The modern world cries out for definition. But only a handful of thinkers have been bold enough to answer the call, searching for that overarching essence which distinguishes the modern age from all that came before it. What does it mean to be Modern, as opposed to Medieval or Early Modern? Max Weber, the German sociologist, landed on the idea of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, when more than a century ago, he asked himself that question.
Borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, the term disenchantment was meant by Weber to capture what it meant to live in the early 20th-century West, with its bureaucratic systems and secular rationalist values. This was a culture which, after the Enlightenment, had outgrown piety and religious myths. Past cultures, honouring their local religious stories, certainly regarded the world as “a great enchanted garden”; but modernisation was the process of replacing these bygone charms with the rational administration of society by scientifically minded bureaucrats. Science and reason, thought Weber optimistically, would guarantee freedom for the citizens of this disenchanted world.
Weber had no shortage of critics in his own lifetime. Whether or not he was in fact familiar with Weber’s work, Franz Kafka’s nightmarish literature issued a compelling rebuke to Weber’s rosy picture of mankind freed from myth by rational bureaucracy. Kafka’s novels, most notably The Trial, depict the helpless alienation of the individual in the face of modern bureaucratic forces, which when geared towards evil offer no redemption from chaos and persecution. Weber might well have revised his celebration of modernity had he lived to witness the rise of Europe’s totalitarian empires. In the hands of Stalin and Hitler, Weber’s modern methods of administration were used not to uphold freedom, but to destroy it out of obedience to political ideology. Modern man proved hungrier for myths than Weber had appreciated.
But while it is fair to question the optimism of Weber’s vision, few can surely cast doubt on the vision itself. Today we continue to live in a Weberian disenchanted world. Indeed, one suspects that many modern people, being impeccable materialists, find words such as “redemption” no less embarrassing than talk of prayer or the Holy Spirit. The language of “divine grace,” “salvation,” and “eternal happiness” rings disturbingly on the secular ear, so used to words like “efficiency,” “infrastructure,” and “economic growth.”
Whatever pockets of piety remain, religion in the West is no longer a shared collective possession. But despite living as disenchanted materialists, we have not lost our natural thirst for purpose and meaning. If the post-Christian experience has taught us anything, it is that when cultures abandon their traditional myths they erect hastily constructed modern ones out of the ruins. The British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner wrote in the mid-20th century about the emergence of new “re-enchantment creeds,” from Marxism to psychoanalysis, vying to replace the old, vanishing religion. Here were—and remain—two powerful calls to purpose and adventure, inviting us to escape the social and psychological alienation we are liable to feel even amid growing wealth.
But despite their allure, Marxism and psychoanalytic theory are too divisive and rarefied to serve as collective modern beliefs. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a shared re-enchantment creed, not mentioned by Gellner, is the idea of universal human rights. Even secular Westerners accept these rights as a set of inviolable moral axioms, as necessary standards for any society calling itself civilised. In reality, the principles have limited value. Though spoken about as absolutes, they get caught up in the relativistic chaos of the world as we find it. Being avowedly “human” as opposed to divine rights, they are only as powerful as the manmade authorities enforcing them. Western nations congratulate themselves on protecting the rights of Muslims in the Balkans, but when members of the same faith are oppressed in mighty China instead of puny Bosnia, democracies can do no more than put out statements of disapproval.
This is not to disparage the sincerity of human rights groups or our duty of protection to vulnerable people. But the UN Declaration of Human Rights cannot be the salvation of humanity. At best, it is a hollow substitute for religion, which takes the best of Christian precepts but without the divine authority, thereby relegating ethics to the world of human sin. For as long as humanity is imperfect, the principles will be impossible to enforce effectively. And if ever we throw off those imperfections, there will be no need to mention human rights at all. Human rights are the afterglow of a formerly enchanted world, not the sign of a world on the verge of re-enchantment.
Likewise, the project of maximising human prosperity, persuasively advanced by Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, will not fill the spiritual hole left by disenchantment. Ridding the world of war and poverty is no trivial aspiration, but the soul clamours for more than peace and plenty. As Dostoyevsky knew, we are beings which will even forego these Earthly blessings in pursuit of adventure, recognition, and glory, however foolish the cause. Give man “economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick,” wrote Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground. “He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.”
This insight was also appreciated by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, a book which is more often caricatured than properly read. “If men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation,” wrote Fukuyama, “then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom; for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle.”
Needless to say, religious zealotry and sectarian intolerance have been responsible for a great deal of bloodshed over the course of human history. But Fukuyama fails to acknowledge the power of a more benign kind of religious belief—refined by Enlightenment thought and uncorrupted by proselytising fanaticism—to provide meaning, community, and a constructive, peaceful outlet for the deep human urge for adventure. “Israel”, after all, means to struggle with God. But unlike today’s radical doctrines, which fight violently against “oppressive structures of power,” benign religious struggle is metaphysical, interior, and oriented towards achieving personal goodness rather than world utopia. In this form, at least, faith does not force the rest of us to pay the price for its own mistakes.
The problem with Max Weber’s (and, in a sense, Steven Pinker’s) disenchanted society of wealth and purring efficiency is that it makes no claim on the human spirit. Contemporary progressive ideologies, meanwhile, offer a shoddy attempt to supply that call to adventure, which it makes day-by-day with intensifying zeal. Secular liberals like Pinker, armed with graphs and calculators, are defenceless against its allure. Their appeal to science and rationality is heeded only by the boffins of this world.
Pinker would certainly reject the idea that Enlightenment humanism cannot speak to primal human needs. At the end of Enlightenment Now, he argues that “the spiral of recursive improvement” is itself a “heroic story” of human achievement against all odds. But does this story offer enough to every member of the human species, as Pinker suggests? Can his data-driven narrative of material progress compete with religion and romantic ideology in the campaign for people’s hearts? Indeed, Pinker’s call to adventure is rousing to Bill Gates, but unlike Christianity or even Marxism, it leaves little purpose for the great mass of humanity. People certainly benefit from Pinker’s story, in terms of higher life expectancy and lower probability of violent death, but most of them are given no central role in the narrative themselves. Its main characters are scientists, economists, and global business leaders.
Without any anchoring beliefs, Pinker’s world of unprecedented riches and legally protected freedoms soon loses its attraction, as generations become accustomed to its benefits. Then an urge develops to re-enchant society—or more often to curse it—according to some new ideological mission, be it old-fashioned Marxism or Critical Race Theory, which defeats Enlightenment humanism in the race to win hearts if not minds.
The true significance of Jordan Peterson is that, by engaging the spirits of his listeners, he succeeds where Pinker fails. A scientist by training, Peterson is no less uplifted than Pinker by the historic record of human material progress. He has heaped praise on Pinker’s work, hosting him and other humanists such as Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg on the JBP podcast. But Peterson is also acutely aware that their stories, while scientifically incontrovertible, cannot endure without spiritual foundation. In the absence of religious purpose, Enlightenment achievements are vulnerable to the “fatal fantastic element” in man described by Dostoyevsky.
So while Pinker gives important lectures on the rapid decline of absolute poverty, Peterson delivers speeches to packed auditoriums on ancient mythology and the Bible. Moving from Cain and Abel to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, with some Egyptian myths thrown in, he reconnects his young audience to the religious tradition that was always theirs to inherit, but from which they have been estranged by their modern education. In this way, Peterson goes deeper than secular liberals, who think that the menacing doctrines of neo-Marxism can be defeated by rational debate. Reason has a role to play, but it is only a tool for achieving pre-ordained ends; it says nothing about the ends we should value and strive towards in the first place. Prior to disenchantment, Christianity supplied us with just such a set of sacred ends—values which the modern world, in its fuzzy way, has made a matter of personal choice. The fact that utopian ideologies of social justice have sought to fill the collective void is hardly surprising.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” wrote St. Augustine, “and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” The West’s post-Christian history, from Max Weber to today, has proved Augustine right. Experiencing the loss of religion and living in a disenchanted order, our hearts have not taken a back seat to the superior powers of reason, as Weber predicted. They have remained restless, seeking purpose and meaning in the narratives and schemes of romantics, dreamers, and intellectuals. At best, these re-enchantment creeds give comfort and inspiration to a handful of private lives. At worst, they have spelled doom for the rest of us, causing torture and mass death in pursuit of some far off political utopia.
Conscious that these are dead ends, Peterson seeks to map a real route out of Weber’s disenchanted world, which works so well but sustains itself so poorly. Warning his audience against the false charms of ideology, he instead encourages them to take up the adventure of their own lives, drawing strength and ethical purpose from the West’s great literary and religious traditions. To those of orthodox faith, Peterson’s debts to Carl Jung can make some of what he says vague and perplexing. Often, he speaks of God more as a psychological necessity than as the creator of Heaven and Earth.
But still, as much as any Priest, Rabbi, or Imam, this sharp, emotive, and highly unusual professor is doing all he can to regrow the enchanted garden once taken for granted by the Christian West. It is a noble undertaking, but one that Peterson should not be expected to complete on his own. Beyond the powers of any one person, re-enchanting the world will demand collective faith from our culture that, in a fit of absence of mind, thought it was ready to forget God.
Harrison Pitt is a freelance journalist from the UK. He has previously been published in Spectator US, Spiked, and the Mallard. You can follow him on Twitter @harry_pitt.
Image by Gage Skidmore (Flickr)