Don Quixote lived in interesting times – at the crossroads of the western worldviews. He witnessed the death of the Medieval worldview which dominated western thinking for a thousand years, and the advent of the new thinking which grew out of the renaissance, the reformation and the enlightenment, but which we now call the modern worldview.
Don Quixote wanted to hang on to the world of Lords and serfs. Knights and peasants and eternally virgin damsels in distress. He wanted to fight dragons and giants and keep vigils with the good father in a world where the church served as the mainstay for life. Sadly, the world of chivalry was dying, and indeed already dead, and Cervantes made fun of that way of thinking in his book. But for Cervantes it was gentle fun since he clearly considered the replacement worldview, the modern worldview as a terribly crude and useless thing.
A bit more than a hundred years after Don Quixote buried Medievalism, the modern worldview was given full flower by the man I consider to be the best example: Sir Isaac Newton. Newton’s work embodied the two main elements of the modern worldview, science and progress.
As religion dominated the Medieval landscape, and not necessarily Christianity because that was kept in Latin and out of the hands of the people, but a popular, idealized view of the Christian faith, so science, and not necessarily real science but the popularized, idealized view of science dominates the modern landscape. Newton considered his work on gravity and motion to be glimpses into the mind of the creator. Today we have spawned a generation of atheists who believe that science should not only replace religion but replace God himself.
(That’s okay. The Medieval world spawned a generation of underground pagans who were good for burning at the stake. And the advent of the Modern worldview produced anarchists which we have also had a hard time getting rid of. If what is now called Post-modernism is producing radical atheists, I suppose some people will unsuccessfully try to get rid of them, too before the next change in our view of the universe).
Science, in the modernist mind, explains what religion used to explain – why we exist, how life and the universe works, what is real (what is not real) and so on. And just like in the middle ages, when confronted with an inexplicable mystery, people said what some still say to this day, that it was God’s will. So these days, people say that science can not yet explain the inexplicable, but in time, science will. And that brings us to progress.
Progress is by far the main key to understanding the modernist worldview. Everything is progressing, improving, getting better. Science progresses. Civilization progresses. (and colonialism, by the way, was not as presently represented in so many quarters, but it was in fact the best intentions, the highest calling, the moral imperative of the so-called civilized world: to lift people out of their primitive, and in some cases stone age existence and introduce them to the advances of the commercial and industrial world, including schools, modern medicine, improved agriculture and the like. It was to bring them into the modern world, not intentionally to suppress or abuse them).
So everything in the modernist mind is progressing. Societies progress, toward the communist ideal (Marx) or toward a more perfect union (Madison). Life itself is progressing (Darwin), and science and its stepchild, technology, of course progress too. People progress from childhood to adulthood even if we don’t know exactly where to draw that line. I am not sure anyone in the middle ages thought about people in that way. But in the modern world, people not only progress through life, they go up the ladder in business, make moral and spiritual progress in the church and progress in learning and everything, even if it sometimes feels like two steps forward and one step back.
There are many angles and nuances to the modernist view of the world, but these two principles of science and progress are pretty basic. It is the way so many of us think, and we act accordingly. It is how we see life, the universe and everything, and normally we don’t even question it or think about it directly. It is just in our gut, normally. The thing is, these days some are beginning to question this worldview. The reason is because we are all Don Quixotes in this life. You see, the modern worldview is going away. We are moving into what is presently called a post-modern world, though what it will be called a hundred years from now remains to be seen.
If you are primarily a modernist thinker, that is not a bad way to live or a bad way to be. Cervantes, for all of his poking fun at the medieval world, he never said it was bad or wrong. He just said it was over, and he was not too happy with the replacement. Likewise, I will probably speak in modernist terms, like making value judgments between better and worse until the day I die. At the same time I have to recognize that our worldview is being replaced, and like Cervantes I also have to admit that I am not too happy with the replacement. Next time…