What do we mean to say that we, or the Church, should or shouldn’t “come to terms” with the modern world? Well, first of all, what do we mean by “modern”. The standard historical division says that “modern” times began around 1500, and supposedly reactionaries think that that’s when things started going to pot. If you read the original reactionaries though, especially Chateaubriand, Maistre and Bonald, their idea of the “greatest of centuries” wasn’t the thirteenth; it was the seventeenth. The real division, I think, comes around 1750-1800. Before that time, the civilization of Christendom was evolving from its own internal drives. After that, a new civilization, Western civilization, comes to the fore, and the remains of Christendom mostly just react to this new dominant force. The Reformation, the scientific revolution, and royal absolutism were all movements within Christendom; the Enlightenment was the incursion of an alien ethos. So, modernity is all that stuff that’s happened since 1750.
1. Natural Science
Some reactionaries think modern science is flawed in its philosophical foundations. I don’t see that myself. Naturalism–the assumption that the natural world is all there is–is a philosophical error, but it seems like the one case when it wouldn’t get you in trouble when the natural world is what you’re actually studying. In fact, I would think that more reactionaries would be appreciative of natural science because it’s the one thing we moderns are doing that we’re better at than the pre-moderns. I rather pride myself on having joined up in modernity’s one definite worthwhile endeavor, the one thing where we’re building rather than tearing down, and we’re making a definite gift to posterity. Humanity has been enriched by relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, big bang cosmology, and the like.
One worry that some have is that by holding science in such high esteem, we will empower some group of scientists to call themselves the voice of Science and impose their will upon the world. That certainly would be something to resist, and it would definitely be fraudulant. There is no Science; there are only scientists. Scientists make no pretense of being infallible. Instead, we deliberately throw out a bunch of probably wrong ideas, trusting that the truth will come out on top in the resulting inquiry. We throw together whatever reckless assumptions we need to make to have a tractable model, and then assumptions are refined when the evidence demands it. It’s not a straight path to the truth, but it usually gets there eventually. I find it very hard to believe that any significant number of my colleagues would engage in conspiracies to suppress truths from the public.
I like most of it, but we are too uncritical. Even most reactionaries assume that when a new technology makes it possible to do something not intrinsically immoral more effectively or cheaply, this technology should be allowed if not embraced. That was certainly once my opinion, before I read The Riddle of Amish Culture and encountered for the first time a rational response to technological innovation. The Amish are not silly or superstitious. They don’t imagine that there are little demons hiding inside the hoods of automobiles. But they don’t embrace technology unthinkingly like we do. They have a way of life that they want to maintain, so when some new technique presents itself, they ask what it’s effect will be on the social structure. Is it harmless, or will it weaken virtue or community cohesion? Efficiency is subordinate to social preservation. Now, the Amish are trying to maintain a very particular agrarian way of life, and perhaps this has made their very extreme in their exclusions. Maintaining a more diverse and flexible society might allow more leeway in allowing technologies. Still, the Amish are asking the right question. It’s one we should be asking.
As a reactionary, I think that the principles of modern political philosophy–the social contract, procedural neutrality, democracy, freedom of speech, separation of Church and State–are misguided and should be rejected. It seems to me that the Chuch has already “come to terms” with democratic liberalism by rejecting it and explaining what is wrong with it. In fact, I would say that conservatism is the Church’s response to modernity, the only one she could possibly give.
Behind democracy and liberalism, perhaps the deeper current driving the others, is the march toward Weberian rationalism. I wouldn’t reject bureaucracy categorically. It is very efficient, and I imagine there are many cases where its efficiency can be tapped without injuring the social order. In this sense, I would say that we should treat modern organizational methods as forms of technology and treat them the way I recommended we treat technology. We can only use this technology, though, if we have a way of keeping it in its place. We may not risk letting it extend itself into an attack on traditional structures. Experts and civil servants must be kept in their place beneath fathers and priests. How to do this, given the incredible power of rationalized bureaucracy, is a great challenge.
Here’s one where reactionaries radically disagree. What should we make of post-scholastic (and post-Cartesian/post-Liebnitzian) philosophy? Is it a good thing like science to be embraced, a bad think like democracy to be rejected, or a mixed thing like technology, so that the good must be disentangled from the bad. I think most Thomists would say that modern philosophy is junk, and we should just chuck it. I agree that there’s very little worthwhile in the French Enlightenment, in positivism, in Marxism, in psychoanalysis, in post-modernism, and the like. These movements must be critiqued and debunked to protect souls, but we don’t expect to learn anything worthwhile in the process. However, I think that German idealism, Kant and Hegel especially, have made permanent contributions (mixed with their errors) which we must confront and from which we may profit. Hegel especially, in his Philosophy of Right, has done important work in laying down the theoretical foundations of a conservative social order. Like many Christians, I also have a soft spot for the early-20th century phenomenologists, especially the great value ethicist Dietrich von Hildebrand.
We should be grateful to have more facts about ancient times and faraway civilizations at our disposal than people in any past age have had. On the other hand, there is less historical understanding than ever before, because people are unable to set aside their modernist worldview long enough to really grasp how earlier ages saw the world. Past ages may have lacked a lot of information about the past (and a lot of the information they did have was wrong), but they had this spiritual connection that let them see deeper into the psyche of their ancestors than the modern historian–rich in data but bounded by prejudices–can manage. A reactionary historian working in the scientific/archaeological world of today, though? Imagine the possibilities!
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