The Modern Era and Beyond
In characterizing an era with a specific label--indeed, in defining an era altogether--one runs the risk of making a claim that cannot be substantiated. It is perhaps least contentious simply to sort on the basis of numerical units, contrasting the seventeenth century with the eighteenth or, perhaps in Time magazine fashion, treating each decade of the century as a separate entity. However, purely chronological division has its costs. In drawing an arbitrary line at 1800, for example, one may ignore political watersheds like 1776 or 1789 or 1815, each of which seems far more important for the understanding of historical trends. And one misses the opportunity to define epochs in meaningful terms--for example, the period from 1815 to 1914 (a period of relative peace on the European continent) or the period of 1914 to 1989 (the two world wars and the cold war).
In writing of the modern era, I am clearly transcending a purely chronological metric and averting a political delineation of eras. The term modern era is put forth in the same spirit as one might speak of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlighterunent, or the romantic era. And just as each of these refers, roughly, to the centuries following 1500, the term modern era is designed to refer to the personalities, events, and, above all, the ideas that have dominated the twentieth century in the West. At the same time, I intend no slavish adherence to the span 1900 to 2000. At least two of these seven modern masters, Freud and Gandhi, accomplished considerable work before 1900; and the last of the surviving titans, Graham, died in 1991.