Modernism: Good Points

Before I criticize modernism, I should mention the parts that are good. Modernism corrected an imbalance in medieval education, uncovered the problems of church and state, and the problems of individuals in a collective. It is quite likely that if modernism did not arise, these problems and imbalances would have remained hidden.

The imbalance in medieval education was a focus on rote learning and logic. Rote learning was a part of dealing with the authorities in an area (such as Aristotle). One memorized the learning of a certain discipline by memorizing commentaries on the works of the authorities within that discipline. Aristotle was the great authority on everything, so his work was treated as if it were better than any new work could possibly be. The emphasis on logic treated human beings as if they were meant only to think in syllogisms. Even music and art were treated in a logical fashion. Modernism corrected this imbalance through the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. The Renaissance overthrew the narrow focus on logic, and the scientific revolution forced the university to abandon their blind copying of Aristotle.

During the medieval period, the faith of the church was at least nominally protected by the state and heretics were criminals. The state required that all citizens be at least nominal members of the church. After the Reformation and the later religious wars, moderns began to see problems with this kind of setup. The idea of the state (or even the church) killing heretics began to be seen as wrong. Some measure of religious freedom was necessary. The church and state must be separate. Implicitly joining the affairs of church and state was no longer an option. Without modernism, it is unlikely that we would be aware of these issues. It is also unlikely that we would have religious freedom or the freedom to speak against popular religious beliefs.

The problem of church and state is also a problem of the individual in the church and the state. In the medieval period the thinking and behaviour of individuals was at least nominally controlled by the church and the state. Individuals were told what was orthodox belief, who their enemies were and what actions were moral. With the advent of religious freedom, the scientific revolution and the rise of a belief in individual autonomy this was no longer true. Individuals now had to think for themselves. They could no longer place themselves implicity in boundaries decided by others. The relationship of individuals to larger social structures was now something that we were aware of.

I do not necessarily believe that modernism’s solutions to these problems were a good idea. They may have been better than the medieval period in some ways, but not in all ways. Nonetheless, modernism forced us to be aware of these issues and seek solutions to them. We cannot go back to the medieval period and we should not try. Without modernism we would still have the problems of the medieval period.