This Is the Modern World


This month's edition of Cato Unbound tackles one of the most interesting questions historians have: Where did modernity come from? Stephen Davies leads off with a revision and synthesis of several classical liberal theories about the issue; his essay has attracted a friendly critique from Jack Goldstone, one of the scholars whose work Davies drew on and revised, and some more scathing criticisms from Anthony Pagden, who doubts many of Davies' premises. Jason Kuznicki will weigh in with another response to Davies next week, and then Davies will answer his critics. Watch it all unfold here.

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  1. Where did modernity come from?


    Without wresting the rational viewpoint away from the unexamined assumptions of faith, modernity could not and would not exist.

    1. And I applaud all references to The Jam.

      1. I almost did the Modern Lovers instead, but I couldn’t figure out a way to work the phrase “put down your cigarette, and drop out of BU” into the post…

        1. *bows down to Jesse*

      2. He doesn’t give two fucks about your review.

        1. Oh high#.

          There is pain inside
          You can see it in my eyes
          It makes me think about me
          That I’ve lost my pride

  2. SF, while that’s a definite part of it, if that was entirely the case, the ancient Greeks would have been the first moderns. They were the first to really attempt to examine the world and the universe totally divorced from a supernatural context.

    1. But think how far they went with what they had. Math. Geometry. Representational art. Atomic theory. Chaos theory.

      Think of how shockingly modern they were for their time, when 99% of the rest of the world could barely see past the needs of next week.

      Medieval Europe sucked the rich marrow from the bones of that culture for over a thousand years.

      1. Mmmm, culture marrow.

  3. That’s true. It’s interesting to think what the Athenians could have come up with had their civilization remained extant for a few hundred more years.

  4. Also, the Renaissance only started after Europe regained the works of Greek philosophers and mathematicians from the Arabs. Hmm…

    1. Well, and the fact that the Renaissance was also about people looking around at the carnage of The Black Plague and realizing they didn’t want to have gone through all that just to go back to the same dreary shit as before.

  5. It is clear to me that all of history before my birth is irrelevant. Unless I can reference it ironically, of course.

  6. I’m not on a “faith makes you stupid, hurr, hurr” rant. The reason religion (not faith) had to be overthrown for the modern world to exist was rooted in the royal and feudal systems, supported by religion in Europe.

    Feudal societies, monarchical and legalistically aristocratic societies are essentially static. Only 1-5% of the society has anything approaching individual rights or self-ownership. Rigid social stratification wasted innovative individuals by offering no reward for effort.

    And all this, the Dark Ages, was created and supported by the symbiotic relationship between royalty and the church. Without the divine right of kings buttressing the system–without the threat that disobedience to the king was a sin–it would collapse. Without the consent of the temporal authority, the church wouldn’t have been able to “tax” the wealth that should have belonged to the king.

    Until secularism–the mere ability to even question if this is how things are cosmically designed to be–this feedback loop of church and royalty trapped humans in an amber prison of sluggish progress.

    It’s not about God, it’s about the assholes who used God to fuck us over and keep us slaves for a thousand years.

    1. Don’t worry, repairations are on the way!

  7. Damn, why do the good threads come up late? I’ve got to go, you guys have a nice night.

  8. Damn, why do all the good commenters have to have a social life? You have a good ‘un, too, SugarFree.

  9. Excellent point at 5:51, NutraSweet. But also don’t forget the importance of technological progress. Manual labor was everything, and even if you could be free of kings and the church, you could never be free of the work necessary just to feed yourself and keep warm.

    Nobles and the church blunted technical progress by purposefully keeping the peasants uneducated and superstitious, but even much more egalitarian societies like Iceland weren’t sprinting ahead of everyone else, because they still had to do a lot of work for food.

    Certain scientific breakthroughs were necessary for the modern world. The Romans and Greeks were capable of some surprisingly neat feats of engineering, but they didn’t even understand electricity.

  10. Research by historians and other scholars has made it increasingly clear that the world we live in (defined as the modern world or modernity) is different from that of our ancestors in a profound and radical way. In other words there is a dramatic discontinuity between the experience of human beings living today and in the recent past, and that of our ancestors.

    I disagree. I don’t think we are all that modern. But I guess it depends on our definition of modern. If it is defined by our technological prowess at manipulating the world around us to give us cars, electricity, and gene therepy, sure we are modern.
    But I would disagree that world is profoundly different different that that of our ancestors. For the 26,000 children today that will starve to death, the world isn’t all that different. For the illiterate mass of muslims and others, there might be a marginally better life expectancy, but the world is just a dark, nasty, and as a brutish a world as when Socrates was annoying people.
    If you define modernity as a function of emotional and intellectual maturity, then I happen to think we are practically still in the cave man days. The 20th century alone show what an immature species we are. That is has been less than 200 years since the suffrage of women and the eradication, in some places, of the idea that humans are chattels is another indictment on our immaturity.
    Maybe for some people the world is a better place, but for most of the 6 billion or so, the world probably isn’t all that different. Billions are stuck in a static system SF was talking about.
    Freedom of expression, thought, to travel, and to association with whom one wishes is the exception not the rule. Even this country can’t except where reason leads us. The indefatigable inhumanity with which we execute a drug war that we all know is stupid, inhumane, immoral, illegal, and futile, is the best “modern” evidence that, maturity wise, we are no better than people going to the Oracle of Delphi for answers.
    No, we are apes who know how to use cell phones, that’s it.

  11. troy, “modern” doesn’t have to mean “enlightened” or “solved all our problems”; it’s just a point on a continuum of development. But there are significant differences from previous eras.

    1. To a certain extent, “modern” is a rorschact phenomenon. Put another way, modern is as modern does.

    2. So, then, modern is just a synonym of “now”?

  12. Breaking the grip of the guilds in the latter middle ages was unquestionably a great leap forward.

  13. I always thought Foucault’s idea of governmentality did a good job of describing modernity and the era of the nation state. The shift away from top-down power structures, the way that governments create citizens and citizens create government simultaneously.

  14. What Troy said (6:30 & 8:02).

    If you haven’t, read the story Day Million by Frederik Pohl. Short and sweet.

  15. People still like to suck at the tit of overarching, explanatory ideologies.

  16. I feel more modern today than I did yesterday. Maybe it’s the socks.

  17. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

    But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money!

    1. BTW, that’s by George Carlin.

      1. Have you seen The Invention of Lying? IMO, Ricky Gervais’ treatment of the issue, is, in its own way, every bit as funny as Carlin’s take.

        1. that does look funny

  18. The ancient greeks and romans were thinkers all right. Unfortunately, they viewed experimentation and hands-on approaches with cultural disdain. If we had to find a man who may have started the whole “modern” man movement . . . we should look at Machiavelli.

    1. No, no, Descartes.

  19. Any students who want to hear Dr. Davies speak in-person should check out the summer seminars offered by my organization, the Institute for Humane Studies. He’ll be lecturing at four or so. Visit http://www.TheIHS.org/seminar

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