The Challenges of Modernity
Since the middle of the eighteenth century, beginning in Northern Europe and then spreading to every corner of the world, people have become aware of living in an age radically different from any other and which they have called — with a mixture of awe and respect, trepidation and nostalgia — ‘the modern age’, or more succinctly, ‘modernity’. We are now all inhabitants of modernity; every last hamlet and remote island has been touched by the outlook and ideology of a new era.
The story of our emergence into the modern world can be traced in a number of fields — in politics, religion, art, technology, fashion, science — all of which have ultimately contributed to an alteration in consciousness, to a change in the way we think and feel. This is some of what becoming modern has involved:
Perhaps the single greatest marker of modernity has been a loss of faith — the loss of a belief in the intervention of divine forces in earthly affairs. All other ages before our own held that our lives were at least half in the hands of gods or spirits, who could be influenced through prayer and sacrifice and who required complex forms of worship and obedience. But we have put our energies into understanding natural events through reason; there are no more omens or revelations, curses or prophecies, our futures will be worked out in laboratories, not temples; even the nominally religious will — when it comes to it — dermur to highly trained pilots and cancer specialists. God has died and modernity has killed Him.
Premodern societies envisaged history in cyclical terms; there was no forward dynamic to speak of; one imagined that things would always be as bad or as good as they had ever been. There was no more change in human affairs than there was in the seasons. Empires would wax and wane; periods of plenty would alternate with seasons of dearth. But the fundamentals would remain. Yet to be modern is to believe that we can continually surpass what has come before; national wealth, knowledge, technology, political arrangements and, most broadly, our capacity for happiness seem capable of constant increase. We have severed the chains of repetitive suffering. Time is not a wheel of futility, it is an arrow pointing towards an essentially perfectible destiny.
We have replaced gods with equations. Science will give us mastery over ourselves, over the mysteries of nature — and ultimately — over death. Careful calculations and electrical spasms in microscopic circuits will allow us to map and know the universe. It is only a matter of time before we work out, at last, the clues to our own immortality.
To be modern is to throw off the claims of history, precedent and community. We will fashion our own identities — rather than being defined by families or tradition. We will choose who to marry, what job to pursue, what gender to be, where to live and how to think. We can be free and, at last, fully ‘ourselves’.
We are Romantics, that is, we seek a soulmate, an exemplary friend who can at the same time be an intrepid sexual partner, a reliable co-parent and a kindly colleague. We are in revolt against coldness and emotional distance. We refuse to be unhappy just to keep up appearances. We will move boulders to find someone who ‘gets’ us, a spiritual twin it will feel as though we have always known.
We have had enough of the languor and judgmentalness of village life. We don’t want to go to bed when the sun sets or limit our acquaintances to the characters we went to school with. We want to move — along with 85% of the population of modern nations — to the brightly illuminated city, where we can mingle in crowds, surreptitiously study faces on underground trains, try out unfamiliar foods, change jobs, read in parks, learn about Abstract Expressionism, rethink our hair and sleep with strangers.
Premoderns lived in close proximity to nature; they knew how to recognise shepherd’s purse and make something edible out of pineapple weed. They could tell when sparrows showed up and what sounds short eared owls make. They venerated nature as one might a deity. But moderns don’t tremble before the night sky or feel a need to give thanks to the rising sun. We have freed ourselves from our previous awe at natural phenomena; we are alive to the sublimity of technology rather than of waterfalls. The emblematic modern locale is the 24 hour supermarket, brightly lit and teeming with the produce of the four continents, proudly defying the barriers of geography and of the night. We will eat pomegranates in August and dates in February.
For most of history, the maximum speed was set by the constraints of our own feet — or with a lot of luck, the velocity of a horse or sailing ship. It might take three weeks to tramp from London to Edinburgh, four months to sail from Southampton to Sydney. In 18th century Spain, the majority died within twenty-five kilometres of where they had been born. Now nowhere is further than twenty six hours away from us, the contents of a national library can fit onto a circuit the size of a finger nail and the Voyager 1 probe hurtles at seventeen kilometers per second through interstellar space, 21.2 billion kilometres from its original blue dot.
We are modern because we work not only to earn money, but to develop our individuality, to exercise our distinctive talents and to find our true selves. We are on a quest for something our ancestors would have thought entirely paradoxical: work that we can love.
Much of the transformation of modernity has been profoundly exciting, thrilling even. Fibre optic cables ring the earth, satellites guide us through the darkness, new ideas overthrow stifling conventions, cities are conjured from the ground and colossal energies are unleashed by the promethean forces of chemistry and physics. The word ‘modern’ still rightly suggests a state of glamour, desire and aspiration.
But from another perspective, the advent of modernity has also been a story of tragedy. We have bought our new freedoms at a very high price indeed. We have perhaps never been quite so close to collective insanity or planetary extinction. Modernity has wreaked havoc on our inner and outer landscapes. We can pick up aspects of the catastrophe in a range of areas:
It was the French late nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made the sobering discovery of an essential difference between traditional and modern societies. In the former, when people lived in small communities, when the course of one’s career was understood to lie in the hands of the gods and when there were few expectations of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure, the agony knew bounds; reversal did not seem like a verdict on one’s entire value as a human being. One never expected perfection, and did not respond with self-laceration when mishaps occurred. One simply fell to one’s knees and implored the heavens. But Durkheim could see that modern societies exacted a far crueller toll on those who judged themselves to have failed. No longer could these unfortunates blame bad luck, no longer could they hope for redemption in a next world. To a horrifying degree, it seemed as if there was only one person responsible and only one fitting response. As Durkheim showed in perhaps the largest single indictment of modernity, suicide rates of advanced societies are up to ten times as high as those in traditional ones. Moderns aren’t only more in love with success, they are also far more likely to kill themselves when they fail.
It was a new word coined in the middle of the nineteenth century to describe a distinctive malady of the mind felt to have been bred by the modern condition. Also known as ‘American nervousness’, it was associated with living in cities, with being shaken by crowds, overstimulated by newspapers, exhausted by choice, cut off from nature and driven frenetic by expectations. Multiple cures were offered: cold baths, compresses, walks in the country, mild electrocution, tight belts around the midriff, a vegetable-only diet, special socks made from lama hair and long periods of silence. To be modern is to be assailed at all times with news of every latest beheading, bank run, government fiasco, film premiere, mass shooting, lasagne recipe, guerilla movement, nuclear mishap and sexual indiscretion to have occurred anywhere on the planet in the preceding minutes. We are always connected and always aware. The average twelve year old has access to two hundred million more books than Shakespeare. The last person who could theoretically have read everything died no later than 1450. We are exhausted.
Not coincidentally, many of the leading figures in the intellectual history of modernity have retreated to isolated dwellings in which to take distance from, and attempt to make sense of, the chaos: Nietzsche to a hut in the Swiss alps, Wittgenstein to a hut in a Norwegian fjord, Heidegger to a hut in the Bavarian Alps. Their writings may not have been typical, but their inner dislocations were. We may not have huts, but we sharply suspect how much we might need them.
Modernity, so keen to wipe away all that came before it, has unleashed a torrent of nostalgia. Never before have so many longed to have lived in an age other than their own. While benefiting from modern dentistry and communications, they have nevertheless dreamt of absconding to a castle in the time of Charlemagne or a stone cottage in the days of King Arthur. Modernity has bred elaborate fantasies of ‘simpler’ lives on South Sea Islands, Native American teepees, and Arabian medinas. These longings might not be plans for real-world action, but they are telling ways of letting out a sigh at the depredations of a whole era.
Modernity has told us that we are all equal and can achieve anything: boundless possibility awaits everyone of us. We too might start a billion dollar company, become a famous actor or run a nation. No longer is opportunity unfairly restricted to a favoured few. It sounds charitable but it is a fast route to an outbreak of comparison — and its associated pain, envy. It would never have occurred to a goat herder in seventeenth century Picardie to envy Louis XIV of France; the king’s advantages were as unfair as they were beyond emulation. Such peace is no longer possible. In a world in which everyone can achieve what they deserve, why do we not have more? If success is merited, why do we remain mediocre? The psychological burden of a so-called ordinary life has become incomparably harder — even as its material advantages become ever more available.
Modernity has in a practical sense connected us to others like never before but it has also left us frequently emotionally bereft, late at night, on our own, in a corner of a diner, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting, staring out at the darkness within and without. The belief that we deserve one special person has rendered our relationships unnecessarily fractious and devoid of tolerance or forebearance and stripped friendship of its value. The first question we are asked in every new social encounter is ‘What do you do?’ and we know how much an impressive answer will matter. We fall asleep in high-rise apartments with views onto the distant headquarters of banks and insurance firms — and wonder if anyone would notice if we died. The first giant illuminated advertisement — of a soda bottle — lit up the darkness of Times Square in the spring of 1904. It has been harder to sleep ever since.
If it were not already so difficult, we are asked — on top of it all — to smile continually, to hope against hope, to have a nice day, to have a lot of fun, to cheer on holiday and to be exuberant that we are alive. Modernity has stripped us of our primordial right to feel melancholy, unproductive, surly, in despair and confused. It has done us the central injustice of insisting that happiness should be the norm. Not for nothing did Theodor Adorno remark that modern America had produced one overwhelming villain: Walt Disney.
Though modernity may have made us materially abundant, it has imposed a heavy emotional toll: it has alienated us, bred envy, increased shame, separated us from one another, bewildered us, forced us to grin inauthentically and left us restless and enraged.
Fortunately, we do not need to suffer alone. Our condition — though it presents itself to each one of us as a personal affliction — is at heart the work of an age, not of our own minds. By learning to diagnose our condition, we can come to accept that we are not so much individually demented as living in times of unusually intense and societally-generated perturbance. We can accept that modernity is a disease — and that understanding it will be the cure.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in How to Survive the Modern World: a guide to modern times that explores how the challenges of living in the 21st Century can pose to our mental wellbeing.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.