Modernity and History (or, “What’s wrong with kids today”)

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The following reflections have been percolating for some time. I have expressed them sometimes more, and sometimes less thematically, in one form or another, over the course of the past twenty years. This most recent occurrence of them has been occasioned by two unconnected things: a statement I heard to the effect that politics ought to foreshadow the City of God, and the recent observation of a certain university professor, to the effect that we ought all be mindful of the dangers of using terms before having an adequate grasp of their meanings (an alarming number of people are pathologically committed to this imprudence, although the vast majority of them have not been diagnosed with the Vizzini complex).

The term I have been hearing bandied about – for years, even decades, really, but more often and with even greater willy-nilliness of late – is “secularism” in its various permutations.

I would like to clarify the meaning of the term, before those tempted or prone to indiscriminate use of the term actually succeed in rendering it practically useless for the purposes of critical discourse.


“Secularism” and its permutations are derived from the Latin, saeculum. It is etymologically linked to cycle, derived in its turn from the Greek κύκλος. Its first appearance as a unit of measurement appears to have been in Etruscan civilization. It is often mistakenly taken as a quantitative measurement of time, though its standardization as a 110-year period of time during the reign of Augustus, however, was a late and it turns out rather a confusing innovation.

Even after acquiring its standardized periodization, saeculum continued to be what it always had been: a qualitative measurement of a given people’s historical progress.

Theological-political development

In the Western intellectual tradition, the very Roman Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo, appropriated the term, saeculum in his master work, the De civitate Dei contra paganos, which is known more briefly as the De civitate Dei or the City of God.

The most important aspect of Augustine’s treatment of the saeculum in that work is his expansion of the term beyond a single people or civilizational project, i.e. Rome, and application to the present state or condition of the world, coupled with his differentiation of the saceulum senescens, literally the “age growing old,” meaning, “the last age of the world, which is passing.” It is the first and fundamental step in the development of a philosophy of history (here you will not be surprised to learn I am heavily indebted to Eric Voegelin), in which human action in history has implications in and for the eternity that permeates time, and is intelligible as such, while history itself does not hold the key to its own meaningfulness – history itself is to be read in light of the eternity that is beyond it.


By Juan de Valdés Leal – Juan de Valdés Leal, Public Domain

Within the unfolding of this history, the Church emerges as the carrier of eternity in time; her authority is spiritual and her membership extends through all time from the creation of the world and into eternity. She is not of this world, though she is in the world that is passing. Political society, which is proper to the world, nevertheless contributes genuinely to good order and serves the purposes of the spread of the Church, while not strictly depending upon the Church for its authority.

It shall, I hope, be fairly easy now to identify the distinct spiritual and temporal spheres out of which the idea of the separation of Church and State rose, beginning in the late middle ages. The idea of a distinct sphere, over which the civil authority had no competence, marks the beginning of the process of differentiation that would continue for centuries, and continues in the present.

In this sense, therefore, the great Bishop and Doctor is the first secularist.

A good book for non-experts (good for experts, too, in fact, though they should already have read it) is R.A. Markus’ Saeculum: history and society in the theology of St. Augustine.

Modern and Contemporary Confusion

In order to bring the problematic nature of the present confused use of the term in all its permutations fully into view, I would need to revisit the whole intellectual history of the past 1600 years, at least.

Suffice it to say that the modern period has been characterized by two great currents of thought. One holds that human history is intelligible on its own terms, i.e. that it contains within itself its principle of intelligibility (Eric Voegelin calls it an eidos of history).

The other denies the basic intelligibility of the world, reducing history to a merely contingent succession of events.

They are only apparently antagonistic, for their deepest roots tap a common source of (mal)nourishment: the desire to escape the eschatological tension of existence.

So that’s where modernity comes from.

Etymologically, the English word, “modern” and its cognates are related to the Latin expression, mox hodie, which means, “just today” (I seem to recall Jacques Barzun making much hay of this in his monumental work, From Dawn to Decadence, but I cannot find my copy to confirm this).

The modern world is, in other words, the world that is mox hodie: “just today” – which is to say, a world without history.

The Church is the carrier of salvation, and Her claims are intelligible only as part, indeed as the culmination of a particular Jewish theology of history, which becomes universally intelligible by a peculiar process of synthesis with Greek inquiry into the ultimate reason of things and the Roman genius for social governance.

Only, a world that has no history will not only have no need of salvation; worse, it is a world for which the historical is as such essentially meaningless. The unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness (as Eric Voegelin puts it with such magnificently dense eloquence in the introduction to his New Science of Politics) is not observable from the vantage point afforded by a world in and for which yesterday is by definition meaningless and even unthinkable.

345px-george-orwell-bbcGeorge Orwell at the BBC, photo by the BBC, Public Domain

So, what does the Church mean when she addresses herself to the modern world?

I have often thought that the II Vatican Council called Catholics to courage and forthrightness in their engagement with Modernity, specifically to the frank and courageous spirit that is proper to Christian warriors: verba suavia aut verbera – or as CS Lewis makes his king Tirian say in The Last Battle, “No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language.”

It strikes me that the Council Fathers were preparing their soldiers for a massive sortie, by which they hoped to regain enough ground to form ranks and force a pitched battle, after long years and decades of siege.

Unfortunately, many people (and many institutional persons within the Church, including a frankly appalling number of bishops and priests) took the Council Fathers to be calling for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to a negotiated settlement.

To be sure, there were sinister forces at work in the Council and in the Conciliar aftermath.

Nevertheless, the thing that gave the appearance of far-reaching success to the machinations of the sinister camp was at once simpler and more alarming than bad faith: there was a sort of inebriation – a spiritual drunkenness that temporarily impeded the ability of pastors and faithful alike to engage in prudential reasoning.

Prudence must be exercised if it is to be kept, and the longer a person or an institution or a group of institutions persist in folly, the harder it will become for them to recognize it as such. We are now well into the third generation of this folly – and most of the few intellectual swords that were not beaten prematurely into plowshares, are by now blunt and oxidized, while those who might yield them are untried and untested, in a word, soft.

They have been taught to despise the martial spirit.

On the other hand, the situation has become manifestly untenable, and necessity is a severe, though often the only effective teacher. We are yet in time to put off the folly and return to the fight.

At present, those, who have been preserved from the worst effects of the folly, are nevertheless unused to the exercise of prudence, and untrained in the needful disciplines – though they would – perhaps – form ranks and fight, they do not know how to gain the field.

This compounds the problem.

The symptoms of this forgetfulness are most patently manifest in the moral sphere. Nevertheless, the forgetfulness itself is a disease of the cognitive faculty: of individuals and of whole societies; its effects are evident wherever one looks within the vast expanse of the civilizational project called “Europe” and indeed palpably present in every society that today exists in some relation to what we used to call “Western civilization”.

Benedict XVI was not the first to diagnose the problem, but he has been the most consistent, cogent, and eloquent diagnostician of the past three generations in public intellectual life.

The lynchpin on which the Holy Father’s vision of Europe turns – or if you will, the lode star from which it takes its bearings – is that Europe is essentially – not merely that it arises from, but that it is in essence – the “encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law.”

That was how Pope Benedict couched the matter in his monumental discourse to Germany’s federal parliament in 2011. It was not, however, the first time Benedict articulated this vision. In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict said:

[The] inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The implicit premise or understated upshot of Benedict’s articulation is that Christianity is both the catalyst of this convergence – this synthesis – and its stabilizing agent – and that verifying Christianity’s effect on the process is an empirical matter: not a nebulous matter of values, but a hard fact – a hard fact of history.


2 thoughts on “Modernity and History (or, “What’s wrong with kids today”)

  1. Pingback: Special: Eight Days of Easter | Thinking with the Church

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