This is going to be one of my philosophical postings. Since I am a poor philosopher, you are warned about its contents. But my very inadequate mind has latched on to an idea and will not let go of it.
I hope I can explain this idea of mine. One thing I struggled to understand in my independent studies, was the Modern World. I didn’t have much help understanding it, although I looked high and low. I keep asking myself (since no one else was around) “What was it?”
There is no end of descriptions of the Classical World (Greece and Rome), and in the last one hundred years more and more about the Medieval World. But the Modern Word is still too close to us for us to understand it. I believe the Modern World is over, and we live in something else – which for a lack of a better term, we call the Post-Modern World. We know practically nothing about it – even though it is our world.
What is more, and this is the subject of this posting, the Modern World was a short event, lasting only about 500 years, but in my opinion, it was equal in importance to the Classical World – which, in the beginning it set out to emulate. It quickly moved into uncharted territory, blossomed, and then self-destructed – as all civilizations have. We are now in another boom/bust period with an even more violent, short-lasting dynamic. That is my Civilization 101 – and you don’t even have to pay a dime for it.
I believe the Modern World discovered a world of its own – much like it discovered the New World. I can’t claim this idea; Lewis Mumford says the same thing in his book The Pentagon of Power, part of his two-part series The Myth of the Machine. You know what they say about standing on the shoulders of giants. I feel the same way about Mumford. I will never understand why he has been forgotten – except maybe he got too close to the bone, and has been rejected. I feel the same way when I am in one of my paranoid moods – I, the genius, have been rejected. But let me continue, and forge bravely forward.
The Modern World discovered the Abstract World. Man has always been able to deal with abstractions – and even to be obsessed with them, as Plato was. This is what our religious impulse is – basically the same as our scientific impulse, as I have said elsewhere. But the Modern World achieved a breakthrough here. Which I am just beginning to comprehend – hence this posting. Traditional Man (everyone else but the modern variety) believed in a relative world, which he and God fitted into comfortably. In this world, everything is relative to everything else – a very sensible place.
The Abstract World is nothing like that. It does not relate to anything else but is independent of everything else. As I said, this goes back before Plato, so what did the Modern World add to it? It made this concept a practical matter by taking it seriously -and conforming its behavior, as well as its beliefs to it. This had never been done before. And it had an amazing effect: it made the Modern World.
How? With a new religion: Protestantism, part and parcel of the Modern World – and to be honest, also a technology: the Printing Press, which was part of the same complex. The whole thing simply took off – just as any major event in history – once all the parts were there. There were three components in this complex: new concepts of time, space, and morality.
Abstract Space was everywhere the same, and extended infinitely. The same for Abstract Time: it was everywhere the same and extended infinitely. Recently, with Relativity and Quantum theory, this has had to be modified - and this marked the end of the Modern World. Now everything is relative again. Most importantly, this sea-change effected morality – a very important area I now will turn my attention to.
Abstract Morality was also thought to be the same everywhere – it was independent of everything else, including us feeble humans. We had to conform to it; it was not going to conform to us. This had enormous benefits. Take Honesty, for example (with a capital H). For Modern Man this was an absolute matter – either you were honest, or you were not. God was looking down at you, and if you were not honest, absolutely honest – you were in big trouble.
This had an unexpected side-effect: it made Protestants rich. Honesty is absolutely essential for the business world – it, and it alone, enabled a new kind of business activity, with a much wider scope. People with widely different customs, as long as they were honest with each other, could all get rich. Anyone who was dishonest was immediately kicked out of the club – and never got back in. Reputation was everything. Once you lost that, you might as well be dead.
Here again, this was a world of abstract, absolute values. Something the undeveloped world will never grasp, because it never went through this painful process – a religious process, initially, which involved centuries of bloody warfare – before the Modern World finally wised up and came to its senses. But let me return to my main subject: abstract morality.
This was formulated by Kant in his Categorical Imperative. Admittedly, going into this in great detail, as the Wikipedia article does, is tiring. But the basic idea: that morality should be based on abstract rules, not relative ones – is sound. In our time, such an idea seems ridiculous to many. In their eyes, abstractions do not exist – therefore, they have no value. This regresses us to before civilization even existed, because it is based on abstractions of all kinds – writing, for example is based on the use of abstract symbols.
Our ability to understand abstractions is what makes us human – this is what has made us successful. If we lose this, we lose everything.