Thursday, December 18, 2008


The antithesis of the Perennial Philosophy (philosophia perennis) is Modernism. In order to build a framework for further discussion I am posting an essay I wrote entitled "What is Modernism?". It first appeared as a letter to the editor in an Eselen Institute publication c.1996 although I do not have a copy of that version. A somewhat expanded rewrite was then published in Denmark in the English language edition of Global Times, the journal of the Proutist Society, January of 1998. The Global Times rendition is what appears below. Portions of it were published in the 2004 essay, "Three Pillars of Yankee Rule", which appeared in the online journal The Beacon.

A major part of the critique developed within the Institute for Perennial Studies was a decidedly downbeat view of the potent political philosophy; modernism. Unlike the tepid academic term “modernity” which is nearly devoid of content modernism is a cancerous doctrine that has swept through almost every culture particularly since the American Civil War.

There will be further discussion of this topic. In my opinion the negative aspects of modernism outweigh the positive contributions it has made, however, the pervasive nature of its reach and the influence of its adherents makes criticism rare.


Without a doubt the most powerful political and social ideology of the past century is something few people have considered. A cluster of dogma has sprung up around the philosophy of positivism, the belief that nothing exists except that which can be measured. From this starting point we have witnessed the rise of positivist science, philosophical reductionism, consumerism and a cultural appendage; modernism.

As the director of The Institute for Perennial Studies in the late 1980’s I found that we spent a lot of time researching and critiquing modernist systems as well as examining alternatives. If we learned anything from the experience it is that the negative effects of modernism are ubiquitous. As a belief system it infects all of our thinking.

Allow me to share some of our findings regarding modernism and its attendant systems; positivism, an aggressive new materialism, and consumerism. The first and most noticeable trait of any modernist system is its claim to be "new". Newness is unique to this belief system and is characterized by a cult like following of pundits and pollsters who are always trying to divine the latest trends and impulses for the purpose of forecasting. Newness is celebrated as a sacrament and is its own proof of superiority. The act of being "first" has become an obsession. Post-modernism, advanced modernism, progress, etc., have all laid claim to the mantle "new" at one time or another.

Modernism consistently defines its enemies as "undemocratic". Whether it is Kropotkin and Lenin espousing various forms of scientific socialism as an escape from the Old (elitist) Order, the Northeastern establishment promoting corporate liberalism ("free trade") in the new cyberspace of Wall Street, or Coca-Cola selling the universal soft drink to the "new global marketplace", the underlying argument is always the same. We have the wave of the future at our disposal and if you don't get on the bandwagon you are resisting "democratic inevitability".

Permutations of modernism are always heralded by a shower of statistics and other mathematical gadgets. Proving that the tide is running in a certain direction with various empirical methods is an absolute necessity for the modernist. Reliance on the measurability of social trends is the foundation of political science and public relations.

Modernism eventually fall victim to its own poison. The idea that modernism is itself new is a fallacy. History is filled with secular prophets declaring a "new dawn" or a "new era". Not only in the Christian Bible but in the scriptures of all spiritual traditions there are admonitions against people relying too heavily on their own creations. Babylon fell while lusting after temporal rewards. Jesus reminded us that he was “the beginning and the end” saying that time as well as Creation is the domain of God and “newness” is that suspicious property of Man.

The Prajna Paramitas warn the Buddhist not to trust the material world of ever changing “aggregates”. The Sacred writings of antiquity are replete with similar caveats against newness turning instead to the eternal world within. Allied as it is with the materialist pantheon of science and positivism the present incarnation of modernism is particularly dangerous and pervasive but little changed from past manifestations.

In our research we came to the conclusion that modernism was not the leading edge of an evolutionary continuum rather it is a veneer. In the case of its present likeness the veneer is uniquely corrosive and seeks to dissolve, absorb, or ultimately erase everything that has come before it. Natural resources, indigenous cultures, traditional values, and even history itself is a target for the modernist. Yet, the real sadness is that society has bought into a fad and in the last analysis "new" is predictably ephemeral.

No comments:

Post a Comment