When Did Modernity Begin?
On Heidegger, Prophets, and Genesis
Periodization—the apportioning of time’s flow into epochal chunks—is the bugaboo of historians. Dividing time into periods may be even harder than dividing the earth into nation states. Within this general problematic, defining modernity may be the most difficult.
Common answers to “When did modernity begin” include:
The Protestant Revolution
The French and/or American Revolution
The Scientific Revolution
The Industrial Revolution
In short, some time around the 18th or 19th century, maybe the 17th century. Historians, depending on temperament, will stress either changes in technology, politics, culture, and/or worldview. Historians of ideas will point to a single thinker or cluster of thinkers as initiating modernity. It all started with Shakespeare, or Spinoza, or Descartes, or Hobbes or Machiavelli. Pick your person.
But once you say that modernity begins (circularly) in modern times, this raises the question: what “caused” modernity to happen? What was the seed of modernity?
Thus, it is vogue to find antecedents to modernity in the “12th Century Renaissance” or in the rise of the printing press, or in the blossoming of vernacular literature, such as Chaucer, Dante, and Boccaccio.
Why stop there?
In fact, Heidegger is most “radical” (from the Latin for “root”) in claiming that modernity began with Plato! The discovery of Platonic forms, he claims, necessitates the discovery of the ego in Descartes, which in turn necessitates the invention of the atom bomb. This sounds so grand as to be either meaningless or conspiratorial or reductive or deterministic, but if you believe that ideas have a kind of life of their own, there is an intuitive sense to it. Heidegger’s argument is that a certain view of truth and nature eventually leads to a society that venerates the unlimited exercise of power with no sense of transcendence and no appreciation for the goodness of limits on human power. Heidegger is not alone in his thinking on this point, but is joined by Hans Jonas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and more recently, Leon Kass. The general point is a typically conservative one: we need restraint. But Heidegger differs from other thinkers who frame the issue as an ethical one, instead opting for a metaphysical frame. In Heidegger’s view, the question is not if we can or should slow down technological change, but rather how to make sense of its inevitability.
The Heideggerian claim that modernity begins with Plato is shared in part by Nietzsche who likewise finds a shift from Homeric warrior culture (rule by jocks) to Socratic philosophical culture (rule by nerds) to the rise of Judaism and Christianity (rule by slaves). For Nietzsche modernity, as it were, begins with the rise of “slave morality” (a derogative term for the valorization of weakness and equality rather than strength, excellence, and inequality).
Nietzsche acknowledges the importance of the Biblical tradition in effecting modernization, though it seems from an antisemitic point of view. Still, this got me thinking: maybe modernity begins when Temple-centric religion is replaced by prayer, when Jerusalem-based religion becomes Diasporic. If so, the Biblical prophets who facilitate this transition are the real modernizers. Modernity begins not with Plato, but with Isaiah (8th c. B.C.E.) and Jeremiah (7th c. B.C.E).
The destruction of the second Temple at the hands of the Romans didn’t change the trajectory of Judaism so much as make external a change that was already underway. If the Temple had not been destroyed by the Romans it would have eventually become defunct through some other set of causes. To weep for the destruction of the Temple, then, is to weep at the rise of modernity.
But according to Eicha Rabba, the first word of Lamentations—Eicha—“Alas”—uttered by Jeremiah is in fact God’s word to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—Ayekka—“Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). On this reading, God bemoans the rise of modernity, first. Modernity begins with the “Fall.” Adam and Eve become modern when they eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil.
Now, there is a reading that their eating of the forbidden fruit was, in fact, part of God’s plan, and part of the fulfillment of God’s pronouncement that they be created in the divine image. Gaining knowledge is both the way to becoming like God and an expression of that likeness. If so, God weeps, as it were, that becoming God-like and becoming modern are one and the same.
God’s defining trait, at the beginning of Genesis, is “Creator.” To Create is to be modern. God is the first modern, and the first Fall is Creation itself, starting with the words “Let there be…” The loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the Ptolemaic worldview, the loss of Eden, the loss of the French monarchy and the age of absolutism, the loss of centralized priestly and pontifical authority that precluded the proliferation of novels like Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, are all part of “Let there be light.”
The problem with Heidegger is not that he is too reductive, but that he stops with Plato. Modernity—the move from truth as unconcealment to truth as proposition—occurs within the divine. It is what Kabbalists understand to be the synchrony of creation and the breaking of the vessels, the irony within God, the hiccup within providence. Heidegger’s form is right, but his arc is limited by the history of philosophy. At most he can go back to the pre-Socratics. But the Biblical tradition which Heidegger mostly ignored takes us further back.
The exercise of dating modernity collapses on itself, just as the task of the macro- historian ultimately collapses into the task of speculative theology and poetry (which is why the oldest works of literature are works not of chronicles, but of poetry and folklore).
Bruno Latour says “We have never been modern.” But the flipside of his provocation is that we have always been modern, and that modernity is not something we can undo, so much as a chronic condition.
And if we have always been modern than we have also always been postmodern. The culture wars that turn on whether modernity is good, bad, or neutral, miss a different set of questions:
What is modernity? When did it begin?
P.S.—New poem in Tablet:
Dear Mr. Atkins,
This is the second piece of yours that I've read and it's great to know somebody else is thinking about this stuff here at Substack. It has come to my attention that you are a genuine participant in the serious activity of mind, and I appreciate that. I hadn't thought of modernity going all the way back to the pre-socratics, but if you do take it that far back (or further), might you run the risk of obliterating the distinction between modernity and antiquity altogether? While we ought to admit a degree of arbitrary discretion when selecting an epoch that differentiates 'then' from 'now' I think there are adequate distinctions between the 'modern' and 'ancient' mind that we can work from in order to trust said selections. This comment section is far to small for me to carry on, but I too have a Substack thing where some of my arguments and ideas are posted in the form of essays. While I acknowledge there were previous factors and trends that lead up to the Enlightenment, my latest essay, 'Distinctions Denied and Connections Compromised' address the subject in question and centers on those 'illumined' modern minds of the late 16th and early 17th century (I'll forgo a litany since I know you know their names). I'd be delighted for you to read it (and my first essay, Reclaiming Common Sense) and provide feedback, if you're interested. In the meantime, I'll check out some of your other work and maybe drop some more comments...
Best regards and keep up the good work,
A. Ty Kun
Modernity is the moment you are living in; it is always more modern than the past.