The SRB essay winner on how the modern-minded look into the past and see only their own reflection.
My youngest son, thirteen years old, regularly declares himself to be in favour of all things modern. Occasionally he catches me doing or saying something he considers uncharacteristically in tune with the times.
‘God!’ he says. ‘That’s a bit modern isn’t it!’
He has grown his hair to a length that was in style when I was about as old as he is now.
‘You look like a Mod,’ I say.
‘What’s a Mod?’ he asks.
‘A fashion from when I was young,’ I say.
‘It’s short for Modernist, I think.’
‘God!’ he says. ‘Another story from the old days!’
My son is not the only one to think it best to be modern-minded. Politicians and estate agents are in general agreement that ‘modernisation’ is a good to be universally applied. Parliament, the Post Office, houses: all are best when modernised. Having a vague meaning, it is a word that can be used to mystifying effect in situations where a clear understanding of intentions might lead to grumbling opposition. On the lips of a politician, for example, modernisation provokes the suspicion that suffering will follow. The Minister for Defence recently called Afghanistan “thirteenth century”. What could more eloquently convey the Minister’s conviction that, on the one hand, that country is in a state of unimaginable awfulness and that, on the other, the deployment of high explosive weapons is essential if its condition is to remedied?
To be modern, Afghans must become modern-minded, the thinking goes. To drag Afghanistan out of the thirteenth century, it would be helpful to have some common points we can agree are elements of the modern mind.
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A feature of life today is its speed. Change grows faster and faster. The period of time during which a consumer product remains useful, for example, is in inverse proportion to human life expectancy. As we live longer, the lifespan of objects has become shorter. A typewriter might last a lifetime; a laptop computer is finished in four years. Durability was once a virtue. Now it makes your product a museum piece. Who wants a ten-year-old mobile even if it carries out the basic function of a phone?
The first element of the modern mind, then, is its plasticity. To qualify, we must have no fixed concept of what actually constitutes modernity. Moreover, as the pace change quickens, the historical period that can properly be called ‘modern’ continually shrinks. (In the papers today I read a gadget described semi-jokingly as “so 2008”). One wonders if there will come a time when what is modern will be coincident with the moment in which we find ourselves and will last no longer than a sigh.
In politics, for example, all things now are ‘new’ – although this particular usage of the word ‘new’ has itself evolved to the point that it no longer necessarily implies any change from former practice. The ‘new politics’, for example, that David Cameron is keen on is what was formerly known as politics: that is, parties of differing views compromising in order to bring about a degree of good governance.
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Anyone who is modern-minded will be sceptical about what the past can offer us. When reading old texts, for example, the modern-minded will judge their worth by the degree to which they anticipate ideas and habits of mind that we think of as properly modern. This, then, is the second main characteristic of modern-mindedness: the certainty that the past is best understood as a deficient form of the present.
The sixteenth century essayist Montaigne is often cited as someone whose work comfortably fits modern patterns of thought. Leonard Woolf called him “the first completely modern man”. We admire Montaigne because he is like us. He thinks like us. He is self-obsessed and we are self-obsessed. He is fascinated by the variability and distinctiveness of his own personality, as are we. And because the word ‘modern’ is a qualifier that conveys approval and places that which it qualifies within a progressive time frame, applying it to Montaigne claims him for one side of an argument with the past. Even if he is not quite one of us, he is, at least, a stage on the way to us. Approaching past writers in this way is pervasive. We should read them because they are like us, or because they agree with us, we are told.
Aristotle’s Lagoon, a recent documentary, explored the relevance of Aristotle to modern biologists. The presenter Armand Leroi assumed, in a world of specialist thinkers, contemporary biologists would not be interested in Aristotle: first of all he was a philosopher and secondly he lived a long time before the era of modern science began. Leroi argued that the quality of Aristotle’s observations of the natural world are worthy of biologists’ attention. Aristotle anticipated many of the findings of modern science; he has a claim to the title ‘father of biology’. Of course, he did make some fundamental mistakes, howlers by current standards, but he did not have the advantages of modern scientific instruments and experimental methods. Regardless, his contribution to biology was remarkable.
Leroi’s enthusiasm for Aristotle delivered a paradoxical message. It was as if he was arguing that Aristotle was great because we are great. We moderns seem to feel that certain ideas are somehow ‘ours’; they are ‘modern’ a priori. Aristotle somehow stumbled on some of our knowledge. We should acquaint ourselves with Aristotle, the message seemed to be, because he will confirm us in our own wisdom.
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It is a joy to open an old book and find attitudes and opinions there which we had previously thought of as exclusive to our time. In Robert Burton’s Anatomy Of Melancholy depression is identified as a “disease” with “cures” suggested that are still the commonplace of any self-help manual: exercise, diet, and so on. What, we wonder on reading a work such as this, has significantly changed in our understanding of these matters?
In a review of a number of books on animal behaviour, Tim Flannery cites various astounding reports of human-like behaviour in animals: he tells of elephants raiding a shed where the body parts of dead elephants have been stored, taking them away and then burying them. It is a feature of the modern mind that we consider ourselves as simply another animal and stories of animal intelligence and human-like behaviour are confirmation of our close relationship. For a long time these stories mostly concerned the great apes, but more recently the intelligence of a much wider range of creatures has been celebrated. The elephant is one such creature, but the intelligence of the corvidae family is also worth noting. Perhaps you have seen on You Tube videos of Japanese crows dropping nuts on pedestrian crossings so that cars could crack them open, before waiting for the lights to change so that they might walk safely out on to the crossing to retrieve their food? Isn’t it wonderful what we have learned about the wit of animals and their resemblance to ourselves?
Yet on reading Montaigne’s An Apology For Raymond Sebond, we find him, even then, taking forty or so pages to query whether humanity’s assumption of superiority to animals is justified. And among his examples we find ravens dropping stones into a jar of water to raise the water level to the point that they can drink from it, and elephants bringing sticks and stones to help another elephant fallen into a trap to clamber out. In asserting the similarities between men and animals, is Montaigne, ahead of his time? Before answering, consider this: almost all Montaigne’s examples come from ancient sources. The example of the raven is from Plutarch; the intelligence of crows was appreciated in Classical times.
Is this, then, another characteristic of the modern mind: amnesia?
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When Jonathan Swift wrote ‘The Battle of the Books’, it was possible to imagine a battle between the ancient and the modern. Swift’s satire suggests a way of pinning down the essential difference between the modern mind and that which preceded it. The dispute between classicists and modernists is equated to a quarrel between the bee and the spider. The bee makes no claim to producing its own sweetness but acquires it diligently where it finds it; the spider, on the other hand, boasts “that he spins and spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without”. In ‘The Battle of the Books’ the moderns are doing it for themselves. Value comes from originality. The point of writing is, in itself, to surpass what has gone before.
And so we come to the final characteristic of the modern mind: the emphasis on originality and the accompanying conviction that the new is bound to be better than the old. This way of thinking complicates the quest to find a pre-modern author who can be properly viewed as modern, because our predecessors simply did not value novelty the way we do. Montaigne, for example, clearly didn’t think like this at all. His essays are filled with references to the writing of past authors, who are not treated as if they were simply stations on the road to Montaigne himself, but as masters. In this way, Montaigne can’t be considered modern after all. He marshals his argument by reference to classical predecessors. Writing was conceived of as a dialogue with what went before. A writer sought to stand on the shoulders of giants, not to topple or ignore them.
Swift saw that striving for absolute originality would almost always lead to the unacknowledged theft of what had gone before. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that, when we read books written before we were born, we keep encountering ideas and attitudes we assumed were modern only. Perhaps the modern mind doesn’t so much want ideas to be absolutely new as desire them to appear to be new.
It is difficult to think a thought that someone somewhere at sometime in the past hasn’t already had. It pays, therefore, to ignore the past as much as we can. If you don’t know what people thought, wrote, said or how they cut their hair in the past, you can believe yourself original. Then when, accidentally perhaps, you come across something that appeals to modish tastes you can claim it as an anticipation of modernity. The less you know of the past, the more modern it is possible to be.