How to Be Modern

Bust of a Woman
Pablo Picasso,1944

How to Be Modern

I’ve never understood why people wanted to be modern in the first place.  Okay, the dentistry is an improvement.  I’ll give you that.

On the other hand, Victorian people (as in the novels of Dickens) seemed to me to boast more definite outlines and be more fully present than the so-called moderns ever managed to become. 

My parents and their generation, though they came of age at the height of modernity – the 1920’s – were closer to the Victorian type of man and woman.  So also was the apartment building where I grew up, with its lion’s head over the front steps and the castle-like crenelation along the roofline.

Whatever they were or were not, modern people were surely anti-Victorian.  I got a better sense of what it meant to be modern when I heard Queen Victoria herself speaking.  That is, I heard what purported to be her actual voice, as she is now — coming to us from the afterlife — via a medium’s 50-year-old tape recording, which you can hear at the Victor Zammit blog.

         “Oh poo!” the scoffers might object.  “Any actor can imagine how she must have sounded and then produce the voice she has imagined.”

That’s not true.  However it was done, conjuring up a voice that delivers Queen Victoria is amazingly hard to do.  The defining angel of the Age that bears her name?  Try to conjure that and see how well you do.

         “Just call me Victoria,” the recorded voice said, “I’m no longer Queen.”   

Well, you can take Victoria out of her queenly robes but you can’t take The Queen out of Victoria.  She showed a “Victorian” concern for her reputation and was appearing (via the 20th-century medium) in order to remove up some of the misunderstandings still tarnishing it.  There was a certain Scotsman, John Brown, whose presence at her side in the time of her widowed seclusion had stirred gossip.  John Brown had mediumistic gifts  and Victoria made use of his abilities to contact her beloved, departed Prince Albert.  With whom, at present, she is living happily in paradise.

The recording wasn’t very good, so I didn’t strain to listen to the end of the tape.  But I stayed long enough to comprehend what must have motivated the moderns.   She was …


“Walk wide o’ the widow at Windsor,” the Victorian poet said.  Her wide hoop skirts enveloped every mother’s son who stood within range of her influence.  The only thing left for a fellow to do was, sooner or later, to …


Hence, modernity.  Pardon me for making a long story short.  What did the change comprise?  If you no longer affirmed that Mother Knows Best, to whose head would Victoria’s all-knowingness be most comfortably transferred?  Why, to one’s own manly head, of course!  A head submissive to no man or woman, to no ranking by established values or institutions — only to the deliverances of fact, as expressed by the modern sciences. 

So, in architecture, the moderns defaced the great cities of Europe and the U.S., erecting straight-line buildings, because straight lines are very mathematical and science is writ in the language of mathematics.  The new buildings stood, free of superfluous sentiment, unadorned and uncompromised by the plazas on which they intruded — plazas that embraced monuments to the past and stately palaces from another time.

So too in psychology, the moderns erased those inner features by which heroes can be distinguished from those who go-along-to-get-along.  They did this scientifically – or so they said, whether crediting their findings to Freud or to the Behaviorists.  Decoding action and motivation, they tracked them down the slope to starting points below the level of conscious understanding and choice.  The psyche began to look as unsightly as the city.

And in philosophy, in Vienna or Cambridge University, the knower acknowledged no principle beyond what he thought that science admitted: observable facts and sentences recording such observations – plus the logical relations obtaining between such sentences and other sentences.

After a time, this principle too would break down, because the principle itself was not an observable fact and also excluded too much of what real talk includes.  But the long climb back has been slow and wary.  When consciousness is allowed in as a factor, it’s with a bit of embarrassment.

On the Continent of Europe, where science did not play the same gate-keeper role for philosophers, one still sees the modern ambition to begin the philosopher’s world anew, ab initio: to lay down methods and insights beholden to no predecessors.

There are noteworthy exceptions of course.  But the modern tendency has, unsurprisingly, led to our present period, with its repudiation of every truth claim except for the one that skepticism makes for the truth of skepticism’s own assumptions.

And all the while, in the Anglosphere and on the Continent, two colossi bestride the waves largely unopposed: Marx and Freud.  The economic and predictive track record of the former, the clinical evidence for the latter, are alike shaky and contestable.  But together they go to show that … once you   dethrone mother and her heaven …

you’ll find something else to worship.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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