Modernity shows the way forward

Nasir Khan, May 6, 2016

“The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.”

― Italian thinker and politician Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

Modernity means many things to different people. But in learned discourse, it refers to the collective body of particular socio-cultural norms and attitudes that emerged when the medieval period in European history gave way to new thinking. Prior to modernity, scholasticism of the middle ages covered all aspects of socio-political life. Religion was the pivotal force that controlled the social and political thinking of the people as well as moulded political structures and power relations.

The Church hierarchy interpreted and enforced socio-cultural norms. Even monarchs, barons and landed aristocrats had to accept the directives of the Church in matters that seemed to have little or nothing to do with religion. In simple words, the Church was at the apex of the societal pyramid.

Then the scene started to change. At grave risks, some thinkers and public-spirited people started to question matters relating to the principles of absolutism, divine rights of kings, power of the Church, even the old sacrosanct doctrines and dogmas that were once only under the domain of the clerics. Now people began to question the rationale of age-old norms and customs. This was something strictly forbidden in the middle ages.

We should keep in mind that the process of change was gradual but it had pointed to a new direction in social and political thinking and practice. The powers of an omnipotent deity  were questioned;  some thinkers rejected all notions of any supernatural beings altogether. Such ideas have made meaningful inroads in Europe. More people are rejecting old traditional modes of thought and dogmas. The roles of many philosophers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards have been instrumental in exploring new ideas to meet the needs of the times.

Coming back to Gramsci’s quotation, Gramsci was using the notion of ‘illusions’ in people’s lives that gives them some encouragement and hope, here in this world and in the Hereafter. Those who may not reap the rewards here and now can always wait for the Hereafter when they will be have everything in plenty in the Kingdom of Heaven! However, if the common people come to realise that there is nothing like that ‘up there’ then that can be disappointing to them.

The point is to dispel the falsity of such illusions and face reality. By facing and accepting reality, we save ourselves all false hopes and disillusionments. However, to gain such consciousness is not easy because as long people have ready-made formulas and dogmas, they feel ‘safe’ and they accept all other-worldliness without questioning.

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