Note: Escoffier prepared this as an extended comment at my request. I am reposting it here due to its length and because it’s an important read — Nova.
OK, I am going to go fast here, make a lot of unsupported statements, and not try to “prove” any of it. Apart from the fact that what I am going to say can’t be proved anyway, the attempt to do so would be so slow and labored and make the post so long that hardly anyone would read it.
Also—like Machiavelli with the Discourses—I am writing this because I’ve been asked to not because I planned to. So if anyone thinks it sucks, too bad.
The enemy is not feminism or the Enlightenment or corrupted Christianity or any of the other things discussed here and elsewhere. Those are enemies, to be sure, but they are second order phenomena. The real enemy is Modernity, with a capital “M.” All the others flow from that, either by design from modernity’s central premise, or as inevitable unintended consequences, or concious choices made by later thinkers, or as not-inevitable (evitable?) matters of chance that went against us. But for the most part the intellectual history of the west for the past 500 years has been the ever-deepening, radicalizing, doubling-down, etc. on modernity’s central premises. There have also been attempts to rescue modernity from this or that contradiction or fatal flaw, all of which have only made modernity more radical.
Modernity was a conscious choice of a few men who thought it up and offered it to the world. We tend today to think of the history of mankind and civilization as one endless upward arc of progress, but this is not so. Indeed, the very idea of progress in this sense is a modern invention. The ancient philosophers believed that history was cyclical, that states and even civilizations were born, thrived and died for knowable reasons and that this happened over and over. (Along with natural cataclysms that wiped out the memory of the past.) This same idea is present in Chinese philosophy.
Beyond this, I might also add that the pre-philosophic prejudice in the west was that older is better. The ancestral is the source of guidance and strength. The classical philosophers replaced this with the idea of the “good” which transcends time and place. That of course never caught on as an organizing principle of society but it was still intellectually very influential. Modernity replaces that with “newer is better” and everyone believes that, both because they have been propagandized to believe it and because of modernity’s two most successful children, science and technology. But I am getting a little ahead of myself.
Modernity arose as an attack on religiosity in general and against Christianity in particular. The early modern philosophers believed that the middle ages had been a time of stagnation and concluded that Christianity was the cause, so the solution was to kill it. It’s worth noting in this context how “memes” can change radically and be taken for granted. For instance, throughout middle and late antiquity, Rome was considered the dazzling pinnacle of human achievement. In fact, more historians of Rome were Greek (a people whom Rome conquered) than Roman. Then Augustine came along with City of God and in one fell swoop smashed Rome’s reputation to bits for 1,200 years. Part of the forgotten purpose of Machiavelli’s Discourses was to revive Rome’s reputation. A similar thing happened with the Middle Ages. Some early moderns picked up a stray comment of Petrarch’s about “dark ages” (when he was really referring to one subset of Latin literature) and constructed a whole meme about how the Middle Ages were the Most Dismal Time EVAR!! And most people still believe it to this day.
Now, you would not have wanted to go to the dentist in 1250 AD. But there was a lot to like. However, that’s a digression.
The point is, the early moderns partially rewrote history to make the past seem worse than it was. Maybe they really believed it, maybe they exaggerated for effect. Probably a combination. But they definitely hated Christianity and religiosity so it made sense from a “strategic” perspective for them to attack the Christian Middle Ages with vigor.
Now, this comes through very slyly at first. Machiavelli, everyone knows, is the philosopher of scheming evil yet to this day there is a huge body of scholarship which holds that he was a believer. Hobbes devotes part IV of Leviathan to an apparent attempt to reconcile the rest of his teaching with the Bible (but is in fact a very funny–if you can tolerate the blasphemy–account of why the two are irreconcilable and the rest of his teaching is “correct”). Locke appears quite religious on the surface, etc. With Spinoza it starts to come out into the open, with Montesquieu more so. By the time you get to Gibbon, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume and the like, they are taking for granted that they have won the argument and making potshots more or less in the open.
Now, I don’t think I need to explain to this audience why a sustained attack on Christianity helped lead to the moral mess we have today.
The philosophy is a little more complicated. I touched on some of it earlier. There are a number of enormous differences between ancient philosophy and modern philosophy, and I need hardly add that ancient philosophy informs medieval philosophy so for our purposes there is no difference.
THE key unifying element to all modern philosophy is the attack on the transcendent. Above all that meant God. The moderns take for granted that God does not exist and that all religious tradition is made up to serve the interests of the prelates. The “Enlightenment” is above all the project to dispel the last vestiges of religious belief and put all life and society on a basis of pure reason. The classics argued that such was impossible, for many reasons.
But the transcendent also meant other things. This is a long and involved argument but the nutshell version is “philosophy as a way of life.” Above every earthly concern was the whole, the universe if you will, but not merely the physical universe, the noetic universe. Man is the one being with logos, he is the being capable of investigating the whole and at least potentially understanding it. This places him on a higher plane than the animals it gives him a high purpose. From this the ancient philosophers derive the concept of teleology and natural right, which are natural bases for morality (i.e., they oppose one the one hand the cynical teaching that all right or morality is conventional or man-made, and on the other hand the pagan religious teaching that right has no other basis but the pronouncements of the gods or poets writing about the gods). Then there is the whole issue of the “idea” or eidos of the “the good.” Basically ancient philosophy is totally normative in approach, it begins from the common understanding of things and then tries to ascend from that to the truth. So it accepts man’s distinction of things into noble and base, pleasing and foul, and above all good and bad. “The good” is the highest thing, and not relative or conventional or a matter of personal preference, it actually exists independent of human creation or will, and is ultimately separable from the things we describe as “good,” and until we understand what that thing-in-itself really is, we don’t have knowledge of the whole or wisdom and you might even say often lack sufficient basis for action, so the thinking through what is the good must go on, which is why philosophy is ultimately a way of life and not a subject matter or a destination.
Modernity also attacks these sources of the transcendent. It laughs teleology out of court. It takes philosophy and transforms it from end-in-itself, quest-for-wisdom and into mankind’s servant. Machiavelli wrote of the conquest of Fortuna or chance. Bacon expanded that to the “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.”
The purpose was genuinely to make life “better” for people materially (there’s more to it than that but that’s the important one for our purposes). Since the moderns are all atheists and most of them materialists of one sort or another, this is all that matters to them. There is nothing else. You have one life, may as well live it fat and happy and satisfied.
There is more to it than that—e.g., Machiavelli spends a lot of time on glory and on “love” (trust me on the latter, it’s in his plays and poetry)–and these at first glance seem “higher” than the rank materialism of later moderns but on closer examination it turns out that Machiavelli is just trying to satisfy wants, not appeal to the transcendent. Glory is a want of certain men, indeed a higher want than plenty and security, and desire for it can result in resplendent deeds that are a credit to mankind (as any reader of Plutarch can see). Yet it is still in the end just an appetite or passion to be sated. Ditto Machiavelli’s conception of love, which I venture to say is not far from Roissy’s. That is, higher than mere lust but ultimately not on the plane of Biblical love or Platonic “eros.”
Now, this does not answer the question of where “rights” come from, which is an important question because “rights” are the prerequisite for feminism (as is, it should be clear, is modernity’s premise that satisfying human wants is the whole purpose of life). Short answer: they come from Hobbes. There is no conception of the “rights of man” in the ancient or medieval world. Nor is there any in Machiavelli. Rights arise with Hobbes. He derives them from the natural impulse that each man has to defend his own life when threatened. Man cannot control this instinct, nor would it be just to expect him to surrender his life, hence he has the “right” to defend himself.
But the deeper reason for the conception of “rights” is that modernity believes that a whole new basis for political “right” (which is different than “rights”) must be found once Christianity and revelation are gone. It had to be grounded in nature and not made up. Hobbes thought, and said, that he had come up with the first truly, firmly scientific basis for political right ever. All prior thinkers were phonies.
The classics, according to Hobbes (he studied Aristotle with a care unimaginable today), merely THOUGHT they had rationally understood politics. But tellingly they didn’t try to implement any reform proposals. Plato’s Republic culminates in a “city in speech” that all the participants in the dialogue admit will never be put into practice. Then the sun comes up and they go home. Aristotle sketches what a best regime would look like but does not make any recommendations, much less a manifesto, for making it happen.
Hobbes comes along and not only says “Do this!” but also “This is the ONLY rational scientific reliable basis for politics, ever.”
Hobbes’ “solution” to the political problem is simplistic and reductive by design, because he wanted to rule out all nuance and any possible appeal to a higher principle that might grant one an exception from the civil law in this or that circumstance. Hence he completely dismisses even the theoretical concept of an “unjust law” as a contradiction in terms.
I could on but instead I will try to sum up. EVERYTHING that bothers us here flows from these (and other) modern premises. Now, one might try to find some of the problems within religion itself, or in the misinterpretation thereof. E.g., Christianity raises the status of women, hence eventually leads to feminism. Or (this is a common Enlightenment argument): Christianity’s emphasis on mercy and forgiveness leads to permissiveness and the breakdown of order. (Montesquieu says this about Rome after Constantine.)
However, the far more proximate cause of our ills is modernity. Modernity holds that nothing is transcendent. The world is materialist/atomistic; there is no soul in either the Biblical or the philosophical sense. There is no heaven or hell, nor is there any “right” that is not ultimately derived from utility. Man is the measure. To the extent that life has a purpose (and really it doesn’t) it is to satisfy his wants. The individual is the fundamental unit, society only exists to serve his wants.
All the great “isms” of the past few centuries–liberalism, historicism, positivism, subjectivism, relativism, socialism, Communism, hedonism, feminism, multiculturalism and nihilism—flow from this.