Sunday’s post, on modernism and the change in values from “old-fashioned” to “old-school,” might help explain a question that I and others have pondered here: why do human beings so often prefer what is old? Stephen Walker noted the point in his comment on Yavanayāna Buddhism: people often seem unwilling to credit themselves with innovations, to accept that their ideas are new. Rather they present themselves as defending old ideas when they come up with new ones. (In his The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins suggests that this is a typical pattern in human thought (especially in Japan, but elsewhere as well): “innovation through conservatism.” A while back I asked a similar question about authenticity: why do we privilege authenticity so much, when its distinguishing feature would seem to be the absence of choice?
Maybe we can start to see an answer now that we’ve had a chance to look back on the alternative. The twentieth century, in many ways, was the century of modernism – the rejection of the past as a guide to living. As I noted last time, modernism brought us Pruitt-Igoe, the grand and innovative housing project that was dynamited as unlivable. But more than that, I think, it brought us Communism, the form of government practised in the Soviet Union, China and their allies in the mid-twentieth century.
Communists tried to design a new world effectively from scratch, a world based entirely on what should be, with little reference to what is or has been. The degree of connection between existing Communism and the originating works of Karl Marx has been a matter for endless debate, but the modernist tendency in Marx’s own work is very strong. Among his most beautiful passages is the one describing the rapid changes of modern capitalism, in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” For all his critiques of capitalism, Marx was almost breathlessly excited by its ability to change the existing structures of the world. And those structures were not acceptable; they had to change, as soon as possible.
One might imagine a less modernist Marxism. My father stresses Marx’s faithful approach to reading G.W.F. Hegel and learning from him – a hermeneutics of listening rather than suspicion, in Paul Ricoeur’s terms. Similarly one could imagine the attempt to build a more equal and less alienated world slowly, from the bottom up, beginning with cooperatives and intentional communities, with government imposition taking on a more minor role. But the modernist Marxism of historical fact was a more large-scale version of the destructive thinking that produced Pruitt-Igoe – as one can see from its architecture.
So far I’ve been looking at the political level. But individually too, we seem to do poorly without the past. The twentieth century in the United States had unprecedented access to the findings of scientific psychology, rigorous, empirical, rational exploration of the human mind – yet every American generation suffered more depression than the one that came before it. Today the cutting edge of psychology itself aims at a synthesis of past and present, whether in Richard Davidson’s dialogue with the Dalai Lama or Peterson and Seligman’s study of philosophies of virtue.
With all of this in mind, we may now return to the desire to seek authentication from what is old. Today we can see the wisdom of the past more clearly after a century’s worth of attempts to overthrow it. That knowledge wasn’t there in the same way before the twentieth century – but perhaps people had a sense of it all the same. When people preserve their traditions for centuries, they do it for a reason. Something about it makes sense, and makes good sense – in a way that may make sense to us as well, if we’re ready to listen.
There’s a middle ground to be sought here, of course – some things really do need changing. It’s just about impossible to justify the maintenance of pre-20th-century gender roles. But at the same time, we do have reason to be cautious of innovation. Go too far in the Yavanayāna direction, and we risk losing everything that made Buddhism worthwhile in the first place.