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Bookends of Modernity

I’ve been listening to George Grant’s lectures on modernity, and in my tenth grade classes we’ve been discussing Euclid and the influence of his ideas on modern thought. Specifically we’ve been thinking about the optimism of modernity when it all first began: the promise of absolute certainty in knowledge (we will no longer need faith), the promise of utopia, and the promise of a better life through science. This hope is expressed well by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of the famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, Charles Darwin.

“No gods, no masters, for Science is now our decree.
Just facts, just factors, in the temple of truth we’re free.
Our saviour, our deliverer, a priest in white robes.
The Scientists, the experts, in them lie our greatest hopes.”

Ah our saviors in their white lab coats setting us free from ignorance. That’s what the future promises. However as the 19th century wore on and the promised world did not appear, people began to be a bit cynical about this historic optimism. There was no utopia, only increasing poverty, eugenics, criminality run rampant, and the breakdown of the very fabric of society. By the 20th century, the First World War effectively dashed the hopes of modernism, though for many it took the Second World War to fully recognize its death knell.

Near the end of his life, Bertrand Russell, the great popular atheist, the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens of his day, fully encapsulated the logical end of modernity and its accompanying materialism and scientism.

“The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness.

"The revolutions of nebulae, the birth and death of stars, were no more than convenient fictions in the trivial work of linking together my own sensations, and perhaps those of other men not much better than myself. No dungeon was ever constructed so dark and narrow as that in which the shadow physics of our time imprisons us; for every prisoner has believed that outside his walls a free world existed; but now the prison has become the whole universe. There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.” -From the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

Erasmus Darwin’s temple of truth in which there are only facts, no gods or masters, has revealed itself to be the darkest prison ever created. We are not free in the “temple of truth” but chained. In materialism there is no utopia, no morality, no justice, mercy, goodness, hope, or love. There is only nothing. We are all little ants, scurrying about with our silly little thoughts and our silly little dreams, soon to be stomped out by an uncaring and unfeeling world. And, in the words of atheist Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I doubt if a shudder would go through the spheres if the whole ant heap were kerosened.”

Welcome to life without God.


Rick said…
Chilling, indeed.