2.VI: Dinner With Descartes

Today’s history books are supersaturated with detailed accounts of the last few centuries.  This chapter attempts to discern the broadest trends.  If Descartes visited for dinner and asked, “What have I missed?” how would we distill it for him?  We might start with these notions. 

  1. Almost everything that we consider “modern” has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the world wars. 
  2. The change has been so abrupt that this world is still swirling like a pot that has just been vigorously stirred. 

The vision in Descartes’ time was that a handful of empires would eventually engulf the world, each feeding itself on its own natural resources.  This program was complicated by the surprising success of the American model: a sovereign secular republic.  Revolutionary inspiration began to stress empires and monarchies from within.  Meanwhile, as the empires consumed the last frontiers of available land, they could no longer expand without clashing against each other.  Clash they did, and in the world wars they dealt one another their death blows.  The wars were surprisingly devastating, the first large-scale wars fought with industrial military technology.        

As empires collapsed, they left unstable power vacuums.  The questions that arose were not only who should rule, but how.  There were three major competing models for national sovereignty:  moderate liberal democracy, socialism on the left, and fascism on the right.  The two extremes were more easily exploited by dictators.  Today’s Pax Republica is an age of peace among free nations.  The conflicts that persist virtually always involve a dictator.       

20th century multi-national structures like the UN and EU were the first serious attempts to encourage communication and cooperation over cutthroat competition.  Unfortunately, the UN immediately got pulled in different directions by autocracy and lingering nationalist rivalries.  Thus, although we now live in a completely globalized society, law has not caught up to reality; there still is no effective model for world government or unification.  In fact, we are still making an awkward sociological transition between thinking of ourselves as nations and conceiving of ourselves as one planet.  This is just one form of modern identity crisis. 

In Descartes’ time, each nation had its own organized religion, which had evolved to provide law, morality, and a shared reality for its people.  In this chapter, these church functions were increasingly displaced by state, science, and universal values.  This fracturing of shared reality has created yet another existential crisis for emerging nation-states. 

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution has completely remade our economy.  Productivity has created a large educated middle class that has great bargaining power over its governments. The economic functions of empires are now served by private multi-national corporations. 

Industrialists and their factories attracted workers to cities.  The modern city is a microcosm of the best and worst of the human experience.  Cities grew larger and denser, bringing the attendant problems of pollution and ghetto life.  At the same time, they brought together diverse communities from the countryside and from around the world.  Cultures informed one another.  Religions and ethnicities blurred together into melting pots.  This created yet another modern cultural divide between rural and urban realms.       

Many changes of modern life had the effect of pulling family members in different directions.  Fathers and then mothers found career goals and duties to employers.  Children had school and a growing youth culture dominated by peers.  Eventually, concepts of liberty became so individualistic that even the nuclear family was seen as a constraint.  New models for mating, parenthood, and singlehood are still in the making.

Modern democracy created the left-right political spectrum.  Liberalism was born in a revolutionary spirit, while the first right-wing conservatives were upper-class monarchists.  This spectrum has shifted significantly with the social environment, yet each side mischaracterizes the other (and maybe even itself) with centuries-old stereotypes.  Many conservatives still remember “nationalism” as proud liberation from imperialism.  It now stands as the opposite of globalism, which they fear as a reversion in the wrong direction.  To some liberals, capitalist multinational corporations may still connote imperialism.  These are outdated and overly simplistic judgments of guilt by association.  Stable progress in this fast-changing world will require modern conservative and liberal ideas.  Before we can hope to reconcile such principles, we have to understand them for what they really are today.

Return to Chapter 2

Back to Section 2.V:  Modern Culture

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