In 1885, the ever-suspicious and iconoclastic Nietzsche wrote that "there is an element of decay in everything that characterizes modern man." This was more than a mere statement of cultural pessimism. Nietzsche had no confidence in the high-flying promises of the Enlightenment age and modernity. More than a century later, the state of the world in which we live presents an even more confusing picture.
The radical critics of Western modernity raised serious questions about its self-fulfilling prophecies. In place of the serene world of reason, rationality, science, technology and claims to democracy and rule of law, they saw European imperialism and colonialism, child labor, capitalist exploitation, class struggle and oppression as the primary leitmotifs of modernity. From Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger to T. S. Eliot and Michel Foucault, scores of Western intellectuals saw decline and decadence as the guiding principles of the brave new world. Some have had hope to overcome this crisis of nihilism. Some never had.This is one of the enduring paradoxes of Western modernity. On the one hand, you have an immense self-confidence and hubris to build a new world based on a Eurocentric worldview.
On the other hand, you have widespread disbelief and deep mistrust that intellectuals, scholars and artists hold against the arrogant claims of the modern world. Both realities have shaped the trajectory of modern history since the 19th century. At the end, though, Western modernity triumphed, leading to a world of immense contradictions and parallel histories.Some of these contradictions are wild and all of them shameful. The world has never seen so much wealth in history. But we have never seen such a big gap between the rich and the poor either. Science and technology have made major strides but failed to replace religious belief and traditional ethics. Interest in occult literature, mysteries and fantasies is on the rise in the most secular Western countries. Religions have been sidelined by the secular and scientific forces of the modern world. But they are also having a comeback with a new energy. The individual person was once presented as the most precious gift of the Enlightenment age. But it is being crushed under the ever-complex and stressful system of modern life. New forms of communitarianism are on the rise.