Reflections on Being Modern

On being “absolutely modern.”— We naturally get excited about new ideas, new explanations. In such excitement, all past ideas seem paltry and passé. Such is the nature of enthusiasm. The whole world reflects our excitement back at us, reinforcing the illusion of absolute certainty attending the compelling new thoughts and their accompanying feelings. Hence, all previous modes of thought appear to us as foolish and dead. It may take eons to see the matter clearly, to rediscover our past idea as fresh again, and only then to judge the true worth of our later enthusiasm.

Enlightenment and Entitlement.– The Enlightenment, as it actually existed before today’s nihilists coopted the term as an adornment to mask their lack of philosophy, purported to be an age of reason. As a matter of theory and historical practice, however, it was more an audacious dream — which is to say a pre-rational hope — of bringing the sun’s light down into Plato’s cave, thereby exposing the ancients as intellectual tricksters who unfairly withheld wisdom from the many out of elitist disrespect. But in the final analysis, all the Enlightenment could really aspire to was to deflect some dim portion of nature’s brightness down into the darkness, which is to say into the general life of the political community. Practical reason redefined as a combination of self-protective calculation and egalitarian materialism would advance civilization in the direction of practical liberty for everyone (natural rights and constitutional democracy), but at the expense of the ancient hierarchy of being that directed the soul beyond the needs of the body and thereby implicitly situated true individualism in the realm of theoretical reason and well-established character. In the modern cave, however, where a universalized glow of practical comfort weakens all impulse toward escaping from that cave — which escape had previously been understood as the defining aspiration of human nature — freedom increasingly becomes conflated with pleasure, and thus equality with the universal absence of pain.

Due to this shift in the perception of human essentials, morality ceases to be understood in the ancient way, namely as emotional habits harnessed by education and oriented toward the standard of rational self-governance, and gradually becomes recast as simply behavior that reduces other men’s pain. In other words, good character, which was largely concerned with eschewing such low considerations as immediate pleasure or pain, is replaced by the sentimental search for needy victims whom one may pity — and, at the nexus of morality and politics, for whom one must advocate. Hence the Enlightenment’s quick and inexorable slide from republicanism into utilitarianism in all its forms, including its latter-day nadir in social justice, cultural relativism, and sensitivity training: Everyone has the absolute right to feel no pain of any kind, from which is derived the corresponding right to demand one’s pleasure, and of course to interpret the thwarting of any pleasure as an injustice which society must correct.

Thus, at last, the Enlightenment concept of natural equality reduces to everyone’s rightful claim against everyone else, the universal insistence that society — meaning other people — must redress all our discomforts or disadvantages, and ensure that we may live without pain, or at least with as little pain as anyone else. The utilitarian injunction to “seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number” — the political expression of the modern morality of pity and compassion — is transformed by this implied unfairness of nature and society into a kind of victimocracy, as embodied in the late modern moral distortion which North Americans call the entitlement mentality. The entitlement mentality is an ultimate product of the unraveling dialectic of modern enlightenment. Though the term is used as a pejorative, it nevertheless remains somewhat euphemistic at the same time, at least in the sense of masking its own sources. The entitlement mentality is the perfect offspring of the reduction of freedom and equality to pleasure and pain-avoidance, on the one hand, and the reduction of morality from virtue understood as educated character to virtue understood as compassion toward the victim, on the other. It is self-pity transformed into aggression, lack of character expressed as righteous indignation.

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