Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Emergence of the Modern Mind

What is it that separates the West from the rest? How did the West produce a civilization unprecedented in its revolutionary impact on every field of human endeavor? What do we have that is worth defending against the anti-modern, anti-Western Islamists and the anti-modern, anti-Western left?

And so between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the West saw the emergence of a newly self-conscious and autonomous human being--curious about the world, confident in his own judgments, skeptical of orthodoxies, rebellious against authority, responsible for his own beliefs and actions, enamored of the classical past but even more committed to a greater future, proud of his humanity, conscious of his distinctness from nature, aware of his artistic powers as individual creator, assured of his intellectual capacity to comprehend and control nature, and altogether less dependent on an omnipotent God. This emergence of the modern mind, rooted in the rebellion against the medieval Church and the ancient authorities, and yet dependent upon and developing from both these matrices, took the three distinct and dialectically related forms of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. These collectively ended the cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe and established the more individualistic, skeptical, and secular spirit of the modern age. Out of that profound cultural transformation, science emerged as the West's new faith...

...The nature of reality had fundamentally shifted for Western man, who now perceived and inhabited a cosmos of entirely new proportions, structure, and existential meaning.

The way was now open to envision and establish a new form of society, based on self-evident principles of individual liberty and rationality. For the strategies and principles that science had shown to be so useful for discovering truth in nature were clearly relevant to the social realm as well. Just as the antiquated Ptolemaic structure of the heavens, with its complicated, cumbersome, and finally unsustainable system of epicyclic fabrications, had been replaced by the rational simplicity of the Newtonian universe, so too could the antiquated structures of society--absolute monarchical power, aristocratic privilege, clerical censorship, oppressive and arbitrary laws, inefficient economies--be replaced by new forms of government based not on supposed divine sanction and inherited traditional assumptions, but on rationally ascertainable individual rights and mutually beneficial social contracts. The application of systematic critical thought to society could not but suggest the need for reform of that society, and as modern reason brought to nature a scientific revolution, so would it bring to society a political revolution. Thus did John Locke, and the French philosophes of the Enlightenment after him, take the lessons of Newton and extend them to the human realm.

From The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our Worldview by Richard Tarnas

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