The Architecture of Modernity & the Joy of Science
Ages, places, and nations sometimes have characteristic architectural forms. Sometimes these forms, like vinyl-clad McMansions, or the decrepit and vaguely totalitarian National Mall, tell you things about a culture that its members would rather not know, and surely most places and times have an architecture of that kind. Other forms are characteristic not only of some virtue or vice in a society, however, but its self-understanding. The greatest of these forms was probably the cathedral in the high and late Middle Ages, which was simultaneously an expression of the aesthetic, economic, and political aspirations of a community as well as an act of humility before G-d, echoing the incarnation by uniting G-d and man. Nowadays we capitalist Westerners have our own entrant, which is of course the skyscraper.
Skyscapers are like cathedrals in another way: they contain a place within the building that is natural to treat as sacred. In the cathedral this space was the center of the cross formed by the nave and the transept, and in the skyscraper it is the highest floor of the building. What we use this space for can tell us about ourselves, I think. Observation decks are therefore a symbol of modernity, and an important one. They are open to the public and serve no purpose other than to gratify the mind and the eye with the sight of the city spread out below. This gratification, I suggest, is one of the many ways in which modernity is actually more Christian than the Middle Ages.
Nothing like the scientific method was found in antiquity, and what glimmers of it appeared in the Middle Ages were feeble. The systematic use of the method, institutionalized in journals and laboratories, is characteristically modern, but the psychology of the scientists who employ it represents a Christian ideal. Many scientists seem to feel a passionate, personal joy at the ordered reasonableness of the universe, or more specifically, that it is reasonable, but its reasons are never exhausted. This joy is a species of the joy in being qua being that Aquinas, speaking for the Christian tradition, claimed to be the proper disposition of all Christians toward the created order. You have to know some scientists personally, I think, to realize that scientists are like this, because scientists themselves are not encouraged to articulate it, though sometimes you do hear statements in the press about how a new finding is “really darn cool.”
Being happy merely to see and to understand, as scientists are, is the feeling responsible for observation decks, whose most intellectually incurious and aesthetically stolid visitors thrill with joy as they marvel at the works of Man and discover how familiar neighborhoods tessellate. Though surmise about the psychology of ages past is hazardous, I’ll venture to guess that the civilization of the modern West has privileged and encouraged joy in the way the universe works more than any civilization in history.
I write all of this by way of introduction, since this is my first post at the League and much of my blogging will be characterized by choleric and occasionally intemperate hostility towards liberal democracy and industrial capitalism, such that you might mistake me for a Front Porcher in an ordinary gentleman’s clothing. So, while I am interested in the alienation of man from himself that is peculiar to modernity, I don’t forget that modernity has created new possibilities of experience we would do wrong to abandon. I also believe that the joy I described above animates the best bloggers on the internet, and I hope it will characterize my own blogging here.