Orthodoxy and the Modern World (3)

24 February 2021

II THE CHARACTERISTICS AND PREDICAMENTS OF THE MODERN WORLD

1. The basic principles of the Enlightenment in various spheres of culture.
True to its historical beginnings, which we have already mentioned, the Enlightenment was motivated along the following lines:

a) The absolute supremacy of human reason. Anything that did not conform to human logic was suspected of being prejudice and superstition. Miracles, belief in the supernatural, the supramundane, were all subject to questioning. Those who wished to believe in some religion, such as Christians for example, had to find a way of reconciling their faith with human reason, to find logical explanations regarding the existence of God, the soul and so on. So Christian theology embarked on an enormous effort to convince people that the Christian faith was not opposed to human reason. It developed the branch of Apologetics, which continues to be taught to this day in some theological schools.

b) The rise of individualism, of the importance and value of the individual. Since human reason is absolutely supreme and dominant in culture, every thinking person can find the truth on their own. They are themselves the judge of what is right and true and they do not require authorities to tell them what to think or do. In this way, all authorities were abolished, particularly those which were religious and ecclesiastical, and this led the Catholic Church, as an extreme reaction, to adopt the doctrine of Papal infallibility at the end of the 19th century.

c) The crucial importance of psychology as individual experience. The emphasis placed by Augustine on the conscience and the thinking ability of the person, followed later by Descartes who identified existence with thought, cultivated a tendency towards introversion, or self-awareness, as it was called, with serious consequences both in science and in social as well as religious life. Specifically, science developed depth psychology which in essence is nothing but the analysis of individual experience, as if people were able to isolate themselves and constitute an object of research and analysis (psychoanalysis), like other objects of erudition. Moreover, in the sphere of social life, this meant that the pursuit of individual happiness was more or less the aim of societies and systems of government (cf. the American Constitution). As regards the realm of religion, the psychological experience of the individual resulted in the definition of the task of religion as being that the Church came to be seen as an institution serving the ‘religious needs’ of the individual. Meanwhile pietism which is a product of the West and is merely the priority given to the emotional and moral satisfaction of the individual, began to undermine the foundations of Orthodoxy, beginning with Russia at the time of Peter the Great and extending into other Orthodox regions in our own time.

2. The repercussions of the principles of the Enlightenment on culture.
The consequences of these basic principles of the Enlightenment in the sphere of art and, in particular, in political, social and economic life can still be felt to this day. To summarize them:

a) In the realm of the sciences, rational specialization developed, as did technical solutions. Under Newton’s influence, the world, and people themselves, were approached mechanistically, that is, they were considered to be machines, operating in accordance with certain logical laws which had a mechanical cause. Just as, if you give a machine the impetus of a driving force it will move and produce a particular result on the basis of certain laws, so people themselves were held to be an accumulation of organs each of which can be isolated, examined separately and assembled in a complete machine which will operate with internal laws and external material driving forces (nutrition, for example). Thus, medical science, following the same methods as Newtonian mechanical physics, was divided up into specialties. People ceased to be regarded as a whole, enlisted into a wider world dynamic, but were approached as machines. Today, of course voices have been raised in protest against this concept of medicine and, indeed of the natural sciences. But these voices, as we shall see below, sound the end of the age of the Enlightenment; one might say, the end of the modern world and the beginning of a new one.

b) Equally important were the consequences in the sphere of art. Here matters are more complicated, because art does not have so much to do with reason as it does with emotions. Nevertheless, serious repercussions were felt. In the first place, a dichotomy was created between the natural sciences and art. It is no accident that, in the 18th century, art in Europe was neglected in favor of science. What we call the ‘fine arts’ were restricted to external elegance, good taste and symmetry, the aim being to produce feelings of pleasurable satisfaction and to contribute to the happiness of the individual. Only recently, with the advent of surrealism in painting, the theater of the absurd and the new poetry in literature, has art begun to escape the clutches of reason and the quest for psychological experience. But, as we said with regard to the natural sciences, these are the first cracks in the structure of the modern world, the beginning of a new one. By and large, the modern world does not understand, nor does it forgive, the absurd, the eccentric or the grotesque, anything which does not move us or bring pleasure. This is precisely what the Enlightenment did not forgive in the 18th century and thereafter: art can and must address the emotions, but is not allowed to challenge proper reason, proper morals or anything that is rationally ‘proper’.

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