Nowhere is this attitude towards the past more apparent than in the very phrase modern man. "Contemporary man" might be a better phrase, for when modern man is said, what is really meant is other men living right now, and particularly those who think in a progressive sort of way. Modern man is used instead, because of the second meaning: that men who came before were primitive, backwards, and suitable only to be ignored.
The oddity of this is made all-the-more striking for some of the reasons as to why modern man is so superior to his ancestors. First, men in previous ages fought so fiercely over what modern man considers the most trivial and minute of details in philosophy of religion. Much ado was made by the simple claim of the Arians' claiming that since Christ was Son, therefore He was not eternal, and thus not "True God from True God," or alternatively by the Sabellians' claim that Son and Father were one and the same, that each title was like a mask worn by a single Person. Modern man laughs at the men at that age, and particularly at the one man who stood alone for orthodoxy--at least, when we recall that there was one man who seemed to stand against the whole world. Athanasius contra mundem is a phrase forgotten by most today, though the world would surely laugh at it, forgetting that Athanasius won.
Our unseriousness as regards things philosophical is not necessarily new, for Chesterton certainly recognized it nearly 100 years ago. In the opening pages of Heretics, he wrote that
“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do no agree in their theory of the universe….But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century."It is not the people of yesterday who were backwards for caring so intensely for their philosophies (and theologies). They may have stood on their heads, but they could see clearly that the world was really upside-down. They really did allow their minds to soar, sometimes imaginatively, often with their heads in the clouds; but they could from this vantage point see the forest rather than merely the trees.
Modern man, meanwhile, stands firmly on his feet, grounded, and thus is moved along with the rest of the world. Moreover, he does not even really escape from the "backwards" nature of his ancestors, but merely chooses something more trivial to fight over. Blaspheme God, and he'll smile indifferently; blaspheme man, and he'll see you burn. Having abandoned philosophy and theology, modern man will take up arms against the modern heretics: those who speak out against the dogmas of science in general and social science in particular. Abandoning the simple languages of mysticism and prayer, he learns the more complicated and ever-changing language of political correctness.
The old men argued over over whether Christ was God, Man, neither, or both. Modern man does not care about these questions, but rather whether his neighbor is to be referred to as black, negro, African-American, or a "person of color." The old men would burn a person at the stake for calling himself God; the modern men (and especially the womyn) for saying that all people are "men." The old men might consider it an affront to call a homily dry; the modern man, by the use of such epithets as "wetback." Each is a heretic against the others' religion: the modern man has rejected any distinct character to God; the old man noted that there are also distinct characters to men.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:
The Myth of the Golden Era
Science and the Death of Wonder (Thirty Minute Musings)
Modern and Medieval Life (Thirty Minute Musings)
A Sort-of Review of Chesterton's Heretics (Book Review)
Chesterton on Dogma
Chesterton on Dogma (again!)
Chesterton on Ceremony and Science