Tradition, Technology, Modernity
review: Given your emphasis on the creative role of tradition, on a perpetual return to and re-interpretation of prior sources, in the development of Europe, has the advent of modernity, with its emphasis on freeing man of his dependence on tradition, on external sources of authority, affected the development of Europe?
Brague: My hunch is that it has. But let me first distinguish between modernity, or modern times, and what I call the ‘modern project’. Firstly, modern times represent a period in history carved by historians out of the continuous flow of events. But, even as such, there is more to it: ‘Modern’ no longer means what happens to have taken place nearer to the present time. Our own use of the word suggests that what is new is worth more than what came before. Claiming to be ‘modern’ means: we live in a better time than the benighted Middle Ages. As a historical period, modernity has brought about the better and the worse, in all realms. This is a feature that it shares with each and every period of history that we know of.
Freeing oneself is a difficult but noble task. But it is strange that tradition should be perceived as weighing on us like a burden that we should cast off and, in the first place, as something external to us. Tradition is what gives us to ourselves. The very vehicle of thought and freedom, language, is handed over to us by tradition.
This is an important point with regard to the way the technological mindset that forms people raised in our culture. We have this assumption we make without being aware of it that things keep improving, that progress is in the nature of things. We think constantly of how technology improves our lives — because very often it does! — but we almost never think of what particular technological developments take away from us.
The late Neil Postman wrote about this in his 1993 book Technopoly. His book is definitely not anti-technology, but insists that we should be critical of technology, in the sense that we should not accept it unthinkingly. Technology rarely gives without taking something away. The same is true of modernity.
Read the whole interview with Brague. He speaks of how contemporary, post-Christian Europe is parasitical on Europe’s Christian past, and refuses to acknowledge it. It’s increasingly true of America too. This will have very serious consequences for future generations.