Friday, June 8, 2007

Today's Quote: What Do We Mean By "Modernity"?

What do we mean by this word "modernity"? When did it begin? Some believe it began with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the discovery of America; others claim it originated with the birth of nation-states and the institution of banking, the rise of mercantile capitalism and the emergence of the bourgeoisie; and others emphasize the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth century, without which we would have neither technology nor industry. Each of these opinions has something to recommend it. By itself, each is only partially correct; together, they form a coherent explanation. For that reason, perhaps, most cultural historians tend to favor the eighteenth century: not only did it inherit these changes and innovations, but it was also consciously aware of many of the characteristics that would one day be our own. Was that age a prefiguration, then, of the age we live in today? Yes and no. It would be more accurate to say that ours has been the age of the distortion of the ideas and visions of that great century.

Modernity began as a critique of religion, philosophy, morality, law, history, economics, and politics. Criticism was its most distinctive feature, its hallmark. Everything the Modern Age represents has been the work of criticism, in the sense of a method of investigation, creation, and action. The key concepts of the Modern Age--progress, evolution, revolution, freedom, democracy, science, technology--had their origin in criticism. In the eighteenth century, reason turned to the criticism of the world and of itself, thereby radically transforming classical rationalism and its timeless geometries. A criticism of itself: reason renounced the grandiose constructions that made it synonymous with Being, Good, or Truth; it ceased to be the Mansion of the Idea and became instead a path, a means of exploration. A criticism of the world, of the past and present; a criticism of certainties and traditional values; a criticism of institutions and beliefs, of the Throne and the Altar; a criticism of mores, passions, sensibility, and sexuality: Rousseau, Diderot, Choderlos de Laclos, Sade. And the historical criticism of Gibbon and Montesquieu: the discovery of the "other" in the Chinese, the Persian, the American Indian. The changes in perspective in astronomy, geography, physics, biology. In the end, a criticism embodied in historical events: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the independence movements of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. (For reasons I have discussed in other writings, the revolution for independence in Spanish and Portuguese America failed both politically and socially. Our modernity is incomplete--or, more precisely, it is a historical hybrid.)

It is no accident that these great revolutions, the roots of modern history, were inspired by eighteenth-century thought. It was an age that produced an abundance of utopias and projects for social reform. It has been said that these utopias are the least auspicious aspect of the eighteenth century's legacy. Yet we can neither ignore nor condemn them: though many horrors have been committed in their name, we also owe to them nearly all the humanitarian acts and dreams of the Modern Age. The utopias of the eighteenth century were the great ferment that set in motion the history of the next two centuries. Utopia is the reverse side of criticism, and only a critical age can be the inventor of such dreams. The empty spaces left by the demolitions of the critical spirit are almost always filled by utopian constructions. Utopias are the dreams of reason--dreams that can turn, active, into revolutions and reforms. Each age may be identified by its vision of time, and in ours the continual presence of revolutionary utopias bears witness to the privileged place we give the future. The past was no better than the present is; perfection lies not behind us, but ahead of us. It is not a forsaken paradise, but a territory we must one day colonize, a city we must one day build.


From The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry by Octavio Paz.

Related Posts:
The Emergence of the Modern Mind
Paz on Sartre

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