Much of modernity can be seen in the discovery of the power of the self and of individuals to act (in economic, political, and social spheres). The material aspects—technology, industrialization, speed, cities, globalization—sit on top of the conceptual and ideological components: democracy, rationalism, identity, capitalism, and the critical stance. It is a fool’s errand to try too hard to pick any of them apart; they’re intertwined and we haven’t the historical tools or sources to do so.
So, rather than assign any definitive status as the causative foundation of certain ideas and conceptual frameworks, this essay uses three well-cited Europeans to capture an essential component of this status/stance/outlook we call modernity. The three—Adam Smith, Emmanuel Sieyes, and Charles Darwin—each reframed human self-understanding in profound ways. They did so at different dimes and in different contexts and with different purposes, but there is a common thread: they crystallized a way of thinking in which ordinary people could understand their own power to define and change the world and, in so doing, undermined the traditional power structure of Western society (and, thereby, the world).
By “power,” I mean simply the ability to change the actions of another person, whether directly or indirectly, via force, threat, persuasion, inspiration or creating a physical or psychological environment in which it’s easier to drive on the right rather than the left. Traditional power structures (aka the “ancien regime”) in organized societies in every culture were centered on monarchs, nobility, clergy, and soldiers; much less so on merchants and almost all ordinary folk seemed to and acted as if they had almost no power at all.
History has been defined as “the study of change over time;” and you define power as the ability to produce change, then history is the story of power. History tells us that things (i.e., power structures) have changed a lot starting the late 18C. We call it “modernity.”
Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) placed all of us in a framework of the division of labor in which each person had some power which could be fitted into a globally integrated market mediated by the famous “invisible hand.” No individual (all of us Mandevillean bees (1)) need have any great vision or plan, but we all fit together and created a whole greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals do not inherently have much power in this conception of the world, but each has some, whether we choose to think about it or not. Liberalism, in its initial conception, was all about protecting this individual power.
The Abbe Sieyes (1789) in the midst of the erupting French Revolution asserted the same point from political perspective. “We the people” (2); “we” are the nation, “we” are everything, he said. “We” (if we only wake up and act on the basis of this realization) should and can be in charge. We may be a “sleeping sovereign” most of the time, but as long as we define the rules and don’t let our rulers forget, our power within our realm is unlimited.
The implication of Darwin’s work (1859) is that the easy assumption of divinely intelligent design that underlay all our human cosmology was, in fact, an abdication of the role of individuals in nature. The power of creation was not the work of some guy with thunderbolts over the course of six days; instead, it was incremental, unconscious, and inherent in all living things. (3) Darwin pushed God to the back, if not entirely out of the picture. He also required that we see ourselves—individually and together)—as part of the world, not above it.
In all three cases, the gist of the story is: we are/can be/should be in charge (at least of ourselves). The power to create and change the world is in all people, even if it can only be understood by looking not at the individual, but at all people en masse. The power does not depend on self-awareness, although such self-awareness certainly enhances and accelerates that power. (4)
The story of how these conceptualizations spread out from the relatively small number of direct readers of these documents is much of the story of the 19 & 20C. This spread was not simply a matter of intellectual history and debate among the great thinkers of the day. Sometimes it was a matter of the zeitgeist. Sometimes it was a matter of un- or semiconscious change of actions and practices: the language of the “working class,” the idea of the “nation,” the (eventual) environmental movement, and the pursuit of “liberty” to enable changed minds and changed lives to move forward. Sometimes this essential humanism was overdone and perverted (e.g., the “me generation,” conspicuous consumption, the transformation of nationalism into empire and genocide).
The incremental and haphazard nature of this spread is evidenced by wars, anxieties, denial, arguments, and back-sliding that continues in this 21C. Arno Mayer (5) spoke of the “Persistence of the Old Regime” to remind us that the apparent drama of the fall of the Bastille misleads us into thinking that revolution happens quickly and effectively. In fact, human change takes an awfully long time.
I suspect that there is something deeply psychological in our reluctance/resistance to come to terms with “it’s just us.” The “old regime” of faith, as embodied in ancient cultural constructs from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism, has persisted. There has rarely been a shortage of “supernatural” explanations of the world in either high culture or junk TV. The problem with recognizing one’s own power is that it’s harder to blame someone else when things are complicated or go wrong. There is great comfort in believing someone else is looking out for me and will “fix” the problem du jour. Time to wake up!
(sorry about all the FNs this time!)
1 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1714).
2 (To use the American constitutional formulation that was actually more about elites than ordinary folks.)
3 “Social Darwinism” was a 19C effort to apply human intent to this exercise of creative power. Eugenics was a 19/20C effort to deploy technology to the same effect.
4 As both Kant and Marx stressed, in different ways and contexts.