Our Post-Enlightenment Era: The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters

Are you confused by the term “post-modern” or “post-modernity”? I don’t blame you. I have read a good deal of baffle-gab that makes excuses for its absurdities, its defects, and its excesses because it really wants to be considered avant-garde and fashionably “post-modern”. The problem with such material is that the author never really understood the meaning of “modern” to begin with. Therefore, with such an unstable footing, how could these post-modern authorities truly understand what it means to be post-modern at all?

Let’s correct this deficiency by putting a few historical facts in focus.

It would be far more revealing of our post-modern condition if by the term “post-modern” we understand “post-Enlightenment”. The term “modern”, in its contemporary usage, has no precise form and no clear definition. It’s sloppy. It’s foggy. It has about as much semantic clarity as the word “democracy”. When even Nazis like Josef Goebbels could promote fascism as being “authentic democracy”, and deceive many otherwise intelligent people about this in his time, something is wrong with the form and content of modern thought. No thanks to our commercialised culture, a man or woman today believes they are being “modern” if they buy the most up-to-date washing machine, computer, or automobile, even if they live (obliviously) under a dictatorship (but nevertheless call it “our democracy”).

Goya: The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters

On the other hand, the European Enlightenment, which represents the concrete self-consciousness of what it means to be “modern”, was specific and somewhat definite in its self-understanding of what it meant to be “modern”. The Enlightenment Era is also called “Age of Reason” to distinguish it from The Age of Faith (the Holy Roman Empire and the hegemony of the Catholic Pope). The meaning of the word “modern” is intimately connected with that self-understanding. Consequently, the term “post-modern” and the term “post-Enlightenment” have the same meaning, signifying the end of the Age of Reason — also of the end of the  ideal of “Universal Reason” and (more disturbingly and by extension) of the principle of universality generally with all the social, cultural, and political implications of that. Therefore, if you want to understand the meaning of our post-modern condition, you must necessarily understand what were the central concerns, interests, and projects of the Enlightenment philosophes (also called The Encyclopediasts) whose foundational values and interests (many of which were formalised politically in the American constitution and in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and his Common Sense) are now being actively negated and emptied of meaning, especially since the conclusion of the First World War. (We will address the odd and uncanny discrepancy between the ideals of “Universal Reason” and that of “Common Sense” in later posts). The post-modern condition means the negation of all Enlightenment values and ideals, and most especially of its central principle of universality (inevitably, therefore, of the principle of equality). This negation is what is today understood as value nihilism and even as “The Revolution of Nihilism”. This value destruction is recognised as being at the heart of the post-modern condition. It is the destructive negation of all Enlightenment virtues and values, which began with the First World War, but which have served as the guiding stars for much of the social, political, and cultural life of the Modern Era.

I will have more to say about the malicious destruction of the principle of universality by über-conservative reactionaries in later posts, as this has become characteristic of post-modernity. Here, though, we want to explore the meaning of the term “modern” as a value in its own right, and why the recognition that we are now “post-modern” represents a fundamental insight into our current negation of the meaning of “modern” as a value, (for “modern” is often used interchangeably with “liberal”). Upon inquiry, we will find that the root meaning of the word “modern” is found in the Latin word “modus“, meaning “measure”. The word “modus”, in turn, also informs the meanings of significant word-values like “moderate” and “moderation”, “modest” and “modesty”,  “model”, “mode” (method or means),  “modify”, “module” and “modulate”.

The negation of these values is formed by the prefix “im-” (or ‘”in-” or “un-“) as, in English usage, “immoderate” and “immodest”, or generally “unmeasured” or excess.  All the meanings of modus have the same significance as the meanings of the words “ratio” (which informs the word “rationality”), or as proportion and proportionality (as measured response), as against the irrational (the absurd) and the disproportionate (the extreme or excessive) — therefore the unbalanced. We all know that “unbalanced” often means “insane”, irrational, mad, or crazy.  In other words, “modus“, as measure, does not have as its primary significance the meaning of quantity or quantification (and therefore of the mass, which — like individual — is a term borrowed from physics). It is first and foremost a sense and quality of rhythm, measuredness, balance, proportionality, and not the meaning of numbers soaring into the stratosphere on stock market ticker tapes or opinion polls. In essence, rationality is not primarily quantification or “logic”. It is a continuous balancing of life’s equation (equanimity in Buddhist terms) that comes with a primarily aesthetic and intuitive sense and feeling of proportionality and balance such as we find principally in art, poetry, dance, and music. It is a rhythmical-ness, in other words, that emerges from a soul sense of equanimity restored (another word for proportionality), which is the authentic — often subliminal — underpinning of reason and of rationality itself.

(We will discuss this true nature of reason as a proportionality that arises from a deep inward sense of equanimity in later posts to The Chrysalis. For the time being, it is significant to note that Nietzsche — one of the greatest philosophers of recent times — believed that thinking and true “rationality” should be experienced as rhythmical and proportional, like dance or music, and not as mere calculation contra Hobbes — a neo-conservative favourite).

The philosophes of the Enlightenment (“enlightenment” being somewhat of a misnomer, actually) did not invent their ideals from nothing. The ancient Greeks were the first to formulate what were to become the principles of what we call “modernity”. Even the name “philosopher” is taken from the Greeks, after all. And “modern”, as a moral value, has its contemporary roots in the Renaissance (ie, “re-birth”) of the classical Greek spirit. That spirit originally proscribed and eschewed what was deemed the one and only grievous sin amongst the ancient Greeks — hybris. Hybris means excess, extremity, and indulgence, also in the sense of immodesty and immoderation (the fatal sin of Narcissus being that he indulged and was self-indulgent). The Greek version of the “Golden Rule” (or the Golden Mean) proscribed all such extravagance and self-indulgence. “Nothing too much” or “Nothing in excess” is the meaning of the Apollonian Code. “Enough is enough” is the popular rendering of the more articulate and elegant Greek rule. To be modern in the classical sense is to eschew extremes and excess; is to forbid immodesty and immoderation as exceeding a limit or boundary.  We are “post-modern” because we have forgotten this rule. We no longer follow the rule.

But in the post-modern era, “greed is good” to quote Gordon Gecko from the movie Wall Street. All hybris is rewarded, even if it is ultimately destructive and self-destructive. Moderation and modesty are presently penalised. Extravagance is admired. Excess becomes laudable. Irrationality (which greed is) is promoted. We now believe, actually, that we have overcome and triumphed over all limits, as the Greeks knew and understood limit. Even the limits of reason. Yet, at the same time, we are now colliding with all sorts of new limits — Planck’s Wall, Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or  Heisenberg’s Uncertainity Principle.

In the follow-up posts: the implications of the end of Universality (or Universal Reason), and more current attempts to revalue the meaning of universality in more realistic terms.

7 responses to “Our Post-Enlightenment Era: The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters”

  1. alex jay says :

    “We now believe, actually, that we have overcome and triumphed over all limits, as the Greeks knew and understood limit. Even the limits of reason. Yet, at the same time, we are now colliding with all sorts of new limits — Planck’s Wall, Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainity Principle.”

    Well Scott, I think the chickens have come home to roost. While it may be accurate to apply the collective “we” as triumphalist in regard to limits, that should, I think, only include that faction who subscribe to a scientistic perspective (those John Ringland would call “naive realists”). Sure, we have mapped out and virtually decoded every gene constituting life (next step is to tinker around and extend physical life to potential limitless possibilities with a tune-up and oil change in our genome every tweny years or so); looked into or heard from the farthest points in the limitless universe, and once “we” find that illusive little bastard, Higgs Boson with our fancy piece of colliding kit in Switzerland “we” are surely entitled to claim “triumph over limit” – are we not? (Rhetorical question)

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, “we are now colliding with all sorts of limits” – the Planck el al conundrums notwithstanding – only due to our self-inflicted unenlightened (enlightenment is in the eye of the beholder), irrational and self-indulgent behaviour potentially driving us to an extinction event. Therein lies the paradox we are experiencing at the present crossroads we confront, having reached the enantiodromia moment as you so aptly articulate: the limitless hubris of material scientism leading to nemesis, or, alternatively, an acceptence of our material existence with all life forms as limited in humility (modesty, moderation etc – “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”).

    But then, “we” as a species haven’t really gone as far we might fancy “ourselves” to believe: the Tower of Babel analogy is as relevant today as it was at the time of our ancestors. Modernity, post-modernity, neo-modernity and whatever new lable of modernity might follow is nothing else to me than verbal masturbation – re: our mad-in-a-sort-of-good-way friend Mr. Wittgenstein – (sophistry – the least attractive of all the Greek schools) … and the world is insane – only because collectively “we” have and continue to allow the lunatics to run the asylum … “and a hard rain’s gonna fall” (very soon me thinks) before “we” make it or break it … or let “them” do it for us.

    Who’s the “them”? Ah … maybe we will have ample opportunity over the course of your new blog to play Sherlock Holmes?

  2. Scott Preston says :

    The collective “we” would refer to our civilisational structure or form. We are all in the same bowl of soup, even if some of us are carrots and some of us are potatoes or onions (so to speak).

    The potential for hybris and Nemesis was always implicit in the Enlightenment project. You may recall that I was fond of quoting the Marquis de Condorcet in TDAB days. Condorcet, one of the significant figures of the European Enlightenment, once enthused about the potential of reason for “the infinite progress of man”. There are three problematic words, there: infinite, progress, and man. And actually, there has been great progress in technology, but if Condorcet believed there would be great human progress of an ethical or moral kind, the Great War of brutal industrial slaughter and mass propaganda put paid to any such hopes for the Enlightenment.

    But it is not just science (more properly techno-science) which is facing Nemesis (enantiodromia or reversal). The mood in popular culture is similar, with slogans like “No Fear” or the penchant for Xtreme this or that (like extreme fighting, which I saw on a TV just a while ago). And, of course, our civilisation as a whole (ie, “we”) definitely leaves a very large and deep footprint on the environment with its resource consumption — to whit, especially, the sixth extinction event. And, for the time being, we are all passengers on this ship (or cells in that foot) unless we actually subtract ourselves and move into monasteries secular or otherwise.

  3. alex jay says :

    Since you mention the TDAB have you managed to archive your articles? If so, are they stored somewhere that can be currently accessed? Or do you intend to make them available in some medium in the future (on the net or in a book)?

    I’d hate to think they’d wind up like the Dead Sea Scrolls : )

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