A Colossus with Feet of Clay

But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that the vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems, which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented (by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction.

Wise were the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on these fateful days of 1978. His immense literary legacy will guide us along this inquiry into the philosophical tenets of Modernity. In order to remain concise, we shall label modern the principles and institutions that gained hegemony from the Enlightenment era on. Often perceived as an irresistible and natural process, as evidenced by the adage move with the times, it is nonetheless a conception of society and human nature whose pillars do not necessarily rest on solid ground. This article will challenge some core assertions and assumptions of the modern word and it will try to present alternative interpretations of life.

            Early Modernity is often labelled the Age of Reason. It is indeed the first time in history where Reason is elevated to the supreme dignity of regulating human rapports. The ability to reason has always been a central component of western philosophy, as evidenced by Aristotelian logic or the writings of Saint Clement of Alexandria, but it was never assumed to be the sole element on which to build society anew. However, from the 17th century and Descartes on, rational self-interested Man replaced the ancient communities as the basic societal unit, drastically shifting the focus of philosophers from an organic view of society to an individualistic one.

            Yet, the first attempts to put those fresh principles into action led to unexpected results, chiefly the horrors committed in France (in the name of Reason itself) against the opponents to the revolutionary regime. Subsequently, every successful revolution since 1789 competed with her predecessor in bringing about an even more ferocious repression, despite proclaiming the liberty, equality or fraternity of all men. The communist regimes exterminated their own people by the millions while the free market fanatics were putting Africa and South America to fire and the sword. Not until the end of the past century did the intellectual world occur to think that the one common trait of these atrocities was not a person, an ethnic group, a structure, an institution or even an ideology.

 It is true that ‘it seems that certain things in this world simply cannot be discovered without extensive experience, be it personal or collective’.[1] But now that we do have this experience, we have to establish a pattern: every revolution or invasion that, in the name of abstract principles, ignored the traditional institutions and state of mind of a people ended in a bloodbath. ‘Revolutions… destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them and fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well. And they take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more’.[2] Though it doesn’t mean that material and economic progress can’t spring out of those traumatic experiences, as the examples of revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia or Pinochet’s Chile show, one needs to be aware that the use of violence is an essential characteristic of modern society and not an accident in spite of it. An acceptance of a society built on rational principles implies an acquiescence to the rational use of violence it makes, including social and moral one.

            On the other hand, one of the great ironies of Modern thought is that it substituted scientific myths to religious myths, inspired by the former, in the name of debunking ‘superstition’. It prompted G. K. Chesterton one of his famous wits: The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. Progress was one of those new secular idols. Postulating an infinite and proportional growth in all domains, our leaders and ideologues fell for the rational human nature chimera, which was to generate unprecedentedly global a turmoil during three centuries. It was not until the end of World War II that it was definitely acknowledged that the accumulation of wealth did not necessarily bring about a fairer or a saner society.

 Starting with Lyotard, the great modern metanarratives were questioned and seriously undermined. Michel Foucault, a leading postmodernist, challenged the very notion of humanism. One can never stay true to the humanistic ideal of emancipation, he argued, as it is an incessant movement of self-modification: the indefinite work of freedom. This is reminiscent of Schumpeter’s creative destruction, used to describe the process of capitalism, and how unrestricted innovation implies never ending ruptures with our way of life. Technology was believed to improve our lives to a degree where we would not need any more transcendental order to submit to, but, according to F. G. Jünger, this is a fundamental misconception about its nature. Technology is rational and cold, it is used to organise an activity and make it more efficient.

However, if this organisation is realised on an unlimited scale, it regulates human life to such an extent that it turns diverse populations into standardising masses. The accumulation of material wealth soon ends up replacing the disinterested longing for interior self-fulfilment. Jünger thus believes that the progressive bias of the modern world, far from emancipating us from our needs, actually submits our being to baser urges and degrades our humanity. Solzhenitsyn concurs: ‘Happiness is a mirage… If we care only about ‘happiness’ and about reproducing our species, we shall merely crowd the earth senselessly and create a terrifying society’.[3]

I think it is fair to conclude that we need continuity and meaning in order to live a fulfilling life; the modern world, due to its inherent weaknesses, simply has not been able to procure us with a non-materialistic Weltanschauung. As Gianbattista Vico observed, Reason doesn’t generate truth, which gives meaning to existence. The possibility of a modern, rational, scientific and absolute truth has been utterly crushed by the works of Gödel, Arrow and the postmodern school. The failure from the latter to suggest a viable alternative society model compels us to resort to more ancient foundations. ‘At the present, in Western society liberties exist by dint of inertia, and not as the result of the principles on which that society was built’.[4] We need to reconnect to these sources of meaning if we ever want to cease being stuck in the Modern impasse and prevent our current failing model from being imposed to non-western traditional societies.

This article was written by Pierre-Thomas Eckert

[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, preface to The Socialist Phenomenon from Igor Shafarevich, 1975.

[2] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, II, 1974.

[3] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, 1966.

[4] Igor Shafarevich, Russophobia, 1982.