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Peter King

The Antimodern Condition

Antimodernism is not a theory, but a way of being.

The antimodern condition is not a temporal condition: it is not against the now. Instead it is a way of looking at the world and understanding our presence within it. In essence it is a statement against progress and the idea of human perfectibility. It is profoundly anti-utopian in that it rejects the idea that we should sacrifice the present for the future. We know that humans are not capable of perfection and that the attempt to reach it is not only bound to fail but dangerous. History tells us that the search for human perfectibility is both futile and highly dangerous. Moreover, we only have one life, and we have ends to meet in the present; so why should we sacrifice this for a hypothetical future?

More concrete are the traditions that our culture is based on. These have created the sense of the familiar that provides us with some comfort. They are social practices that have stood the test of time and help us both to locate ourselves and to maintain a sense of home. We have inherited these traditions from our ancestors and we are charged with passing them on. In this way, we link with the sacred and create a continuity of purpose based on what we share with those who are now dead and those yet unborn. These traditions ground us and provide us with a sense of home. They are what keep things close to us and they do this by imbuing our surroundings with meaning. It is in this way that we can understand what is around us.

The key problem with modernity is that it prevents us from accepting what we are.

The antimodern condition is where we accept things as they are. As such, we focus on the surface of things. We do not believe that there are any hidden structures below everyday reality. There are no necessary outcomes dictated by history. History has no purpose and there are no means by which human destiny can be determined. The antimodernist knows that any attempts to explain history and to reduce all knowledge to the material level are merely strategies to explain outcomes that do not fit preconceived theoretical assumptions. The world is as we see it and its nature is open to us.

We have no desire to repudiate the past or to destroy those institutions built by our ancestors. We acknowledge that they were building for us as well as for themselves. We reject any sense that we are more advanced that those who preceded us and that we are in any position to judge them. Rather we acknowledge that we are the mere repositories of their achievements and that we would be nothing without them. This leaves us with an epistemological modesty. We are where we are not because of ourselves but due to the labours of others. But we are also aware that there is much we do not know.

We expect to make no discoveries in morality and politics. We do not believe that we will find a new morality or a better means for governing society. Instead we believe that we can understand our actions through the template handed down to us by our ancestors and we can govern ourselves through established forms that have stood the time of prime and proven their utility. We do not seek to avoid all change but see change as a necessary evil, which can only be sanctioned if it protects or corrects existing institutions. Long-standing institutions have a proven purpose and utility and this is to be preferred to any attempt to build new modes of governing based on abstract principles. This means that we should not feel the need to justify or explain the past. Rather we should understand that the past justifies and explains us.

We know that the past is fundamentally different from the future. The past is closed and settled while the future is open to possibility. We know that change will always be unpredictable and quite possibly uncontrollable. We are aware that it is easier to destroy than to create, that once we start to dismantle long-standing institutions we cannot rebuild them, and that once we set up new institutions we also know that they will develop in ways that we could not possibly predict.

Society has no end point and no purpose other than its own continuance. The purpose of any society is to transmit knowledge and traditions from one generation to the next. It is this knowledge and traditions that allow individuals to flourish and prosper. But this is not because these individuals have license to remake or to discard what has been inherited. Rather they flourish because of what has been gifted to them, and so we should see each individual as the repository of a society’s knowledge and thus it is their duty to preserve this and pass it on. Our principle aim therefore should be to protect and support our own culture.

The key problem with modernity is that it prevents us from accepting what we are. It forces us instead always to look forwards and never to accept where we are now. But the failure that naturally follows creates a sense of anxiety. We are told that we should aspire for change, but we tend to fall short and so judge ourselves, and others, harshly. Thus we can say that anxiety is the symbol of modernity. This anxiety manifests itself through egoism, where we put ourselves above others. We are right to recognize our own uniqueness, but we fail to recognize the unique of others. We place ourselves at the centre of things and so tend to use others as commodities. We do things because of what it supposedly says about us, and this arises out of the imperative to aspire.

The antimodern condition is where aspiration is replaced by complacency. Our sanguine acceptance of the world and our place in it allows us to find some comfort. We find solace in the banality of the ordinary and complacency helps us to assuage the implacability of the world. We can face the materiality of the world through our meaningful relationships with things. We find ourselves absorbed by a world of meaningful things and so we find can absorb these elements into our ordinary lives.

So, the very essence of the antimodern condition is acceptance. To be antimodern is to accept what we are and where we are. We know that we need fixed points to relate ourselves to the world. We put down roots and traverse well-worn ruts that keep us located. We depend on a sense of stability and permanence and through this we can be complacent within the world. Acceptance is indeed the opposite of aspiration. It is where we can accommodate others apart from our own needs. We are able to see the world as others do and come to terms with things as they are rather than as we would like them to be.

The rejection of aspiration means that we are able to know when we have enough and to appreciate what it means to have a sufficiency for ourselves. We know that we should limit ourselves and the principal reason for this self-constraint is that others too have needs. In limiting ourselves we allow others the freedom to act. We recognize that society depends on freedom, but that freedom depends on order. This sense of order comes from the constraints that are placed on each of us. The antimodern condition is accepting what we are and where we are.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Peter,
    I enjoyed your short essay, and I agree with what I take to be the primary sentiment. I wonder, though, why you prefer the term ‘antimodern’ to ‘postmodern’. What you seem to have described is a Nietzschean postmodernism: Amor Fati, Amor Mundi, Amor Vitae. Moreover, the term postmodern seems to carry an affirmation of what has come before rather than a rejection of the world (even the modern world). To me, this seems more consistent with your affirmation of acceptance and rejection of aspiration. Is it just a matter of repackaging a term that has been co-opted?

    1. Marcus, thank you very much for your comment. This short piece is taken from my book of the same name published by Routledge in 2014. In the book I develop the themes more fully. As you may have realised, the title of the book – and this essay – is a knowing reference to Jean Francois Lyotard’s ‘The Postmodern Condition’. Having said that, I don’t in the book discuss postmodernism very much. However, I would say that the key difference between what I am suggesting and postmodernism is that I reject the notion of transgression and instead emphasise acceptance. Indeed, I don’t agree with you that postmodern is an affirmation of the past, so much as cherry-picking of elements from history to use in a knowingly ironic way. Postmodernism, to my mind, uses tradition, but does not necessarily accept it.

      More positively, I chose the term ‘antimodernism’ because I wished to link directly with those thinkers such as Burke, de Maistre and Guenon who had explicitly rejected the idea of Progress. This is one of the key arguments in my book, and it seems to me that anything using the prefix ‘post’ is compromised as part of the argument against Progress.

  2. Fascinating. This really chimes with me and I think it fits nearly with David Goodheart’s Road To Somewhere. I’m definitely a Somewhere and not an Anywhere. This means I have certain antimodernism tendencies. The attitude that we must keep chivvying people to let go of their beliefs in traditions is something I find irksome. I’ve noticed that many of my own Rogers I’ve acquaintances get quite angry when I’m nostalgic and will try to point out how bad the past was and how I’m seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles. They seem to despise the past and look upon it as a time of ignorance, bigotry and stupidity. It’s a very arrogant view. We’ve much to thank the past for and we forget it at our peril.

    1. Mark, I’m glad you enjoyed my piece and thanks for you comment. You are quite right that there is a general tendency to denigrate the past and quite often I am sneered at on the assumption that I wish to go back to a time before antibiotics and modern dentistry. However, I almost distinguish between what might be called scientific progress and Progress (always with a capital ‘P’) which I see as a moral and political construct about the forward movement of history and the presumption that the future will necessarily be better than the past. I also think it is important to see the past as a place that we can use to locate ourselves, where we can say, ‘That is where I come from’.

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