From Dawn to Decadence – The End of the Modern Era?

From Dawn to DecadenceAs much as I’m a student of history, I’d like to see us turn our gaze forward, and not obsess on that history and not accept its conventional wisdom. That said, I think it is still important to understand the historic currents that are the basis of those conventions before one sets out to consider challenging elements of that wisdom.

I’ve just finished slogging my way through a dense 800+ page book, From Dawn to Decadence, by Jacques Barzun. It is a cultural history of the Western World during the past 500 years. Between working, writing, and family, it has taken me some eight or nine months to get through it.

Barzun is looking at what is generally called “The Modern Era”, that stretch of Western history from the Reformation to the two great wars of the 20th Century and the fall of the Soviet Union. Barzun’s premise is that this “era” (a useful but certainly artificial construct of human historical analysis) is coming to an end after a five-century arc where some very compelling cultural ideas – in philosophy, science, literature and the arts, religion – were sown, bore fruit, flourished and then played themselves out.

Those compelling ideas Barzun breaks out into ten “themes” which I think it is useful to call out and briefly address in this piece. I must confess I love lists and am always intrigued and just have to know the items when someone announces “five ways to change the world”, “seven steps to enlightenment” or “two paradigms for human society”. So with the giddy pleasure of a list junkie, I present you with Barzun’s ten themes of the Modern Era – abstraction, analysis, emancipation, individualism, primitivism, reductionism, scientism, secularism, self-consciousness and specialism – along with my brief commentary on each.

The preeminent of these ten themes, at least in my opinion, is individualism, focusing on each person as an autonomous and unique being within society’s institutions and other groups. Within this theme fall the ideas of the Protestant Reformation (having ones own unique relationship with God) and republicanism and democracy (one person one vote). Facilitating individualism was the newly invented technology of movable type which facilitated an individuals ideas to be recorded and widely distributed to others in the present (through the flier and newspaper, etc) and for posterity (in books and later movies, radio and TV, etc).

Contemplating ones individualism involves his theme of self-consciousness, which is developing the mental state of being aware of ones own separate existence, narrative, and how one is uniquely perceived by others. Individualism leads naturally to the theme of emancipation, escaping or being liberated from the structures of dominance and control by others. The Modern Era saw the move away from slavery and towards the granting of rights to larger and larger classes of people.

The next most significant of these themes, in my opinion, is analysis, the process of breaking something down into its component parts in order to understand it. This is the methodology of science, and science has been the preeminent means in the attempt to understand “life, the universe and everything” (as Douglas Adams phrased it) during the Modern Era. One of the powerful tools of analysis, and one of Barzun’s themes, is abstraction, defining something not by its observable characteristics but by its underlying essential elements identified and manipulated within the context of simpler “abstract” models.

Beyond the “ism” of individualism, Barzun’s final five themes are “isms” that have emerged from the preeminence of science and the efficacy and appeal of its analysis of “life, the universe and everything”. One is specialism, believing that with the complex body of knowledge revealed by science, we need to rely on experts in particular areas to find the “best way” to do things and otherwise guide our individual and collective lives. Another is scientism, the belief that the methods of science must be used on all forms of experience and will eventually settle every issue.

Scientism has led some to believe in reductionism, that a complex system is just a sum of its component parts or a compilation of its statistics, which has led some to a mechanistic view of human activity that precludes real choice or free will. Think polling in politics and standardized testing and curriculum in education as just a couple examples of a very pervasive ideology.

Science’s challenge of the previous preeminence of religion has created the context for secularism, the creation of ideologies and institutions not based on the revealed wisdom of religions, though in some cases promoting acceptance of a diversity of religious belief.

Also emerging as a reaction and counterpoint to scientism and reductionism is primitivism, the belief in returning to an earlier, simpler state, generally in an attempt to recapture something lost with time and the growing complexity and intrusiveness of civilization.

Throughout the last 500 years these themes have often been in conflict with each other, most obviously the ideas of liberty, choice and free will as embodied in the themes of individualism and emancipation versus the deterministic ideas in scientific reductionism. This conflict comes to a head in massive efforts throughout the Modern Era to change the world through colonization and imperialism, mechanization of agriculture, industrialization, war as an instrument of national policy, and social engineering as another such instrument. These efforts and conflicts have been undertaken with ever greater scope throughout the period.

So again, though centuries and “eras” are arbitrary constructs of historians and other analyzers of the past, I like to think that maybe Barzun is right, and we have come or are at least coming to the end of an era, which stretched from the 16th through the 20th Century. It is an era that began with movable type and the Protestant Reformation and has been embodied by newspapers, nation-states (and the conflicts between those states), and science. Maybe it is ending with the beginnings of the demise of the newspaper as a commercially viable venture and the eclipse of conflicts between states with new conflicts that are revolving around religion and the whole concept of “modernism”. That said, science seems to be continuing to play a primary role, but the scientism it inspired may be being mitigated by newer trends.

I wonder if the Internet, the capabilities of which we are only beginning to scratch the surface of, is a profound new technology with the same transformational power in the 21st Century that movable type and printing had in the 16th. Is this theme of the “network” leading to other new themes around holism and interconnectedness rather than specialism and reductionism? Are themes of holism and interconnectedness a necessary context to address ecological challenges like global warming and fostering perhaps a new interest in and comfort with deeper interconnections through the metaphysical aspects of life beyond scientism and secularism?

Given the caveat of arbitrariness, I feel it is useful for all of us to gather as a circle of equals as if the “Modern Era” has come to an end, with all its rewards and riddance. Let’s take this opportunity to synthesize its wisdom but not be limited by its outcomes and outlooks and find consensus on new themes to move forward with human evolution.

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