In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that three prominent intellectual figures spanning the 19th and 20th centuries forecasted the cataclysm of modernity. Thomas Carlyle, René Guénon, and Jacques Ellul provided reasoned accounts to justify their views that modernity is engulfed in a state of crisis on the basis that the not-mutually-exclusive hegemonies of technology, capitalism, and globalization are not invulnerable.
While each offered a slightly different viewpoint and a slightly different description of what they took to be the crisis, their views all coalesce around the general thesis that the continuous expansion of the material and technological built landscapes will eventually prove to be catastrophic. This is for two reasons. The first, because an ever-more complex system becomes ripe for error, an error which could cause the whole system to go haywire. Essentially, “the bigger it is the harder it falls.” The second reason is that in constructing an external environment as its hegemonic priority, humanity is neglecting giving attention to spirituality, philosophy, and developing the human inward nature. The external and material becomes the fog that humanity becomes ensconced in to such an extent that pursuing such things as the ascertainment of spiritual reality through intuition, the project Plato inaugurated academia with and inspired Christianity and Islam’s later development with, becomes wrested away wholesale from the consciousness of humanity. The two factors work in a type of synergy in that they mutually reinforce one another and precipitate cataclysm. The renunciation of the pursuit of constructing an ever vaster and more complex material system, which ostensibly implies a turn toward the spiritual as a premise, is the only means to stave off ever-greater cataclysms as the material system continuously grows more complex and more globalized.
Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, technology, capitalism, and globalization have exerted their unquestioned domination only increasingly—until COVID-19. Technology, capitalism, and globalization have been unquestioned to such an extent that in hindsight it is obvious, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a global emergency of major proportions was necessary to even entertain the question that they were bound all along to eventually lead to a breakdown and inflict unprecedented harm to global health and the global economy. World War II was a destructive moment, but in no way did it impede the post-war expansions of technology, capitalism, and globalization in the latter-half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. The COVID-19 pandemic is dissimilar even to the catastrophe of World War II because of the magnitude and the nearly-universal geographic scope of the economic toll it has taken in such a short time. Moreover, while there was room for technology, globalization, and capitalism to both re-emerge and expand following World War II, their room for expansion from their forms immediately prior to the economic contraction COVID-19 exacted is likely to be minimal and is more likely to be non-existent or even negative. The contraction of the technological globalized capitalist system would inherently imply the beginning of a new post-globalization era.
What makes Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul interesting to entertain in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is the grand, global, and “esoteric” natures of their philosophies of modern history. It should be noted that the dominance of scientific rationality, mechanization, and materialist economy in the modern era itself was the lens through which enabled their philosophies to bereceived as radical and “esoteric,” or not based on empirical, positivist, scientific evidence. If their views had found a way to usurp the hegemonic position in the popular collective consciousness, they would not have been seen as radical or off-base.
Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is an 1836 fiction book that essentially inaugurated and epitomized modern social criticism toward the blind commitment to the Enlightenment and the resulting emergence of the non-spiritual materialistic basis of 19th century European politics, economy, and society. It was a chief inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and a foundational book for American Transcendentalism as an intellectual movement in general. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle offers a cryptic diagnosis of the ailment of modernity during the midst of its advent, the Victorian industrial age.
Speaking through the voice of the book’s protagonist, Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle theorizes of a “phoenix” that can be forecasted to take place roughly sometime in the 21st century. Carlyle writes, “we are at this hour in a most critical condition; beleaguered by that boundless ‘Armament of Mechanisers’ and Unbelievers, threatening to strip us bare! ‘The World,’ says [Teufelsdröckh], ‘as it needs must, is under a process of devastation and waste, which, whether by silent assiduous corrosion, or open quicker combustion, as the case chances, will effectually enough annihilate the past Forms of Society; replace them with what it may.’” This is flowery language that communicates Carlyle’s view that the world is destined to be consumed and destroyed as a function of the domination of those who uninterruptedly pursue the “boundless” construction of the material economy single-mindedly as their highest/only priority in conjunction with those who are non-spiritual, the “Unbelievers.” The “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers” are synergistic and largely synonymous in that they are those who acknowledge only that which is material and perceptible by their senses.
To Carlyle, the “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers,” by promoting the material economy, are inherently ignoring the spiritual realm, a realm that would be a moderator and reign in all-consuming materialism by embodying the virtue of renunciation (a virtue in nearly every theological and spiritual tradition). Humanity loses consciousness of the spiritual because modernity inherently divests the world of its spirit. Such a process is unsustainable because the finite nature of the world and its finite resources cannot sustain the pursuit of infinite material consumption and the increasing chaos that inherently manifests with a system that grows ever more complex. Thus, the materialist economy is bound to come into its full being, just like the mythic phoenix, before returning to ash and emerging in a different form. Carlyle reflects, “what time the Phoenix Death-Birth itself will require depends on unseen contingencies” and that it is a “handsome bargain would she engage to have [it] done ‘within two centuries.’”
René Guénon, a 20th century intellectual and metaphysician, offered what is perhaps the most sweeping and all-encompassing critique of the historical trajectory of Western civilization. He is also noteworthy in the contemporary sense as an inspiration for Steve Bannon, a chief political and policy adviser to President Donald Trump and a prominent promoter of traditionalist conservatism through such channels as Breitbart News Network. For Guénon, the West is in precipitous decline and he forecasted that it will reach a breaking point since the world is progressively displacing the realization of the quality of what he called the “Essence” of the transcendental realm (i.e. what lies beyond time and space and is perceived through the use of Platonic/spiritual intuition) with the realization of ever-greater quantity of the substance of what is material on Earth. Essentially, the progressive development of civilization corresponds to a cheapening of it and what he refers to as a “reign of quantity” rather than a reign of the quality of what can be nominally cast as the timeless Platonic Forms. Rather than conceiving of an ideal (i.e. a Platonic Form) through the use of intuition and then pursuing its realization in the Earthly material realm, everything modern defaults to gravitating around what Guénon takes to be the lowest-common-denominator, which is the measurement of everything by its quantitative rather than qualitative value. In other words, we are losing our ability to grasp and realize by intuition the ideal incarnation of all objects, concepts, and phenomena that are timeless and unchanging in the transcendent realm yet ephemeral in the material Earthly realm.
In The Crisis of the Modern World, published in 1927 shortly after World War I’s explicit embodiment of the rejection of the narrative of continual progress in modernity, Guénon reflects: “the belief in a never-ending ‘progress’, which until recently was held as a sort of inviolable and indisputable dogma, is no longer so widespread; there are those who perceive, though in a vague and confused manner , that the civilization of the West may not always go on developing in the same direction, but may some day reach a point where it will stop, or even be plunged in its entirety into some cataclysm.”
Guénon parallels Carlyle in Sartor Resartus in that he acknowledges the deeply problematic nature of cutting material existence on Earth off from any transcendent/spiritual/divine reality, a phenomenon which is only increasingly taking place in the context of modernity and not in previous ages. Devoid of any collective consciousness of transcendent reality that may prove effectual to moderating the continuous expansion of materialism and the “reign of quantity,” Guénon thinks modernity takes on a dimension antithetical to the transcendent and thus can be deemed “satanic” in the simplest nominal and non-theological use of the term. This narrative, Guénon maintains, explains the eventual dissolution of the modern world, as “the reign of quantity” will maximize the realization of quantity to its farthest limits, before triggering a cataclysmic contraction. According to Guénon in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, the “rectification” of modernity “presupposes arrival at the point at which the ‘descent’ is completely accomplished, where ‘the wheel stops turning.’” Guénon concludes that until such a breaking point is attained, “it is impossible that these things should be understood by men in general…”
Jacques Ellul, who was perhaps the foremost philosopher-critic of technology in the 20th century (and a chief inspiration for the Unabomber), largely reincarnated without citation Carlyle’s original criticisms of modernity. Ellul felt that modernity was synonymous with one vast global technical civilization that was autonomous and not subject to human control since its overall historical development as a system and long-term consequences are not subject to human control.Ellul defines what he takes to be technical civilization in his magnum opus The Technological Society, published in 1954: “technical civilization means that our civilization is constructed by technique (makes a part of civilization only what belongs to technique), for technique (in that everything in this civilization must serve a technical end), and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form).”
Ellul made known his theory that the technical civilization will have to perfect itself and sustain its perfection, as the only other alternative to perfection is the commission of an error, either small or large, that has the ability to cause the vast and interconnected system to go haywire. Ellul declares, “the technical society must perfect the ‘man-machine’ complex or risk total collapse.” For Ellul, technical civilization is a “Behemoth” and it can “rest easy” as nothing “will prevent him from consuming mankind.” Such an elucidation of the stakes involved in creating an ever-more complex and gigantic globalized and technological system are deeply relevant to the narrative of how COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global health and the global economy so quickly and so easily. Air travel and other forms of transportation infrastructure were technological developments that had reached a zenith at the time of the onset of the pandemic as a function of globalized capitalism also being at a zenith. The totality of the network of global transportation infrastructure manifested by technical civilization’s progressive global development since the Industrial Revolution was compounded by the growth in the levels of global travel on the part of the largest global population in history at the time of COVID-19’s onset.
Ellul denounces liberal political economy for providing the favorable climate necessary for the unquestioned manifestation of technical civilization and refutes prospective critics who would maintain that liberal economy and technical civilization are compatible for the long-term:
“It will doubtless be pointed out, by way of refutation, that production techniques were developed during the ascendancy of liberalism, which furnished a favorable climate for their development and understood perfectly how to use them. But this is no counterargument. The simple fact is that liberalism permitted the development of its executioner, exactly as in a healthy tissue a constituent cell may proliferate and give rise to a fatal cancer. The healthy body represented the necessary condition for the cancer. But there was no contradiction between the two. The same relation holds between technique and economic liberalism.”
Just as Carlyle documented what he took to be the crisis of modernity at its advent during the initial industrialism of 19th century Victorian England, Guénon documented in the context of retrospectively accounting for the catastrophes of both World Wars I and II, and Ellul documented in the context of the post-World War II exponential growth of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic provides another milestone with which to, at a minimum, revisit their mutually compatible theses with respect to the cataclysm of modernity. Whether COVID-19 proves to be the “big one” and arrests the hegemonic triumvirate of technology, capitalism, and globalization remains to be seen. At a minimum, what can be gleaned from Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul is that modernity’s improvement of the material standard of living for so many globally needs to be balanced with a view toward moderation and long-term sustainability. Liberal political economy, science, and technological innovation have until now been single-minded seekers of continuous growth without acknowledging the need to at some point ossify or plateau the technical civilization they have each been instrumental in constructing so that it does not become a phoenix and burn to ash.