Modernity and Its Discontents

(extracted and adapted from National Lies by Charles Churchyard)

In 1675, Madame de Sévigné, aristocrat and lady of fashion, whose letters would become a classic of French literature, expressed her amused contempt at the miseries of some lower-class people who were being driven from their homes, tortured, and executed. When Alexis de Tocqueville, also an aristocrat, quoted her remarks in the second volume of his Democracy in America (1840), he hastened to assure his readers that Madame de Sévigné was actually a woman of tender sentiments and sympathetic feelings and that she “treated her own vassals and servants with kindness and indulgence.” But, like her contemporaries in general, she could not help viewing those who occupied an inferior level of society as an inferior form of the human species. Tocqueville further asserted that no one in the present age would dare to speak of the common people as she had done. Even if an individual’s callousness and brutality prompted him to do so, the prevailing attitudes of the time would forbid it.

“every man...an
athlete in body
and an Aristotle
in mind”

Between Sévigné and Tocqueville, the Eighteenth Century had intervened. During its years a profound change occurred in the sensibilities of the Western world. At the outset, elites viewed the masses with traditional and customary indifference and disdain. But gradually a new conviction took hold and began to spread. It became the fashion for persons of idealistic temperament and liberal views to assert that ordinary people possessed admirable qualities and large potential, which only the unfortunate circumstances of birth prevented from achieving full and remarkable expression. Many a “mute inglorious Milton” or a Cromwell unknown to fame must lie in the humble cemeteries throughout the land, John Gray mused in his highly popular “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751).

Along with these new ideas about the universality and excellence of human nature came related ideas about society and government. During the Eighteenth Century, an increasing number of articulate and influential voices called with increasing urgency for new institutions that would promote the abilities of individuals at the same time as they advanced the common good of the entire body of citizens. In place of a society where the high positions and honors of life were the prerogative of the hereditary few, there should be a society that employed talent of all origins and encouraged participation from all quarters. Instead of a government whose legitimacy rested on genealogical succession, there should be a government whose right to rule derived from the consent of the entire population and whose tenure in office depended on its promotion of their general welfare.

Such was the tenor of idealism and imagination during that age. At the same time, in the world of mundane economics and politics, developments were taking place that tended in a similar direction. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, they began to reveal themselves in tangible facts and obvious conditions that would translate the higher valuation of ordinary people from a philosopher’s dream into a practical demand. In the coming century, every successful actor in public life, including self-seeking politicians and cynically calculating heads of state, would have to recognize the importance of the formerly despised and neglected masses.

This adamantine feature of the emerging modern age appeared in spectacular form during the French Revolution. In the midst of all the fustian, cant, and gas about the realization of “the fairest aspirations of the human mind” and the “very heaven” of being young at that hour, a new hard reality was making itself known. When revolutionary France launched its armies into the field, they presented striking and undeniable evidence of the power and dynamism of a nation animated by the egalitarian spirit. In the past, war had involved only limited numbers of the population, with mercenaries and vassals filling the ranks. Now, in a France where “liberty, equality, and fraternity” were proclaimed, war called forth the full effort of an entire people. The levée en masse of 1793 designated all able-bodied men as liable for service, and everyone not actually enlisted was expected to support the troops both morally and materially. Even the most hidebound and unsympathetic conservatives of Europe could not help perceiving the superiority of this new military machine. Other countries realized they would have to contrive something similar or be at a lethal disadvantage.

“A drunken field
hand was one thing,
a drunken railroad
brakeman quite

Warfare was not the only task in which a nation entering modernity induced its people to take a larger and more energetic part. By the early Nineteenth Century, they had become similarly engaged in a range of useful and practical activities. This was not an option but a necessity. The new and growing industrialized economy demanded ever larger amounts of collective participation, social cooperation, and personal attention. Managing a railroad, for example, was far more arduous and exacting a task than managing a farm, and the penalties for apathy and error were far more grievous.

Reform movements of the Nineteenth Century reflected the new demands. They proclaimed the dual objective of bettering the lives of the low and unfortunate and at the same time improving the moral health and material strength of the nation. Temperance was one of the most prominent and popular of the reformist causes. In earlier times, respectable and responsible persons could view the intoxicated behavior of the lower classes with indulgence and indifference. This was no longer possible. “A drunken field hand was one thing, a drunken railroad brakeman quite another.”

The result of these developments was a tremendous and triumphant advance in material progress, which has often been described and applauded, not least by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848: the middle class with its science, its industries, and its finance capital was destroying the stagnant traditions of aristocrats and peasants; shrinking the distances of the globe, abolishing provincialism, and imposing its ways upon the peoples of the world; clearing entire continents for cultivation and conjuring whole populations out of the ground; bending nature to its will and raising monuments greater than those of any previous civilization.

The superiority of modern societies is apparent even in their worst behavior. The body count accumulated by wars and mass executions during the first half of the Twentieth Century no doubt dwarfs any atrocities committed during previous ages. This is evidence, not of greater viciousness, but of greater thoroughness and efficiency. Nazis and Communists could not have hated their victims more than did the religious fanatics of earlier times. The latter perpetrated less slaughter only because they were less organized and disciplined. Their actions were like those of a mob, with its spontaneous, haphazard behavior. In contrast, whenever a modern regime undertakes something, whether for good or for evil, it carries out its work with the unflagging pace, undeviating attention, and unvarying consistency of a machine.

— ♦ —

The accomplishments of the Western world in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries have been the result of continually increasing efforts by ever larger numbers of people. To inspire and sustain this rising level of participation has been one of the chief tasks, if not the chief task, of modern society. It was assisted by—and it may have even prompted—the rise of nationalisms and their creation of traditions, symbols, and fetishes. It was a major and incessant preoccupation of the three new forms of government (democracy, socialism, and fascism) that have emerged during the past two centuries, as it had never been for older forms of government, like monarchy and aristocracy.

The tremendous collective exertions of modern national economies did not occur without great conflict and controversy. In return for their new and increasing contributions of disciplined labor, the masses demanded new and additional compensation, which social elites did not willingly grant. During the early years of industrialization, the question of what constituted fair and appropriate remuneration for its workers was already a matter of dispute. As industrial economies grew, this issue grew with them. People on the lower levels of society laid claim to a larger share of social advantages, political power, and economic prosperity; those on the upper levels resisted their claims.

The cause of the masses attracted sympathy and support from outside their own numbers. Sensitive and high-minded individuals were appalled at the living conditions of the poor and blamed them on the indifference, arrogance, and greed of the rich and powerful. The tone of their complaints was no longer the subdued sadness of Gray’s elegy but the ferocious indignation of Edwin Markham’s “Man with the Hoe” (1899). In the reform movements and radical politics that began in the Nineteenth Century and have continued, with fluctuating size and strength, up to the present day, inarticulate and unsophisticated workers have seldom lacked eloquent allies and cultured advocates from more privileged backgrounds.


“Remedial idealism” is the term that may be used to designate the entire cause carried on in behalf of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, in all its various forms and directions. Its common theme is the plight of those who have not received a sufficient and just portion of the benefits that they have helped to create by participating in the modern economy. It argues that these unfortunate and exploited people should receive more—better wages, better working conditions, better housing, better health care, better education, et cetera.

The thrust of remedial idealism is very familiar. It is reflected in the opinion pieces of today’s more high-toned magazines and newspapers. And it has been repeated for over two hundred years. But it has never been enough—and its realization would never be enough—because the very world it seeks to reform has itself never been able to find adequate justification for the productive tasks it imposes. The actual results of these tasks are not a sufficient strong enough motivation to inspire the effort that is necessary to produce them. This unbalanced equation between society’s requirements and humanity’s desires is a fundamental condition of modern existence. [ 1 ]

Despite all the obvious advantages that industrial society and its successor, technological society, have created, and all the benefits they have bestowed, they always lacked a certain degree of fundamental legitimacy and basic attractiveness. Even after the middle class had managed to oust the aristocracy from its position of social leadership, they and their occupations continued to arouse contempt from both left and right for their ignobility and vulgarity. However useful and important their work has been, they have never escaped the taint of the dreary, the mundane, and the low.

“to lift the proletariat
up to the bourgeoisie's
level of stupidity”

From the beginning, the very word bourgeois received a pejorative coloring that it still retains. Commerce, declared a character in one Victorian novel, “is very necessary, and may, possibly, be very good; but it cannot be the noblest work of man....” In earlier times, works of art immortalized the ideals of aristocratic and religious cultures. In modern times, high art has held itself aloof from the norms of society or made outright attacks against them. No masterpiece ever celebrated the businessman, the industrialist, or the technician.

This profound deficiency of modern life would remain, no matter how fairly its rewards were distributed among all its various groups and classes, no matter how much opportunity for personal advancement were extended to people of low origin. Attaining only the goals of remedial idealism would result in just more of the same—more middle-class people and middle-class occupations. “The entire dream of democracy is to lift the proletariat up to the bourgeoisie’s level of stupidity,” growled Gustave Flaubert, the supreme master of realism in French literature.

Even as early as the Eighteenth Century, idealists realized that something more was needed. They were not satisfied with the idea of lowborn people having a better life and being able to develop their personal talents. That was supposed to be only one part of a much larger agenda. Again and again, in moments of enthusiasm, writers and orators called for a general transformation and elevation of the entire society, which would take place as everyone, of every station in life, threw off the crippling restraints imposed by the past—traditional customs and inveterate superstitions, artificial structures and hereditary authorities—and realized their full and natural potential.


This hope for a marvelous flowering of human achievement and virtue may be called “transcendent idealism,” since it accepts but goes beyond remedial idealism. Like other high-minded notions of the Eighteenth Century, it became part of the ideological bedrock of the new American nation, where it acquired an especially bold and radical form—the idea, not merely of a natural aristocracy for the talented few, but of a mass elite that would include everyone. It was the vision of a world filled, not merely with useful citizens, obeying the demands of a materially productive society, but with people realizing their most fanciful personal dreams and, at the same time, attaining the highest capacity of human beings. This was what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he imagined a direction of progress, induced by “our democratic stimulants,” that would result in “every man” becoming “potentially an athlete in body and an Aristotle in mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson assumed the role of philosophical champion for this visionary future, and Walt Whitman emerged as its poet laureate.

On the European side of the Atlantic, where traditional hierarchies and oligarchies were stronger and more numerous, remedial idealism faced greater opposition and accordingly required more attention and effort. As a consequence, transcendent idealism was less emphatically and confidently proclaimed. But it has always been present, even in the most discouraging moments and circumstances. The Communist Manifesto urged the “workers of the world” to throw off their chains, but it also called for a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”—a sentiment that could just as well have been uttered by Marx’s contemporary, Emerson.

Whenever the battalions of the left have unfurled their banners and sounded their trumpets, the themes of both remedial and transcendent idealism have been heard. After the workers of the world had risen up and seized the power and wealth that were legitimately theirs, they were not supposed to stop at this point but to proceed forward and lead the entire population on to the creation of utopia and the development of “the new man.” The achievement of the latter, in the opinion of that prominent if unfortunate Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, would result in “the average human” becoming “immeasurably stronger” and rising to “the heights of an Aristotle.”

— ♦ —

There is an intimate and naturally symbiotic relationship between the remedial and the transcendent aspects of modern idealism. Remedial idealism is the more tangible and immediately powerful of the two. It provides most of the specific complaints and objectives of practical programs. Its battle cries resonate with the urgency and force of the actual, rallying supporters and intimidating opponents. Without remedial idealism, transcendent idealism would seem vague and dubious, containing little more than unconvincing arguments and unreal dreams.

The remedial and
the transcendent
...are inevitably
found together.

Transcendent idealism, on the other hand, gives larger meaning to the issues raised by remedial idealism. It imbues them with glamour and loftiness. It supercharges the energy and conviction of their advocates, who believe they are fighting, not merely for the relief or rights of some limited group, but for the advancement and elevation of all humanity, themselves included. Without transcendent idealism, remedial idealism would seem low, petty, and mundane. Since by itself remedial idealism promises nothing more than better remuneration for the exploited and better opportunities for the disadvantaged, its ultimate result would simply be a larger supply of willing and able workers for the modern economy. The task of turning demoralized drudges and marginalized indigents into motivated employees and professionalized technicians is unquestionably a necessary one in a society with an ever-increasing demand for efficient productivity. But who can get excited about it, any more than Flaubert could become enthusiastic about the prospect of proletarians becoming bourgeois?

In practical operations, the remedial and the transcendent usually reinforce each other, often blend with one another, and are inevitably found together. But however strong their mutual need may be, their association is by no means simple and harmonious, for in certain crucial ways they are not genuinely compatible and congruous. By itself, remedial idealism would be able to reach an accommodation with the realities of the modern world. Remedial idealism’s ultimate goal of the disadvantaged becoming fully participating members of society, of their contributing to productivity as well as sharing in the rewards, is something even opponents are able to accept, at least as an abstract principle. Disagreement arises over the specifics: what are the appropriate and practical means for achieving a suitable remedy, what precisely is either side supposed to give and receive? But in such controversies, negotiation and compromise are possible.

That is not the case with transcendent idealism. It does not want to strike a better deal with present realities but to transform them. It does not want simply to gain something more for disadvantaged people but to create something entirely different and better for everyone. It would not be satisfied to see the poor become busy, prosperous employees in the workplaces of the modern economy; it wants them and everyone else to become a mass elite of independent men and women, all of them realizing their splendid inner potential, as Emerson preached and Whitman sang.

Those who do not share this vision find it chimerical. But transcendent idealism is seldom so foolish as to arouse vehement criticism from the unsympathetic by appearing alone and making an open proclamation of its visionary hopes. Instead, it seeks the company of its more prosaic and acceptable ally, remedial idealism, and prudently keeps in the background when the two present themselves in public. The advertised priorities of an idealistic agenda are inevitably its immediate and specific remedial measures. The vaguer and larger transcendent developments are something that will come later. First, the workers need to escape poverty, or racial discrimination must cease. A utopian dictatorship of the proletariat or a harmonious integrated society will follow afterwards, sometime in the unspecified future.

The presence of these two elements, remedial and transcendent, in a single party, movement, or person, can result in behavior that appears confusing and contradictory. But this is a basic characteristic of modern idealism, and its often puzzling manifestations can only be understood by perceiving its dual nature.

— ♦ —

As an initial example of the phenomenon, one may consider the striking dichotomy in leftist attitudes toward the people at the bottom of society on the one hand and toward those at the level above the bottom but below the middle class on the other. The former receive nothing but praise and sympathy; their faults are disregarded or excused. They are seen as innocent victims who are heroically struggling against deprivations and prejudices that the rest of society has heaped upon them. As such, they are assumed to deserve the humane attention and assistance of every decent person.

“the only thing
which unites
Marxists the
world over”

Those just above the bottom but below the middle class receive a diametrically opposite evaluation. They are dismissed as ignorant and vulgar, animated by blind fears and vile intolerance—people who rigidly adhere to a code of petty proprieties, who reject higher principles and think of nothing but guarding what little they have from the supposed threat of the ones beneath them, who have even less.

Considered from the perspective of remedial idealism alone, the left’s judgment of the people at the bottom is too favorable and its judgment of the people on the next level up is too negative. Bad qualities and unattractive behavior are hardly more abundant among the latter group than they are among the former. If anything, the reverse is true. As for misfortune and exploitation, a good amount of that exists at both these levels, yet the champions of humanity recognize and respond to it only at the lower one.

The explanation for this apparent inconsistency of mind and definite contradiction in fact is transcendent idealism. Although remedial idealism could find victims worthy of its attention and assistance in every stratum beneath the middle class, it is overruled by transcendent idealism, which realizes that only at the lowest depths are people alienated and destitute enough possibly to favor the idea of fundamental change. Only here are the promises and norms of middle-class life sufficiently weak and remote that the inhabitants, with proper instruction and leadership, might be capable of supporting a radical movement that would bring about a transformation of society.

This hope vanishes the moment one passes from the bottom to the next level up. Here people cling to their limited possessions and narrow respectability with fearful tenacity, condemning and shunning those underneath them in an effort to assert a fragile superiority. They would never make common cause with their proletarian inferiors to oppose the bourgeoisie or work to found a classless society, but they might join a fascist organization if they felt sufficiently threatened and insecure. The idealistic left turns away from such persons with automatic and utter revulsion, with a loathing so profound, consistent, and intense that (in the words of one journalist with international experience), “It sometimes seems” to be “the only thing which unites Marxists the world over....”

source of the above:

Charles Churchyard. National Lies: The Truth About American Values. Ch. 9.

Chapter nine begins with the above excerpt and proceeds to examine “remedial idealism” and “transcendent idealism” in their specifically American manifestations.

[ 1 ] The concept of an “unbalanced equation” is a central theme of the book. It first appears at the end of chapter two.