Reviewing Modernity


The present as a burden (and a disappointment). The future as a threat. The past as a refuge. It is arguably a fundamental aspect of human nature to so address our predicament. Do we not all experience an aspect of this suffering? But it’s neither sentimental longing nor existential angst nor a myth-of-the-eternal-return dreaminess that seems to drive The Figure of Modernity: On the Irregularity of an Epoch by Tilo Schabert.

Neither is the book’s keen expression of vexation communicated by its reference to irregularity. Can an epoch indeed be irregular? It’s a word that can mean anything from asymmetrical to jagged to broken. When in fact it may be argued that epochs merely are what they are – none are better or worse than any other – and empirically, within the context of experiencing them, that is, they all come up lacking. Meanwhile, to be objective about anything is to be unbiased and dispassionate. Distanced. And inevitably lacking in humanity. For the heart or, in Oriental terms, the heart-mind, it is said, knows no distance. That is to say, we experience our time, our era, our sliver of an epoch subjectively and passionately and wholeheartedly.

Schabert is nothing if not wholehearted. And if there exists an inarticulate speech of the heart his is reliably articulate. His classic romanticism – namely, the implication that within the Mystery, such as it is, exists ascertainable truth – is authentic. Likewise, his faith in Nature and the essential value of science. His intellectual rigor and spiritual and contemplative acumen continue, after all, to infuse that original epicenter of scholarly and contemplative alchemy known as Eranos, which today stands as its own study in epochal change. He is also a student of Voegelin, hence fundamentally wary of so-called “imaginative oblivion,” or what Schabert himself identifies and calls to task as the hubris of our current cult of self-deification (my term). And he is a political scientist in the sense not of discerning the dynamics of electoral politics and unpacking contests of power but of the compassionate freedoms expressed within the limits of the polis and a unified wholeness, a humane gestalt.

“Under what conditions can a human being, in the flux of his life, be the helmsman of his life?” This from Schabert’s deft 2015 (in English) publication, The Second Birth: On the Political Beginnings of Human Existence. Which functions, it occurs to me, as perhaps a useful companion to The Figure of Modernity. They are both slender volumes, monographs of a sort, which is not to criticize their brevity but rather to praise the focused discernment and penetrating, tenacious enquiry that enlivens all such finely rendered investigations.

That said, where The Second Birth communicates a measured optimism The Figure of Modernity, at least upon first impression, expresses an unsettling anguish. And an underlying, almost irascible frustration.

Humankind has been possessed by an unfounded arrogance. The ways of humans ought to be corrected and be wise ones again. The ethical insights expressed by these lessons are old – and have been largely forgotten. In “ancient” times they were, to everyone’s knowledge, personified by divinities (xxiii).

Ah, myth. Schabert and I come together there. There is urgency, too. “Modernity is an experiment,” he suggests, and elsewhere in the book decries its unholy ambitions. “It is an attempt that by its very nature cannot be allowed to succeed definitively; hence, it possesses a sort of continuity thanks to the feeling it generates in people to be living in a civilizational crisis, in an age of catastrophes, at the end of an epoch” (29).

What to do? As an accomplished academic Schabert expresses his evidence of crisis within the context of the history of ideas. So that we discover via a veritable library of historically substantive thinkers – from Meyer Howard Abrams to Vassili Zoubov there are some 286 of them referenced within a helpful “Index of Names” at the back of the book – the contradictions, advances and the developmental dynamic of this four-hundred-year-old variously compelling and fraught experiment of modernity, so-called.

James Greenaway provides an illuminating foreword and does well to codify things. “Schabert reminds his readers,” he tells us, “at critical points that our humanity is at stake when, in the absence of a ‘cosmos of the world’ we claim a godlike power over the ‘world of nature’” (xv). My diagnosis rather describes the hubris of modernity and the irregularity of an epoch as symptomatic of personal and cultural mythological dysfunction. Which is revealed as more or less inherent and continuous rather than irregular. Likewise, arguably, our ability to reorient ourselves in newly functional mythological terms. We can reengineer, as it were, our faith via access to the past and aspiration on behalf of the future.

Violence? Schabert speaks of it in terms that I understand as rather the violence of subversion but he nevertheless, within the context of modernity, does not appear resolved to the necessity of it. The inevitability of it, yes. And perhaps he would not argue against its wisdom-bestowing qualities. Life lessons and the play-of-opposites that we cannot help but experience.

Limit and modernity contradict each other. And nonetheless a limit runs through modernity. This limit is visible in the Gestalt of the constitutional regime (174).

Again, what to do? If nothing else, Schabert seems to suggest, do as modernity does. In spite of itself. As self-limiting, hence hypocritical and ironic but nonetheless, in the end, constitutional. Modernity for Schabert can’t help but to fail forward, as it were.

But I don’t think this is the end of the story of modernity. That is, the idea of the so-called constitutional regime – the self-imposed limits generated by political liberty – leaves me wanting. Hence four stars and not five. Wanting what? A resonant solution to the predicament, crisis or what have you – our condition of suffering – that Schabert otherwise identifies. I sense that he could speak to it. A constitutional regime as a practical result, as a description of how things are playing out, seems a legitimate conclusion to a book only if that book is itself perhaps part of a series: a series to do with… I don’t know, except to relate it to the courageous, encompassing and rigorous spirit of wholehearted investigation that was demonstrated way back when in the golden age of Eranos. Schabert has roots there.

Hence, perhaps we need a third volume, one that expresses full on Schabert’s ideas of mythos or spirituality or mystic vitality or what may be termed the Cosmos of Nature. I don’t know if he’d agree with the term. Yet I know that he agrees with wholeness. Perhaps it would involve romanticism and myth and the psychology of religion – the kind of manuscript I don’t think any academic publisher these days would touch. But they might. And there’s always indie publishing.

Meanwhile, read this little book for its intellectual zeal and emotional courage and intimation of what is and what ought to be. Read it if you’re a seeker. Read it in the flux of your life to help navigate the times and to help become a helmsman perhaps of both.