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The Charism of Modernity addenda

October 27, 2010

While thinking about the previous post, I realized that I’d left a couple of obvious ideas out. These deserve inclusion, so here they are.

First of all, modernity and respect for the human person.

The main strain of modernity visible in the Euro American world has been marked by an emphasis upon a certain kind of respect for the individual human being; and this is a great thing; even a blessing. That I sometimes think that this is not philosophically coherent with the metaphysical underpinnings of modernity is irrelevant. With respect to my suspicions about philosophical coherence and the modern project, Eric Hobsbawm noted that what he termed “enlightenment ideologies” had led to the most horrific century ever, the twentieth, because of Hitler and Stalin (and Mao, I add); this despite the fact that he is a Marxist. But after the French Revolution, and after the end of Stalinism and the Second World War, the overall trend has been towards an emphasis upon respecting individual persons, and this is a very good thing.

But the reality of our current world is more complicated. First of all, simultaneous with this respect is the social fragmentation that occurs through the decline of anything resembling a consensus, so that social frictions that would once have been solved extralegally (through social pressure, parental edict, and other indirect methods) now become litigated, then codified into law. The net result is an atomistic society in which the conflict of individual rights outstrips the ability to legislate; and–even worse– an ever more intrusive government where nothing is left to common sense: the nanny state. This state of affairs comes about through modernity’s stress on the individual; so the blessing of respect for individuals is accompanied by the dissolution of social coherence and the rise of the omni-legislating state. My conclusion is that all forms of human order have very real and intrinsic limitations present within them; and the effort to escape this fact and arrive at some utopia results in more evils than it cures.

The second positive I left out: the willingness to challenge corrupt hierarchies that outwardly appear traditional, but are not.

The child abuse scandal in the Catholic church in the USA and Europe have made many understandably skeptical about the Catholic hierarchy, and wary of the idolatry of the clergy in general. This too is healthy to a point, though commentators on the right have argued that the Catholic church as such has undergone a press vilification in excess of the facts. But thinking that the Catholic church should actually live up to the call of the gospel in a way beyond, say, public school teachers seems like a healthy attitude; and that perhaps modernity frees individuals to hold the institution and its ordained clergy to this high standard is a good thing.

This second is related to a larger issue. Traditional cultures, premodern cultures, exist so that the wisdom, the intellectual and moral center is embodied to a degree in the culture as a whole, rather than in each individual as a locus. In contrast, modernity, with its emphasis upon the individual, stresses that we each make our own much-ballyhooed choice on every possible subject. If a traditional institution (or, I would argue, an institution that is in part traditional, holy, revealed and in part also a self-protecting  bureaucracy, for the church may well be a divine institution, but it is also certainly a human one as well, and hence fallen and sinful) is corrupt, then it is a very good thing that individuals make clear choices about that corruption and express these choices as clearly as they can.

Modernity, by stressing the individual, puts pressure on each human to choose. That perhaps this emphasis is overly optimistic–look at consumer culture and at market-and-marketing-driven capitalism to see just how quick we humans are to wish to default on this responsibility–does not change the fact that we are moral agents and knowing beings; and our use of these two central faculties of choice and intellect under whatever banner can be ennobling or enslaving.

One additional comment: while certain premodern institutions such as the Catholic church have for the past half century used language that sounds like that employed by supporters of human rights, the basis of the basis for the Catholic church’s emphasis upon respect for the individual person differs from that of a secular humanist. The two forms of respect find their foundation in very different reasons and very different concepts of just what a human being is, so while their calls for respect may sound the same, they are actually somewhat different.

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