Primer

What is distinctive about modern culture?

Ken Myers, host of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, shares his thoughts on some of the basic issues the Journal seeks to address. Click Subscribe above to order a subscription to the Journal!

  • Description
    All cultures convey a set of assumptions about the kind of creatures human beings are and the kind of world in which they live.
    4:06

    One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe. In the words of sociologist Daniel Bell, to be modern is to embrace “the proposition that there are no ends or purposes given in nature; that the individual, and his or her self-realization, is the new standard of judgement; and that one can remake one’s self and remake society in an effort to achieve those goals.”

    The reigning belief of modern culture is that each individual is the sovereign maker of meaning. Where premodern cultures assumed a Creator and Governor who established cosmic order to which human societies and individuals must conform, modern culture denies the existence of such an order and encourages each individual to assert his or her own order.

    This organizing idea of modernity has several prominent cultural consequences. The most dramatic of these is the radical reorientation of the purpose of cultural institutions. Historically, cultural forms served to establish boundaries for belief and behavior based on assumptions about the nature of things. But since there is, for modern culture, no nature of things to guide us, cultural institutions now serve to equip each individual with as much freedom and power as possible so as to assert his or her own account of meaning. Premodern cultures were systems of restraint; modern culture is a system of liberation.

    This characteristic led sociologist Philip Rieff to characterize modern culture as an “anticulture.” Others have declared that we live in a “postcultural” time, since the limiting and instructing character of culture has been muted or abandoned. In a society of sovereign individuals, culture becomes less a communal way of life—sustained across generations—than an optional and individually selected lifestyle. In modernity, culture discards its concern for sustaining normative, objective, transgenerational order and promotes the individual creation of meaning, or at least of experiences that feel vaguely “meaningful.”

    Freedom thus becomes a central concern in modern culture, but the understanding of freedom has been transformed. In the premodern West, freedom meant the ability to live in accord with the objective order of Creation. To be free meant first of all to escape the bondage of one’s own passions. In modern culture, freedom requires the social and psychic space to indulge one’s passions, which are by and large self-justifying.

    Another dominant characteristic of modern culture is its commitment to controlling nature. Since we don’t live in a meaningfully ordered Creation, but in a shapeless mass of raw materials we call “nature,” there is no inherent limit to what we might do to or with nature.

    These central distinctives of modern culture are present in our dominant social institutions and intertwined with conventional beliefs about the nature of reason, of moral choice, of identity and sexuality, of art and imagination, and countless other aspects of cultural experience.