Pessimism About Modernity

Those who are against the optimistic ideology of progress are considered by those who have bought into that ideology to be not only pessimists, but almost hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race. How can we really be against a project that has improved the human lot by so much? Would we prefer people to die on beds of bug-ridden straw of preventable diseases, rather than living to old-age in clean and air-conditioned houses? One of the writers at The Josias, a new website devoted to “unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen” on the common good, meets that objection head-on:

Society is complex enough, and integrated enough, that what we rightly love about our civilization cannot be neatly untangled from what we rightly condemn in it. But if we are right in our condemnation, and right in our advocacy of alternatives, then of course it’s our obligation not only as Christians but as human beings to willingly part from some of the things we love. I am no kind of Luddite, but if a juster world were also a Facebookless world, I hope I would find a way of reconciling myself to it. And given that I am at least in principle committed to hating father and mother, this seems like an easy case. And well-crafted propaganda can make it still easier. Even if many of the conveniences we enjoy — even the conveniences we take advantage of to formulate and advance our criticism — are neutral or good in themselves, it may nevertheless be a good idea for us to learn to dislike them for their origins. We are all products of our civilization: if there are errors integral to that civilization that need correction, then it is time for us to learn to bite the hand that feeds us.

If it hadn’t taken its name from Josias, our website (I too will be posting there soon) could have taken its name from Jeremiah. As (then Cardinal) Ratzinger once pointed out, Jeremiah was condemned and imprisoned because of his pessimism. He refused to adopt the official optimism of the powers of his time:

The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet. (Jer 28:8-9)

One thought on “Pessimism About Modernity

  1. Have you perchance read Owen Barfield on the move from ‘original participation‘ → ‘final <a href="“>participation‘? I came across the following in the endnotes of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:

    Of course, a large and complex thesis lies behind this flip reference. The basic idea is that Baroque culture is a kind of synthesis of the modern understanding of agency as inward and poietic, constructing orders in the world, and the older understanding of the world as cosmos, shaped by Form. With hindsight, we tend to see the synthesis as instable, as doomed to be superseded, as it was in fact.
    Baroque culture, Dupre argues, is united by “a comprehensive spiritual vision…. At the centre of it stands the person, confident in the ability to give form and structure to a nascent world. But-and here lies its religious significance-that centre remains vertically linked to a transcendent source from which, via a descending scale of mediating bodies, the human creator draws his power. This dual centre-human and divine-distinguishes the Baroque world picture from the vertical one of the Middle Ages, in which reality descends from a single transcendent point, as well as from the unproblematically horizontal one of later modernity, prefigured in some features of the Renaissance. The tension between the two centres conveys to the Baroque a complex, restless, and dynamic quality” (237). (Kloc 12593–12607)

    I am reminded of the law being described as a (a) guardian; (b) prison; (c) tutor in Gal 3.19-29. It’s almost as if the law were a scaffolding, that external Form, which was supposed to be taken down after the thing being formed was ready to be driven from the inside, New Covenant-style (e.g. Jer 31:31–34, Ezek 36:22–32).

    It strikes me that the shift from Mosaic Covenant → New Covenant may have an analogy to Barfield’s ‘original participation’ → ‘final participation’. I’m not sure, though.


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