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The Age of Empty Freedom ... knows all things without having learned anything; and can pass judgment upon whatever comes before it at once and without hesitation. ~ Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Modernity is a term used in the humanities and social sciences to designate both a historical period (the modern era), as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in post-medieval Europe and have developed since, in various ways and at various times, around the world.

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Life has escaped from the spirit. Life has changed, down to the bottom, and keeps on changing again, every day, restless and erratic. But the spirit remains old and numb and doesn't exert itself at all and doesn't move itself at all and only suffers helplessly, because it is lonely and abandoned by life. ~ Hermann Bahr
  • The modern is only in our desire. It is outside, everywhere, outside of us. The modern is not in our spirit. This is the anguish and the sickness of this century, the feverish huffing and puffing: life has escaped from the spirit. Life has changed, down to the bottom, and keeps on changing again, every day, restless and erratic. But the spirit remains old and numb and doesn't exert itself at all and doesn't move itself at all and only suffers helplessly, because it is lonely and abandoned by life.
    • Hermann Bahr, "The Modern," in Die Überwindung des Naturalismus (1891)
  • That teaching of modern metaphysics ... exhorts man to feel comparatively little esteem for the truly thinking portion of himself and to honor the active and willing part of himself with all his devotion.
  • Since the Greeks the predominant attitude of thinkers towards intellectual activity was to glorify it insofar as (like aesthetic activity) it finds its satisfaction in itself, apart from any attention to the advantages it may procure. Most thinkers would have agreed with … Renan’s verdict that the man who loves science for its fruits commits the worst of blasphemies against that divinity. … The modern clercs have violently torn up this charter. They proclaim the intellectual functions are only respectable to the extent that they are bound up with the pursuit of concrete advantage.
  • The disease of the modern character is specialization.
  • The office is to the modern world what the cloister was to medieval Christendom: a chaste arena with an unrivalled capacity to excite desire .If these two institutions have imposed harsh penalties on those who display signs of transgressive behaviour, it is because each is, or was, the locus of its society’s most cherished values: the teachings of Christ on the one hand, and money on the other. Money is to the office as God was to the nunnery.


  • The Philosopher of this age is not a Socrates, a Plato, a Hooker, or Taylor, who inculcates on men the necessity and infinite worth of moral goodness, the great truth that our happiness depends on the mind which is within us, and not on the circumstances which are without us; but a Smith, a De Lolme, a Bentham, who chiefly inculcates the reverse of this,—that our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and consequence of these. Were the laws, the government, in good order, all were well with us; the rest would care for itself! Dissentients from this opinion, expressed or implied, are now rarely to be met with; widely and angrily as men differ in its application, the principle is admitted by all.
  • The poacher ... is asserting a right (and an instinct) belonging to a past time—when for hunting purposes all land was held in common. ... In those times private property was theft. Obviously the man who attempted to retain for himself land or goods, or who fenced off a portion of the common ground and—like the modern landlord—would allow no one to till it who did not pay him a tax—was a criminal of the deepest dye. Nevertheless the criminals pushed their way to the front, and have become the respectables of modern society.
  • We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.


  • The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” Addresses and Lectures, Complete Works (1883), vol. 1, p. 85
  • How can he [today’s writer] be honored, when he does not honor himself; when he loses himself in the crowd; when he is no longer the lawgiver, but the sycophant, ducking to the giddy opinion of a reckless public.
  • The horseman serves the horse,
    The neatherd serves the neat,
    The merchant serves the purse,
    The eater serves his meat;
    'T is the day of the chattel,
    Web to weave, and corn to grind;
    Things are in the saddle,
    And ride mankind.


  • The Age of Empty Freedom ... does not know that man must first through labour, industry, and art, learn how to know; but it has a certain fixed standard for all conceptions, and an established Common Sense of Mankind always ready and at hand, innate within itself and there present without trouble on its part;—and those conceptions and this Common Sense are to it the measure of the efficient and the real. It has this great advantage over the Age of Science, that it knows all things without having learned anything; and can pass judgment upon whatever comes before it at once and without hesitation,—without needing any preliminary evidence:—'That which I do not immediately comprehend by the conceptions which dwell within me, is nothing,'—says Empty Freedom.
    • Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Characteristics of the Present Age (1806), as translated by William Smith (1847), p. 20


  • Philosophy—reduced, as we have seen, to philosophical discourse—develops from this point on in a different atmosphere and environment from that of ancient philosophy. In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life, or a form of life—unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy.
    • Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (1995), p. 271
  • what nowadays we understand by personality is something quite different from what the biographers and historians of earlier times meant by it. For them, and especially for the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance, abnormality, uniqueness, in fact all too often the pathological. We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generality, the greatest possible service to the supra personal.
  • The more ideas have become automatic, instrumentalized, the less does anybody see in them thoughts with a meaning of their own. They are considered things, machines. Language has been reduced to just another tool in the gigantic apparatus of production in modern society.


  • The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping-place ever proposed by one man to another.
    • William James, review of Clifford's Lectures and Essays, Collected Essays and Reviews (1920), p. 143 (1879)


  • Ancient science had sought knowledge of what things are, to be contemplated as an end in itself satisfying to the knower. In contrast, modern science seeks knowledge of how things work, to be used as a means for the relief and comfort of all humanity, knowers and non-knowers alike.
    • Leon R. Kass, “The Problem of Technology,” in Technology in the Western Political Tradition (1993), p. 7
  • [Modern psychology] appears as the sickly offspring of average common sense when it is taken as what it professes to be—a science of the inner life. The entire achievements of the so-called science in this respect is outweighed by a single page of Goethe’s or of Jean Paul’s psychology; and it is impossible to evade the bitter truth which Novalis already has summed up, when he says that so-called psychology is one of those idols which have usurped the place in the sanctuary where true images of the gods should stand.
    • Ludwig Klages, The Science of Character, W. Johnston, trans., p. 16
  • The modern anti-myth reduced human life to a story without a point, a tale told by an idiot, a process without a purpose, a journey without a goal, an affair without a climax (Godot never comes), an accidental collision of mindless atoms. … We have hardly noticed that economics, technology and politics have become the new myth and metaphysic. We haven’t avoided myth and metaphysics, only created demeaning ones.
    • Sam Keen, The Passionate Life (1992), p. 22


  • Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word concerning what it says and imagines about itself.
    • Karl Marx, The German Ideology (London: 1965), p. 64
  • The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
  • Modernism is the attempt to permeate religion with middle-class reason.
    • Robert Musil, “The Religious Spirit, Modernism, and Metaphysics” (1913), B. Pike and D. Luft, trans., Precision and Soul (1978), p. 23


  • … den modernen Schlacht- und Opferruf „Theilung der Arbeit! In Reih' und Glied!”
    • .... the modern cry of battle and sacrifice “Division of labor! Fall into line!”
      • Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, P. Preuss, trans. (1980) § 7
  • Faced with a world of “modern ideas” which would like to banish everyone into a corner and a “specialty,” a philosopher, if there could be a philosopher these days, would be compelled to establish the greatness of mankind, the idea of “greatness,” on the basis of his own particular extensive range and multiplicity, his own totality in the midst of diversity.
  • ‘Progress’ is just a modern idea, which is to say a false idea.


  • Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.


  • Philosophy is no longer to be public ally defended as the highest good, above and beyond any service to society. The love or pursuit of the truth is to be understood as in the service of the gratification of other, more natural or deep-seated, needs and passions. Even where philosophy still comes to the fore, as in Spinoza, philosophy is understood to culminate in the teaching of a system of ethics for mankind.
    • Thomas L. Pangle, describing the view of modern rationalists, Introduction to The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (Chicago: 1989), p. xxi
  • Is the intellect to be regarded as autonomous and self-sufficient, as pursuing ends of its own, and as judging by standards of its own? or is it to be regarded as the servant of alien interests which impose their ends and standards upon it? The modern tendency has been towards the latter or practical interpretation of the knowing faculties.
    • Ralph Barton Perry, "The Integrity of the Intellect," Harvard Theological Review, vol. 13, no. 3, July 1920, p. 221


  • The Greeks … did indeed divide human nature into its several aspects, and project these in magnified form into the divinities of its glorious pantheon; but not by tearing it to pieces; rather by combining its aspects in different proportions, for in to single one of their deities was humanity in its entirety ever lacking. How different with us moderns! With us too the image of the human species is projected in magnified form into separate individuals—but as fragments, not in different combinations, with the result that one has to go the rounds from one individual to another in order to piece together a complete image of the species. With us, one might almost be tempted to assert, the various faculties appear as separate in practice as they are distinguished by the psychologist in theory, and we see not merely individuals, but whole classes of men, developing but one part of their potentialities, while of the rest, as in stunted growths, only vestigial traces remain.
  • The polypoid character of the Greek states, in which every individual enjoyed an independent existence but could, when need arose, grow into the whole organism, now made way for an ingenious clock-work, in which out of the piecing together of innumerable but lifeless parts, a mechanical kind of collective life ensued. State and church, laws and customs were now torn asunder; enjoyment was divorced from labor, the means from the end, the effort from the reward. Everlastingly chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into nothing but a fragment; everlastingly in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel that he turns, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of putting the stamp of humanity upon his own nature, he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his specialized knowledge.
  • The greater part of present-day object knowledges has, in fact, freed itself from any relation to a self and confronts our consciousness in that extracted matter-of-factness from which no path is any longer bent “back” to a subjectivity. Nowhere does an ego experience it-“self” in modern scientific knowledge. Where this ego still bends over itself, with its obvious tendency to a worldless inwardness, it leaves reality behind. Thus, for present-day thinking, inwardness and outwardness, subjectivity and things, have been split into “alien worlds”; at the same time, the classical premise of philosophizing falls away. “Know thyself” has long since been understood by modern people as an invitation to an ego trip for an escapist ignorance. Modern reflection expressly renounces any competency in embedding subjectivities without rupture into objective worlds. What it uncovers is rather the gulf between both.
  • Very often the question of 1941 is posed in a more abstract way, as a matter of European civilization. In some arguments, German (and Soviet) killing policies are the culmination of modernity, which supposedly began when Enlightened ideas of reason in politics were practiced during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The pursuit of modernity in this sense does not explain the catastrophe of 1941, at least not in any straightforward way. Both regimes rejected the optimism of the Enlightenment: that social progress would follow a masterly march of science through the natural world. Hitler and Stalin both accepted a late-nineteenth-century Darwinistic modification: progress was possible, but only as a result of violent struggle between races or classes. Thus it was legitimate to destroy the Polish upper classes (Stalinism) or the artificially educated layers of Polish subhumanity (National Socialism). Thus far the ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union permitted a compromise, the one embodied in the conquest of Poland. The alliance allowed them to destroy the fruits of the European Enlightenment in Poland by destroying much of the Polish educated classes. It allowed the Soviet Union to extend its version of equality, and Nazi Germany to impose racial schema upon tens of millions of people, most dramatically by separating Jews into ghettos pending some “Final Solution.” It is possible, then, to see Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as representing two instances of modernity, which could emanate hostility to a third, the Polish. But this is a far cry from their representing modernity as such.
  • Compared to Homeric or even to medieval times, modern man inhabits the physical world like a rapacious stranger.


  • They are born, put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they talk about thinking “outside the box”; and when they die they are put in a box.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010) Chance, Success, Happiness, and Stoicism, p.31.
  • The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010) Chance, Success, Happiness, and Stoicism, p.31.
  • I have respect for mother nature's methods of robustness (billions of years allow most of what is fragile to break); classical thought is more robust (in its respect for the unknown, the epistemic humility) than the modern post-Enlightenment naïve pseudoscientific autism. Thus my classical values make me advocate the triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage; against modernity’s phoniness, nerdiness and philistinism.
    • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010) Postface, pp. 107-108.
  • Men have become the tools of their tools.
    • Thoreau, Walden (1854), Chapter 1, “Economy”


  • Modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.
  • Modern man … when he looks at his daily newspaper … sees the events of the day refracted through a medium which colors them as effectively as the cosmology of the medieval scientist determined his view of the starry heavens. The newspaper is a man-made cosmos of the world of events around us at the time. For the average reader it is a construct with a set of significances which he no more thinks of examining than did his pious forbear of the thirteenth century—whom he pities for sitting in medieval darkness—think of questioning the cosmology. This modern man, too, lives under a dome, whose theoretical aspect has been made to harmonize with a materialistic conception of the world. And he employs its conjunctions and oppositions to explain the occurrences of his time with all the confidence of the now supplanted discipline of astrology.
  • Modern publication wishes to minimize discussion. … Phrases ... are carefully chosen not to stimulate reflection, but to evoke stock responses of approbation or disapprobation. Headlines and advertising teem with them, and we seem to approach a point at which failure to make the stock response is regarded as faintly treasonable.
  • While US and Soviet ideologies had much in common in terms of background and project, what separated them were their distinctive definitions of what modernity meant. While most Americans celebrated the market, the Soviet elites denied it. Even while realizing that the market was the mechanism on which most of the expansion of Europe had been based, Lenin’s followers believed that it was in the process of being superseded by class-based collective action in favor of equality and justice. Modernity came in two stages: a capitalist form and a communal form, reflecting two revolutions – that of capital and productivity, and that of democratization and the social advancement of the underprivileged. Communism was the higher stage of modernity, and it had been given to Russian workers to lead the way toward it.
    • Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of Our Times (2012), p. 40
  • The thoroughly well-informed man—that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-à-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.
    • Oscar Wilde, Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 1, Complete Works (New York: 1989), p. 25

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