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Seven Early Symptoms of the Mental Disease “Modernitis”

“Modernitis”: A mental disease, rarely diagnosed, marked by intuitive confidence in one’s ideas and the findings of science

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh / Unsplash
Modernitis lit Europe in the 17th century. Here are the earliest symptoms of it.

Your reason isn’t reasonable.

Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

And smoke it and smoke it and smoke it, until you smoke rationality out of your head, until a love for the absurd fills your lungs, and until you breathe the fresh air of freedom.

Let me explain.

“I Don’t See Why”

When I look back over my adult life and wince at the unfortunate things I did, there’s a common theme: the inner dialogue that began and concluded with, “I don’t see why” or its negative shade, “I don’t see why not.” I didn’t see why, or see why not, so I did X, Y, or Z. And X, Y, or Z turned out awful for me or others.

Most of us carry the assumption that we can do whatever we want unless our reason tells us not to.

Unfortunately, this tends to be almost identical to the assumption that we can do whatever we want. As Pascal said, as Freud argued, as current studies about cognitive biases show: our minds aren’t nearly as reasonable as we think.

It’s one thing to spend long hours in study, contemplation, and dialogue with advisers and friends to form your conscience when it comes to a weighty matter. It’s another thing to do something merely because your reason doesn’t explain why you shouldn’t.

The former is a sign of wisdom. The latter is a sign that your mind suffers from Modernitis.


Modernitis”: A mental disease, rarely diagnosed, marked by intuitive confidence in one’s ideas and the findings of science.

It’s rarely diagnosed for the same reason a rational fish wouldn’t know it’s wet. A mental disease that afflicts everyone becomes a sign of mental health.

Descartes was the main philosopher that spread Modernitis. There were other causes and other philosophers contributed, sure, but he was the main culprit.

He died in 1650, a celebrity and conqueror. His ideas had spread; his ideas had won. Modernitis became a sign of mental health.

The effects were seen everywhere.

The Tao: Dismissed

If you’ve been reading these essays, you know this is the biggest problem with Modernitis.

To a mind afflicted with Modernitis, ideas are king, and mathematics the queen. The best ideas are laser sharp and certain, like math. They give the best knowledge. Other forms of knowledge are second best, if not downright stupid. The Tao stands beyond rational proof (link, link, link). It defies mathematical certainty. Therefore, the Tao is stupid . . . or non-existent. The whole idea of another sphere of knowledge (knowledge of the Tao) that stands beyond rationality was dismissed.

As a corollary, by the beginning of the 1700s, religion among the educated in Europe had sunk to mere deism.

Poetry: For the Flighty Only

The Cartesian spirit introduced a sharper distinction between prose and poetry. Prose was concrete: it addressed reality in a straightforward manner. Poetry, on the other hand, was seen as fanciful. Because poetry appeals to areas of knowing that aren’t dependent on rational thought, it was increasingly seen as pure fancy, something with no connection to reality and no practical application. Prose became the vehicle of thought. Poetry became the vehicle for feeling.

And increasingly dismissed. Even Scripture, though still revered in the 17th century, was coming under attack because its inspired authors often didn’t use straightforward prose. In the words of John Smith, a founder of the Cambridge Platonists, the Scriptures were written for the “most Idiotical sort of men in the most Idiotical way.” (Smith, it shouldn’t be surprising, was primarily known for his mathematical skills.)

The Classics: Dustbin

The Renaissance was infatuated with antiquity: the Romans, the Greeks, even the Egyptians. The older the source, the more authoritative.

The Cartesian spirit helped kill that idea. The first authority for man was his “reason” or his “inner tribunal.” External authorities were increasingly seen as irrelevant, and the further an authority was removed from one’s current mindset, the more irrelevant it became. The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were really far removed and, therefore, really irrelevant.

History: Largely Irrelevant

Rational and intellectual thought in the Cartesian spirit is independent of knowledge. Thought comes first, then knowledge. It is fundamentally unhistorical. Why do we need history to tell us anything if we can construct the world from our inner certainties? We have inside us knowledge that surpasses history. The study of history, to the mind afflicted with Modernitis, becomes second-rate, if not downright contemptible as a waste of time.

Progress: The Aim

During the Renaissance, there developed a fervor to go back further and further into history. During the Age of Descartes, the fervor was reversed and people started looking to the future. We could use our ideas—our dreams, aspirations, plans, schemes—and apply mathematical certainty from our empirical studies to make them reality. The future was bright, indeed.

On top of that, the mind afflicted with Modernitis is always looking at the ideal. After all, the cognitive principle in us is the first reality, so its ideals become our reality. Unfortunately, ideals juxtapose harshly against actual reality. Next to ideals, reality looks shabby, very shabby indeed. There might be Original Sin, but there are now ideals and, if ideals are the beginning point, the concrete reality forced upon by the historical happenstance of Original Sin is anachronistic and must be changed.

Every mind afflicted with Modernitis is a progressive. Not all progressives suffer from Modernitis (more on that later), but every Modern is a progressive.

Efficiency: The All

If we are going to make progress on earth, we need to be efficient about it. We need to get things done. Earthly activity, fueled by huge successes from the Age of Global Exploration, made the future bright, but we had to apply our ideas and mechanistic abilities to make it happen. Efficiency, practical pursuits, became primary, if not exclusive.

There’s a reason that the rising religious idea of the day, Deism, envisioned God as a clockmaker.

Satire: Rises

This one is kind of fun.

Have you heard of the Scriblerus Club? It was an authors’ club founded in London in 1714. It was known for its satiric bent. Jonathan Swift was a member.

Western culture had long enjoyed satire, but there was a great satiric revival right after Descartes. Satire became huge. Can we blame (thank) Descartes? Don Basil Willey thinks so. The reason? There’s a vast discrepancy between our ideal nature (which was elevated to reality in Descartes’ system) and reality. The comparison (or contrast) provides the fuel for satire. In the words of Willey:

[T]he identification of man’s nature with the thinking principle within—the feeling that we are that part of us which cogitates—must produce the concurrent realisation that there is a vast discrepancy between man’s ideal and his actual nature. The temper which views all things in their theory rather than in their historical setting must also see little, as it gazes upon human institutions, but failure and futility, and as it contemplates human actions, little but departures from the rational norm. It is just in the comparison between actual things and their theory that satire consists, and the dry light of Cartesianism threw upon the deformities of actual humanity just the kind of illumination which is necessary to evoke the satiric comparison. The Seventeenth Century Background (Doubleday, 1953), p. 96.