Fear and Loathing in Modernity

by Chris Berger

We moderns are uncomfortable with being modern. Such is the point of departure for Steven B. Smith’s probing new book, Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Un-Making the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow. This will make it of pressing interest for those interested in the political, philosophical, and even literary engagements with our modern context.  That word, “discontent,” diagnoses our present situation second to none other.  This is because modernity is a problem. Smith’s invitation to think over this problem could not be timelier.

For one thing, it isn’t clear just what, precisely, modernity is.  We can’t agree. What makes us modern? Is it our politics, our economics, our science? Is it our comparatively advanced technology and industry? Is it our liberal social interactions with others, our cosmopolitan relationship with the globe? Is it our secularism?  It is arguably all of these things, says Smith, inasmuch as modernity is the habitat of a unique species of human being unknown to pre-modern antiquity: the bourgeois.

The term “bourgeois” carries considerable baggage; Marxian, Romantic, and otherwise. It is almost always uttered to convey contempt and disgust, meant to invoke decadence, docility, and philistinism. While it’s no coincidence that it’s taken on these connotations, it didn’t originally have them. Stripped of all that, the bourgeois as a type of human being simply refers to the urban middle class birthed by the modern world, to a way of life characterized by “the desire for autonomy and self-direction, the aspiration to live independently of the dictates of habit, custom and tradition, to accept moral institutions and practices only if they pass the bar of one’s critical intellect, and to accept ultimate responsibility for one’s life and actions.” In a word, the bourgeois is us. And in spite of the efforts of hipsters and would-be bohemians, there are virtually no genuine exceptions to be found among us.

The problem of the bourgeois has dominated intellectual life in Western politics, philosophy, and art since modernity’s inception in Niccolò Machiavelli and his immediate Enlightenment successors.  Where antiquity teetered on the perilous peaks of grand tragedy and comedy, man up against nature and the cosmos, modernity is the project of securing the pursuit of happiness in the here and now for everyone in society – it builds on lower but more solid ground than did antiquity, seeking surer gains and less dramatic failures.

So the free, non-judgmental pursuit of happiness characterizes the bourgeois and his modern habitat.  But it’s not clear what happiness consists of, much less how we should go about achieving it.  Consequently, that project is riddled with self-doubt.  Even modernity’s greatest achievements have been attacked as edifices of vulgarity and conformism by its own – themselves all too modern – critics in the romantic and existentialist Counter-Enlightenment. Thus Smith’s question: “how did the idea of the bourgeois, once considered virtually synonymous with the free and responsible individual, become associated with a kind of low-minded materialism, moral cowardice, and philistinism?”

In order to answer this question, Smith delves into case-study readings of some of the signature proponents and critics of the modern project, or the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, respectively.  On the former side, we look at Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Franklin, Kant, and Hegel; on the latter, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Sorel, Schmitt, Berlin, Strauss, Lampedusa, and Bellow.

Whereas the list of proponents is dominated by the familiar Enlightenment philosophers, one thing readers will likely notice about the ranks of the Counter-Enlightenment is the prevalence of literary figures.  Surveys of the history of philosophy and political thought do not typically mention the likes of the novelists Smith has seen fit to include, like Saul Bellow (Mr. Sammler’s Planet) or Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary), much less Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard).  This indicates something interesting, not merely about the reaction against modernity, but about modernity itself.  If the reaction is in many ways a poetic one, then modernity would seem in some sense to be anti-poetic.

For as long as there have been human beings, there have been two broad modes of living in the world: one that strives to discover and accommodate itself to what exists in the world, and one that in a sense creates a world of its own and legislates how to live in that created world.  The former points toward philosophy, and the latter to poetry.  Philosophy loves truth, or “what is.”  It searches for and uncovers what is already there. By contrast, poetry’s root, poiesis, means “to make.”  It creates artifices or “artifacts,” fictions, or more or less accurate imitations (to put it Platonically).  It covers over, rather than uncovers – whether by design or not.

Poetry is the mythmaking that founds peoples and gives them their stories and aetiologies; it gives them, ultimately, their laws and religions.  Philosophy’s desire to see through such things puts it in conflict with poetry.  This is the root of the theologico-political problem, which encompasses the relation between philosophy, revelation, politics, and everything stemming from them.  It encompasses, in a word, the quarrel over the best way to live for a human being.

One of the crucial forms this theologico-political quarrel has taken is that between the Ancients and the Moderns, the latter of course being the subject of Smith’s discussion.  Beginning with Machiavelli, the Modern project sought to master Nature and, in Francis Bacon’s words, to “relieve Man’s estate.”  Machiavelli’s innovation came with his claim of conquering fortuna with “new modes and orders” that differed from the utopian fantasies and theoretical cities of the ancients.  This is the innovation that, in Smith’s words, “put us on the road to the idea of progress as the master trope by which modernity understands itself.”  It is that concept more than any other, “progress,” that distinguishes Moderns from the premodern Ancients.

The Ancients took the cosmic, cyclical forces of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth as perpetual and fixed, pertaining to everything from physical matter to political regimes; even the revealed religions taught that such cycles could only be altered by divine intervention (miracles) and “revelation.” The Moderns, on the other hand, following Machiavelli, thought progress could be made toward not only overcoming and breaking free from those natural limits, but controlling and mastering them for human benefit, and solely by unaided, profane human efforts.

A progressivist vision of the human condition may be the unifying thread of modernity, but what this progress consists in and where it leads is an entirely different question.  It all began with Machiavelli, but the Modern diaspora disperses widely soon after.  Smith’s sampling of Enlightenment thinkers covers some of the most lasting and influential of these legacies, from the liberal internationalism of Immanuel Kant to the secular humanism of Baruch Spinoza to the Lockean paradigm of the self-made individual in Benjamin Franklin.  They lead everywhere from unencumbered freedom and prosperity to rationalist social utopianism, all coming to a head in Hegel’s “end of history.”

This alleged culmination of human intellectual and political development, however, was not the era of grim, despair-inducing boredom we know from the closing pages of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.  Instead, Hegel, the greatest of the defenders of bourgeois virtue, “presents a veritable pantheon of social, cultural, and artistic achievements” that are a marked improvement over bygone ages.  This narrative of progressive improvement is consistent across the Enlightenment.

The diverse strands of Enlightenment modernity are matched in the widely varying reactions to them in the Counter-Enlightenment.  Some, like the Romantics inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, lamented the triumph of crass utility over the beautiful and the sacred, and yearned for a restoration or renewal of sentiment and “culture.”  Novelists like Gustave Flaubert brought this sentimentality to an anguished climax in anti-bourgeois protest, sneering at the sterility of modern science and commerce, yearning for an idealized past of passion and feeling, ending in suicidal futility (in the case of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary).  Others broadened these self-destructive tendencies to encompass apocalyptic conflict, vulgarizing Nietzsche’s will to power into the more brutish celebrations of violence and struggle in Georges Sorel and Carl Schmitt.

However, as Smith reminds us, we need to be careful to make a subtle distinction.  While these Counter‑Enlightenment thinkers were reacting against what Modernity hitherto had wrought, this is not to say that they opposed Modernity as such, root and branch.  Rather, and perhaps paradoxically, their reaction is “not so much antimodern as it is a higher or more advanced form of modernity.”  This is true in two senses.  In the first sense, these critiques of Modernity are grounded within and motivated by decidedly Modern ideas (more equality; more political liberty; more freedom of expression; more authenticity).  And in the second, “attacks on the Enlightenment are as much a part of the modern world as the Enlightenment itself.”

The discontent that accompanies Modernity is of a piece with that project in a way that exceeds merely self-reflexive critique or skepticism, which, far from being endemic to Modernity, can be seen to be present in the thought of the pre-modern classical world in abundance.  What sets Modernity apart is the self‑awareness that it is indeed a self-conscious project, and its angst with itself is with the aim of guiding and reforming that project.

Or in the language of Leo Strauss, Modernity has unfolded in three “waves,” each of which begins with what is ostensibly a rejection of the preceding wave but is in fact a deepening and radicalization of it.  The first wave, classical liberalism, as heralded by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, was succeeded by a second wave of Romanticism and the discovery of History as a narrative, ushered in by Rousseau and his followers Kant, Hegel, et al.  In the third wave, radical historicism carries the day with Nietzsche and after him Heidegger, the ensuing existential confusion, and the search for identity and meaning.  By such means, Modernity has marched forward to the present age in which the “facile optimism … linked to the civilizing power of science to conquer nature and to bring peace among the nations” has lost its power to enchant or convince.  If this is a lost cause as many in the Counter‑Enlightenment charge, what then is the task of thinking and politics?

Many of the big global news items of 2016 can trace their origin to the debate over the status of politics in human life in the Enlightenment versus Counter-Enlightenment dialogue.  We find this in the coverage and analysis of numerous Western elections, post-secondary campus movements, and the phenomena of globalization and internationalism.  The conclusive resolution to political struggles ending in the technically competent administration of things, on the one hand, and the reactive forces of identity and self-assertion, on the other, are the opposing forces behind the political debates of our time.

Politics, as I’ve noted in a previous piece, is deliberation over the nature of the good and the resultant action to be taken in light of it.  The fact of the high tensions and loggerheads inherent in the question of whether politics is surmountable, and indeed whether surmounting it is even desirable, attests that it is itself a political question.  The problem with politics is that there is no final solution to the problems of politics.  Indeed, that is the very essence of politics and, if we accept the premise that we are political animals, of the human condition itself.  We are forever returning to the question of what we think is good and how we should go about procuring it.  For better or worse, every generation and every individual must confront anew, often more than once, the difficulty of understanding, let alone answering, this question.

One crude but serviceable way of putting it, is that a question is political to the extent that it is controversial, and controversial to the extent to which it is about an important matter that is insoluble.  The greatest political questions could then be said to be the most difficult and confounding ones, the ones concerning most profoundly the good for human life.  It is in this sense that philosophy could be said to be the political problem, and political philosophy both the eccentric core of philosophy and philosophizing about the good for human beings.  This is why a Counter-Enlightenment thinker like Leo Strauss could say that the highest theme of philosophy is philosophy itself. Or in other words, that highest theme is the question: Why philosophy?  This is where the issue of philosophy as a way of life, as the inquiry into the best way of life and as the best way of life in its own right, emerges as the most pressing and most consequential question.  Constant awareness of the enduring problems and the competing alternatives to addressing them is the most fitting way of going through life together.

Taking this to heart, Smith concludes his book in fitting Straussian fashion:

The regime officially dedicated to the pursuit of happiness has found the attainment of happiness an increasingly elusive object of desire.  We live in a composite civilization made up of competing strands of both the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment that has made the emancipatory powers of reason and science seem increasingly illusory.  The progressive narrative could never entirely slough off its doubles.  We remain perpetually gnawed at by our manifold discontents – and that is a good thing.

We have the impression from this that the way of things is cyclical, a perpetual push and pull between two poles from which Modernity sought, but failed, to escape with its quasi-religious faith in progress.  However, if this were perfectly true, nothing would have changed between the Ancients and us.  Yet clearly, in certain ways, and despite the persistent elusiveness of conclusive and comprehensive solutions, much has changed.  How can we account for and learn from this?

The second part of Smith’s book could really be divided into two, to account for the two varieties of modern discontents.  As Smith notes, we have the one that accepted the Enlightenment’s anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, and rationalistic project, and that simply disagreed with its free-market, largely libertarian means.  This is the reaction that aligns more or less with the contemporary political Left.  The second group of discontents are the fully-fledged Counter-Enlightenment that “offered a deeper and more profound critique of bourgeois society.”  This critique was and is deeper because it targets the progressive assumptions about the prospects for societal reform.  This extreme attacks bourgeois individualism wholesale – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Sorel, Foucault, and Derrida fall into this group that seeks the deconstruction, root and branch, of Modernity.

However, Smith illustrates that, despite its apparent radicalism, this reaction cannot give up the bourgeois commitment to liberation and emancipation.  “The attack on the bourgeois, whether in its Rousseauean, Marxist, or Nietzschean form, is itself a piece of bourgeois ideology, unable fully to extricate itself from the very ideas of progress and freedom.  Postmodernism is, in certain respects, simply the Enlightenment on steroids.”  Is there any real alternative to the debunked narrative of the progressive mastery over nature?

This book points the way with its “moderate Counter-Enlightenment” thinkers, of whom it singles out Alexis de Tocqueville, Isaiah Berlin, and Leo Strauss (I would add Saul Bellow as well).  These thinkers and writers seek neither to return to a previous age nor to hasten the onset of apocalyptic fantasies, but rather to rediscover “the deeper resources built up within the Western tradition” so as to fortify and improve the better effects of the Enlightenment and remedy their worst.  These better effects include many of the trappings of liberal democracy, which manage to combine space for the philosophic life with moral and material benefit for the everyday individual.  Strauss recovered the classical conception of philosophy as a zetetic way of living; Berlin, the virtues of pluralism (as opposed to mere relativism); and Bellow gave us the comedic means to find humour, realistic optimism, and warm goodwill, rather than bleak apocalyptic cynicism, in our outlook on life and its future.

But it is Tocqueville, and Smith’s contrast of the travelling former aristocrat with the later Frenchman Flaubert, that seems especially instructive for us.  Where Flaubert railed against his era and proclaimed that hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue, Tocqueville, despite his high society roots, realized the onset of liberal democracy brought many opportunities, even for his own kind.  There were real losses, but they were not total, and new things were gained, too.  Smith paints a sobering choice to make:

Tocqueville probably shared many of Flaubert’s intuitions about his age – and as a member of the ancient aristocracy he knew whereof he spoke – but he refused to retreat from history into art and ‘irony.’  Tocqueville engaged the political world not from atop Mount Parnassus but from the standpoint of a civic-minded educator and teacher.  Each reader will have to determine whether the state of democracy today leads to a Tocquevillian sense of public-spiritedness and engagement or to a Flaubertian sense of nausea and disgust.

Where Tocqueville found sober reason for measured hope for the future, Flaubert saw the death of beauty, romance, and nobility in the victory of cold, calculating, sterile, sexually infantile automata.  It doesn’t necessarily fit the curricula of most political theory or history of philosophy courses, but Tocqueville’s reflections Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime, on the one hand, and Flaubert’s novels Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, on the other, make for an instructive crash course in comparative modern political thought and, indeed, philosophy.  How one responds to the competing alternatives in these books of Tocqueville and Flaubert “will determine what kind of human being and citizen one is.”

Leo Strauss, and I think it is safe to say Smith following him, responded favourably to Tocqueville, and acted on this by looking back to classics of antiquity, especially Plato.  He did so to rediscover zetetic philosophy, the back-and-forth that presumes nothing and is open to everything.  Not coincidentally, it’s not so easy to distinguish science and art in that landscape.  Plato, after all, is a philosopher, but he wrote dramas.  Nor is it a coincidence that Strauss, whom Smith emulates, is both a critic of modern liberal democracy and a defender of it, drawing upon his unique approach to the tradition to fulfill both tasks.

To found truly lasting new modes and orders, it seems you need both philosophic clarity and poetic technique.  Perhaps, then, we could do worse than to look back before the Enlightenment’s break with the classics to Plato, and even to Homer, Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, and the tragedians, who so masterfully combined the two ways, using poetic technique to point the way toward philosophic clarity.  Perhaps not a return to, but an open minded willingness to learn from that tradition can point a uniquely “post”-modern path into an uncertain and indeterminate future for us, a path that is neither Enlightenment nor Counter-Enlightenment but something else altogether.  At the outset of 2017, we are in need of such alternatives.  Smith’s book is a great way to acquaint ourselves with them.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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