|From cave to cathedral
The age of modernity
By Fatima Farideh Nejat
December 9, 2002
The Platonists pursued the prolegomena of "dialogue," (free speech) and
animated ideas in individuals in search of wisdom. Humans, from the beginning of
their socialization, became curious about bodies, senses, passions, and thoughts.
This idle curiosity evolved from basic instinct and the incorrigible urge, forced
them to reflect upon their own existence. This became a prelude to new disturbances,
in which a lack of consensus regarding purpose led to new outlets for people's destructive
impulses. Marx said, "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare
on the brain of the living."
Sociological changes could not have occurred if the idle curiosity - the need to
know - was never exercised. One could say, with equal accuracy, "convention
puts vision to sleep." The bright side of "know thyself," for humans,
was the dawn of full self-awareness. This was the prosperous "progress"
which brought us to the Age of Modernity.
Unlike the Paleolithic period, in which the great beasts dominated the world, the
Greeks' exaltation of humanity through the laws of nature led people to trace the
power of intelligence. Such phenomenon also created gradual and diverse modes of
socialization - in which one span of time transpired the next legacy, building upon
the experience of its predecessor.
It is also important to grasp the wealth of wisdom handed down to us, to which we
serve as conduits for subsequent generations. We are permeated by this grandiose
knowledge of origins, roots and routes; through us it is filtered into some guidelines
for the future. The past reveals to us what future predicaments may arise.
Therefore, the utility of passive or active dialectical movements invested toward
revolutions and reformations becomes important in predicting the post-construct of
the new society. The question of utility can help to interpret the advantages and
disadvantages of revolution versus reformation. These two modes of transformation
have diverse effects upon societies.
Reformations are meant to have active and positive movements toward development,
always with the consensus of the majority. This way we consciously transmit "tradition"
from one generation to the next, while avoiding a drastic change in the system. However,
revolutions are meant to have "both" passive and active dialectical movement.
Revolutions can either forward the society for the benefit of all the people OR for
the benefit of a particular group. Revolutions normally require at least two to three
generations before the sociological adjustments have occurred to account whether
it would benefit the majority.
The Reformation can be analyzed in this light. Luther's reformation of 1517 A.D.
is carved in history as a positive and active dialectical move. It shattered the
external structure of the medieval church and at the same time revived the religious
consciousness of Europe. His movement was conservative, in that it even saved the
papacy from degenerating into a secularized Italian state.
In some respects Luther's religion is described as the last great flowering of the
piety of the Middle Ages. This was a piety that was outraged by the travesty of an
imprudent papacy. The frivolous papacy neglected to question the abuse of power by
the monks of the hierarchy, who attempted to preserve power at all costs, even murdering
those who objected to their pervasiveness.
With the Reformation, closed doors were opened to widespread diversity in religious
expressions. Luther railed against travesties of justice with his manifesto of "Ninety-five
Theses," denouncing papal venality. Luther's success in instigating a "reformation"
is indebted to his humanistic approach, which did not deny individuals' basic instinct
for survival and reproduction.
For instance, monks and priests oppressed by the church's dogma were now permitted
to marry. It is said Luther was a titan in an age of giants (Encyclopedia Britannica,
859-68). After the genius move of Luther's reformation, almost 300 more years of
struggle and conflict between systems, rulers, kingdoms and other transformations
followed until separation of church and state finally become a social norm in the
In contrast, a perfect historic example is Persia, where religion and state became
one power 1400 years ago, under a monarchy. Today, under theocratic rule, it is even
stricter. The Islamic religion is practiced fanatically among a population in which
most people are functionally illiterate and women are not recognized as equals.
After the revolution of 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran was again enforced upon
people. It had a passive dialectical movement since humanity's needs are looked upon
as they were in medieval times. For example, the misogyny of the middle Ages is descriptively
known, where men were dominant socially, economically, and politically. This position
was fully articulated in theologically based theories of philosophy.
Today, in Iran, we observe a similar valuation of women as being on one-side of certain
dichotomies: active/passive, rational/irrational, reasonable/emotional. These dichotomies
are rigidly maintained, strongly differentiating between the roles of men and women
To illustrate the "medievalism" of the new Iranian society, witness the
parliament and the officials within the government who often refer themselves to
scripture in considering laws concerning social stratification or the position of
women. In general the civil rights of the citizen both men and women are ignored
one way or the other. This is why religion must remain within the church and be used
as an opiate of the people if, and only if; people themselves choose that opiate
to work for them.
The reason that the western legal system in the modern age was able to apply a humanistic
approach to social rule was because generations of people learned that they have
to have exalted hopes for the future. In order to live more satisfying everyday lives,
competitive opportunities had to be provided for those who wanted to diversify their
beliefs and actions. This entailed the legal provision of a civil liberty dictum,
in contrast to being forced to live a strict, monotonous existence.
This practice began developing in the 15th Century, when people were
relieved from the inhumane dogmatic principles of religion. They were now allowed
to construct new ethics while living a civilized life. In order to learn how we arrived
at the present, one can look at the massive transformations constituting the modern
human experience. The route traveled would leave behind hardship and bring us to
the Age of Modernity.
Political and social thought does not have its Genesis, but the rise of Greek thought
- embodied in the work of Plato and Aristotle - is the foundation of the evolution
in social thought. These two philosophers established the base of what is now known
as "western knowledge."
The Aristotelian influence has been just as significant. These two set up the theoretical,
sociological and philosophical discourse that became the basis of western social
thought. This can be presented by defining two major theoretical schools of thought,
functionalism and conflict theory.
Functionalism has its origin in Plato, and belongs to an idealist epistemology. The
idealist epistemologists have based their views on the importance of ideas, and ideas
can be seen as dialectical idealism. The evolution of ideas in a simple sense is
formed in an ongoing dialogue of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which results
in the formation of a new thesis.
Hegel used this particular framework to view theories and phenomena. This is clearly
represented in the Socratic dialogues. The Socratic dialogues by themselves are dialectical
exercises in idealism. Plato founded functionalism and its practice was developed
through many of the great minds of 17th century scientists.
The humanistic view of Durkheim - whose students called him the "metaphysician"
- argued that time, space, causality, God, the self - all can be seen as creations
of society. He found a scientific basis for social order and believed that "the
decline of traditional religion is nothing to worry about," because the structure
of a scientific social order contains within its own moral principle (Collins and
The transformation of ideas is dialectical, because the aims of transformation can
go in different directions - passive or active - meaning backward or forward. Some
revolutions, such as the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, had passive dialectical
movement in terms of their sociological perspective.
In Iran, this meant moving from a semi-modern social construct to that of the pre-reformation
of the Middle Ages. In contrast, the 18th Century revolutions, such as the American
and French, had an active movement in using the counter effects of the prevailing
social decay of the time.
The progress of the 18th Century revolutions was not purely benign. From a dialectical
perspective, it was an impression derived from the Enlightenment and the age of reason,
representing an evolutionary process that set the stage for other social ideals,
such as functionalism, phenomenology, actions theory, and structuralism. The breakdown
of the classical and voluntarism model enabled the dominant paradigm to become functionalism
In promoting decentralized state structure, Marx pursued the materialist conception
of a pre-existed theory, and argued that as a feedback mechanism, we are also producing
tremendous side effects, such as conflicts, contradictions and difficulties. Marx
created a transition from radical philosophical criticism to communism and the concrete
world of politics, economics, and history. He makes a sharp breach with the Young
Hegelians (Kamenka 125).
Conflict theory is rooted primarily in the materialist epistemology. It argues that
the world is predicated around the material conditions in which people live. This
school of thought goes back to the Classical period, to two major Greek thinkers,
Democritus and Heraklitos. Marx is one of the representatives of this school. Marx
thought that the material conditions under which people live give rise to ideas,
including concepts such as matter and nature. Dialectical materialism is a major
offshoot of conflict theory.
The rise of social thought fits into traditions that shaped the Western world. The
American and French revolutions, as well as the industrial revolution of the late
1700s, brought about the age of modernity. This involved a massive transformation
from the past, dismantling feudal structures that had existed in Europe.
In that process, the West conquered the traditional world in Asia and Africa and
South America. The impact of western thought on Greeks and Romans became the fountainhead
of ideology penetrating the colonial societies. The ideological constructs developed
in Europe were used to dominate and become hegemonic in these societies. There was
a separation between cultures to create an idealized version. This process split
the connections that had existed between East and West in the Ancient world. The
colonists separated Africa from Europe - the Greeks from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
The image of the East that was constructed was an image to suit particular interests
that sought to dominate the East. The history that was created was to enhance domination
at the ideological, political and economic level. The indigent people of the East
believed the image that was constructed about them by the colonial Empires.
The Orientalist view of the world basically argues that the Empires - from Persia,
to Arabia and other Asian empires - are just empires and successions of rulers, lacking
dynamism. With the fall of one dynasty after another, this proved to be an accurate
statement, since the new middle-class intelligentsia resented the political absolutism
of the autocracy.
The uprising of their own people at crucial historical junctures dismantled Empires.
These components constructed a new picture in the period of "Enlightenment"
driven by the rediscovery and the rebirth of Greek thought in the West. The Renaissance
and Enlightenment in the West primarily severed the West from its relationship to
Early on, before Christianity, two centers - Rome and Constantinople - became the
focus of intellectual life. The Greeks articulated a new intellectual position in
contrast to the Egyptians. In Egypt, knowledge was centralized among a core of priests
within the temples. This sharp contrast was reflected in the belief of distinction
between body and soul.
Contrived from the same belief, was the creation of the "city of dead"
and the "city of living." The knowledge of secret and mysteries only inspired
the priests at the city of dead, who worshipped the God and the Pharaohs, who were
believed to live through their "Ka" (the soul sustenance).
There is a powerful relationship between "knowledge" at the city of dead,
in Upper Egypt, and "lack of knowledge" at the city of living in Lower
Egypt (Croix, Tansey, and Kirkpatrick). The Greek context changes this dichotomy
and all "knowledge" becomes transformed, accessible to the middle classes,
the Artisans, craftsmen and merchants.
The rise of Greek thought, especially in the Aegean, the Eastern, and the Western
side, is simply the decentralization of power that existed for centuries. This is
a major breakthrough in terms of knowledge formation. Plato's work is studied all
over the world because of the principles that are laid down, ranging from epistemological,
philosophical, political, social and moral. Every principle sets into motion another
With the rise of Islam in 600 A.D., a new dynamic began its force, limiting trade
between East and West. Islam tended to become hegemonic in the East, but faced difficulties
in the Mediterranean. Islam attempted to move to the West and was blocked by the
Greek Empire on the west and the Byzantine Empire on the east, Constantinople and
The emergence of Islam in the late 7th Century was a massive attempt at expansion,
and it strained at the weakest links of the Byzantine Empire. Its major score was
to move to Persia, converting Persians to Islam. At this time, Muslim rule covered
more of the earth than the Roman Empire at its peak. The Empire of the desert dwellers
from Arabia stretched for 4,500 miles over three continents, from the frontiers of
China in the East to Spain and southern France in the West.
Under Muslim rule came the Greeks, Barbers, Copts, Armenians, Arabs, Persians, Turks,
Sogdians, Indians, and Chinese. This came at a time when the two mighty empires of
the Byzantine and the Persians had been at war with each other for centuries (Rahman
Another major center emerged around 500-600 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. It is particularly
noted for physics and mathematics. This was an attempt by "Alexander the Great"
(336-323 B.C.) to expand Greek knowledge of Hellenism to the rest of the world, from
the Aegean into Persia and Egypt.
Plato's Academy became the center for theologians Of Christianity. His Academy existed
for a thousand years, and was closed down by the Emperor Justinian (527-65 A.D.).
He considered it a pagan institution. A massive transformation, the rise of Christianity,
produced a new ideology of the world. This was the amalgamation of Hellenism and
The Roman Emperor Constantine (306-37 A.D.) issued an edict that changed the religion
of the empire from Paganism, polytheism to the Christianity, monotheism. Up to the
1700s, there was a union of church and state. Paganism lost its legitimacy and the
Roman Empire became head of both church and state.
The modern period is unique because of its revolutionary transformation of power
from the church to the state. With the legitimacy of Paganism diminishing and the
convergence of Judaism and Hellenism and the rise of Christianity, a new force came
into being - the idea of salvation. All of these become unfolding forces in the modern
After the first half of the middle Ages, around 1050 A.D., another massive transformation
occurred, the separation of Christianity into the Eastern Church and the Western
Church. The Eastern became the Greek Orthodox Church and the Western became the Catholic
Church. This separation also led to a separation in the accessibility of knowledge
In the emergence of the Renaissance on the Italian peninsula, the philosophers rethought
contemporary problems. Galileo challenged the assumptions of the past, relying on
classical works that were being translated into Italian. This major transformation
in terms of intellectual and social knowledge set into motion in Western Europe the
Age of Enlightenment, with French philosophers such as Saint Simon and Comte. Later,
Marx and Durkheim built upon their insights. Another major transformation was a new
political and economic ideological discourse.
From about 600 A.D. up to about 1700, the western European world was under the domination
of feudalism, a social system in which people were fixed by birth into a given class
position or estate. This system existed for about a thousand years. In particular,
Catholicism was the major ideology that defined the world and established people's
outlook. It set up their position within society and therefore affected their philosophical,
political, economical and ideological outlook on the world.
Catholicism and the estate system were the powerful forces in defining people's position.
During the feudal period, critical social thinkers like Luther, and later Calvin,
reevaluated Catholicism. This redefinition resulted in the reformation of Catholicism
and Feudalism. This move began the rise of modern critical social thought.
Luther set into motion the Protestant reformation - and not a bloody revolution -
using a religious discourse, the Bible. The dark side of Fourteenth Century monasticism,
the eerie labyrinth of life in the abbeys controlled by the monks, created an oppressed
stage ready for Luther's redefinition and concepts. He redefined people's position
on Catholic dogma through biblical texts and books.
Luther's stroke of genius was to translate the Latin version of the Bible from Hebrew
and Greek into the German language. From then on, people would have the capacity
to read the Bible without having the intermediary of the priest to define the Bible
for them. Before Luther, money lending had been seen as a sin. In Shakespeare's The
Merchant of Venice, prescriptions are given against money lending and epithets
are hurled at Shylock, the moneylender.
The mercantilists, the middle class, had a restricted status in such a system. Luther
challenges these assumptions and redefined religion to unchain people's freedom and
mobility in social strata. People began to rise up more vigorously, because this
was a great liberation, especially for the lower classes of the society.
With the manorial and mercantile law in effect from the 12th century, the new interpretation
gave the middle class and the peasants a motive to acquire legally insured ownership
of the land and to pursue freedom in trade.
With the manorial mode of production, where agriculture came to form a legal system,
the middle class - the traveling merchants' freedom to trade became vigilant shortly
after the Reformation. The peasants had gained some land and some protection through
"manorial law," through the lord-peasant relations, which this relation
remained stagnant until feudalism was abolished (Berman 322-335).
Marxists and other materialists view the Reformation as a conservative movement,
since it enabled the middle class to thrive, and also because it maintained the power
and influence of organized religion. This is misleading. These critics mistakenly
believe that the decline of the Catholic Church could have resulted in the death
of religion, the ideal setting for a Marxist utopia.
But it was inevitable that religious institutions would hold sway, and Protestantism
had the great virtue of empowering average people to think for themselves and allowing
them to critically analyze the Scripture on their own terms.
History is repeating itself in the contemporary Muslim world by the effort of courageous
authors such as Salmon Rushdie, Nasrin Taslima, and many feminists and critical writers
of the Islamic precepts. Taslima is implanting the idea that women should be able
to also interpret the Quran and revise the Islamic law to an equal benefit for women.
She is a modern-day equivalent of Luther, while Ayatollah Khomeini represents the
rise of a new papacy.
Rushdie, Taslima, currently Hashem Aghajari in Iran, and many other devoted writers
are trying to enable people to understand the Quranic interpretations on their own
terms. This is similar to the translation of the Bible into another languages by
Luther, which meant that people now interpreted their own reality, instead of simply
memorizing the words of priests or the clergies such as Khomeini or Khameneii in
current era, or Marx's Communist Manifesto.
Calvinism offers a new redefinition of people's position in the world and this sets
up a new critical movement. John Calvin said that people are pre-destined to salvation
by hard work to accumulate more money. This gives justification to the emerging mercantalist
and later capitalist systems. Calvinism became strengthened with the work of John
Wesley in the United States, who promoted this idea through the Methodist church.
Now, the idea of individualism through responsibility becomes a new vise. There is
no more redemption through confession.
Calvinism was particularly strong in Scotland, France,
and Switzerland. The derivative of the Protestant and Calvinist ethic was the Scottish
Enlightenment, in which a large number of thinkers, such as Hume, Ferguson, Millar
and many more were influenced by the rising Calvinist ethic. Adam Smith was the end
product, and a major social movement in Scotland arose around him. This was a dominant
system in which the world participated in money, trade and entrepreneurship (Swingewood
The social matrix that begins with its embryonic historical, political, economic,
and ideological forces varies in different ages, centuries and even decades. Structural
forces that have risen to primary importance constitute each successive historical
For instance, ideology was different before the Enlightenment. The ideological concepts
of liberty, equality and freedom were interpreted in varying ways, depending upon
the specific historical era. The rise to preeminence of these ideas coincided with
a peculiar political culture and particular material circumstances. Ideology has
various components, it mixes definitions in terms of universal interaction, and that
determines power relations within societies.
To illustrate how a specific historical dilemma
invites new ideological discourse, it helps to consider the problem of overpopulation.
In the late 17th century, the omnipresence of poverty gave Robert Malthus, a clergyman,
a tremendous sense of pessimism. His vision of demography was that while the population
is increasing geometrically, the food supply is increasing only arithmetically (Heilbroner
75). Obviously, these two sides of the equation cannot have prime factorization.
In the late 20th century, at the Cairo Population Summit, heads of state debated
the Catholic and Muslim fundamentalists' opposition to abortion. Their simple logic
referred to the hazards of the overpopulated globe and its ecological concerns. These
are the structural concerns that are most pertinent to contemporary ideological disputes
in politics, economics and other areas. The new statistics show that in the past
46 years the world population has increased from 2 billion to 6 billion.
In 10,000 B.C., the world population was about 5 million. Between then and 1650 A.D.,
the human race reached about half a billion, the population growing at the rate of
0.04 annually. Life expectancy has also increased dramatically, from 30 years in
1650 to 73 years in 1990, in the developed world.
As technology progressed, the overall infant mortality rate has decreased tremendously.
These are the causes of the overpopulated world (Richman 19). Overpopulation is now
the preeminent structural force, requiring us to adopt new ideological frameworks
that will enable the world to deal with the threat and the consequences of overpopulation.
beings now also have in their possession the capacity to significantly alter the
symbiotic relationship with nature, in which they can produce new scientific techniques
that significantly transform nature. The wars against humanity are the significant
frontier challenging us and questioning the civilization. The civil unrest in Iran
and other wars continuing in Israel and Palestine are other examples.
Science had been the engine of change during the Enlightenment, but it now has new
potentialities. For the first time, human beings can destroy themselves and nature.
In feudal and other systems, simple, unscientific modes of production existed. Therefore,
the age of modernity carries with it new ramifications for social existence.
This is a time in which we must prepare to foresee the 21st century's problems. The
environmentalists have been contemplating new solutions to preserve the environment
from the global ecological crisis and other hazards caused by technology. And in
the past two decades we have been faced with the civil unrest in Islamic world and
the grand question of nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destructions in the
hand of the wrong people.
Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of
Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree
in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington,
DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington,
DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army,
Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
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