Constructing Modernity

Thomas Fabisiak wonders, What does the New Jerusalem have to do with modernity? (Apocalypses in Context). Ask most modern philosophers, and the answer will be, Not much. Fabisiak speaks of the “’rhetorical construction’ of modernity” that takes the form of a dismissal or expulsion of apocalyptic and all its pomp. In short, “apocalypticism served as a problematic ‘other’ of modernity, the shadow in opposition to which philosophers outlined their concepts of modernity, science, and reason, for example. . . . posing apocalypticism as a problem was also a way for modern people and modern scholarly disciplines to articulate their own identity and to envision their social worlds.”

In an essay on “The End of All Things” (1794), Kant “argued that those who embrace the apocalyptic eschatological modes of thought represented in the Book of Revelation are especially prone to fanaticism. . . . By the early nineteenth century, philosophers and theologians cited apocalyptic ideas regularly to demonstrate how far modern people had come from the ancient world: we know we are “modern” because we do not accept, for example, stories about demons and angels.”

This anti-apocalyptic construction carried a cultural-political charge: “Christian or European exceptionalism and to present in a negative light the others of the modern West. Apocalypticism was presented as too ‘oriental,’ for example, for modern, enlightened people.”

This was never entirely successful, of course. Outside the rarefied zones of philosophy seminars, apocalyptic agitation carried on apace. Romantics in England and Germany strove to revive the genre as a part of their critique of the stultifying effects of the Enlightenment. Fabisiak suggests that the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own demise. Even so fundamental a book as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason threatened to turn the worship of reason upside down: “Kant set out to secure foundations for human knowledge, and, in the process, to establish where the limits of reason lay. He claimed that we could not reasonably ask certain questions about, for example, the nature of God or the end of time.” Kant aimed to provide support for science and rationality, but “he also called them into question implicitly. For many previous thinkers, reason was given by God and needed no defending. Kant turned this notion on its head and opened the door in the process to an ongoing, unsettled critique of reason.”

One might say that, try as we might to suppress it, apocalyptic will break out in the end.

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