It is something of a commonplace that the mix of capitalist exchange and technological advance we call ‘modernity’ has stripped the world of its luster. Once we dwelt in fairy glens and dwarven vales, greeting Helios as he made his way across the sky, wishing well the naiads as they bubbled on their way. We do so no longer. Science has stripped nature of its wonder; all sorts of “isms” and “izations” have stripped even this diminished nature from our lives. Concrete and wires, ink and paper, white shirts and dark suits—the symbols of our age are seen in grayscale. In this colorless sea we drift from suburb to office space and back again. Everywhere we find the antiseptic and the artificial. Everywhere we find that modernity has sucked out the magic of human life.
Whether this narrative accurately describes the 20th and 21st century experience is not the subject of this short post. I only want to show that this notion of technological and scientific advance disenchanting the world of its wonders was not inevitable. There was a time when men found magic in modernity.
George Bancroft was one of the most famous intellectuals of 19th century America. In addition to writing a famed multi-volume history of the United states, Bancroft was a popular orator and essayist, a rare Bostonian Brahmin who turned traitor to his tribe and advanced the cause of The Democracy—at least until the Civil War, when that party’s cause was shattered by disunion. But through his life Bancroft saw himself a Jackson man. He viewed Jackson as the embodiment of a favored ideal: progress.
Bancroft saw evidence of progress everywhere he went. It was the subject of one of his most famous speeches, a lengthy 1858 oration with the lengthy title “The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race.” This is an unfortunate title for a speech delivered just a few years before the horrors of civil war, but Bancroft’s vision was larger than America. Progress, he thought, was not just manifest in American life. It coursed through the human race. One evidence of this was the technological wonders and scientific discoveries made in his own life:
Of the nature of electricity, more has been discovered in the last fifty years than in all past time, not even excepting the age when our own Franklin called it from the clouds. This aërial, invisible power has learnt to fly as man’s faithful messenger, till the mystic wires tremble with his passions, and bear his errands on the wings of lightning. He divines how this agency, which holds the globe in its invisible embrace, guides floating atoms to their places in the crystal; or teaches the mineral ores the line in which they should move, where to assemble together, and where to lie down and take their rest. It whispers to the meteorologist the secrets of the atmosphere and the skies. For the chemist in his laboratory it perfects the instruments of heat, dissolves the closest affinities, and reunites the sundered elements. It joins the artisan at his toil, and, busily employed at his side, this subtlest and swiftest of existences tamely applies itself to its task, with patient care reproduces the designs of the engraver or the plastic art, and disposes the metal with a skillful delicacy and exactness which the best workman cannot rival. Nay more: it enters into the composition of man himself, and is ever present as the inmost witness of his thoughts and volitions. These are discoveries of our time.1
George Bancroft, The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race. Oration before the New York Historical Society (Liverpool: D. Marples, 1858), 15
Mystic wires! Wings of lightning! Whisperer of the secret skies! Hear Bancroft describe electricity! It is clear that for Bancroft growing scientific knowledge does not make the world less divine, but more so. I suspect science and technology enchants him so in part because of his beliefs about divinity:
The progress of man consists in this, that he himself arrives at the perception of truth. The Divine mind, which is its source, left it to be discovered, appropriated, and developed by finite creatures… all creation is a manifestation of the Almighty ; not the result of caprice, but the glorious display of his perfection; and as the universe thus produced is always in the course of change, so its regulating mind is a living Providence, perpetually exerting itself anew. If his designs could be thwarted, we should lose the great evidence of his unity, as well as the anchor of our own hope.2
ibid., 5, 9.
In other words, the fairies and the naiads might dissolve into chemical equations and laws of nature with no loss, for each one of those laws was—in Bancroft’s mind—a testament to the majesty of a living God. All creation is suffused with divinity when it is divine law that directs all of creation.
If this interpretation is true, then it is not the skyscrapers, nor the laboratories, nor even the sedate stream of office memos that has taken the magic out of modernity. It is less technology that disenchants than the way we conceive it workings.
To read other posts on the history of meaning in modernity, look to “For God and Progress,” “On the American Football Game,” “On Laws and Gods,” “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are,” and “Questing For Transcendence.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.