Human progress, the myth of the modern age, is increasingly in doubt

Cruelty, plagues and the irrepressibility of a certain ex-president make optimism a tough sell.

Image by Cdd20/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Modernity is crumbling.

You can see it in the news. Rather than hearing about supposedly sophisticated, enlightened people, every day there are stories that seem to have been ripped from history pages about ancient barbarians and medieval vandals.

Halls of government are increasingly characterized by political theater more than rational, civil debate. We continue to grapple with the multiple long-term effects of a pandemic that is reminiscent of the Black Death. A former president, a leading candidate for the next presidential election, has been found liable in civil court for sexual battery.

Meanwhile, hundreds of citizens are being arrested, tried and convicted for violent acts undertaken to thwart democracy. Innocent people — including children — are being shot by private citizens simply for playing, sleeping, going to school or trying to pick up younger siblings at the wrong house. We drag kids to adult entertainment. The nation’s most-watched political commentator apparently doesn’t believe a word he says.

So much for human progress. Whatever belief one might have held in the possibility of this idea, such a belief seems less tenable with each passing day.

The notion of progress is a modern one. By “modern,” I mean the modern age that was birthed by the Enlightenment and the very real advances it made in human knowledge. What made the modern age modern was the scientific revolution, a dramatic shift in the foundation of what we called knowledge. Once rooted in religion and myth, truth would now be rooted in reason and science.

Modernity, however, still carries a myth of its own. 

The myth encompasses many things, but perhaps can be boiled down to a belief in the idea that our world and we can be governed by reason alone and that because of our reliance on reason our societies (and we) are more advanced than were people and civilizations of ancient times.

The myth of the modern, as a friend of mine observed the other day, is slowly unraveling.

Yes, civilizations rise and fall. Along the way, they have peaks and valleys.

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Those of us who’ve been around for half a century or more can attest to an overwhelming sense that 21st century American civilization has entered a valley. Our recent days are “defined by cruelty, lawlessness, the shattering of norms and traditional boundaries, and an eagerness to annihilate truth and trust in institutions,” Peter Wehner observed in a recent essay at The Atlantic.

The confidence in human potential, accomplishments and mastery over the natural world (one might more properly term such confidence “pride”) that the modern age cultivated is misplaced. It is all part of the myth.

Having given too much weight to this myth myself, I am at once chastened and cheered to see it unraveling. But recognizing it as a myth — in order to see ourselves and the world we have made more clearly — is perhaps our best hope. Science, technology and knowledge march forward, all based in reason. But the human condition remains unchanged. If we thought we are doing things better than our parents, our grandparents or our ancestors from long ago, we were wrong.

Yes, we are doing better on some things. Women can vote now! We don’t auction fellow human beings in the town square! We sneeze into our elbows instead of our hands! But even in these advances we lurch forward by emotion, acting out in partisan enmity, with little optimism about human reason. We rarely show ourselves to be governed by our rational powers.

I’ve spent the past couple of years researching and writing about some of the striking parallels between the 19th and the 21st centuries for a forthcoming book. As is our own day, the Victorian age, too, was convinced of its potential for both individual and social progress. Yet, in the midst of these hopes, wiser artists and philosophers offered prescient warnings.

One fitting warning for us can be found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, “Notes From Underground.”

The story’s narrator, an unnamed recluse, offers personal confessions about his past life and cynical analysis about his present society, a society taken with its own sense of progress and improvement, symbolized by the Crystal Palace, a real-life British monument built to showcase the best inventions from around the world.

Amid such breathtaking human accomplishments, the narrator imagines “a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance” who rises to say, “hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man concludes, “he would be sure to find followers⁠—such is the nature of man.”

Indeed, in the midst of America’s general prosperity, not just one ignoble gentleman, but legions of people seem gleefully, with arms akimbo, to be kicking over the whole show.

Whether such destructiveness is for the purpose of fame, power, wealth (or all three) it is hard to tell. Watching certain social media influencers gain followers by the millions with flame-throwing posts, I can’t help but wonder if the purpose is merely, and more basely, to fulfill some sadistic delight in causing others to suffer.

The Underground Man can relate to this too: 

They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls’ breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate.

The “halcyon days” of modern progress and prosperity lead to boredom — “It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people,” he says — which leads him to conclude, “I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins … ”

What is the entire outrage industry but the fruit of a bored people, a people who know not how to find satisfaction in the quietness of a book, the work of the hands, or the love of family and friends?

What is rage farming — the enflaming of passions that overtake reason for the sake of clicks and personal profit — but proof of the myth of the modern?

The myth of the modern is that the truth that will set us free is a truth of our own making. Perhaps the unraveling of this myth will lead us out of our current valley.

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