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WHAT is it to be modern? What ideas and assumptions shape the way we experience ourselves? Why do we take pride in our modern ways, so that being called medieval, for example, is an insult?
Well, if you want one candidate, to be modern is to feel that things can be described by scientific laws that behave in predictable ways. With that insight, comes a powerful, irresistible sense of understanding, mastery, progress. Moreover, everything in the world can be regarded in this rigorous way, human beings included. Think of how our politics is ruled by demography more than ideas; our economics by bar-charts more than human wellbeing; our hopes by income more than service.
It’s a fixation on certainty that was explored by the French philosopher René Descartes. His thought has had a massive impact on the hopes and aspirations of the modern world. He wanted to establish firm foundations for what we can know and he had a rather brilliant idea as to how to do that. He would turn doubt on itself. Doubt everything you can, he says, and see what’s left standing.
In his Meditations, he imagines sitting quite alone, by the fireside in a winter dressing-gown, asking: what can I be sure of? Can he be sure of say the table, the chairs in front of him? No, because the senses are unreliable: sight and sound have sometimes deceived him before, and we shouldn’t trust things which have deceived us even once. He then doubts whether there’s a world at all: the trees and clouds might be a dream, an illusion beamed into my mind by some malicious demon (for which read malign computer, today). Modernity prides itself on being able to question everything, anything.
In fact, nothing seems certain until Descartes finds one single point of resilience. His one point of certainty is his own existence. ‘Even if I’m deceived I must exist, even if I doubt at least I must exist,’ he concludes. This is the famous, ‘I think, therefore I am.’
His experience of knowledge and certainty are still with us, profoundly shape us. Descartes also boosts the trend for thinking about things by beginning with me, my thoughts, my experience. The ‘I’ becomes sovereign, and a kind of hopeful new god. We separate ourselves from what our forebears would have assumed, the older guidelines, the medieval structures of experience and knowledge. Descartes himself firmly believes in God, but the scenario he presents means that God can be left alone, be forgotten, apparently be disproved.
It’s an exciting experience, a brave new world. We can be ourselves in a way that others before us just couldn’t. The modern imperative is not to know ourselves, but to make something of ourselves. Freedom no longer means taking your place under God, it means making and enjoying open choices. Reason is not so much about finding harmony with the cosmos, as using the human mind to determine what may and may not be the case.
But these liberties – and they do bring us many valuable things – come at a price. Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest of the modern atheists, understood that. When he has his ‘madman’ announce the death of God, he has the madman also lament: ‘How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?’
This is the modern challenge. It’s the predicament we find ourselves in. It’s as thrilling as it is alarming; as full of potential as disaster. It’s what many sense in our times, whether they worry about ecological meltdown, runaway technologies, biological pandemics, nuclear war. Pondering the implications of modernity has never been more engaging, unsettling, timely.