How the West created modernity

Pierre Manent in City Journal:

ModernWe have been modern for several centuries now. We are modern, and we want to be modern; it is a desire that guides the entire life of Western societies. That the will to be modern has been in force for centuries, though, suggests that we have not succeeded in being truly modern—that the end of the process that we thought we saw coming at various moments has always proved illusory, and that 1789, 1917, 1968, and 1989 were only disappointing steps along a road leading who knows where. The Israelites were lucky: they wandered for only 40 years in the desert. If the will to be modern has ceaselessly overturned the conditions of our common life and brought one revolution after another—without achieving satisfaction or reaching a point where we might rest and say, “Here at last is the end of our enterprise”—just what does that mean? How have we been able to will something for such a long time and accept being so often disappointed? Could it be that we aren’t sure what we want? Though the various signs of the modern are familiar, whether in architecture, art, science, or political organization, we do not know what these traits have in common and what justifies designating them with the same attribute. We find ourselves under the sway of something that seems evident yet defies explication.

…We congratulate ourselves for the attenuation of party conflict while oddly treating transfers of power as matters of momentous importance. The political landscape has been leveled. The webs of feelings, opinions, and language that once made up political convictions have unraveled. It is no longer possible to gain political ground by taking a position. This is why all political actors tend to use all political languages indiscriminately. Political speech has become increasingly removed from any essential relation to a possible action. The notion of a political program, reduced to that of “promises,” has been discredited. The explicit or implicit conviction that one has no choice has become widespread: what will be done will be determined by circumstances beyond our control. Political speech no longer aims to prepare a possible action but tries simply to cover conscientiously the range of political speech. Everyone, or almost everyone, admits that the final meeting between action and speech will be no more than a meeting of independent causal chains.

More here.