Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: The Age of Science; the Secular Age; Conclusion

The Autumn of the Modern Ages: Part 6

Eddington is more agnostic about the material world than Huxley ever was about the spiritual world.
-- G. K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

12. The Age of Science. 

Omitted from this bloggery

“The twenty-first century will be religious, or not at all.”  – AndrĂ© Malraux

13. The Secular Age.   

The Middle Ages had invented the Secular State by stripping kings and emperors of their sacred roles and setting up the Church as an independent entity, with her own incomes, her own law codes and courts, her own governance.  “[T]he existence and prestige of the Church,” wrote A.D. Lindsay in The Modern Democratic State, “prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state.” [AL]  But during the Modern Ages, as the State began to assert control over theatrical companies, medical societies, universities, and other formerly independent corporations, it also asserted control over the Church – by sponsoring a heretic (Saxony), by nationalizing the Church within State borders (England), or by re-claiming the power to invest bishops and to block or censor papal bulls (France, Spain).  The result was a series of State-run “Established Churches.”  Cuius regio, eius religio![7] 
The Established Church was a triumph of secularism, not of religion.  Divine Right monarchs appeared during the Age of Reason, not the Age of Faith.  As the Modern Ages progressed – and moderns always progress – the West became steadily more secular in outlook and religion was steadily more brought to heel. 

Partly, this was reaction to the so-called “wars of religion.”  Yet, armies never did clash over points of doctrine; rather, they fought for dynastic and state territory, for ideology, nationalism, or imperialism.  Wars were prompted by commerce, politics, colonial interests, “blood and soil,” Jenkins’ Ear, or “tuppence difference in the tariff on lace.”  In the end, in the paroxysm of the 1940s, for a vision of the future of Europe (cf. Lukacs, The Last European War).  Even in the Thirty Years War, the princes of the Empire did not seek independence from the Kaiser because they had become Protestant; rather, they became Protestant because they sought independence.  The war was fought between Catholic Bourbons (and their Protestant allies) and Catholic Habsburgs (and their Catholic and Protestant allies). 
Secularism hardly saved the West from warfare, as even a cursory list will indicate: The Anglo-Dutch wars; the Great Northern War; the Franco-Spanish wars; the wars of the Spanish Succession, the Polish Succession, two Silesian wars (the “Austrian Succession”); a third Silesian war; the Seven Years War; the wars of the French Revolution; the various Napoleonic Wars; the war of Swedish independence; the wars of Italian unification; the wars of German unification; the Franco-Prussian war; the first and second Balkan wars; the First and Second World Wars – these do not exhaust the list.  Never in European history have there been so many standing armies, fighting so continually, as in the Modern Ages. 
Established Churches, dependent on the State for income, lapdogs to State interests, have hemorrhaged adherents, and the churches of Europe are today nearly empty.  The United States took a different path: they forbade both the establishment of a federal “Church of America” and federal interference with established churches of the individual states.  The several states then “got with the program” and by 1830, the last state church had been disestablished.[8]  Consequently, religion in the US has remained more vibrant:  The churches must compete to gain and hold adherents – and will often speak out against State policies in the old medieval fashion.  During the 20th century, the American model began catching on in Europe. 
What of the future?  Europe has seen empty churches before; and likely the Established Churches will be disestablished there, as they were in America.  But the churches refilled from 1780 to 1825, following the Napoleonic Wars, and again from 1940 to 1960, following the Second World War. Torment and prolonged secular troubles led to disillusion and a revival of religious belief.  The time of anarchy as the States dissolve into powerlessness may lead to a similar revival. Religion is on the rise everywhere except in the Modern West.

Secular humanism will not do the trick. "The biting challenge of Nietzsche still nags at us: If God is really dead, by what authority do we say any particular practice is prohibited or permitted?" [MN] If human life is ultimately meaningless, why would the new standards like "autonomy," "consent," or "creativity" matter more than submission, force, or passivity? Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre subvert them all. 
But even if the churches do not refill, there is no assurance that the mosques will empty.  Six percent of France is muslim already, and her muslim residents do not suffer the demographic loss of confidence of their European neighbors.  Then too, there are movements like New Age and Environmentalism that have the earmarks of becoming new religions.  If the Modern Ages were marked by increasing secularization, will the post-modern age turn this on its head? 

The modern world itself has already started to go the way of the romances of knights-errant. Much of modern thought is still bustling and even triumphal, but the foundations have rotted beyond repair. 
 – James Chastek, “Don Quixote and Modernity”

At the End of the Age

History is more continuous than discontinuous, and an Age does not end at the flip of a switch.  The 15th Century was still recognizably medieval.  In the same manner, the 20th Century was still recognizably Modern, and even the 21st will build with much of the same lumber. 
But the dissolution was beginning already in 1900, certainly by 1920, and in the arts perhaps as early as the 1880s. Quantum physics and relativity replaced the classic, well-behaved Newtonian vision, even as Big Data sabotaged the whole methodology of Galileo, Kepler, and the rest. Representationalism faded to impressionism and then to surrealism before fracturing and leaving the museum walls for the living rooms of the quondam bourgeois. A man of the 1950s could still understand a man of the Renaissance, at least in outlook; but a man of the 2010s would have a hard time understanding either one.  It all seems so very quaint and so very far away. 
Because, as Bernanos wrote, a civilization exists in the mind, and it is there you will find its ruins.  
In many ways, the Postmodern Ages may resemble a higher tech Middle Ages.  As the States devolve and grant fiefs to NGOs, these NGOs, needing peace and security, may contract with private gangs to provide the sort of ruthless protection governments no longer dare provide.  During this Dark Age period of anarchy foreigners will slosh across borders everywhere, as Lukacs foresaw forty years ago and which we have seen in places like Spanish Sahara, Kosovo, and elsewhere.  The 20th century Welfare State was premised on 19th century demographics and cannot last in a 21st century world of ZPG. A growing lack of faith goes hand-in-hand with imploding demographics, so newcomers will be needed to shore up the system. 
The anarchy will disrupt the virtual money system and vast numbers of people will be suddenly impoverished by failures of the computer networks.  The nightmare of thinking small and local will once more be upon us.  The internet will shatter, less from governmental take-over (The Great Firewall of China) than from the anarchy of vandals and one hack too many.

There is no single vision as yet. Things are in flux. On the one hand there are obvious trends towards decentralization; and on the other hand obvious trends in the other direction. Confessional protestantism is gone, but other forms of it are flourishing. Mechanism in the hard sciences is dead, but the mythos persists in the soft sciences and non-sciences (where it is paradoxically less applicable than it was in classical physics!) Furthermore, there are other civilizations -- in China and India, for example -- that may be about to enter into their own versions of the Modern Ages. India just put a satellite into orbit around Mars. But if so, they will be a modernity formed on ex-Buddhist or ex-Hindu armatures and not the one the West formed on Christianity. You can find the seeds of the Modern Ages in the ancient and medieval West; but those same seeds are not to be found in ancient or medieval India or China.They have adopted many of the features of the Modern West, but how long will the adoption continue when the West herself has abandoned them?

"Post Modern" is a bad name, though it will have to do for now -- as long as we don't confuse it with a mode of literary criticism. It is an ugly word and, worst of all, defines an age by reference to another age. The Early Moderns did not call themselves "post-medievals" nor did the early medievals call themselves "post-ancients." They were both too busy looking forward to look back. Everyone, when they are on the stage, considers himself a "modern."
On deserts red and deserts grey
The temples into sand have slid;
Go search that splendour of decay
To find the final secret hid
In mummies' painted coffin-lid
In hieroglyphs of hunt and play.
Read the last word, my cultured kid,
They all were moderns in their day.

-- G.K. Chesterton, "Ballade of Moderns"


[FB] Bacon, Francis.  The Masculine Birth of Time.
[JB] Barzun, Jacques.  The House of Intellect.  (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002)
[DB] Brin, David.  The Transparent Society.
[PB] Brown, Peter.  The World of Late Antiquity.  (W.W. Norton, 1989)
[NC] Carr, Nicholas, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic (July/Aug 2008)
[JC1] Chastek, James.  “The Modern Account of Nature,” Just Thomism blog,
[JC2] Chastek, James.  “Don Quixote and the Modern World,” Just Thomism blog,
[DE] Eisenhower, Dwight.  “Farewell Address.”
[EF] Feser, Edward.  “Blinded by Scientism,” Public Discourse (March 9, 2010)
[MF] Flynn, Michael.  “De revolutione scientiarum in ‘media tempestas.’”  Analog (Jul/Aug, 2007)
[GG] Galilei, Galileo.  “The Assayer.”  (Rome, 1623)
[PG] Graham, Paul.  “Why Nerds are Unpopular. 
[JH] Huizinga, Johan.  The Autumn of the Middle Ages, tran. Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Univ. of Chicago, 1996)
[MJ] Jackson, Maggie.  Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. (Prometheus Books, 2008)
[JJ]  Jacobs, Jane.  Dark Age Ahead.  (Vintage Books, 2005)
[UK] Kriegel, Uriah.  “Autumn of the Humanities.”  TCS Daily, 8 March 2006.
[AL] Lindsay, A.D. The Modern Democratic State, two vol., (Oxford Univ. Press, 1945)
[JL1] Lukacs, John.  The Passing of the Modern Age.  (Harper & Row, 1970))
[JL2] Lukacs, John.  At the End of an Age.  (Yale Univ. Press, 2002)
[JP] Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden*. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010)
[MN] Novak, Michael. "Remembering the Secular Age" (First Things, June/July 2007)
[WP] Percy, Walker.  “The Delta Factor” in The Message in the Bottle (Picador, 1975)
[RP] Pernoud, Regine.  Those Terrible Middle Ages! tran. Anne Englund Nash (Ignatius Press, 2000)
[AP] Piper, Andrew.  “Out of Touch,” (Slate, Posted Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, at 5:22 AM ET)
 [MR] Rothbard, Murray. “The Mantle of Science,” from Scientism and Values, Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds. (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand), 1960; available on line at
[CS] Sommers, Christina Hoff.  “The Flight from Science and Reason” (Wall Street Journal, 7/10/95)
[LS] Stavrianoa, L. S.  The Promise of the Coming Dark Age.  (W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd, 1976)
[DU] Ulin, David L., "The lost art of reading." (LA Times, August 9, 2009),0,4905017.story
[RV] Vacca, Roberto.  The Coming Dark Age.  (Doubleday, 1973)
[DW] Weinberger, David. "To Know, but Not Understand" (The Atlantic, 3 Jan, 2012)

[1] -- [6] Omitted
[7] Whoever is your king, that’s your religion. 
[8] The movement to prevent this was called antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest “regular” word in English.

©2014 Michael F. Flynn


  1. Does the omission of section 12 indicate that this series is, or will be, available in a more complete form elsewhere?

    1. I've been thinking of Section 12 as an article to sell to ANALOG.

      I have no idea where the entire thing could be marketed. It's way too long for a magazine article; way too short for a book.

    2. How about as a Kindle Single?

    3. I would also recommend the Kindle suggestion.

  2. Thank you, that was well said.

    BTW, I read Eifelheim a couple weeks ago and enjoyed immensely. You do understand that age and seem to effortlessly explain their logic.

  3. If we're in a post-modern era... Post which modern? As far as I can tell, modernism has gone through several phases: the modernism of Descartes, the modernism of Jefferson, the modernism of Marx... Many of the things that were supposed to replace modernism are starting to fade in turn (the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the formerly-trendy claim that "Einstein proved everything is relative", centrally-planned economic systems, etc.).

    1. As far as I can tell, modernism has gone through several phases

      So did the medieval ages. The Paris under the Burgundian Reign of Terror was not the Paris defended by Roderick the Beardless. So also did antiquity. The age of Augustine was not the age of Augustus, let alone that of the Scipios.

      That "Einstein proved everything is relative" was never a serious claim; but the notion that "everything is relative" is a tyranny that cannot be ignored. Had it not been Einstein, some other token would have been used. Copenhagen or not, quantum mechanics is very different from the mechanistic model of Newtonian mechanics on which late modern atheism and denial of free will erects its temples. Centrally-planned economies was a very modern thing; but Henry Tudor and Louis the Sun-King lacked the technological means to carry out their totalizing efforts.

      The Modern Thing was not confined to any single ideology. Rather, it was a framework within which most people perceived. They all believed in "progress," for example; but they did not all agree on which direction that was. Henry Newman was every bit as Modern as Robert Ingersoll.

  4. May I send my children to learn from you during their summers? May I come, too?

    I think I will read this from time to time to acquaint myself with the scope of history. It has both a note of sadness and a force of levitation about it.

    Thank you.

    1. Take a stab at reading the two Lukacs books, while you're at it. Both are short and discursive volumes. I once had the privilege of taking the freshman Honors History course from him at LaSalle University (nee College). My only regret is that I was not old enough to really benefit from it fully.

      Now that I think of it, his book A Thread of Years also treats of the same matter, only in a very different way as it chronicles the decline and fall of the gentleman.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I also just finished Eifelheim and loved the palpable texture of the world you captured. I will need to pursue the Lukacs books, as well as the sources you used for Eifelheim; I am embarking on writing fantasy, rather than a time-travel tale to our own Middle Ages, but I'd like to capture even the smallest glimmer of the same reality you accomplished.

    It's a far and lovely cry from "everyone in every age is just a Modern who didn't know it yet" that shows up in so much modern (heh) fantasy and science fiction.


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