What is Modern? Where is Modern?

The term “modern” has been tossed around like a beach ball with the assumption that the word is understood in a global or universal sense. But “Modern” is essentially a Western concept, based upon cultural forces specific to European countries and transplanted to their colonies, from North America to India to Hong Kong. A small and compact continent, from the seventeenth century on, Europe was a site of circulation for new ideas and new ways of living in the world. England and France and Germany, working independently, as philosophers and scientists, began the centuries-long task of extricating the citizens of their nations from the tyranny of kings and the impact of religion. Propelled by long-term economic and social forces specific to Europe and North America, the so-called longue durrée, as conceived by Fernand Braudel, slowly gave birth to what would be called The Enlightenment, by those whose task it was to describe the great change that had occurred. For centuries, the notion that, over the long term, something called “progress” happens. “Progress” in the context of the Enlightenment meant moving away from religious beliefs and towards trusting scientific analysis, rejecting royal dynasties and seeking democracy, accepting equality instead of living with unequal rights, and trust in the economic forces of capitalism to raise the prospects for all citizens. Today, these beliefs seem to be just that–one belief system that took the place of another belief system. In addition, the moment in time when the critical mass of writings on the Enlightenment began to coverage necessarily gave a Eurocentric cast to the philosophical system.

 Other continents, such as Asia and Africa, were isolated from the exchange of European based ideas and their cultures were conservative and self-sufficient enough to not need or be touched by European ideas and values until the age of imperialism which arrived in the nineteenth century. The Middle East, equally self-sufficient, chose, according to the Princeton professor, specializing in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, to sidestep, not so much modern life, but the implications of modernism.  If one defines “modern” as a European style passage through the philosophical change called The Enlightenment, then much of the globe missed the Modern in terms of a social and cultural change and most of the world was introduced to modernity through modern technology, usually that of warfare. Decades ago, diplomat Henry Kissinger, divided the world into two parts–that which was “enlightened” that is experienced the Enlightenment, and that which did not have the same cultural experience at the same time. For many observers and historians of the past, to have “missed” the Enlightenment was to have “missed” being modern–meaning being secular and having a capitalistic economic system and creating a social and political culture that was self-critical. The inference was that those “other” cultures, places, and peoples were somehow inferior or backward or lacking. Today there is a greater understanding of cultural relativism, that is it is improper to judge one culture in relation to another which acts as an ideal guideline.

But to return briefly to Fernand Braudel, if we think in terms of systems analysis and reconsider the “modern” in terms of la longue durée, we can only see the surface disturbances that conceal the deep movements that slowly roil beneath the crust of what we call “history” then we must confine ourselves to a very local phenomenon. As Dale Tomich explained in his article, “The Order of Historical Time: The Longue Durée and Micro-History,” “..the longue durée is simply the most stable temporal relation of the longest duration in the problem under consideration. It forms the stabilizing ground against which cyclical variations of other temporal structures are established, and it allows the ordering of historical inquiry.” Writing in his 1982 book On History, Braudel explained,

All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concerns for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative. The new economic and social history puts the cyclical movement in the forefront of its research and is committed to that time span: it has been captivated by the mirage and the reality of the cyclical rise and fall of prices. So today, side by side with traditional narrative history, there is an account of conjunctures which lays open for examination. Far beyond this second account, we find a history capable of traversing even greater distances, a history to be measured in centuries this time: the history of the long, even of the very long time span, of the longue durée. This is a phrase which I have become accustomed to for good or ill, in order to distinguish the opposite of what François Simiand, not long after Paul Lacombe, christened “l’historie événementielle,” the history of events. The phrases matter little; what matters is the fact that our discussion will move between these two poles of time, the instant and the longue durée.

Modern, according to Braudel’s analysis could be part of the history of events or the “modern” condition could be an aspect of the deep structures of history. Only time will tell. Therefore, having brushed aside as much as possible the Eurocentricism of the “modern,” one must state that the characteristics or events usually associated with the “modern” were invented in Europe, developed in Europe, and played out to their logical (and often tragic ends) in Europe. If we accept that “modern” was local and contingent then when did “modern life” begin in Europe? The answer depends upon one’s historical perspective. Some would argue that modern life, the life we in the West have inherited, can be traced back to the Renaissance period in Europe. For the purposes of this website, it is more efficient to move beyond the nascent beginnings of the middle class and capitalism and international trade to the outcome of these tendencies, the most significant of which, it might be argued, being humanism. For the modern age, the human being is firmly situated at the center of the universe existing and self-actualizing as a unique individual in Europe. Another tendency that is linked to being modern is the social condition of being urban. But living in a city is, of course, conditional to where the city was and the kind of city one is analyzing. China had cities but arguably only Hong Kong was visited by the modern. By the nineteenth century, London was the largest city in Europe but Paris was often considered to be the capital of the century or the center of modern life. New York, a very large city in its own right would not come into its own until the twentieth century, after shaking off its provincialism. Therefore even though modernity is a European invention, aspects of the modern or of modern life developed and evolved differently depending upon the nation. England was “modern” well before Germany. France would be more modern than Russia, but it would be ill-advised to apply a British economic model to France or a French political model to Germany. While each European center had its own unique and specific cultures, there was the special case of North America. Both as a British colony and as an independent nation, America played a significant role in developing the modern way of life, but the American “modern” would be significantly different from the European “modern.” Although Canada remained a British colony, unlike America, this huge territory was so far away from the Mother country that it, too, would develop a distinct modern culture that was uniquely “American” in the broad continental sense of the word.

Wherever the birth of the modern begins, formation of this new way of life, this unprecedented way of thinking, this experimental model of governing was slow in growing, taking at least two centuries from the beginnings of empirical science in the seventeenth century to the political Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Most discussions of the Modern in Europe and America can be divided into distinct parts, all of which are interlocked: economic, social, political, and cultural. Because of these interconnections, there can no “first,” there is no “beginning,” in absolute terms. There are no origins only different aspects moving at varying times and at diverse paces. For convenience sake, it can be stated that the seventeenth century saw a significant shift away from God and a spiritual perspective to a trend to empirical observation and material research not only expanded the discourse of knowledge based upon observable facts but also threatened the role of religion and faith in society. By the eighteenth century, the culture was more secular than spiritual and a new breed of people, called “new men” were able to build upon the scientific bases to develop a more rational means of production that evolved into industrialization and mass production. However, it is important to view these modern men critically for they were not “enlightened” in terms of gender or racial equality, nor were they particularly interested in the economic opportunity of everyone. If the “enlightened” or “modern” nations shared any characteristic it was that once the middle class began to dominate, new governments arose to safeguard the privileges of the bourgeoisie as zealously as royal decrees protected the rights of kings.

These “new men” were an ever-growing group of professionals, doctors, lawyers, financiers, and business owners who were middle class and ambitious. They financed, built and serviced the Industrial Revolution, supported on the backs of the lower classes. Women formed a support system, either at home or in the fields or in the factory and were denied the benefits of the modern as were the lower classes. Human labor was needed for industrialized modes of productions, and people, both proletariat and peasant, began to drift away from traditional artisan occupations and rural employment and towards factory work. Although founded by men educated on Enlightenment ideals, America thrived on an economic system based on human bondage and upon social stratification. Mass manufacture and trade encouraged the increase in the size of cities, and the result of what today is understood to be global capitalism was based on monetary investment, where wealth is founded upon an abstraction called “money” instead of land. Flush with money from manufacturing and business and a seemingly endless supply of capital and unprotected labor, the bourgeoisie aspired to and gained political power.


By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was clear that the “modern” was an urban phenomenon in the sense that “modernity” could be lived in the cities of Europe. Urbanism and industrialism and the trend away from an agrarian society, which was ruled by the landed gentry, began in England and America. Modernity brought with it a new way of thinking and old notions of tribe and community began to erode in favor of the rights of the individual. Ironically, as Michel Foucault would point out, at the same time, legal systems began to move decisively towards social control and the creation of a collective society. The combination of a concentration of people in urban areas and alternatives to traditional rural lifestyles brought pressure on the political system to grant “natural rights” to the people. The eighteenth-century concept of a “natural” right to freedom and happiness was essentially a middle class and secular concept. Philosophically speaking, all human beings had the “natural” right–meaning not God-given nor granted by a king–to be happy, free and self-governing through mutual consent. “Natural rights” for all people was not a popular idea with the ruling classes and, for all the idealistic writings, these “rights” were limited to those who were white, male and owned property.

It is important to understand the need for the middle class and the intellectuals among it, to re-fabricate society along secular lines. The ruling classes, that is the hereditary aristocracy had ruled thanks to the will of God and the only way to bring about change was to replace God with philosophy and to establish, through Reason, a new form of government. As opposed to the Divine Right of Kings, as sanctioned by God, people began to think of themselves as the “natural” rulers of their own society. The change in attitude by the moneyed middle class began to shift the attitude of rulers who listened to the needs of their subjects or paid the price. Monarchs should rule with the consent of the governed and had the obligation and responsibility to preside over their subjects wisely and benevolently. By the nineteenth century, the Benevolent Despot of the seventeenth century gave way to the Citizen King or Enlightened Monarch, answerable to the people. Should the ruler ignore the people, the inevitable result was uprising and revolution. Thus it was that in 1776, Thomas Jefferson (and his editors) wrote,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..

And in a single inelegant sentence, written in 1789, the French revolutionaries declared,

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

The emerging “Modern” way of life would have major consequences for Western culture.   The “modern” that was emerging was unprecedented and needed to be articulated. Explaining the social and cultural and economic changes was the task of the philosophers who referred to their period as the “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment philosophy articulated a social reaction to scientific achievements, was the achievement of several societies.  French and English and German philosophers all made major contributions to Enlightenment thought, the cornerstone of which was Reason. The center of philosophy was human reason, not God’s ideals. However, Reason was a philosophical, not a political stance, which in turn was not a practical method for a pragmatic rule. Advances in standards of living over time had increased the population and these restive and aspiring people needed to be housed and fed and employed and, above all, controlled. Among the more important characteristics of modern life were the ways in which humans would be categorized and organized and, as Michel Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975), “disciplined.” Rendered passive and pliable through the mechanisms of a “panopticon society,” the population would be further controlled through massive campaigns of propaganda which would only grow more sophisticated with the expanding reach of technology.

As with all epochs that bring change, the alterations to European culture that determined the modern, whether industrial, political, social or philosophical, was a mixture of promise and missed opportunities. Human reason was capable of establishing a new kind of society, based upon what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the Social Contract,” established by the free will of humans who agreed to come together and live in democratic harmony, without Kings and without God dictating the terms.  The philosophy of the Enlightenment inspired two political revolutions, one in America and one in France, and was the impetus for political change in other parts of Europe.  Thus the “Modern” can be characterized by a number of “revolutions:” 1. A philosophical revolution,  2. A social revolution, 3. A political revolution,  and 4.  An economic revolution. But on the other hand, there was, for centuries, a refusal on the part of the leaders to extend the benefits of modernity to peoples of color, women, the lower classes–a direct refutation of all the stated goals and ideals.

The task of artists, poets, novelists, musicians, and the visual artists was to give subjective expression of the new age in new languages, which would produce new forms.  The artist is the product of all of the “revolutions” of the Modern, which are discussed in other posts.

Also read: “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason”  and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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