Friday, November 4, 2011

The Dilemma of Modern Man

A modern man is a man who thinks he is modern. In other words, the modern era began when man became conscious of the unfolding of History. Initially, it was only a sort of negation of the past; a sensation, in a few educated men, of not being quite like the ancients. In the late 16th century, the word “modern” was used for the first time in its current sense “of present or recent times”. For Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History, a “fundamental change in time-consciousness occurred with the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society that began in the Middle Ages.”[1] This gradual change in the perception of Time that took place over hundreds of years is an important, though often overlooked, prerequisite for the development of the modern capitalist society.

For millennia, most men and women were directly living off the earth, their lives attuned to nature. In the pre-industrial society the concept of progress was unknown to most people. The world was seen as fluctuating slowly to repetitive, cyclical, and often predictable events; season followed season, peace followed war, and rulers came and went. George Santayana thus described the psyche of the ancient world: “the cycle of natural changes goes its perpetual round and the ploughman's mind, caught in that narrow vortex, plods and plods after the seasons”.[2] Time could not be measured accurately and this did not matter because the world was stable. Man was absorbed by the here and now, highly conscious of his present pains and recurring needs. This simple but natural sense of Time has now disappeared even in the most remote areas of the modern world.

In the last centuries, man has slowly acquired a linear sense of History, replacing the previous cyclical and recurrent outlook.[3] This process started in the 14th century with the invention of the sandglass and the appearance of the first mechanical clocks in the belltowers of Northern Italy. As the passage of Time for the first time could be accurately observed and measured, modern man began to perceive the world as a moving stream, never returning to a previous state. Many thinkers have described this change in outlook; C. Wright Mills, for instance, noted that:

“Most of us do not try to make sense of our age by believing in a Greek-like, eternal recurrence, … we believe with Burckhardt that we live in a mere succession of events; that sheer continuity is the only principle of history”.[4]

As a result, the present is no longer man’s sole preoccupation; the future has taken on far more importance. In the society of change, what comes next is of paramount importance. Man now speculates, plans, and thinks ahead as he never did before. Rather than living in the present, modern man, as Ortega y Gasset said, “irremediably has a futuristic constitution: he primarily lives in and of the future”[5]. For modern man, happiness is closely associated with the expectation of better things to come.

Material progress is therefore an inherent part of modern world. Friedrich von Hayek also recognised that “it is one of the characteristic facts of a progressive society that in it most things which individuals strive for can be obtained only through further progress”.[6] The modern state of progress in itself feeds the need for further progress. It is no coincidence that modern society is based on the capitalist system; it is the economic and political order that most efficiently delivers this required progress. In a society where increases in national, corporate and individual revenues are of highest priority, GDP growth is understandably the most important indicator of performance. Stagnation, which was the natural state of the world in previous times, is now seen as unacceptable.

Though this economic model has generated the greatest general increase in living standards in the history of mankind, it cannot, however, be entirely satisfying in the long run. Modern man cannot easily get a sense of fulfillment since he has a constant need for further gratification and since he usually prefers the stable and predictable to the changing and uncertain. As Schopenhauer said, in the modern world “no man is happy, he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned.”[7] The modern society is thus largely based, paradoxically, on the impossibility of ever attaining material and sensuous satisfaction. For modern man, in Leo Strauss’ words, “life is the joyless quest for joy.”[8]

This is the dilemma of modern man. On the one hand, he is not able to celebrate or enjoy his current material condition, nor is he completely at ease in a constantly changing society. [9] On the other hand, he cannot go back to the state of mind of his ancestors because the process of modernity is irreversable. It is not possible to “unlearn”: modern man is obliged to accept that he has a more sophisticated awareness of the world than his forebears. Since nature remains cyclical, the life of modern man is less in harmony with nature than before. Well-meaning environmentalists and anti-capitalists sometimes return to nature, but this return can only be physical, not mental, for they too are children of the modern world. Though most modern men and women usually do not articulate it, the often palpable malaise and frequent loss of bearings in modern society are symptoms of this problem.

The solution to this conundrum is not obvious because it cannot be found in the standard rational and deductive methods of modern man. Modernity cannot solve the problem of modernity. On the contrary, today’s increase in the rate of progress aggravates modern man’s predicament by taking him even further away from his natural state. The way out of the dilemma is first to become conscious of it. It is also necessary to realise that the modern cult of progress is mostly material and social, not so much moral and intellectual. Though it has been said before, it is worth repeating that the “good life” in the classical sense went far beyond the narrow materialistic meaning it has today. The recent surge in popularity of Eastern philosophies and practices, such as Buddhism, yoga, and meditation seem to indicate that this is understood by some.

It seems doubtful, however, that such spiritual efforts will ever bear fruit with more than a handful of people in society. Nevertheless, seen over hundreds or even thousands of years, the current turbulent period in the History of man could be merely a transitional phase to a more harmonious era. After all, the modern world is still very young and cultural and intellectual developments always lag behind material ones. It is possible to imagine, therefore, that mankind might eventually adapt successfully to the modern worldview. For instance, after many generations the human psyche might perhaps adopt a radically new sense of the future. Of course, such a solution to the dilemma of modern man might not be much of a consolation for the millions of unsatisfied souls living today.


[1] G. Dohrn-von Rossum, History of the Hour, p2. (The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[2] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p207 (Prometheus Books, 1998)

[3] F. Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man, calls this the “coherent and directional” perception of History that is typical for the modern society.

[4] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, p22. (Oxford University Press, 2000)

[5] J. Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p241-242. (Austral, 1968 edition).

[6] F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p42. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960).

[7] A. Schopenhauer, The Emptiness of Life, Studies in Pessimism, Essays.

[8] L. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p.251. (The University of Chicago Press, 1965)

[9] For instance, Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at University of Southern California, says that at all levels of income most people usually estimate that they need about 20 percent more than they have in order to be “perfectly happy”.


  1. Excellent article. I love the Schopenhauer quote.

  2. This answers so many questions about why life seems to be harder every time ... at the end it made me realize I'll never be able to see the future, so I have no more option than keep suffering ... still, great article

  3. This is awesome, but I am a man, happy, and satisfied and I will tell you how. Very simple. STOP GIVING SUCH A $HIT about ANY of it. It. Just. Doesn't. Matter. Find work you like, a family you love and sail off into the sunset. Your life is a blink. You are NOTHING and the minute you realize this, all this academic stuff falls away and there's just you and the infinite universe that both loves you and doesn't give a crap you are here simultaneously.