Modernism is an ancient phenomenon. If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then modernism is the world's oldest heresy. Modernism's essential features were already understood long before the era of modernity. Plato reveals them in his dialogue The Euthyphro. The character of Euthyphro is a prototype of modern man. In the dialogue Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for the murder of a slave who had gotten drunk and killed another slave. Euthyphro's father had bound the slave and thrown him into a ditch while he consulted the legal authorities about what to do. The slave died of exposure while they waited for a judgment.
After hearing Euthyphro proudly describe his role in prosecuting his father, Socrates sarcastically comments that only someone with a refined understanding of piety would dare do such a thing. Euthyphro readily agrees to the proposition that his understanding is exceptional. Accordingly, Socrates proceeds to examine Euthyphro concerning the nature of piety. He shows the frustrated and embarrassed Euthyphro that his action presumes an understanding of piety that he does not possess.
In Ideas Have Consequences Richard Weaver argues that modern man's offense is, in a word, impiety. He even calls modern man a "parricide." (1) Weaver is alluding to the fact that the human race as a whole is related to some things the way a child is related to his parents. All of us have parents in a biological sense. But parenthood is not merely biological. Sexual reproduction is simply one form of parenthood. There is some sense in saying that God is more a father to us than our earthly father. Earthly fathers participate in fatherhood par excellence, and to that extent they are icons of divinity. Parents in the true sense are those who bequeath life. And life in the true sense is not mere biological life; it is fullness of being. For human beings, to live is not merely to be alive. Not only all of their bodily organs must be employed in the activity of life, but all their distinctively human capacities must function in the proper way. So a truly human life, which is to say a true life for human beings, will employ the intellectual and emotional faculties in the way that is proper to them. Whatever makes this possible for us is a parent to us in the true sense, and is deserving of the veneration proper to parents. Thus we say that God is our Father most of all. Jesus even says that we should call only God "Father." (2) In the strict sense, only God is father; every other fatherly thing is a manifestation of divine fatherhood. But we show our reverence for God appropriately by appropriately revering his fatherly agents on earth, for example, our biological parents.
Weaver says that modern man is a parricide. Weaver, following the whole ancient tradition, is acutely aware that human beings are organic parts of a living species. Individual men are not self-sufficient. As with cells, their life is bound up with that of the organism to which they belong. Individual men are members of man. Just as the cells of our bodies die off and are replaced by new ones, so individual men die off and are replaced by new men. The primary life is that of man; individual men participate in and contribute to the life of the species. Individuals live fully when they participate most fully in the life of man.
Life in the fullest, for man, is civilized life. Civilized life employs the full range of diverse capacities of the human population: music, art, technology, literature and philosophy, to name just a few. Life for man is made possible by many things. These are parents in the sense aforementioned. The pious son honors his parents. He loves his family and seeks its good. He respects his place in the family. He undertakes to fulfill the responsibilities that devolve on him as son. The impious son treats his parents with contempt. He attempts to usurp their natural authority. He tries to use his family as a means to his own ends.
In a nutshell, modern man is impious. He is contemptuous toward the very things that have made the good life possible for him. He tries to control them and use them for his own ends.
An example relevant to Euthyphro's case is justice. Human society consists of a complex cooperative activity sufficient for life. There is a general pattern which this cooperation must follow in order to work. That pattern is called justice. For instance, the people in the society have to keep their contracts, pay their debts and tell the truth. Otherwise they will not trust one another. Without trust, the most basic needs will not be met. Consider the complex chain of events that makes clothes available: the gathering of the raw materials, the transportation, the manufacturing, the transportation again, the retailing. Without justice, none of this happens. Without justice, we don't eat. We don't have friends. Life without justice is, in Hobbes's words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." So justice is a parent of our society and of man generally.
Plato's Republic is subtitled "concerning justice." It begins with an allusion to a torch relay race on horseback. In the context it is clear that the torch stands for the order of justice in a society. One generation lives a civilized...