Modernism: Where did it come from?

Even though we have an idea about what modernity is, we do not really understand it. By being characterized by time, it is not as natural for us to look…

behind, but to be in the “here and now;” looking ahead only for what is new and better. “Modern” was described in two different ways at different times. The first was between 600-1400 and it was used to distinguish the current time versus the past, whereas the second was used to describe the opposition to antiquity. Medieval Christians viewed themselves in the midst of the broad story beginning with the fall and ending with the new heavens and new earth. The medieval view of ‘modern’ revolved around eschatological consequences. A philosophical distinction emerged in the tenth century scholastics: Via Moderna (nominalist) and Via Antiqua (realist); which helped with understanding time and being. The concept of “modern”, in the fifteenth century, had to do with bringing back the golden years of antiquity instead of focusing on the present. ‘Modern’, as we know it today, was not a common concept until the late 17th century. Modernity ushered in a new way of self-thinking that rested on freedom and progress while viewing time as linear and infinite, as opposed to circular and finite.

The Fight between the Ancients and Moderns

Those in favor of modernity claimed that scientific progress indicated modern art and literature was superior to that of the ancients; causing a stir between humanists and Cartesians (followers of Descartes). The debate went back and forth with some claiming the modern philosophers were better than the Ancients and while others claimed that modern thought weakened human happiness and virtue. The fight spread throughout Europe for over one hundred years with those arguing for and against modernism and even some striving for middle ground. The middle position argued that each era (modern and ancient) should be judged by their own standards. The concept of Modernity, itself being rooted in the necessity of showing its superiority to its predecessor, revolved around autonomy. It wasn’t until Immanuel Kant came on the scene when the implications of modernity came to the surface. Kant’s codification theory took the carpet out from underneath modernity; showing that the unified theory could not maintain a way to explain God, man, and the world. Thus began the struggle within modernity, which characterized the philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries amidst the advances in industrialism and the natural sciences. Society began placing much faith in these advances and therefore progress and freedom.

Modernity’s Crisis

Modernity’s crisis began with the coming of World War I and continued throughout the Great Depression, WWII, and National Socialism (NAZI) in spite of the technical progress in the west: showing that technological progress does not necessarily develop the flourishing of humans. Because of these tragedies, prosperity, freedom, and peace did not occur, which a shock to the major proponents of modernism. After World War II, philosophers gave suggestions that would hopefully reorient modernity, namely, a recovery of ancient rationalism, politics, and public life, and, a revival of Platonic Christianity. On the contrary, other philosophers thought the solution to the crisis of modernity was found in the exploration of post modernism. Another view consisted in the refining of modernity’s concepts. While the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s stirred the triumph within most modernists, other philosophers recognized how much further the modern project had to evolve by the slow process of liberalization and globalization through the means of inducement rather than forceful compulsion. With the attack of the World Trade Center in 2001, the positive affirmations of modernity came into question yet again, but, this time, religion and reason were the forefront of the arguments and the conclusions were thus: reason is superior and religion is seen as a private good and should not be the means in which society should be changed. The question is then raised, did Western civilization’s course of modernity rise from a view of ‘rational self interest’ or ‘religious faith.’

*This article is a summary of The Theological Origins of Modernity by: Michael Allen Gillespie*

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