According to Max Weber, the modern world is a lonely and bureaucratic one where the connections between meaning, knowledge and truth, of how we live and think and feel, have been torn apart. There is nothing underwriting our lives according to this vision of modernity: the universe is meaningless and so are we. Where before religion bound people, values and the universe together in a warm collective womb modernity has expelled us from that cosy domain and we are left in a cold, wintry and isolated state. Knowledge is no longer connected to value, truth is not poetic and scientists find no evidence of a benign deity. For some, this is a terribly depressing vision.
And for some it remains a terrible vision even if it is conceded that this new modern idiom of disenchantment has brought about an incredible and ever-expanding growth in knowledge unhindered by religion and superstition on the back of which a permanent revolution of technological innovation brings greater wealth, health, longevity, education and culture to more people than ever before. It has never been more likely that a human being dies peacefully of old age than in the present age. There has never been a time until now when humans have limitless resources of food and safety and pleasure. Of course vast inequalities still exist and for some life continues to be a trauma, but before modernity nearly all lives were violent, short, ignorant and brutal struggles to gain and hold on to limited resources.
So why do some people hold that even if we managed to get rid of these inequalities and everyone was allowed to benefit from a perfectly working modernity they’d still say that Weberian modernity is a nightmarish vision? Well, some people think that we have lost something so valuable that these material gains can’t compensate for its loss. They argue that we have lost our sense of meaningfulness and value and that by being disconnected from ourselves, others and the universe we are living lives that are just as deprived as they were in the earlier epoch. According to these, we’ve merely swapped one deprivation for another. They think we no longer understand why we are alive, or how to understand ourselves or others. In a world where nothing matters we don’t either. We can’t communicate, we can’t value life and we are lost. No matter how good the technological gadgets are that make our lives longer and materially more comfortable, our sense of meaning is missing.
Wittgenstein asked how people in this setting could communicate. He believed that once we had a grasp on how to do this properly then some of the angst of modern life could be overcome. Heidegger was a philosopher who thought that modernity made us inauthentic and he sought to overcome this. Both can be said to have been philosophers who were attempting to re-enchant the modern world by restoring meaning to us. Albert Camus wrote novels and essays about the meaningless of modern life. Through his ideas we confront the absurd and the existential issues that can result in some individuals turning to extreme actions such as terrorism and suicide. Camus helps us understand these phenomena and offers alternative ways of finding meaning within modernity’s nihilism.
Students may wish to think about what they think about all this. Is modernity better than pre-modernity? What gives our lives meaning? Can we understand someone who thinks modern life is terrible? Is religion an answer? Can we understand why people turn to extremism in modern times? And does education help? Can modernity be re-enchanted or is the Weberian iron cage a permanent fixture for us now? These are important spiritual problems that everyone faces. We at the RGTS know it is part of a good education to ensure that we give everyone an opportunity to think seriously about these and other pressing and serious questions.