— Flaubert, The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas
IN HIS NOVEL The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa recounts a meeting between Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina and scion of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Sicily, and Chevalley di Monterzuolo, a young Piedmontese politician. The dialogue is a perfect illustration of the gulf that separates those who feel at home in the modern world from those alienated from it. This is the main subject of Steven B. Smith’s Modernity and Its Discontents, an ambitious work that covers five centuries of intellectual culture, from Machiavelli, Descartes, and Hobbes to Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss, Lampedusa himself, and Saul Bellow.
To better understand the significance of Smith’s book, I would like to start with the chapter devoted to Lampedusa, in which he discusses the aforementioned scene. It takes place at Donnafugata, soon after the reunification of Italy under the House of Savoy in the early 1860s. The tide of the times was going against everything Don Fabrizio stood for; his class was slowly waning away, being replaced by the rising bourgeoisie, and the Prince increasingly felt like a lone survivor on a deserted island. Even his nephew, Tancredi, fell in love with the daughter of nouveau riche Don Calogero, who exuded nothing but greed and vulgarity.
The new bourgeois world only elicited the Prince’s revulsion and dismay. From people like Don Calogero, he believed, one had nothing to hope or ask for. Don Fabrizio had long given up the hope of reforming his beloved Sicily and was persuaded that his compatriots, “hankering for voluptuous immobility,” excelled only at their vanity, which was even stronger than their misery. “For over twenty-five centuries,” the Prince confessed, “we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own.”
Unlike the Prince of Salina, the guest from the North was a herald of the new age. A firm believer in progress, Chevalley di Monterzuolo came to Sicily to convince the Prince to accept to serve as Senator of the island in the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, that “lovely country which is only now coming into the sight of the modern world, with so many wounds to heal.” Everything in him displayed the mixture of buoyancy and opportunism, which incarnated the restless spirit of the bourgeois world. He believed in parliamentarism and spoke with fervor of “this decisive moment for the future of the Italian state,” calling upon Don Fabrizio to join in this noble effort. His passionate call fell upon deaf ears, though; an abyss separated him from the proud and skeptical aristocrat. He turned down the offer with these memorable words: “We were the Leopards, the lions; those who’ll take our place will be hyenas, and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”
At about the same time, in France, Flaubert (analyzed in another chapter of Smith’s book), Baudelaire, and other fellow-artists also saw themselves as the salt of the earth. Everything around them, they complained, was becoming flat, dull, philistine. Flaubert assembled with gusto a “dictionary of accepted ideas,” in which he castigated the inanities of the bourgeois mind. In turn, Baudelaire feared that the world was about to end with the triumph of the middle class and predicted that the universal ruin would manifest itself not so much through the decay of political institutions as through the debasement of hearts and minds.
One of the most flamboyant spirits of the 19th century, J. K. Huysmans, who — along with Lampedusa, Flaubert, and Baudelaire — would deserve a place in any anthology of discontent with the modern world, created (in Against Nature) a memorable character, des Esseintes, who seeks refuge against the ugliness of the bourgeois world in decadence and eccentricity, in search of “new perfumes, larger blossoms, pleasures still untasted.” Tormented by the mal du siècle, he has resolved never to set foot out in the streets during the day; the expressions on some heathen faces he regards as “personal insults.” Not surprisingly, des Esseintes creates a hermitage in his own house, which he has turned into a Noah’s ark equipped with all the modern conveniences, refined furniture, and a few books.
Beyond his penchant for extravagance, Huysmans’s character shares something important with the thinkers analyzed in Smith’s book. They all understood that the “greater things” of the old world were under siege, and were determined to do something to protect them. Unlike Lampedusa’s Prince of Salina, they were neither traditionalists nor apologists of the past. Although their refined taste and exquisite sensibility might have been at odds with the bourgeois ethos, they were surprisingly modern in many respects: daring, nonconformists, and impatient with clichés. Yet they shared with Don Fabrizio the feeling of being ill at ease between the two worlds, and unwilling to put up with the vulgarity of the age.
Making sense of these clashes between the champions and critics of modernity is a daunting task, and Smith deserves full credit for entering a long debate. One is always tempted to ask who is right and who is wrong, but, as Smith points out, this may be off the mark. To begin with, the twin concepts of “modernity” and “anti-modernity” are not mutually exclusive. They have been widely discussed in philosophy and theology (Ernst Cassirer, Hans Blumenberg, René Guénon, Amos Funkenstein), history of ideas (Zeev Sternhell, Isaiah Berlin), and comparative literature (Paul Hazard, Marc Fumaroli, Matei Călinescu, and Antoine Compagnon), but a debate is still going on regarding the origin(s) of modernity, the peculiarities of via moderna, the faith in — and the crisis of — the modern project. To understand the complexity of this debate, one needs to explore the causes of this new historical type and way of life, in relation to such notions as personal autonomy, individual rights, self-assertion, toleration, freedom, and equality.
Moreover, both the champions and critics of modernity are surprisingly diverse. “Modernity is not monolithic,” Smith writes, “and it contains many competing strands,” from toleration and commerce to self-discovery, large-scale social engineering, and the nation-state. He sees a thread linking Machiavelli and Descartes’s emphasis on self-mastery and autonomy of the individual will, Hobbes and Spinoza’s critique of religion, Franklin’s ethics of self-reliance, Kant’s conception of human dignity, and Hegel’s celebration of civil society. This illustrates the manifold nature of the modern (Enlightenment) project and invites us to discover a more complex picture of modernity. Some may be surprised to see Montaigne and Pascal missing from this list. Equally surprising might be Bacon’s absence, but Smith offers a nuanced portrait of a kindred spirit, Benjamin Franklin — a “new kind of Enlightenment hero” whose reformism was tempered by his proverbial moderation and strong sense of human imperfection.
Modernity also has a doppelgänger (the Counter-Enlightenment, or broadly speaking, the anti-modern camp): it has produced a rhetoric of anti-modernity that has taken various philosophical, literary, and political forms. While it is common to identify the anti-modern discourse with the Counter-Enlightenment, Smith believes that the latter is not so much anti-modern as it is “a higher or more advanced form of modernity.” This is certainly the case with Rousseau, no stranger to controversy and “virtually impossible to classify under any label.” In Smith’s view, the Genevan writer was a key figure in this respect; he represented “the voice of radical discontent with the three great pillars of Enlightenment civilization: science, progress, and commerce.”
In its strongest political form, the discontent with modernity gave birth to various types of elitism that denounced the “prostitution” brought forth by popular suffrage, and were accompanied by a radical critique of political democracy. These topics are discussed at length in a long chapter devoted to Nietzsche, Sorel, and Schmitt, whose “apocalyptic imagination” vilified the bourgeois world for making true virtues and passions impossible. No more love or creativity, they lamented, just the desire to be happy, comfortable, and secure in a mediocre, anonymous world.
This discontent also knew several philosophical incarnations. Some of them amounted to a critique of the impersonal forces that govern the modern world (Heidegger, the Frankfurt School), while others expressed skepticism toward individualism, bureaucratic managerialism, and administrative centralization. The latter can be found in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (to whom Smith devotes a whole chapter). There is a qualitative difference between Tocqueville’s and Rousseau’s critiques of modern society; the first praised many of the things that his predecessor abhorred. It’s not easy to imagine Rousseau traveling to the United States and writing admiringly about the virtues of the American democracy.
One of the key challenges facing anyone who studies the anatomy of modernity is how to retain a critical stance toward it and at the same time resist the temptation of radical negation. “To be modern,” Smith writes, “is to exhibit a whole range of uncertainties and pathologies, from Locke’s sense of ‘uneasiness,’ Rousseau’s ‘amour-propre,’ Hegel’s ‘unhappy consciousness,’ and Kierkegaard’s ‘anxiety,’ to Tocqueville’s ‘inquiétude,’ Marx’s ‘alienation,’ and Weber’s ‘disenchantment.’” Can we, for example, take a page from the Counter-Enlightenment and the critics of modernity without at the same time embracing fascism or other reactionary doctrines? This was Isaiah Berlin’s great achievement; he studied with great interest the works of anti-moderns as diverse as Giambattista Vico, J. G. Hamann, and Joseph de Maistre, while remaining committed to the principles of political liberalism.
Smith’s ambition is to emulate Berlin’s example. He believes that it is vital to keep the conversation going between modernity’s defenders and its critics. The main point here is “not to declare one side the victor over the other […] but to discover what we moderns have still to learn or at least to discover what is important not to forget.” It is no accident that Smith is fascinated by Lampedusa’s Prince, whose anxieties he partly shares. At the same time, like Leo Strauss, another thinker whom he admires, Smith describes himself “as a friend of liberal democracy,” who, out of true friendship, cannot permit himself to become a flatterer.
This book is a wonderful example of how one can achieve such a difficult balance. In our conformist age, when Lampedusa’s “leopards and lions” seem things of the past, this is an act of intellectual courage that deserves admiration.
Aurelian Craiutu is the author, most recently, of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).