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As a word, “modernism” has several definitions, or, to put the matter the other way round, there are a number of things to which the label “modernism” has been appended. As such, and as usual, it is important to define our terms before we proceed any further with a discussion of this crucially important word, and crucially perilous thing.

A cursory search for the word on the worldwide web will reveal its definition, on Wikipedia, as “a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.” Further reading reveals that “modernism,” according to Wikipedia, is primarily a movement in the arts, flourishing in the early twentieth century, which sought to break with the forms and traditions of the past through innovations, such as the stream-of-consciousness in literature, atonality in music, and the abstract in art. It is, or was, self-consciously cynical, viewing reality, as it perceived it, as an absurdity warranting parody.

St. Pius X

St. Pius X

Although this definition serves to illustrate one particular aspect or manifestation of modernism, it is really only an accidental byproduct of real Modernism. Real or primal Modernism, the mother of all other modernisms, including the artistic movement of the same name, is better understood if we see it in the light of the heresy of modernism as condemned by St. Pius X in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis. In this encyclical Pius X condemned those who sought to bring the beliefs of the Catholic Church “up to date” in the light (or shadow) of recent developments in philosophy. It is this “up-to-dateness” which is the real spirit of Modernism. It is the presumption that whatever is up-to-date is better than whatever is deemed to be out-of-date. At the root of this presumption is a belief that the present is superior to the past and that, by logical extension, the future will be better than the present. It is what might be called optimistic presumption, or the prejudice of optimism. As with other forms of prejudice, it tends to look down its supercilious nose at its neighbours, which is why those who are optimists in terms of their belief in inexorable progress, i.e. their belief that things are always getting better, are also and always pessimists about the collective inheritance of human experience and knowledge, which is the history of civilization. To such prejudiced optimists, who prefer to call themselves progressives, the past is populated with barbarians and savages who should be condemned for their perceived ignorance, and treated with the contempt that such unenlightened untermenschen deserve. They are not “up-to-date” and, as such, need not be seen as our equals.

Those who believe that something is good merely because it is “modern” are guilty of what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. They are, in Chesterton’s judgment, ungrateful cads who kick down the ladder by which they’ve climbed. Modernists are, however, not merely cads or snobs; they are idolaters. They worship a false god. The god they worship is the Time-Spirit, or what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, or what might better be called the Spirit of the Age. The absurdity is that they worship a god which is as changeable as the wind or the weather—and as potentially catastrophic and deadly.

A quick glance at some of the past century’s modernists will serve to show the absurdity of worshiping this changeable god.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

Take, for example, Ezra Pound, the godfather of twentieth-century modernism, whose injunction to “Make it new!” became the mantra of the modernist movement. He became enamoured of Italian fascism, seeing it as the creed of the future. It might seem silly now to believe that anyone could take Mussolini seriously but there was a time when fascism was de rigueur and very much new and up-to-date. Nor was Ezra Pound alone in his admiration for Italian fascism. The futurist movement which, as its name implied, idolized all that was new, up-to-date and modern, became inextricably connected to Mussolini’s ideology. Fascism was seen as the faith of the future because of its faith in the future. Meanwhile, the Russian futurists put themselves at the service of the exciting new ideas of communism, becoming part of the new Soviet Union’s propaganda machine.

The irony is, of course, that all of this modernist worship of the future seems terribly out-of-date today. The fact is that to be up-to-date today condemns us to being out-of-date tomorrow, or, as C. S. Lewis liked to say, fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going.

timelessTo worship the spirit of our own age is to condemn ourselves to looking very silly to future ages. The test, therefore, is not to be in step with our own times but to be in step with all-times, the latter of which is to march in time with that which is always timely because it is perennially timeless.

What is Modernism? It is the worship of the false gods of fashion instead of the true God of tradition. It is the enemy of all who seek the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is the enemy of all who do not want a church that will move with the world but a church that will move the world. It is to choose the Spirit of the Age instead of the Spirit of All Ages. It is to choose the Spirit that Ages instead of the Spirit that Never Ages. It is to choose the Time-Spirit and not the Holy Spirit. Modernism, to put the matter bluntly, is madness.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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18 replies to this post
  1. I think Pearce misses a key point in discussing Modernism. For as long he portrays it in all or nothing terms, such as believing that what is new is always superior to what is old, he has an attackable object. But turnabout is fair play. For if we were to describe Traditionalism as the inverse of Modernism, then Traditionalism would become just as much of a false god as Modernism.

    Now if we think of Modernism from the model that distinguishes it from Pre Modernism and Post Modernism, we find that Modernism relies on reason and science for its metanarrative. This stands in contrast to Pre Modernism that relied on faith and revelation for its metanarrative and Post Modernism that denies the existence of any metanarratives because of the negative outcomes that resulted from how people have used the other metanarratives. Again, Modernism was asking the Church to become current regarding the light that new discoveries bore on the physical world. And to take an all-or-nothing approach to any of these approaches would result in the same sin that was discussed when comparing Modernism with Traditionalism.

    What is needed therefore are filters that allow us to recognize the truths that both Modernism and Traditionalism teach us along with the truths that Pre Modernism, Modernism, and Post Modernism have discovered so that we can blend these truths together. Seeing that the Roman Church has needed correction in the past strongly suggests that it cannot work as a filter that can faultlessly strain out falsehoods from these different movements.

  2. Curt, I really like your reply. Modernism isn’t necessarily bad, and being an optimist about the future shouldn’t be scorned. But old things aren’t necessarily bad even if they’ve been replaced by the new. I’ve played music professionally: I like Adele and Mozart, Bach and Trent Reznor. Palestrina and Metallica. They all have their points.

    The church fighting against modernism is a bit like a crazy person trying to beat back the tide. Even if you think the cause is worthy, if it is also pointless then perhaps a rethink is in order. If nothing else perhaps to re-engage with different tactics. Condemning and finger pointing and yelling “heresy” at new things is just pointless, ineffectual. Unless your goal is to be ignored or ridiculed like a crazy old man trying to beat back the tide.

    • I agree with you on some things. For example, if music never changed or evolved, life for the music fan would be awfully dull. But that’s not what the Church is about. Their job is to address moral values, and those don’t change. And so when someone claims the Church is backwards for refusing to embrace abortion and gay marriage, it’s the Church’s job to respond “Just because something is trendy, that doesn’t make it right”.

      • You describe the Bandwagon fallacy well, that new isn’t necessarily better, and that popular isn’t necessarily true.

        However, tradition and innovation both have their place. You delved beyond music, which is the subject of my comment. As a musician, one thing I keep in mind is that music expresses everything a human could experience or think. The raw primal fire of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the rage of death metal, the nuance of a Mozart melody, the sublime Art of Fugue by Bach, the base ignorant beauty of chant. Everything in between. All those are music’s turf. All describe humanity in some way. To limit music is to deny a part of humanity. What you wish to say about those parts you don’t like is one thing, trying to deny them another.

        About your extra-musical subjects, you point out that just because something is trendy doesn’t make it right. But unfortunately the opposite is also true: just because it goes against tradition and historical trends doesn’t make it false or wrong. You must still argue them on the merits, without resorting to the Janus-like twin sides of Bandwagon fallacy: trendy or traditional are beside the point.

  3. Curt
    Tradition is not the inverse of Modernism. Modernism embraces the new and modern. Tradition is a collective wisdom that has sieved and filtered with due diligence as set of principles over the ages. See the difference?
    Great article Mr Pearce. Whilst I’m here, I would like to recommend Mr Pearce’s collection of essays in his volume “Beauteous Truth” with a forward by Cardinal Raymond Burke. I would also recommend Saint Pope Piux X’s encyclical Pascendi.

  4. This is a very informative article about the mindset so prevalent in culture today: ” If it is new, it must be better.” What comes to my mind is the difference between Eternity and time, The Eternal moment of the present, is the only moment in which you find God in prayer. But that present moment must be grounded in the rich wisdom of the past, that is orthodox theology. This grounding in the present moment, standing on the wisdom of the past, is abnegating for our human nature which loves change, movement, and glitter. Politicians often observe the short attention span of we moderns. This is to what adulation of the future leads: no ability know one’s self in God through which our own attraction to Truth can be recognized. In this impoverished way, the human potential to think critically and recognize falsehood is deadened. Thank you Joseph for this helpful article.

  5. I think that last part in the essay is an over reach, and I think it’s because of the confusion between modernism as an aesthetic movement and modernism as a philosophic world view The fact that Mr. Peirce brings in Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical denouncing the modern condition is evident. We conservatives don’t share the philosophic world view of modernism. However, the aesthetic movement of modernism is a separate entity altogether. Ezra Pound’s poetry has nothing to do with Pope St Pius X’s statement. If anything Ezra Pound relied deeply on tradition in the arts. I can rattle off many writers of modernism who broke with tradition aesthetically but yet deeply relied on tradition: James joyce, William Faulkner, TS Eliot, etc. All aesthetically modernists but not modernists in philosophy.

    Modernism in the arts is a time period identifier, just like Romanticism, age of Enlightenment, Renaissance, etc. The themes of William Shakespeare are not the themes of Ben Jonson, and while their world views may overlap they are distinct. You have to look at the themes of each artist to see if their individual and particular world view. This type of short hand characterization of an artist is rather superficial.

    • “This type of short hand characterization of an artist is rather superficial.”

      Yes. This is also the problem I see in this study of “worldviews”, in both Catholic and Protestant, especially Reformed Protestant contexts. People who care little about poetry, art and music (which is fine…this stuff isn’t for everyone) get a very superficial treatment of some very major figures and then they feel not only justified but really compelled to label whole movements as good or evil. And of course if it came in the 20th century, then obviously, it is evil…because much of the philosophy and politics of the 20th century is evil (which is incontestable).

      Basically, this short hand characterization promotes a version of (a very old, yet always new heresy) Manichaeism.

      But this sort of ingratitude, non-historical thinking is not “applying a Christian worldview”. In fact, it’s making the mistakes of collectivists and leftists…..

  6. Stephen,
    Understand your concern. But please note that I used a hypothetical there. And the point was that if we were to take an all-or-nothing approach to traditionalism, then that wisdom that we have collective over the ages would never be challenged by what is new. And such is not how we determine wisdom. Rather, such is an authoritarian approach to making decisions. BTW, I used the hypothetical on an all-or-nothing approach to traditionalism because it seemed to me that Pearce did the same with modernism.

  7. Mike,
    I would modify your statement to say that traditionalism has to pick its battles against modernism. Otherwise, to automatically given in to modernism is as bad as automatically giving in to traditionalism. Automatically giving into modernism with a complete disregard for the past is a sign of narcissism. Automatically giving in to traditionalism is a sign of authoritarianism. Other than that, I agree with your comment.

    • That is spot on. And that is why this website, and TS Eliot, are so incredibly important. Nourished by the tradition, you have to unleash the tradition within the context of today….which requires….incredible effort to understand the times and requires continual innovation.

      But not innovation apart from the tradition; continuity is essential.

      But stagnation is as deadly as innovation which is ungrounded.

  8. Thus says the LORD:
    Stand by the earliest roads,
    ask the pathways of old,
    “Which is the way to good?” and walk it;
    thus you will find rest for yourselves.
    But they said, “We will not walk it.”
    Jeremiah 6:16

    For I, the LORD, do not change,
    and you, sons of Jacob, do not cease to be.
    Malachi 3:6

    Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
    Hebrews 13:8

    Eze33: You must warn them.

  9. GEORGES BERNANOS: “One can not understand the least thing about modern civilization if one does not first realize that it is a universal conspiracy to destroy the inner life.”

  10. Such interesting comments. Some read almost as though one wants to argue but is not sure what the argument is about.

    Modernism is an intellectual and artistic movement, and just like any other movement, it reflects a worldview–it does not have a cause-and-effect function; it merely reflects. A movement is like a mirror we hold up to ourselves in order to see our (current) perception of reality. It does not create the perception, nor the reality.

    Truth, on the other hand, is objective, immutable. To use this movement (or any other) as an excuse to attempt moral or theological alterations of the truth is to misunderstand the role movements play in human history. Such an attempt is indeed a false god, and doomed to fail, since, by their very nature, all movements change; truth never changes. That is why we place our faith in the truth and not in ourselves.

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