The Origin of Modernity

Modern Western discord stems from differing Enlightenment experiences.

Issue: Summer 2005

Christie Davies, The Strange Death of Moral Britain (Somerset, NJ: Transaction, 2004), 264 pp., $39.95.

Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers, 2002), 480 pp., $14.95.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity (New York: Knopf, 2004), 304 pp., $25.

In the last several decades, modernity--the period initiated by the Enlightenment--has come under increasing criticism. Most prominently, of course, the postmodernists have put together a critique of pure reason, as it were, that uses logic to question the rationality of modern, Enlightenment-based philosophy. In arguing that all reasoning is based on attempts to gain, sustain or increase power, postmodernists openly seek to obliterate the very foundation on which the modern world was built: the supremacy of reason.

The provenance of modernity is a vitally important matter, because a West based on a lie can hardly be seen as worth defending. It is especially important when Western civilization is being challenged from without by forces that, like the postmodernists, see the West as uniquely and inexcusably oppressive. Might the seeds of modernity's problems be located in the original premises of the Enlightenment? If they are, knowledge of the mistakes of that era might help us to remedy our own.

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