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Narratives Against Modernity: A Taxonomy

We might characterize the Enlightenment narrative about modernity (which regards it as a positive good) thusly:

In the beginning, there was darkness and barbarism, enforced by superstitious fiction-peddlers. Only by the heroic exertion of a few rational, progressive thinkers and scientists was this wretched order overthrown, and man brought, at last, into the light. Now science, equality, and democracy rule the day, and man is infinitely better off for it. Against this, we have a few competing narratives, which might be described as follows:

The Weak Right-Wing Narrative (Modernity as a Regrettable Fait Accompli). In the beginning, men lived simple and noble lives (if backwards and superstitious ones). But as human knowledge advanced, ancient man outgrew his need for religion, although it has not yet advanced so far for man to carve out for himself a place in the world. Modernity, then, is a painful but necessary stage in the growth of our historical self-consciousness.

The Strong Right-Wing Narrative (Modernity as a Grave Error). In the beginning, man lived a rational and orderly life. But as a result of certain intellectual errors that compounded over time, man began to diverge from this rational social model and embrace falsehoods like atheism, utilitarianism, and solipsism.

The Strict Right-Wing Narrative (Modernity as Satanism Triumphant). In the beginning, man lived as God willed him to, a life of austerity, penance, and obedience. But as a result of the lies and machinations of the Devil, society slowly became corrupted with unreason, insanity, and sin, and has degenerated into its present state of self-worship, sexual degeneracy, and the collapse of all those institutions ordained by God for the good of man.

The strict right-wing narrative itself fits into a larger Christian eschatological or parousiastic narrative in which modernity represents the great apostasy forewarned by the apostle Paul. Jim Kalb has advanced this kind of narrative, Eric Voegelin's analysis of modernity seems to hint at this at least implicitly, and Dr. Charlton and Peter Kreeft both have endorsed it. The strong narrative seems to be favored by the philosophically-minded, such as Edward Feser, Richard Weaver, and Servais Pinckaers. The weak narrative is rarely ever articulated as such -- although Peter Drucker and Robert Locke both endorsed it, implicitly and explicitly respectively -- but it seems to be widely held among some less thoughtful conservative types.

What's interesting about each of these narratives is that they prescribe different paths forward for the people who hold them:

The weak antimodern sees the problem as essentially political: we have not yet found how to optimize the fit between man and society. The solution, then, must also be political. We need to find the optimal political program. Such people therefore seek out participation in politics, whether running for and holding public office or simply doing volunteer/campaign work (soliciting donations, sign-waving, passing out fliers and buttons, etc.). The problem with this kind of narrative is that it's naturally unstable. In fact, it's really only stable so long as it's unarticulated and unexamined. For as soon as one consciously thinks, "Modernity is basically good, just not unequivocally so," one has ceased to be antimodern altogether: one has thrown his lot in with the Enlightenment. But if, upon critically examining his stance (as I did once), one reaches the conclusion that modernity is clearly not natural but unnatural, not only not essentially good but at best only accidentally good (and perhaps not even that), one graduates to belief in the strong antimodern narrative. Indeed, this weak narrative is unstable precisely because it is impossible to be consciously wishy-washy about modernity (and so many people are precisely because they don't consciously think about it). You cannot keep the parts of modernity you like and jettison the rest. It is a package deal. Cede it an inch and it will swallow all of creation, and you along with it. You can be entirely its victim or entirely its enemy; either way, you must take a stand.

The strong antimodern narrative sees the problem as intellectual, as a failure of reason. As such, the appropriate response is intellectual: to attack the errors at the root of modernity, to expose them as false and absurd, and to oppose those who propound and defend those errors. As such, holders of this belief tend to be prolific writers. They also tend to be academics, or at least academically-minded people. And they may also be aggressively public figures, as is the case with Dr. Feser, who seems to go out of his way to involve himself in high-profile fights with people he regards as being responsible for the miserable intellectual and philosophical state of the present age. The strong antimodern narrative is, to my mind, more psychologically sustainable and intellectually defensible than the weak one, and so it is probably more widely represented among antimoderns than the strict narrative: being sustainable, there is less reason to graduate from the strong to the strict model (both, however, are probably vastly outnumbered by those holding to the weak model, which is itself outnumbered by those holding to the Enlightenment narrative).

Unlike the weak->strong transition, I don't think there's any particular thought that can cause one to question the sufficiency of the strong narrative; I think it relates, rather, to general attitudinal dispositions. If a person were to ask himself, "Why is it the world fell so quickly into unreason and sin? What is responsible for the really quite unprecedented perversion of the entire Western mode of being in so short a period of time?", he would have to be willing to be satisfied with the answer that the explanation really cannot be located within man, either individually or socially, if he were to make the strong->strict transition. The person committed to the strong narrative must, at best, be willing to rationalize this by saying that some people are just plain stupid or unreasonable, and that this stupidity or unreason is moreover contagious, and then find a way to reconcile this with their belief that they can hope to correct the errors of modernity through rational discourse. This strikes me as a deeply unsatisfactory resolution, but it's possible to hold to the strong narrative without ever getting so far as to even ask this question.

But when one asks how, exactly, it is that man fell so quickly into unreason and evil despite his rational and good-oriented nature, and is unsatisfied with the conclusion that man's nature is not necessarily all that rational or good-oriented, then one starts down the path toward the strict narrative -- toward the conclusion that modern man is not merely wrong but spiritually corrupted. For only spiritual corruption can introduce the initial error and then allow it to be compounded without being challenged, until the point when conscience itself has become so deadened in the modern age that some people can demand that a made-up "right" to murder unborn children with taxpayer dollars be acknowledged and respected. The person who holds to the strict narrative sees modernity not as a problem of political or intellectual deficiency but of spiritual deficiency. Modern man is pneumopathological: spiritually disordered, sick, diseased, insane. The problem is spiritual: sin, apostasy, heresy, and rebellion. So the solution, too, must be spiritual: society must repent and consecrate itself to God once more, or else Christ Himself will descend from Heaven and visit judgment upon the world. Since society-wide penance is something the individual cannot do much to affect, the strict antimodern sees his duties as being much less social and far more personal: he must protect his own soul, and the souls of those in his care, from contamination by the evils of the modern world, while praying for the deliverance of the world from the clutches of the Devil. A corollary is that the strict narrative is almost always explicitly Christian, or at least Abrahamic, where the strong antimoderns can conceivably be atheists. (Strong atheist antimodernism will be slightly different: they are more likely to regard Christianity as one of the foundational errors of modernity).

The point of all this is to demonstrate that things really are getting clearer all the time: the battle lines are forming up: men are taking their stands. The good is getting better and the bad is getting worse. The job of us reactionaries (who I think by and large would self-identify with at least the strong narrative and more likely the strict one) is increasingly to help compel the crystallization of these oppositions: to force those in the middle to take a side. This has some interesting implications for what our duties as reactionaries are beyond simply doing penance and praying (duties which, for us Christians anyway, are absolutely and nonnegotiably primary). I'll have some more thoughts on that later.