Against the backdrop of world history the rise of the modern must constitute one of the most explosive turning points since the beginning of higher civilization, or even the onset of the Neolithic. In the three centuries after 1500 beginning with the Protestant Reformation and the parallel Scientific Revolution an entirely new form of civilization has arisen, set to transform the entire planet via globalization. Such a massive transformation demands an explanation on the scale of evolution itself, and shows a remarkable discontinuity against the backdrop of medievalism. But this issue has been confused by debates over traditionalism or medievalism. It requires a larger context for a solution to the riddle.
The sudden explosion of modernity is an empirical given of world history. And yet a sense of crisis now haunts the idea of the modern. Indeed, a renewed challenge to the meaning of secularism in a resurgence of religious traditionalism seems to threaten the legacy of the Enlightenment. There is even the invention of a spurious ‘postmodern’ age to replace the modern. These gestures might betray the agenda of reactionaries, but demand a reckoning of modernity in terms of world history as a whole. There can be no replacement of modernity with an ad hoc postmodern concoction. The result would be decline, not advance. The sudden explosion of the modern might well show ‘action and reaction’, with a waning of the original impulse. Yet defenders of modernity seem ill-equipped for the task of defending its significance against its critics, or meeting the crisis that threatens its realization and future. What is the source of this sudden chaotification?
The question confronts us, What is the significance of modernity, and how can we understand its sudden transformation of world history?
What is modernity? We are left with the ambiguity of what we call the modern, next to the equal confusion over the meaning of secularism.
Is there a postmodern age? One of the most radical attacks on modernity is the gesture to posit a ‘postmodern’ age. But this idea suffers a curious contradiction, and expresses an agenda that is ambiguously reactionary. Postmodernists have wished to ‘deconstruct’ grand narratives, but we might as well wish to deconstruct the flat histories that are the result.
In one sense, the crisis is real enough. Environmental catastrophe looms, as the Age of Oil seems destined to a swift conclusion. As if to summon the spectre of Marx all over again, the Industrial Revolution itself seems under siege as a Faustian gamble, the automatic dynamism of modern capitalism looms as a monster out of control. A postmodern gloom seems to have settled on the prospects of the new age spawned in the centuries from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. But the modern is far larger than its economic contradictions, which have no pre-modern solutions. We seem to confuse economic dynamics with the fact of modernity as an already irreversible stage of history.
Ecological Reductionism One source of our environmental crisis lies in confusion of universal history with economic history and/or Darwinian evolution. This results in an ecological reductionism that makes wrong assumptions about environmental dynamics. In a period of mass extinctions the domination of Darwinian thinking makes us think speciation is purely an effect of survival of the fittest. But ecological environments show a Gaian aspect, and a balance upset by reductionist assumptions.
Our situation is not helped by the incoherence in our views of history. Here the influence of evolutionary thinking next to the economic interpretation of history has blinded us to any sense of universal history. The result is a kind of Darwinian economic fundamentalism resulting in a reductionist inability to grasp even the significance of secularism, or to see the complexity of innovations to which we cannot do justice beyond the questions of technology and the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the modern is a puzzle in itself, an almost evolutionary break in the continuity of world history. Exploding in the sixteenth century with the Reformation and the incipient rebirth of the Scientific Revolution, the early modern ignited a transition to a new phase of human culture, and by the eighteenth century the foundations of an entire new era in world history had been laid, graduating in the climactic moment of the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, and the onset of the Industrial era. And this is the historical transformation that has produced so-called secularism, and its collision with religious traditionalism.
There is an irony here: this phenomenon of sudden discontinuity is not unique and resembles the seminal moment of the foundation of our traditions. We can see clearly that a moment of great discontinuity, the onset of classical antiquity, was the source of the great religions as we know them now. But also, ironically, of the very secularism that now seems to challenge these traditions. It is altogether strange, and yet surely significant, that the age of the Upanishads, and that of the Israelites in the period of the Prophets, should occur in rough simultaneity, and gestate from the Indic direction the great religion of Buddhism, while in the case of Israel a reaction to polytheism should generate a new type of monotheism destined to characterize three subsequent religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We must pursue the investigation to the end, to find in the parallel age of Greece the seeds of modernity itself.
It is an odd pairing of opposites to see the parallel emergence of two world religions, of such different character. It is obvious that what we consider to be a secular age is a reaction to this legacy of the religions inherited from antiquity. But it is a reaction to their medieval construction. The period of their birth was something quite different. And these religious formations in turn were a reaction to the religions of their time. We should note that the rise of the secular is not so much a reaction against religion, as its transformation, visible in the Protestant Reformation. The distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ is misleading. We seem to detect a cyclical phenomenon. And, the enlarging scope of our historical vista is starting to show us eras of religion far earlier than what we take as religious tradition. Beyond even the world of Egypt and Sumer we can observe the archaeological remains of temples already ancient by the time of the first Sumerian cities. We can begin to see that organized religion was already ancient by the time of the first Pharaohs, and that temple complexes were already in existence in the millennia before the rise of the first great technological civilizations of Sumer and Egypt.
It is more than whimsical to cite a cyclical metaphor in a progression of epochs, for it will challenge us to consider the history of the many mythologies of cyclical history, and this in counterpoint to some reckoning of the idea of progress, the clue in fact to its reality. The trick is to reconcile so-called linear and cyclical views of history into a higher unity. The idea of progress has fallen on hard times, and in a postmodern period it is almost an idea in exile, and yet its significance for the rise of modernity is crucial, and its emergence in the early modern was as a challenge to the dominance of antiquity in the minds of those who began to see that what they called the ‘modern’ period was starting to outstrip the achievements of Greece and Rome. The ideological character of the idea of progress, and its degeneration into a form of economic propaganda, is a later development. The idea of progress was a great challenge to the myths of cyclical history, but there is an irony here, that the cyclical and progressive views of history might be reconciled in a fashion that actually demonstrates the progressive character of world history. Already as a first impression we have seen a series of discontinuities express the timing of a series of advances or reborn eras in world history, among them the rise of modernity. The riddle of linear progress is ironically resolved by seeing its cyclical aspect, an idea to confound cyclical myth-mongers.
The idea of progress is rejected by biologists in the discussion of evolution, and this has become one of the central dogmas of Darwinism, but at the very least the idea serves an essential function in our understanding of history, whatever the case with biology. Can we really look at the spectacle of emerging civilizations as a stasis of undeveloping entities? Clearly the notion that things are somehow in a process of development and complexification is indispensable in the attempt to chronicle man’s historical emergence from the Paleolithic. We need a new way to look at the idea of progress, to see at once its ideological abuses, and its essential rightness or inevitability in any understanding of evolution. Part of the confusion lies in the obvious way in which what might be seen as periods of advance, are in clear contrast to the longer intervals, all too visible in history, of what might almost seem retrograde motion.
In fact, prior to the archaeological revolution of the nineteenth century, the Western view of world history consisted of the tale of classical civilizations beginning with the Classical Greeks, and the saga of the Old Testament, followed by the story of Roman turning into an empire, which endured for many centuries and then declined into a medievalism whose total historical interval outstripped all else, and dominated the historical portrait until the quite recent rise of the modern. This overall perspective was not conducive to clarifying the demonstration of progress in history. As we move backwards, a strange perception arises. The same constellation of advance, then a ‘medieval’ stasis, is visible in an earlier cycle, beginning with the surge of higher civilization at the end of the fourth millennium, in Sumer and Egypt, followed by the less seminal centuries enclosed by its beginning, that finally fades away into the decline preceding the rise of a new era at the time of the classical Greeks.