Since the middle of the 18th Century, beginning in Northern Europe, and then spreading to every corner of the world, people have become aware of living in an age radically different to any other: ‘The Modern Age’. We are all inhabitants of modernity, everywhere has been touched by the outlook of a new era. And isn’t it great? We have cars, science, medicine, nice houses, freedom, individualism. But is it all its cracked up to be? Are we really happy in the modern age? Is new always better? Is this new age really an improvement on the past?
Well you might think so. The story of our emergence into the modern world can be traced in a number of fields: politics, religion, art, technology, fashion, science. All of which ultimately contribute in an alteration in consciousness. Pre-modern societies envisaged history in cyclical terms, with no forward dynamic to speak of. One imagined things would be as good or as bad as they had ever been, but to be modern is to believe we can surpass what has come before. Everything seems capable of constant increase and progression; time is not a wheel of futility, but an arrow pointing towards a perfectible future. To be modern is to throw off the chains of history, precedent, and community and even the word ‘modern’ suggests a state of glamour, desire, and aspiration.
But modernity is a tragic curse. We have bought our new freedom at a very high price. It was the French, late 19th Century sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made the sobering discovery of an essential difference between traditional and modern societies. In the former, when people lived in small communities, when the course of one’s career was understood to be held in the hands of the Gods, and when there were few expectations of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure, the agony knew bounds. Failure did not seem a verdict on one’s whole being: one never expected perfection and so does not respond with self-hatred when problems occur, but rather fell to one’s knees and implored the Gods.
Durkheim knew modern societies were far crueller because secularism meant people…