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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.
The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy. From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.
The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.
Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.
Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.
The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.
Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.
This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.
The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.
Since the Industrial Revolution, scientific and technological development has progressed at an unfathomable rate. In a little over a quarter-of-a-millennium, the Western world has gone from a superstitious, agrarian society to a scientifically and technologically sophisticated one. The price of this remarkable achievement has been our alienation from the ‘dream world.’ We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense that there is something more substantial to existence than just mere crude matter.
The lack of spirituality among modern man is largely the result of an overreliance on materialism. For the philosophically challenged, ‘materialism’ is not a reference to consumerism, but to the philosophical position that regards physical matter as the fundamental substance of nature. Philosophical materialism posits that everything, including human thought and the course of history, comes as the result of physical forces. This is a philosophy which has no room for the soul, for divinity, or for God.
Philosophical materialism likely harkens back to the pre-Socratic philosophers. Epicurus, for example, believed the universe consisted of invisible and indivisible free-falling atoms that randomly collide with the world. For all intents and purposes, however, it is the Ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus (c. 460BC – c. 370BC) who is credited with the invention of philosophical materialism within the Western tradition. Democritus formulated the theory that the world was composed of ‘atoms’ – invisible chunks of matter – existing in empty space. He theorised that these microscopically small atoms would interact with one another by impacting or hooking up. Change occurs when the configuration of these atoms is altered.
In modern philosophy, materialism is referred to as a category of metaphysical theories. The French philosopher, Baron d’Holbach’s (1723 – 1789) book, Système de la Nature ou Des Loix du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral (1770) (The System of Nature, or the Laws or the Moral and Physical World) argued that everything that occurs, down to human thought and moral action, comes as the result of a causal chain that has its roots in atomic motion. The book was condemned by King Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), meaning that it was the job of the hangman to locate every copy and cut it to pieces on the beheading block.
The modern world likes to see itself as fundamentally materialistic. Being seen as “practical”, “realistic”, or “down to earth” is considered by many to be a great compliment. However, this view is largely mistaken. In reality, it is ideas, referring to the ability to think and feel and imagine, and the ability to implement them that has truly made the human race what it is. In a letter to Guillaume Gibieuf (1538 – 1650), the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596 – 1650) wrote: “I am certain I have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me.”
It would be a great mistake, then, to suppose that human beings are naturally rational or civilised creatures. In reality, people are far more irrational, crazy, and destructive than we like to think. Modern science is really only a few hundred years old, having its roots with Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). Therefore, the basis for modern society is not, as often supposed, science, but religion. This is evidenced by two facts. First, the existence over thousands of years of civilisations that have their basis in religion, not science. These societies and their corresponding religions include the Japanese and Shintoism, the Chinese and Buddhism, the Middle East and Islam, and the West and Christianity. And second, by the numerous anti-science movements (most notable in today’s world are the social constructionists) that have come to the public’s attention in recent years. We are able to live in an orderly and rational manner because we live in a society that has moral rules and legal boundaries, not because it is something that comes naturally to us
The relationship between the mental and physical worlds was of great interest to the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (1875 – 1961). Influenced by the German Idealist School, Jung believed that “metaphysical assertions… are statements of the psyche.” He would comment: “it is the soul which, by the divine creative power inherent in it, makes the metaphysical assertion; it posits the distinction between metaphysical entities. Not only is it the condition of all metaphysical reality, it is that reality.” The central idea behind Jung’s metaphysical system was that:
“The premise that all psychological processes are necessarily conditioned on innate universal structures of subjectivity that allow for human experiences to transpire, and that these processes participate of a greater cosmic organising principle that transcends all levels of particularity or individuality.”
– Jon Mills, Jung’s Metaphysics
In his function as a psychotherapist, Carl Jung observed that western men and women often suffered from debilitating feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and insignificance. He believed that this was caused by a kind of spiritual problem that, even today, threatens the stability and liberty of our society. The result is that we limit ourselves only to what is socially and economically attainable. As Carl Jung wrote:
“Man feels isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree makes a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants and animals.”
– Carl Jung, The Earth Has a Soul
Jung noted that this problem, and the consequences associated with it, correlated with the declining influence of Christianity in the Western world and the rise of mass urbanisation that came as a result of the Industrial Revolution. As the individual surrounded himself with more and more people, his feelings of insignificance increased. The result is individuals who are highly insecure, unstable, and highly suggestible. Furthermore, the rational and scientific mindset that rose to prominence during the Enlightenment has also fooled many politicians and social reformers into believing that the same measures can be used to address social and political problems. The existence of the totalitarian systems such as fascism and communism, genocides, and mass murders that characterised the Twentieth Century stand as testaments to this reality.
The problems the West faced during the twentieth century are almost entirely spiritual by nature. The communists killed tens of millions of people in an attempt to achieve a worker’s paradise, the Cold War was as much a battle between opposing worldviews as it was one of political and economic differences, and one would have to be blind not to notice the religious overtones present in Nazism. Even today, the conflict between Western civilisation and fundamental Islam can be seen as having profound religious overtones.
Jung believed that the unconscious mind could be split into two distinct categories: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The contents of the personal unconscious is comprised of both instincts (Triebe) and archetypal or primordial images. It merely refers to the memories, emotions, and knowledge that have generally been conscious but have become repressed over time. By contrast, the collective unconscious, one of Jung’s most misunderstood concepts, is distinguishable from the personal unconscious in that it is manifested separately and is therefore not a personal acquisition. It symbolises universal culture: the anthropological images, practices, edicts, traditions, mores, social norms, values, and beliefs that embodies a culture or mythos. The collective unconscious, therefore, symbolises the space that human-beings exist in.
Dreams are considered to have great psychological significance. They use mythological narratives to allow us to naturally express our unconscious fears and desires. The average person dreams between three to six times per night with each dream lasting between five and twenty minutes. Jeffrey Sumber, a clinical psychologist, has spent years studying dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. Sumber argues that dreams bridge the unconscious mind with the conscious mind. “Dreaming is non-essential when it comes to survival as a body”, Sumber concluded, “but is essential with regards to our development and evolution as metaphysical beings.”
Active imagination exists to give a voice to the anima, animus, shadow, and other areas of the personality that do not typically hold our attention. When the individual engages his active imagination, let’s say through painting or writing, there is a transformation of consciousness. As Carl Jung wrote in The Conjunction:
“Although, to a certain extent, he looks on from outside, partially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche. This recognition is absolutely necessary and marks an important advance. So long as he simply looks at the pictures he is like the foolish Parsifal, who forgot the ask the vital question because he was not aware of his own participation in the action. But if you recognise your own involvement you yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions, just as if you were one of the fantasy figures, or rather, as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.”
The collective unconscious manifests itself most greatly through mankind’s proclivity for telling stories. As the clinical psychologist and cultural critic, Jordan Peterson (1962 – ) explains, story-telling is an ancient and innate aspect of human nature:
“You know, we’ve been collecting stories as people we don’t know how long – hundred thousand years, maybe. There’s been creatures like us, indistinguishable from us, for a hundred thousand years. And we know that societies that appear more or less as archaic as those old societies tell stories, have rituals, have mythology. What do they mean? What are they good for? Well, imagine this: you tell a story to your husband or your wife about something interesting that you saw. Well, imagine that you could collect a thousand of the most interesting stories. And then imagine that you were some kind of literary genius like Shakespeare and you could take those thousand interesting stories and boil them down to a hundred really interesting stories. And then imagine that you had ten thousand years to gather up those most interesting stories and average them and you could come out with one perfect story: the best story, the most interesting story you could possibly tell. Well, that’s what a myth is. It’s the most interesting story you could possibly tell. Virtually every story you ever see has a mythological structure, that’s why it’s compelling to you. And when you meet someone who is charismatic or who holds your attention or who you’re interested in, the probability that they’re acting out a mythological fragment is very, very high. That’s why it is that your attention is captivated by them.”
Myths are really psychological in nature, even though they are typically misread as biographical or even historical. Myths, much like dreams, emanate from the unconscious thoughts and emotions and gives a voice to the innermost fears and desires that underlie most of our behaviour.
The purpose of mythology is to provide the individual with a mirror which he can use to assess himself and his relationship with the wider world. It exists to provide the individual with a sense of history and of his place within the cosmos. Whereas the world of fiction has to work in an alternative reality where the facts of that universe are considered irrefutable and correct, mythology works by taking the metaphorical or metaphysical-cum-spiritual truths of existence and gives them voice and meaning through the medium of a story. Therefore, it is not how factually true a mythological story may or may not be that is important, but the metaphorical truths it imparts on the reader.
There can be little doubt that the modern world has produced marvels. The price of these remarkable achievements has been a form of perverse arrogance in which modern man likes to believe he is somehow a different, more rational, creature than his ancestors. The price for our arrogance has been the loss of our sense of something more substantial and wonderous than ourselves. As a result, people limit themselves only to that which is socially and economically attainable. Seeing ourselves as eminently rational and pragmatic creatures we have managed to produce a world where the individual feels worthless and insignificant. What is required is a revitalisation of the dream world. A return to the knowledge that it is ideas, our ability to give a voice to those aspects of our personalities that lie dormant, and to venture out into the chaotic unknown and return triumphantly that makes human beings great.