April 10, 2010


A Characterization of Modernity

Modernity, like individualism, is a socio-politico-economic phenomenon that gradually began after the Middle Ages subsided and the Enlightenment values and promise of “progress” through reason, science, and technology began to propagate in Europe. (Caution should be taken that there are distinctions between the terms “modern age/era”, “modernity”, and “modernism”. While these terms are essentially inter-related, they are conceptually distinguished.) The shift that was caused after the atrophy of the Church and socio-economico-political institutions of the Middle Ages called for a new system to supersede the old in Europe.

Modernity is not a cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art product, latest trend of some sort, or the like. Modernity is a paradigm shift in human thinking and human relations that ushered in the advent of modern science, technology, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. This shift in human thinking and relations produced unprecedented socio-economico-political conditions that have drastically restructured our lives. Fundamentally, modernity is our post-traditional way of being; modernity is the post-Medieval consciousness that has left no human institutions untouched in the Western societies. And, scholars are of the conviction that the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650)which created a dualism between mind and body, and had a purely mechanistic view of the universewas a zygote of this new consciousness.

This article is an attempt to briefly characterize the complex phenomenon of modernity through Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment”, Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts of “passion” and “despair”, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “death of God”, and Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”.

Franz Kafka and Max Weber

§1. Disenchantment

Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist and one of the first major scholars who systematically examined the phenomenon of modernity, suggested that the Middle Ages, with all its disquietude, was somehow enchanted (from Latin incantāre, i.e., in [“affected by”] + cantāre [“to sing”]; defined as “to attract and delight” or “to charm”). Notwithstanding all the discontent and cruelty extant in the Medieval era, Weber felt that generally there was something qualitatively human about the age. Life of a meager serf meant something in the grand scheme of things. Everything under the sun signified a purpose and had an aspect of sacredness. Or, to employ the eloquent terms coined by Martin Buber, “I-Thou”, as opposed to “I-It”, mode of relations characterized the human relations and the relation between man and nature. In contrast, Weber thought that the modern Western societies have lost, to borrow Buber’s concepts again, the “I-thou” mode of relations, which have been supplanted with the “I-It” mode of relating to one another and to the world of nature. There have been objectification and degradation of “thou” into “it”.

This is the “disenchantment” (and impersonalizing force) of the modernity, according to Weber. Fundamentally, what has taken place is that, quantitative—as opposed to qualitative—relations have become the dominant norms since the rise of science, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. According to Weber, this is a world where scientific understanding has primacy over belief, where technology is believed to do away with the socio-economic problems, and hence where social processes are instrumentally quantified (akin to physics quantifying the objective qualities of objects) and ratio-nalized toward desired goals. Accordingly, the modern consciousness has undermined the traditional values (which are not quantifiable). The decline of the traditional valueswhich previously accorded Medieval Europeans a sense of purpose and social order—called for a new set of values (hence, rules and procedures) to bring about a new social order. The modern life is infused with rules and procedures, which are often indifferently and apathetically followed machinelike.

One can consider how robotically the modern man, as depicted in Franz Kafka’s works, follows rules and procedures from the moment he wakes up every morning: conforming to his morning routines with a clock hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, dragging himself to the workplace where he is faced with additional rules and procedures, and then dealing with the impersonal, bureaucratic institutions that generally reject or sanction him if he does not conform to their particular set of rules and procedures. Weber’s understanding of modernity entails rationalization and bureaucratization of the modern lifestyles and social institutions. The modern consciousness relates to itself and to others by standardizing, proceduralizing, reifying, and quantifying them—making them predictable. Modernity is a state of being whereby life is principally and disenchantingly lived in terms of standards, procedures, quantities, and bureaucracies—many of which are blindly unperceptive or intentionally disregardful to the ever-changing human conditions.

It is important to understand modernity and the concept of “disenchantment” within a proper historical context. In this context, the roles of traditional values on the one hand and the development of the sciences and their revolutionary discoveries on the other hand are quite significant. According to philosopher W. T. Jones:

“For the men of the Middle Ages the world was created by a supremely good power for the discipline of man, with a view to his salvation. Since the medieval men believed that God had created everything for this purpose, they held that the way to explain anything was to show how it promotes this end. The result was that medieval science was teleological in form. And since, of course, the underlying purpose was that of the one supreme and totally good God, the medieval sciences all pointed beyond themselves to religion. The universe was a vast sacerdotal system: It had no meaning or value in itself; its importance lay in the role it played—partly symbol, partly stage-set—in the drama of man’s salvation. Everything meant something beyond itself in this religious drama. Nothing was simply what it was. A tree was not merely a tree, a bird was not merely a bird; a footprint in the sand was not merely a footprint—they were all signs, just as the particular footprint Robinson Crusoe saw was a sign to him that he was not alone on the island. And what was true of the rest of the created universe was true of man. He was not merely man; he was a child of God. And his supreme task was to get back into that right relation with God that his first parent had lost.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, beliefs gradually changed. The one supremely important vertical relationship of man to God, which absorbed all the attention of men of the Middle Ages, was eventually replaced by a network of horizontal relations connecting every individual to his social and physical milieu. For modem men, the good life no longer consists in achieving a right relation with God, but in effecting an efficient relation with one’s fellow men.

“In this respect the modern view is similar to the classical [i.e., classical Greece], but there are also important differences. For the classical mind, the universe, if not sacerdotal, was at least teleological. If the classical mind did not conceive of everything as worshiping God, it at least conceived of all things as subserving some purpose and aiming at some good. Hence, for the classical mind, as for the medieval, purpose was the primary mode of explanation. In contrast—and as a result of the success of the new physics, which was rigorously nonteleological in orientation—the modern mind became hostile to the use of purpose as an explanatory principle.

“The modern mind also came, eventually, to differ from both the medieval mind and the classical mind in its attitude toward values. It never occurred to the medieval mind that values might not be objectively real. Although it certainly occurred to the Greek Sophists that values are merely the ways individuals feel about things, Plato’s and Aristotle’s reaffirmation of objectivity was for the most part accepted. The fact that men of the classical period and the Middle Ages agreed that values are objectively real is connected, of course, with the teleological conception of the universe that they shared. If the purpose anything subserves gives it value, and if purposes are objective, values will be objective. Anything will be good (really good, apart from some individual’s feeling about it) insofar as it consciously or unconsciously realizes its purpose; anything will be bad insofar as it fails to accomplish its purpose. The same consideration also yields a hierarchy of goods, for values can be compared in terms of the relative height and significance of the purposes they subserve.

“It follows that, in abandoning the teleological conception of the universe, the modern mind abandoned this easy way of establishing the objectivity of value. Moreover, modern men did not merely abandon the teleological conception of the universe; gradually they substituted for it a conception of the universe that seemed incompatible with the objectivity of values. This is, of course, the conception of the universe as a vast set of facts—facts that are indifferent to men’s values, facts that no one planned with any end in view but that just happen to stand in the sorts of spatiotemporal relations that can be ascertained by the techniques of modern science.

“The role that scientific instruments came to play in the accession of factual knowledge had an important bearing on this development. Where would astronomy be without the telescope? biology without the microscope? But these instruments, which have led to the discovery of innumerable astronomical and biological facts, throw no light at all on values. When a scientist dissects a corpse in a laboratory, he finds no evidence of the courage or magnanimity the living man displayed. Nor do microscopes or telescopes reveal God or Freedom or immortality. As long as men believe that these instruments give them the whole truth about the universe, it is difficult for them also to believe that God, freedom, and immortality, courage, justice, and piety are objective realities. It is difficult, that is, for them not to assume that what the instruments reveal—the facts in their spatiotemporal relations—is reality, and that what the instruments do not reveal—the soul, the forms, and the values that classical and medieval minds conceived to be constituent elements in the universe—is merely subjective feeling.” (A History of Western Philosophy III, 2nd edition)

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard

§2. Passion and Despair

Danish philosopher Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had his own peculiar way of characterizing modernity (a term that might had been an anachronism in his time). He insisted that we lack “passion” (cf. Weber’s “disenchantment”) in our lives. The word “passion”—which is popularly mistaken for “obsession” or “fanaticism”—is etymologically derived from the Latin word patī, meaning “to suffer”, which is in turn derived from the Greek word páschein (πάσχειν), meaning “to suffer”, hence, “The passion of Christ”. Passion or lack thereof is a major theme in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. In his The Present Age, he writes:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection [cf. Weber’s “rationalization”], without passion. . . . In fact, one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

To emphasize the significance of passion, Kierkegaard makes a curious contrast between a Christian and a pagan in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. First, he portrays the Christian who formulaically and with great “objectivity” worships—as a matter of course—the one and only true God. Next, he depicts the pagan who inwardly and with “all the passion of infinity” worships—as a matter of infinite commitment—an idol that we know is undoubtedly false. Then, he inquires, “[W]here, then, is there more truth?” In a witty manner, he concludes, “The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.” The essential distinction between the two men is that the Christian’s worship is a matter of what (i.e., quantitative/rationalized), while the pagan’s worship is a matter of how (i.e., qualitative/passionate). As is prevalent in the present age, the Christian lacks a “qualitative” state of being.

Kierkegaard construed the modern age as an overconfident age that thinks it knows it all. He felt the moderners’ complacency, overweening pride, and false sense of security—need to be threatened, for they, as he put it in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “have forgotten what it means to exist”. He contended, “[E]xistence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion.”

Kierkegaard also signalizes the modern age with “despair”. In his The Sickness unto Death, he portentously warns:

“[T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself. . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Moderners, Kierkegaard thought, suffer from despair even when they are not aware of it. Later, in the book, he idiosyncratically expresses that actual despair is the sickness in which one experiences “the hopelessness of not even being able to die”—even when one wishes it! In a very profound but discombobulating manner, he writes:

“This concept, the sickness unto death, must, however, be understood in a particular way. Literally it means a sickness of which the end and the result are death. . . . [However,] Christianly understood, death itself is a passing into life. Thus, from a Christian point of view, no earthly, physical sickness is the sickness unto death, for [physical] death is indeed the end of the [physical] sickness, but [physical] death is not the end [from a Christian point of view]. If there is to be any question of a sickness unto death in the strictest sense, it must be a sickness of which the end is death and death is the end. This is precisely what despair is.

“But in another sense despair is even more definitely the sickness unto death. Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

The preceding passage epitomizes the fall of the human spirit or the lack of passion in the modern age. The modern state of being is despair, for what is worse than death? What is worse than forgetting how to exit? Ironically, the cure for this despair, metaphorically speaking, is to die!

Friedrich Nietzsche

§3. Death of God

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) dramatically characterized modernity by his provocative and often misunderstood concept of “death of God”. In a picturesque aphorism, entitled “The Madman”, Nietzsche, with an acute sense of despair and hope, writes:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ —As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? . . . Thus they yelled and laughed.

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? . . . Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? . . . Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“‘How shall we comfort ourselves . . . What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; . . . ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. . . . Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.’

“. . . ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’” (Gay Science, book three, 125)

“Death of God”, either as a concept or as an event (metaphorically presented), has far-reaching, inexhaustible repercussions and implications in many spheres of human endeavor: values, morality, Christianity, culture, society, economics, politics, history, and so on. The death of God intimates the death of our belief in God or even the impossibility of belief in God (either as a conscious or subconscious impossibility).

“Who are we anyway? If we simply called ourselves . . . godless, or unbelievers, or perhaps immoralists, we do not believe that this would even come close to designating us: We are all three in such an advanced stage that one . . . [can hardly] comprehend how we feet at this point. Ours is no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom. We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine; even by human standards it is not rational, merciful, or just. We know it well: the world in which we live is ungodly, immoral, ‘inhuman’; we have interpreted it far too long in a false and mendacious way, in accordance with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs.” (Gay Science, book five, 346)

Nietzsche’s concept of death of God is inextricably intertwined with his diagnosis of the fundamental problem of the modern era, namely, the “crisis of values”. The death of God is expressive of the fact that, the traditional values are on their way out. He was convinced that the collapse of traditional values will lead to despair, devastation, and “nihilism”.

“The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. . . . But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our . . . morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm . . . is now impending. . . .” (Gay Science, book five, 343)

The death of God is a multifaceted, modern phenomenon that has been unfolding overtly and subterraneanly, with far-reaching outcomes for the entire Western civilization. For Nietzsche, the “death of God” is pregnant with unending significances and consequences, as they have been dismally unfolding and will continue to unfold in our time and thereafter. How much has to fall now that the foundation of Western values is in decay?

Karl Marx

§4. Alienation

Although German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) may not had utilized his concept of “alienation” to characterize modernity (a term that may had been an anachronism in his time), there would had been no other way if he actually had intended to do so. “No other way” because capitalism and the ensuing alienation, as upshots of consciousness of modernity, were two of his burning issues. Marx was a keen observer of how the Industrial Revolution and capitalism radically changed our lives and the course of history. He believed that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everyone pursues her or his own private interests. This is a war of all against all, not excluding the subtle pecuniary/material tensions existing between family members.

Let us consider the following scenario, a scenario that is a ubiquitous reality in the United States. Consider an average American worker, who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating—although the worker may not be conscious, as is commonly the case, of his own woeful situation. The moment he leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! While at work, he has to deal with workplace conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, he grows weary and numb at work. Since his job is the principal source of his livelihood, he is chained to the job, which, by and large, pays just enough (i.e., subsistence wages) to keep him alive (if profitable) and to spur him to return to work. His dehumanization, self-humiliation, and lack of self-respect are what he pretends not know about himself, so he grows numb. Inasmuch as he is not able to support himself and his family without the job, the job—whether he likes it or not—defines, regulates, and proceduralizes his life both in and outside of the workplace. Unavoidably, he will be socially defined by his job and income level. Since labor is commonly valued by the wage it makes, the less money he makes the less his life is valued. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment, do you suppose he will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with his spouse and children? In all likelihood, his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, for dinner the couple, feeling physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy fast food for everyone rather than preparing a healthy meal. Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple, which is the same labor conditions under which millions of Americans find themselves, pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! Later, after watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop. Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the happiness they seek. As long as the legal, political, and economic structures of capitalism keep the working class uneducated, depressed, and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy—and the ensuing consumer debts—will continue to turn the wheels of U.S. economy which is significantly based on the senseless consumption of goods and services.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thought, our present economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social environment that the more one participates in it—the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American worker and his spouse, their jobs—or, more generally, the prevalent politico-economic conditions—deprives them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers. In his Manifesto, Marx wrote that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself, along with its traditional values, have been degraded to a mere pecuniary/economic affair, wherein members of family relate to one another via materialistic values. In addition, “family values” have mendaciously become a tool in the hands of politicians to arouse fervor and to manipulate the masses. As Marx puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of utmost value, other values—such as friendship, love, marriage, family, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, justice, truth and so on—become subservient to the value of capital.

Marx fundamentally construed humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and et cetera. However, under the modern conditions, specifically under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods [cf. Nietzsche’s “death of God”] of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1. Alienation from work products: Capitalism alienates workers from their work products, which exist as things estranged from the workers who create them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2. Alienation from productive activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the workers from their productive activities—activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the workers are not of personal interest to them, who are compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3. Alienation from human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the workers from their human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and et cetera.

4. Alienation from fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the workers from their fellowmen. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.


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