212 Modernity on Trial

Fortunately for the general reader, first-rate philosophers (whose scholarly tomes frequently target a select audience) often write more accessible essays, addressing both current issues and perennial truths.  Thus Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish thinker rightly renowned for his magisterial, three-volume Main Currents of Marxism, published a score of short essays in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, c. 1990) that offer serious readers valuable insights into some main intellectual currents of the 20th century.  Whenever an erstwhile Marxist casts a favorable glance as Christianity it makes sense for believers to consider his reasons.   

One fourth of the essays focus “On Modernity, Barbarity, and Intellectuals.”  Strangely enough, a corps of intellectuals has orchestrated the barbarism that has resurfaced during the last three centuries—an  era labeled “modernity.”  Since Kolakowski cannot see how “postmodern” differs from “modern,” he discerns the loss of religion (and loss of taboos) as the primary current in modern (and postmodern) times, leading to “the sad spectacle of a godless world.  It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing—and warning us about—for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday Sermons.  They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good  and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism” (pp. 7-8).  A series of influential, secularizing skeptics prepared the way for the destructiveness of “Nietzsche’s noisy philosophical hammer” (p. 8).  The “intellectuals” responsible for this process were not the scholars—scientists or historians—who “attempt to remain true to the material found or discovered” (p. 36) apart from themselves.  A barbarizing “intellectual” is someone who wishes not “simply to transmit truth, but to create it.  He is not a guardian of the word, but a word manufacturer” (p. 36).  Invariably, such intellectuals are seductive, spinning wondrous tales of utopian vistas.  

To Nihilists such as Nietzsche, truth is illusory.  Consequently, various cultures’ “truths” are equally “true” even if they are obviously contradictory!  Such cultural relativism—declaring all cultures are equal, praising the Aztecs as well as the Benedictines—easily ends in admiration for various forms of what was once judged barbarism.  The sophisticated, scholarly “tolerance” so mandatory in elite universities and journals ends by granting “to others their right to be barbarians” (p. 22).  What we are witnessing is the Enlightenment devouring itself!  In Kolakowski’s judgment:  “In its final form the Enlightenment turns against itself:  humanism becomes a moral nihilism, doubt leads to epistemological nihilism, and the affirmation of the person undergoes a metamorphosis that transforms it into a totalitarian idea.  The removal of the barriers erected by Christianity to protect itself against the Enlightenment, which was the fruit of its own development, brought the collapse of the barriers that protected the Enlightenment against its own degeneration, either into a deification of man and nature or into despair” (p. 30).  

Another fourth of the essays deals with “the Dilemmas of the Christian Legacy,” for modernity’s secularizing process has significantly, if indirectly, shaped much of the Christian world “through a universalization of the sacred,” sanctifying worldly developments as “crystallizations of divine energy.” (p. 68).  The “Christianity” rooted in process theology—as propounded by Teilhard de Chardin for example— envisions universal salvation and unending evolutionary progress.  “In the hope of saving itself, it seems to be assuming the colors of its environment, but the result is that it loses its identity, which depends on just that distinction between the sacred and the profane, and on the conflict that can and often must exist between them” (p. 69).  Kolakowski detects and dislikes what he finds in these circles—“the love of the amorphous, the desire for homogeneity, the illusion that there are no limits to the perfectibility of which human society is capable, immanentist eschatologies, and the instrumental attitude toward life” (p. 69).  

Losing their sense of the sacred, this-worldly philosophies and religions fail to provide any basis for culture.  Indeed:  “With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself” (p. 72).  A rejection of the sacred invites the denial of sin and evil.  

Though not overtly Christian, Kolakowski rejected the atheistic Marxism of his early years and found Christianity the best hope for the world.  “There are reasons why we need Christianity,” he argues, “but not just any kind of Christianity.  We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence.  There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity.  We need a Christianity that will help us move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow a well, and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable” (p. 85).   

Given his critique of modernity, Kolakowski has little patience with the modernist (or liberal) Christianity that focuses on “social justice,” peace, and ephemeral earthly progress—the this-worldly political agenda so routinely proclaimed in some quarters.  “Christianity is about moral evil, malum culpae, and moral evil inheres only in individuals, because only the individual is responsible” (p. 93).  To even speak of “a ‘morally evil’ or ‘morally good’ social system makes no sense in the world of Christian belief” (p. 93).  The hopeless “demythologization” project of modernists such as Bultmann elicits Kolakowski’s erudite refutation, for it was merely a fitful gasp of the irrational skepticism launched centuries ago by Occam and the nominalists, by Hume and the empiricists.  In truth, “there is no way for Christianity to ‘demythologize’ itself and save anything of its meaning.  It is either-or:  demythologized Christianity is not Christianity” (p. 105).  

Demythologized Christianity contradicts itself.  In this respect it’s simply another utopian political ideology.  Having early advocated the Marxist version of utopia, Kolakowski easily detects the many currents of such blissful imagining—popularly expressed in John Lennon’s popular song “Imagine.”  Consider the fantasies of folks who envision a world wherein fraternity is realized, where equality prevails in every realm.  They “keep promising us that they are going to educate the human race to fraternity, whereupon the unfortunate passions that tear societies asunder—greed, aggressiveness, lust for power—will vanish” (p. 139).  Inevitably they establish dictatorships designed to enforce equality.  Allegedly admirable goals—caring for the impoverished and weak—require the abolition of private property and a state controlled economy, the abolition of the free market.  However noble the intentions, however, “the abolition of the market means a gulag society” (p. 167).  

In the name of compassion, giving preferential treatment to various disadvantaged groups, societies easily “retreat into infantilism” (p. 173).  Citizens become dependent, childlike welfare recipients.  The State assumes more and more responsibility to care for everyone’s needs, and we “expect from the State ever more solutions not only to social questions but also to private problems and difficulties; it increasingly appears to us that if we are not perfectly happy, it is the State’s fault, as though it were the duty of the all-powerful State to make us happy” (p. 173).  The State, of course, cannot possibly do this.  Yet this blatantly utopian longing drove some of the most powerful mass movements of the 20th century, most of them Marxist to some degree.  Marx, of course, didn’t envision the gulags that would result from the implementation of his socialistic ideas!  But Lenin and Trotsky were, in fact, faithful to his precepts, installing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that could not but violently pursue its agenda.  “By denouncing the ‘fables about ethics’ and asserting that ethics was to be an instrument of the class struggle, by sneering at bourgeois inventions such as the distinction between aggressive and defensive wars or the principle that one should keep international agreements, by insisting that there are no permissible limits in political struggle—in all these, Lenin did not depart from Marxist principles” (p. 211).  

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Andreas Kinneging holds the Chair in Legal Philosophy at the Law Faculty of the University of Leiden and has collected seventeen of his essays in The Geography of Good and Evil:  Philosophical Investigations (Wilmington, Delaware:  ISI Books, c. 2009).  He joins Kolakowski in condemning modernity for its ethical emptiness.  (T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” inhabiting “The Wasteland” presciently depicted, a century ago, things to come.)  In his Preface he says:  “This book is the work of a convert who once firmly believed in the blessings of modernity and its intellectual sources, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, but at some point suddenly grasped that . . . [what they] brought us constitutes in more than a few respects a decline and a deterioration, instead of progress and improvement.  The author who converted me was Cicero.”  Rather than finding the ancients obsolete, he “perceived that it was not their thinking but ours that is primitive and inadequate.  A complete about-face.  What I had set out to describe as an outmoded worldview was far superior to the new worldview, or views, that had replaced it” (p. vii).   

  This became even more evident to him when he traced the course of classical thought from antiquity through the Middle Ages, for in Augustine and Aquinas he found “that Christianity possessed an understanding of certain essential moral and existential truths that had eluded the Greeks and Romans—even Plato—and that these truths cannot be forgotten without doing great harm to ourselves and the world.  Hence, I came to admire Christianity as an indispensable source of wisdom that can benefit anyone—even the most inveterate atheist” (p. viii).  The thinkers he now admires uphold the objective and universal nature of good and evil; “they are part of the world outside of us.  They cannot be posited but have to be discovered . . . [and] to write about good and evil is to map the geography of good and evil” (p. ix).  Furthermore, these thinkers insist upon the importance of virtue—the ethical integrity of a good conscience inculcated through moral education.  

Importantly, classical thinkers pondered basic questions such as “what is man?”  They focused on basic human realities, including the importance of culture, a word derived from “the Latin colere, which originally meant ‘working the field.’  If the field is not worked, there will be nothing to harvest” (p. 57).  Human beings, like productive fields, must be carefully tended.  “The need for cultivation exists not only for the nonhuman world around us but equally for human nature” (p. 57).  Moral education—instilling virtues—has been largely abandoned in our nihilistic world, but without it our species can hardly survive, much less thrive.  So Kinneging urges us to return to the sources of our tradition, to recover the culture that makes a man, “what Plato called ‘order in the soul’” (p. 59).    

Unlike the light evident in Ancient and Medieval thinkers, there is a “solid darkness” to the 18th century Enlightenment, with its denial of human limits and inclination to sin.  “The Enlightenment doctrine par excellence is the view that evil should not be sought in man but in society—civilization, Christianity, feudalism, property, capitalism, the law, education, the family, and so forth—and that it can therefore be erased by bringing about a better society.  This view forms the basis of what Napoleon once called ‘le terrible esprit de nouveaute,’ a reformist verve that is directed outward, at the world, and not inward, at the soul” (p. 21).  Rather than conform to Reality as given us, reformers endeavor to reshape the world in accord with our desires.  Detached from what is, they easily embrace fantasies as to what might be.  Today’s elites are increasingly ignorant of Classical and Christian thought, especially since “the cultural revolution of the 1960s dealt the deathblow to the tradition” (p. 35).  Yet without that tradition, the heirs of the Enlightenment cannot but turn “man into a barbarian armed with an unprecedented array of weapons, a creature that controls everything except himself” (p. 36).  

This is especially evident whenever social (or communitarian) ethics edge aside personal morality—as if you could shape a healthy physique with diseased organs.  In much of the West today, “Solidarity, care for the weak and the poor, is commonly elevated to the alpha and omega of public morality” (p. 121).  In itself, of course, such compassion is most admirable, but it ignores the truth discerned by classical and Christian ethicists:  “a good society is only possible if large sections of the population have thoroughly internalized certain values, thus turning them into what used to be called virtues” (p. 122).  Social virtues require preexistent personal virtues, and “with the decline in individual virtues, social virtues are also bound to disappear, since the first are the spiritual capital that make the second possible” (p. 123).  What’s needed is a restoration of individual morality, for the “root of the crisis of our time is the thinning out of our moral consciousness, our demoralization” (p. 124).  This has taken place rather dramatically since the 1960s under the influence of the liberalism spawned by 18th century Enlightenment and 19th century Romantic thinkers.  

Convinced that modernity is bankrupt, Kinneging urges us, throughout the book, to go back—ad fonts!  Without a return to the Classical and Christian ethical systems we cannot find establish the justice—giving to each his due—needed in any good society.  “Via Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Roman law, this notion of justice became widely known and accepted in Western thinking.  Curiously enough, however, it is barely mentioned today” (p. 130).  But it must be, because without it we’re consigned to the relativistic, degenerate nihilism evident everywhere.  And to establish justice, “the foundation of morality” (p. 142), we must cultivate the other classical virtues—prudence, fortitude, temperance.  These virtues were early celebrated in the work of Homer, the “educator of Hellas.”  Then skeptical Sophists such as Protagoras promoted relativism and taught (Plato said in Theatetus) that “‘things are to me such as they appear to me, but to you they are such as they appear to you’” (p. 164).  Citing Heraclitus, the Sophists claimed that “‘everything is in motion and that is all there is.’  This means that ‘nothing exists as invariably one, itself by itself, but always comes into being in relation to something, and he category of “being” should be altogether abolished.’  ‘Good’ is not something specific but becomes something, depending on the circumstances.  But ‘if all things are in motion, any answer to any question whatsoever is equally correct’” (p. 164).  Thus there is “the ghost of subjectivism or relativism” at the very “beginning of Western philosophy” (p. 175).  And one need only listen to politicians’ speeches—or students in the classes I recently taught—to realize how such relativism permeates our world.  

Plato, of course, rejected the Sophists’ assertions, holding (with Parmenides) that there is an eternal, unchanging, objective world of Forms or Ideas that we rationally discern.  He thus established “what is sometimes called ‘the onto-theological tradition’ in philosophy, which” Kinneging calls “the classical-Christian tradition” (p. 176).  Plato and his heirs, rather than the Sophists, powerfully shaped Western Civilization for a millennium or so.  Late Medieval Nominalists following Occam, however, rejected Platonic Forms and claimed that “universals” are malleable generalizations summing up sense experiences and the past several centuries of philosophy (running from Descartes through Hume and Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Dewey and Derrida) may be summed up as “a continuous and radicalizing effort to destruct the onto-theological tradition and to affirm Greek Sophism” (p. 177). 

Still, some gifted philosophers strongly affirmed and sought to restore the onto-theological tradition.  Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s “transcendental turn” took him back to a more ancient and medieval perspective.  “As Scheler expressed it once, from a historical point of view phenomenology can be seen as a ‘renewal of an intuitive Platonism’” (p. 183).  Thus Husserl’s concern for Sosein (the essence of a thing) rather than Dasein (the passing hic et nunc of existing things) led him in directions quite different from modernity.  Some of his significant followers—Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Dietrich von Hildebrand—developed the ethical implications of phenomenology, insisting “that the ontological status of ethics is comparable to the ontological status of logic” and “that the principles of ethics cannot be reduced to the subject—whether empirical or transcendental—but, instead, constitute an objective eidetical sphere, an a priori moral order within the order of being” (p. 185).  Ethical truths, like geometric truths, are found within the ultimate structure of being, not within the perspectives of finite persons. 

Among other ancient goods Kinneging urges us to recover is the traditional family, “the rock on which society was built” (p. 198).  Clearly things have gone wrong with family life for nearly half-a-century, so much so that “at the beginning of the twenty-first century the traditional idea of the family has completely lost its hold on the minds—and hearts—of most Westerners” (p. 208).  Indeed, the “nuclear family is crumbling” (p. 196), and nearly one-third of today’s population live in single households.   Though various “material factors” help explain the familial disintegration, at bottom the problem is philosophical, because the “world is ruled by ideas and little else” (p. 201).  “The crisis of the nuclear family is to a large extent the result of the emergence—in the ‘70s—of a number of Romantic notions regarding marriage and family, including the notion that only love justifies the institution.  These relate first to sexual gratification, second to Romantic merging, and third to self-fulfillment” (p. 201).  The joy of sex “became endowed with a cosmic dignity, while its harm, even demonic aspect was trivialized” (p. 201).  Becoming “one flesh,” as Christians always envisioned, gave way to an ethereal mystical union, finding one’s “soul-mate,” experiencing a semi-divine mystical union.  “To the Romantics love in the sense of la grande passion is ideally ‘eternal.’  In reality the romantic notion of love guarantees that this ‘eternal bond’ will last a few months at most” (p. 225).  And, finally, marriage in the ‘70s became a vehicle whereby one finds self-fulfillment, realizing his or her own potential rather than sacrificing for another’s good.  

Kinneging resolutely defends patriarchy!  “Matrimony is hierarchical:  the man is the head of the household.  He rules over his wife and children, ‘[b]ecause the male is by nature better suited to lead than the female, and the older and more educated person is better suited than the younger and less educated one,’ as Aristotle puts it” (p. 211).  This is not to justify tyrannical rule, however, for the man must rule wisely and well.  The woman’s “place is in the home, but in that home she is mistress, not servant” (p. 211).  Our ancient sources—the Bible, Greek literature—portray “exemplary marriages” wherein “the wife is not portrayed as any less intelligent or reasonable than her husband” (p. 212).    The man may “lead,” but such leadership entails protecting and serving his wife and children.  Unlike Romantic illusions and aspiration regarding love as an ecstatic  feeling, “the traditional concept of marriage and family emphasizes the mutual responsibilities of husband and wife, the duties or all concerned toward each other” (p. 223).