Thesis: in the Modernist and Postmodern periods—say, 1918 to present—Western culture in general has been undergoing a period of depression. Or rather, first depression—Modernism—and then acedia, willful spiritual sloth--Postmodenism.
I anticipate an obvious response: look at all the progress we have made in the Twentieth Century. Do you really want to go back to Victorian times?
No, I do not. The issue is self-evidently not to go back into the past, since that is intrinsically impossible. It is to reconnect with specific vital things we have lost, and still had then. To that extent, and only to that extent, we should want the future to resemble this past.
You have lost your watch. If you take some time trying to find it, does that imply that you want to go back to the time before you lost your watch? And you are foolish and unrealistic to do so?
Specifically, what we have lost is our general and confident social and cultural connection with the Good, the distinction between right and wrong; with the True; and with the Beautiful. The three things that give life meaning.
But, you will say, what about all the wonderful social progress we have made in the Twentieth Century? What about sexual equality, the Civil Rights movement, the end of colonialism, the end of laws against homosexuality?
Let’s grant that these are all good things. However, in terms of social progress, do these things compare with what happened under the old cultural standards during the 19th century? Are they not, by comparison, fairly trivial? The ending of slavery worldwide—something that had been the norm throughout the centuries; the development of democratic government in France, the US, and, by mid-century, pretty much throughout Europe? How’s that for a record?
Colonialism was big, true, but this was not a new thing; it was not something the 19th century was responsible for, but something it did not correct. Empires have been the standard form of government everywhere for millennia, after all. One could also make the case that those European empires were, on the whole, more benevolent than those of the past.
And is nationalism—the alternative doctrine—such a self-evident value? It has itself led to some nasty things, like ethnic cleansing and Nazism and the Second World War.
Nor is it nearly as clear that the changes in relations between men and women during the 20th century have been as substantial and as clearly of benefit to women as those during the 19th. Votes for women happened just over the line into the Modern era, by our set boundaries, but it was the culmination of a long process. Philosophically, the whole thing happened over the Victorian era, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft. The vote was fairly symbolic by comparison. How low was the status of women in a time symbolized and ruled over by Queen Victoria, all of whose perceived sentiments became informal social convention?
One might even say that, since these great blows were truck, Victorian blows, getting the vote and since ending slavery, it has all gotten a bit confused. As though we had since lost much of our sense of purpose and direction. We fought segregation in the Sixties. Now we fight hard to protect segregation for native people. We fought to end colonialism, then we fought nationalism, now we try to form large tariff-free zones, recreating empire.
Gee, it is as if we are changing course with every wind that blows. As if we are sailing without a rudder or an anchor. Or without clear principles.
At the same time, to balance any claimed accomplishments of the Twentieth Century and Modernism, we really have to throw into the balance as well some other important claimed social advances of the Modern period: Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and the tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions of people they willfully and needlessly killed. And the hundreds of millions more lives they blighted or destroyed. These were all also Modernism social “improvements.” No need to mention abortion, so perhaps we won’t.
Next question: what went so off kilter?
I once thought it was the trauma of the First World War. But no, that does not fit. Truth is, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is plainly a Modernist work, well before that war. That war was a result of Modernism, not a cause.
I think, awkward as it seems to say so, it was Darwin. Darwin, and, to a lesser extent, Marx. But Marx came after, and very much built on, Darwin. As did Freud. It took time for their influence to work through the wider culture, but here is where the unravelling began.
People miss the real issue by saying Darwin was threatening to the religious culture because his theory seemed to disprove the existence of God. It did not. No doubt some wanted to believe so, but this is hardly apparent. Never occurred to the Catholic Church, for example, to think so. It might have weakened one of the most obvious arguments for God’s existence, the “watchmaker” argument from design, but if so, that hardly amounts to a disproof. Nor is even that so clear: if we believe that God is behind all the other laws of nature, and does not fling the lightning bolts personally, why is it a special problem to believe he is behind a process of evolution through natural selection?
There is, at first sight, a problem with Darwin’s word “random” in “random mutation.” If it is truly random, then God is out of it. But it is a principle of science, as much as of theology, that nothing in nature is truly random. That word used to seem to me to be unacceptable, but it is not if understood in the sense “mutations not appearing specifically for greater survival value.” And this is its only possible meaning in scientific terms.
No, the real problem with Darwinism—and this was what people like William Jennings Bryan apparently objected to at the time—was its corrosive effect on morality. Darwinian nature, as Tennyson put it, was “red in tooth and claw.” Darwin conceived the law of the jungle as an eternal war for survival, “survival of the fittest.” Given that God was indeed behind nature, this apparently gave divine sanction to pure selfishness. Or else there was not God, and again we had full sanction for selfishness. Life, properly understood by the woke, was a matter of kill or be killed. You try to be nice to your fellow man, and you’re just a loser.
You can trace the genesis of the First World War to exactly this concept. This was how Germany was seeing the world. They had to grab their chance, now, because in a few decades Russia was going to exceed them vastly in population and close the technological gap. They had to conquer and destroy Russia now, or, in a few years, Russia would destroy and conquer them. Kill or be killed. We are, after all, only weasels fighting in a hole.
And of course, more obviously, you can trace the genesis of the Second World War to it as well. A reading of Mein Kampf makes it plain that Hitler's guiding principle was Darwinism.
This has ben fudged recently by inventing the concept of “Social Darwinism,” as, supposedly, a gross misapplication of a scientific concept where it does not belong.
Perhaps. But if so, Darwin is himself guilty of this very misunderstanding, for he explicitly applied his theory to human societies in his followup to “The Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man.” A bit hard to find the clear separation here.
Communism is a more complicated example, because it traces back more directly to Marx rather than Darwin. But it is the same issue at base: conventional morality was defenestrated, and society conceived of as a life and death evolutionary struggle of class against class.
One can indeed even make the argument that the actual evils of European colonialism came not from conventional Victorian morality at all, but from Darwin. It was when Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest was superimposed on the enterprise, and conventional morality was jettisoned. This is what led to “subject races” being seen as lesser beings. Surely that is exactly what Joseph Conrad is saying in Heart of Darkness. A woman at home imagines Empire as a benevolent matter of helping the Africans to develop. But in reality, it is a case of “painted sepulchres.” The Africans are instead being lied to and ruthlessly exploited for gain, on Darwinian principles.
So the underlying problem of modern life is that we have lost our connection to morality. To the clear distinction between right and wrong.
And what could be more obvious, as the wild parade of postmodernism tramps on outside our window, that this is what it is all about?