Modernity’s Darkness, Distinctness, and Technology

It is truly gratifying to be part of such a stimulating conversation. I have a number of questions that spring to mind from points made in its course or which come out of works that the participants have previously published. One that Jason Kuznicki poses and Jack Goldstone responds to is that of the dark side of modernity. This has been analyzed and theorized by a number of thinkers, notably Foucault, who he mentions. One could also refer to people such as Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jacques Ellul, or Neil Postman. The modern world has brought huge benefits and betterment of conditions to literally billions of people, compared to what has gone before but it has also seen domination and oppression on a scale never seen before. One argument is to see this as the triumph of bad ideas, another is to say that many of the features of modernity, such as the new technologies that innovation has created, are morally neutral and give greater power to human beings to use for good or ill.

There is however a more troubling question, which Kuznicki alludes to and which the thinkers listed all explored in various ways. Is the dark side of modernity an essential and necessary concomitant of its benevolent face? In particular, does the rationalism of the modern world and the sweeping away of traditional practices and institutions, whether by spontaneous forces no longer checked or by deliberate action by rulers (even through such mundane and apparently harmless actions as the drawing up of cadastral maps) mean that the dark coercive side of the modern is in some sense inescapable?

Kuznicki also explores an aspect of something Jack Goldstone emphasised very strongly, which is the intellectual rift between the modern world and its antecedents. The aspect is the way in which modern political and intellectual discourse departs significantly and even radically from that of the Christian or classical past. The example he gives is that of equality and this is indeed one of the main differences. We can truly say that we are all egalitarians now in a very real sense. The idea of degree and hierarchy, which was so centrally important in the past, is now an alien one and almost nobody is now going to make a frank and seriously argued case for the importance of social hierarchy and distinction on principled grounds, or to criticise the idea of legal equality. A reading of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida would show how alien and dangerous and above all unnatural, such notions seemed at that time.

Another instance, which Anthony Pagden pointed to, is secularism and the possibility of a secular and non-transcendent way of thinking about the world. As I said I personally support the idea put forward by Lucien Febvre that it was nearly impossible for someone who was educated to be an unbeliever because to adopt a secular view meant to throw over all knowledge and so live in a world that no longer made sense. (The other side of this was that unbelief was paradoxically easier for the uneducated). Yet another feature of this division is the steady growth of both the idea and reality of the private and the increasing privileging of the private over the public. This is seen both in everyday life and in the movement into the private of matters such as religious belief and observance and sexual conduct and familial order, both once seen as quintessentially public matters. Apart from the issue of how to evaluate this, the big question of course is that of how and why such a revolution in attitudes and political order happened. It won’t do to see it simply as inevitable or predetermined, I would argue.

Another obvious question that arises from the big topic of modernity and its origins is that of how this fits in with the story or relations between Europe and the rest of the world since at least the sixteenth century, given the way modernity (whatever dates one gives it) clearly first appears in Europe. This is precisely the area where Anthony Pagden is the great authority. The interesting question, which he has explored, is that of how the world as a whole and their relationship to the rest of it was conceived of by Europeans, and in particular how different groups of Europeans came up with different ways of thinking about this. One question is that of how to compare Europeans’ thinking in this area to that of other civilisations, particularly the Chinese and Islamic. Another is the other side of the story, the interplay and transmission of ideas from one part of the world to another. There is a great book to be written for example about the way the Jesuit order came both to conceive of the world in a novel way and to transmit various ideas back into Europe from other parts of the world, above all from China.

The final question that comes to my mind is that of technology and the kind of engineering civilisation that Jack Goldstone describes and identifies. (One question is that of the relation between this and the dark side of modernity in both practical and intellectual terms. The predilection of engineers for totalitarian political ideologies in the twentieth century is an interesting but also alarming subject). Too many historians (I obviously exclude him from this) seem to see technology and engineering as an exogenous force in social history, a literal deus ex machina. The difficult and interesting problem now is that of how to explain not so much the rapidity and constancy of technological innovation in the modern world as of their slowness and intermittent quality in most of human history. What exactly were the forces that did this and how did they work? Particularly interesting are cases such as China, where there is rapid and extensive innovation at some times, most notably under the Song and yet other periods where this stops or even goes into reverse. The sudden decline of technological innovation there after the later fourteenth century is one that has taxed a generation of sinologists and there is still no truly satisfactory explanation I would say.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • How the World Got Modern by Stephen Davies

    In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephen Davies tackles one of the biggest of big questions: How did the world we live in – the modern world – so radically and rapidly diverge from the world of our pre-modern ancestors? Davies starts with a multitude of proposed explanations and winnows them down to three: the advent of empirical science and engineering, a shift in cultural attitudes toward commerce and trade, and the development of the Westphalian system of nation-states. Yet these factors emerged over a century before modernity really took off. Why the lag? Davies argues that the missing ingredient was the unique climate of competition among ruling elites in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which combined with the other elements to produce the scientific innovation and economic growth that created the modern world.

Response Essays

  • How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity by Jack Goldstone

    In his reply to Stephen Davies’ lead essay, Jack Goldstone argues that modernity was launched when “elites developed a new ‘engineering culture’ ” that departed sharply from European tradition. In order to gain from the commercial application of new knowledge by private entrepeneurs, Goldstone argues, political rulers were led to allow non-conformity with traditional religious authority and to “give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities.” These developments helped overturn older ideas of absolute royal authority and guild privelege, which in turn contributed to the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and a decisive break from prior Western conceptions of society. Though the liberal idea of “a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state” arose first in the West, political and economic liberalization do not require a commitment to pre-modern Western values, Goldstone concludes.

  • Have We Ever Been Modern? by Anthony Pagden

    In his reply, UCLA historian Anthony Pagden doubts that the historical discontinuity created by the onset of modernity is “as sudden or as all-pervasive” as Stephen Davies makes it out to be. Pagden points both to much earlier and more recent changes that seem at least as dramatic as the changes between modern and pre-modern Europe, and he questions Davies’ revised periodization of history. Pagden agrees that the emergence of the scientific method partly accounts for “the rise of the West,” but “then we have to ask ourselves why it was that Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, etc. were not Chinese or Mughal or Iranian or Arab.” Pagden submits that the answer is “the advent of secularism” following the post-Reformation sectarian wars, which drove “theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere.”

  • A Little Late to Early Modernity by Jason Kuznicki

    In his reply to Davies, Cato Unbound’s own Jason Kuznicki worries that the alleged gap between the beginning of distinctively modern thinking in the late 17th century and the economic and demographic takeoff in the late eighteenth century is no gap at all. “I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap,” Kuznicki writes, “and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities … a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them.” Kuznicki notes that new ideas spread unevenly and over time, and he argues that the early emergence of upwardly mobile English and Dutch middle classes imply that “[i]f there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial.” Kuznicki suggests that, pace Davies, elites and their new ideas did not precipitate the rise of modernity, but played an intermediate role. Kuznicki challenges Davies to clarifiy “what exactly the elites are doing” in his story.

The Conversation