City, Empire, Church, Nation: How the West created modernity
August 27, 2012
We have been modern for several centuries now. We are modern, and wewant to be modern; it is a desire that guides the entire life of Western societies. That the will to be modern has been in force for centuries, though, suggests that we have notsucceeded in being truly modern—that the end of the process that we thought we saw coming at various moments has always proved illusory, and that 1789, 1917, 1968, and 1989 were only disappointing steps along a road leading who knows where. The Israelites were lucky: they wandered for only 40 years in the desert. If the will to be modern has ceaselessly overturned the conditions of our common life and brought one revolution after another—without achieving satisfaction or reaching a point where we might rest and say, “Here at last is the end of our enterprise”—just what does that mean? How have we been able to will something for such a long time and accept being so often disappointed? Could it be that we aren’t sure what we want? Though the various signs of the modern are familiar, whether in architecture, art, science, or political organization, we do not know what these traits have in common and what justifies designating them with the same attribute. We find ourselves under the sway of something that seems evident yet defies explication.
Some are inclined to give up asking what we might call the question of the modern. They contend that we have left the modern age and entered the postmodern, renouncing all “grand narratives” of Western progress. I am not so sure, though, that we have renounced the grand modern narratives of science and democracy. We may be experiencing a certain fatigue with the modern after so many modern centuries, but the question of the modern remains, and its urgency does not depend on the disposition of the questioner. So long as self-understanding matters to us, the question must be raised anew. Even if we do not claim to provide a new answer, we should at least have the ambition to bring the question back to life.
When unsure about the nature of something, we sometimes ask when and how it began. Such an approach is legitimate when investigating the question of the modern, but it immediately raises difficulties. Beginnings are, by definition, obscure. The first sprouts are difficult to discern. One can easily be mistaken. In what time period should we look for the beginnings of modernity? In the eighteenth century, the age of the American and French Revolutions? In the seventeenth century, when the notion of natural science was elaborated? In the sixteenth century, the era of religious reformation? These diverse origins are not contradictory, since modernity surely includes a religious reformation, science in the modern sense, and political and democratic revolutions. But what is the relationship between the Lutheran faith and the science of Galileo? Is there a primary intellectual and moral disposition that defines modern man? Or must we resign ourselves to the dispersion of the elements of modernity, which we would then see as held together only by the magic of a word?
Let us start with the one incontestable point in the perplexities just laid out: that we have wanted, and continue to want, to be modern. It is not necessary to know exactly what we want in order to know that, in so wanting, we form a project. Modernity is, first of all, a collective project—formulated in Europe and first applied there but destined for humanity as a whole.
To form a great collective project, ultimately destined for all humanity, demands great faith in one’s own powers. There is something striking in this regard about the beginnings of modern science: Bacon and Descartes, to name just two pioneers, showed extraordinary confidence in the capacity of the new science radically to transform the conditions of human life. What faith—what blind faith—they had, one is tempted to say! For modern science had yet to produce any of its miracles. Descartes, for example, imagined medicine’s prodigiously lengthening human life at a time when it was incapable of curing anything.
Inherent in the idea of a project are the beliefs that we are capable of acting and that our action can transform the conditions of our life. Many analysts of modernity have insisted on the second point, the transformative or constructive ambition of the modern project. But we must not pass over the first point too quickly. We are capable of acting—a world is contained in those words! Human beings have always acted in some way, but they have not always known that they were capable of acting. There is something terrible in human action: what makes us human is also what exposes us, takes us out of ourselves, and sometimes causes us to lose ourselves. In the beginning, human beings gathered, fished, hunted, or even made war, which is a kind of hunting; but they acted as little as possible, leaving much to the gods and tying themselves down with prohibitions, rites, and sacred restraints. Historically, properly human action first appears as crime or transgression. This, according to Hegel, is what Greek tragedy brings to light: innocently criminal action. Tragedy recounts the passage from what precedes action to properly human action.
So modernity may be described as a project of collective action—and the great domain of action is politics, which is action ordered and implemented. It follows that the modern project must be understood in the first instance as a political project; we must situate it, therefore, in the history of European and Western political development.
Modernity is characterized by movement, a movement that never reaches its end or comes to rest. There are great civilizations other than the West, and much has happened in them, but they have not known historical movement. They have chronicles but not a history—at least before the pressure or aggression of the West brought them into history. In the West, by contrast, one finds a singular principle of movement, and this is what characterizes it above all.
The movement of the West began with the movement of the Greek city. Some have said that the Greeks ignored history, that they had a cyclical understanding of time, and that time oriented by history began with Christianity, if not with the modern philosophy of history. That contention does not hold up. The Greeks were well acquainted with the irreversible time of political history. Aristotle was just as capable as Tocqueville of observing that, in his age, democracy was the only regime still possible.
To be more precise, Western movement began with internal and external movements of the Greek city—that is, with class struggle and foreign war. Cities were the ordering of human life that brought to light the domain of the common, the government of what was common, and the implementation of the common. The Greek city was the first complete implementation of human action, the ordering of the human world that made action possible and meaningful, the place where men for the first time deliberated and formulated projects of action. It was there that men discovered that they could govern themselves and that they learned to do it. The Greek city was the first form of human life to produce political energy—a deployment of human energy of a new intensity and quality. It was finally consumed by its own energy in the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War.
Subsequent Western history was, on the whole, an ever-renewed search for a political form that would recover the energies of the city while escaping the fate of the city—the city that is free but destined to internal and external enmity. The form that followed the city was the empire. Imperial Rome was a kind of continuation of the city, but it deployed such powerful energies that it broke through all limits that had circumscribed cities and took in ever more distant and numerous populations, until it seemed to reach the point of gathering together the entire human race. The Roman Empire renounced the city’s freedom but promised unity and peace…