Minding the Modern is unusual in several respects. It is organized historically but anti-historicist, methodologically self-aware yet critical of “method,” and reliant on close literary readings while focused on categories of moral philosophy and philosophical anthropology. Because of its density, length, range, erudition, analytical probity, and resistance to genre categorization, no brief review can do it justice. The book merits studied reflection of a sort that specialized humanistic scholars in their harried lives find difficult to accommodate. However inadequately, I can here only describe the book’s argument and method, offer a few remarks about its achievement, and note some of its limitations.
It is best to begin by considering the word malediction in the simple sense of speaking evil or evil-saying. The idea of evil—male—is conceptually, existentially, morally, and cosmologically complex, so I want to focus first on the saying—diction. I am thinking of an actual utterance: what seems to me the relatively straightforward act of “hurling epithets.” This phrase is felicitous because the notion of hurling emphasizes the physical, embodied, material aspect of malediction as a rhetorical performance. The same recognition of the physicality of utterance is needed to understand why the children’s retort to the bully, “sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is simply wrong. Names are hurtful insofar as they are no less material than sticks or stones when they are hurled and hit their mark.
In his new book Minding the Modern, Thomas Pfau presents a searching, and often scathing, indictment of the modern regime of personhood, which he regards as not only irredeemably soulless, but also endlessly self-deluding. In Pfau’s view, to approach personhood in terms of historical regime already amounts to a capitulation, since doing so reproduces and thus extends the fragmentation to which it unwittingly gives rise. In a curious manner, Pfau shows himself willing to echo Michel Foucault’s pronouncement in The Order of Things of the impending demise of man—at least insofar as moderns have engaged in a systematic effort to estrange themselves from logos, “the manifestation of the abiding framework within which alone meanings of any kind are to be prima facie achieved” (162). Yet this tragic tale also allows for a glimmer of hope: the resurrection of the dead is possible, if only the truth of unlikely prophets—including, in Pfau’s account, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—would inspire deeper reverence.
Here I will argue that Thomas Pfau’s presentation of modernity in Minding the Modern fails to incorporate both the sociopolitical dimensions of modernity’s emergence and its positive aspects. He sees modernity as the home of the “modern subject” of the Western world, or the “quintessentially modern, solitary individual” in his “palpable melancholy,” both “altogether adrift” and without “interpersonal relations.” Stanley Hauerwas captures the sense of the book in his endorsement: “Pfau locates the philosophical developments that contributed to the agony of the modern mind. Moreover, he helps us see why many who exemplify that intellectual stance do not recognize their own despair.” Pfau thus offers a challenge to those whom he sometimes calls the “modern apologists of secular, liberal, Enlightenment society.”
Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.
The central contrast in Thomas Pfau’s rich and rewarding book, Minding the Modern, is between two radically opposed views of human agency. The first is the “classical view of human agency” that was first formulated by Plato and Aristotle and which was given a particularly powerful expression in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to this view, to do something is to deliberately act on some conception of the good; the telos of agency is reached only by our conscious participation in the permanent and rational order of things. The second and opposing view of human agency, which Pfau describes as the modern or naturalistic view, goes back to William of Ockham but was given its most influential articulation by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. According to this view, human action is just behavior that is caused by a desire and accompanied by some thought about how to realize that desire in the world.
In June 2009, I was interviewing a Fijian Methodist minister on the island of Matuku when the subject of curses came up. I had asked him about mana and sau, terms associated with spiritual power, which are often paired in indigenous Fijian discourse. Mana is anthropologically famous as a term Robert Codrington credited to Melanesians; Marshall Sahlins theorized for Polynesians; and Claude Lévi-Strauss characterized as a “floating signifier,” a sign “susceptible of receiving any meaning at all.” Sau, in Fijian, is often associated with a punitive spiritual force linked to chiefs. If you disobey the chief and you get sick, that’s sau.
When I asked the minister at Matuku about mana and sau, he responded in part by explaining the latter term as follows: “Here’s an example. You say something, [then] it happens. It’s like this, if I should curse you. You will go out today, even if you haven’t heard what I said, you will meet with misfortune. You’ll go and get hurt, eh?…That’s one translation of sau.”
Imagine that you’ve been invited to play a game of cards with Thomas Pfau and his cards are called Justice, Reason, Beauty, Humanism, Purpose, and Value, while yours are called Interest, Materialism, Naturalism, Historicism, Value-Neutrality, attributes of a World without Grace and without Narrative. Who wins? But why should you let Pfau have all those cards, especially with names like Justice, Reason, and Beauty, or the names he adds later—“free choice, conscience, person, teleology…judgment…and, for that matter, art”; and why are you stuck with Interest and Materialism? This is a little bit what it’s like to read Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern. In the space I have, I will argue that Pfau has stacked the deck.
In an 1850 pamphlet, “The Law-Abiding Conscience and the Higher Law Conscience,” the Reverend Samuel T. Spear observed, “Every professed martyr virtually appeals to posterity and to God, to review his case, and settle the question whether he was a martyr or a fool.” Spear was a preacher with a sense of humor, but he was also a critic of his culture, thinking about law and religion in antebellum America. In that weird society, with its secularizing institutions and its fantastic carnivals of spiritual awakening, professions of martyrdom had become so common, so conventionalized, that Spear could analyze them as a genre. He saw martyrdom as a style of protest directed toward the legal system (especially toward the fugitive slave codes), animated by a double faith in God and in something called posterity. The self-styled martyrs appealed from the courts of law not only to the Almighty but also to a future public—one that their words would help to summon into being. The martyrs’ claims to justice would be decided by a divine authority and a spectral community.
Thomas Pfau has created a brand new narrative, not a scholarly book. In the best Christian traditio renovanda (renewing tradition), Pfau’s narrative is an ambitious project to delve into the most loathsome and putrid foundations of modernity and its development. At the same time, Minding the Modern reconstructs an ideal alternative world-to-come based on solid Thomistic solutions. The “road not taken” by the West, which is dooming its own present and its future, appears at its best.
Pfau never portrays modernity as being specifically loathsome and putrid. Instead, he describes modernity as a “catastrophe,” a “shipwreck,” “discontinuous,” “dystopic,” “a failure to remember,” “traumatic,” etc. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Pfau is neither supportive of, nor sympathetic to, modernity. His narrative is not intended to provide a neutral, objective, and academic understanding of modernity, but rather a demolishing and biased critique of it; yet another one from a decidedly Catholic perspective.