The Historical and Metaphysical Problems with the Traditionalist Critique of Modernity
Lately, I’ve become more and more skeptical regarding Traditionalist narratives (and polemics) of Modernity. Here’s a two insights on this topic which percolated as I chatted with a friend yesterday.
The first point is of a more historical/empirical nature. Basically, I am simply not convinced that Modernity is as dissimilar to or as discontinuous with previous historical epochs as the Traditionalists make it out to be. Yes, there are significant shifts which have happened, but likewise there were significant shifts which happened following the Bronze Age collapse, and it seems that the Traditionalist perspective tends to see the before and after here as both legitimately traditional (and thus good), though obviously the more sophisticated expositors of this perspective do draw important distinctions here. But regardless, the point stands that you see a significant effort to subsume perspectives as disparate as a kind of ancient animism with the highly sophisticated Neoplatonic metaphysics of much later Abrahamic monotheism.
I actually find this project very compelling — bridging these kinds of deep gaps — but it’s tiring to see such sophistication in this area, and then when it comes to analyzing Modernity, you find very essentializing methods which paper over complex and disparate histories — certainly Modernity is not a single movement (especially when you look at it globally) and to act as though all which has come about in this era is by definition anti-Tradition simply seems antithetical to critical (and historical) thought.
My second point is perhaps more creative. I don’t think the metaphysics of reifying Modernity to the extent many Traditionalists do is justifiable in light of the basic commitments of this perspective. The non-duality of Ultimate Reality (God, Brahman, Emptiness) reigns supreme in the Neoplatonic and Vedantist sources of Traditionalism and there is a deep continuity between this non-dual Ultimate and the contingent created cosmos — the things of the human world such as matter and historical events are not wholly separate from God, but rather a limited and partial expression of some particularized aspect of the Divine. Of course, in order for the Many to exist in relation to the One or the Particular in relation to the Absolute, there needs to be some account for absence of God which acts as a metaphysical polarity without any reality of its own. The most convincing accounts of this kind of metaphysics in my eyes includes both absolute being and absolute nothingness within the essence of Ultimate Reality.
Having covered the basic metaphysics of Traditionalism, I posit that the reification of Modernity and taking up an entirely reactionary stance against it is untenable. History and its developments express something of Ultimate Reality from this perspective — taking Modernity as so fundamental a rupture and as absolute privation of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful is to set up an autonomous being alongside God. Either Modernity is in some sense an expression of the Divine Will, and thus something from which we can learn and respond to constructively, or it is something so antithetical to the Divine that the metaphysical commitments to God’s omnipotence held is fundamentally threatened.
Of course, there are genuinely anti-Traditional aspects to Modernity, and certainly one of the moral demands of this age is to sort the wheat from the chaff and use discernment to the best of one’s ability. But so much of the Traditionalist critique of Modernity — at least in the articulations I see parroted online — is NOT discerning. It is not sorting the wheat from the chaff, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Not everything good in this age is of an overtly religious character, and not everything bad in this age is novel and creative. Yes, modernity has destroyed religion in some devastating ways and there’s tragedy in that, but attempting to naively return to some imagined pre-modern religiosity, while living within Modernity is also going to be a locus of tragedy. Just as, for Christians, it was the Divine Will of God which demanded that Jesus Christ be crucified and enter Hell so that sin and death could be conquered, I believe there’s a certain Divine Wisdom in the death Modernity has brought to organized religion and even God himself.
When Jesus subsequently rose from the dead following his crucifixion, he was unrecognizable to his followers. So too will the resurrection of the existing religions following Modernity involve fundamental shifts, but these shifts will not be breaks from the Divine Will, but rather its fulfillment.