Modernity and the Origins
Go back; examine the infant even in the arms of his mother; see the external world reflected for the first time in the still-obscure mirror of his intelligence; contemplate the first examples that strike his eye; listen to the first words that awaken the sleeping powers of his thoughts; finally, attend the first struggles that he has to sustain; and only then will you understand where the prejudices, habits, and passions that are going to dominate his life come from. The man is so to speak a whole in the swaddling clothes of his cradle.
Something analogous takes place in nations.
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), Volume One, Part One, Chapter 2
[T]his human labor was spent in vain owing to one unexpected event which occurred at the moment of my appearance on God’s earth, and which was … that at that moment, through the hole made in the windowpane by our crazy lame goat, there poured the vibrations of sound which arose in the neighbor’s house from an Edison phonograph, and the midwife had in her mouth a lozenge saturated with cocaine of the German make, and moreover not ‘Ersatz’, and was sucking this lozenge to these sounds without the proper enjoyment.
— G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (Penguin Compass, 1999), First Book, Chapter 1, ‘The Arousing of Thought’
Modernity, in good historicist mode, takes its point of departure from a kind of Hegelian ‘antithesis’: the negation of the authenticity of any and all traditions. To put this for a moment into Traditionalist terms, Modernity denies either the divinity of the origins (e.g., the origins are purely material and lifeless), or the accessibility of that divinity (e.g., the divine origins are lost in the mists of time and cannot be recovered), or the bearing of these origins on the political and social forms of mankind (e.g., some god may have been responsible for the first conditions of all subsequent material development – for instance, the so-called ‘Big Bang’, to use our corrupted modern tongue – but these first conditions carry no moral or political imperative). That is to say, Modernity is either atheistic, agnostic or deist. The practical political and social consequences of all of these standpoints, however, are the same: Modernity regards the origins, insofar as they can be known, as being of lower dignity than what follows the origins; History, if it is not identical to Progress, is open to Progress.
The modern view of the origins thus contradicts the Traditionalist view, not only in the quality or standing which it refuses to concede to the origins, but more importantly yet in its very understanding of the idea ‘origin’ itself. Traditionalism viewed the origins as a divine principle or a divine revelation or even a divine social or political order which continues to be accessible (if with difficulty) and which continues to give life, validity, authenticity to all civilizations or men that consciously take their bearings by them. To Traditionalism, the origins are as a mountain spring which might flow downward and nourish even low-lying peoples and nations. By contrast, Modernity equates the origins de facto with the material conditions, the physical starting point of a thing, which not only can be, but must be, superseded: the origins are but the ‘building blocks’ from which higher forms might be subsequently constructed.
This material starting point has causal consequences for all that follows, and can to that extent be regarded as formative. The original ‘atoms’, for instance, according to the laws of their structure, attraction and repulsion compose molecules which in turn produce complex structures; the ‘amino acids’ of ‘DNA’ likewise, in their innumerable lawful combinations, machine-like produce a startling variety of organic forms; the earliest and simplest forms of life have evolved by force of environmental pressures into all subsequent and higher forms. But none of these ‘original elements’ can be considered legislative in the higher sense; they give at most the physical impetus and the physical limitations to what follows, but never the morality or the goal.
This differing view of the origins is owed in large part to the fact that Modernity from its earliest days has presented itself in contrast to pre-Modernity, to Catholicism and to classical philosophy, in holding to an anti-teleological interpretation of the universe, which is the sine qua non, among other things, of its science. While there is no necessary connection between anti-teleology and atheism,1 Modernity has embraced or tended to embrace an explicitly or tacitly atheistic anti-teleology. In Modernity, the idea of ‘progress’ would appear to be uncoupled on the one hand from divine law, and on the other hand from the idea of an ‘end’.
This last appears to make for a manifest contradiction, however; for how could progress exist without an end? Does not the idea of progress imply necessarily an end state toward which all things coalesce and advance?
Then we return: what is the modern conception of the origins?
We have said that the modern idea of the ‘origins’ was taken by its earliest philosophers to be strictly material. Many of its original thinkers, Descartes and Hobbes foremost among them, established this as the foundation for their thought regarding man; for they could build nothing save upon the bedrock of ‘facts and figures’, and could allow no exception to that rule even in the human soul. But this view of the origins implies necessarily that man, the latest product of those material processes, is himself nothing but a kind of complex or sophisticated machine. If man is matter and nothing besides, it should not matter whither he goes or what he does. There can be no means of ascribing ‘right and wrong’, even in the relative sense, to his choices or productions or deeds; there can be no means of measuring his progress or his decline. Yet the birth of this viewpoint itself implies progress: the modern mechanistic and anti-teleological view must be taken as superior to prior views; Modernity is at the very least to this extent better than all that has come before. But this very superiority implies, nay demands, a standard of improvement, and in turn an end by which such improvement can be measured. This end would seem in some way connected to human life or human existence, and would appear to suggest a telos for the human being, if not for the world. But the idea of a telos for man or world was a crucial element of pre-modern, not modern, philosophy.
The analogy which guided these early modern philosophers and led them to conceive of man as a kind of machine, points us emphatically to the same problem: Every machine which exists or can be imagined is built for a purpose, so as to attain certain rigidly defined ends. Any material assemblage, as man or animal, which is imbued with motion, is at the same time not imbued with a perfectly arbitrary motion; all ‘organic’ or ‘living’ forms have their special ways and their special aims. The early moderns recognized this difficulty in their view, and grappled with it in a variety of ways which it is not our business to consider here. We are excused in our neglect of their solutions by the fact that ‘historical progress’ once more intervened to save them from their embarrassment; the ‘history of philosophy’ overstepped the hurtle altogether in the person of a certain nineteenth-century Englishman who dedicated surprising quantities of time to the examination of the least-known wildlife of apparently insignificant portions of the globe. From these seemingly modest investigations, a theory was born which would offer a solution to the enormous difficulty into which Modernism had strayed.
Charles Darwin effected a total revolution here, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, we must avoid the commonplace error of reifying the significance of a theory which was, in the end, primarily of relative importance: The ‘Darwinian’ revolution, both in its content and in its effect, cannot be understood in separation from its modern context. The theory of evolution would never have had such impact, nor even have attracted a fraction of the notoriety and fascination which it attained, if the groundwork had not already been laid in the very standpoint of non-teleological atheism; Darwinism came into its own, not by dint of its scientific merit, as is often believed, but because it filled an aching inadequacy in the philosophy of Modernity itself; it suggested a way of comprehending the strangeness of life, and indeed of human life, wholly within the framework of a materialistic and non-teleological theory of the universe.2
In short, it permitted an understanding of life as material development over time, and proposed the emergence of life, if not from mindless and lifeless matter, then certainly from the lowest vital forms. Life is thus an ascension, a constant rising, which is however purely mechanistic and material; the origins are thus lowly, are constantly overcome by the subsequent phases of development. The proximate origin of man and his civilizations is, not some god, but ape and the proto-society of apes; not the heroes or the gods, but monkeys are his progenitors, and not spirit but ‘survival’ is his source.
The true revolution effected by Darwinism was not so much a ‘scientific’ revolution as a revolution in value. We might term it the vitalistic revolution, which for the first time established life qua life as the standard of human life in particular. But according to Darwinism, the origins of life itself are absolutely undignified; life is movement away from these origins, continual movement since its lowly advent. From simplicity to complexity, from the mindless to the thinking, from the absolutely base to the relatively high – that is the path of evolution. What comes after is mechanistically inclined to be ‘greater’ than what came before. The standard of life imposes the idea of progress.
Yet at the same time and for this very reason the origins, undignified though they be, cannot simply be neglected or disregarded. The measure of progress between one stage of life and any other implies a common standard or a common goal; else again one treats merely of alteration, the transition from one neutral state to another neutral state. Without a common standard to judge relative rank, man cannot be regarded as superior to monkey, only different from it; just as monkey cannot be regarded superior to amoeba. But there is an evident difference between the comparison between two organic beings on the one hand, and the comparison between the organic and the inorganic on the other. In the former case, comparison is clearly warranted; not so in the latter. The movement from the ‘inorganic’ to the ‘organic’ cannot be regarded as progress so much as cosmic accident, because the inorganic is strictly indifferent to the organic, and totally heterogeneous to it. There is no ‘shared value’ between them, because the inorganic has and can have no values; the idea of value is predicated on life. The advent of the organic is the advent of the evaluative itself; hence ‘progress’ is made only through life, only as a consequence of life. Whatever is beneficial to or promotional of life is ‘good’; only to the extent that it is beneficial to life can progress be regarded as a ‘good’. That which destroys or harms one’s species is never ‘good’; that which abets it or transforms it into a more successful species, is. Vitalism is inherently utilitarian.
What life seeks, what life wants, what promotes life – such is the vitalistic standard. Analysis of life itself thus becomes central to modern philosophy. But by evolutionary theory, life is seen as a system structured toward its own reproduction. All of this appears to be teleological, and seems to contain an implicit telos, and thus to undermine the very solution it proposed to the modernist dilemma. Yet this telos is always only contingently valid: the ‘telos’ of life does not hold good for non-life. The ‘telos’ emerges somehow with life itself, and is implicated in the very mechanisms which produce life. The idea of ‘telos’ is thus reworked by modern standards; the ‘telos’ is no longer that which moves a thing toward a given end by a non-material and in a sense supertemporal causality, as Aristotle for instance understood the final cause, but rather it is another way of speaking of those forces which propel the living creature from behind, as it were. It is but another word given to effective causality, but in an organic context. Put otherwise, it is not an end as a final cause, but an ‘end’ as a condition which effectively causes desire, will, appetite, etc., and which then is inadequately interpreted as a final cause by the subjective experience of living beings; not the object of desire presses an animal to move toward this the thing it wants, but rather the animal’s instincts, genome, DNA, which produces at the same time the sense of ‘desire’ and the feeling of ‘will’. The ‘telos’ is not a telos at all, but only the illusion of a telos.
This kind of logic is integrally associated with the modern substitution of rights for duties, which is not only analogous to but even quite possibly derived from the distinction between first conditions and telos. The conflicting views of the origins taken by modern and pre-modern thought explain their differing views of human societies. Modern thought holds the ‘end’ of humanity as being that which all men, or the vast majority of men, can attain, as living creatures; the ancients viewed the true ends of human life as being fully attainable only by a few whole or virtuous or excellent men. The ancients could thus give philosophical definition to the end of humanity, while the moderns cannot: that end which can be applied to all men proves strangely labile, because this idea of ‘end’ is mechanistically integrated into the idea of ‘life’, which itself is seen to be malleable, changeable, in the constant throes of ‘evolution’. This radically reframes the problem of human ends, and adds a layer of interpretive complexity to the question: for even when Modernity and pre-Modernity use the same words, they mean them in basically different senses.
A prime example of this is seen in the key concept of happiness. Happiness was regarded by no less a thinker than Aristotle as the summum bonum of society; happiness is also regarded as a legitimate goal of human beings today. But today it is considered an arbitrary or a subjective goal; no definition can be given of happiness save that which respects this amorphousness. It is the lot of each human being to determine what is his happiness and how he may best attain it. It is an end, but not a natural end, not an end fit for the nature of the human being as such, because that ‘nature’ itself is fluid or fickle; it is no nature at all. The true anti-teleology of Modernity reveals itself as a rejection, not of the ‘end’ per se, but of the natural end. Ends are thrust back on the ‘free choice’ or the seemingly free choice of the individual, which is a mere function of his biology.
This leads in turn and of necessity to a crescendo in the chaos of society, to the confusion and formlessness of modern mores and laws. Society, as ‘life’ itself, is constantly seeking to ‘overcome’ itself, to ‘improve’ itself, or even simply to ‘morph’; it allows itself no rest, admits in itself no ‘being’, hence no virtue, no excellence. Modernity begins from an apparent embrace of pacifism, petty materialism, vulgar economism: it appears to want nothing more than the comfortable life, conditions of generalized economic and medical well-being. But this modest and low-lying goal continually slips its grip, and it almost seems as though there were an element within Modernity itself which thwarts and outrages this goal at every turn. There is a restlessness, born in the West, but more pronounced in modern times than ever, which makes this bourgeois complacency finally impossible – not surely for the general run of men, but for those men who are either the best of the moderns or the most ambitious of the moderns or the greediest of them. These men see to it that the modern project is constantly second-guessed, set off its tracks, turned aside or called into question. And it will be by their force that the modern project itself will finally collapse, for good or for bad.
But what else can one expect? This is the consequence of the momentous abandonment of eternity which lies at the origin of the modern project: either nihilism as annihilation, or nihilism as the flame which greedily and ceaselessly licks at whatever is.
In this way, Modernity opens itself to the great vitalistic critique which formed the pith of much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy. For life does not consist in the quest for ‘well-being’ and creature comforts; it is no friend to peace, plenty, and harmony, as is constantly asserted by the protestations of modern society and the pleasant delusions it feebly attempts to enforce. The ‘standard of life’, the only standard left open to Modernity, continually mocks and scorns Modernity. For life, by the very understanding that Modernity itself has proposed of it, exists in a constant state of warfare, willfulness, striving, struggling, goal-setting and goal-overleaping; it is a constant overcoming of what is past, what is inert or outmoded; it is a constant destruction or putting under of the sick and the moribund; it is a constant shedding of the dead or the dying. Nietzsche is the vitalistic philosopher, the greatest philosopher to ever look into the wellsprings and abysses of life, and to comprehend its essence with the intent of establishing it as the standard for human existence. The entirety of the Second Essay of his Genealogy (to take only his most concentrated treatment of the question) bears witness to what he discovered. He called life a Will to Power; but the Will to Power is absolutely incompatible with a stolid bourgeois liberalism and a tranquil democratic order. For this reason, among others, the vitalistic critique of Modernity flowed into the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the last century, as a major tributary to a torrent.
This makes for a great point of contention and trouble in Modernity. ‘Life’ as a standard undermines the sense and goals of Modernity. Put generally, ‘life as the standard’ implies total contempt for origins, a constant will, tacit when it is not manifest, to escape or obliterate them. But Modernism itself is a kind of ‘origin’ of all modern thought: life exists in contempt of the very philosophy which proclaimed it to be the standard; the standard of life seems to contradict itself, to abolish itself.
This grave difficulty can be formulated from the other side, as well, by considering that which ‘life as the standard’ seems to neglect or omit. The Modernist interpretation of the origins – origins as material conditions for all that follows – is inadequate to explaining life, and human life in particular. As far as this last goes, the Modernist idea of origins is hard-pressed to explain the gods, how the idea of the gods originated and attained such power over human life; it is hard-pressed to explain the ‘truth’ – what the truth is, how it might be useful to life, and how to comprehend the evident difficulty that truth is in many cases hostile to life, even devastating to it, so that truth appears inexplicably to be a kind of anti-life sought zealously by a certain form of life; and it is hard-pressed to explain beauty – how to give a vitalistic explanation for all cases of the aesthetic experience, including those which subsume art, wilderness, ‘natural’ objects like sunsets or diamonds or the flowers of poisonous plants, and even things which are painful and horrible in existence. Nietzsche once more went as far as one can go in attempting the vitalistic explanation for all of this;3 but there is something visibly tendentious, something troublingly scientistic, something almost grasping and over-subtle in his attempts, as if they were all explanations ex post facto, wrung from the thinning fabric of argument to quench the thirst of a parched theory.
These three problems, of course, hold only for man alone among all living things. The Modernist is thus constrained to wonder if man does not represent a change in level with respect to the animal kingdom, in many ways even more startling than the transition from single-cellular to multi-cellular, from asexual to sexual, from aquatic to terrestrial, from plant to animal, from inorganic to organic. But this change in level, unlike the others, is sensibly inexplicable in terms of matter and inorganic forces save as one utterly disregards that which one would explain. The scientistic attempt to understand consciousness, for instance, forever ends up relegating it to the ghostly world of ‘epiphenomena’; freedom of the will, even the will itself, is reduced to a subjective illusion which has no true complement in the ‘real’ world of physiology; desires, artistic endeavours, religious beliefs, contemplation, justice, the virtues and practically everything which is distinctly human, is all understood as a throng of mere words and illusions set upon an obscure underworld of chemical necessity. The scientistic attempt to grasp the difference between man and animal ends with the denial of the same; to allow for a difference in kind here is inadmissable from the scientific point of view, for the very simple reason that everything which truly constitutes human life scorns rigorous measurement or mathematical reduction. This same thing happens with science’s consideration of life as such, as indeed we have intimated above; only that here the error is not so evident, because that part of life which science suppresses in its mathematical monomania is not so immediately accessible to our introspection. But from the simplest forms of life to the most complex, from the microbe to man, science collapses all superior forms into inferior elements, and cannot do otherwise.
This appears to undermine the ‘vitalistic standard’, if not to excise it entirely; and it is indeed no wonder that Modernity now and again drunkenly lurches toward nihilism as a consequence. Modernity seems constantly to be shambling along the ragged edge of the abyss; and ‘life’ is that single tentative thread which still holds it upon the surface and now and again tugs it back the hair’s breadth necessary to stop it from plummeting hence. Yet the downward turn is inevitable; it is contained in secret form even in the modern conception of life itself.
Assuming ‘life’ as the standard, one is compelled to adopt the notion of ‘progress’ which it contains, in the constant movement upward from the less complex to the more complex. By this standard, all that which came before has been effectively abolished or pressed aside or pressed under by what came after. The bursting asunder of all limitations is the watchword of this standard, and novelty is its refrain. The origins are equivalent to the material conditions – but these conditions are identical to that which is and must be continually overcome. The standard of life is characterized by a secret detestation of its own origins, a secret hatred for its own roots.
This can be seen most clearly in our modern technology, which is the fruit of this vast subterranean philosophy of ‘overcoming’; technology is a massive attempt to first ameliorate and finally eliminate the needs of life. It strives first to ministrate to life, to see to its wants and its requirements; but its final goal, make no mistake, is to deracinate the same. It wishes nothing more than to transform life into super-life, to force the next step in ‘development’ of the organic, to produce an evolution which transcends evolution itself. Not merely the eradication of disease, famine, and old age, but the eradication of health, hunger, death. Man himself must be made a thing beyond ‘life and death’: that is the pith of the ‘Singularity’, that is the end toward which all of these ‘transhumanists’ are ever tending. Modern technology, the fruit of modern science which itself is the child of modern philosophy, wants nothing more than to obliterate the conditions by which life is constrained, to split asunder the ‘origins’ which have imprisoned it. It is destructive of all things, including itself.
Thus the standard of life, which was meant to save us from self-destruction, goads us on to the same. We sup of it as a constant anti-venom against the poison of our times; but it itself is toxic, and sooner or later will numb our limbs and deaden our minds. We consume it as arsenic against our syphilis, but as the disease strengthens so must we increase the dose, and it is only a matter of years before the cure becomes the disease. But who in those days will be left to object? Who will not have fallen so far beneath the Modernist spell that he can still perceive the end result of all this? This path which we have outlined has but one destination: Modernism, even in its most desperate attempts to bury or bribe the unqualified nihilism which has always been its implicit core, cannot escape its fate. It wills the great nothingness.
1Consider, for instance, Nietzsche, whose Will to Power is inherently teleological: Beyond Good and Evil, §§13 and 36. But cf. §37; it is an open question to what extent it is possible to maintain a metaphysical teleology without final reference to some god.
2Curiously, it appears to be the so-called ‘new atheists’ who have seen this fact with greatest clarity. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for instance, were both strongly insistent upon this point. For a brief rendition of this, stated in all the remarkable eloquence with which he was gifted, see Christopher Hitchens in debate with William Lane Craig, at this point in his presentation.
3For his particular consideration of these questions, see e.g. Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, §§19–21 on the question of the gods; ‘On the Uses and abuses of History’ and the whole Third Essay of the Genealogy on the question of truth; and The Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy, Third Essay, §6 on the question of beauty.