Joe Cannon: 1815-30: Birth of modernity and the rise of materialism

Published: Sunday, May 31 2009 1:06 a.m. MDT

Fifth in a series

The Englightenment, to borrow shamelessly from Dickens, produced the best of all things and the worst of all things. Enlightenment ideas were the foundation of our political liberties, including religious liberty. It also produced the ideas that led to modern science and technology. Hence, medicine, cars, computers and numerous other creature comforts. The cost of all this progress was steep. In effect, the West sold its rich spiritual birthright for a mess of material pottage.

As we discussed last week, the Enlightenments were, if not completely separate from each other, at least multiple facets of the same project. Central to that project was defining how we know what we know. Regardless of the geographic location of the various Enlightenments, the universal answer to that question came to be rooted in a completely human and materialistic explanation of knowledge. Specifically, the only way we can know what we know is through the application of our senses. Can we see it, can we touch it, can we taste it, etc.? In short, with varying degrees of hostility to religion, it was only through the application of this "new scientific method" that humankind could respond to the questions: How did we get here? Where did we come from? Why do things exist? Why is there not nothing?

Paul Johnson describes the Enlightenment as "the first time in history men arose to contend that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better. Unlike their sacerdotal predecessors, they were not servants and interpreters of the Gods but substitutes."

During the period of Enlightenment, scholars, philosophers, and other serious thinkers conducted their conversation in the context of religion. Believers and unbelievers alike, shared a regard for each other. To be sure, they were deadly earnest. It appears, however, that by the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the forces of the radical, atheistic, Enlightenment won the day and exorcised the religious underpinnings of human knowledge and learning. This led to what Charles Taylor calls "the crucial transforming move in the process [of] the coming of exclusive humanism."

The Enlightenment, thus, planted the seeds for the notion of the perfectability of mankind through the instrumentality of the state. An inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment was the enthronement of its twin children, and the handmaidens of modernity, secularization and relativism.

The consensus around the question of how we know things, along with other aspects of the Enlightenment, now laid the foundation for moving to the next stage of history, which some call modernity. Many historians date the dawn of modernity to, or around, the year 1830.

Paul Johnson has written a book called "The Birth of the Modern, World Society, 1815-1830." In explaining the title he states that "I present [these years] as those during which the matrix of the modern world was largely formed." Two other historians, speaking of this time period in "The Age of Federalism," noted that "the principle components for a structure of norms and social values most appropriate to the working of a capitalist, democratic, equalitarian culture were fully in place by about 1830, though not very much before then, and that 'Democracy in America' is the first picture of modernity we have. Probably no subsequent rearrangements of values or transformations in modes of thought and feeling could compare in magnitude to those that occurred in the 15 years or so prior to 1830."

Another historian observed that "Even if we concede that every historical moment is in some sense a moment of transition, there are ample grounds from describing the half-decade from 1828-1833 — even more specifically the period immediately surrounding Tocqueville's brief stay in 1831 — as a turning point in American history."

It is only after this birth of modernity in the 1830s that the intellectual gatekeepers of our times turn with ruthless diligence to creating a new coherent explanation of existence based solely on a materialistic foundation.

Next: Darwin and Marx

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News.

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