The So-Called Crisis of Modernity

On the one hand, I reject the modernity thesis, that there is something unprecedented today about the human condition, whether in terms of philosophy, beliefs, civilisational or social or cultural economic/material conditions, which did not have previous exemplars in the entire history of mankind.

Thus, I object to both the progressive and the reactionary, the progressive in their belief that somehow because of “modernity” (take your pick, science, democracy, freedom, human rights), mankind as a whole broken off from its past and has “advanced” in some radically positively manner in the history of the human condition and inaugurated a New Jerusalem; the reactionary in their belief that after “modernity” we are suffering under some new Fall of Mankind or cosmic metaphysical crisis in radical discontinuity with the history of mankind (and of course usually accompanied by idealistic fantasies of some golden age in the past).

As James Beattie, an 18th century Scottish philosopher of Common Sense, puts it,

They who form opinions concerning the manners and principles of the times, may be divided into three classes. Some will tell us, that the present age transcends all that have gone before it, in politeness, learning, and good sense ; will thank Providence (or their stars) that their lot of life has been cast in so glorious a period; and wonder how men could support existence amidst the ignorance and barbarism of former days. By others we are accounted a generation of triflers and profligates; sciolists in learning, hypocrites in virtue, and formalists in good-breeding; wise only when we follow the ancients, and foolish whenever we deviate from them. Sentiments so violent are generally wrong; and therefore I am disposed to adopt the notions of those who may be considered as forming an intermediate class; who, though not blind to the follies, are yet willing to acknowledge the virtues, both of past ages, and of the present. And surely, in every age, and in every man, there is something to praise, as well as something to blame.

General Civilisational Decline

Thus, both progressives and reactionaries have always existed in every age. But if this is so, then we will need another way to account for the emergence of these two extreme if modernity is not the cosmic metaphysical crisis which people make it out to be.

This is why on the other hand, despite rejecting some cosmic metaphysical rupture in the history of mankind, one can still judge that we are living in the age of broad, general, ongoing, civilisational decline or widespread civilisational changes. This is by no means unprecedented (especially when we consider the fall of the Roman Empire, the decline of the various Chinese dynasties, or any other civilisations in the world, etc), however, the decline or changes has been happening over such a long period of time, seemed so vast and universal in its scope and what’s more, so inevitable and unpreventable, that we might be tempted to believe that some grand spiritual villain has erupted into the history of mankind. This is especially so if the decline happens over the course of one’s entire life or even across generations, tempting us to believe that some super Antichrist is at work in the cosmos (or some new dawn of enlightenment if you’re a progressive) rather than it being the product of the cumulative sum of human or corporate actors.

However, the lessons of history shows that such “irresistible”, wide-ranging and persistent decline or changes, over generations, is not unusual and has happened before. Furthermore, such decline has happened because of the piece-wise abandonment of fundamental principles here and there which grounds the various civil institutions and orders which maintains a civilisation. Such abandonment is simply the result of the particular acts of individuals and corporate actors, a product of wilfulness, blindness, ignorance or passion, and not because of some unprecedented idea or system of thought or “worldview” or some totalitarian cosmic devil. Also, not all is lost even in the midst of a general decline, much good still remain among falling ruins, even freshly sprung renewed and replenished goodness and flourishing as other parts decay and rot. Remember, the decline is piece-wise, not because of a singular universal Antichrist conspiring with innumerable forces in its grasp. No sooner does one portion fall than does God in his mercy raise another one elsewhere to replace it. 

Pessimism and Hope

According to my Chinese nature, I feel that such a decline is an inevitable part of the cycles of rises and fall of civilisation which we can do very little about. However, according to my Christian hope, since such decline is merely the sum of particular piece-wise corporate or individual actions, thus, I retain the hope that even if we cannot save civilisation as a whole, we can preserve those bits which Divine Providence has entrusted to us, and who knows? Maybe if enough of us are responsible with what God has given to us, the divine mercy may condescend to save the whole. For indeed, shall not the Judge of all the earth do right, and spare whole peoples for the sake of a few? And if he does not, let us then pray that God would give us the means to ride out the decline and rebuild civilisation when it at last collapses.

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