A (Very) Short History of Modernism

I have spent a good part of my summer and the previous term reading about the origins and nature of secularism and modernism. I think that I am now beginning to grasp where modernism came from. These conclusions are preliminary, but I think that they are correct. If these facts are stable enough, then they permit us to learn from our past.

The true age of reason began around the 1100’s. It continued until the 1300’s and did not end until the time of Descartes. This period of time created the universities, taught all undergrads both basic and advanced logic, and applied logic to every field of study. All fields of study focused on using the mind, especially the rational mind. Some thought that not enough consideration was given to the passions, that logic was too dull and that classical thinkers had a better and more invigorating way of approaching life. These people began the Renaissance. For more information I highly recommend the book God and Reason in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant. He is a philosopher of science and a medieval historian.

As a result of Renaissance propaganda, incorrect views of the medieval period were circulated. Both Galileo and Luther were involved in this sort of propaganda. As a result, the later period of the 17th and 18th centuries came to be known as the Age of Reason instead. This later period is more accurately known as the Age of Autonomy. Autonomy in both morality and reason is a keystone of modernism. Both of these ideas were promoted by Kant. Autonomy in morality means that no one may command what is moral – morality is decided by oneself and ruled over oneself by reason. Autonomy in reason means that the highest appeal in rational thought is to what the individual can reason for himself.

Both of these ideas crept into the church (the Puritans brought automony of reason to the States). They also changed the way that religion and education were understood. Autonomy and God do not work well together, so God became problematic. So did revelation, divine authority, miracles and everthing else that comes with God. Over time, education and religious education became distinct. Naturalism, atheism and skepticism arose. After education and religion were altered, the political and popular landscape began to change. That ends my short history of modernism in the 1940’s.

My conclusions are simple. The belief in the autonomy of reason is essential to modernism. The autonomy of reason is not essential for rationality. The medieval period demonstrates that well. I am not completely sure why such a belief arose although I do know that Renaissance propaganda played a role. Like most historical events many things led to it – the Reformation, the religious wars, industrialization and the rise of Newtonian science were all likely contributors. We can now look back and learn from such a history.