We have been modern for several centuries now. We are modern, and we want to be modern; it is a desire that guides the entire life of Western societies. That the will to be modern has been in force for centuries, though, suggests that we have not succeeded in being truly modern—that the end of the process that we thought we saw coming at various moments has always proved illusory, and that 1789, 1917, 1968, and 1989 were only disappointing steps along a road leading who knows where. The Israelites were lucky: they wandered for only 40 years in the desert. If the will to be modern has ceaselessly overturned the conditions of our common life and brought one revolution after another—without achieving satisfaction or reaching a point where we might rest and say, “Here at last is the end of our enterprise”—just what does that mean? How have we been able to will something for such a long time and accept being so often disappointed? Could it be that we aren’t sure what we want? Though the various signs of the modern are familiar, whether in architecture, art, science, or political organization, we do not know what these traits have in common and what justifies designating them with the same attribute. We find ourselves under the sway of something that seems evident yet defies explication.

Some are inclined to give up asking what we might call the question of the modern. They contend that we have left the modern age and entered the postmodern, renouncing all “grand narratives” of Western progress. I am not so sure, though, that we have renounced the grand modern narratives of science and democracy. We may be experiencing a certain fatigue with the modern after so many modern centuries, but the question of the modern remains, and its urgency does not depend on the disposition of the questioner. So long as self-understanding matters to us, the question must be raised anew. Even if we do not claim to provide a new answer, we should at least have the ambition to bring the question back to life.

When unsure about the nature of something, we sometimes ask when and how it began. Such an approach is legitimate when investigating the question of the modern, but it immediately raises difficulties. Beginnings are, by definition, obscure. The first sprouts are difficult to discern. One can easily be mistaken. In what time period should we look for the beginnings of modernity? In the eighteenth century, the age of the American and French Revolutions? In the seventeenth century, when the notion of natural science was elaborated? In the sixteenth century, the era of religious reformation? These diverse origins are not contradictory, since modernity surely includes a religious reformation, science in the modern sense, and political and democratic revolutions. But what is the relationship between the Lutheran faith and the science of Galileo? Is there a primary intellectual and moral disposition that defines modern man? Or must we resign ourselves to the dispersion of the elements of modernity, which we would then see as held together only by the magic of a word?

Let us start with the one incontestable point in the perplexities just laid out: that we have wanted, and continue to want, to be modern. It is not necessary to know exactly what we want in order to know that, in so wanting, we form a project. Modernity is, first of all, a collective project—formulated in Europe and first applied there but destined for humanity as a whole.

To form a great collective project, ultimately destined for all humanity, demands great faith in one’s own powers. There is something striking in this regard about the beginnings of modern science: Bacon and Descartes, to name just two pioneers, showed extraordinary confidence in the capacity of the new science radically to transform the conditions of human life. What faith—what blind faith—they had, one is tempted to say! For modern science had yet to produce any of its miracles. Descartes, for example, imagined medicine’s prodigiously lengthening human life at a time when it was incapable of curing anything.

Inherent in the idea of a project are the beliefs that we are capable of acting and that our action can transform the conditions of our life. Many analysts of modernity have insisted on the second point, the transformative or constructive ambition of the modern project. But we must not pass over the first point too quickly. We are capable of acting—a world is contained in those words! Human beings have always acted in some way, but they have not always known that they were capable of acting. There is something terrible in human action: what makes us human is also what exposes us, takes us out of ourselves, and sometimes causes us to lose ourselves. In the beginning, human beings gathered, fished, hunted, or even made war, which is a kind of hunting; but they acted as little as possible, leaving much to the gods and tying themselves down with prohibitions, rites, and sacred restraints. Historically, properly human action first appears as crime or transgression. This, according to Hegel, is what Greek tragedy brings to light: innocently criminal action. Tragedy recounts the passage from what precedes action to properly human action.

So modernity may be described as a project of collective action—and the great domain of action is politics, which is action ordered and implemented. It follows that the modern project must be understood in the first instance as a political project; we must situate it, therefore, in the history of European and Western political development.

Modernity is characterized by movement, a movement that never reaches its end or comes to rest. There are great civilizations other than the West, and much has happened in them, but they have not known historical movement. They have chronicles but not a history—at least before the pressure or aggression of the West brought them into history. In the West, by contrast, one finds a singular principle of movement, and this is what characterizes it above all.

The movement of the West began with the movement of the Greek city. Some have said that the Greeks ignored history, that they had a cyclical understanding of time, and that time oriented by history began with Christianity, if not with the modern philosophy of history. That contention does not hold up. The Greeks were well acquainted with the irreversible time of political history. Aristotle was just as capable as Tocqueville of observing that, in his age, democracy was the only regime still possible.

To be more precise, Western movement began with internal and external movements of the Greek city—that is, with class struggle and foreign war. Cities were the ordering of human life that brought to light the domain of the common, the government of what was common, and the implementation of the common. The Greek city was the first complete implementation of human action, the ordering of the human world that made action possible and meaningful, the place where men for the first time deliberated and formulated projects of action. It was there that men discovered that they could govern themselves and that they learned to do it. The Greek city was the first form of human life to produce political energy—a deployment of human energy of a new intensity and quality. It was finally consumed by its own energy in the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War.

Subsequent Western history was, on the whole, an ever-renewed search for a political form that would recover the energies of the city while escaping the fate of the city—the city that is free but destined to internal and external enmity. The form that followed the city was the empire. Imperial Rome was a kind of continuation of the city, but it deployed such powerful energies that it broke through all limits that had circumscribed cities and took in ever more distant and numerous populations, until it seemed to reach the point of gathering together the entire human race. The Roman Empire renounced the city’s freedom but promised unity and peace.

This promise was not kept, of course, or it was kept incompletely. However, as in the case of the city, political and spiritual energies partially survived the failure of the form. Not only did the imperial idea mark the West through the enduring prestige of the Roman Empire; the idea was reborn in a new form, one that was, again, particular to Europe. This was the Catholic or universal Church, which aimed to reunite all mankind in a new communion, closer than that of the most enclosed city and more extensive than that of the vastest empire. Of all the political forms of the West, the Church extended the greatest promises, since it proposed this community, at once city and empire; but it was also the most disappointing, since it failed to bring about the universal association for which it had awakened a desire.

Though I have just surveyed the history of premodern Europe with the speed and delicacy of Attila the Hun, I have gathered the elements of the situation that will allow me to elaborate the modern project. Europeans were divided among the city, the empire, and the Church. They lived under these mixed and competing authorities, these three modes of human association. The cities that survived or were reborn were in competition with—indeed, often at war with—the Roman Empire (now known as the Holy Roman Empire, in what is today Germany); and the Church was in competition with the cities and the empire, which, in turn, were in competition with it. The disorder was dreadful, a conflict of authorities and of loyalty. It was this confusion that the modern project wanted to allow us to escape—and in this, it succeeded.

The conflicts had to do with institutions but also, more profoundly, with the human type that would inspire European life. Whom to imitate? Did one have to follow the life of humble sacrifice for which Christ provided the model? Or was it better to lead the proud, active life of the warrior-citizen, a life for which Rome had provided the framework and of which Rome was the product par excellence? Should Europeans, surveying the ancient world, admire Cato or Caesar? Europeans no longer knew which city they wanted, or were able, to inhabit; thus they did not know what kind of human being they wanted, or were able, to be. It was in this radical perplexity, and in order to come to terms with it, that the modern project was born.

The Acropolis in ancient Athens
Art Resource, NYThe Acropolis in ancient Athens

Finding themselves assailed by prestigious and contradictory authorities—words of the Bible, words of Greek philosophers, words of Roman historians and orators—the Europeans did not know which to follow and which to dismiss. Thus, they did not know how to act; they did not know how to respond to the question, What is to be done? Speech and action were disjoined.

The modern moment crystallized in the effort to attach speech to action more rigorously. This was the work of the Reformation. The authority of the Word of God had been divided between the Scriptures and Church tradition—but the Scriptures were accessible only through the mediation of the Church and in Latin, the language of the Church. Martin Luther wanted to attach Christian faith immediately to the Word of God as found in the Scriptures by rejecting the mediation of ecclesiastical authority and translating the sacred text into the language spoken and understood by the faithful. Sola scriptura, said the Reformers: Scripture alone.

It was Machiavelli, however, who—at exactly the same time as Luther—formulated in the most general terms what lay at the heart of the problem and what would be the principle of the political solution. Both problem and solution appear in Chapter 15 of The Prince:

But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.

The reason that Machiavelli decided to write about the way men actually lived, not the way they behaved in those imaginary “republics and principalities,” was the great distance, which we have just noted, between what men said and what they did.

Now, the greatest distance between speech and action is introduced by the Christian Word, which requires men to love what they naturally hate (their enemies) and to hate what they naturally love (themselves). The modern political project, which Machiavelli was the first to formulate, was therefore a response—it began as a response, in any case—to the “Christian situation,” one marked by competition among authorities, disorder of references, anarchy of words, and, above all, the demoralizing contrast between what men said and what they did.

What did Machiavelli mean by considering the “effectual truth of the thing”? He intended to prepare the way for a kind of action entirely liberated from speech, religious or otherwise, that praised or blamed—a kind of action that no speech could fetter, whether the external speech of an institution or opinion or the internal speech of conscience. The speech that has the most weight and that tends most to fetter action is: “This is good, that is bad.” Machiavelli did not seek to nullify this distinction; he did not confuse good and bad. Rather, he encouraged men to prepare themselves to do what was bad, to “enter into the bad,” as he wrote, when necessary. Machiavelli strove to break down the barrier formed by the words that tell us what we should do—which, he believed, give us little guidance, since we follow our natures and not our words, but which nevertheless constrain our freedom of action by limiting the field of possible or conceivable action.

It is difficult to say concretely what new political order Machiavelli imagined. One can say that by delivering human beings from respect for opinion, he prepared them for all possible actions, including the most audacious, the most ambitious, and even the most terrible.

Among the audacious and ambitious actions that have taken place in the theater of Europe, the modern state has conducted the most decisive. As we have seen, Christianity rendered the motives of human action uncertain and the speech that must be authoritative in the city doubtful. The modern state became sovereign by resolving or overcoming that conflict, by taking upon itself the monopoly of authoritative speech—or, more precisely, by producing commandments independent of all opinion (including all religious opinion), commandments that authorized or forbade opinions according to the state’s sovereign decision. At first, it is true, the state, uncertain of its strength, associated itself with religious opinion or speech—with a state religion. As it grew stronger, however, it forbade less and less speech and authorized more and more. Once it reached its full strength, it lifted itself above speech, becoming the “neutral,” “agnostic,” or “secular” state that we know so well.

But the modern secular state was only half of the solution to the problem of the gap between speech and action in the Christian world, precisely because a condition of its effectiveness was that it had no speech of its own. Yet there can be no human life without authoritative speech. Where would the modern state find such speech? It found it in society—by becoming “representative” of society. Representation joined society’s speech to the action of a state lacking its own speech.

The problem of the Christian age was solved, therefore, by the sovereign state and by representative government—that is, by our political regime considered as a whole. My object here is not to describe the mechanisms or, for that matter, to sketch the history of the representative regime. Still, one point must be emphasized. The decisive factor in the reconciliation between speech and action is the formation of a common speech by the elaboration, perfection, and diffusion of a national language. Luther’s Reformation was a spiritual upheaval, but it was also inseparably a political revolution and a national insurrection. Too often forgotten is that even before the modern state was consolidated and became capable of authorizing or prohibiting effectively, the nation had emerged in Europe as the setting for the appropriation of the Christian Word, which the universal Church had proved incapable of teaching effectively. Each European nation chose the Christian confession under which it wished to live and essentially imposed it, after many attempts, on its “sovereign.” Europe assumed its classic form with the “confessional nation,” soon to be crowned by its absolute sovereign, who would later bring about its “secularization”; and this was the form in which it succeeded in organizing itself in the most stable and durable manner. From then on, it was in the framework of a national civic conversation that Europeans sought to link their speech with their actions and their actions with their speech. The national form preceded and conditioned representative government.

So the history of the West unfolded in tension between, on the one hand, the civic operation—which the Greek city brought to light, and which the republican or “Roman” tradition sought to preserve and extend—and, on the other, the Christian Word, which opened up an unmanageable gap between speech and action in political society by proposing a new city where actions and speech might achieve an unprecedented unity, where we might live according to the Word. The practical solution was found in the nation distinguished by its confession, administered by a secular state, and governed by a representative government. The solution has neither the energizing simplicity of the civic form nor the ambitious precision of the ecclesiastical form. And the West will ceaselessly seek a final, complete solution that would bring together the energy of the civic operation and the precision of the religious proposition. The regimes that we call “totalitarian” are those capable of bringing together the most unbridled and terrible action with the most pedantic ideological and linguistic orthodoxy. Do we not see in such regimes the monstrous but altogether recognizable expression of the quest for such a final solution?

Today in Europe, civic activity is feeble, the religious Word almost inaudible. Yet as we noted at the outset, the modern project continues. Is it merely running on its own inertia, or is the ceaseless quest that I have just described still going on? To answer that question, it may be useful to offer a description of Europe’s present situation concerning the relationship between speech and action.

A frequent criticism of representative democracy or of parliamentary regimes is that they produce lots of talk but are incapable of action. Marx spoke of “parliamentary cretinism,” for example, and Carl Schmitt liked to cite Donoso Cortés’s sarcasms against the bourgeoisie, a clase discutidora—an “argumentative class.” In reality, however, a functioning representative democracy or parliamentary regime constitutes an admirable articulation of actions in relation to speech. During an electoral campaign, everyone proposes all sorts of imaginable actions, both possible and impossible. As soon as the election is over, those who have won the majority undertake to act according to their speech, while the minority, abstaining from action, must satisfy itself with talk in order to prepare for the next election. This transference back and forth of power, or the effective possibility of such transference, is essential to the mechanism.

In Europe, this arrangement has weakened considerably and is now almost unrecognizable. We congratulate ourselves for the attenuation of party conflict while oddly treating transfers of power as matters of momentous importance. The political landscape has been leveled. The webs of feelings, opinions, and language that once made up political convictions have unraveled. It is no longer possible to gain political ground by taking a position. This is why all political actors tend to use all political languages indiscriminately.

Political speech has become increasingly removed from any essential relation to a possible action. The notion of a political program, reduced to that of “promises,” has been discredited. The explicit or implicit conviction that one has no choice has become widespread: what will be done will be determined by circumstances beyond our control. Political speech no longer aims to prepare a possible action but tries simply to cover conscientiously the range of political speech. Everyone, or almost everyone, admits that the final meeting between action and speech will be no more than a meeting of independent causal chains.

The divorce between action and speech helps explain the new role of political correctness. Because speech is no longer tied to a possible and plausible action against which we might measure it, many take speech as seriously as if it were itself an action and consider speech they do not like equivalent to the worst possible action. Offending forms of speech are tracked down and labeled, in the language of pathologists, “phobias.” The progress of freedom in the West once consisted of measuring speech by the standard of visible actions; political correctness consists of measuring speech by the standard of invisible intentions.

The features of our political situation that I have highlighted are found in all Western countries but in an especially pronounced form in contemporary Europe. In Europe, what we say as citizens no longer has any importance, since political actions will be decided at some indeterminate place, a place we cannot situate in relation to the standpoint from which we speak. Everyone knows that the most solemn speech that a people can formulate, a vote by referendum, is a matter of indifference for the European political class, which charges itself with the responsibility of leading the necessary process of the “construction” of a united Europe. The supposed necessity of this process discredits and invalidates all political speech in advance.

If this process continues—the financial crisis of the euro has put extraordinary pressure on it—we will soon leave behind the regime of representative government and return to one of speechless commandment. The commandment will no longer be that of the state, which at least occupied a place of a certain elevation, but that of regulations. We do not know the source of regulations—only that we must obey them.

With the end or the weakening of the representative regime, which once joined actions and speech in the national framework, the modern political order is approaching the end of its journey. We are witnessing a deeper divorce between the movement of civilization and our political arrangements. The increasingly complex and constraining character of ordinary life and the tighter network of regulations that we obey with ever-greater docility must not blind us to the increasing uncertainty—the increasing disorder—in the shape of our common life. We are going forward on thinning ice.

In fact, we may be returning to a situation of political indetermination comparable, in a sense, with what preceded the construction of modern politics. Yet there is a major difference. During the premodern era, competing political forms—the city, the empire, and the Church—checked one another, so it was necessary to create the unprecedented form of the nation. Today, the situation is reversed. What we find is not an excess, but a dearth, of political forms. At least in Europe, the nation is discredited and delegitimized, but no other form is emerging. What is more, the reigning opinion, practically the sole available opinion, has been hammering into us for 20 years the idea that the future belongs to a delocalized and globalized process of civilization and that we do not need a political form. Thus, the need for a political joining of speech to action has been lost to view. Technical norms and legal regulations are supposed to suffice for the organization of common life.

Europe produced modernity—and for a long time, Europe was the master and possessor of modernity, putting it to the almost exclusive service of its own power. But this transformative project was inherently destined for humanity as a whole. Today, Bacon and Descartes rule in Shanghai and Bangalore at least as much as in London and Paris. Europe finds itself militarily, politically, and spiritually disarmed in a world that it has armed with the means of modern civilization. Soon it will be wholly incapable of defending itself. It has already been incapable of speaking up for itself for a long time, since it confuses itself with a humanity on the path to pacification and unification.

By renouncing the political form that was its own and by which it had attempted, with some success, to resolve the European problem, Europe has deprived itself of the means of association in which its life had found the richest meaning, diffracted in a multiplicity of national languages that rivaled one another in strength and in grace. What will come next?

City Journal thanks the Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis for its generous support for this article.

Photo: SHansche/iStock


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