The Birth of the Modern Mind

In 1992, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama published a book provocatively titled The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that though history had not come to an end, the ideological struggle had. Only liberal democracy, he argued, was now credible. It couldn’t be bettered. Of course, many African and Latin American nations that claim to be liberal and democratic are not. And many nations remain proudly theocratic. However, in what could roughly be called ‘the West,’ meaning Europe, North America, Australasia, and so on, liberal democracy has triumphed. And because it works so well, argues Fukuyama, this system will inevitably triumph. As Churchill famously put it, “democracy is the worst system, apart from all the others.”

But the way people organize themselves, whether theocratic or democratic, socialist or libertarian, in turn influences the way they think and feel. And just as individual psychology can be shaped by deep, underlying beliefs, so can that of a whole society. Even mental illness can often be traced back to the family and community in which someone was raised. So how has the ‘modern mind’ been formed by this evolution towards liberal democracy? If Fukuyama is correct and modern, secular, liberal democracy really is destined to shape the minds of the 21st century, where did it begin? And what distinguishes the modern mind, from, say, the medieval or ancient?

The Renaissance

In 1453, Byzantium fell and refugees flooded into Europe. Some brought the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece with them, spreading it back into Europe. This revival of interest in ancient Greece was crucial. Whereas the medieval church had taught that humanity was sinful and fallen and that Heaven lay outside of, or beyond, the Earthly realm, the Greeks had celebrated human potential and valued the material world. Along with this rediscovery of ancient Greek culture came a revived interest in ancient Roman, or Latin, culture. Both were pre-Christian, and both had produced thinkers who developed their ideas independently of any over-arching religion or philosophy.

The Renaissance was essentially Italian, taking place in a few small city states, such as Florence, between the 1420s and 1520s. Unlike medieval art, human anatomy and proportion was now observed carefully and a new individuality was expressed. In 1435, for example, Alberti published a book in which he argued that the artist was not a mere technician but a creator; the idea of individual artistic genius was re-born. Even paintings of the Christ and Madonna became more realistic. And in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, you begin to see an individual mind at work. Like an ancient Greek philosopher, Da Vinci was interested in everything, from the flight of birds and movement of water to the growth of plants and structure of the human body. Michelangelo’s statue of David, completed in 1504, depicts man not as a worthless sinner but as noble, defiant, and beautiful.

Renaissance art and literature reveals a fundamental shift. Instead of turning away from the material world and yearning for something brighter and better, Renaissance artists focussed on the here and now – and celebrated it.


Closely connected to the Renaissance was a widespread rebellion against the power and influence of the Catholic Church. For around a thousand years, Europe had been dominated by an international church centred in Rome. By the 16th century, however, it was acknowledged that this church was laughably corrupt. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, it is taken for granted that most of the church’s representatives will be devious and self-serving. By 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther had had enough and initiated a mass revolt. By the 1540s, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and large parts of Germany had identified themselves as Lutheran and withdrawn from the Catholic Church. In 1534, the King of England declared himself head of the English church. Other anti-catholic thinkers also emerged, developing their own philosophy. Most significant were John Calvin in France and Huldreich Zwingli in Switzerland.

Of course, even today the majority of people in the world are not Protestants. But Protestantism had a huge influence on the development of science, the Enlightenment, the birth of modern democracy, and the character of nations like Australia, Canada and the USA. The monopoly of the Catholic Church was broken. This was a profound change and marked a break between the modern and medieval world. More importantly, the idea that you could question so powerful an organisation had been asserted. The Renaissance writers had rediscovered Greek and Latin culture, and now the northern Europeans had directly challenged the Catholic Church. Both had demonstrated that there was more than one way of viewing reality. Protestants also placed great emphasis on the individual and his personal interpretation of the Bible. The inner life and inner self were thus strengthened. And if the word of God was all that mattered, not ritual and tradition, then the Bible must be translated into native languages. And since this was so important, precision and objectivity were vital.

Modern Science

In the 17th century, above all in England, Holland and France, there arose a new method for understanding and interpreting the world. Microscopes and telescopes were perfected and numerous discoveries were made, from the circulation of blood to the existence of unicellular organisms. But it was the scientific method itself that really transformed the way people thought. Various attempts were made to clarify and define this method, one of the most famous by the Englishman Francis Bacon. In 1605, he published The Advancement of Learning. Here, he argued that philosophy should be kept separate from theology. And philosophy, which for Bacon included science, should depend solely upon reason. Through the use of reason, Bacon argued, human beings could obtain power over the living world. By the end of the century, Isaac Newton had proved this. In the 18th century, this scientific revolution would create a generation of secularists who promoted the use of reason. As a consequence, the 18th century is often known as the The Age of Reason, or The Enlightenment – an age some believe we still live in.

Any attempt to define the modern mind is obviously limited. But certain very broad characteristics can be observed. It is generally sceptical and secular, with almost limitless faith in the power of reason. Thanks to men like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, there is also a tendency to see the material world as a collection of machine-like parts governed by unalterable scientific law. It is also individualistic. Another founder of modern science, Rene Descartes, argued that the world consisted of two fundamentally different substances – mind and matter. The human body was part of the machine-like world of matter, while the thinking ego was quite separate. To most medieval Europeans, for example, the idea of a unique, individual self was unknown. As Eric Fromm put it, “awareness of one’s individual self, of others and of the world as separate entities had not yet fully developed.” Instead, people felt they belonged to a living cosmos inhabited by super-natural beings and presided over by a human-like God.

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