What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 31.

[Symposium Contents]


John J. Reilly

The term "postmodern" is an unsatisfactory description of the last few decades of the twentieth century. Postmodern is a definition-by-negation, which is rarely a good idea: consider the example of those atheists who devote their lives to combating a nonexistent god. Moreover, there never really was much evidence that the period was moving beyond the modern era in any serious sense. In both its popular and elite forms, the postmodern spirit is largely a matter of living off the achievements of the modern age by making fun of them.

But then, what of the term "modern" itself? Strictly speaking, any era can (and does) call itself modern. When we speak of modernity, we usually have something more specific than "the present" in mind. Even so, the term is elastic: modernity can mean the twentieth century after the First World War, or the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or everything after Columbus. The historian William McNeill once plausibly suggested that the modern world system actually began in eleventh-century China.

It makes most sense, I think, to consider that our modern world began with the French Revolution. Our era is an episode within the Enlightenment, some of whose possibilities it realized and some it forever precluded. Modernity has had a great deal in common with the Hellenistic Age of the classical West and with the Warring States period in ancient China. It is a good bet that, like those epochs, it will last rather less than three centuries. Probably some watershed like 1789 lies ahead in the twenty-first centuryómore likely in its second half than in its firstóon the other side of which, history flows in another direction.

The future will look after its own nomenclature, but I for one find it hard to resist speculation about how the future will characterize our modernity. Even if we entertain the notion that there have been analogous periods in the past, still every such era must also be unique. "Warring States" would not be appropriate for the modern West, for instance, since the era has not been one of continual warfare, but of unusually long periods of tranquillity punctuated by apocalyptic explosions. Herman Hesse made a better suggestion in The Glass Bead Game, where modernity is seen from the future as the "Age of Feuilletons." That is just strange enough to happen.

Certainly the name would have to evoke the tendency toward analysis and reduction that has characterized the West these last two centuries. The great movements in intellectual life, from philosophy to economics, have been toward atomization, even as sovereign states multiplied in accordance with the principle that every little language must have its own country. The modern era is really the Age of Nominalism. As for its postmodern coda, these decades are simply the stage when nominalism achieved its natural culmination in solipsism, in language speaking itself.

This brings us to the age to come. In naming the future, it seems fitting to proceed with a little help from Hegel. Historical epochs do tend to react against the excesses of their predecessors, though that is never all they do. If the Age of Nominalism is the thesis, then any medievalist can tell you that the obvious antithesis will be an Age of Realism.

Maybe already we see the beginnings of an age that is more interested in synthesis than analysis. These adumbrations take various forms, from the proposals for a "final theory" of physics to the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward world government. Perhaps we see a hint of the mind of the future in E. O. Wilsonís ambitious and metaphysically naive notion of "consilience," a universal structure of knowledge that would have a sociobiological backbone. More ambitious and not at all naive is the project outlined in John Paul IIís Fides et Ratio, which looks toward a harmonization of our understanding of all levels of reality, something not seen since the Thomistic synthesis. None of these projects is likely to have quite the results their proponents have in mind, but they may tell us something about the cultural climate of 2100.

John J. Reilly is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.