The modern age, which we could date back to 1500, has created us as much as we have created it.
Shakespeare, Erasmus and Montaigne were early commentators on developments in this strange new era. In eschewing the scientists and philosophers who helped shape the modern world thereafter, I select those, like Swift and Voltaire who attempted to understand and explain it. With the rise of the encyclopedists and sociologists this capacity began to be diluted with theory and statistics. The Enlightenment which had initially promised so much, only intensified the dangers of modernism. The Romantics, in making a temple out of feeling and beauty, contributed little to understanding. Marx’s theory of the alienation of labor was a significant contribution but it was incomplete now and then. Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to provide a complete understanding of the modern condition, which remains the best. After that? Martin Heidegger’s focus on ontology and the problems with technology were important additions but the era of grand-scale theorizing about things that matter died with him and some of the members of the Frankfort school, most particularly Theodor Adorno.
Since then, it has been mostly quiet at a time when the modern era with all its inadequacies gave way to the postmodern era with all its inanities. I date its beginning to the close of World War I, which would be much disputed. But historical demarcations do not need to be precise or defined with great specificity to be useful. Much has changed and the human condition has only deteriorated since Nietzsche was writing the epitaph of modernism in the latter half of the 19th century.
Those of us who were not vampires, as Nietzsche called them, sucking the blood out of the yet-alive through moral schemes, were well on the way, after World War II, to becoming zombies – embodiments of the passionless pursuit of vacuous sociocultural goals.
The postmodern era can best be understood through Nietzsche’s writings on modernism. He knew that he would not be much read or understood in his lifetime, but he expected to find an audience among future readers. And, of course, he has, but he is still too often misunderstood and too readily despised. Many of those who admire Nietzsche today cherry pick his writings to advance their tepid agendas while those who cannot abide him, slay him by reference to a few of his more audacious statements.
But Nietzsche towers over us all. He not only identified the great fractures at the center of our being – the psyche – but he showed us how to heal them and live in a fully-engaged, vibrant and meaningful way. He also predicted much of what was coming in the 20th century including catastrophic wars. Even such a seer, however, could not have known that, paraphrasing Yeats, things could fall apart to the extent that they have and there would no longer be a center to hold onto.
Given that nobody can see the whole from above and draw deep from their guts as Nietzsche did, who among us can ever approximate his teachings and apply them to our time?
This is my task.