Two sides of the modern era

The modern era, with its Baroque or Enlightenment beginnings, soon developed two frames of mind. Opposing in some ways, they proved to be more complementary than oppositional. Often discussed separately, they actually overlapped, challenging one another and feeding one another. But both frames of mind were thoroughly modern—believing in progress, in reason, and in objective and complete access to truth.

These frames of mind have acquired various labels. They have been called classic and romantic, rational and emotional, head and heart, even Apollonian and Dionysian. While many people have favored one and spoken against the other, most individuals contain aspects of both in their outlook and in their daily lives. In the arts, the classical expressions are generally regarded as earlier and the romantic expressions as later, as if the romantic artists challenged the classical artists. But both continued to be expressed, to be enjoyed, and to be imitated throughout the modern era right up to the present time.

In music, Mozart represents the classical mindset, and Beethoven represents the romantic. In literature, Shakespeare writes in the classical style, and Goethe writes the romantic way. The contrast can be found in visual arts, in historical studies, and even in theology. Among Lutherans, the contrast is sometimes phrased as “dead orthodoxy” as compared to “pietism.” The former refers to faith as expressed through correct doctrine and formal, traditional worship; the later emphasizes faith as a personal relationship with the Lord, felt in the heart and not merely in the mind. Clearly, value is found in both; they do not have to be an either/or (although often they are described as either/or, one correct and one incorrect). Among Anglicans, the contrast is sometimes phrased as High Church vs. Low Church, or as Episcopal vs. Methodist.

It might seem that the classical mindset is more open to science and technology, but people with the romantic mindset also willingly benefit from the benefits of science and technology. In fact, a romantic mind might explore “what if” questions that lead to scientific or technological breakthroughs that would not come from a purely classical mindset.

Others might relate classical and romantic mindsets to conservative and liberal attitudes. But the contrasts vary in different dimensions. Both classical and romantic people might be conservative, wanting to keep things the way they are; both classical and romantic people might be liberal, wanting to improve things, assuming that they can be better than they are. Conservatism and liberalism both belong to the modern world in a way that does not relate as neatly to pre-modern thinking or to post-modern thinking.

Every human institution found it necessary to adapt to modern thinking. The Church, the governments, the schools, the workplaces, even the families were affected by modern thinking. Classical and romantic contrasts increased the turmoil of the transition. But probably no change was more earthshaking than the technological changes that are described as the Industrial Revolution. J.

9 thoughts on “Two sides of the modern era

  1. I would guess that with the passage of enough time some might assess any event in history ends up being a progress toward a positive end somewhere down the line, and that there are no true “mistakes” just historical evolution in adaptation.


  2. Very interesting. I was surprised that Shakespeare writes in the classical style, and Goethe writes the romantic way. But it makes sense if we’re talking about style instead of content. I agree, it’s shouldn’t be either/or. We need both the classical and romantic for a balanced view.

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    • Exactly, Mel! The balance is important. Of course Shakespeare wrote romances as well as comedies and historic works, but even his romances and his love sonnets followed a classical form, as compared to the poets of a later time whose style was romantic even when they were not writing about romance. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a tad wary of relying too much on what constitutes “modern” unless it’s simply a historical reference term to separate the transition from the Dark Ages from the, say, Renaissance period. Actually, talk about being “woke”, those were the days, my friend, following the the dominance of religion like the Inquisition… and other appalling human representations carried out in the name of God. While we “woke” from that, we still have those factions to this “modern” day, albeit most of us like to believe we are above all that when likely it’s more dormant in the human psyche than we care to think. If our “modern” fluxes with the right (or wrong) change, we could sink back quick enough. The Industrial Revolution, which is where I think you are headed here, was our transitioning to a material world from a dominant spiritual one. Dirty hands and a life of hard work and self-sacrifice in the fields was less about one becoming closer to a “Godliness” and more about the greater rewards of applying science to industrialize efficiency. Just passing some thoughts.

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    • I do not use labels like “modern” carelessly; however, I also agree that the traditional tryptic of “ancient, medieval, and modern” leaves much to be desired. It is hard to identify a turning point between ancient and medieval; even the “fall of Rome” was no single clear event, easily recognized and acknowledged by everyone. As for the transition from medieval to modern, some things we consider modern can be identified in the early 1300s. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) is about as late as one can start the modern era, but I still consider Descartes the first modern philosopher. On the other hand, the two centuries from the fall of Constantinople (1453) to the Peace of Westphalia are a time of significant transition, featuring the Renaissance and the Reformation, as well as European exploration of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans and adjacent lands in Africa, Asia, and the western hemisphere. One could consider the Reformers both medieval and modern–the results of their work impacted the modern world greatly, but many of their ideas were still more medieval than modern. J.


      • I defer to your obvious greater devotion to the subject than myself. 🙂
        What we seem to acknowledge is that the terms by which scholars separate times expressing an awareness of self, environment, spiritual, etc. are all subjective.. or even relative. It’s like the Santayana adage about ignoring the mistakes of the past we are doomed to repeat them (which he never expressly said “mistakes”). One has to determine, or interpret, what was a mistake, and do we judge a historical mistake only by a resulting “bad” future decades down the line? If a historical “mistake” results in a good outcome down the line, it is no longer a mistake?

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      • That Santayana quote: I do not think it means what you think it means.
        Beyond that, a post-modern assessment of any historical event is likely to identify both gains and losses rather than assuming that most changes are progress toward the better and that the few that do not meet this standard are mistakes. J.


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