Two Visions of Modernity and Enlightenment

In our own time we see two visions of the future colliding in a civil war of culture across the planetary landscape. As Zeev Sternhell in the below extended quote will put it there are two visions of modernity that have for the past two centuries played out their vision of the future in culture and politics of the West. Whether you agree or disagree with his surmise it is worth pondering in the face of our current crumbling civilization. What do agree or disagree with in the statement below:

If the French Enlightenment, or rather the Franco-Kantian Enlightenment, and the English and Scottish Enlightenments produced the great intellectual revolution of rationalist modernity, the intellectual, cultural, and political movement associated with the revolt against the Enlightenment constituted not a counterrevolution but a different revolution. It was not a countermodernity but a different modernity that came into being and that revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights. That second modernity was based on all that differentiates and divides people—history, culture, language —a political culture that denied reason either the capacity or the right to mold people’s lives, saw religion as an essential foundation of society, and did not hesitate to call on the state to regulate social relationships or to intervene in the economy. According to its theorists, the splintering, fragmentation, and atomization of human existence arising from the destruction of the medieval world was the cause of the modern decadence. They deplored the disappearance of the spiritual harmony that was the very fabric of medieval life, and that was destroyed by the Renaissance according to some and by the Reformation according to others. They regretted the passing of the time in which the individual, guided by religion to his last breath, a laborer or artisan living solely for his trade, hedged in by society at every moment, was merely a cog in an infinitely complex machine of whose destiny he was ignorant. Bending over the soil and asking no questions, he fulfilled his function in the march of civilization. On the day when, from being simply a part in a sophisticated mechanism, man became an individual, the modern sickness was born. From Burke to Friedrich Meinecke, the aim remained the restoration of the lost unity. Thus, the outlook of the individual was confined within the straitjacket of the community to which he belonged. The idea of the primacy of tradition, custom, and membership of a cultural, historical, and linguistic community was first put forward by Vico. Man, said Vico in criticism of the theoreticians of natural rights—Hobbes, Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf— did not create society all of a piece; he is what society made him, his values are social values and are therefore relative. The relativity of values is a fundamental aspect of the critique of the Enlightenment, and the damage it has caused is tremendous. It was this other modernity that brought about the twentieth century European catastrophe.1

One can see this second version extended in the work of existentialists, phenomenologists, and after Fascism in the cultural Marxists from Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, the later Lyotard, aspects of Deleuze/Guattari, Jameson, and many others of the outmoded label of postmodern or post-structuralist theoretic. The wholesale attack on the whole traditions of Western Civilization and its long dominion of culture and geography, along with the erosion of the ethical and religious ideologies of Christendom and its secular oppositional forces seem to be heading toward collapse or transformation in our time. Two visions of time seem to underpin aspects of this as well: the one a linear movement toward apocalypse or the End of History, an eschatological worldview with a vision of end games and messiahs; the other a dynamic and spiral time of emergence and spontaneous order, of chaos and the open ended repetitions of renaissance and renewal rather than collapse and static ends of History. This movement between a static and dynamic view of Time, the one based on the labyrinth and death, the other on the spiral movement of galactic negentropy of order out of chaos, light out of darkness and openly rebellious view of cosmic revolt against the staid political systems of entrapment and enslavement.

This clash between worldviews in our time should be framed in a larger vision than most of trivial struggles of local politics allows for. The old clash between Left and Right must be ousted for a new vision of politics in our time. The outworn clichés of both Left and Right have become nodes of stupidity and irony, leading us in circles of hate and dispute that have no resolution. We need something else… something new. Ours is a time of chaotic growth when the emergence of something new and strange is arising in our midst. The age old war between collective vs. individual political and sociocultural systems have become passé leading us down the old paths of prejudice and dissolution. We must seek out the new, allow the new to come into existence. Maybe what we are seeing is the battle between the orthodox view of time and reality being slowly exploded by what some have termed The Great Heterodoxy. I will have more to say about that in the future…

  1. Zeev Sternhell The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition. Yale University Press (December 22, 2009) (Page 8).