God's timely revenge

June 23, 1995

The discovery of my own weakness was the first symptom of taste" - Edward Gibbon's words must spring to mind when anyone is courageous enough to speak about the relationship of the universal and the particular. Is there a better topic for intellectuals who love nothing more than to talk about a problem whose insolubility guarantees the endlessness of our discourse?

Yet this discourse cannot end, because we are human beings constitutionally unable to solve our existential problems, caught forever in the trap of particular experiences which we can only endure by attributing to them a universal meaning, a timeless dignity.

Europeans' worst legacy is the dialectics of the Enlightenment. European thought has created leading ideas, idees directrices as expressed in the Declaration des droits de l'homme, that hopefully will prevail as universally-valid guidelines for human thought and human action.

At the same time, the citizens of Europe have acted, on their own continent and all over the world, in the name of universal principles as the most cruel destroyers of human particularity. In the middle of our greatest century, the 18th, Carl von Linne could, without hesitation, call homo europaeus the perfection of homo sapiens. The classification of the Systema Naturae marked the scientific triumph of European universalism.

This mood of triumph prevailed throughout the following centuries:"Here we are on the top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there - forever! There is of course a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people." That is how Arnold Toynbee, in his childhood memories, remembered the mood at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Ours became the only continent able to turn its domestic struggles into world wars. At the dawn of our millennium, triumphant universalism is still well and alive: the defeat of communism has solemnly been declared to be the end of history.

This tradition of what the Oxford English Dictionary permits us to call the "triumphancy" of the West is the reason why the return of the particular, a universal phenomenon of our times, is haunting Europe. Confronted with a living past that we thought was gone forever, we have become painfully aware that Sarajevo of all cities still belongs as much to Europe as Maastricht does.

The return of the particular in the form of a rebirth of nationalism, a revival of ethnic cleansings, a retreat to civil wars and a refuge into antisemitic thought and action marks the renaissance of phenomena all too close to the recent history of our continent.

I would argue that the return of the particular, however, has as much to do with a threatening future as it is the remnant of a past that refused to disappear. We are still closely tied to historical processes that began with the fin de siecle 100 years ago and at the same time we have already entered the age of discontinuity.

Ecological constraints are forcing us to develop a new contract between man and nature; growing structural unemployment requires us to reflect whether the traditional notion of work must remain the central value to industrial society; mass migrations from the East and South will demand much greater tolerance in our daily life and much greater cultural flexibility in our institutional arrangements than we have been willing to accept so far; dramatic demographic shifts will force us to develop innovative social and legal regulations, notably new forms of intergenerational justice that draw long-overdue consequences from the fact that our society is rapidly ageing; developments in Asia are more and more destroying our cherished belief that modernity will remain a European speciality - the current system of world trade is not likely to prevail.

Under these threats, the particular returns, yet to a large extent it returns in universal disguise. This may be seen as a possible definition of fundamentalism. What are the reasons for this return of the particular?

We are confronted today a with a challenge of time: we must promote far-reaching changes in our societies, the results of which we will not be able to see. This situation in itself not new. In western social thought, the so-called "delayed gratification pattern" always played a key role: the insight that the fabric of our institutional arrangements depends on our ability to postpone rewards for a considerable time.

Nothing could be more detrimental to a market-oriented society than a climate of immediacy, the unchecked desire to be compensated for one's deeds on the spot, the widely shared unwillingness to wait. Another word for the somewhat technical term " delayed gratification" is "trust" and post-communist as well as post-industrial societies suffer today, above all, from the scarcity of this important good.

So, what is new in our situation? To delay a gratification never meant, in our secularised society, to delay it forever or to postpone it into another world. To delay a gratification always implied a serious sacrifice indeed, but there was a clear limit to it, a reassuring element of inner worldliness.

Gratification and compensation, if not retribution, would perhaps come late but they would inevitably come and one would be able to enjoy them hic et nunc. Today, however, we must force ourselves to postpone gratifications post vitam.

Hence, religious thought returns to the postmodern world. God's revenge, as one observer has aptly called it, is becoming more and more visible. The delayed gratification pattern, this long-time attitude of the secular mind, is thereby transformed into an expression of faith.

Thus, a general flare-up of fundamentalist thinking is originated that seems to accompany the current crisis of modernity. We may find it, on the left, in the absolutism of ecological programmes, on the right, in the inquisitional practices of political correctness, in the centre, in the unshakable belief-systems of neo-classical economics. It is a western illusion, an expression of wishful thinking, to attach the label "fundamentalism" almost exclusively to Islamic societies presumably unable to come to terms with the modern world. Fundamentalism is not just their problem, but ours as well.

Wolf Lepenies is rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Germany. This is based on the text of a speech delivered in Siena, Italy, at the last meeting of the Academie Universelle des Cultures.

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