THE BEGINNINGS OF THE CAN-DO ERA
I perceive several phases to this movement that might be called modernism, starting with the classic Enlightenment of the 18th Century, a time before romantics turned their backs on tomorrow, when you even saw a few characters like Thomas Jefferson, in whom romanticism and enlightenment seem quite joyfully mixed.
It seems a simple enough concept. Alas, as Pericles discovered much earlier, it is devilishly hard to implement in practice.
Ironically, the one who best appraised this era was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. While the Enlightenment in France veered off-course, beguiled into a quasi-mystical belief in abstractions - in Platonist essences, logic and philosophical “reason” - de Tocqueville seemed thrilled by the no nonsense practicality of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, manifested in the US Constitution, and through town meetings that took place in vibrant little villages across the land.
(F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper both zeroed in on this rift within the Enlightenment. One wing - the “constructivist rationalism” of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and postmodernism - hewed closely to Plato’s prescribed methodology, gathering pure but untestable declarations formulated by a self-chosen intellectual elite. In contrast, the “critical rationalist” tradition of Aristotle, Locke, Burke, Franklin, Kant, and de Tocqueville, emphasized falsifiable propositions and the accumulation of gritty practical knowledge in an environment of experimentation and reciprocal accountability.)
In this pragmatic approach lay the core belief of modernism, that humans are improvable. And if humans can improve, it means that even the finest ideologies, no matter how persuasive, are at best only approximations crafted by imperfect and confused ancestors. They should only be used as general suggestions, not as quasi religious tracts. Because the next generation of smarter, more knowing people will surely be better judges of what’s right and wrong than we are. (Indeed, why should they not also be more ethical and spiritually worthy?) And their children will be wiser still.
This is why the underlying pretext of modernism so deeply offends ideologues - of every stripe and persuasion. If our descendants do become vastly better people, then of what value is any particular static preaching? We have no business prescribing beliefs for such people, other than those core values that are most general, moral and useful.
If human beings are improvable, then our towering concern must be to improve them, by any means that is both decent and practical. Our children will then be far better equipped than we are to make their own decisions about (for example) balancing market and social forces, competition and cooperation, personal property and specifics of ethical behavior. Whenever a platonist (from Hegel to Marx to St. Paul to Leo Strauss) calls for purity of doctrine and faithfulness to essential Truth, the real claim is “I know better than our descendants ever will.”
The modernist call for incremental human improvement has taken many forms - some of them deeply spiritual (as in the case of anti-slavery abolitionism). Still, in America the core belief in human improvability stayed generally on course through the early days of the republic, while the promise seemed fulfilled as levels of health and education improved among average americans.
on to Part 4....