What Is Modernity?- A Sketch

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Modernity. What is it? It’s a complex question, but it’s something we need to figure out if we’re ever going to evolve beyond its limitations. Cause we’re caught up in it, it floats all around us, so close as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s more than just a time period, or a particular geographical happening. It’s something grander and more strange than that, irreducible to singular coordinates. It’s the story of human growth, with its continual changes in form and meaning. And it’s a story of acceleration. 



Part 1- Evoluntionary Beginnings

“The very word “modern”- which has a surprisingly long history- suggests the beginning of a battle, a bit of arrogance, a cry of rebellion, a gesture of rejection (even destruction) of what is past”. – Robert C. Solomon, A Short History of Philosophy

“[In Hegel’s analysis of] the dialectic of Greek comedy, we find a thought that continually reappears in Hegelianism: man is the truth of the divine, but each time he reduces the divine to himself, he loses himself. By itself finite, it is human, all too human”. – Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

giotto-lamentationIn the works of the 13th century Florentine painter Giotto, we can witness an example what some postmodern thinkers have called an ‘event’- an eruption into time of the new. In Giotto’s frescoes we see the emergence of a hallmark feature of what will come to be called modern consciousness- a descending of the plane of authority from on high, down into the individual. “Giotto makes his figures more vividly credible because he wishes to feel more intensely the human drama in which they are involved…Giotto was, above all, interested in humanity: he sympathized with human beings and his figures, by their very solidity, remain on earth” (1). In those solid, earthbound figures of Giotto, we spot a movement away from the otherworldly authority typical of the monumental mythic civilizations of the Neolithic era. The Homo sapien now trembled forth to rule itself.

This development had, of course, begun much earlier. The first surge of this new individual identity, this descended seat of authority, had occurred in the axial period of the ancient world. The philosopher Robert C. Solomon speaks to the widespread birth of this new mode of being:  

Somewhere between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, a remarkable development was occurring in a number of far-flung places around the globe. In areas north, south, and east of the Mediterranean, in China, India, and areas in between, ingenious thinkers began to challenge and go beyond the established religious beliefs, mythologies, and folklore of their societies. Their thought became more abstract. Their questions became more probing. Their answers became more ambitious, more speculative, more outrageous…They attracted students and disciples. They formed schools, cults and great religions. All at once they seemed to be everywhere…These small groups of curious and sometimes curmudgeonly philosophers called into question the popular explanations of nature in terms of whims of gods and goddesses. They were sages, wise men, confident of their own intelligence, critical of popular opinion, persuasive to those who followed them…They were no longer satisfied by familiar myth and stories. (2)

However, it’s true that evolution meanders, and this new consciousness was born into societies, civilizations, and a period of history in which it wouldn’t yet come to rule the minds of the majority, not yet be able to organize the social sphere around its own emergent principles. That would have to wait until just after Giotto’s time, in Renaissance Europe and arabicaristotlethe Enlightenment. For now the self-governing ‘light of reason’ would have to survive empires, imperial domination, barbarism, collapse and the so-called Dark Ages, before it could have a chance to create the world in its own image.

But the seeds were planted, and the texts of that axial period would travel their own dangerous and circuitous routes to the lands and minds of medieval Europe. Plato’s thought would survive in the works of the North African St. Augustine. The works of Aristotle would pass through the Islamic world, where they would contribute to the Islamic Renaissance, and then on into the hands of Albert Magnus and his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas. The geometry of Pythagoras and Euclid would find its way to Copernicus. The time would then come for this earth shaking human development to further awaken, and finally step into its own world shaping moment.


But before we follow the twisting trails of that story, I must lay down some of the key beams and struts that underlie this unfolding drama. We must first ask- how can we understand this type of radical shift in human thinking, in human awareness, in civilization? I suggest that the key way to see this movement is through the lens of evolution. Human beings are evolving austrmanjust like everything else in the cosmos, and this includes human consciousness. What do I mean here by the word consciousness? I’m using the word consciousness to mean the way that human beings experience and interpret (and by extension, organize) their world (3). An owl, a worm, and a butterfly all experience the same reality in unique ways. There’s something that it is like to be an owl. Certain things show up to owl consciousness, while other things, like the moons of Jupiter, do not. The same is true for human beings. Homo erectus, out there on the African savannah several million years ago, wasn't aware of the earth’s orbit, nor discussing multiple universe theory. These potentials of human consciousness emerged much later. In fact, the very notion of evolution itself, that I'm employing here, is only a recent discovery of the modern period. And now we can use this understanding of evolution to look back upon human history and the human condition, and understand and interpret it in a whole new way.  

For those who follow philosophy, what I'm presenting here could be seen as a sort of evolutionary Kantianism. Kant argued that we filter and interpret reality through the ‘spectacles’ of our sense perception, and that this was regulated by categories of thought that were fixed for all time. I would agree with Kant in part- there are indeed structures of ist2_3881329-horned-owl-wearing-glassesconsciousness that guide, organize and order our experience, but these change over time, and in accordance with the environment they're always engaged with. Kant was just describing one particular pair of spectacles, not surprisingly, the ones he happened to have on at the time (4). Our knowledge of the world, as for the owl, is indeed mediated as Kant saw, but the tools of our human mediation- the concepts, categories and values that we use to make sense of our world and ourselves- develop. They evolve within a social context and change in response to the internal and external problem generating life conditions of our time (5).

Joseph Campbell was someone who recognized these fundamental shifts in human consciousness. In a discussion of the modern worldview, he begins by first citing a passage from the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)- “What I am saying is simply that sumerlife has a reality that is neither goodness nor meritoriousness, but pure and simple reality in the degree that it is genuine, that each man feels, thinks, and does what he and only he, in the most individual sense, must feel, think, and do”. After which Campbell poignantly comments, “Such a statement could never have been made in [ancient] Sumer. It would have been simply meaningless” (6). He then goes on to tell how in ancient Sumer the entire court of the King were buried alive with him when he died, in a mythological “priestly play” that gave order and meaning to the social system.

This was, obviously, a completely different time from ours now, a wholly different operating system in which the individual was still radically subsumed into the workings of the whole. But this is also exactly what needed to happen at that time in human evolution. That’s where we were at, that was what was needed to control the beastly passions, to provide both social and cosmic meaning, and to help diverse groups of peoples come together into massive new societies. That’s how we understood the order of things, and we organized accordingly. But at some hitleraddressesrallyatdortmund1933point, somewhere down the (r)evolutionary road, a spark within said enough, and it strode forth to ride alone, free, with the torch of liberty in heart and hand. But we haven’t always liked this new emergent freedom, this shift in our way of being. We sometimes couldn’t withstand the alienations, agitations and disintegrations that it wrought. And the episodic flight of the individual back to the whole in modern times has resulted in some of the most grotesque mass social experiments the world has ever known.

However, before exploring the layers of that story, let’s first lay down one more crucial pillar of this evolution bound drama, for it’s important to stress that human evolution has been a long, slow, painful process of our differentiating out from total embeddedness in nature. For many millions of years, Homo sapiens and their ancestors lived instinctually, just another part of the natural processes within which they were subsumed. And this was no love story either; this was no blissful Eden, living as we were at the behest of the powerful drives of nature.  For as the Marquis de Sade knew, and in contrast to the Romantics of his time, “Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty” (7). The powers of supernovas and beyond live within nature, ghastly explosive yearnings of creation and obliteration that helped forge and form the exquisite contours of the cosmos we live in. These powers still live in our chests, haunt our dreams, and spur our courage forward, always threatening to wrest us back under.

Carl Jung recognized all this when he wrote, “Primitives are afraid of uncontrolled emotions, because consciousness breaks down under them and gives way to possession. All man’s strivings have tribal-ceremony2therefore been directed towards the consolidation of consciousness. This was the purpose of rite and dogma; they were dams and walls to keep back the dangers of the unconscious, the ‘perils of the soul’. Primitive rites consist accordingly in the exorcizing of spirits, the lifting of spells, the averting of the evil omen, propitiation, and the production of sympathetic magic of helpful occurrences” (8). Modernity has its own dams against the unconscious too, but the mad primal waters have often found their way through.


As human evolution has unfolded through the ages, we've become more and more consciously self-aware as we've become more and more disembedded from nature. This unique creature is captured nicely in Martin Heidegger’s famous definition of the human as Dasein (literally, ‘being-there’), the “existent entity whose very Being is an issue for it”. Which basically means, as humans we know that we exist, we’re conscious of the very fact of existence, and this is now fundamental to what it means to be human. We’re the strange creatures that recognize we’re here, that are startled at the very fact that there’s something and not nothing.

But this comes at a price. The increasing self-consciousness  that we have gained from our increasing independence from nature has brought with it an increasing fear of death, a new and profound experience of terror, of the void, of a back-door nothingness that threatens to swallow the trembling new individual. “The fact of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as does nothing else; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness…The terror of death is ubiquitous and of such magnitude that a considerable portion of one’s energy is consumed in the denial of death- our filling time, our addiction to diversions, our unfaltering belief in the myth of progress, our drive to get ahead, our yearning for lasting fame” (9). So says existential psychologist Irving Yalom, and it’s worth considering when it comes to deciphering the trials and travails, the glories and the horrors, of modernity. It’s hard to truly make sense of the modern obsession with endless growth, with restless accumulation, with expansion and the desire for more, if we don’t fully recognize this death fear that rumbles away under its uncertain surface. Modernity is on the run.





The birth of modernity usually gets pinned on the work of some groundbreaking figure, like Descartes, Newton or Galileo, but the fact is that it was a slow drawn out process that built momentum over a long period of time, and in many diverse corners. The humanism that's rightly seen as such a big part of the European Renaissance spirit, and such a direct rejection of traditional Christian authority, actually developed within Christianity itself (10). And as early as 1115 AD, in a text addressing questions of natural science, we can hear Abelard of Bath already throwing the pro light of reason smack down: “It is difficult for me to talk with you about animals: for I have learned from my Arabian masters under the guidance of reason; you, however, captivated by the appearance of authority, follow your halter. Since what else should authority be called than a halter? For just as brutes are led where one wills by a halter, so the authority of past writers leads not a few of you into danger, held and bound as you are by bestial credulity” (11). Ouch! But each new awakening, each new victory of an independent esprit, found itself in the midst of an ever strengthening counter-reaction from the powers of the Church. “The guardians of the authority of Rome and Scripture were seized with a passion of anxiety that released throughout the Christian world a reign of terror matched in history only by the liquidations of the modern tyrant states” (12). The traditional world would not go quietly.

Descartes’ calm rational texts betray the fact that he lived during some of the most brutal and vicious religious wars ever seen, wars fought over competing religious beliefs, such as the Thirty Years War. The social philosopher Grotius tells of his experience of the 17th century- “Throughout the Christian world I observed a lack of restraint in relation to war, such as even barbarous races should be ashamed of…It is as if, in accordance with a general decree, frenzy had openly let loose for committing all crimes” (13). This is an important context to remember as we try to understand what the modern worldview was immediately pushing off thirtyyearswaragainst, what problems it was struggling to transcend and overcome. Descartes wasn't just having a good time as he sat in his pajamas by his bed, thinking about the properties of candle wax and the possibilities of an evil deceiver. In his Quest for Certainty, he was trying to place authority within the inner domain of the individual subject, and to safeguard it with new and universal methods that needed no external validation. The foundations that Descartes sought were needed to stabilize a war torn European continent.


The great minds of the European Enlightenment wanted to change society. They wanted to challenge religion and to protest corrupt forms of political power. And they wielded a constellation of new values and methods that they thought would bring about the radical reforms they sought. In Beethoven's Fidelio, the victims of injustice climb out of their dungeons and sing a great hymn to the new goddess Liberty- “O happiness to see the light”, they say, “to feel the air and be once more alive. Our prison was a tomb. O freedom, freedom come to us again”. Yes, it was the dawn of a new and glorious day. The new (European, property-owning) man would be self-directed, self-reliant, earning one’s wealth and status not through aristocratic privilege or by divine right, but through hard work and individual achievement. Finally, humans would break free of the cruel bonds of superstition and unassailable tradition.

D’alembert and his fellow philosophes were going to “lift the darkness that fell with the Christian triumph over the virtues of classical antiquity” (14). Emancipation, light and progress would be won using the new tools of rationality and benjamin-franklin-lightningscientific inquiry. Rationality- ratio, which literally means “to reckon” and “to calculate”- was a powerful new capacity of thought that enabled the world to be analyzed, pulled apart into its constituent parts, and understood through new methods of measuring and quantification. This rationality is characterized by dis-integrative methods, a dividing, sectoring way of thinking that sub-divides the whole into parts that can be understood in isolation. It's also capable of abstraction, which is a powerfully seductive way of distancing the thinking mind from the cunning pulls and impulses of those worrisome primitive emotions. Rationality and science together, it was thought, would unravel the ‘mechanisms’ of nature and finally unshackle and release humankind from her cruel bondage; nature would “now be harnessed by the hand of rational humanity” for the happiness and pleasure of all (15).

It was believed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment that these methods, which Newtonian science had proven to be so successful, could be applied to all aspects of life and society. It was thought that the replacement of irrational and oppressive legal, economic and social systems by the rule of reason, “would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness and virtue” (16). The new sphere of rational commerce was seen as a leading example of the Enlightenment value of tolerance, a place where, as Voltaire famously put it, “The Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian deal with one another as if they were from the same religion, and reserve the name “infidel” for tennis_court_oaththose who go bankrupt” (17). The magic ruling power of thrones and crowns would now be replaced by self-interested “rational acts of consent”. This individual liberalism was an explosive new value, and societies would be organized around this new ideal; a market economy would be central to this vision. The modern nation state would come into being to organize and order this new autonomous, competition driven society of free individuals. Diderot praised America for “offering all the inhabitants of Europe an asylum against fanaticism and tyranny” (18). Thomas Jefferson, for his part, had a portrait of John Locke, Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon painted for his library, calling them “the three greatest men that ever lived, without exception” (19).

brunelThis was also the age of heroic materialism, and this powerful motive force was soon wed to new sources of energy and speed- the steam engine, etc- the fruits of the liberated sciences. The industrial revolution exploded into action, and with it a “great romance of construction” (20). This eruption of construction was led by self-confident men “for whom nothing was impossible”, the types of men who built the railways over England (21). Even the poet Walt Whitman sang excitedly about what he saw taking shape all around him- “Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries, markets; Shapes of the two-headed tracks of railroads; Shapes of the sleepers of bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches” (22). It was an intoxicating and invigorating time to be sure, but this vast upheaval built in the name of light, liberty, and progress, soon started to groan under its own colossal weight. If this period of modernity was characterized by excitement and adventure, it was equally filled with turbulence, gross exploitation, and a fierce destruction of the past, where, as Karl Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into the air” (23). Artists in various countries had already begun depicting the factory as the entrance to the Gates of Hell, setting their critical sights on the ‘dark satanic mills’ at the heart of this new maelstrom. In fact, “opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself” (24). However, as the wasteland of modernity grew ever stronger, so did the force of its opposition. Eventually, after two brutal World Wars and the rise and fall of the Fascist reaction to modernity, some would come to reject the values of modernity all together, defiantly calling themselves- post-modern.





Part 2- Something to Which we are Condemned?

“Even until very recently the ‘modern’ has generally been the source of enormously inflated hopes. In recent years we have become much more aware of the costs and the burdens associated with modernity. Postmodernity in this sense could be characterized as the growing awareness that the ‘modern’ is something to which we are condemned”.
- Lloyd Spencer, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism

“The modern world, compelled forward by the imperative of continuous growth, is a juggernaut with no reverse gear…Its chronic malady- ecological stress caused by economic success- is now irreversible and, like all social addictions, will not be given up without a possibly lethal trauma…Every postmodern treaty put in its path is rolled over as if it were a mere bump in the road”.   – Charles Jencks, Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going?

A robust critical tradition has grown up alongside the hulking rush of the modern world. The complaints are many, the problems legion. Some critics have been concerned with how new, hard to see forms of authority came to operate within modernity. The new dominant institution- the Nation State- became increasingly centralized, bureaucratic, and rationalized, driven by efficiency and the mean/ends thinking needed to accomplish that goal. It became increasingly concerned with governing its new ‘public’ with various disciplinary practices of control and management. The nation state also became a new center of large-scale warfare and imperial domination; “Eurocentrism” and the colonial conquests that it justified quickly crushed the newfound Enlightenment value of equality. The Enlightenment thinkers had been excited by the equality explicit in the universality of reason: as Kant so passionately put it, “Have the courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of the Enlightenment” (25). One of the central doctrines of the Enlightenment was “that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant…That there were universal human goals; that a logically connected structure of laws and generalizations susceptible of demonstration and verification could be constructed, and would replace superstition, ignorance and above all, the lies of rulers” (26). But the colonialists would hide their voracious appetites behind this mask of universalism, claiming to be bringing modernity and progress to the conquered peoples of the distant continents. The truth was generally much starker- slavery, slaughter, exploitation and resource theft were the real ruling behaviors of the day (27).

9_Mies_van_der_Rohe_-_Seagram_Building_1969The Enlightenment devotion to abstract universal principles can be starkly seen in modernist architecture. The cold, lifeless conformity of its so-called ‘International Style', "reject[ed] the diversity of history and geography, and the specific needs of particular human activities, in favor of universal, timeless principles” (28). These drab, inert buildings- devoid of all context and relation to community- still mar cities across the world today. The critic Lewis Mumford described Mies van der Rohe’s buildings as, “elegant monuments to nothingness, having no relation to site, climate, insulation, function, or internal activity…[They are] the apotheosis of the compulsive, bureaucratic spirit” (29). Generally speaking, the modern disregard for diversity and tradition has been the flashpoint for a lot negative reaction in the postmodern era, taking on both progressive and fundamentalist forms. The modern retreat into the safe and sleek certainties of the rational mind started to choke off life; but Life would break through the dams, seeking to diversify and mutate once more.

The critique of the global homogenizing forces of modernity (what one sociologist recently called the ‘McDonaldization of Society’) is rather well known in our time. It helped spark the Slow Food movement in Italy in the 1980s for instance, when a McDonalds fast food franchise was placed too close to the Spanish Steps. But this voice has been a vocal and sustained countercurrent to Enlightenment principles from the very beginning, and has taken on many conservative forms too. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) provided a famous onslaught against the purveyors of the French Revolution, arguing that their utilitarian view of society as simply an aggregation of free individuals was “blind and deaf to the unanalyzable relationships that make a family, a tribe, a nation, a movement, [or] any association of human beings [hold] together”. A quest for mutual advantage would never be enough to bind together a society- a true human community must be based on “mutual love, loyalty, common history, emotion and outlook” (30). Justus Moser (1720-1794) argued that there was “a ‘local reason’ for this or that institution that is not and cannot be universal” (31). Several postmodern thinkers have substantially extended this demand for difference, plurality, cultural diversity, and local custom.

Lurking behind all these problems of modernity was a rationality gone awry and the raw power to which it was eventually harnessed. In its quest for certainty and autonomy, in its attempt to provide a dam against the irrational violence born of religious belief, Cartesian-style rationality slid towards disembodiment. It cut itself off from the emotions, the body and from spirit, and moreover, it championed this dissociative method as the only valid way to attain knowledge. “Descartes exalted a capacity for formal rationality and logical calculation as the supremely “mental” thing in human nature, at the expense of emotional experience, which [for Descartes] was a regrettable by-product of our bodily natures” (32). A once jewel-like power thus reified its own emergent capacities as the sole universal method for understanding reality, becoming in the process increasingly instrumental, calculating and objectifying in its operations; it also became symbiotic with new centers of political power, which utilized its immense capacities for administration, prediction and control. Experts, specialists, and compartmentalized thinking started to rule the day; linear, mechanistic causality was central to this governing framework, and humans and their societies were subjected to the crude simplicity of this view of life. The interdependency and complexity of many social and ecological problems was and still is, simply invisible to this operating system.

And this all took place in post ‘Death of God’ exile. The assault on traditional authority by modern rational consciousness- from David Hume to Sigmund Freud- slowly deflated and defeated the hold of religion in a great number of increasingly secular lives. If God existed at all it was now a Deistic God, who wound up the universe and set it running, only to remain permanently outside of immanence and time. The universe was seen as mechanical and meaningless. Mammon and the commodity became the new surrogate sources of purpose in the modern West. As Erich Fromm put it, “Ours is the greatest social experiment ever made to solve the question whether pleasure (as a passive effect in contrast to the affective effect, well-being and joy) can be a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. For the first time in history the satisfaction of the pleasure drive is not only the privilege of a minority but is possible for more than half the population. In the industrial countries the experiment has already answered the question in the negative” (33). The new human being and its liberated independence were now terrifyingly alone in both the cosmos and culture, condemned to freedom, and increasingly mired in what the theologian Paul Tillich called the ‘Age of Anxiety’. The solution for many was distracted consumption within the culture of the mass society, and life became filled with the perpetual chasing of unexamined desires. But to the eyes of the sociologist Max Weber, his contemporaries were nothing but “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; and this is_god_deadnullity is caught in the delusion that it has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind” (34). Nietzsche disparaged that becoming mediocre was the new morality of the time. It was perhaps the Trappist monk Thomas Merton that captured the spirit of this whole epoch best, when he wrote- “The secular world depends upon the things it needs to divert itself and escape from its own nothingness. It depends on the creation and multiplication of artificial needs, which it then pretends to 'satisfy'. Hence the secular world is a world that pretends to exalt man’s liberty, but in which man is in fact enslaved by the things on which he depends…. In secular society man is subject to his ever-increasing needs, to his restlessness, his dissatisfaction, his anxiety, and his fear, but above all to the guilt which reproaches him for infidelity to his own inner truth. To escape this guilt, he plunges further into falsity” (35).




Part 3: Eros, Thanatos and the Faustian Bargain of Modernity

“For the modern world and its leaders, the model of Late Capitalism is accepted as an article of faith. Its tenets of controlled competition have been elevated to a religion; its oligopolies and multinationals accepted as the order of things; its World Bank and IMF as its missionary arms, and global modernization as its First Commandment”.  –Charles Jencks, Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going?

“There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future”.  – Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950

The original story of the character Faust, who sells his soul to Satan, was written in 15th century Europe and has been re-told in many different versions since. In each telling of the tale Faust wants something different in exchange from the devil- sex, money, fame, and so on. However, in Goethe’s 18th century classic rendition, it’s now modern man making the fateful bargain and this time he wants something rather different: “development and unending growth” (36).  In its finalFaust-Goethe-03 manifestation, this desire of Faust’s is externalized onto the world where he’s driven to build and transform his physical surroundings for the future benefit of humanity. “He pits all his powers against nature and society; he strives to change not only his own life but everyone else’s as well. Now he finds a way to act effectively against the feudal and patriarchal world: to construct a radically new social environment that will empty the old world out or break it down” (37).  

It’s not, however, profit and money making that Faust desires; Goethe’s text is no anti-capitalist diatribe, his point is far subtler than that. Faust is propelled by a desire to conquer nature and to transform the earth in the long-term service of humanity. “It is the sound of shovels that vivifies him…it is amid the noise of construction that he declares himself most fully alive” (38). The tragedy of the story is in the blind fury with which this drive is so passionately heeded, and the sheer numbers of people that are sacrificed under the colossal wheels of its long-range vision. “The distinctive environment that formed the stage for Faust’s last act- the immense construction site, stretching out boundlessly in every direction, constantly changing and forcing characters in the foreground themselves to change- has become the stage for world history in our time. Faust the Developer, still only marginal in Goethe’s world, would be completely at home in our own” (39).

How can we make sense of this ceaseless striving for growth that has been at the heart of modernity, and further, the violence and brutal destruction that it has often left in its wake? A possible key text for understanding this is Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. In it Freud employs a pair of terms, Eros and the Death Drive (or Thanatos), which he sees as the twin drives of both human beings and the cosmos as a whole. Eros is the force in the universe that brings individual parts together into ever greater and greater units of integration and complexity (or ‘complication’ as Freud termed it). Freud argues that, “Civilization is a process under thedionysus-bacchus influence of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this” (40). The death drive is the drive inherent in the cosmos that tends towards separating, disintegration and dissolution. For Freud, human beings often deal with this inner disintegrating disturbance by projecting it outwards onto the world. Thus, for Freud, Thanatos is the source of human aggression and destruction. And for the later Freud, “the drive to subjugate our surroundings is a version of the death drive” (41).


But the relationship between Eros and Thanatos is a complicated one, as only a handful of philosophers have recognized. For it’s the perturbing agitating force of Thanatos that spurs and opens up Eros into further and further growth. Eros is thus the sublimation of the powerful destructive forces of Thanatos up and into creative emergence. As Freud says, Eros and Thanatos “never appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment” (42). Or as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze has put it- “Destruction, and the negative at work in destruction, always manifests itself as the other face of construction or unification… Beyond Eros we encounter Thanatos; beyond the ground, the abyss of the groundless; beyond the repetition that links, the repetition that erases and destroys. It is hardly surprising that Freud’s writings should be so complex” (43). Every system has three possibilities when it comes to responding to the disturbance of Thanatos: it can succumb to system dissolution; it can cling to its current organization in a fierce conservatism, and/or externalize the pressure outward in acts of aggression; or it can release into trans-formation and higher order levels of complexity. It’s crucial for modern civilization to accept that it will never evolve beyond this disturbing ‘dark side’ of our makeup- no matter how successfully we think we DestructionDepothave banished it- for it’s the very engine of our own creative evolution. If we don’t admit to and accept the constant presence of Thanatos we’ll continue to suffer the ravages of its untamed release, which has been such a devastating feature of the modern era. As Terry Eagleton points out, “history is dependent upon powers that are perpetually capable of sinking it without a trace…In the forging of civilizations, the death drive is harnessed to soberly functional ends, growing strategic and astute; but it continues to betray a delight in power and destruction for their own sake, which continually threatens to undermine those ends…Civilization must pay homage to its other, not least because there is a sense in which it lives off it.” (44)



The emergence of a distinct, self-aware human consciousness in the modern era is a powerful and remarkable achievement in the evolutionary unfolding of Eros. So why has there been so much turmoil and ruin in this very same period? In a word- separation. At the same time that the new individual human being was living within increasingly individualistic societies, it was given a new view of the universe as a meaningless machine. We were thus no longer connected to anything external to ourselves in any truly meaningful way. As Bertrand Russell so bravely put the new cosmic nihilism- “Man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving; his origin, growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms…All the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” (45). Going it alone, we now found ourselves uncontrollably wracked by the terror of the void, by the fear and trembling of our cold isolation, and we strove furiously to avoid feeling the truth of this alienation. We had become human, all too human.

And yet Thanatos would just not leave us alone, as we weren’t destined to serve only ourselves, but a larger picture, a deeper more cosmic narrative; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. As the philosopher Hegel knew, “man comes to himself in the end when he sees himself as the vehicle for the larger Spirit” (46). But when the Faustian bargain for growth and development is dukkhaput in the service of only our own individual separate-self desires, we get mired in an endless chase that the Buddha called dukkha, or suffering (47). We end up inevitably in the realm of the hungry ghosts, always starving for more, trying vainly to fill the infinite emptiness exposed by separation. Unable to withstand the force of the inner pressure (Thanatos) demanding that we open up- that we move from our current evolutionary moment of individualism back toward a re-integration with the broader whole(s) of culture, earth and cosmos- many have turned to diversion, addiction, and excess in order to dispel the inner torment and be freed of this unsettling power. Massive amounts of energy has also been expelled outward into the business of profit making, endless accumulation, and bald personal ambition. Reason and order have often given way to disorder and chaos. “Reason can restrain our disruptive desires only by drawing its own energies from them, fuelling itself from this turbulent source…Being too aloof from those powers, it will fail to shape and inform them from within, and so will allow them to run riot” (48). Modernity has been convinced that it is a vehicle for Eros, bringing progress and prosperity to all through its spectacular growth and development; this is the ideological mask it has proudly worn. However, its emphasis on the individual and its devotion to a strict rationality have left it vulnerable to a fierce Thanatos, a profound and destructive nihilism that is eating at it from within. More and more, disintegration and demise have come to rule the day as the refusal to answer the evolutionary call continues (49). Eros is struggling to maintain a hold on the human story.

Fortunately we seem to be waking up from this ever-increasing nightmare. We’re opening up hubble-eagle-nebula-wide-field-04086yonce again to powers and spheres greater than our own individual selves, and this is spurred on in part by the post-modern sciences, which are providing us with a very different picture of the cosmos. As Charles Jencks puts it, “Today we have a new metanarrative, coming from the post-modern sciences of complexity and the new cosmology, the idea of cosmogenesis, the story of the developing universe, the notion that the evolving universe is a single, creative, unfolding event that includes life and us in its narrative, one that locates culture in space and time” (50). Perhaps we’re now getting ready to once again collaborate with Eros, to move from the modern dominion over nature, to stewardship and dance. Maybe the prodigal sons and daughters of modernity are about to return home, unique radiant individuals, ready to be in accord and of service to the greater whole of which they are an integral part.


“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents  


[1] Clark, Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969. p.85.

[2] Solomon, Robert C. A Short History of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p.1.

[3] What I have presented here is in line with the following statement-  “I am using the word “consciousness” to refer to the phenomenon of being conscious, not to the neural events that make this first-person experience possible”. Wallace, B. Allen. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. p.6.

[4] “Habermas offers two broad criticisms of Kant. First, Kant begins his transcendental inquiry already knowing what knowledge is. As such he smuggles into his argument a form of “first philosophy”. The prototypes for knowledge are provided by Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry…Rather than openly reflecting upon competing claimants to the status of knowledge, Kant legitimizes a single, historically dominant, form…The history of the subject is lost and the “bourgeois subject” is rendered as a given…Habermas continues to seek transcendental conditions, but searches for them at a deeper level than did Kant: at a level that makes possible both knowledge as a diverse, historical unfolding human achievement, and a humanity that realizes itself, coming to consciousness of itself, in history”. Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. p.62-63.

[5] “The emergence of new structures of consciousness can be explained with reference to the developmental logic of the pattern of previous structures and to an impulse given by problem generating events”. Habermas, Jurgen. “History and Evolution”. Telos 39 (1979): p.31.

Also: “Isaiah Berlin has often repeated in his writings that Hegel showed with considerable imaginative genius that the history of thought and culture is a changing pattern of liberating ideas which form general attitudes and outlooks, which then eventually grow old and antiquated; their inadequacy to the texture of the lived experience of self-conscious men becomes increasingly apparent until finally they come to be felt as a constricting straightjacket which must be broken at all costs; new, emancipating conceptions emerge, which form new, more satisfying general outlooks, and these, in their turn, gradually grow into prison-houses of the spirit…Berlin holds a quasi-Hegelian view of history as an intelligible process of intellectual growth and self-correction- a collective learning-process [that] changes and grows through time”. Hausheer, Roger. “Introduction”. Berlin, Isaiah. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1980. p.l.

[6] Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology: The Masks of God. US: Penguin Books, 1968. p.576.

[7] De Sade quoted in: Clark, Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969. p.274.

[8] Jung quoted in: Tacey, David. How to Read: Jung. New York: Routledge, 2003. p.94.

[9] Yalom, Irving. “Death, Anxiety, Psychotherapy”. The Irving Yalom Reader. USA: Basic Books, 1998. p.183-192.

Also: “Heidegger believed that there are two fundamental modes of existing in the world: (1) a state of forgetfulness of being or (2) a state of mindfulness of being. When one lives in a state of forgetfulness of being, one lives in the world of things and immerses oneself in the everyday diversions of life. One is “leveled down”, absorbed in “idle chatter”, lost in the “they”…In the other state, the state of mindfulness of being, one marvels not about the way things are but that they are. To be in this mode means to be continually aware of being”. Ibid, p. 185.

[10] Solomon, Robert C. A Short History of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p.176.

[11] Abelard of Bath quoted in: Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology: The Masks of God. US: Penguin Books, 1968. p.589.

[12] Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology: The Masks of God. US: Penguin Books, 1968. p.594.

[13] Grotius quoted in: Solomon, Robert C. A Short History of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p.311.

Also: “In the seventeenth century, with all its outpourings of genius in art and science, there were still senseless persecutions and brutal wars waged with unparalleled cruelty”. Clark, Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969. p.245.

[14] Kramnick, Isaac. “Introduction”. The Enlightenment Reader.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995. p. ix.

[15] Ibid, xix.

[16] Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter Enlightenment”. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1980. p.2.

[17] Voltaire quoted in: Muller, Jerry Z. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. p.29.

[18] Diderot quoted in: Kramnick, Isaac. “Introduction”. The Enlightenment Reader.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995. p. xvii.

[19] Ibid, p. ix.

[20] Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts in the Air: The Experience of Modernity.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. p.30.

[21] Clark, Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969. p.330.

[22] Whitman quoted in: Ibid, p.334.

[23] Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Pocket Books, 1964. p.63

[24] Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter Enlightenment”. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1980. p.1.

[25] Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?”. The Enlightenment Reader.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995. p. 1.

[26] Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter Enlightenment”. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1980. p.1.

[27] “The colonial powers justified their assumption of authority and the distribution of roles to persons from the “metropolitan” country by a combination of arguments: racist arguments about the cultural inferiority and inadequacy of the local populations; and self-justifying arguments about the “civilizing” role the colonial administration was playing… The pan-European world, dominating the world-system economically and politically, defined itself as the heart, the culmination of a civilizational process which it traced back to Europe’s presumed roots in Antiquity”. Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. p.56, 66.

[28] Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p.156.

[29] Mumford quoted in: Jenks, Charles. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going? Great Britain: Wiley-Academy, 2007. p.30.

Also: “After the First World War, architecture took a fresh direction, turning away from the lush and decorative, the historical and the emotional; the resulting revolt against ornament and local color (or color of any kind) is one leading mark of what became the central movement in “modernist” architecture, which culminated in the buildings and writings of Mies van der Rohe…Mies abhorred local color. Instead he looked for universal principles of design, equally appropriate to all geographical locations. This was not just a technical choice. His wish for “universality” was the explicit expression of a Platonist point of view…These principles defined the central structure of a building, not in functional, but in structural (geometrical) terms…Mies’ ideas were not just universal but abstract, like the universal ideas at the base of Descartes’ philosophy. His program for architecture produced buildings whose technical mark was mathematical clarity and precision, but which could be used for a dozen purposes, and were equally at home (or out of place) in any city or country”. Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p.155-156.

[30] Berlin, Isaiah. “The Counter Enlightenment”. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking Press, 1980. p.13.

[31] Ibid, p.13.

[32] Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p.148.  Toulmin continues- “From Wordsworth or Goethe on, romantic poets and novelists tilted the other way: human life that is ruled by calculative reason alone is scarcely worth living”. Ibid, p.148.

Also: “At the heart of much European philosophy in the last hundred years lies the thought that the true order of the world is systematic: not only susceptible to rational analysis, but exhausted by it”. Zwicky, Jan. Lyric Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. p. 12.

And: “Galileo and Bacon’s new science reassured the early moderns of the power of thought, and the norms of “universal self-consciousness” came to be identified with those imposed by the requirements purely of reason itself. The application of reason to human affairs, though, proved less successful, since putting traditional norms under the microscope of rational criticism only served to dissolve not only them but also their early modern successors”. Pinkard, Terry. “Hegel’s Phenomenology and Logic: an overview”. The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. p.167.

[33] Fromm, Erich. To Be or To Have.  US: Harper and Row, 1976. p.x

[34] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Scribner, 1930. p. 181-83.

[35] Merton, Thomas. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. US: Harper Collins, 2003. p.52.

[36] Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts in the Air: The Experience of Modernity.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. p.40.

[37] Ibid, p.61.

[38] Ibid, p.65.

[39] Ibid, p.75. Also: “The process of development that the creative spirits of the nineteenth century conceived as a great human adventure has become in our own era a life-and-death necessity for every nation and every social system in the world. As a result, development authorities everywhere have accumulated powers that are enormous, uncontrolled and all too lethal”. Ibid, p.75.

[40] Freud, Sigmund. Civilizations and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961. p.82.

Also: “In Freud’s vision, Eros, present in every cell of living substance, has as its aim the unification and integration of all cells, and beyond that, in the service of civilization, the integration of smaller units into the unity of mankind. Freud discovered nonsexual love”. Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. US: Fawcett Crest, 1973. p.493.

[41] Eagleton, Terry. Holy Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p.11.

[42] Freud, Sigmund. Civilizations and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961. p.78.

[43] Deleuze, Gilles. Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991. p.114.

[44] Eagleton, Terry. Holy Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p.10,15.

Also: “And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle

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  • Comment Link ntcueti Sunday, 14 October 2012 17:50 posted by ntcueti

    What a brilliant article!

    I was drawn to it because of the last section in particular. Much to contemplate...

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