Philosophy of Modernity

A few weeks ago, I had my final oral exam for the Philosophy of Modernity course that I’ve been taking with Davenant Hall.

The class has stimulated many more thoughts and questions than could be comprehensively answered during the course itself. The chief value in the course has been in giving me the vocabulary and categories to articulate those questions and attempt some more precise answers.

Our instructor, Dr Joseph Minich, summarised modernity for us as “the simultaneous global renegotiation of all human custom”. That is, the wisdom both of thought and of life that many past generations would have taken as more-or-less fixed, as though bolted deep into the concrete of the cosmos itself, have since the modern period fallen subject to widespread questioning, challenging and undermining.

The example that seems most salient to my mind is that of marriage. You might recall the same-sex mirage debates of a few years ago. One of the most strange elements of that discourse was the fact that the most well-established feature of the most well-established human institution was being called into question. And much more than that, the traditional answer was not only given little to no weight, but it was largely inexplicable to modern people, even to those who in their own lifetime found the traditional answer quite acceptable. People could not even engage their imagination to enter into any positive reason for this feature, except perhaps as part of a plot as old as the world to oppress the Gay Community™.

A pervasive feature of modernity is our increasing “freedom” from the constraints and limitations of nature, most of which is given to us by advances in technology. The pill frees sexually active couples from the natural constraints of having to anticipate and prepare for dependent children. The car frees countless millions of people from the natural constraints of living, working and worshipping in a local geographic area. This changes the way we consider even those constraints that continue to weigh us down: they are in principle something we can overcome and be freed from, given enough time and technological development. Nature becomes a kind of oppressive environment for the human whose destiny is to be freed from all constraints whatsoever.

What was most remarkable about the course was Dr Minich’s refusal to blackpill about modernity. This era of human history is something that the sovereign God has ordained for us, and in many respects it appears irreversible. Thus, we must not collapse into despair and long for a past that cannot come back in its previous form. Rather, we should enter into it with humility, recovering the wisdom we can from the past while recognising that we are entering into something new in a great many respects.

One last thing for now: Dr Minich shared with us Phoebe Bridgers’ cover of That Funny Feeling, a song originally by Bo Burnham. It does capture the mood of modernity quite well, and is a valuable resource should you ever need to brood about The Way The World Is Going.