Terry Eagleton on modernity as advance AND nightmare

Terry Eagleton, in Reason, Faith and Revolution, writes of the “two contrasting narratives” of post-Enlightenment history that “are secretly one”:

One of the best reasons in my view for still being a Marxist, apart from the gratifying exasperation it sometimes occasions to others, is that no other doctrine I know of claims that the liberal Enlightenment … has been at one and the same time an enthralling advance in humanity and an insupportable nightmare – the latter tale, moreover, as verso of the recto of the former, the two colliding histories structurally complicit rather than contingently cheek by jowl. (pp.69f.)

Hence, for Eagleton, “the radical answer to the question of whether modernity is a positive or negative phenomenon is an emphatic yes and no”. “Modernity” means both freedom of thought, civil liberties, democracy and so on, and Hiroshima, the Holocaust, exploitation and environmental devastation. Francis Bacon was both a founder of modern science and a supporter of torture. You can’t pick and choose to which bits you assign the term “modernity” (whether you do so as a badge of honour or of iniquity).

But I don’t think one needs to be a Marxist to see that paradox at work. It goes right the way back to Genesis 4:17-24, where it is the line of Cain that is responsible for founding civilisation, including cities, agriculture, music and technology. The roots of civilisation are thus bookended by murder: Cain’s murder of Abel, and Lamech’s murder of an unnamed man. “Enthralling advance” and “unsupportable nightmare” within the same family line.

One error that people can make, therefore, is to overlook or ignore the crimes of modernity in favour of the “progressivist euphoria” of the “liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world”. (The corresponding error is the “elegiac gloom” of those who treat the whole of modernity as a “ghastly mistake” – which can include both patrician conservatives and post-modernists.)

It is this “brittle triumphalism” of liberal-capitalism which, for Eagleton, accounts for the loss of Christian faith in the west. As he says in an earlier chapter:

What is the point of faith or hope in a civilisation which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient, as being more or less as good as it gets, or at least as a spectacular advance on what went before? It is hard to see what role faith could play, other than a sheerly ideological one, in a Western world which some of its inhabitants see as nothing less than the very consummation of human history, lacking nothing but more of the same. How could such a form of life accept that there is something profoundly amiss with our condition – that it simply does not add up, that it is in several respects intolerable, and that one of the chief signs of this incoherence and intolerability is the plight of the poor? (p.45)


One thought on “Terry Eagleton on modernity as advance AND nightmare”

  1. Thanks for this – I am indebted to you for the introduction to the thought of Terry Eagleton (who was completely off my radar).

    I may not quite agree with an analogy that depicts Cain as father of modernity, but I do think we need a new definition of ‘the post-modern’ which includes a very thorough critique and rejection of the fallacies of enlightenment materialsim and atheist humanism and then allows for a return to both God and a truly humanitarian science.

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