What should we make of modernity?

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.

2. Technology

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.

3) Liberalism

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.

4) Bureaucracy

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.

5) Philosophy

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.

6) History

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!

12 Responses

  1. Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking post, Boland.

    However, I would place the origins of the Enlightenment more than a hundred years earlier. Its leading ideas are already at work in Montaigne, Descartes and Pascal.

    In a much misunderstood passage, Pascal goes some way to anticipating the anti-rationalism of Kant

    “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we do not dream, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses [Le cœur sent] that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, [Les principes se sentent, les propositions se concluent] all with certainty, though in different ways.”

    He saw clearly enough that a priori proofs suppose knowledge of fundamental natures which science has not yet discerned, and induction from phenomena often under-determines the theoretical solution. Hence his rejection of metaphysics.

    This might seem the polar opposite of Descartes’s rationalism; what united them is the way they both appeal to immediate experience.

    People look for the origins of the Enlightenment in the wrong place – the Philosophes; in fact, the seminal ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly its empiricism, were already current in the circle of Descartes, Pascal, Fermat, Roberval, Mersenne, and Gassendi.

  2. I’ll have to confine my remarks to history and politics, for fear of exposing my vast ignorance of science and philosophy.

    You say that the Enlightenment represented an “alien ethos” as compared with premodern Christendom, but the inescapable fact is that the Enlightenment happened in Christian countries and not in, say, China or the Ottoman Empire. This was not a coincidence. Modernity is more deeply indebted to the Christian tradition than either reactionaries or atheists would care to admit. To take just one example, the notion of a separation of Church and State followed directly from the distinction made between Church and State and their respective functions in traditional Catholic theology – a notion which has no counterpart in, for example, Islamic thought. From the other side, the great counterrevolutionary cause was absolute monarchy on the French model, and I would argue that this very specific form of government (as opposed, say, the mediaeval model of kingship, which was quite different) represented a departure from the historic Christian tradition.

    You affirm that, in terms of responses to political liberalism, rejection is the “the only one [the Catholic Church] could possibly give”. But, as I never tire of saying, it is a historical fact that many Catholics, including senior hierarchs, disagreed with this from the outset. As it happens, the counterrevolutionary view prevailed in the Vatican – though it was already being watered down as early as Leo XIII – but it didn’t have to be that way. The mistake that trads make is that they portray a policy choice as if it were a dogmatic principle. They uncritically accept the view put forward in 19th century reactionary texts, a view that was highly controversial among Catholics even at the time. The question is whether, in making the rejectionist choice, the Church was being more faithful to her mission than if she had simply accepted that the world had changed.

  3. Since you are an assistant professor, Bonald, I presume you are presently “sheltered” from university “service.” But the day will come when you are sitting on, say, the Committee on Committees (my personal favorite), and you will loose your faith in the efficiency of bureaucracy. If you want efficient decision making, go with autocracy.

    Think of it this way: you’re driving in a car with your family. As the driver, you’re an autocrat, making hundreds of decisions very efficiently. Then the time comes to decide where you are going to eat lunch and the car becomes a committee, or even a mini-bureaucracy. The kids get to decide what kind of food you’ll eat; your wife gets to decide how much you can spend; and you get to decide which restaurants are accessible. In my experience, these deliberations take about twenty minutes. Imagine if you had to place before the passengers a motion to apply the brakes!

    The ostensible point of a bureaucracy is not efficient decision making; it is impersonal decision making. To give another example from the academic world, consider the “tenure review process,” possibly the most inefficient decision making procedure on earth. A fair and conscientious autocrat could make these decisions in a day or two. And this would be the normal cases. Extremely good and poor candidates could be decided in an hour or so. But bureaucracy turns this into at least five hundred hours of work stretched over the better part of a year, without any improvement to the decision (which is, after all, only yes or no).

    Our great fear when it comes to autocrats is that they will not be fair and conscientious. I think we can set aside the question of conscientiousness, since autocrats tend to be much more conscientious than bureaucrats. The autocrat is responsible for the decision, whereas the bureaucrat is responsible only for his part of the decision making process. So what it really comes down to is fairness. We expect a bureaucracy to treat us just like everyone else; and this is, indeed, what bureaucracies do. They are impersonal.

    But of course the impersonal character of bureaucracy is also why we hate them. “I’m not a number” is a cry of protest that arises from the depths of our souls. This is Weber’s “iron cage” of rationalism, and I think every reactionary has to hate it.

  4. I had to smile at this. Administrative bureaucracy was one of my bugbears when I was in the academic world. I once tried to suggest to a German professor that it would save a lot of time to adopt the Führerprinzip, but I’m not sure he saw the joke.

  5. Hi JMSmith,

    Not as sheltered as I’d like to be! I’ve been running the colloquia for two years, and now I’m on the Graduate Admissions Committee as well.

    Let me revise my statement on bureaucracy, because you’ve convinced me that impersonality really was a thing pursued for its own sake, rather than for efficiency. Still, for any very organization with very complicated tasks, it seems that meritocracy at the top and rigid, explicit procedures at the bottom is going to be hard to get away from completely. I wouldn’t want a single college dictator, having no expert help in gathering or judging data about candidates, to make hiring or promotion decisions. Decisions might be “efficient” as in fast, but not “efficient” as in best outcome for least input. Successful dictators have an army of data-crunching underlines, and they have rules for when things are to be brought to their attention or handled lower down, so bureaucracy isn’t really evaded. It does mean that there’s some real authority and responsibility on top, which is a good thing.

  6. ” Successful dictators have an army of data-crunching underlines, and they have rules for when things are to be brought to their attention or handled lower down”

    This is very different to our impersonal procedure, however.

    In one we have the dictator (or whoever is on top) failing to delegate authority. Instead he invests authority in an algorithm of his design and uses those below him as robot to perform the processing. Thus, those close to the problem have no, or little, ability to bring their own personal wisdom to bear on the situation.

    On the other hand, with delegated authority, those below make personal decisions, within their delegated area, as to how best to proceed. Yes, sometimes they push the problem up, but never is the character of the final decision itself impersonal. The authority granted to each level is also now coupled with real responsibility: nobody can hide behind a procedure they did not write.

    This is still bureaucracy, just not as we tend to know it. Our dictator concentrates on deciding how to break up his enterprise and choosing wisely who shall work beneath him in it rather than trying to do the impossible task of thinking through every decision for himself. Thus, he really does have an army of experts to guide and help him, rather than using just his own abilities.

    Perhaps the difference between a wise dictatorship and our ‘fair’ procedure driven bureaucracies is that only with the dictatorship does anyone other than the top of the hierarchy get any role that involves making decisions for themselves.

  7. I can see the point of bureaucracy in answering a complex question, such as how to build an airliner or how to fight a war. And I can see the point of consulting experts, provided there are true experts. But what impresses me in modernity is the way that bureaucracy has become a universal administrative tool. One mark of this is the endless proliferation of bogus experts, who have fancy credentials but do not, on average, make better decisions than an amateur would make, if he were entrusted with the decision.

    I, too, would worry if my Dean wielded dictatorial power. But I see that, having built bureaucratic structures to protect ourselves from the malice of our enemies, we find ourselves in a world were no one can effectively be our friend.

  8. Bureaucracy can be autocratic; one has only to think of the Napoleonic préfet (the successor of the Royal Intendants of the ancien régime) What distinguishes bureaucratic government is that the bureaucrat has no personal power, no constituency, like an elected official or personal support like a feudal noble.

    In the academic sphere, an example would be the Regius Professor, appointed by the Crown, on the advice of the Prime Minister and owing nothing to support within the University.

  9. Modernity may have gone metastatic in the 18th century, but I think the tumor had been growing for centuries before that. In fact I see royal absolutism as a Hobbesian perversion of the proper Christian conception of man, and an early prefiguration of the totalitarian impulse in modern politics, briefly suppressed only because the moderns came to find temporal authority as suffocating as the Church authority they’d set up absolutism to smash in the first place.

  10. Royal absolutism was merely the application of the obvious notion that, in every state, there must be some person, or body of persons, that can make and unmake any law whatsoever.

    It is a staple of Roman jurisprudence, both republican and imperial and fundamental to the Byzantine polity, but the insight was lost in those parts of Europe, where customary law replaced the written law – it is no accident that Bodin, credited with popularising the notion, studied and taught law at Toulouse, in the heart of the “pays de droit écrit.”

    In the sixteenth century, proponents of sovereignty stressed its impartible character – The sovereign could not bind his successors by grants of jurisdiction to feudatories, cities or provinces and he, or his successors could always resume their grants.

    James VI & I is full of it, influenced, as he was, by Scottish civilians. Cardinal Richelieu embraced it as the guiding principle of his policy of granting religious tolerance to Huguenots, whilst attacking their claim to corporate rights and in seeking to curb the powers of the nobility.

    Rousseau was to use the same argument, in support of popular sovereignty. In this, he was following Suarez.and the Salamanca School.

    It is no accident that Meiji Japan and the Turkish Republic both adopted the Civil Law, borrowing European civil codes to replace customary or religious ones. The United States, by contrast, has a system based, for the most part on customary Common Law, although, paradoxically, one of the greatest civilians of the early 19th century was the American, Louis Moreau Lislet, the draughtsman, along with James Brown of Kentucky, of Louisiana’s civil code.

  11. “Modernity is more deeply indebted to the Christian tradition than either reactionaries or atheists would care to admit.”

    I’m an atheist, and I ALWAYS emphasize this. Of course, I’m an atheist radical right-winger (I reject the term “conservative”). There aren’t many like me out there…yet. In fact, my rejection of Christianity is rooted in my rejection of egalitarianism, democracy, liberalism, progressivism, etc.

    But you’re right, most secular leftists and Christian reactionaries don’t like admitting this fundamental truth.

  12. Proph: I think absolutisms must be distinguished. Filmer’s theory is not the same as Hobbes,’ and I think is able to conserve limited subsidiarity. As a (soon to be) Catholic, I think the papacy provides a gracious check on royal power that allows the monarch freedom within his sphere of responsibility. Ultimately, this spiritual oversight will–if submitted to–preserve temporal kingdoms longer in the Kingdom. I’d be interested in hearing yours and others’ thoughts on this matter.

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