Leszek Kolakowski
Modernity on Endless Trial (1990)

Robert Royal

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 56-57.

Everyone professes to dislike modernity, a characteristically modern stance. We all waver uneasily between what we know to be modernity’s attractions and achievements on the one hand, and its profound, even radical, hollowness on the other. Whatever modernity is, it appears in perpetual transition to something else. Matthew Arnold first and best conceptualized our situation: "Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born."

Good guidance in navigating this condition has been rare—too confident in one way, too tentative in another. Hence it is refreshing to turn again to Leszek Kolakowski’s Modernity on Endless Trial. Why this powerful, poised, and beautifully written book did not receive more attention when it was first pub lished is a mystery. Perhaps the neglect stemmed from its pacific intelligence, not easily reducible to any party program, political or religious. Kolakowski describes it as a collection of "semiphilosophical sermons" that explore currently insoluble dilemmas and argue for "moderation in consistency." But it is much more than that.

To reduce Kolakowski’s multifaceted argument to a few simple points would be a travesty. But it would not be overly reductionist to say that, for him, both our uncertainty and our achievement point to why modern Western civilization is "Christian by birth." Kolakowski deplores the Enlightenment currents in the West that were too quick to believe that certain truths had been established beyond question. Because of that hubris, Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism, and "other fanatical sects" became inevitable. That many celebrated modern intellectuals fell prey to murderous fundamentalisms reflects both their arro gance towards normal people and their subsequent need to identify absolutely with the downtrodden to justify their own existence.

A different approach is to see the "uncertainty, incompleteness, and unestablished identity" of our world as a Christian contribution to our self–understanding that is to be accepted rather than overcome. Out of that unsettled state, the religious tradition at its best provides us with motivation to know and do better—but also with the recognition that, in this life, perfection is beyond our reach. That tension is uncomfortable because "Christianity constantly strives to strike a stable balance that cannot be achieved." But if we have learned anything in this bloody century, it is that there is no good alternative to that perpetual striving. We have seen every conceivable experiment at radical human freedom and social perfection, and the results are in: "The utopia of man’s perfect autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented."

It is characteristic of Kolakowski that he does not regard a healthy uncertainty as a threat to all truths. In one essay, he asks: why do we need Kant? And his answer is that we have seen too many attempts at disguised moral suicide by Western intellectuals in the name of multiculturalism and other false humilities. Only a universal notion like Kant’s belief in the sacred core of the individual, whatever we think of the philosophical underpinnings of his position, can prevent us from rationalizing away slavery and worse. Kolakowski is no friend to socialism, but he says that socialism could become viable only by accepting something like Kant’s views.

It may be only a personal prejudice, but I believe the heart of Kolakowski’s argument is the chapter "Can the Devil Be Saved?" The title bears a double meaning. Kolakowski thinks we need to remember that Satan is a real being in order to avoid taking evil lightly and falling into a wishy–washy Pelagianism. The danger of the orthodox view is that we may think we can do everything or nothing against evil. But more interestingly, Kolakowski speculates about whether the Devil can be saved in a theological sense, and, if so, what that would do to our sense of the world. If evil will ultimately be transformed, we run the risk of relativizing it even as it occurs. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man are just two examples of the dangers that lie down this path.

But these dangers are not symmetrical. And that points towards an important feature of the world: "The fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of original sin. In other words, we face a peculiar situation in which the disastrous consequences of assenting to either of two incompatible theories confirm one of them and testify against its rival."

Yet this seemingly undeniable presence of original sin does not leave us entirely helpless. In fact, it provides two benefits. First, it rules out utopian impulses. But, paradoxically, it also spurs us to seek to overcome our errors and limitations, within an overall understanding that we shall not, ever, reconcile all things here on earth short of the Second Coming. Doubt and uncertainty are thus transformed into witnesses to, rather than sources of, imperfection.

The Devil, too, is a source of doubt. Where his existence is acknowledged and a full–bodied Christian response to it is deployed, however, the Devil’s game changes. His very temptations remind us of the truth. Christianity has been recommended to us lately by revolutionaries as well as social reformers. Both groups may be right about the importance of faith for particular situations. But Christian thought is valuable long before we get to making such judgments precisely because it prevents us from assuming too little or too much about our condition. It is Good News both in good times and in bad.

All this seems to me to resemble the general direction of First Things over the last decade as well. May her editors and writers continue that work for many years to come.

Robert Royal is President of the Washington–based Faith and Reason Institute.