Late Modernity: What It Means and Whence It Arose

When theoretical reason is forsaken in favor of practical reason as the human standard — or, to say the same thing, when the theoretical is reduced to the status of handmaiden of the practical — this will necessarily have certain verifiable and visible effects on life in the civilization in which this reversed perspective takes hold. In brief, this reversal reduces thinking to calculation (problem-solving), knowledge to useful information, virtue to efficiency (speed), fulfillment to approval, well-being to comfort (security), and, ultimately, human purpose to utility. Thus, out of modernity’s adoption of first principles favoring practice over theory (action and the body over wisdom and the soul), establishing the former as the human essence and the foundation of society, there developed an inevitable trajectory toward utilitarianism in all its manifestations.

It follows from these effects, then, since utilitarianism is by definition and inherent goals anti-individual, and therefore disdainful of the soul’s needs and interests, that modernity, from its inception, set itself on a dangerous path, one which, at least with benefit of hindsight (although there were important critics right from the beginning), may be seen to lead, perhaps irresistibly, to several further, interrelated outcomes:

Collectivism as a moral and political foundation, i.e., the denial of the primacy of the individual human being in either the spiritual or metaphysical sense; hence,

The elimination of the natural and politically recognizable source and locus of authority and will, which void is gradually filled by self-proclaimed masterminds of collective progress who claim the authority to speak and choose on behalf of all individuals, but without need of the traditional legitimizing claim to be speaking and acting in the interests of all individuals, since it is now only collective humanity that has political significance; hence,

The rise of “duty ethics” (obedience to rules and the rejection of personal well-being as a legitimate moral motive) and the obsolescence of “virtue ethics” (character development and the alignment of the individual’s natural desire for happiness with the desire for the good); hence,

The universal reduction of mankind to a “mass” of instruments lacking any intrinsic worth or political relevance independent of their usefulness to collective aims not of their choosing; hence,

Education reinvented as social utility and servility training, rather than as the cultivation of intellectual independence, moral character, and refined taste — in other words, the true, the good, and the beautiful displaced by the useful, the submissive, and the vulgar; hence,

The banishment of happiness — the natural goal of all humans — to the amoral realm of physical comfort, physical pleasure, and physical safety; hence,

The elevation of practical materialism to the status of ultimate personal and political motive in the hearts of “the masses,” where by materialism I mean the false dichotomy of collective greed and gluttony (“capitalism”) versus collective envy and wrath (“socialism”); hence,

The descent of political life into the mire of rule by tribal activism, with its blunt and unquestioned certainties, its historical obtuseness, and its psychological support structure of furious indignation and closed-mindedness in the face of all counterarguments, nuanced questions, or intransigent resistance; hence,

The increasing breakdown of social existence into an artificial simulacrum of that “war of all against all” which the earliest modern thinkers imagined as the unlivable condition of mankind without government, and from which their new conception of practical progress was supposed to protect us more effectively than the imperfect old classical models of society; hence,

The accelerating deterioration of the rational discourse, appreciation for complex thought and language, general good faith, and mutual respect upon which civil society depends for its survival and development; and hence,

A devolution into the irrationality of openly conflicting and competing “realities,” which in practice means the use of law and propaganda as thin veils for plain brute force to impose one tribe’s preferred reality upon the minds and lives of others, i.e., a kind of anarchic, violent precursor to the establishment of an absolute tyranny, which will arise, inevitably, in answer to the desperate pleas of a frightened, aimless, exhausted populace eager to submit to its chains as the only available alternative to utter chaos.

Meanwhile, growing exponentially through each stage of the above devolution, and in fact representing the true but hidden meaning of all of it: a virulent and universal hatred and suspicion of the theoretical, abstaining, spiritual, contemplative man, i.e., the disengaged, private man, who refuses to surrender his soul to the aims of a tribe or mob, or to submit his private thought, speech, or behavior either to the standards and objectives of practical (which is to say social) usefulness or to the alarms of urgent action. This outcome represents the collective rejection of the essential human being, as this being was understood (or half-understood) in the pre-modern world, before the reversal which instituted practical efficacy as the new human essence, and thereby set us on the precipitous path to an age of inhumanity. 

Modernity, as has often been said, is an age defined, in so many ways, by its belief in the perfectibility of mankind, which entails a profound rejection of the intractable complexities of human nature in favor of the measurable (and reductionist) improvements which are supposed to be wrought by human artifice. The preceding is a brief outline of this denaturing of man, and also a description — we are beyond the point of mere prediction — of nature’s retribution.

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