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"A civilization disappears with the kind of man, the type of humanity, that has issued from it." Georges Bernanos
Convictions: A personal envoi. The evolution of "modern." Main features of the Modern Age. Contradictory dualities. "Post-modern." The need to rethink the current idea of "Progress."
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For a long time I have been convinced that we in the West are living near the end of an entire age, the age that began about five hundred years ago. This is a prejudice, in the literal sense of that word: a prejudice, rather than a preoccupation-which is why I must sum up, in the briefest possible manner, its evolution.
I knew, at a very early age, that "the West" was better than "the East"-especially better than Russia and Communism. I had read Spengler: but I believed that the Anglo-American victory over the Third Reich (and over Japan) was, at least in some ways, a refutation of the categorical German proposition of the inevitable and imminent Decline of the West. However-Churchill's and Roosevelt's victory had to be shared with Stalin. The result, after 1945, was my early decision to flee from a not yet wholly Sovietized Hungary to the United States, at the age of twenty-two. And twenty-odd years later, at the age of forty-five, I was convinced that the entire Modern Age was crumbling fast. The result was a short book entitled The Passing of the Modern Age, published in 1970. During the following thirty years statements about the end of an age appeared in many of the dozen volumes and other essays and articles I was writing, on very different topics. Something drove me to make such statements. I now realize that they almost always appeared in paragraphs at or very near the end of my various books.
But there is a duality in every human life, in every human character. I am neither a cynic nor a categorical pessimist. In my auto-history (it is not really an autobiography) twelve years ago I wrote-and now see: again on its last page: "Because of the goodness of God I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one." I wrote too: "So living during the decline of the West-and being much aware of it-is not at all that hopeless and terrible." During the ten years that followed I wrote more books; and since the collapse of Communism (I had seen that coming decades before) I have had the unexpected experience of seeing book after book of mine translated and published and bought by many readers in my native country. But during these past ten years (not fin-de-siecle: fin d'une ere)-my conviction hardened further, into an unquestioning belief not only that the entire age, and the civilization to which I have belonged, were passing but that we are living through-if not already beyond-its very end.
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I am writing about the so-called Modern Age, a familiar term which is nonetheless rather inaccurate. For one thing, the Ancient-Medieval-Modern chronological division is not applicable to countries and civilizations beyond the Western world. It was inaccurate when it first arose in the consciousness and in the usage of our ancestors, and it has become ever less accurate since. The word "modern" first appeared in English about four hundred years ago, circa 1580. At first its sense was close to the original Latin modernus: "today's," "present." (Shakespeare occasionally used it, meaning "now common.") Gradually the weight of its sense shifted a bit forward, including the meaning of "new"-that is, something different from "old." By the end of the seventeenth century, in English but also in some other Western European languages, another allied meaning became current among learned people, a concept which was one of the results of the emergence of historical consciousness. This was the recognition that there have been three historic ages, the Ancient, the Middle, and now the Modern-whence "medieval," having been in the middle, between the Ancient and the Modern.
There came another shift of consciousness-indeed, of thinking. This was the sense that this modern age might last for a very long time-indeed, perhaps forever. This was seldom expressed definitely, but there it was: it existed (as it still exists today) in the inability, or perhaps in the unwillingness, of people to contemplate that, like the other ages of mankind, the Modern Age too may or will come to an end. It existed (as it still exists today) in the minds of those who, by and large, equated the Modern Age with an age of increasing Reason-contrasted with the Dark and/or Middle Ages, Ages of Faith. One classic example of this (then not unreasonable) optimism may be found in a passage by Gibbon, who in a stately meandering from his majestic theme, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote around 1776: "It may be safely presumed that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism.... We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race."
Gibbon died five years after the French Revolution, in 1794, the year of Terror. He was not spared the sight of barbarism arising in the midst of Western European civilization, coming from the inside. He did not comment on that, for which we cannot blame him; but at this point we ought to give some thought to the words-that is, to the meanings-of barbarian/ barbarism; primitive/primitivism; civilization/culture. The meaning of the first goes back to the Greeks; but the last two are products of the Modern Age. For the Greeks "barbarians" were, by and large, people who were not Greeks-that is, outside and beyond their civilization, a lodgment in space. But our usage of "barbarian" or "barbarism" is also-if not mostly-directed to people and behavior and acts in our midst, to people who are "uncivilized" (or, as Russians strangely put it, "uncultured"). Such a meaning is the result not only of experiences but of the emerging historical consciousness at the beginning of the Modern Age, of which an early example is the meaning of "primitive." This word, appearing in English around 1540, first suggested people who are, as yet, "behind" us: that is, behind, rather than beyond, behind us in time, rather than in space: in other words, "retarded." This was another example of the then-changing meaning of Progress (a word that a century or so earlier had meant only advance in space, that is, moving forward). After 1600 the word "civilization" had become the antonym of barbarism and of primitivism ("to civilize: to bring out from rudeness, to educate to civility," OED 1601-again an application of a new meaning of "progress"). Much later, during the second half of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a new meaning of "culture" appeared (unlike "civil," the current meaning of "culture" had been unknown to the Greeks and Romans); being "civilized" and "cultured" began to overlap and become sometimes confused. Certain thinkers (mostly Germans, and later especially American intellectuals) would assert that Culture is of a higher order, more important than Civilization-by now, a very questionable assertion.
During the nineteenth century the employment of "modern" was less current; but the optimistic notion of an increasing and possibly everlasting Modern Age was not. What happened was that the notion, and the idea, of Progress had become stronger than the notion, and the idea, of an Age of Reason. Of course, this occurred mainly because of the constantly increasing inventions and productions of applied science. We should recognize that therefore the appearance of the Evolutionary theory of humankind was predictable around 1860. Darwin was not a very original thinker; rather, a man of his time. One of the outcomes of his theory was of course the stretching of the origin of mankind back to hundreds of thousands (and by now, to more than one million) years into a "pre-historic" era. This tendency, perhaps not quite consciously, accorded with a view stretching forward to a perennial, perhaps everlasting, future of mankind; indirectly to a perennial, perhaps everlasting, Modern Age. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the number of thinkers who, directly or indirectly, began to question this kind of progressive optimism increased. They had their forerunners such as the Neapolitan Vico two centuries earlier; but now there were different writers, such as Nietzsche or Valery or Spengler, who, in their different ways, tried to remind their readers of the symptoms of decline and of the ultimate fallibility of Western civilization-in the history of which the Modern Age has of course been a part. Finally, during the twentieth century, the appeal of the cult of Reason, of the applications of Progress, and the usage of "modern" itself began to weaken, not only among intellectuals but among more and more people. Toward the end of the century the word "postmodern" appeared, mostly in the abstract realms of literary and art criticism. (To a brief discussion of this belated, confused, and inaccurate designation I must return toward the end of this chapter.)
Meanwhile there exist significant symptoms of an evolving historical consciousness that has no precedents. Because of the achievements of great historians we have acquired a fair amount of knowledge of what had happened-and, perhaps more important, of how people had lived and thought-during the waning of the Ancient and of the Middle Ages. Near the end of the Roman Empire or during the waning of the Middle Ages people knew that some unusual things were happening to them; many of them knew and understood the often worrisome difference of their condition when compared with the lives of their parents or other ancestors; but they seldom thought in terms of the end of an entire age. Yet telling people that we seem to be living near or at the end of an age is no longer something to which they necessarily react with incomprehension or even unexpectedness. Ordinary people, with little knowledge of history, instantly understand when someone, referring to a particular evidence of moral rottenness, says, "It's like the last days of the Roman Empire." This kind of surprisingly widespread (though of course often inaccurate and vague) consciousness of history is a significant symptom. However-every such kind of general historical recognition ought to be sharpened by the understanding of the ending of a very particular age, the one that began about five hundred years ago.
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So I must now turn from the evolution (and devolution) of the word "modern" to that of the Modern Age itself. What were its main features?
First of all, it was the European Age. There are three sets of reasons for this: geographical, etymological, historical. Until about five hundred years ago the main theater of history was the Mediterranean, and the principal actors were the people along or near its shores, with few important exceptions. With the discovery of the Americas, of the East Indies, of the shape of the globe itself, all this changed. The European age of world history began.
Yet the very adjective, and designation, of "European" was something entirely new at that time, five hundred years ago. The noun "Europe" had existed for a long time, although infrequently used. But "European," designating the inhabitant of a certain continent, was new. (It seems that among the first who invented and used it was Pius II, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, a Renaissance Pope around 1470.) In any event: until about five hundred years ago "Christian" and "European" and "white" were almost synonymous, nearly coterminous. There were few inhabitants of the continent who denied that they were Christians. (Exceptions were the Turks in the Balkans, and a small scattering of Jews.) There were very few Christians living outside Europe, and there were few peoples of the white race beyond it, while there were few non-white inhabitants of Europe.
After 1492 "Europe" expanded in several ways. Entire newly discovered continents (the Americas, Australia), as well as the southern tip of Africa, became settled by whites, and Christianized. The lands conquered or colonized by the settlers soon became parts of the empires of their mother countries; the posts and colonies of the European Powers appeared across the world. Finally, European institutions, customs, industries, laws, inventions, buildings spread over most of the world, involving also peoples who were not conquered by Europeans. But after the two world wars of the twentieth century, during which the peoples of Europe grievously wounded each other and themselves, almost all of this came to an end. There were no more new settlements of Europeans (and of whites) on other continents. (One exception is the state of Israel.) To the contrary: the Europeans gave up their colonial empires, and their colonists left their Asian or African homelands. (As late as 1914 the entire continent of Africa, save for two states, Liberia and Abyssinia, belonged to or was governed by a European colonial empire. Eighty years later there was not a single European-or white-ruled-state on the entire continent.) Yet the Christian churches in Africa, Asia, Oceania seem to have survived the reflux of whites, at least in many places. What also survived-indeed, it spread athwart the globe-was the emulation and the adaptation of institutions, industries, customs, forms of art and of expression, laws that were originally European. But the European Age was over.
It was over, at latest by 1945 (if not already by 1917), when the two Superpowers of the world (meeting in the middle of conquered Europe) were the United States and Russia. There remained no European Power comparable to them, not even Britain. This brings up a terminological question. Was (is) the United States European? Yes and no. Yes: in the sense that its origins and laws and institutions-and for about a century the majority of its inhabitants-were of Anglo-Saxon-Celtic origin. No: since its population is now becoming less and less European. And the United States, too, is affected by the crumbling of the institutions and the ideas of the Modern Age that had produced it at its beginning. Indeed, probably more so than many of the states and peoples of Europe. The composition of the American people has been changing rapidly and drastically, whence it is foreseeable that sooner or later whites in America may be a minority.
Excerpted from At the End of an Age by John Lukacs Copyright © 2002 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission.
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