Geist der Neuzeit: The Spirit of Modern Times

Stephen Smoliar was relentless in his insistence that I read Ferdinand Tonnies. And he was right to insist. I am now on my second, slow read of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society), as I strive to understand how he differentiated between the two and why. I will write more about what he says when I have assimilated it all, something that will take me a while. But I’m working on it.

I’m reading the Charles Loomis translation in the Dover Edition, and second time round, I spent a little more time on reading the Introduction. There, in a reference to Tonnies’ sister work to Community and Society (called Geist der Neuzeit: The Spirit of Modern Times) Loomis quotes Tonnies as follows:

In the Middle Ages there was unity, now there is atomization: then the hierarchy of authority was solicitous paternalism, now it is compulsory exploitation; then there was relative peace, now wars are wholesale slaughter; then there were sympathetic relationships amongst kinsfolk and old acquaintances, now there are strangers and aliens everywhere; then society was chiefly made up of home- and land-loving peasants, now the attitude of the businessman prevails; the man’s simple needs were met by home production and barter, now we have world trade and capitalistic production; then there was permanency of abode, now great mobility; then there were folk arts, music and handicrafts, now there is science — and the scientific method applied, as in the case of the cool calculations of the businessman, leads to the point of view which deprives one’s fellow men and one’s society of their personality, leaving only a framework of dead symbols and generalizations. 

Now there are strangers and aliens everywhere.

Leaving only a framework of dead symbols and generalizations.


I will continue to read this guy. Of that I am sure. I have to thank Stephen for his insistence, there is much I can learn about community from Tonnies, and much I can learn about things communal.

4 thoughts on “Geist der Neuzeit: The Spirit of Modern Times”

  1. Hmmm. I think I’ll probably just let you read this and accept your takeaways; I know you can’t judge a book by one excerpt but it doesn’t inspire me…I also know that it is often more valuable to read ideas you disagree with (if eloquently and intelligently articulated) but I’m just not sure I could digest very much thinking along the lines that our modern world has much of anything to envy from the Middle Ages. “Solicitous paternalism?” Sounds pretty bloody awful to me – downright patronizing… and btw music, folkarts and handicrafts are going pretty damn well in 21st century-land. How about “then there was famine, and plague and life-expectancies of 35 years…etc etc” I have just one word for the concluding sentence of this excerpt…can you guess? (How about:) Bollocks!

  2. A hundred years ago there was a lot of romantic nonsense talked about the Middle Ages (some of which I’m addicted to), largely a reaction to the worst aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Almost none of the statements in that excerpt are true, or possibly even useful. What we /can/ learn from this material is how bad we all are at understanding the evidence when we have a case to make…

  3. In a hundred years, people will probably look back at today’s efforts to reinvent commerce in a digital world with some amusement too.

    From today’s perspective, the sort of solicitous paternalism practised by Quakers and Fabians a hundred years ago does look patronising and naive. But they were making it up as they went along. It was better than what went before, at any rate.

    I am less nostalgic about the Arts and Crafts movement that went along with it – that has just left us with an estate of dark, poky and over-embellished houses and some artwork of dubious merit.

    Sean, you are right but you are a Modernist and an iconoclast. I like to think there is room for progress in the world while still respecting Proverbs 23:10 :-)

Let me know what you think

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