Leszek Kołakowski’s Modernity On Endless Trial

Leszek Kołakowski came of age under the Nazi occupation of Poland, when the usual Polish school system was suspended and an underground network of tutors and impromptu teachers took on the responsibility of educating Poland’s youth and passing on Polish culture. When the Nazis were finally expelled, and he could enter university, Kołakowski studied philosophy and committed himself – like so many of his peers – to communism, the regnant anti-fascist ideology. His standout performance in university earned him a sponsored trip to the Soviet Union in 1950, where an up-close view of life under communism cured him of this second pernicious intellectual disease, but made him something of a pariah in Poland. He responded by leaving, embarking on a series of teaching positions abroad, first – I’m proud to say – at McGill University in my native Montreal, then at UC Berkeley (where he would no doubt be most unwelcome today), and finally at Oxford University, where he remained until his death in 2009. Today he is best known for his Main Currents Of Marxism, a three-volume repudiation of Marxist thought, but Modernity On Endless Trial, a collection of essays describing the shaky moral and philosophical foundations of the modern world, perhaps holds greater relevance today.

This collection of 23 essays first appeared in 1990, but the dates of composition range from 1973 to 1986, as do the languages of the originals – Kołakowski wrote fluently in Polish, French, German and English. The modern condition, as Kołakowski sees it, is one of doubt and despair. The traditional foundations of society, based in religion, have been eroded or nullified by the advances of science and secularism, but the victory of these forces has left us with a profound void at the center of our civilization. For some time, Kołakowski argued, we carried on life under a contradiction, living as if there were a god but failing to examine the foundational beliefs of our modern, godless world. It was Nietzsche, with his “noisy philosophical hammer,” who put an end to our delusion:

He was successful in passionately attacking the spurious mental security of people who failed to realize what really had happened, because it was he who said everything to the end: the world generates no meaning and no distinctions between good and evil; reality is pointless, and there is no other hidden reality behind it; the world as we see it is the Ultimum; it does not try to convey a message to us; it does not refer to anything else; it is self-exhausting and deaf-mute. All this had to be said, and Nietzsche found a solution or a medicine for the despair: this solution was madness.

In the absence of God, Nietzsche argued, we would have to become gods ourselves, writing our own morality, but our finite, imperfect selves are not equal to the task, and besides, such a framework invites the kind of relativism that mocks meaning. Who would not go mad? It should now be said, as a kind of aside, that Kołakowski is not “anti-modern” in any fundamentalist sense; on the contrary, he takes great pains to argue for the necessity of a constant tension: “The clash between the ancient and the modern is probably everlasting and we will never get rid of it, as it expresses the natural tension between structure and evolution, and this tension seems to be biologically rooted; it is, we may believe, an essential characteristic of life.” He will be more emphatic later on: “It would be silly, of course, to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ modernity tout court, not only because it is pointless to try to stop the development of technology, science, and economic rationality, but because both modernity and antimodernity may be expressed in barbarous and antihuman forms.” Those looking to these essays for certainty, either of diagnosis or prescription, will be disappointed, but he warns us of this from the start: “these essays are not edifying. They are rather appeals for moderation in consistency […].”

One of the more pressing questions of the present day is whether or not a secular society can survive, in the long run, or if some form of religious framework is necessary. Proponents of the former proposition point to the incredible prosperity of the modern (Western) world, and its broad tolerance for a plurality of religious beliefs and lifestyles; skeptics look with concern at our growing societal infertility and increasing dependence on immigration (from predominantly religious countries). In these essays, Kołakowski expresses a fear that has been steadily growing in my own mind for some time now: that religion might be more indispensable than we realize for the functioning of so much of what I love and admire about my own civilization and its history.

I want to try to express what is, for me, a suspicion rather than a certainty: the existence of a close link between the dissolution of the sacred, a dissolution encouraged, in our societies, no less by enemies of the Church than by powerful trends within it, and the spiritual phenomena which threaten culture and herald, in my view, its degeneration if not its suicide.

He will go on to defend the religious concepts of the sacred and the taboo as being bulwarks against a revolutionary tendency, expressed most commonly among intellectuals: not “the revolt of a people who are starving or enslaved,” but the “purely cerebral revolutionism that reflects an emotional void.” In my estimation, we are at present drowning in that second form of revolution, the narcissistic rebellion of a people so spiritually detached that their only positive source of self-esteem comes from the act of rebellion itself. Kołakowski elaborates on how such a pathological rebellion is made possible:

With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization – the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is “in principle” an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.

The 20th century bore grim witness to the evils that can be wrought in the name of “perfecting” mankind, and our contemporary political moment has frequently descended into absurdity in the pursuit of increasingly esoteric perfections: the prevention of cat-calling, for example, or the proliferation of an ever-expanding number of “gender neutral pronouns.”

There is a further sense in which religion might, in fact, be vitally necessary, and that is as a defence against nihilism. We are all going to die, and however short our existence, one certainty is that we will all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent.

Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one’s life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is sense beyond that which is inherent in human history – if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred. A hypothetical world from which the sacred had been swept away would admit of only two possibilities: vain fantasy that recognizes itself as such, or immediate satisfaction which exhausts itself. It would leave only the choice proposed by Baudelaire, between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfactions of the moment and are therefore contemptible, and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings, and are therefore contemptible. Everything is then contemptible, and there is no more to be said. The conscience liberated from the sacred knows this, even if it conceals it from itself.

I find this passage, in particular, amazingly profound, because I believe us to be living in this world of vain fantasies and immediate satisfactions, a world organized – as far as possible – for our comfort and convenience and gratification, with little thought for the future and no concern for the past. The question, for such a world, is not “how could culture die?” but “how could culture survive?”

Modernity On Endless Trial is a dense, discursive read, and I have no doubt that every future reading will bring me new insights and appreciations. It is also, to a remarkable degree, pressingly relevant to our current social and political order. It is not, as its author warned us, edifying, but it is endlessly enlightening. And that is enough.