Plain speaking

It is Friday. Lots of gentle readers in desolation this morning (about this, &c); and others in confusion (though only about my last Idlepost). Easy things first.

I seem to have caused much confusion by the word “Modern,” which I’m in the custom of using as a term of abuse. But I used it yesterday as if it were a good thing. Now, all words are contextual, especially in English, and I was juxtaposing “Ancient and Modern,” where Ancient is understood to be the old pagan regimes of Greece and Rome — extremely impressive in their own right — before the historical arrival of Christianity. Hence my allusion to the Battle of the Books (Jonathan Swift’s contribution), on the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes which broke out in the late seventeenth century, in the Académie française, then diverted all of intellectual Europe.

This was perhaps a poor choice of allusion, since it led several readers astray. For the Moderns in that debate were, for the most part, explicitly defending not only the worldview opened by “modern” empirical and material science (as they then understood it), but also that opened by our “modern” empathies. In literature and art, the Moderns were inventing spectacular new genres — from sentimental comedy, to landscape painting. Descending from the freethinking Renaissance humanists, and leading ultimately to Robespierre, they congratulated themselves for their “enlightenment” on these and other fronts. The current liberal and progressive outlook is thus nothing new. It is merely a degeneration of the much older modernism — a version from which the sanity has been “progressively” expunged.

For the purposes of that old Parisian argument, I am roughly of Gottfried Ephraim Lessing’s view, that the Moderns, astride the shoulders of giants, see more, but the Ancients saw better. But to him, and to most of them, modernity begins with printing and allied arts, which made our brave new world possible. The debate itself was essentially post-Christian, with both sides largely overlooking the Middle Ages, which is to say, missing the elephant in the room of European history.

To be sure, the Ancients did not have our technological advantages, but too, the Platonists and Aristotelians (at least) did not have the disadvantage of being mesmerized by technology. There is a philosophia perennis in which they and we both participate, and in this the older classical authors had the temporal advantage of getting there first. They express vividly much that we can only restate, and thus we must be fools to ignore the classics.

What I’m trying to say is that technology is irrelevant: the real division between Ancient and Modern must be placed much farther back in time. It is the difference between the ancient pagan worldview, and what became possible through the definitive revelation of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Cicero is an Ancient, and Augustine a Modern. Swift, I think, in his characteristically provocative way, points towards this. We do not have so much one view then the other, as the two in continuing conflict: a knowledge of the True God, as against a wilful ignorance of Him.

Given my daily self-allotment of two hand-scribbled pages, there will not be room to rehearse my views on the development of Ancient, i.e. Hellenistic and Roman science and technology. Suffice me to say, that it starts shockingly well, then declines into mere engineering and superstition (rather as our “settled science” is doing today). The old pagan world was afflicted with intellectual blockages which the Christian “vision” began to clear. (Mistakes we are now repeating.)

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is the direct outgrowth of cosmological speculations in what we currently label the High Middle Ages — built upon the Christian theological insight that the universe God created must make sense. Its philosophical component, however — from Bacon and Descartes to Kant and Heidegger — is unnecessary to the empirical science and applied technology that confers prestige. It is rather the (often brilliant, and sometimes unintentional) re-imposition of the ancient Epicurean and Stoical blinders. Our modern “progress” in this sense consists of moving philosophically and theologically backwards to a pre-Christian age.

I was proposing to redefine Modern in the light of that Christian revolution, which we find at the foundation of “Western Civ.” By this means, I become the Modern, and e.g. the Darwinoids are exposed as Ancients. And the whole notion of “progress” may be casually discarded. “Old Pagan” and “New Christian” would perhaps be plainer terms: a choice between them with no third.

Is everything now clear?