On the Memetic Success of Modernism

Modernism appears pretty consistently in minds as an amalgam of several philosophical notions: positivism, materialism, physicalism, nominalism, liberalism, moral and aesthetic relativism, and atheism. There may be others. If you come across a man who credits one of them, it is a pretty good bet that he credits all the others, too.

It is interesting that, on any one of those notions, there can be no such thing as moral culpability. Modernism then looks like a retreat from morality, and so from responsibility, on every philosophical front. Implicitly, modernism makes shame and guilt inapposite to reality. Shame and guilt are painful feelings, and it is pleasant to get out from under them, via the conviction that they simply don’t pertain to anything – particularly oneself, or one’s acts. That is why modernism is tempting; this might account for its memetic success.

11 thoughts on “On the Memetic Success of Modernism

  1. As I have said for years.

    When Nietzsche said ‘God is dead’, he forgot to say that He was only a collateral victim. The target of the attack was the moral law. If you could have a God without He demanding the moral law, modernists would be happy to keep it. But the same way you can’t sometimes kill a terrorist without killing other people, you can’t kill the moral law without killing God.

    It’s about doing whatever you want without shame or guilt. That is, selfishness, which is the meaning of “freedom”.

    • Aye. Any attack upon Truth, Beauty, or Goodness is an attack upon God, who is their original and chief exemplification. As if there could be such a thing as an attack upon God. It is to laugh.

    • This might be why the universalist tendency has grown among those who still claim to believe. They can have their cake and eat it-they can do what they like and still go to Heaven. I think the atheist position more honourable.

  2. I think it would be fair to say that they are all logically simple, as well. No one is taught “this is how nominalism works”, but nominalism doesnt require a lot of effort to understand. It DOES take a lot of effort to understand why they are invalid, and once that door has been unlocked all the potemkin facades topple over in front of you.

    I think theres something to be said here about the democratization of knowledge—you had an article some time ago that said cheap information is the acid eating away at society, and it comes into play here: if i believe in all earnestness that I ought to understand the world, and I dont, then I think something is wrong with me. If a traveling salesman comes along and says “gender is a social construct! Do what makes you happy!” Then i will shrug and feel good about myself because the salesman seems to know what hes talking about and I understand the world now.

    People then get to build upon this reality in their minds, and an attack on these ideas is an attack on the foundation of their reality. Youre laying siege to Eden, in their mind, and if they arent curious they will simply reject it.

    All this to say, there are a lot of peasant-philosophers out there, but not every peasant needs to know metaphysics to plant corn. I am an accountant for petes sake, why do I care about Leibniz’ concept of monads? How does that help me day to day?

    If we had leaders in the world at all, we wouldnt have to know—we could trust them. The Parish Priest used to be the peasants window to the great beyond. And once atheism sets down roots, theres no opportunities even for parish priests to help guide you along. Moby Dick has a good line I will misremember: “All the worlds a ship, and the pulpit is its prow”.

    This turned into a bit of a screed, thank you for this thought provoking post.

    • They are all indeed simpler than all their alternatives, not just logically but also operationally. Each of them wipes away a whole domain’s worth of deliberation that would otherwise be needful. They thus greatly increase the cheapness – in both senses of that word – of moral and intellectual life: of the thought, attention, care, prudence and charity that must be brought to bear, paid for, and suffered, in the conduct of a life well examined. Each of the doctrines I listed entails that there is no reason to do philosophical work, or to pay attention to the urging of conscience. So the hedonic payoff of crediting them is enormous.

      If moral relativism is true, e.g., then there is no reason to worry about whether one is doing the right thing. The whole problem just goes away. If nominalism is true, there is no reason to deliberate about the principles at work in the world, for there are no such things. And so forth.

      As for atheism, it straightforwardly evacuates the domains directly addressed by all the others.

      One of the consequences of each of these notions – with the possible exception of positivism – is that *there are not in reality any such things as authorities.* They leave every man utterly free of direction or guidance from above; which is to say that they make each man himself solely responsible for the moral, legal and intellectual work done in traditional societies by the entire hierarchy. And most of us are not very good at those sorts of work.

      One of the later twists of modernism insists that everyone is indeed good at those sorts of work – good enough to get by, anyway; good enough to be good, or rather “good.”

      • They leave every man utterly free of direction or guidance from above; which is to say that they make each man himself solely responsible for the moral, legal and intellectual work done in traditional societies by the entire hierarchy.

        There is also the appeal to hubris that this sentence points to. If every important question eventually gets referred inside my head, then I am awfully important: what Zippy Catholic used to call, I think, a self-creating superman.

      • Yeah, the feeling of autonomy is an addictive rush, for sure. Certainly it motivates much of the intense urgency of rebellion from below; of feeling one has stuck it to the man, which so often issues in savage violence – guillotining convents of Carmelite nuns, e.g. I’m reminded of JM’s remark the other day:

        I think the ancient wisdom was that a man becomes hubristic when he ceases to accept his excellence as a gift of God (or the gods, or fortune). He then become like Icarus and forgets that he did not actually make his wings, and he therefore uses them to fly too high.

  3. Pingback: The Cult of Shame, Guilt and Judgmentalism | Winston Scrooge

  4. You could add socialism to your list of elemental doctrines. When the word socialism was first used around 1800, it denoted the doctrine that a human individual is entirely socially determined, and that he can therefore be changed by changing his social relations. Like the other elemental doctrines you list, socialism is attractive because it is an exculpatory doctrine. These exculpatory doctrines are the modern “blood of the Lamb.”

    Modern man is eager to wash himself in the modern “blood of the Lamb,” but he is also proud and greedy for praise, so he dislikes the fact that the modern “blood of the Lamb” removes both credit and blame. Modern man solves this problem with the doctrine of man’s natural goodness, so that all blameworthy acts result from external social circumstances, but al praiseworthy acts result from the internal self.


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