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November 14, 2007


Joyless Moralist


I'm not going to get into this at great length, but I just wanted to make an observation and a suggestion. We have now on multiple occasions gotten into debates about what you identify as mistakes or inconsistencies in writers that you admire somewhat, but that identify themselves as being opponents of the moderns, or of modernism. You seem to take the position that these thinkers are attacking a phantom opponent, or at least an opponent who arose only in their own time and was soon vanquished. Sometimes you insist on identifying modernism as "the era after the 16th and 17th centuries" and the moderns as anyone who happened to be born after that time. But obviously this is not what is meant in this context, so that definition can be dismissed for our purposes. After that, you try to localize the problem, by agreeing "well, thinkers X, Y, and Z of this author's own time certainly were quite misguided; it's quite odd that he uses the term 'modernism' to refer just to them since they were a localized phenomenon, but there it is. Funny."

I'm not going to try to explain this myself, because we've already done this debate several times now, but I'll just make this one suggestion: I think you should try to exercise the principle of academic charity with respect to this group of writers. Here we have smart people, who command your sympathies in many ways, and a lot of them seem to share the view that that there is a pernicious philosophical shift, that can be traced back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and that accounts for a lot of the confusions and philosophical errors that we see today. And there are such people in our own time too -- and not only me and my crazy Catholic friends. The present Pope, for example, has written a great deal about the errors of modernism. Alasdair MacIntyre is normally classified as an "anti-modern" philosopher. Don't you think you should try a little harder to figure out what it is they *think* they see? When you have a better idea what 'modernism' is supposed to be, you'll be better equipped to argue about whether or not it's a phantom worry.

Chesterton is great in some ways, but perhaps not the go-to guy for formal position statements. When he talks about "democracy" and "liberalism" here, I don't think he intends that to include a lot of things that modern political theorists would take those terms to imply. For example, I don't think his idea of "democracy" would necessarily entail the holding of elections.

Nathan Smith

Well, part of the reason I quoted the Chesterton passage above is that he provides an argument of sorts-- or perhaps not quite an argument, a sort of policy-- that is part of what gives me a strong prejudice against the view that "there is a pernicious philosophical shift, that can be traced back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and that accounts for a lot of the confusions and philosophical errors that we see today." To reject the intellectual developments of the past 300-400 years would be to throw out the window the views of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on going back about twelve generations, and to accept a few self-appointed seers to channel the superior wisdom of a past age against the collective wisdom of centuries. Beyond any arguments about particular points, I am simply-- to use Chesterton's terms-- too traditionalist, too intellectually democratic, to be willing to entertain such a move.

Complaints about the "modern" are an ancient tradition. I'm not an expert myself, but I've heard in many places that you find them in just about every period of history. If you believed them, you'd think humanity was in perpetual decline. Now, there may be a sort of theological insight here: we were made, in Paradise, for a better state than that we are now in, and that longing for a remote innocence causes us perennially to look at the past through rose-colored spectacles.

Joyless Moralist

We're not talking here about little old ladies on street corners griping about "kids these days." We're talking about important thinkers, many of whom you already respect and identify with, thinking that there are specific philosophical trends (the origins of which can especially be seen in what we normally call the early modern period) that have had pernicious effects on philosophy, on recent intellectual development more generally, and on society as a whole, over the course of the last few centuries. Again, we're not talking about vague sentiments of general dissatisfaction expressed over tea by romantics nostalgic for "the good old days." We're talking about a sustained critique that a great many important thinkers (again, including many you respect) would identify as one of the central pillars of their scholarly work.

It's probably true that every era has nay-sayers, who claim that their intellectuals (if they have any) and their society generally are in a bad way. But what does that tell us? Nothing. Presumably some of these nay-sayers have been mostly foolish, while others were quite insightful. And then there might be a lot that are in the middle. You can't evaluate their work merely by observing that they are nay-sayers; it is necessarily to examine more closely the substance of their critique, which you, in this case, seem very reluctant to do. And this is why I'm saying that you need to exercise more academic charity here. A lot of smart people, from Lewis and Chesterton to MacIntyre and Pope Benedict XVI, seem to see themselves as being roughly on the same team in fighting an ugly trend that they sometimes refer to as "modernism." You should strive to get a clearer notion of what *they think that is* before dismissing it as a figment of romantic nostalgia.

Nathan Smith

Well, I've already read, I think, almost everything written by C.S. Lewis, two books by G.K. Chesterton, part of a couple of books by Pope Benedict-- I can't seem to finish his stuff, his style is hard for me to engage with, though I do respect him-- and MacIntyre's *After Virtue* and a few other shorter pieces. Also Arnold Toynbee, who I think held something like this view although he keeps it sort of under wraps. (Toynbee analyzes twenty-one civilizations and identifies certain historical phases as the genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration of those civilizations; he is nominally agnostic about whether Western Civilization has broken down or not, but seems to hint heavily that it has.) At the end of the day, I don't think I've found in any of these works any coherent idea of what this 'modernism' is that has supposedly had such pernicious effects, except possibly in MacIntyre.

C.S. Lewis's writings are full of moments that take cuts at the modern world while being tantalizingly evocative of past glories. He also has serious essays attacking certain contemporary strains of thought: I recall an essay called "The Poison of Subjectivism." These essays are not usually his best work and sometimes are a little embarrassing, but in any case to try to distill from them a counter-philosophy of 'modernism,' with a distinct history going back to the 16th or 17th centuries does not seem like a promising enterprise. I have encountered no sign in G.K. Chesterton that he has any notion of the 16th and 17th centuries being any kind of turning point; I could quote passages suggestive of quite a different intellectual history.

And the great MacIntyre? MacIntyre is a bit like Descartes: he is fascinating because he is radically subversive of many received views, and provokes profound thoughts and a revisiting of assumptions. I think he overestimates the importance of academic philosophy. One problem with him is that he's an ex-Marxist, and there seem to be many strands of his former Marxism in him still. His philosophy has evolved into something much truer and nobler than Marxism, but one gets the sense that he tacitly takes it for granted that Marx exposed modern liberal capitalism as a damnable farce at the level of political economy; MacIntyre is doing something similar at the philosophical level. Since, in fact, Marx was totally wrong about almost everything, that leaves MacIntyre's project in need of some reinterpretation.

In short, I have read the writers Joyless Moralist mentions-- at widely dispersed times and not always as thoroughly and attentively as I might, to be sure-- and it hasn't led me to believe that they are diagnosing some philosophy of 'modernism' which is a pervasive and pernicious influence on contemporary thought. Perhaps I missed something. But one picks one's battles. I think I can see well enough even based on this sketchy knowledge why re-reading these authors to look for the meaning of 'modernism' would be a fool's errand.

But perhaps I'm making it too complicated. Maybe it boils down to some simple points:
1) Chesterton, Lewis, Benedict and others are theists and Christians, and are distressed that deism and (later) outright atheism have become more prevalent among intellectuals than they were in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Why did that happen?
2) Modern philosophy is generally dated to Descartes, who is famous for his move of radical doubt. 'Modernism' is the philosophical climate which emerged from this epistemological revolution.
3) Critics of 'modernism' are angry at Descartes and at thinkers who followed Descartes' lead because unleashing the genie of radical doubt led people to doubt God, the Church, and Christian revelation.

If that's what's issue, I'm less frightened by Descartes' challenge, and anyway I think that just getting angry at Descartes for posing the question is the wrong response. I've developed my own answer through refining the idea of faith. Descartes and Hume seem to me to be the bookends of a certain rationalist phase that began with Descartes' bold project and petered out into Hume's skepticism. That many would question Christian revelation was surely inevitable in the wake of the global expansion of Europeans' horizons, the rise of literacy, etc.; you can't cage the minds of well-traveled, well-read people, and they'll entertain all sorts of ideas, with or without Descartes. But while Christianity lost a formal monopoly, it certainly did not perish; on the contrary, dozens of writers and thinkers gave it powerful new expression; and I don't think the claim that Christianity was weakened in "modern times" generally (as opposed to in certain sub-periods) stands up to the light of evidence; and of course, Christianity spread to many places where it hadn't been before.

That said, I do think there are some particular errors that afflict contemporary philosophy. I have a pet peeve about materialism and mind-brain supervenience. So maybe Joyless Moralist and I are not so far apart.

An analogy to Marxism/socialism in economics might be instructive. Mainstream economists from Adam Smith through Alfred Marshall developed an admirable theory of free-market economics, which was overtaken in the later 19th century, to some extent, by Marxian socialism, which vilified the theory of capitalism and displaced it in much of the world, and which provoked a lot of attempts, among people who did not buy into full-fledged Marxian socialism, to find "third way" approaches or "mixed economies" that modified much of free-market economics and compromised with many socialist tenets. I think most economists today regard Marxian socialism as completely false, and regard much of the Third Way agenda of regulating the economy and/or seizing the commanding heights as misguided and pernicious. So, retrospectively, economists like Milton Friedman who defended free-market economics in the hostile intellectual climate of the 1940s might have been in a position a bit like that which Joyless Moralist seems to think she and MacIntyre are: defending old truths, submerged by a tide of error; attacking the whole trend of contemporary thought. Perhaps ethics today is like economics in the 1940s, in need of renewal by drawing on the resources of the past.

And yet free-market economics was never so routed by socialism and semi-socialism as Joyless Moralist seems to think the true philosophy has been. It is one thing to say that unfortunate errors have spread and overtaken a majority for a decade or two, while a minority is still proudly bearing the standard of truth. But if philosophy, or even civilization, has been in the grip of error for three centuries, that sounds implausibly paranoid at best; at worst, a counsel of despair.

Joyless Moralist

I don't see what's so apocalyptic about it. In the history of the human race there have presumably been lots of times when wrong turns have been made that have influenced the ways in which whole societies, perhaps for centuries, have viewed the world. You're normally pretty willing to try to diagnose those ills with respect to historical societies or cultures. It can be more difficult to diagnose the ills of one's own culture, because of course, we've absorbed so many of our own culture's assumptions without even thinking about it, and even if we recognize particular fruits of our age as rotten (materialism, say, or Marxism) it can be difficult to draw all the connections between these more well-defined fields of thought, and the deeper assumptions that give rise to them and recommend them to large numbers of people.

Among the critics of such a large and widespread trend, you'll find different types. There may be some who approach the problem as intellectual historians, trying to chart as plainly as possible where the errors came from and how. But you'll also get poets and novelists who may be less direct, and you'll get journalists and apologists who will concentrate on more particular or localized problems, and the net result is that it may take a good amount of care and attention to figure out what, on a larger scale, the debate is really about. This is my general criticism: you recognize that many of the thinkers you admire are critical of the modern era, but you seem almost actively averse to understanding why. You put each criticism individually under your microscope and declare that there's no bigger picture to see, and you try to offer psychological explanations for their prejudice, or perhaps philosophical ones that are nonetheless very isolated to the particular time in which the person was writing. But we're talking about a lot of intelligent people here, so I'm suggesting that, both for the sake of the admiration you already feel for them, and also for the sake of intellectual charity, you ought to make a more concerted effort to understand what such writers as Lewis, Chesterton, Dostoevsky, MacIntyre, or Pope Benedict see in the modern era that they think is so troubling. (And by the way, I'm not claiming to have a perfect understanding of this myself. But I at least see that there are important connections between the criticisms of these different writers, and that the subject is worth pursuing.)

You should note also: the existence of pervasive errors doesn't imply that a society is simply depraved from top to bottom. We may even think (in fact, this seems quite plausible to me) that in adopting viewpoints that are basically erroneous, we have nonetheless come to appreciate certain genuine truths that were somewhat neglected in other periods. But we wouldn't want to let that justify us in being blind to its errors.

Nathan Smith

Now Dostoyevsky's part of the conspiracy too! It's exceedingly odd to put Dostoyevsky, who perhaps, if anything, goes rather too far in his anti-Catholic vehemence in "The Grand Inquisitor," with G.K. Chesterton, the enthusiastic papist. Certainly Dostoyevsky would not look back fondly to the High Middle Ages or the medieval scholastics: from a conservative Orthodox point of view, the role Thomas Aquinas plays might be compared to the role Descartes plays in the demonology of a Catholic anti-modernist: the rationalist who obscures the truth of Christ by defending it with arguments of inadequate plausibility and honesty, and thereby paves the way for doubt and atheism, when the right way of believing is founded not on reason but on faith and in the heart.

Perhaps this is in part a quibble about terminology. I suppose I take issue with the statement that "you recognize that many of the thinkers you admire are critical of the modern era." Historians have tried to give the word 'modern' a particular meaning: all history starting in about 1600 or so. The attempt is strained and only half-successful, and could not, I think, have influenced Chesterton or Dostoyevsky, who wrote before the term was thus defined. By its nature and etymology, the term modern is indexical: it means 'fashionable,' 'what is going on right now.' If we take it to mean that, then 'the modern eras' of Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Lewis, and MacIntyre are different, since these people wrote (for the most part) at different times, and none of those 'modern eras' is today's 'modern era.' If we take the word 'modern' in this sense, there is no escaping the 'modern' era, for we'll always be living in it! You can't beat 'the modern era,' for whatever climate of opinion prevails, that will be 'the modern era.' Perhaps the "apocalyptic" ring of much of what you seem to be saying is partly the result of an extraordinarily unfortunate choice of labels.

Anyway, the phrase 'the modern era' sheds little or no light on whether the thing that Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and MacIntyre were critiquing is the same thing, or, if so, what it is. In a sense, it's almost tautological to say that a writer 'criticizes the modern era,' for why would he bother to write if he was perfectly contented with everything, and what should he criticize if not some aspect of the times that he is living in.

What are the writers in question hoping to accomplish? Presumably-- among other things, at least-- they are trying to diagnose the ills of their respective modern eras in order that some remedy may be made. But if a remedy is accomplished, if the wrongs of 'the modern era' are righted, it will-- since 'modern' is an indexical term-- not cease to be 'modern.' If one declares oneself to be against Marxism or materialism, there is a possibility of triumph; if one is against 'modernity,' you are certain to lose. That's part of the reason that your objections to 'modernism' have such a nihilistic sound.

Moreover, if we see Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Lewis and MacIntyre as critics of 'modernity,' then we blind ourselves to their potential successes. Suppose, for example, that Dostoyevksy voiced certain critiques of evils of his own times, which were rectified, but the world was still imperfect, and new evils also appeared later. Chesterton voiced critiques of these evils, which were rectified; then Lewis and MacIntyre etc., each diagnosing the ills of his own ('modern') times and inspiring remedies, but leaving an imperfect world and failing to foresee/avert certain evils which occurred later. If one is on the lookout for critics of 'the modern era,' one might think that all four of these writers were criticizing the same thing, and that they were unsuccessful, since that thing is still around. But this reading would be completely wrong. My point is not that this really is a true characterization of the writers, but rather that, in order to find out whether it is a true characterization or not, one would have to have a more substantive idea of what they were criticizing than 'the modern era.'

But are there common threads? Now that Dostoyevsky has been thrown into the mix, I think we may say that materialism is one. I can certainly endorse the idea that philosophical materialism is a pernicious force, and one which is still, unfortunately, very influential. But if you try to call this 'modernism,' you run into the inconvenient fact that perhaps the chief proponent of one of the chief philosophical alternatives to materialism, dualism, was one Rene Descartes.

Joyless Moralist

Sigh. Look, I didn't pick the term 'modernism.' Among people who talk about this sort of thing, that's what they call it. I agree, the seemingly inherent indexical implications of the word will make for some awkwardness if historians 500 years from now (having fully understood and renounced the errors of said phenomenon) are trying to talk about it. Choose another term if you want, but understand that "nowness" is not intrinsic to the error that goes under the name 'modernism.'

You're quite right, of course, that Dostoevsky is pretty virulently anti-Catholic; indeed, he would largely blame the Church of Rome for the advent of modernism, because he would figure it was the Latins' infernal philosophizing that got people started down the wrong road. At the end of the day, however, the Catholics are not the enemy that Dostoevsky has most in his sights. I think that's all I'll say about him for now, but yes, I put him firmly in the 'critics of modernism' army.

If you want to call the thread between these various thinkers "materialism" then fine, that's a start. But of course, materialism is in itself just a metaphysical theory, and while metaphysics has a lot to do with the problem, you shouldn't stop there because there's more to it than that. Also, as you yourself basically point out, modernists are not necessarily materialists. But take materialism to be the enemy, if you want to, and work from there. If I may add: I know you don't find him terribly engaging, but I think the first hundred pages or so of Pope Benedict's "Introduction to Christianity" offer a pretty good thumbnail sketch of the relevant intellectual trends that I have in mind here. By way of intellectual history, that's the best "nutshell" explanation of modernism I can think of.

Nathan Smith

Well, the term 'modernism' is not used, as far as I know, in any of the writers listed: not in Dostoyevsky, nor in Chesterton, nor in Lewis, nor, I think, in MacIntyre. Correct me if I'm wrong. Nor have I heard it in the context of any context except from you, criticizing it. And none of the authors you cite as its critics tell us what it is. Does 'modernism' have any *defenders*, that is, defenders who expound and defend it under that name? Please refer me to them, if so. That would be some evidence that 'modernism' really exists. Or, next best, are there critics of modernism who give a systematic exposition of what modernism is?

Joyless Moralist

Again, I really don't wish to put so much focus on the term per se. I agree that the term isn't universally adopted by everyone I would label as a "critic of modernism" (Dostoevsky, for example, obviously didn't use it) but complaining about that seems to me a little like a complaint I once had from a student that nowhere in St. Thomas did she find anything at all about "Scholasticism." You just need a term to distinguish the strain of "set of related ideas of the modern era that are very wrong" from "the modern era" understood just as a period of time. I believe the term "modernism" may have been coined by the Catholics, and it is certainly used by them. A famous early usage, which may be responsible for the term's widespread use today, was in St. Pius X's great encyclical "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" (whose hundredth anniversary we observe this year), which is subtitled "On the doctrines of the modernists." So that's a good historical piece to look at if you want to trace the use of the term "modernism", but I've already said that I think Pope Benedict offers a good exposition of the relevant intellectual trends in the early pages of his "Introduction to Christianity."

My general criticism, however, does not require that you appreciate the term "modernism" per se. It's just that you seem to be observing more often of late that particular authors you like are making general comments critical of "the modern era" while at the same time insinuating that older periods were less badly confused. This seems to annoy you. But I don't think you have a very good sense for who the targets are, why they are so dangerous, or how they are connected to other pernicious ideas. And it just seems like you should try to answer those questions more satisfactorily before you lambast authors like Chesterton and Lewis for being irrationally prejudiced against the moderns.

Nathan Smith

re: "older periods were less badly confused..." Less badly confused *than what*? If Lewis and Chesterton thought that their own times were more confused than their grandfathers' times, they were probably right. But most of the silly ideas they critiqued have gone out of fashion since then. Lewis and Chesterton can't have been critiquing *our* times, since they were both dead decades ago. Seeing that today Freudianism and Marxism are discredited, there's reason to think that progress has been made. And then, of course, there's the little fact that they were writing at a time when millions of people were being killed for the sake of crazy ideologies with the approval of much of the contemporary intelligentsia. That's no longer the case. Even to the extent that Chesterton and Lewis did think "older periods were less badly confused," and I think the evidence for that is mixed, and even if they were right, which is still more dubious, it obviously does not follow that the critiques which applied to the intellectual climate of 1900 or 1950 apply to the very different intellectual climate of 2007.

That "modernism" is a Catholic term originating, in the 19th century, sort of confirms my suspicions. The Catholics were far more reactionary then than today. The *Syllabus of Errors* is one of the most terrifying documents I have read in my life. It cites all sorts of perfectly reasonable, commonsensical ideas (and a lot of stupid ones, too) offers no arguments against them, yet classifies them as errors, with the whole weight of a Magisterium which had only recently and reluctantly abolished the Inquisition behind them. No attempt is made to persuade, only to coerce. It is a bit like reading *1984* except that Big Brother is real, not fiction. I can understand how Dostoyevsky, a contemporary precisely of *that* Catholic Church, could have penned something as anti-Catholic as *The Grand Inquisitor*-- which I think regards the Catholics with horror for pretty much the same reason that liberals would, with the difference that he seems to suggest there's a utilitarian case for the satanic tyranny of the Catholics, and that he believes Christ, not liberalism, is the only real hope of freedom. You know more about MacIntyre than me but I suspect he would recoil in horror from being taken to endorse *that.* Certainly Dostoyevsky is a ferocious critic. C.S. Lewis, who lived before Vatican II, never submitted to *that*, with good reason. Even Chesterton, who would I suppose have endorsed it all, is a million miles away: he argues, he cajoles, he appeals to common sense, he romances, he is on the side of free thought, of liberalism, of democracy; anything but an appeal to the brute force of the state.

Even if there is some real philosophical substance to the idea of "modernism," this etymology underscores the urgency of re-labeling it. Anyone who believes in free thought should disdain to taint his pen by citing a term coined by such an odious source.

Nathan Smith

One more thing: even if-- which I doubt-- what Dostoyevsky, Lewis, Chesterton, and MacIntyre are criticizing *is* the same thing, that doesn't mean that they agree with each other. As an example of what I meant, consider Keynesian social-democracy. Now, Keynesianism might be criticized by free-marketeers, who object to its endorsement of various government interventions, and by communists, who object that at the end of the day you still have a market economy with capitalists owning the factories. But if you were to say, "Look at all these people criticizing Keynesianism! Keynesianism must be very bad! Let's take a look at these critics and see where Keynesianism went wrong," you're quite misguided. For what communists object to in Keynesianism is precisely its free-marketeer elements, while what free-marketeers object to is its proximity to communism.

I can't give any examples, however, because what the contents of "modernism" are is, in my mind, (even!) less clear than what Keynesianism means.

Joyless Moralist

Who's reactionary now? "I don't know what modernism is, and I've never read the document in question, but if it has any relationship at all to Catholics in or around the 19th century, let all people of goodwill shun it!"

What's so silly is, I'm not trying to propose anything very definite, except that trends that you yourself have picked up in authors you yourself like may have more to them than you seem to think. That was all. But very well; I don't know why you should take my words seriously when you want to dismiss the same in Chesterton and Lewis. I will withdraw.

Nathan Smith

Ugh, I seem to have lost my temper. Sorry about that. I suppose we're not likely to convince each other, though. We admire some of the same writers, but we don't see the same things in them.

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