Search the tag Counter-Enlightenment at the footer of this blog to find roughly ten disparate blog posts, all circling around the idea that intellectual history, despite all the obvious goodies trucked in with science and technology, is turning decidedly away from long-established Enlightenment values. A fair number of resources are available online and in book form exploring various movements against the Enlightenment over the past few centuries, none of which I have consulted. Instead, I picked up Daniel Schwindt’s The Case Against the Modern World: A Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016), which was gifted to me. The book was otherwise unlikely to attract my attention considering that Schwindt takes Catholicism as a starting point whereas I’m an avowed atheist, though with no particular desire to proselytize or attempt to convince others of anything. However, The Case Against is suffused with curious ideas, so it is a good subject for a new book blogging project, which in characteristic fashion (for me) will likely proceed in fits and starts.

Two interrelated ideas Schwindt puts forward early in the book fit with multiple themes of this blog, namely, (1) the discovery and/or development of the self (I refer more regularly to consciousness) and (2) the reductive compartmentalization of thought and behavior. Let’s take them in order. Here’s a capsule of the first issue:

… we [moderns] are inescapably self-centered beings. Of course, man has always been taught by world religions that he has a tendency toward egoism … but these mere[ly] warned him of danger, assuming also that there was a part of him through which he identified with the world and those personal being[s] around him, whether those personal beings were living or dead. We differ in that it is no longer possible to make such an assumption: our self-centeredness is almost complete. [p. 5, italics in original]

This is familiar to some as the subject/object or self/other problem. Every person is at once an individual and a participant in multiple, overlapping social groups ranging in size from the family to community to nation to all of humanity (e.g., all men are brothers). But before we understood ourselves primarily as individuals (ignoring a discussion of latent rights and responsibilities), identity was subsumed in group affiliations. Further, according to Schwindt, that perspective made events of individual lives appear to be the result of mysterious external forces (fortune, destiny, etc.) acting upon us rather that expressions of personal character and agency. Schwindt goes on to mention how Thomas Aquinas merged subject/object into an impressive albeit temporary synthesis, long since forgotten, lost, or abandoned, and how the modern world rediscovered with some absurdist, Kafkaesque irony how much we remain victims of circumstance. These tensions have never been resolved, and now, in the age of social media, confusions about how to understand oneself as an individual with multiple group identities (sometimes conflicting) have been grossly exacerbated, especially as the self is further divided between meat world and the virtual world and the self is understood (by some) as merely a projection. It’s a complete mess.

One the second point above, Schwindt discusses René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, Adam Smith, John Locke, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud each in turn in connection with a worldview that sees reality more as a piling up of parts than as a unitary whole. (Any one of those historical figures together with their work could be the singular subject of years of dedicated study, so it’s ironic that each gets a single paragraph to describe his contribution. Reducing the reductionists is a necessary step to enable brief discussion in book form, so no harm, no foul.) Easy to recognize in parts/wholes an isomorphism of individual/society, which is why I put these two ideas together. Considering that rationalism and scientific inquiry were the hot, new ideas of the modern age (commencing with or following shortly after the Enlightenment depending on how one conceptualizes intellectual history), each of these figures distilled ideas out of their traditionalist wholes, applying categories and making something formerly sacred into some newly profane (secular). While scientific wonder may remain, transcendence is stripped out in the process and the world is not so much explained as explained away. Schwindt provides this astounding extended quote by Viktor Frankl to launch his discussion:

The present danger does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist but rather on his pretense and claim of totality … What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specializing, but rather the fact that specialists are generalizing. The true nihilism of today is reductionism … Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness: today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness. Human phenomena are thus turned into mere epiphenomena. [pp. 36-37]

My recent blogging has featured criticisms of cosmologies offered with the considerable sophistication of scientific inquiry that are simply way, waaay beyond the scope of regular folks and accordingly impotent. Thus, the Counter-Enlightenment. In further support, I heard on a podcast (no link, can’t remember) that in Abraham Maslow’s unpublished writings at the time of his death was a reconsideration of his famous Hierarchy of Needs. His reformulation dethroned self-actualization (an individual attribute) in favor of belonging (a group attribute). Whether belonging is intended in the limited sense of community and tradition or as an understanding of man’s place in the cosmos is unclear. Either way, wild disorientating and deranging factors found in the current historical moment offer a buffet of options from which to choose. How the masses gravitate toward resolution remains to be seen but my assessment is that further desacralization will not be the path.

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