II – Modernism: The Philosophical Assumptions

Yes, I know, philosophy is a bore. One did philosophy at Uni to find truth and all one got were a whole lot of endless sceptical examinations and putting-down of one system after another. But this is a result of Modernism itself. To deny truth and refuse to examine its own assumptions.

I am aware that many discount the importance of reflecting deeply at the philosophic level. After all, scepticism is universal among our intelligentsia. The Modern does not re-examine his own philosophical roots. The famous statement of Descartes – “I think therefore I am.” – cuts man off from reality. The assumption here is that my thinking of myself makes reality, as if Man is separate from Nature – from the very things which provide contact with the conscious mind. So, Rationalism is borne.

This is quite revolutionary. Totally opposed to all philosophical thought from the beginning of mankind. It runs against common sense, against all religious belief, all cultures, all normal human responses to reality. A common sense person before Descartes would have seen himself to be part of reality, part of Nature, his own conscious existence as a given in the very act of thinking, dependent on the holistic act of thinking, not separating the person from his own nature. It is a fundamental act of faith in reality each person makes. Otherwise we are all mad. And that is Modernism. Mad, seemingly reasonable, very clever.

Hume built on this: the only reality beyond my thoughts are sense data. Again, there is no fundamental reality of things, nothing but the ephemera of sense data: there is no apple, just roundness and redness! The person is divorced from objects themselves: no objects, no objective goodness, no truth, no beauty, no fundamental ground of anything – just sceptical opinion, and endless “subjective experiences” without roots.

Kant then built a huge apparatus of ideas in answer to both Descartes and Hume to justify some kind of objective reality. The result was Rationalistic Idealism. For the next 200 years, men were fascinated by the different structures one could invent from the variety of worlds of Ideas. And from which sprang the Ideologies of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Religions are not Ideologies. Ideologies are constructs of Rationalism, supposedly “free” thinkers thinking up total systems of ideas to envelop man and society. Ideologies are man-made.

So then, what we have now is a rejection of the wisdom of the Western Medieval and Ancient worlds, of the Greeks, of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the sustaining developments of traditional philosophy through the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Without the underlying sustaining Christian culture and moral framework of Western society, Nietzsche told us what Modernism means, taken to its cold, logical conclusions: we are beyond good and evil, and the only thing left to us is the will to power – and those who become aware of the logical conclusions become the Superman free from all moral constraints.

And Nihilism is with us everywhere in the modern world. The best analysis of Nihilism is Fr Seraphim’s essay: Nihilism: the Root of the modern Age.

Here is a very short and inadequate summary of the presence of Nihilism in everyday people’s lives today:

Liberalism: the first step to Nihilism
First is the Liberal and Humanist world-view. This is the world-view on which our whole modern world is based upon: its technology, its markets, its legislation, its urban life-style, its preoccupations. The Liberal Humanist is at base worldly in his theology, his ethics, his politics, and in other areas truth has been weakened, softened, compromised; in all realms truth that was once absolute has become less certain, if not entirely “relative.”
…. The Liberal is undisturbed even by fundamental deficiencies and contradictions in his own philosophy because his primary interest is elsewhere. He is indifferent to the reality of Heaven and Hell, if he conceives of God as a mere idea of a vague impersonal power, it is because he is more immediately interested in worldly ends, and because everything else is vague or abstract to him. The Liberal may be interested in culture, in learning, in business, or merely in comfort; but in every one of his pursuits the dimension of the absolute is simply absent. He is unable, or unwilling, to think in terms of ends, of ultimate things. The thirst for absolute truth has vanished; it has been swallowed up in worldliness.
….Liberalism is the first stage of the Nihilist dialectic. The Liberal proclaims his love of Truth, Culture, etc., but it is empty of any end to which they lead. This emptiness calls into being Nihilist reaction. The Nihilist will assert that the Liberal’s love of Truth and aspects of the Old Order is superficial: and so it is. The Liberal world-view is sentimental, it has no depth and so the intellectual Nihilist draws out the logical consequences of the weak-kneed Liberal world-view.

Realism: the development to Nihilism
The “Nihilist” is the man who respects nothing, bows before no authority, accepts nothing on faith, judges all in the light of a science taken as absolute and exclusive truth, rejects all idealism and abstraction in favor of the concrete and factual. He is the believer, in a word, in the “nothing” – but, in the reduction of everything men have considered “higher,” the things of the mind and spirit, to the lower or “basic”: matter, sensation, the physical.
The Realist questions everything, but only to be able to abolish all suggestion of or aspiration to anything higher, and to reduce and simplify it into the terms of the most obvious and “basic” explanation. The Realist sees only “race” or “sex” or the “mode of production.”
Nihilist “simplification” may be seen in the universal prestige today accorded the lowest order of knowledge, the scientific, as well as the simplistic ideas of men like Marx, Freud, and Darwin, which underlie virtually the whole of contemporary thought and life.
This Realist Nihilism dominates the upper and lower echelons of those who control our thoughts and decisions at all levels of society. Scientific analysis of the discrete particles of human existence dominate: no truth other than statistics, measuring, reports, the purely physical world and its needs. Decisions are made at the base level of the market, of preference choices, of freedom from any so-called “moral” restraints.

Vitalism: the consequence of Nihilism
Vitalism is a more advanced kind of Realism; sharing the latter’s narrow view of reality and its concern to reduce everything higher to the lowest possible terms, Vitalism carries the Realist intention one step further. Where Realism tries to reestablish an absolute truth from below, Vitalism expresses the failure of this project in the face of the more “realistic” awareness that there is no absolute here below, that the only unchanging principle in this world is change itself. Realism reduces the supernatural to the natural, the Revealed to the rational, truth to objectivity; Vitalism goes further and reduces everything to subjective experience and sensation. The world that seemed so solid, the truth that seemed so secure to the Realist, dissolve in the Vitalist view of things; the mind has no more place to rest, everything is swallowed up in movement and action.
For men weary of truth it is enough that a thing “is,” and that it is “new” and “exciting.”
The appeal of Vitalism is psychological. Only the dullest and least perceptive of men can remain satisfied for long with the dead faith of Liberalism and Realism. Extreme elements first – artists, revolutionaries, the uprooted multitudes, and then, one by one, the humanist guardians of “civilization,” and eventually even the most respectable and conservative elements of society, become possessed of an inner disquiet that leads them into the pursuit of something “new” and “exciting,” no one knows exactly what – a hunger that the varieties of Vitalism can only tease, but never satisfy.
Everywhere men feverishly pursue the work of “progress” – for what reason they do not know, or only very dimly sense. In the free world it is perhaps a horror vacui that chiefly impels men into feverish activity that promises forgetfulness of the spiritual emptiness that attends all worldliness. The sterile “purity” and “functionalism” of contemporary architecture are a typical expression of such a world; the same spirit is present in the disease of total planning. Some of the apologies for such schemes approach perilously near a strange kind of lucid insanity, wherein precision of detail and technique are united to an appalling insensitivity to the inhuman end these schemes serve.

Nihilism: the force of Destruction
“Who wishes to be creative,” said Nietzsche, “Must first destroy and smash accepted values.”
Bakunin appealed: “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The passion for destruction is also a creative passion!” Here Vitalism mingles with the will to destroy: but it is destruction that triumphs in the end. [The Nazis] exulted, that “we may be destroyed, but if we are, we shall drag a world with us – a world in flames.”
Since there is nothing real, modern man feels great unease, alienation. One way to assuage this feeling is to take action: any action. Violence is one solution: any violence, any release of passion, fighting, sex, sport, violent physical activity. Sport becomes a means to express such feelings of alienation and passion: either watching violence or participating in it. It is a Spirit of the Age, the Spirit of the Gang, or the Team.
The Nihilist “revelation” thus declares, most immediately, the annihilation of authority. Some apologists are fond of citing “corruptions,” “abuses,” and “injustices” in the Old Order as justification for rebellion against it; but such things – the existence of which no one will deny – have been often the pretext, but never the cause, of Nihilist outbursts. It is authority itself that the Nihilist attacks. In the political and social order, Nihilism manifests itself as a Revolution that intends, not a mere change of government or a more or less widespread reform of the existing order, but the establishment of an entirely new conception of the end and means of government. In the religious order Nihilism seeks, not a mere reform of the Church and not even the foundation of a new “church” or “religion,” but a complete refashioning of the idea of religion and of spiritual experience. In art and literature the Nihilist is not concerned with the modification of old aesthetic canons regarding subject-matter or style, nor with the development of new genres or traditions, but with a whole new approach to the question of artistic “creation” and a new definition of “art.”

Nihilism: the New Man
The New Nihilist Man is rootless; discontinuous with a past that Nihilism has destroyed, the raw material of every demagogue’s dream; the “free-thinker” and skeptic, closed only to the truth but “open” to each new intellectual fashion because he himself has no intellectual foundation; the “seeker” after some “new revelation,” ready to believe anything new because true faith has been annihilated in him; the planner and experimenter, worshipping “fact” because he has abandoned truth, seeing the world as a vast laboratory in which he is free to determine what is “possible”; the autonomous man, pretending to the humility of only asking his “rights,” yet full of the pride that expects everything to be given him in a world where nothing is authoritatively forbidden; the man of the moment, without conscience or values and thus at the mercy of the strongest “stimulus”; the “rebel,” hating all restraint and authority because he himself is his own and only god; the “mass man,” this new barbarian, thoroughly “reduced and “simplified” and capable of only the most elementary ideas, yet scornful of anyone who presumes to point out the higher things or the real complexity of life.
[And the people under these Watchdogs of Nihilism become immersed in Market Consumerism and Alienated from anything which defines a person: aliented from family, community, church, culture – all transformed into a muddy greyness, becoming darker with each decade].

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