The Rise of Modernity, part I

by Reinaert de V.

"Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum", photo by Reinaert de V.

With a title as upbeat sounding as this, one would expect that what follows is a tale of awe and wonder, a triumphant march towards a shining city on top of the hill. But alas, it is not meant to be, because as I will show with the help of three influential thinkers on modernity, there is in fact a slow but steady decline, a dissipation of energies if you will. What we will see is that with the rise of modernity man’s once bright future steadily grew dimmer. We will start off with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), the great dialectician, who is nothing less than the epitome of progressivism. And even though with his penetrating and prescient gaze he had already made some gloomy predictions about things to come, we can best typify him as a man of hope and optimism. A man who saw the historical development of Spirit as an irreversible and unstoppable force of emancipation. Next in line will be Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867), the illustrious French poet and art-critic, who, admittedly, is also a bit of an aristocrat and conservative, and thus slightly at odds with the whole idea of progress. In his famous essays on modernity, though, he paints a lucid picture of the hic et nunc, of the fleeting and the ephemeral – the very essence of modernité. With his unrivalled pen he manages to capture things in motion, as they happen, that is, as modernity develops – a task he has set for himself and which he sees as the responsibility of any artist who wants to be taken seriously. For him modernity is like a whirlwind of change, a collage of striking images that cannot help to dazzle and amaze. And yet, at the same time, he also laments those things that threaten to get lost forever, where modernity’s constant and unrelenting change tips over into decadence and degradation. He is the man of transitions – which he aims to immortalize – who lives in a time when old meets new, when modernity is slowly coming into its own. A moment when everything risks getting mixed up in modernity’s giant melting-pot.

Finally we arrive in the present – the eternal present – and come full circle with the French philosopher, social-theorist and historian, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who harkens back to the fellow who had set us on this light hearted journey, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Foucault wants a re-evaluation of modernity, which he hopes to accomplish by asking himself that very same question Kant responded to in the Berlinische Monatschrift, in 1784, namely: What is Enlightenment? His starting point will be Kant’s own response. By subjecting it to a critical historical analysis, he thinks it will not only lead to a much better understanding of what modernity is, but at the same time point to an “Ausgang”, a way out of the current predicament modernity finds itself in. His is a salvaging mission, both modest and radical. Foucault’s thinking could best be described as a disillusionment with modernity, at least with our present-day understanding of the term, and most of all with what that has led to. In fact, all three thinkers believe in their own way that modernity’s new found freedom hasn’t led to the promised autonomy and fulfillment of man’s true potential, but rather seems to have gone hand in hand with a diminishment, or even disappearance of what they call ‘the heroic’ – that moment when people take hold of their own destiny in order to shape it. It seems modernity, that proud Enlightenment project, which arose under the banner of “Aude Sapere”, has with Foucault finally lost the “spark of that sacred flame” which had set it off – or has it? For how bad is our current situation really? And more importantly, what are the answers and solutions that Foucault provides us with? Personally I am of the opinion that, even though some of the ideas Foucault puts forward are very interesting and recommendable, others seem quite risky and even dangerous. By tracing modernity’s development through these three thinkers, I hope to demonstrate that we cannot venture too far outside the Kantian framework, without losing our bearing and putting the whole project, and thereby ourselves, at risk.

 "Vatican Museum", photo by Reinaert de V. 

Hegel, Hope and Despotism

“True independence consists solely in the unity and interdependence of individuality and universality. The universal wins concrete reality only through the individual, just as the individual and particular subject finds in the universal the impregnable basis and genuine content of his actual being.”

G. W. F. Hegel, “Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art”


Let me start by giving a quick sketch of the Hegelian framework, before moving on to his views on modernity that will provide us with some valuable insights into the root causes of its seeming decline. According to Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art” (Aesthetics – Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998), the universal, which is the Ideal, can only actualize and externalize itself by way of the individual. The universal, thanks to its inherent unity of form and content, is characterized by its blissful repose and self-sufficiency. But before it manages to actualize itself, the Ideal appears, due to its unity and substantiality, as something divine or independent, and thereby comes to stand in sharp contrast to the chaotic world outside, demanding a reform, as well as the inner world of the particular individual who contemplates it. For the universal makes itself first felt in thought, as that rational unity which follows of necessity, in other words: as law. However, the individual who acts on his own, and without help of the universal, is usually regarded as being independent and self-reliant as well, but this is only apparently (or formally) so, because in fact he is in every way dependent on forces that are foreign and outside of his direct control. True independence therefore, is only achieved by acting in accordance or unison with the universal, for it is through this unity of form and content, body and soul – which is the Ideal – that individual actions gain in substantiality and effectiveness: “In that identity the substantial is immediately individual and therefore the individual is in himself substantial.” (Aesthetics, p.189)

The goal of the individual acting in this Ideal way, is to bring about a substantial transformation, namely: to change the world from an often quite hostile and haphazard place, into one that is in conformity with the universal. It is in this sense that Hegel can claim that the universal comes about, through us, with or without our consent (Aesthetics, p.183), since in our very striving for greater independence we inadvertently act so as to bring it about. And the way to accomplish this, is by making the world around us more rational and uniform, and therefore more accommodating to freedom, with the intent that “the surrounding world of situations and circumstances should not possess any essential objectivity independent of the subjective and individual.” (Aesthetics, p.181) Historic individuals who, thanks to their heroic feats and accomplishments, have come to stand out from the rest of us, have only acted in such a way as to realize this Ideal. That is, they appear larger than life precisely because, as mediators of the universal – which expresses itself in and through them – their lives and deeds are of much greater historical consequence, and therefore more “immediately” (Aesthetics, p.185) felt. In the end, it is the Kantian concept of duty, the categorical imperative which states that one should always act according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law, that allows the individual to rise above his personal inclinations, impulses, and will – above all that is incidental.

But, as he goes on to say, this Ideal, of a world governed and organized by reason alone, is only possible if the law has successfully separated itself from the individual. What he means by this, is that particular individuals throughout the course of history have taken upon themselves, by virtue of their unique character or a specific confluence of circumstances or both, the role of law-giver. Usually in the name of a divinity, as is the case with monotheism, whereby the universal manifests itself in the concrete as the imposition – as from outside – of divine law. Other examples would be the ancient Greek heroes, who often were the “founders of states [and bringers of] right and order, law and morals” (Aesthetics, p.185), but one can also think of the God-kings of the Cambodian Khmer who were the living embodiment of divine law on earth. Over time, though, through such important developments as the Investiture Controversy of the 11th and 12th century (and the birth of the corporation) and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, law starts to distance itself more and more from the individual carriers who brought it into being with such abrupt force, slowly transforming itself into a separate body of universal law independent of historical particulars. It is a process whereby law purifies itself of all its imperfections, that are the historical accidents, aberrations, and coincidences: it needed to come into existence. And by thus ridding itself – via our mediation – of everything contingent and inconsequential, it eventually achieves independence or “objectivity” (Aesthetics, p.181), becoming fully self-contained, self-sufficient, and therefore self-referential, for in “the state proper […] laws, customs, rights are valid by constituting the universal and rational characteristics of freedom.” (Aesthetics, p.182) In this way the individual brings to fruition what is already contained within himself in principle.

The problems having to do with modernity arise when the universal has completely and successfully externalized itself in the rule of law – and they are of a very curious nature. For given the logic of Hegel’s system, the arrival of the rule of law means that the individual, in an important sense has fulfilled its objective, becoming interchangeable and expendable as the result: “substantiality is no longer merely the particular property of this or that individual, but is stamped upon him on its own account and in a universal and necessary way in all his aspects down to the tiniest detail.” (Aesthetics, p.183) Put in another way, the objective rationality of the state is no longer dependent for its existence on the subjective caprice of this or that individual, since it has become a force with an inner dynamic all of its own. Even though this might sound harsh or even cruel – not to mention paradoxical – the system we helped bring into life (and that no longer has any real need for us) does provide the Ideal conditions for human life to flourish – at least according to Hegel – as long as man recognizes himself in it. Things have undeniably improved since those lawless days, when, still living in a state of nature, we continually feared for our lives: “in organized states the external existence of the people is secured, their property protected, and it is only their subjective disposition and judgment that they really have on their own account and by their own resources.” (Aesthetics, p.184) In any case, the legal framework thus installed, provides us with the freedom to express ourselves in any which way we want, and to follow our own interest as long as those interests coincide with the public interest – as any enlightened individual knows. Thus the enlightened individual is able to move about freely and realize himself fully by partaking of the substantiality that is the state, and thereby becoming more than what he was on his own. But if he does not, he will feel “the pressure and compulsion of necessity” (Aesthetics, p.192), and be restricted on all sides. And were he instead to decide to work against the system, and thereby prove to be a danger to it, then Hegel’s state would punish and correct the individual – and most likely crush him.

What concerns us here is the subservient role of the individual as subject of the modern state, and the decline that that seems to entail. In contrast to the heroic individual of pre-legal times, the modern subject has but a restricted share in the whole, more often than not, he does what he does as a person, and not for the public good per se. This abstraction allows for a greater subjective freedom or formal independence, but has as major drawback that the individual becomes like the proverbial cog in the machine. Someone anonymous, isolated, and estranged from his actions – as for example: “public authorities in a legally ordered state do not appear as individuals.” (Aesthetics, p.184) It is partly due to modern society’s continual diversification and specialization, that man’s sphere of influence has dramatically shrunk from what it was in pre-modern times. The state on the other hand, has grown to such proportions that it can no longer appear as the action of a single individual. Because of this increasing complexity most individuals are no longer fully cognizant of the ramifications of their actions, nor do they want to be held responsible for the whole of their actions if they could, instead they want to “share” or outsource responsibility, and be judged on their intentions and what they did know. The heroic individual however, is still part of an ethical whole – his community – and therefore “remains directly connected with his entire willing, acting, and achieving, so he takes undivided responsibility for whatever consequences arise from his actions” (Aesthetics, p.187) The main reason for this difference, however, is not a simple question of transparency, it is first and foremost because “the individual as such does not yet in those days find the substantial, the moral, the right, contrasted with himself as necessitated by law.” (Aesthetics, p.190) Which means that the heroic individual still had a substantial role to play, there were still fights to be fought and battles to be won – whereas nowadays the scope for the Ideal is of a very limited kind.

The punishment of crime in modern society, to take another striking example, is no longer a matter of personal heroism. On the contrary it is split up, and separate tasks are assigned to different state departments, and dealt with according to pre-established public norms. But in heroic times, where the whole ethical order rested on the individual, justice more often than not took the form of vengeance, whereby subjective feelings of anger, resentment, hatred, and rage got into the mix. And with no public authority to hold anyone accountable, what was just and right depended solely on that inner necessity which is vitally individualized in particular characters.” (Aesthetics, p.184) Nevertheless, it is exactly this Ideal, of justice and the universal taking on individual shape, that inspires art and provides it with dramatic content. Because the individual appears free and heroic only by overreaching himself and identifying “with the whole substantiality of the spiritual relations which he is bringing into living actuality.” (Aesthetics, p.189) Herein lies also the danger, for the heroic presupposes a “stage” or situation in which the individual is allowed to assert himself, which is essentially a state of lawlessness. This is why art tends to look back to pre-modern times, in order to find proper subject matter. If instead art takes modernity as its setting, then “only a revolt against the whole of civil society itself” (Aesthetics, p.195) can provide its characters with sufficient substance, because, one way or the other, art demands a suspension of the rules. The same goes for modern man, since he can no longer as it was the case in previous times, identify himself with the totality of his actions without thereby breaking the mold of society. That is, he can no longer stress his identity too strongly. It is in this way that modernity’s predicament finds itself reflected in art, and that the freedom of art – which is a freedom of content – is related to that of man. For it is the substance which is lost that needs to be reclaimed, but at the same time entailing the danger of destabilizing society. And even though Hegel states that “the interest and need in such an actual individual totality and living independence” (Aesthetics, p.195) cannot and must not be sacrificed, he at the same time predicts art’s imminent demise…

"Berlin Tiergarten", photo by Reinaert de V. 

Next week we will turn to Charles Baudelaire who, clearly fascinated with modernity, explored many similar themes, albeit from a different angle and with interesting and important variations.