pre-modern world under Aquinas held that nature granted humanity three innate inclinations: (1) self-preservation (2) procreation and the education of offspring and (3) an inclination to seek the good. In contrast, Hobbes held that nature gave to man only the inclination of self-preservation; thus, where the pre-moderns saw nature as a moral standard, Hobbes saw nature as a chaotic clash between the right of self-preservation of individuals. In short, the man’s natural state is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes developed two key concepts for modernity. First, Western political speech began to favor speaking of individual rights rather than the external standard of natural law; and second, Hobbes laid the foundation for the West’s obsession with equality. Note, however, that Hobbes’ focus on equality is set within his belief that nature is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes believed all men are equal because all men have the ability to murder one another. Murder was the great equalizer and served as the foundation of modern notions of equality. On a final note, it is critical to understand that in this Hobbesian nature of war and chaos, humanity’s salvation lies in granting its power of self-preservation to the state, the Leviathan. It is the state that will be man’s salvation.4

 

2. The Second Wave of Modernity

A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.
A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) ushered in a “radicalization of the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature.”5 The pre-moderns taught that man was by nature a rational and political animal. Under Hobbes, man became a pre-political animal only seeking society to escape a nature of war and chaos. Under Rousseau, man is not even a rational animal by nature. According to Rousseau, man’s “state of nature is subhuman or prehuman,” because rationality was actually an acquired trait.”6 For Rousseau, man’s natural state is twofold. First, he is interested in self-preservation. Second, he holds a natural repugnance to “seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer.”7 Rousseau’s concept of repugnance is not charity or compassion, but simply the belief “that could be me.” Rousseau went as far to claim that neither marriage nor familial ties are natural to man. Any notion of charity is simply a sustained pity toward a particular person. For example, a mother does not nurse her baby out of love but simply to relieve the pain in her swollen breasts.

Any reinterpretation of nature demands a reinterpretation of virtue. For Rousseau, human nature is by and large a malleable concept; thus, what is and is not virtuous is also malleable. In this context, Rousseau continued modernity’s aim to emancipate the human will from all externalities by submitting his concept of the “General Will.” In short, Rousseau attempted to establish virtue by a consensus of the general public.8 The General Will produces a rational society under the belief that all things generally willed by the public must be rational.9 Virtue and reason become subject to democratic rule. Another furtherance of modernity is found in Rousseau’s treatment of history. Oddly, while Rousseau advocated his narrative of man’s natural state, he also stated that his version of human nature “perhaps never existed.”10 Under Rousseau, Western man begins to treat human history as a narrative free from an external control – nature or God. Most notably, history is seen as a malleable tale of the human will than the narrative of God’s people.11

 

3. The Third Wave of Modernity

Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.
Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.

Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) heralded the third and final wave of modernity. The suspicions the second wave voiced concerning history are confirmed as Nietzsche declares history is meaningless.The only purpose of history is to show that history is purposeless. There is no transcendent truth – nature or God – that connects the historical eras of humanity; thus, each historical period and their inhabitants are severed from one another. For example, modern man studying the Scriptures or ancient Greece is meaningless. All apparent ideals and truths are simply “human creations or projects” encapsulated within that specific time period. If God, nature, and history are all meaningless, what is left for modern man? The will.

The project of modernity to emancipate the will from all externalities – God, nature, and history – comes to a zenith in the Nietzschean concept of the Uber-man. With God, nature, and history all cast aside as meaningless, the third wave is marked by a type of nihilism. Nietzschean nihilism, however, sees the canvas of life wiped clean and primed for creativity. Nietzsche believed “a living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is [a] will to power.”12 Nietzschean nihilism is not a relaxed relativism. In a world where all value is simply a human project, there will arise individuals who take advantage of reality. The individuals are called Uber-men. First, the Uber-man will shed the effect the concepts of God, nature, or history attempt to place on him. Second, the Uber-man will realize the world is a blank canvas upon which he can impose his creative will. At the end of the third wave, human will stands liberated from not only God, nature, and history but from reason itself. The creativity of the human will is the source of all value.

 

4. Modernity in Crisis

The crisis of modernity is exemplified in the fact that “modern western man no longer knows what he wants” and has lost all “faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims.”13 For modern man, reason can no longer discern any meaning from God, nature, or history. Value in the modern world is a human project. Overall, modernity came into existence as a rejection. It posits nothing new, just an ever growing privation of humanity’s belief that reason can perceive the world around it. Even when a modern philosopher thought he was solving the problems of modernity, he was actually contributing to the slow atrophy of reason.

As the three waves demonstrate, it is not difficult to imagine that Catholicism stands as the complete antithesis to modernity’s project to emancipate the human will. Though this list approaches modernity from the science of political philosophy, there are a few observations worth sharing on the relationship between the modern philosophers and Catholicism. First, every modern thinker had to set aside Catholicism in order to submit their own belief system. Catholicism – especially Scholasticism under St. Thomas Aquinas – stood as a bastion of support that God, nature, and history were all harmonious and rational. Under the waves of modernity, Catholicism was ridiculed and mocked, but it was never philosophically engaged. For example, Hobbes jeers transubstantiation and Scholasticism as difficult to understand but never attempts to prove them wrong. The second observation is that the rejection of Catholicism leads to the rise of modern myths. Rousseau is a classic example of this methodology. Rousseau jettisons Catholicism in favor of his noble savage concept and then predicates his views of reason and nature upon it. He then, however, turns around and claims that his noble savage narrative need not even be true. The three waves demonstrate that modernity is in crisis, because modernity developed as a rejection and now no one knows what – or even how – to believe in anything.

  1. A Further Comment on Strauss: Faithful institutions such as the University of Dallas and Ave Maria University rely heavily on Strauss’ critique of modernity, but not necessarily on his solutions. Strauss is not a Catholic and consequently did not see faith and reason as harmonious. If anything, he found Athens and Jerusalem to be at odds, while Catholicism sees faith and reason as one in Rome. In short, Strauss offers excellent critiques of modernity, of which Catholicism has the solutions. []
  2. Strauss, 86. []
  3. Machiavelli & Modern Science: The Spirit of Machiavelli is seen in two other first wave philosophers – Rene Descartes (d. 1650) and Francis Bacon (d. 1626). Broadly speaking, both thinkers agreed with Machiavelli that nature was not a moral standard; rather, nature was something to be conquered, vexed, and unlocked. In short, modern science began to view an individual’s health as their highest good. Man becomes the master of nature and his conquest will aid in his self-preservation. []
  4. Quotes & Citations for Thomas Hobbes: SPL has written an extensive Catholic guide to Thomas Hobbes, which is littered with quotes and citations. []
  5. Strauss, 90 []
  6. Strauss, 90 []
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. First & Second Discourse (Indianapolis: Hackett), 35. []
  8. Strauss, 91. []
  9. Strauss, 91. []
  10. Historicism: Under the second wave the concept of “historicism” begins to take root. Human history sheds the external controls of God and nature. There is no natural law inherent in men and there is no divine story coming to an end. It is just human history. This first brand of historicism is referred to as theoretical historicism. []
  11. Kant: Another second wave philosopher is Immanuel Kant (d. 1804). In short, Kant attempts to handle modernity’s problem of jettisoning nature but needing morality; thus, Kant radicalizes the human will into a universal compass for morality. In Kant’s famous categorical imperative, he states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Consequently, Kant establishes “universal legislation” predicated upon man’s rationality. The “moral laws” of man are “no longer understood a natural laws,” but rather “reason replaces nature” as humanity is now “radically liberated from the tutelage of nature.” Strauss, 92. []
  12. Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Beyond Good and Evil. (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 21. []
  13. Strauss, 81-82. []
  • bobster

    ‘non serviam’ – such an easy thing to say.
    But things get difficult very quickly when one tries to supply an alternative compass to God’s.

  • DW

    A decent book review of Strauss. But it does not begin to touch deeply on the issues raised by him and others. BTW, a big issue with Leo Strauss, was whether he was an atheist and whether he believed other philosophers claiming to be believers (e.g. Moses Maimonides) were also secret atheists. So, I would tread gingerly with him.

  • David Raber

    Seriously, looking at Modernity and secularization (which to me pretty much boils down to nihilism), we have to ask ourselves how and why thought in the West has trended this way. And can we say that the Church and Christianity in general has offered to the world’s thinkers such an attractive alternative to skepticism non-belief? Granted the Church’s enemies have exaggerated her faults, but they have had plenty of material to work with. Those of us inside the Church see and feel the truth and beauty of the Gospel to be found there and we recognize the saints she has produced in all generations for what they are–heroes of virtue and the Spirit. The outsider sees a very different picture–hypocrisy, disunity, complicity with secular powers in war and oppression–all the evils the Church has been involved in, condemned by actual Christian morality but there nonetheless. The Church as a human institution bears a lot of the blame for the rejection of the Christian message by modernity. We have good news to tell but in many ways and to many people have made it seem like bad news.

  • Paxton Reis

    “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

    I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.”

    Pope Francis