Franke: After Modernity, What?

January 8, 2024

by Mark Franke

The history of western civilization is generally divided into three epochs, if memory serves from my junior high world history class. This classification scheme was retroactively applied by historians trying to make sense of why things changed so dramatically at certain points in time.

The first epoch, antiquity, covered the thousands of years between the first historical record and the “official” fall of the western Roman Empire just prior to A.D. 500. The current epoch is called modernity, beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation around 1500 or a little earlier. Everything in between got the non-original name of the Middle Ages.

The important thing about this taxonomy is not the dating which is hardly as precise as we like to think. Rather, it is the fundamental changes that occurred to the whole of civilization in the west. If one compares lives about 100 years before the divide to that of 100 years after, it is clear that something big had happened, although probably not noticed by those who lived through the transition.

I find the medieval period the most fascinating of the three so when the historian Dan Jones came out with a survey history of the entire Middle Ages, I had to read it. “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages” is long; after all, it has a thousand years to cover, but it is well written and hard to put down.

Jones’s thesis is that several events or developments occurred throughout the Middle Ages to prepare mankind for modernity. It is the confluence or accumulation of these developments which set a point of no return, a point of no going back to the way things were.

Jones ends with a question he deliberately does not answer: Are we today living through existential and fundamental changes similar to that experienced by our late medieval ancestors?

Consider each of Jones’s developments that brought in modernity and ushered out medieval life.

First is the invention of the printing press. No one would have heard of Martin Luther if it hadn’t been for Gutenberg. We live in a communication revolution every bit as structural with the internet, email, social media and 24-hour cable news. Check box 1 with a big X.

Next, the discovery of America reoriented Europe away from the East and toward the West. We now live in a global community but are looking outward toward space travel and other planets. This may be restricted to astronauts and billionaire dilettantes right now, but only 90 men sailed with Columbus. Check box 2 but with a lighter X.

Jones’s third development was the fracture of the church due to the Reformation and the concomitant weakened political power of the papacy. Today that fracture is nearly complete as church attendance in the West is at an all-time low. A study of the world’s nations shows nine of the bottom ten are in Europe, with only Communist Cuba breaking into that list. Check box 3.

Fourth, demographic changes across Europe were the result of the Black Death and other pandemics. Europe’s feudal agricultural economy was shattered with political power shifting across class lines. Covid certainly wasn’t a medieval style plague but it has contributed to a fundamental change in our employment and educational power structures. Check box 4 but lightly.

Finally, Jones points to humanism as a new philosophical standard, upsetting medieval scholasticism and other traditional thought systems universally accepted by most everyone. Today we have a progressive attack on western values with Nietzschean nihilism as the orthodox philosophy. Our emphasis is totally on the individual, not larger affinity groups (identity politics as the exception which proves the rule.) Check box 5 with an extra-large X.

That is my synthesis of Jones’s thesis. I didn’t need an antithesis to move my dialectic to the end point.

Jones, however, adds two more developments to his list of 21st century tipping points: mass migrations of displaced people and climate change. The so-called barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries get much of the blame for that first epochal shift although not much in the second. But it is worth noting that the Little Ice Age began in the late Middle Ages, a mutli-century change in climate that left recurrent hunger due to colder and wetter growing seasons.

So are we living through the end of modernity as a historical epoch? We can’t possibly know that from inside history. One hundred years from now our progeny, standing outside our history, can better answer that question.

The more important question is whether the new epoch will be an improvement on the current one. Advances in medicine, agricultural production and travel safety can’t be gainsaid. The same doesn’t hold for me, at least in morality, philosophy and theology. Families and communities were anchored in a feeling of belonging, something we have lost . . . or voluntarily surrendered.

Maybe I pushed Jones’s conclusion way beyond where he wanted it to go. Even if not, I fervently hope my analysis is wrong.

Michael Anton, a research fellow at Hillsdale College, once wrote that these changes that “new gods might do the trick but their introduction would seem to require a cataclysm.” I regard the woke revolution to be of cataclysmic proportions. Its true believers certainly have new gods in mind.

I should take some comfort in the assumption that those who live during epochal transition don’t notice it. The problem is that I more than notice it; I can’t stop seeing it everywhere.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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