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Principles of Modernity

Notes by George Stanciu

Magdalen College, Warner, NH
Spring 1997


Principle: The whole is greater than and prior to the parts.

The group: Medieval society was one of the most loosely organized
societies in history, with authority spread amongst various groups. The
central authority of popes and kings existed mainly in theory. The
occasional pope or king who attempted to exert his central authority was
frustrated by the jealously guarded liberties of the towns, the villages, the
guilds, and the monasteries. All-powerful custom kept power from flowing
to one central centre.

The person: “[in the Middle Ages] man was conscious of himself only as a
member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation….” (Jacob
Burckhard, the greatest historian of the Renaissance) Thus, when asked
“Who are you?”, a person may have replied, “A Vignola from Padua, a stone
carver, and a good Christian.”

The person and the group: A person had many loyalties, including
those due a family, a feudal lord, a guild, a town, a parish. While loyalties
were particular and many, Christianity unified political, intellectual, cultural,
and spiritual life. All believers formed one community. Also, from the late
Middle Ages until the eighteenth century, education was rooted in the
common tradition of classical civilization and stressed what was universally


Principle: The whole is a sume of the parts

The individual: “The fundamental assumption of modernity, the thread

that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that
the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but
the person.” (Socialogist Daniel Bell)

Tocqueville: “that word ‘individualism,’ which we coined for our own
requirements, was unknown to our ancestors, for the good reason that in
their days every individual necessity belonged to a group and no one could
regard himself as an isolated unit.”

Modernity is an attempt to make the part the whole, to write all terms of
human experience in terms of the isolated, autonomous individual.
The defining event of modernity is the Reformation. Three
principals defined the Reformation: the Bible as the only authority,
justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers.
All three serves to substitute the individual for the community. Instead of submitting to
the Church’s explanations of the Bible, the Protestant turned to private interpretation.
Instead of relying on the priesthood and the prayers of the saints and of other members of
the Church, each Protestant now struggled alone for his salvation, not through any form
of intercession but by individual faith in Christ the Savior. Consequently, all believers
were equally thought to be priests. Marin Luther taught that “For whoever comes out of
the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and
pope…” In effect, each Protestant became his own Church. Nisbet concluded that “Out of
this atomization of religious corporatism emerged the new man of God, intent upon
salvation through unassisted faith and unmediated personal effect.”

Historical Events that “Launched” Modernism::

1) The Black Death killed one-quarter to one-third of the population of

“….the calamity instilled such horror into the hearts of men and women that brothers
abandoned brothers, uncles, sisters, wives left their dear ones to perish and, what is more
serious and almost incredible, parents avoiding visiting or nursing their very own
children as though those were not of their own flesh…” - Giovanni Boccaccio, The
Decameron, pp. xxii-xxiv.

2) The rise of the mercantile states of Italy generated enormous wealth and
focused attention on the good life in this world, away from salvation;
The first modern bank, casa di S. Georgio, was founded at Genoa in 1407. Soon, other
banks, such as the Centurioni at Genoa, the Soranzo at Venice, and the Medici at
Florence, carried on trade in both money and merchandise.

3) Corrupt and oppressive Churchmen produced a crisis within

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr.
Martin Luther King.

The goal of modernity: Heaven on Earth—universal, human happiness.
Two conditions are necessary to achieve this goal. Mankind collectively
must become the master and possessor of nature; and, 2) the equality of
conditions must prevail; that is, every person must be released from
tradition, class, family, and local group of every kind. For an individual to
be happy he must rule himself, and also be able to provide physical comfort
and pleasure for himself without extraordinary toil. (The signers of the
Declaration of Independence proclaimed that not only the United States but
all nations should be founded on the unalienable rights of mankind—“life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”)

The nation-state: The other historical theme of modernity is the rise of the
nation-state. We cannot imagine political life without a nation-state and
consequently believe it always existed in different forms. Both universal
individual freedom and the centralization of power in the State are brouth
about by the destruction of the authority of the church, local communities,
guilds, and the family. Centralized political power could not have come into
existence until the autonomy of every social group was destroyed.
Walter Lipmann: “A State is absolute. . . . when it clamis the right to a monopoly of all
the force within the community, to make war, to make peace, to conscript life, to tax, to
establish and dis-establish property, to define crime, too punish disobedience, to control
education, to supervise the family, to regulate personal habits, and to censor opinion.”
Thus, all nation-states are totalitarian.

Nationalism first appeared in seventeenth century England. “Under Puritan

influence the three main ideas of Hebrew nationalists were revived: the
chosen people, the Covenant, and the Messianic expectancy. The English
nation regarded itself as the new Israel.” (Historian Hans Kohn)

The citizen is the atom-unit of the State. Disconnected and autonomous, the
citizen experiences an interior emptiness that the State fills with its
messianic destiny that provides a new and final purpose for human life. (To
fulfill a Manifest Destiny, to establish the classless society, or to bring about
the Third Reich.) To achieve its messianic end, the state demands that every
citizen be willing to sacrifice himself. (“Not ours to reason why, but ours to
do and die.”

Messianic destiny and the rhetoric of individual freedom camouflage the
absolute power of the State. The illusion of mass freedom hides the reality of
absolute power.

General Orientation of the Arts and Sciences Under


Science: The principle the whole is the sum of its parts leads to
materialism, the theory that holds that every object as well as every act in the
universe is either matter, an aspect of matter, or a byproduct of matter.

Arts: Western art of the last few centuries is for the most part a record of
men and women whose lives are predominantly determined by the emotions
and the senses. Such persons see themselves and the world that they live in
as realities that exist in their own right and that exist apart from and
independent of God. (After Sherrard) The self become an endless topic of
study for painters and writers.

Summary: Modernity is founded on isolated, autonomous individuals who

believe that freedom is the highest virtue, that technological advances will
produce Heaven on Earth, and that the historical purpose of the individual
coincides with the messianic end of the State.

The 20TH Century and the Collapse of Modernism

1) Remarkable scientific and technological advances with the production

of undreamable weatlth.

2) With relativity and quantum theory, the Cartesian program collapses

in physics: Nature cannot be understood without including the
scientist. The separation of the knower from the knower/known is
exposed as an illusion.

3) Great wars with unimaginable destruction.

A partial inventory of the political horrors of the 20th century includes: Deaths:
World War I : 9.4 million
Russian Revolution and the Civil War: 8millioin
Forced collectivatioin: 10million Ukranian peasants
Spanish Civil War: 1.2million
World War II: 51.2million
Nazi camps: 6million Jews and 6million Slavs, Gypsies and political prisoners

Allied bombing of Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne and Dresden: 500,000 German
Hiroshima: 1.35million
Vietnam war: 1.8million
4) The fulfillment of Tocqueville’s predictions:
An innumerable multitude of, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to
procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of
them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his
private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his
fellow citizens, hi is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them,
but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself along. (Italics

5) The attainment of what Neitzche claimed to be the real goal of

Heaven on Earth, “green-pasture happiness of the herd, with security,
lack of danger, comfort, and an easier life for everyone.”

6) Viktor Frankl and Rolo May found that the chief problem of their
patients was an inner deadness, an “existential vaccum.” Their
patients complained of the meaninglessness of their lives; they
suffered from the twentieth century blues—boredom, aimlessness, and

7) A recent paper publicized in the Journal of the American Medical

Association concluded from interviews with 39,000 persons that in the
industrialized world the rates of severe, often incapacitating
depression have increased in each succeeding generation since 1915.

8) The psychological malaise of modern Americans has been

documented extensively by Susan Krause Whitbourne. In her 22-year
study, she concludes that her data reflects a “general society-wide
crisis of morality and purpose affecting adults of all ages.”

9) At the end of the 20th century, alienation, depression, resignation, and

indifferentism are commonplace. To believe in the future or to hope
to be happy is rare.

10) Therefore, modernity has been a brilliant success and dismal failure.

What Modernity and Its Collapse Have Taught Us:

1) Modernity reveals that the potentiality of both nature and the human
person are inexhaustible and, furthermore, that unrestrained, intense
human desire can accomplish astonishing things.
2) All attempts to establish Heaven on Earth end in great wars and
personal unhappiness.

3) Modernity has demonstrated that not just any way of life leads to
happiness. Since culture and private choice do not determine what is
a full, happy life, then human nature must.

4) Thus modernity must oppose human nature and that accounts for the
20th century blues – boredom, aimlessness and depression.

5) Modernity instructs that an individual is genuinely himself or herself

when isolated and autonomous; nature and the wisdom of the past
inform us that a person is meant to be connected to all that is. Human
nature and culture could not be further apart. In the Western, the
Eastern, and the Native American tradition, the spiritual nature of the
human person means precisely the capacity to be connected to all that

6) In modernity, the goal of human growth and development is seen as

independence. The child is born into a state of dependence and
become a mature adult by the gradual process of severing

John Locke: “Children, I confess, are not born in the full state of equality,
thought they are born to it. Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over
them, when they come into the world, and for some time there after; but it is a
temporary one. The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they
are wrapped in, and supported by, in the weakness of their infancy: age and
reason as they grow up, loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a
man at his own.

In addition, the cultural principal of equality intensifies natural self-

love. Each individual in a democratic society relies on his own
individual judgment and ultimately decides for himself or herself what
is true, good or beautiful. For example, “Joe Somerville” feels
eminently qualified to offer his opinions on how to coach the New
England Patriots, to govern the state of Massachusetts, and to
straighten out the latest social crisis, whatever it may be.

But the equality that makes me feel so proud of myself also instills
self-hate. Equality says I can be anything. I have learned that I should
be the brightest and the best---adulated by all. But when I compare
myself to others, I see that I am not especially intelligent, talented, or
beautiful. I am average, and someone is always vastly superior to me.
Consequently, I dislike myself because I consider myself deficient.
Thus, the most painful Tocquevillian paradox of a democratic culture
is that it simultaneously intensifies self-love and instills self-hate.

7) By nature, the child is born into a set of limited relations. He grows

and develops by establishing more and more relationships, aiming to
embrace all this is. Many cultures recognize that a person can
embrace all that is. Many cultures recognize that a person can
embrace the totality of being. Each culture, of course, expresses this in
a different way.

Aristotle: “The human soul is, fundamentally, everything that is.”

The Chandogy Upanishad: “Thou art that.”
Thomas Acquinas: “Every other being takes only a limited part of being whereas
the spiritual soul is capable of grasping the whole of being.”
Lao Tzu: “He who cultivates the Tao is one with the Tao.”
Billy Yellow-Navajo medicine man: “To walk the path of beauty, you must
connect to all things. Take them seriously, with reverence.”

8) Since the idea that the human person is an isolated, autonomous

individual could not be more opposed to human nature, modernity is a
prescription for social disaster and personal unhappiness, as is borne
out in the 20th century.

9) Thus, the collapse of modernity reveals that every person has the
capacity to embrace all that is, through loving, knowing, and making.
Happiness results when these specific human activities are done well,
not from physical comfort and pleasure. Lastly, a person’s ultimate
end is beyond this world.

What To Do

Even thought universal happiness has not been achieved, the second goal of
modernity has been achieved. We have been released from the traditional,

the local communities, and from the family. Each one of us is free; no
person can tell another what to do or think. Unlike the past, when a person’s
words were often formulas and his actions were controlled by the iron reins
of tradition or constrained by rigid institutions, we decide who we are and
determine our own destiny. But do we really?

Every culture lays down habits of thinking and feeling that most of its
members blindly follow. In the modern West, we form the habit of thinking
of ourselves in isolation, and that habit is carried over when we think of
other things. We attempt to understand every whole solely in terms of its
parts. Thus, our principle culturally-given habit of thinking: always begin
with the parts. In addition, the equality of individuals teaches an individual
to rely on personal judgment and to accept as true only what can be proven
by reason and science.

Even our emotional responses are programmed by culture. The American

emotional profile is no mystery. If I pictured myself in isolation, I will see
only my own needs and desires. Nothing else is apparent to me. This leads
me to see the world and other persons in terms of my wants. When others
frustrate the attainment of my desires, I become angry; when others have
what I lack, I become envious. When I cannot get what I want, I feel sorry
for myself. Angry, envy and self-pity are such a part of American life that
we take the intensity with which we feel these emotions as natural, not

Thus modern Western culture instills in us the intellectual and emotional

habits to lead the life of an isolated, autonomous individual. We no more
decide who we are and determine our own destiny than pre-moderns did. But
our cultural programming is more hidden because of the absence of tradition
and personal authorities. And, of course, the sirens of culture drum into our
heads from birth that we are free, so that when we speak in formulas, we
think that we speak for ourselves—“No one tells me what to do;” “You be
you.;” “You are your own dog.”

We live under two great lies: 1) I am most genuinely myself when released
from the supernatural, nature, tradition, local groups and family; and 2) I
have determined who I am.

Consequently, postmoderns must look not to history, not the State, not to
science and technology, not to political or social reforms, but to who we are
by nature.

The post-modern project: We must re-connect to the supernatural, to nature,

to local communities, and to family. But we cannot begin to re-connect to all
that is until we recognize that we are slaves to our cultural habits of thinking
and feelings and consequently how utterly predictable our thoughts, words,
and emotions are. By nature we have free choice, but our wills, minds, and
passions have habits instilled by modern culture, habits appropriated for the
isolation, autonomous individual. In many ways, we live the life given to us
by culture, and part of that life is to mechanically declare that we are free.
But to become truly free, so that we are the source of our own motion, we
must choose to change our culturally-given habits to ones that are in accord
with human nature.

Intellectual habits: Instead of thinking in terms of isolated parts, we must

force ourselves to always refer to undivided wholes, such as knower/known,
environment/organism; group/individual. The new paradigm for thinking
must be the undivided whole.

Emotional habits: If we understand ourselves as an isolated autonomous

individual, then we see anger, envy, and self-pity as part of who we are, and
aloneness as the human condition. However, when we think in terms of
undivided wholeness, we know what we are part of a whole and clearly see
that our inclination to anger, envy and self-pity is not of our own making but
derived from culture. We, then, acquire some distance from our emotional
habits. No longer need we believe that “my emotions are me.” Indeed, our
emotional profile is for the most part accidental, arising from the culture we
are born into and the particular events that befall us in early childhood.

When undivided wholeness guides our thinking, we gain a new perspective

on ourselves and others, so that daily living provides an opportunity to
change our habits of feeling. Yet, to be realistic in the task of forming our
“New Life,” we must keep in mind that in the main will be dealing with
isolated, autonomous individuals. We cannot change our cultural
upbringing; however, we can change our perspective.

Instead of looking at only myself, I can see that the persons around me, too,
have been shaped by culture. So, when I drive along the expressway and

some younge guy in a pickup truck cuts me off, I can smile to myself and
think, “What else should I expect from this poor self-centred jerk, who only
sees himself?” If I feel angry automatically arise within me, when he gives
me an obscene hand gesture, I can laugh and say to myself, “There you go
again. Reacting exactly how you have been trained.” Such laughter erodes
my habitual anger.

To connect to all that is I first must begin to know who I am. I must realize
that, in truth, I am not the centre of the universe; I do not determine the true,
the good and the beautiful; I cannot become anyone I imagine; I do not
define myself; I cannot invent the purpose of my life. I loved myself for
something I was not—the centre of the universe—and I hated myself for
something I was not—an isolated loser.

When I come into contact with my true self, I know that I am a unique and
marvelous being. I am a spiritual being with the capacity to be connected to
all that is through loving, knowing, and making. To experience the core of
my being is joyous; personal tragedies subside in importance. The particular
life I have been given may include a big nose, or abandonment by my
mother when I was two, or a miserable family life, but I see that such events
are not the core of my being. I see that I am not my big red nose, nor am I
my abandonment as a two-year old, nor am I my dysfunctional family.

When I experience my true self, I stop demanding to be who I am not, and a

peacefulness comes into my soul. No longer do I need to compete with
others. No longer do I have the need to impress others because I no longer
have the need to impress myself. I know my strengths and weaknesses and
have no desire to be what I am not. I see that each person is born with
particular gifts and that this natural hierarchy is good. I consider myself
fortunate that Shakespeare, Mozart, and Einstein existed. I understand that
all human achievement, great or small, elevates me.

Before the gifted confirmed my loser status, now we are brothers. All of us
have both older and younger brothers, thoses who need my help and those
whom I need.

I understand that my previous unhappiness was not grounded in the reality

of who I am. When I was totally self-absorbed and under the sway of
democratic hubris, I was a miserable loser. Inside of me was a baby
screaming, “Everyone is here to serve me; and look how they have let me

down.” But once I accept who I am, a quietness enters my soul, and I am
content with the particular person I am. I understand that many of the past
wrongs against me I imagined. Bur I cannot genuinely accept who I am
unless I forgive those persons who have wounded me deep in the heart, so I
could not love. Through understanding and forgiveness, I see that it is good
that I am the particular person I am, and I no longer wish to change what
cannot be changed.

To experience my true self is to know that suffering in some mysterious way

is inseparable from human life. No person is exempt from pain and
suffering. Physical pain draws me into myself; suffering in the soul fixes
my mind, imagination, and emotions on me. When I believe I am an
isolated, autonomous individual my pains and suffering are the ultimate
confirmation of my aloneness, and I think no one feels what I do.

But when I experience the core of my being, my previous pain, suffering,

and personal tragedy suddenly connect me to all humanity. I desire to go
outward to comfort others; I see that I am called or “destined” to go beyond
myself. I recognize that I, like everyone else, have deeply injured others. I
understand that compassion for others comes only when I am liberated from
the dark side of human nature, from an attachment to the narrow self.

When I take myself as the beginning and the end point, my life, no matter
how I lead it, eventually becomes miserable and pointless, and I must begin
to seek a “New Life” beyond that of the isolated, autonomous individual.
My life becomes meaningful when I am a person with and for others. A life
not lived for others is not worth living.