Mr. Ropoulos and I were talking in the St. John’s College Coffee Shop, and the subject of modernity came up. So he asked me to write a few pages for his issue of the Gadfly [ed., the St. John’s student paper].
“Modernity” comes from Latin modo, “just-now.” Thus modernity is any generation’s own time; it is the mode of the recent, the contemporary—with a hint of time-pride: the latest is the newest, and the newest is the best. The moderni of any era, its progressives, think along those lines—and the conservatives see decline. But modernity also has a history-bound meaning: It is that epoch which is tied to Antiquity by a Medieval or Middle Age. It is a time, first of renewal and rebirth (Renaissance), then of the simply new, Modernity, and finally, of novelty, namely when its very signature is prolific innovation. Eventually “modernism” is appropriated for a style, or rather a plethora of styles, in art and architecture—rejectionist with respect to tradition, deliberatively expressive of modern functionality, and relentlessly “creative.”
Now it has come to this: Innovation has been institutionalized, change and growth has become a way of life, and knowledgeable rejection has turned into forgetful oblivion. Moreover, modernity, just-nowness, epochalized, has become just another age to be superseded. Therefore we live in post-modern times; and that was really what Mr. Ropoulos and I were talking about.
(I haven’t yet come across a proper name for the next epoch, post-post-modernity. In retrospect, what will post-modernity be the “pre-” of? Johnnies are well positioned for conjecturing about that temporal Non-being, the Future.)
What are its now-discernible features? An intensification of modernism, I thought as we talked: More and faster. But also explosive variety—everything going off in opposite directions: globalism and nationalism (an ever-smaller world with evermore national entities), personal freedom and impersonal tyrannies (options galore and regulative officiousness), rampant individualism and conformist outcomes (anything goes, and so we all wear jeans and logo-imprinted T-shirts).—Any Johnnie can expand this post-modern Table of Opposites, which lists the contrary trends that pull at us; I’m full of additional items.
How to live in this roiling stasis? I thought: Go soundmindedly schizophrenic (Greek for “split-minded”). Be cannily knowledgeable about all this sheer potentiality. Then fall to world-making: Found small habitable communities that have definable purpose, definite character, and flexible stability. It might be a gathering of 3 or 3×10^n people, a band of friends, a school, a company, a civic group. You might be the catalyst or the organizer or a devoted participant—whatever. Just make a place for souls to be—adapting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I.7 and X.6—thoughtfully and fulfillingly at work in behalf of some good.
Mr. Ropoulos said “400 words,” and I’m already beyond that—though I’ve barely begun.
This essay was originally published here in May 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. This essay was originally published in The Gadfly, a publication of St. John’s College (Volume 34, No. 21, 2013).
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Editor’s note: The photo by By Pedro Godinho shows the sculpture, “Pointing to Modernity.”