What Does Modernity Mean?


Modernity is a concept that is vague and slightly ominous, a very broad term that captures a host of intellectual, cultural, and scientific trends moving in the same general direction. Generally, modernity describes a radical break from feudal, agrarian cultures, at least those in Europe. Notions of hierarchies and divine right gave way to individuality and self-mastery. Religious traditions and orthodoxies gave way to scientific, empirical, and materialistic explanations. Patriarchal property-ownership gave way social mobility, free trade, and capitalism. The rise of modernity undoubtedly advanced humanity far in knowledge, technology, and life span, but underscoring all of these achievements is a worrying uncertainty.

Modernity is fraught with paradoxes, a world with create human intellectual and creative potential that is sadly undercut by the very things that give us all that potential in the first place. We live in a world where the doctrines of human rights are taken for granted yet modern society dehumanizes us on a massive scale. We have a plethora of freedoms and civil liberties and we are masters of our environment, yet we feel more than ever we at the mercy of large forces we cannot control. We hold our principles of equality in pride, yet never before has there been more inequality between rich and poor. We have more freedom of speech than ever yet our diversity of opinion has drastically shrunk. We have the freedoms of voluntary association and a strong sense of individual worth, yet we feel isolated and cut off from other people.

Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, for example, describes industrial capitalism in the West. The Enlightenment defeated Old Europe and constitutions outlying our human rights have become the mainstay of civic life. Yet, as Marx describes, we are reduced to wage-laborers, our worth lowered to how much money we can make for the bourgeoisie. Our professions and creative labors lose their spiritual value, their highest worth debased to its economic value. In old feudal times, social hierarchies were at least varied and gradated into many different shades, from knights to guild-masters to serfs, each with even smaller subgroups. However, as Marx famously wrote, modern society stratifies further and further into two classes: a shrinking bourgeoisie and a growing dehumanized proletariat.

Marx also describes how we have lost control over capitalism, how capitalism spiraled out of its control, becoming a machine almost with a mind of its own. Marx insightfully points out how even the bourgeoisie, our supposed masters, barely have any control of capitalism. They do not control capitalism at all but merely try to keep up with it, constantly needing to reinvent the production and selling of commodities to prevent capitalism from collapsing. The bourgeoisie are prisoners of the system almost as much as we are. Perhaps they can steer the course of the capitalist machine slightly, but it is ever so slightly.

This is very saddening since modern societies have so much money and economic power they can put to good use for their people. Even Marx himself speaks about the vast economic power capitalism has. The nations of the first world have more than enough wealth, technologies, and recourses to literally end world hunger and provide health care to millions of people who really need it. Our technology and money allows us to speak and travel half around the world, allowing us to develop our ideas in all sorts of scientific and artistic ways. Sadly, though we do exploit some of our potential, we leave too much of it dormant, and our capitalist system ultimately serves itself, not us.

Tocqueville in Democracy in America makes his own insights of how paradoxical modernity is. Tocqueville recognizes how much freedom of speech Americans have and contrasts it to the limitations Europeans had under monarchies, especially despotisms. However, while Americans’ speech are free their minds are much less so. Tocqueville contrasts how people use their speech in “hard tyrannies” versus “soft tyrannies”. In the “hard tyranny” of despotism, the despot could silence and even kill his critics using the law but he could never stop dissenting ideas. He could never stop people from criticizing him behind is back. But in the “soft despotism” of America people are free to say what their want but their souls are silenced. Americans’ very freedom of speech turns against them, turning them into a tyranny of the majority, a mob rule where intelligent discussion is silenced.

Again, we see a paradox in modernity. We have a freedom of speech our ancestors could only envy. We do not have any of the harsh censors and punishments our ancestors did. We are not (in America and the UK at least) imprisoned, executed, or excommunicated for out speech. Yet, when we as a people are given such a priceless gift we use it to silence each other.

Durkheim in The Rules of the Sociological Method describes modernity’s contradictions in his own way. Durkheim says that our modern condition is marked by our feelings of isolation, despite out freedom to voluntarily associate with other people. In the premodern world, Durkheim describes us as “mechanical”, a homogenous people who all thought the same. In the modern world, however, we are “organic” creature of different individuals who willingly put our differences aside to work to a common goal.

Our individualism gives us great potential to work together as a team, but it is also precisely the idea of individualism, the idea we are unique, separate, unrelated to other people, that backfires on us and causes us to become isolated. Our modern feelings of isolation can become so powerful Durkheim used the word “anomie” to describe it. We end up feeling a lack of direction in our lives because modern society is so atomistic it cannot provide us with a universal guidance. In Suicide, Durkheim provides two types of suicide that fit well with the our modern crisis. Egoistic suicide comes from a pervasive feeling of not belonging and having no one to turn to, something Durkheim himself says comes from taking individualism too far. Anomic suicide comes from lacking a direction in life. In premodern societies, rigid hierarchies and strong divisions of labor gave people social roles and obligations for them. In modern societies, people are freer to choose their own social roles, but people do not always succeed in making that decision.

In closing, modernity is a paradoxical social condition where people enjoy great freedom and agency but also a place where people can quickly lose their freedom and agency. In a way, modernity makes a strong statement of our human nature. When given freedom, we have great intellectual and creative capacities but far too often we lose our way. Modernity holds radical freedoms people simply are not ready for yet. Most people, myself included, just cannot handle such a level of extreme freedom, empowerment, and self-ownership. Instead, people let themselves become controlled rather than controlling themselves, one of the causes that leads to the bewildering paradox we call modernity.


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