From Descartes to Nietzsche
Leszek Kolakowski on modernity and the loss of meaning
“We experience an overwhelming and at the same time humiliating feeling of déjà vu in following and participating in contemporary discussions about the destructive effects of the so-called secularization of Western civilization, the apparently progressive evaporation of our religious legacy, and the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing — and warning us about — for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same simple wisdom, which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.
“I admit that by being old and simple, this wisdom does not necessarily cease to be true, and indeed I do believe it to be true (with some qualifications). Was Descartes the first and the main culprit? Probably so, even on the assumption that he codified philosophically a cultural trend that had already paved its way before him. By equating matter with extension and therefore abolishing the real variety in the physical universe, by letting this universe infallibly obey a few simply and all-explanatory laws of mechanics, and by reducing God to its logically necessary creator and support — a support, however, that was constant and thus robbed of its significance in explaining any particular event — he definitively, or so it seemed, did away with the concept of Cosmos, of a purposeful order of nature. The world became soulless, and only on this presupposition could modern science evolve. No miracles and no mysteries, no divine or diabolical interventions in the course of events, were conceivable any longer; all the later and still-continuing efforts to patch up the clash between the Christian wisdom of old and the so-called scientific worldview were bound to be unconvincing for this simple reason.
“To be sure, it took time for the consequences of this new universe to unfold. Massive, self-aware secularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems, however, from our current perspective, that the erosion of faith, inexorably advancing in educated classes, was unavoidable. The faith could have survived, ambiguously sheltered from the invasion of rationalism by a number of logical devices and relegated to a corner where it seemed both harmless and insignificant. For generations, many people could live without realizing that they were denizens of two incompatible worlds and, by a thin shell, protect the comfort of faith while trusting progress, scientific truth and modern technology.
“The shell was eventually to be broken, and this was ultimately done by Nietzsche’s noisy philosophical hammer. His destructive passion brought havoc into the seeming spiritual safety of the middle classes and demolished what he believed was the bad faith of those who refused to be witnesses to the death of God. He was successful in passionately attacking the spurious mental security of people who failed to realize what really had happened, because it was he who said everything to the end: the world generates no meaning and no distinction between good and evil; reality is pointless, and there is no other hidden reality behind it; the world as we see it is the Ultimum; it does not try to convey a message to us; it does not refer to anything else; it is self-exhausting and deaf-mute. All this had to be said, and Nietzsche found a solution or medicine for this despair: this solution was madness. Not much could have been said after him on the lines he had laid out.
“It might have appeared that it was his destiny to become the prophet of modernity. In fact, he was too ambiguous to assume this task. On one hand he affirmed, under duress, the irreversible intellectual and moral consequences of modernity and poured scorn on those who timidly hoped to save something from the old tradition; on the other hand he denounced the horror of modernity, the bitter harvest of progress; he accepted what he knew — and said — was terrifying. He praised the spirit of science against the Christian ‘lies,’ but at the same time, he wanted to escape from the misery of democratic leveling and sought refuge in the ideal of a barbarous genius. Yet modernity wants to be satisfied in its superiority and not torn asunder by doubt and despair.
“Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity.”
—from Leszek Kolakowski, “Modernity on Endless Trial,” in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)
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