This is the second of two parts. Part 1 is here. NB: this is a work in progress. Comments very welcome.
Everyone you ask has their own diagnosis of the problems of the 21st century. Some begin with a benign view of modernity and the contemporary world and see only a need for tweaking certain ideas. These optimists include capitalists who believe government just needs to get out of their business, liberals who think government just needs to get out of everyone’s business and treat everyone equally, and Marxists who believe that government needs to be in everyone’s business. Others, pessimists, believe that modernity is a failure or, at best, a hoax. These include religious zealots of all stripes, like Catholics who want a return to an idyllic 13th century that never existed and call for at least a return to Vatican I days, or like Protestants who want a return to colonial days when religion formed the basis of society or, if not that, the idyllic days of the 1950’s when peace and prosperity flowed in a free America, and cultural-rights people who just want you to keep your modernity out of their culture, thank you very much. Or we might include post-modernists, who, as far as I can tell, exist only in the academy and believe that modernity was just control by another name.
Finally, some of us, realists perhaps, believe that modernity was necessary but that it involves an inherent weakness. Early Frankfurt School theorists belong here, though not Habermassians, because they see the seeds of modernity in Odysseus and recognize the inherent contradiction in the autonomous man bereft of mythology who serves himself as a mythology. Thomists belong here too, and more fully so, for not only can they diagnose the problems with the other approaches to modernity, they can also explain why those other approaches make sense. We Thomists – by which I mean Thomistic-Aristotelians who are not afraid to question our own tradition as well as those of others and who take nothing on authority for authority sake – we Thomists recognize a kindred spirit in the way modernity rejects authoritarian and dogmatic thinking. We also see, however, a corrupted methodology that valorizes mathematics and mechanistic science above its due.
Given this perspective, which is admittedly over brief, I suggest that Thomists characterizes the failure of modernity as a loss of autonomy, a loss of meaning, and loss of reason. Practically speaking, these losses result in an impending environmental collapse, a tendency toward despotic governments in the form of totalitarian regimes or bureaucratic instrumentalism, and a deprived educational and social milieu that allows for the full flourishing of human individuals living in community. In short, these losses and practical problems rest on a distorted anthropology that sees the human being as a machine living in a machine-world driven by machine incentives.
To the optimists, then, a Thomist says, “yes, modernity was necessary. It helped us to move away from an objective worldview that prioritized the cosmos over the individual human being.” That is as far as a Thomist can go, however. She recognizes that modernity has brought about good things like the emphasis on concrete individuals in humanism and existentialism, the recognition of the need for observation in scientific understandings of the world (from which flows modern medicine and technology without which life would be much worse), and a lessening of religious controls that led to the Inquisition. On the other hand, she recognizes that many gains come at a cost –the cost to human dignity in the way modern medicine and science demeans the human beings, to cost to the dignity of the environment, upon which immigrants, the poor, and the old are sacrificed for the profit of others, and the cost of political self-determination.
In fact, the Aristotelian-Thomist can agree with the pessimists: “modernity rejoices at supposed gains which are just other forms of control and sacrifices humility with God on the altar of man’s glory.” Because she recognizes the good aspects of modernity, however, she rejects the idealization of a lost world in which Church and State were one that characterizes the religious zealot. Such a path leads to loss of autonomy and the corruption of the Church. Nor can she accept that all reason is but another imposition of power like the post-modernist. While some naming of mental disease, for instance, imposes a form of control on people who otherwise flourish, other people really suffer depression for which they need help so that they might lead flourishing lives. Politics is not meant to be a mere imposition of power.
To the optimists and the pessimists, the Thomistic-Aristotelian points out that their views rest on the same distorted anthropology. This anthropology comprises a picture of the human being as a rational, self-interested machine that is best left alone to do what he does best. The capitalist and the liberal, then, demand that government keep its nose out of the business of the human being, while the Marxist insists that man must be led to a state that frees him from his previous misconceptions so that he can live in an anarchy of egalitarian individuals. Similarly, the pessimist, not trusting the rational, self-interested machine to behave itself, insists that he must be subjected to the authority of God through the State or, better, simply through the Church (of whatever form). All that matters is the individual’s salvation. The post-modernist, of course, shares the same vision, except that he or she sees rationality as simply another form of the exercise of power. In any case, the individual seeks to impose his will on the world through whatever means possible.
The capitalist and the liberal care not about the impending environmental collapse or, at least, to the extent that they do, they care only because an environment is necessary for the machine to operate in at optimal capacity. Nor do they care about despotic forms of government. The capitalist does not care, for, as we saw with Hitler, profit grows even under extreme forms of totalitarianism. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred, not because freedom was necessary, but because it no longer served to make profit, which the new Russian oligarchs swim in. Education means nothing in advanced industrial societies except learning to be a consumer. If any one wants evidence of the failure of education or the collapse of social milieu suited for flourishing they need look no further than the national politics of their own country.
The religious zealot cares not about environmental collapse either, denying it insofar as he can. We all know, too, that government is too liberal because it doesn’t prevent the collapse of morals all around. As for education, the religious zealot can agree that education does not teach the virtues and will, insofar as possible, remove his child from the educational system, either to teach at home or indoctrinate at the expensive private school. Let’s not talk about improving the local community school or, worse, engaging with others in the community on determining the common good.
Of course, I am being snarky, but the situation calls for it. The Thomistic-Aristotelian can agree with the insights of both the optimist and pessimist. She can go further, indeed, and diagnose the disease of which the optimist and the pessimist are both symptoms. Further, she can explain the failure of the optimist and the pessimist to address the real practical problems of the 21st century. The reason that no one listens to the Thomistic-Aristotelian lies in the fact that she says “a pox on both your houses.” Yet, if people do not begin to listen, then the world is due for a collapse that will leave many starving, many diseased, and many more dead.