In this article, we are going to look at the proto-Moderns who lived in the late 19th century and whose work had an enormous impact on shaping the intellectual landscape and culture of the 20th century. The proto-Moderns were not necessarily Modernists themselves, but they were the forerunners or precursors of it. They pushed Western culture in a Modernist direction.
In science, pride of place must go to Charles Darwin who shot the biggest torpedo in European history into Christianity in On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871. It will suffice to say that nothing did more to undermine and weaken European confidence in Christianity in the 20th century than Darwinism. Darwin loosened the religious convictions of the European intelligentsia and ultimately the masses. He paved the way within Christianity for the split between mainline and conservative denominations. Religious elites shaped culture and thus values and beliefs in the 19th century. The 20th century was overwhelming secular. Christianity went from being the hegemonic culture to a subculture and lifestyle. The West lost its religious horizon under Modernism in which nothing is sacred.
In poetry and the arts, Charles Baudelaire was unquestionably the first hero of the Modernists. The author of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) combined transgression against bourgeois norms with an aimless bohemian lifestyle. He called for a new art for a new age that captured the beauty of the present: “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience.” In Baudelaire, we see the importance of the capture and retrieval of experience, experimentation with sex and drugs, debauchery, the rejection of the past and feeling like an “outsider” all of which would later become central to Modernism. With the duties and obligations of Christianity out of the picture, Modernists glorified the self and advocated living in the present and in the moment and without collective attachments. The individual self should be free to capture and savor every experience of life that makes it meaningful and rich. William James later explained that life as experienced by the mind is a series of moments in the stream-of-consciousness. Modernists believed a meaningful life is a liberated one in the companionship of a small group of self chosen friends. Baudelaire himself believed in Original Sin and thought men were born evil and that he was damned, but this residual Christianity was lost as time went on. In the 20th century, sin came to mean the newly minted -isms and -phobias.
In philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche had the greatest impact. Nietzsche savagely attacked and critiqued Christianity which he labeled slave morality. The author of The Antichrist (1895) proclaimed that God was dead and Christianity was finished. The author of Twilight of the Idols (1889) was an iconoclast. This dovetailed nicely with the Modernist belief in transgression. Nietzsche’s perspectivism paved the way to cultural relativism in the 20th century. Postmodernism is shot through with his interpretation of ethics in On the Geneology of Morals (1887) and Beyond Good and Evil (1886) as veiled power relations which Michel Foucault took in a leftwing direction. In The Will To Power (1901), Nietzsche called for a declaration of war on the masses. In Nietzsche, we see a number of themes that later became central to Modernism: making a religion out of art as the path to overcoming nihilism, the obsession with self-realization, the relativism of truth, the transvaluation of values, disdain for the masses, cosmopolitanism and elitism. In his magnum opus Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), Zarathustra should be read as the prophet of Modernism.
Note: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and William James were also major thinkers who paved the road to Modernism. We will discuss them in greater detail later.