How long have we been modern men, living in modern times, experiencing the trials of modernity and modernization? What self-obsession! Although the people of any brilliant age—Elizabethan England, France under Louis XIV, Augustan Rome—lend to exercise their bragging rights too freely, none of them went on, generation after generation, talking about itself in this way.

What does it mean to be modern, anyway? The clue is to be found in the word “modernization,” the process by which men left the plow or put down the adze and went to town to take up work in a factory, abandoning their religion in favor of a trade union, movies, and a daily newspaper, and dreaming of the day they could pack the whole thing in—wife, kids, job—and live off Social Security in Florida.

To be modern, in other words, is to be rational, rootless, and above all restless because modernity is always redefining itself. It is idle to speak of anything as “postmodern” because the irrationalism and ethnic or gender yahooism of the postmodernists is easily absorbed by modernity. As Chesterton said of progress, modern is “simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.”

Etymology tells the tale. Late Latin modernus, formed from modo (“presently,” “now,” or “lately”) on analogy with hodiernus (from hodie, “today”) meant something like “pertaining to the present time.” By the end of the 18th century, it was commonly used to contrast the writers and artists of the Renaissance and after with those of the ancient world, and the Battle of the Books was, of course, a struggle between ancient and modern authors. But in an age of widespread Latinity, “modern” could not entirely escape its ultimate origin, the word modus, “measure,” which came to mean “manner’ or “fashion,” hence “mode” and “modish” in English. The Enlightenment made modernists of us all, conservatives and liberals alike. Roger Scruton sums up Hegel’s analysis of modem man as “the character who holds history before himself and himself before history and reflects upon whether the two are in harmony.”

As early as the 16th century, “modern” can imply up-to-date or even trendy-Shakespeare even seems to use it in the sense of “everyday” or “commonplace”—and that is ultimately the real meaning of modernity: the obsession with being fashionable coupled with a repudiation of the past. Big Bill Broonzy, in one of his talking blues songs, tells of seeing a man throwing his clothes out the window. Asked what he is doing, the man tells Bill that all those clothes “by the time they hits the ground they’ll be out of style.” That man was a true modernist, willing to destroy what is useful simply for the sake of fashion and change. “Ending is better than mending. Ending is better than mending.”