An Average Joe’s Intellectual History of Western Europe— Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment in the 1700s

[This is the eleventh installment of my mini-history—two more to come]

I was not planning to cover Adam Smith in this history, much less devote most of a full post to his writings.  Adam Smith is barely mentioned in the course of lectures by Prof. Alan Charles Kors, on whom I have depended to understand the full sweep of the historical transition to the modern mind, including the Enlightenment.  Devotees of Smith should not be too put out; Prof. Kors doesn’t even mention another Enlightenment favorite, Montaigne – it seems he had to be selective, even in a 24-lecture course.  But Arthur Herman, in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, claims that Smith’s Wealth of Nations is “the Summa of the Scottish Enlightenment, a summation of its exploration of the nature of human progress—and its salute to the triumph of the modern.”  Like the Summa Theologiae, the grand synthesis by St. Thomas Aquinas, Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is, according to Herman, a sweeping synthesis—of the dueling Hutcheson and Kames/Hume wings of the Scottish Enlightenment.

We think of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations as the starting point for economics as a social science.  Which they are, but Adam Smith was not one of the number-crunching economists familiar to us today.  In fact, he was first and foremost a moral philosopher focused on the nature of human nature and society.  He set out to understand, in Herman’s words (on which I depend, given the silence of Prof. Kors), “What makes us good?  Is morality inborn, as Hutcheson insisted, a gift from God and nature?  Or is it something that has to be imposed from outside, as Hume suggested, a system of punishments and rewards that mold us into creatures fit for society?”

Theory of Moral Sentiments

In 1759, Smith published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which laid the foundation for his later work, including the Wealth of Nations which appeared in print in the spring of 1776.  Like his former teacher Francis Hutcheson, Smith proposed an inborn moral sense, but this was less an abstract urge to behave morally and more a sense of identification or sympathy with other human beings.  We suffer when others suffer, are happy when others are happy.  We experience the pain and pleasure of others, not actually but sympathetically.  We are social creatures paying close attention to each other.  This natural social instinct leads us to make moral judgments.  We judge the acts of others toward us in terms of the pain or pleasure they cause us.  We judge our own actions toward them by watching their reactions, which cause us pain or pleasure.  Thus, other humans are like mirrors reflecting back to us the morality of our behavior, becoming our guide to what is good and evil.  This capacity for moral self-judgment makes us fit for society.  Our moral judgments of others, shown by our emotion-driven reactions to their behavior, helps make them fit for society.

Imagination plays a major role in Smith’s conception of what makes us good.  We must be able and willing to imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes and to imagine what it is like to be that person watching us.  This system works for the benefit of society when it prompts us to promote the well-being of others, making ourselves happy by making them happy.  Thus, Smith makes visibly real Hutcheson’s abstract notion of an inborn moral sense.  At the same time, Smith concedes Hume’s contention that human beings are largely driven by their self-interested passions, which are shaped by Smith’s “fellow feeling” to abide by Hume’s version of the Golden Rule: I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone, so that we both can be happy.

Smith extended the central role of human imagination beyond our moral and cultural lives into our economic lives.  Imagination is the driver of the machine that produces wealth, the economy of a commercial society.  How so?  Our ability to imagine ourselves as wealthy and comfortable, inspired by those who have already achieved wealth and comfort, is what focuses and drives our energies toward that goal.  Herman (p. 208) quotes Smith:

It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.  It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth.

As Herman puts it, “The rich man is the man with the most fertile imagination.”  By devotion of all personal efforts, and the efforts of employees or tenants, to working the land or warehouse or factory, the man with a fertile imagination often succeeds in producing far more than he and his family can consume themselves.  Smith saw the irony that this self-interested pursuit of imagined personal success, wealth and comfort leads, as though guided by an “invisible hand,” to the unintended, unforeseen advancement of the whole economy.  Thus, the average wealth and happiness of society increase.  Smith did not actually propose the mystical reality of an invisible hand.  He was writing metaphorically of his remarkable insight that the good of the whole, in the case of human economy and society, is best served when the individual parts are “doing their own thing,” under the regulation of “fellow feeling” and imagination – human nature.

Adam Smith had already formed by 1759 in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the central ideas of his 1776 Wealth of Nations.  Herman contends that Smith always thought this first book was the better of the two.  It made Smith famous and earned the admiration of David Hume, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, among many others.  However, a persistent criticism leveled at Smith, as well as many other Enlightenment writers, was that he seemed to treat morality as no more than socially useful.  Smith denied that we are doomed to conform to whatever moral standards are set by our society, no matter how low or even evil those standards may become.  He did not give up on Hutcheson’s inborn moral sense of an impartial moral standard that does not vary just to suit social context.  But the argument was not convincing enough to close the door to moral relativism.

What Smith did in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in Wealth of Nations was what so many of the Scottish Enlightenment did.  At heart, they were historians.  History provided the facts they chewed on and digested.  They drew rational conclusions about human nature and society from their understanding of history, especially the history of Scotland as it rapidly transformed from the primitive clan life still contemporary in the Highlands to the dynamic, sophisticated, commercial society of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and other population centers in the Lowlands.  Learning from history was fundamental for the Scottish intellectuals.  They fancied themselves clear-eyed and practical in their descriptions of what is rather than what should be human nature and society.  But they also drew conclusions about how to secure and advance the gains of history while mitigating the losses inherent in this civilizing process.

Wealth of Nations

The driver of this civilizing process, according to Wealth of Nations, is what Smith called the “division of labor” or what we now prefer to call “specialization.”  By focusing on one thing rather than many, we become more productive of that one thing.  The farmer who specializes in growing a single crop rather than many different crops is likely to become really good at growing that crop, good enough to produce a surplus to sell to others, who specialize in other crops and sell their surpluses to him.  All involved in this exchange of crops have more of each crop to consume.  Collectively they are better off.  Then some can leave farming and focus on just the buying and selling and become really good at that and earn even more than they could by farming.  With surplus capital, these merchants can invest in innovation and manufacturing of agricultural and non-agricultural commodities that make living more comfortable and convenient.  Thus capitalism is born.  It powers commercial society to become more productive and inventive than ever before.

Specialization within this capitalist and commercial  context gets to the point where some people can specialize in nothing but thinking about how to make improvements—engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and even those “whose trade it is not to do anything, but to observe everything,” as Smith referred to philosophers, artists, writers, teachers and professional managers of all kinds.  Intellectual as well as physical labor becomes increasingly specialized, allowing technological innovation and cultural refinement.

Herman concluded: “Smith had finally defined the link between commerce and cultural progress, which the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment had written about and celebrated, but not really proved.”  There is irony and paradox in so much of what Smith discovered in his analysis of Scotland’s recent and ongoing transformation from the ancient clan society, still extant in the Highlands, and the capitalist, commercial civilization of modern Scotland as part of Great Britain.  The irony or paradox was usually due to unintended consequences.  Who knew that specialization for the sake of self-interested economic productivity would lead to high culture?  In retrospect, we like Smith could say that it makes sense – high culture has always depended on society becoming productive enough, therefore wealthy enough, to support a class of people whose jobs are to produce not physical and financial wealth but intellectual and artistic wealth.


There are other, more vexing ironies or paradoxes.  Smith pointed out that capitalism produces great inequality of wealth, with a small minority of society owning the great majority of the wealth.  At the same time, Smith observed “the superior affluence and abundance commonly possessed by even the lowest and most despised member of Civilized Society, compared to what the most respected and active savage can attain to.”  In a capitalist economy, the amount of wealth is not fixed.  It expands with the activity of many millions of self-interested actions and transactions of producers, middlemen and consumers.  Like Hume, Smith saw self-interest not as cold calculation by the great majority of humanity but more like a passion or inner compulsion to strive for more in our lives and the lives of others.

Yes, even others.  For the cooperation of others is essential to the capitalist system and the functioning of a complex civilization.  Smith famously asserted: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  The pursuit of self-interest and the need for cooperation are taken to new heights by the capitalist system.  Smith also wrote in Wealth of Nations: “In civilized society [a person] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.”

The paradox that Smith identified is that self-interest, even to the point of greed, is beneficial to the society at large.  This is so counter-intuitive that many of us to this day cannot bring ourselves to believe it.  But the advantage of rational analysis of solid evidence (historical in this case) is that it can yield results that are very likely true (never certainly true as long as new evidence waits in the wings) yet still defy our intuition.  Accepting the probable truth of counter-intuitive results is a hallmark of the sophisticated modern mind, a legacy of the Age of Reason we also call the Enlightenment.

Even more ironic or paradoxical, Smith found that this interpersonal interdependence characteristic of complex modern society actually allows for much greater personal liberty.  Herman calls it “independence of the mind, meaning freedom to see to one’s own self-interest and the opportunity to pursue it.”  Smith combined Hutcheson’s definition of happiness as the capacity to live life as we choose as long as we cause no harm to others and Kames’s definition of happiness as gaining our sense of identity through ownership of property.  Herman (p. 215) summarizes Smith’s combination of the two definitions: “By entering and competing in the great interactive dynamic network of modern society, at once impersonal but also indispensible to happiness, we become fully free and human.”  Contrast this personal independence with the unhappy dependence and even subjugation of humanity through most of history to particular, fickle masters, such as feudal lords or clan chieftains.  Herman again: “Capitalism breaks that cycle, and offers the conditions under which we forge our own happiness: independence, material affluence, and cooperation with others.”

Equally ironic are the present-day popular misconceptions of Smith’s argument in favor of free-market capitalism.  He did not believe that market-based order is perfect or perfectible, only that the free market is a complex, interlocking system of self-interested exchange appearing to the superficial observer as though it is directed by a mind or “invisible hand.”  His notion was that a freely operating market has a natural rational order, more rational and beneficial to society than a market constructed and manipulated by elites, whether politicians or business tycoons.  Subject to their own limited understanding and passionate self-interests, even brilliant people with the best of intentions cannot do better, and usually do far worse, than the result of a freely operating marketplace in which large numbers of people are able to act in their own self-interest.

Thus, Smith was adamantly opposed to the “mercantile system” which the British government imposed on its relationship with British North America.  This system put the interests of well-connected producers and merchants in London ahead of the interests of consumers (as well as the interests of competitors in Glasgow and North America).  Smith understood that consumers are the real beneficiaries of a free market.  They want low prices and a ready supply of goods, whereas business owners often prefer the opposite.  The free market is as much a check on greedy merchants as it is on interfering rulers and bureaucrats.

At the same time, Smith did not believe in what others, not he, called laissez-faire capitalism, in which government has no legitimate role.  To the contrary, Smith saw that free markets cannot function properly without a strong national government focusing on protection of its citizens and their commerce with neighboring nations through a strong national defense, a dependable system of justice that protects individual rights, particularly the right to property, and financial support for constructing and maintaining the roads, bridges, canals and harbors that make commerce feasible and profitable.  But Smith also saw that other forms of government intervention in the free market have many unpredictable and unintended consequences.  Again, like many other Scottish intellectuals of the 1700s, Smith was committed to learning the lessons of history, as he understood the facts of history.  Those facts included too many examples of governments, like those of Rome and Spain, literally destroying their own prosperity by making (perhaps well-intentioned) adjustments of their national economies.  Smith was worried that Britain and its mercantile policy in North America were heading for the same disaster, a worry soon justified by events leading to Britain’s loss of its American golden goose.

Here is Herman’s nice summary (p. 218) of Adam Smith’s message on government or other intervention in the free market:

To Adam Smith, belief in a free market was not an intellectual dogma, but a basic lesson of history.  It was time for rulers to learn from their mistakes, and let commercial society follow its own course:

All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.  Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way …. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of society.

This is the Adam Smith with whom we are all familiar: the great prophet of free-market capitalism as a system of “natural liberty,” and the great enemy of any and all attempts to tinker with that system, whether for the sake of political power or social justice.

Dark Side of Capitalism

The not-so-familiar Adam Smith, like David Hume and other Scots, understood there was a dark side to capitalism.   Increasing specialization, enabled and demanded by capitalism, narrows a person’s interests and worldview to focus on a farm, shop, office or factory and less on the larger society and higher pursuits of mind and spirit.   Smith referred to “mental mutilation” and the minds of men “contracted and rendered incapable of elevation.”  He had particular concern for poorer workers in factories, mere links in the chain of production, enjoying little of the freedom opened up by commercial society.  Even before the Industrial Revolution had really launched, Smith was anticipating Karl Marx’s “alienation” of workers from “the means of production.”  This and the increasing disparities of wealth in commercial society and other social and cultural costs of capitalism were already apparent.

But Smith and Hume and most other Scottish intellectuals believed the benefits far more than justified the costs.  As Herman enumerated these benefits (p. 224):

A society that could finally feed everyone, not just a chosen few; that could relieve the poverty and misery of even the weakest and least productive of its members; that recognizes the sovereignty of the individual and his rights, and agreed to leave him alone to pursue his own ends; that put a premium on treating others with kindness and deference rather than disdain and exploitation; and, finally, that a society that recognized that it was better to do business with other nations than to try to conquer them, was not one on the verge of tyranny, but just the opposite.  These were the conditions of modern liberty.

Moreover, even as commercial society created new problems, it also offered new opportunities to create solutions.  Recognizing the great achievement of the Scottish parish schools in teaching the majority of ordinary citizens to read and even write and do basic accounting, Smith urged government support of education to spread widely the benefits of a civilized culture.  Without this widespread elevation of the mind, Smith feared the populace could become easy prey to demagogues determined to undermine commercial society and the liberty it offers.

Adam Ferguson

Another member of the Select Society of Edinburgh, Adam Ferguson, shared these concerns but not Smith’s optimism about the prospects for progress in commercial society powered by capitalism.  Ferguson shared his fellow Scots’ understanding and interpretation of history, but he saw that history moving toward a very different destination.  He worried that, in Herman’s words, “The last stage of modern history would be not liberty but tyranny, unless something was done to prevent it. Left to itself, commercial society would become humanity’s tomb.”  To support this conclusion, Ferguson wrote a book titled Essay on the History of Civil Society, published in 1768.  This book popularized the terms “civilization” and “civil society.”  It made Ferguson famous, particularly on the Continent, and especially influential with the German Enlightenment, including the father of modern nationalism, Johann Gottfried Herder, and the founder of German Romanticism, the poet Friedrich Schiller, and especially the philosopher of history, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who would have such impact on Karl Marx.  As Herman maintains, Ferguson became capitalism’s most trenchant critic and the great alternative to Adam Smith as the prophet of modernity.

The essence of Ferguson’s argument was that commercial society renders men weak.  Their overspecialization and “mental mutilation” destroys their sense of honor and courage.  They must have their creature comforts and are willing to compromise their very freedom to get and maintain them.  Ferguson, Smith and Hume shared deep concern for the heavy price paid for division of labor and specialization in a commercial (modern) economy.  Together they mourned the loss of pre-modern virtues, but they diverged in their estimation of the value of what was gained with this cost.  And their images of pre-modern man were even more radically different.  Where Ferguson saw mainly virtue, Smith and Hume could not so easily dismiss the vices.  This divergence was due to their very different experiences of the Scottish Highlanders.

In 1745, some of the Highland clans were persuaded to follow the mad scheme of the Stuart pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to regain the British Crown.  The Stuarts were the royal family of pre-union Scotland—the Scottish king James VI succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as James I of England.  Following the English Civil War, the empowered English Parliament displaced the Stuarts in favor of the House of Hanover (the Georges).  Later, Union in 1707 placed Scotland under the House of Hanover as part of Great Britain.  Undaunted in their comfortable exile in Italy, two generations of Stuarts schemed to reclaim the British throne.  The young and charming Prince Charles connived with France to get himself smuggled into the Scottish Highlands, where he persuaded some of the reluctant clans to support his cause with an army of conquest.  They met with surprising success at first, taking Edinburgh, then sweeping south through England to the very outskirts of London.  There the rebellion collapsed of its own lack of purpose and planning, and the Highlanders retreated to Scotland, where they were murderously vanquished by an English-led army at Culloden in 1746.  The Highlanders fought to the last with honor and courage, but to the English and the Lowland Scots, they were savages.  And in the aftermath of Culloden, they were systematically hunted down and treated savagely.  These events were collectively and bitterly remembered as “the 45.”

While Smith and Hume and most Scottish Enlightenment intellectuals experienced the 45 very directly, Ferguson missed the trauma because he was chaplain of the Black Watch regiment in Flanders (modern Belgium).  The Black Watch was a Highland regiment in service of the Crown overseas.  Here is Herman’s account of how profoundly different was Ferguson perspective as a result.

[Ferguson’s contemporaries] considered Prince Charles’s Highland followers uncouth barbarians, and looked forward with undisguised relish to the demise of their society and culture.  As chaplain, Ferguson had come to know the Highlanders firsthand and understood that for all their crude habits and harsh aggressiveness, they were men of honor, with an undeniable sense of courage, loyalty, and generosity toward friend and foe alike.  In fact, they reminded Ferguson of no one so much as the warriors of the Homeric poems, and the ancient Spartans and Roman legions.  The very qualities that his Moderate friends admired in their beloved Greeks and Romans, Ferguson found alive and well in the Scottish Highlands.  The destruction of their way of life meant the destruction of something precious, Ferguson decided, and Scotland and the Scots would be the poorer for it.

Ferguson expanded his argument far beyond Scotland and into the very nature and history of civil society itself. … The result was a volatile mixture of typical, cold-eyed Scottish political and social analysis, and flights of almost romantic poetry in praise of primitive peoples everywhere, but particularly in the ancient world and among the Native Americans.  Ferguson found in them what he had found in his Highland regiment: honor, integrity, and courage, which commercial society, with its over-specialization and mental mutilation, destroyed.

Emerging in Ferguson’s work, as a counter to his ever so practical and forward-looking fellow Scots, is a love affair with the idea (in contrast to the reality, Smith and Hume would say) of primitive, pre-modern people.  He scaled new, more extreme heights of romance about the past.  Since the humanist Renaissance, intellectuals had tended to idealize the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Reality of life in ancient times was obscured by the passage of a millennium and poorly portrayed in the classical literature they devoured.  Humanist intellectuals could indulge the illusion that the ancients were superior in intellect and character to their contemporaries in Western Europe.  Ferguson, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the French Enlightenment, extended this longing for a lost past into the romantic idea of the “noble savage,” uncorrupted by civilization, which was the cause of humanity’s downfall.

The word “savage” has two very different connotations.  The meaning close to its origin in the French word “sauvage” is “wild, in a state of nature, untamed.”  The meaning most commonly used in modern English is “dangerous, even cruel in the extreme.”  To Ferguson, the Highlanders were savage in the first sense, but to Smith and Hume and others, they were savage mostly in the second sense (though not nearly so savage as the retribution they received at the hands of the “civilized” English and Lowland Scots).  The dual meaning of the word “savage” itself reflects the intellectual fork in the road that was reached in the Enlightenment, one to the left with firm belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings when uncorrupted by society, one to the right with equally firm conviction that human beings tend toward self-interested, even evil, behavior unless instructed and pushed toward the good by that same society.  We have been exploring these two paths ever since, as I hope to show in the next post on the French Enlightenment and its consequences.

The difference in the perspectives of Ferguson and Smith also illustrates John Locke’s essential point about the limitations our experience places on what we know and how we interpret what we know or think we know.  Ferguson and Smith both looked at the Highlanders and saw quite different people, because their experience of the Highlanders had been so different.  This contingent, relative nature of our knowledge is deeply disconcerting for those looking for eternal and universal truths in their understanding of history and current society.  Yet this was the obsession of the Enlightenment in Scotland and elsewhere.  Hoping to imitate the success of Newton in describing the physical mechanics of the universe, they were forever trying to generalize from the growing knowledge base of their time to law-like, universal and timeless conclusions about human nature and how it drives human history and destiny.  The task has proved far more difficult, the goal much more elusive than the Enlightenment thinkers had anticipated.


An Average Joe’s Intellectual History of Western Europe— David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment in the 1700s

[This is the tenth installment of my mini-history—three more to come]

The intellectuals of the early 1700s were confident they could know the world through their experiences, the facts of nature, which they believed to directly reflect the will of God and his Providence. But Locke had already made clear that experience is contingent on time and place and always subject to revision by new experiences. Our knowledge of the world is probable, not certain. If we know God from our knowledge of nature, as the deists and natural theologists claimed, then what we know of God would be clouded by the inherent uncertainty in the empiricist’s body of knowledge. We see through a glass darkly. Moreover, Bishop George Berkeley asked: What are these experiences but ideas, mental images we collect and imperfectly remember – derived from the real, material, natural world, certainly, but nonetheless ideas and images, which are, in themselves, immaterial? The more intellectuals attacked Berkeley’s philosophical “idealism,” the more influential became his doubt about the solidity of their system of knowledge.

Berkeley’s doubt was corrosive to the philosophical optimism of the age but nothing like the caustic soda of David Hume’s amiable skepticism about our ability to know anything about God, his design and his plan. Hume shattered the case for philosophical optimism by simply making its premises look ridiculous.

Edinburgh—‘a Hotbed of Genius’

There is no historical figure in the intellectual history of Western Europe with whom I’d rather spend an evening than with David Hume. To help you understand why, I must provide some social context for the Scottish Enlightenment, with the help of Arthur Herman’s audacious but convincing How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Herman describes the mid-1700s world of artistic, intellectual Edinburgh and innovative, practical Glasgow and the intellectuals who regularly made the day-and-a-half journey between them on the post coach. Herman colorfully describes Scottish intellectual life in this era, particularly in Edinburgh (pp. 190-191):

What really made Edinburgh different … was its close-knit community of scholars and thinkers, who were willing to take up new ideas while putting old ones to the test of discussion and criticism. Edinburgh was, as contemporaries said, ‘a hotbed of genius.’ It sharpened minds, inspired originality, and intensified that sense of purposeful activity that every thinker, writer, or artist needs to be truly productive and creative.

Only London and Paris could compete with Edinburgh as an intellectual center. But unlike those two world capitals, Edinburgh’s cultural life was not dominated by state institutions or aristocratic salons and patrons. It depended instead on a circle of tough-minded, self-directed intellectuals and men of letters, or ‘literati,as they called themselves. By the standards of 1760, it was remarkably democratic. It was a place where all ideas were created equal, where brains rather than social rank, took pride of place, and where serious issues could be debated with, in the words of Lord Shaftesbury, ‘that sort of freedom which taken is taken amongst Gentlemen and Friends, who know each other well.’

Edinburgh’s intellectuals fully entered into the Old Town’s traditions of boisterous and informal society. Many of the city’s most important intellectual movements began with a gathering in a tavern. Discussion of a pressing political or theological issue without bottles on the table and loud gusts of laughter was inconceivable. [They did their] drinking surrounded by charming and lively company, and usually under the auspices of one of Edinburgh’s social clubs. The most important of these clubs was the Select Society.

The Select Society was founded in 1754, and its original 32 members included most of the best-known literati of the time, of whom we are most likely to recognize David Hume and Adam Smith. For ten years, the Select Society was the epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its membership was distinguished in their accomplishments and remarkably diverse in their views and experience. They could be depended on to give a rigorous but fair critique to any paper or talk presented at their meetings, far more insightful, challenging and therefore valuable than could be expected from any academic or university audience of the day.

Francis Hutcheson

It may be helpful to understand that there were two “fathers” of this Scots branch of the Enlightenment. Francis Hutcheson was a Presbyterian minister and philosopher. He published his first book in 1725 and was for many years, until his death in 1746, professor of natural religion, morals, jurisprudence and government at the University of Glasgow. He was an enormously popular lecturer. He spoke without notes, in contrast to the tradition of reading a written lecture aloud, and he did so in English, perhaps the first in Europe to lecture in the local vernacular rather than Latin. Herman claims Hutcheson was (p. 83):

Europe’s first liberal, in the classic sense: a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political. But the ultimate goal of this liberty was, we should remember, happiness—which Hutcheson always defined as helping others to be happy.

Freedom’s ends are not selfish ones, he believed; they are in truth governed by God, through our moral reasoning. Hutcheson never worried about the dangers of letting people do or say whatever they wanted, because in his mind a free society enjoys a firm and permanent backstop, our innate moral sense, which enables us to distinguish the vicious from the virtuous, and the decent from the obscene, just as our intellectual reason enables us to sort out truth from falsehood.

Hutcheson’s doctrine of happiness, then, had two faces. It involved, on one side, gratification of the self through a joyous and contented life. On the other, it was also intensely altruistic. No man stands alone, was the message his students absorbed. Hutcheson constantly enjoins us to get out and become involved in the lives of our fellow human beings. Our willingness to do so becomes the measure of who we are. His statement on the point—‘action is best, which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number’—would also ring down through the next two centuries, underpinning the utilitarian philosophy of two later Scots, James and John Stuart Mill.

Lord Kames

In sharp contrast to his contemporary Hutcheson, Henry Home was the other father of the Scottish Enlightenment. He became a full-fledged advocate and member of the Scottish bar in 1723 in Edinburgh, at age 27. In the tradition of the Scottish legal system, left intact after the Act of Union with England in 1707, Home took an honorary title, Lord Kames, when in 1752 he became a judge of Scotland’s highest court. Kames managed to be a prolific writer on the law, human nature, social evolution and history, despite his demanding court schedule and evenings at social gatherings with his wife. Quoting Herman again:

Kames liked to mix food and drink, including prodigious quantities of claret, with serious discussion of philosophical and legal issues. Kames’s love of good company set the style and tone of Edinburgh’s intellectual life for near a century, while his guests included a series of young men of genius who would dominate the Scottish Enlightenment.

These young men included John Millar, who “would virtually invent modern political history,” Adam Smith, whom Kames sponsored to give a series of lectures that “would become the foundation for the Wealth of Nations,” and James Boswell, who defined a genre with his biography of Samuel Johnson. But Herman writes that Kames’s favorite young protégé was his distant relative, David Hume, for whom Kames became a father figure and intellectual sparring partner. Given the enormous influence of Kames on Hume, we need to know more about his thinking.

Herman writes:

… while Francis Hutcheson was insisting that men form governments in order to pursue the common good, Kames’s emphasis on this self-interested sense of property introduced a note of realism. Kames was quite willing to believe in the notion of an innate moral sense, and man’s natural sociability. … But life as an attorney had taught Kames a more realistic, if not cynical, view. Kames recognized that human beings need a more compelling reason to draw together into a binding community, and to surrender their personal freedom to others.

That “compelling reason,” for Kames, is the protection of our rights to our own property, as an integral part of our individual identities. This is the reason human society has instituted laws, not just to regulate social relations but to teach and uphold a moral code of conduct. In seeking to know why laws exist, Kames drew from his extensive reading in comparative law, history and geography to develop an evolutionary history of human society in four stages based on the way we earn our living: as hunters and gatherers, as shepherds and nomads, as farmers and peasants, or as merchants and manufacturers. While Kames deeply understood that laws must provide a firm base on which social relations can be conducted (otherwise the law becomes “the plaything of power, not its master” in Herman’s wonderful language), he also could see that the law must change as the ways of making a living, and therefore the nature of property, change.

In the mid-1700s, Kames’s four-stage theory in his Sketches on the History of Man was conceptually revolutionary.

It served as the model for William Robertson and others of the ‘Scottish historical school,’ and for the great masterpiece of Enlightenment history, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It defined the fields of comparative anthropology and sociology for two hundred years, and inspired a historical genre, ‘the story of civilization,’ that would last down to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and William McNeill’s The Rise of the West. And at its core was Kames’s notion that changing forms of property drove the evolution of civil society. ‘Without private property,’ he wrote in the Sketches, ‘there would be no industry, and without industry, men would remain savages forever.’

Kames hereby introduced a new view of history as progressive, in which change is normal and even desirable. In our time, when we speak of being “on the side of history,” we are agreeing with this view of history as a progressive process. With further development in the next century by Hegel and Marx, this historical progression was proposed to be is inexorable and unidirectional toward a better state of human society—a dubious proposition in light of subsequent history but still compelling for today’s thinking.

Current multiculturalism dismisses the four-stage history of Kames as ethnocentric, if not racist. As always, it is wise to be careful with glib condemnations of thinkers in the past. The same Lord Kames and William Robertson of the Scottish Enlightenment would not correlate “civilized” and “savage” with skin color or geographic location. For them the fundamental issue was human liberty and how the changes in ways of living, in notions of property and in the law made human liberty more or less available to the mass of humanity. In the fascinating case of Joseph Knight, an African-born slave sold in Jamaica and later taken by his master to Scotland, Lord Kames led the majority of judges of the highest Scottish court in pronouncing slavery to be against the law in Scotland—in 1777. The decision was based on a broad principle: Kames’s concept of property as an integral part of a human’s individual identity and freedom would not allow one human being to unwillingly become the property of another “civilized” human being. He was applying his idea of progress to bring the law in line with the current stage of history.

If Hutcheson was arguing that the most important instinct human beings have in common is their moral sense, Kames was saying that it is their sense of property and desire to own things.

If Francis Hutcheson represents the soft, humane side of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish character, Kames represents its hard, cold-eyed edge. His sardonic view of the primacy of self-interest and the ‘thirst for opulence’ anticipates what comes later in the works of David Hume, and dismays champions of Hutcheson’s moral altruism.

Though he detested that his protégé David Hume had no religion, and they quarreled especially about religion, Kames himself gave short shrift to religious feeling. Six days before Kames died in 1782, James Boswell tried to draw him out on the possibility of an afterlife. “Nobody believes it,” said Kames.

Even so, the Scottish Enlightenment was unique for its core group of erudite and believing clergymen—in sharp contrast to clerics of the French Enlightenment who were mostly religious skeptics who had taken orders only to gain social position and income. William Robertson, Hugh Blair and the others asserted that the doctrines of Christianity were essential to the civilizing process of history, at the heart of what it means to be modern. Unlike the vast majority of French Enlightenment intellectuals, the enlightened Scots, including David Hume, never saw Christianity as their mortal enemy. Rather, many of them engaged the Presbyterian Church of Scotland from within to reform it. Beginning in 1751, Robertson, Blair and others battled within the Presbyterian General Assembly with the old fire-and-brimstone hardliners to bring “the Kirk” into the modern world, their modern world. The reformers positioned themselves between the traditionalists of the old Kirk and the religious skepticism of the English deists—and David Hume.

David Hume

David Hume’s quite literally unorthodox views, by themselves, would have stood out at the meetings of the Select Society and other gatherings—in fact, he was legendary in Edinburgh at large as “David Hume the Atheist.” More accurately, his fellow intellectuals knew Hume as “the good-humoured agnostic”—A. N. Wilson’s words in God’s Funeral (p. 22); in fact, Wilson speculated that “Hume is surely the most amiable British philosopher,” which, translating from erudite English English, means “lots of fun to hang out with.” Herman writes that Hume’s affability “made him a popular guest at dinner parties and club meetings,” holding forth in elegant English accented by his heavy Scottish burr. Intellectual propositions at these gatherings had to be honed to razor-sharp precision and honesty, shorn of any pretension or sanctimony, to escape Hume’s amiable but withering skepticism. Wilson goes on to characterize Hume (and Gibbon) as authors “incapable of dullness” and “urbane, vigorous and, above all, funny.” Referring to the Victorians, Wilson wrote: “It required a generation devoid of humour, perhaps, to make them dangerous.”

Nonetheless, the response of the Edinburgh literati of the mid-1700s to David Hume’s philosophy was mostly respectful but, very understandably, negative, because of its deeply disturbing implications. Herman writes (p. 202) that “Hutcheson was horrified … the Kirk’s General Assembly tried to have him censured [and] he failed to get a university appointment not once but twice.” To our present-day ears, Hume’s propositions seem rather tame, even obvious, which further illustrates a major theme that, according to Herman (p. 94), Hume shared with his old mentor Lord Kames and indeed with the general Scottish view of history, anthropology, psychology and economics: context matters. These Scots asserted that we are products of our environment, “dependent to some degree on our experience in a particular time and place, rather than solely on some inborn quality or sense.” However, Hume and Kames went further to “detach our understanding of human nature from its traditional theological moorings.” “Both offended conventional opinion by pointing out that morality, like society itself, arose from human aspirations rather than divine ones—in Hume’s words, from ‘mere human contrivances for the interest of society’”

David Hume’s first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was published in 1734, when he was just twenty-six. Like most Enlightenment writers, Hume sought to understand human nature and apply this understanding to history, moral philosophy and government. In this early work, he established the themes of his next forty years of writing, which became a new philosophical outlook emphasizing the priority of self-interest in human nature and therefore in the creation and formation of social ties. Herman provides this summary.

For Hume, self-interest was all there is. The overriding guiding force in all our actions is not our reason, or our sense of obligation toward others, or any innate moral sense—all these are simply formed out of habit and experience—but the most basic human passion of all, the desire for self-gratification. It is the one thing human beings have in common. It is also the necessary starting point of any system of morality, and of any system of government.

What was most profoundly offensive to Enlightenment intellectuals and their self-described Age of Reason, indeed to two thousand years of Western philosophy, was Hume’s insistence that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. The time-honored consensus among philosophers was that right reason masters our emotions and appetites and guides our actions and pursuit of virtue.Hume said no, we use reason to get what we want, to rationalize our passions, not control them. We are products of our physical and social environment, in which we learn through trial and error which expressions of our emotions and passions advance our self-interest (pleasure) and which are destructive of our self-interest (pain). The job of society (and in larger societies, government) is to channel our passions in constructive ways, leading us to form regular habits that internalize a sort of golden rule to not trample the self-interest of others in exchange for them not trampling ours. Thus, in modern society, there must be a dynamic balance between liberty, which preserves individuals, and authority, which preserves society (a theme he explored in his later History of England).

With his trademark “sunny good cheer” (Wilson’s words, p. 10), Hume portrayed a world (according to Herman),

… in which morality is largely a matter of convention and ingrained habit; in which the laws of nature offer nothing to help, and appeals to reason fall on deaf ears; and with an empty sky above, devoid of divine guidance or even a supernatural presence. This world offers a form of liberty—the freedom to pursue one’s own self-interest—and a form of authority: the power of the magistrate ‘to punish transgressors, to correct fraud and violence, and to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent [long-term] interests.’ But, Hume had to conclude, there is nothing particularly exalted, or inspiring, about the nature of civil society.

Yet Hume was welcomed at dinner parties and club meetings not just for his “sunny good cheer” but because of his confidence in the progress of civil society, despite the messy trial-and-error process which drives this progress. In his Political Discourses, published in 1752, Hume pointed out (again according to Herman),

Society’s effort to canalize human being’s passions into constructive channels doeswork; we do learn from past failures and manage over time to improve how government works and how it administers justice and protects civil rights. The whole growth of the British constitution from feudal despotism to modern liberty was proof of this. History revealed to Hume a growth of human industry and cooperation over time, as well as growth of personal liberty of the sort Hutcheson and others celebrated. And central to it was the role of commerce, as the great engine of change. Commerce and liberty; liberty and refinement; refinement and the progress of the human spirit were all interrelated. And every Scottish Whig could applaud Hume’s statement that ‘it is impossible for the arts and sciences to arise, at first, among any people unless that people enjoy the blessing of a free government.

For those who remember several pages back and wonder how Hume shattered the case for philosophical optimism by simply making its premises look ridiculous, I return to the lectures of Professor Kors to explain.

Hume’s most revealing and pointed work on natural optimism, as it relates to natural religion or theology, is a work unpublished until his death [in 1776] but widely known among his friends—his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. His friends convince him it is too dangerous a work … to publish during his lifetime. In theory, it committed Hume to no particular view, since it was a dialogue among competing analyses of natural theology: an advocate, a traditionalist critic of the new philosophy, and a philosophical skeptic whom he names Philo.

Through Philo, Hume challenged the fundamental premise of natural religion—that the abundant evidence of the order and benevolence of the universe requires us to infer an intelligent creator and designer who is intelligent, wise, omnipotent and good, namely God. An argument basing religion on experience of the natural world had, according to Philo, four fatal flaws.

The first flaw had been identified by Locke: knowledge based on experience is probable at best, never certain, not the last word, as long as new experience might overturn our conclusions up to that point. This means that religious belief is at best provisional as long as new experience or new evidence is lurking off stage, which it always is. Not a satisfying foundation for religion!

The second flaw is the weak analogy made by natural theologians between the universe and a machine designed and built by a human being. Science is full of analogies that aid our understanding, but they mostly serve a heuristic or teaching function. In reality, like effects (the universe and the machine) do not imply like causes (a single, intelligent designer). The movement of sap in trees is analogous to the circulation of blood in animals, but one is driven by evaporation from the leaves, which causes transpiration that pulls the sap up through the xylem cells, and the other is driven by a muscular pump, the heart, fueled by a complex cellular chemistry controlled by a nervous system and an endocrine system interacting with each other. It would be extremely foolish to conclude that trees have hearts, despite the striking similarities in the way nutrients and waste move in trees and in animals. The dissimilarities count far more than the similarities in this analogy and even more in the analogy of the universe and a man-made machine, like a watch.

The third flaw is that we can observe only one universe and only a very small part of this universe. If we were able to compare two or more universes, we might see similar features that point to similar causes. But we cannot. Moreover, if we knew our universe thoroughly, we might have a fighting chance of discerning its cause. But we do not.

Fourth, Philo points out that in testing the strength of scientific hypotheses, negative evidence counts more than positive evidence. Natural theologians marshaled only positive evidence for the existence of God, but there is equally abundant negative evidence. For all the evidence of order, there is abundant evidence of disorder. For all the evidence of goodness in the universe, there is abundant evidence of evil. Whatever cause we propose, it has to explain or predict both types of evidence. Such a cause would not be the intelligent, wise, powerful and good God of the natural theologians.

Philo the skeptic (i.e., Hume) was not arguing for or against the existence of God, only for the impossibility of our knowing the right answer. It was an epistemological question regarding how we might know. Why should we propose the cause of the universe is like a human mind? What is so special about this analogy? And given the complexity of the universe and the number of human minds it takes to build a complex machine, like a battleship, why propose just one mind? Why not many, like the warring pantheon of Greek gods? Moreover, as A.N. Wilson quotes Hume, “For aught we know, a priori, matter may contain the source, or spring, of order originally, within itself, as well as the mind does.” Thus, a hundred years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Hume was suggesting the possibility that matter contains the seeds of its own creation.

The sunny Hume was attempting to discredit the equally sunny natural theology of his day. In succeeding, however, Hume managed to (in Wilson’s words, p. 25)

remove the philosophical necessity for believing in God. Being himself a sunny, cheerfully-disposed individual, he appears to have felt no particular sorrow that we live in an empty, Godless universe, devoid of purpose. The world was really awaiting, after Hume, some empirical demonstration of his metaphysical inquiries. They were supplied in the nineteenth century, not by one scientist, but by a cluster of men any one of whose theories and discoveries would injure faith in the goodness of God or the purposes of God.

Wilson goes on to mention Charles Lyell, the geologist, and Charles Darwin, the biologist, in particular, but I will come to them in the last installment of this history. Meanwhile, I should clarify why I would enjoy the intellectual company of David Hume. Certainly not because I agree with him—at least not in his ultimate conclusions. Rather it is because Hume would bean entertaining and useful adversary, who would force my own thinking to be more precise, more clear, and therefore, more confident going forward. And in the process, I suspect we would have a grand time of it. On the other hand, I am doubtful that I would be a worthy intellectual sparring partner for Hume, so I would prefer to watch and listen to him taking on someone better prepared to get in the ring with him. What a show it would be!

David Hume’s most important contribution to the intellectual history of Western Civilization, it seems to me, is that he checkmated the efforts to justify Christianity, and more generally belief in God, with arguments based on evidence from the natural, material world. Despite the warnings of Blaise Pascal, Pierre Bayle, John Locke, George Berkeley, even Bishop Butler, philosophical theologians, at least from Thomas Aquinas onward through the believing natural philosophers (scientists) of the 1600s, insisted that they could “see” the proof of God’s existence and attributes and providence in the natural world. They insisted that rational argument from the evidence in nature could make the case for God without appeal to “faith” in a humanly inconceivable spiritual existence which is beyond the reach of human reasoning from the things humans can sense in the natural world. David Hume, more decisively than ever before or since, proved them wrong.

Ironically, neither side in the debate seemed to understand the significance, the finality of Hume’s “checkmate.” For them the game was not over; it continues to this day. Even more insistently in the 19th and 20th centuries than in the 18th century, because those who read and understood the significance of Hume, even after publication of his Dialogues in 1779, were an elite few. One who did understand Hume, probably better than anyone else, was Adam Smith. I cannot move on from the Scottish version of the Enlightenment without respectful but brief summary of the works of Adam Smith, but first, I must mention the concurrent impact of the historian Edward Gibbon.

Gibbon’s History

Though he was an English Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon was intellectually a Scot. He was a follower of the Scottish historical school founded by William Robertson and an ardent admirer of David Hume and Adam Smith.

Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in three installments from 1776 to 1788. A. N. Wilson (God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization) suggests that this book and Hume’s Dialogues were the two books in the English language that have done more than any other to undermine Western Civilization’s Christian faith. Hume’s work portrayed Christian belief as irrational, if not preposterous, while Gibbon attacked ad hominem by making it (in Wilson’s words) “difficult to admire many of the greatest saints, popes and doctors of the universal Church.”

Like most of the intellectuals of the 1700s, Gibbon was a deist, and it was from the deist, anti-Christian (especially anti-Catholic) point of view that he wrote his history. The impact of Gibbon on the 19th century was so strong, because for those who read only English, his history was actually their only source of information about the first thousand years of Christianity. This passage from Wilson (p. 19-20) captures Gibbon’s devastatingly effective technique:

Gibbon’s supreme achievement as an anti-Christian propagandist was that style did all his work for him. It enabled the historian to suggest, without once stating it either as an opinion or as a fact, that nearly all the early Christians, the martyrs, the doctors and the council fathers, were, when not totally contemptible, then morally absurd. The ironical tone said all.

He writes from a position of urbane civilization which, as the style alone indicates, is demonstrably superior to the barbarism which he depicts. Imagine, his style seems to state, Saints Polycarp or Simeon Stylites or Bernard of Clairvaux at a dinner table with my Lord Sheffield, with Mr. Adam Smith or Sir Joshua Reynolds or Dr. Burney! Need anything more be said?

Classic English elitism at its funny, devastating “best.” Wilson continues:

It is not merely in the repeated and hilarious identification of individual Christian wickedness that Gibbon reaches his target. Rather, it is in his whole attitude, which resolutely refuses to be impressed by the Christian contribution to ‘civilization.’ Even the devout, after an exposure to Gibbon, would hesitate to use the word Christian as a term of approbation.

Gibbon’s contrast of the evident wisdom of pre-Christian civilization with the superstitious barbarism of the monks and hermits of medieval Europe echoed the Renaissance humanists’ elevating of Antiquity and drawing of the veil of contempt across the ‘Dark Ages.’

While Hume and Gibbon delivered this near-simultaneous one-two punch to the body of Christian tradition and belief, Adam Smith sought a more temperate and constructive synthesis of the Hutcheson and Kames/Hume wings of the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson are the primary subjects of the next post in this series.

An Average Joe’s Intellectual History of Western Europe—Deism and Philosophical Optimism in the 1700s

[This is the ninth installment of my mini-history—four more to come]

Truly original as the Enlightenment was, it stood squarely on the shoulders of the New Philosophers of the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s.   Particularly in France and Scotland, but also Germany and British America, brilliant minds in the 1700s explored and built upon the religious, social and political implications for humanity of the new natural philosophy – science.

Again I lean on Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania in his 24-lecture series, The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which is one of the Great Courses of The Teaching Company.  Professor Kors has been my primary guide through this history of intellectual transition.  It is a more daunting task to write about the Enlightenment than about earlier history, because you, my readers, are more likely to know something about the cast of characters and, more important, more likely to have firm opinions on what these characters stood for.  The closer we come to our own time, the more comfortable for you to challenge my account and the more difficult for me to be fully objective.  So be it – especially if your disagreement leads you to deeper reflection and even to exploring the literature yourself.

Our own ways of thinking about ourselves, our society, the natural world, and beyond, emerged in the Enlightenment of the 1700s.  We fancy ourselves original thinkers or at least heirs to very recent insights unavailable to our grandparents, even our parents. Yet it is quite impossible not to see our own intellectual selves coming to vivid life more than 200 years ago.  When projected by the harsh, objective light of history onto our present-day screen, the images may make us uncomfortable, even defensive.  My task, following the lead of Prof. Kors, is to help you see how the Enlightenment leaders thought, not to endorse or challenge their thinking, or yours.  My project here is to illustrate, as best I can in a short space, what were the dominant intellectual assumptions, trends and authorities at the time Charles and Emma Darwin came of age in the early half of the 19th century.  I want to understand the intellectual environment that most likely had deep impact on the intellectual lives of the Darwins, not to offer commentary on our own times.  But it is hard not to see connections and implications.

Diverse Intellectual Currents from a Common Source

There was no single, coherent set of ideas associated with the Enlightenment.  In fact, there were many parallel currents, cross currents and counter-currents of ideas within the same intellectual community and even more so among different linguistic communities or nations and in different decades of the 1700s.  Nonetheless, there was a common source from which all these currents seemed to flow: the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke, or to be more accurate, the response of literate society to these works. Quoting Prof. Kors: “The 18th century sought to take the models of Newton and Locke and apply them to the fullest possible range of human inquiry and endeavor.”  The culture came to believe that Newton’s Principia Mathematica had shown how the Baconian system of inquiry made the material, or natural, world comprehensible and coherent in its own terms, without reference to the supernatural—the immaterial, spiritual—world.  And this system of inquiry, identified with the theory of knowledge in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, offered a method that could be repeated over and over by educated people, not just by geniuses, in order to expand their understanding of the natural world.  Quoting Prof. Kors’s eloquent summation:

Educated Europeans believed they had a new understanding—of thought and the human mind, of method, of nature, and of the uses of knowledge—with which they could come to know the world correctly for the first time in human history and with which they could rewrite the possibilities of human life.

The conceptual revolution of the 17th century became the cultural revolution of the 18th century.  Note the optimism, the self-confidence, the hubris of this new understanding.

Deism and Christianity

Recall from my prior post that Johannes Kepler was driven in his astronomical work by deep Christian faith.  He was convinced that with the sun at the rightful center of the universe, the quantitative and geometrical harmonies and ratios of God’s creation would be disclosed.  Galileo and Newton shared Kepler’s commitment to understanding nature and nature’s God quantitatively rather than in terms of perfections or purposes as the Aristotelians sought to do.  They believed that mathematics is the language of the universe and, in the tradition of natural philosophers of the Church, that their work could reveal even the mind of God – the major motivation for the development of science within Western Christianity of the Middle Ages.  The Reformation challenged faith in the Roman Church’s role as final arbiter of what we know about God and God’s creation.  Nonetheless, Western Europe remained a profoundly Christian civilization, and European intellectuals continued to focus their New Philosophy on its implications for our knowledge of God and God’s plan and actions in the natural, material world. 

The New Philosophy of Descartes and Locke incorporated the medieval notion (dating to Abelard of Bath in the 12th century) that material (natural) phenomena must be explained by material (natural) phenomena.  Theological explanations that invoke immaterial (spiritual) causes may be true, but they don’t tell us how it works in the material world, thereby giving us the ability to predict (science) and perhaps to control through practical application (technology). 

Dismissing the presumptive authority of Aristotle and other ancients, the New Philosophy insisted that human reason has an absolute right to seek evidence before belief, a clear answer to the question: “How do you know that?”  It asserted that our understanding of the natural world must be constructed from the evidence found in nature and logical induction from that evidence.

From this naturalism emerged a new focus on how the wisdom and goodness of God, the Providence of God, can be found in the design of the natural world, revealed as the general laws and the operating mechanisms of nature, which we can discover through human reason applied through proper method.  Most intellectuals of the early 1700s concluded that the natural world is all we can know or even need to know of God.  Some became “deists” and departed from Christian orthodoxy entirely; others developed “natural theology” within the orthodox belief system of Christianity.

Deists believed in a God who created the universe and whose Providence governs the universe, not by divine intervention in natural processes or in the events of human history but by establishing general laws that apply to all of nature all the time.  The spiritual world never becomes an agent of change in the natural world once created.  Therefore, the deists rejected the Judeo-Christian revelation in historical time and the traditions built around that revelation—including the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture, the divinity of Jesus and the mystery of the Trinity.  God has only a general relationship with the world, not particular relationships with anything or anybody within the created world. No chosen people, no miracles, no divine intervention whatsoever. 

Some deists emphasized the positive, asserting that we learn about God’s will, design and Providence through study of nature and nature alone.  Other deists emphasized the negative, attacking the legitimacy of Christianity, its orthodox teachings and traditions, with special animosity toward the religious mysteries and the elite clergy that reserves to itself the sole authority to interpret the mysteries for their followers.  They castigated the clergy (whether Catholic or Protestant) for depriving the laity of their God-given reason applied to understanding the evidence of nature, and of nature‘s God, which is before their own eyes.  This was a frontal, intellectual assault on Christianity such as had never been experienced until the early 1700s. Of course, traditional Christians pushed back.

Here are some of Prof. Kors’s illustrations of their intense debate:

Christian theologians of the 18th century argue that there is much belief that is acquired through natural knowledge, but there is a particular category of religious belief that is acquired through faith, though that knowledge acquired through faith is by no means necessarily contrary to reason and to evidence.  The deist … rejects the entire category of religious faith.  The Christian will claim that one of the sets of empirical evidence that the deist is ruling out is the empirical evidence of … subjective religious experience.”

The Christians say, ‘You claim to believe in knowledge gained by experience, but here is direct religious experience in the lives of so many people.’ And the deists say, ‘No, those are moments of enthusiasm, moments of deliria, moments of superstition or passion or emotion.  What experience is, is that acquired by the natural human faculties from the study of nature.”

Christians attuned to the new philosophy believe that secondary causes, the laws of nature, indeed constitute the usual course of things…but God as author of those laws of nature is free to leave them operate or to suspend them to achieve this or that end… For the deists, God does not intervene in nature or history.  This would contradict the perfection of Creation.

The ‘perfection of Creation’—this is where the deists of the first half of the 1700s reveal their remarkable philosophical optimism.  More, directly from Prof. Kors again:

For Christian theology, ultimately the goal of life is the glory of God and the salvation of the soul.  There is a world to come … For the deist the goal of life is given to us by God’s natural revelation of the mechanisms of nature—and it is happiness on earth.”

The derivation of this remarkable conclusion—especially remarkable in the early 1700s but still remarkable today—may be best articulated by the English deist, Matthew Tindal, who argued for our right to pursue happiness based on God’s perfection.  Prof. Kors again, encapsulating Tindal’s logic:

God is a perfect being, whole, complete; God lacks nothing.  That means that God did not create the Creation for himself, as if he had a lack or need before the Creation.  But if God did not create … the Creation for himself, then he created it for the Creation, for the happiness of the beings he brought into being … the happiness of human beings … the goal of God’s creation.”

Observing that it is human nature to seek pleasure and flee pain and believing that God’s will is known rationally by observing nature, the deists asserted that we are intended to pursue happiness.  This conclusion launched a new understanding of ethics in the 1700s, validating as a human right the pursuit of earthly pleasure.  See the sharp contrast with traditional Christian moral theology that regards earthly pleasure as a “fallen” corruption of beatitude, the happiness of reunion with God in a blessed life beyond earthly death.

Even more remarkable in the early half of the 1700s is that this deist view of ethics was actually an affirmation of the leading moral theologian of the English-speaking world, Joseph Butler, the Anglican bishop of Durham writing in the 1720s.  Remember that the great, early scientists of the 1600s were profoundly pious in their choice to learn God’s designs and purposes from their study of what God had created—nature.  Prof. Kors says that far from diminishing awe, the new science increased the religious awe of Europe, but it located God’s providence in natural mechanisms themselves.  Bishop Butler’s logical extension was that to deny the pursuit of happiness in the natural world is to criticize the very design of God. 

This new philosophical Christianity and anti-Christian deism agreed that there is no inconsistency between moral duty and self-love or self-interest, when properly regulated by a rational mind learning from the painful personal consequences of what was still regarded as immoral behavior.  Neglect of secular happiness is offensive to God.  By asserting an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness in the American Declaration of Independence, the deist Thomas Jefferson was not challenging 18th century Christian natural theology but reaffirming it.

Here is the essential point made by Prof. Kors:

Deism and the new philosophical Christianity thus move on the same tidal current of conceptual change.  Deism did not attack or alter the new philosophical Christianity in its moral theology, but simply naturalized it categorically, eliminating any supernatural component … European civilization was changing its sense not only of nature, but of natural and divine morality.

The Challenge to Philosophical Optimism

The mainstream of intellectuals in the first half of the 18th century were supremely confident that God, the author of nature, must be benevolent, because they found evidence of benevolence in nature—the universe seemed designed to support life and especially human life.  What about the evidence of evil in the natural and especially the human world?  The German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, had an answer that was vastly appealing to literate Europeans in the early 1700s.  Leibniz reasoned that God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and infinitely good, must have created “the best of all possible worlds.”  Every component of Creation must contribute to this being the best of all possible worlds.  But we humans cannot always see the necessary and sufficient reason why God included some things in this world that we experience subjectively as unpleasant or even evil (think mosquitoes!).  Nonetheless, the evil we experience is actually good in the divine view.  There is no evil in Creation.  Everything contributes to this being the best of all possible worlds.

This rationalistic theodicy of Leibniz combined with the powerful currents of empirical natural theology to form a deep philosophical and theological optimism.  Alexander Pope captured this optimism in a phrase, “Whatever is, is right.”

However, even Bishop Butler, ten years after the 1726 publication of his optimistic Sermons on Human Nature, expressed second thoughts in another best-selling publication that challenged the deists and the danger they posed to Christianity. Still drawing on rational analysis of empirical evidence, the bishop argued that the Providence of God can only be seen through a dark lens.  Nature and our reason cannot alone give us clarity about God. We require faith to know God effectively in the face of suffering, illness, the prosperity of the wicked and the pains of the good. 

Still, the bishop could not stomach the doubts raised by the evangelical religious revival of the 18th century, especially its leaders among his fellow Anglican priests, George Whitefield and John Wesley.  Butler and other new philosophical bishops suppressed them and their followers to the point that, toward the end of the century, Wesley broke with the Church of England and founded the Methodist Church.  Profoundly influential in both Britain and America, Whitefield and Wesley denounced, in the words of Prof. Kors,

the folly of those who told us to follow nature, and worst of all, to follow human nature.  Such naturalism in the evangelical view ignored the reality of the Fall, the reality of human depravity, the sin and danger of this worldliness, the loss of the Christian message that we must flee the things of this world, and ignored our absolute dependence on the supernatural for our ethics, for our goodness, and for our significant knowledge of God and the nature of reality.”

Moreover, the philosophical and theological confidence of the era was intellectually vulnerable to the skepticism inherent in Lockean empiricism, which makes knowledge based on experience merely probable at best.  Given this philosophical empiricism was so central to the argument for the new philosophical optimism, the skepticism inherent in empiricism undermined the argument—profoundly in the writing of another bishop of the Church of England, George Berkeley, and even fatally in the work of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, and the poems and novels of the most famous deist of all, the Frenchman Voltaire.

I will devote the next two posts to David Hume and Adam Smith and their colleagues of the Scottish Enlightenment, then a post on Voltaire and his colleagues of the French Enlightenment.  Finally, I will try to understand how the 19th century dealt with the intellectual and social aftermath of the Enlightenment, including the French Revolution.  A. N. Wilson (p. 12 in God’s Funeral) recalls Chou En Lai’s famous quip that even in the mid-20th century it was too soon to say what the effects of the French Revolution had been — and by extension the effects of the Enlightenment itself. 

An Average Joe’s History of Western Europe—The First Modern Generation (1680 to 1715)

[This is the eighth installment of my mini-history—“An Idiot’s History” has become “An Average Joe’s” thanks to my niece, Tina Burbank—two more installments to come]

In the terrible wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, ending in 1648, Europe was exhausted.  The old social mode was irrevocably broken.  The notion of ultimate Authority had been shattered into many, competing authorities, leaving Europeans confused and at odds.  But the seeds of the modern worldview had been planted by medieval intellectuals and were already sprouting to become the Scientific Revolution.

The First Modern Generation

The generation of readers and authors between 1680 and 1715 was one of the most revolutionary in European history because it was marked by a fundamental change in attitudes toward knowledge and nature.”  Thus summarized Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania in his 24-lecture series, The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which is one of the Great Courses of The Teaching Company.  Professor Kors has been my primary guide through this history of intellectual transition.  To share what I have learned, I focus on the perspective of what I call the “first modern generation,” basing much of this presentation on Prof. Kors’s excellent Lecture 13.

This generation lived on the cusp between the medieval and modern worldviews.  Spurred by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to prepare clerics for intellectual defense of the Catholic faith or the Protestant faith, Christian schools of both persuasions had expanded literacy and the reading public.  Printing and book publishing had expanded access to both ancient and contemporary authors.  Thus, this cusp generation was informed and inspired by Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Locke and Newton and many others who popularized and explained these great writers in an intellectual and social revolt against the Aristotelian scholasticism of the universities.

Aristotelian scholasticism was the system of thought that became predominant in the late Renaissance (1400-1600) and continued to rule the university curricula for centuries after.  As I described in the sixth installment of this mini-history, informed by the recent history of science by James Hannam, the cultural triumph of humanism during the Renaissance was a setback for scientific development.  In their reactionary love affair with antiquity, humanist intellectuals transformed the inventive scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas into near-total deference to the authority of the ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle.  This revised scholasticism established a method of “disputation” in which the starting point for all knowledge was the presumed authority of the past.  Nothing could be true unless it was derived logically from things known by authority of the ancients—deductive reasoning.  Our own experience or observation of nature served only to illustrate rather than to test the truth of ideas derived by deductive reasoning. All intellectual attention was on the perfections of God and Heaven; there was a hierarchy of perfections, and life as we experience it was at the bottom of this hierarchy and hardly worthy of study.  Which is why the only science that was taken seriously was the study of the heavens—astronomy.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) mounted a “momentous assault” (as Prof. Kors calls it) on the static and contemplative worldview of Aristotelian scholasticism, starting with his published works from 1602 to 1608 and culminating in The New Organon in 1620.  Bacon rejected the presumptive authority of the past.  In a true intellectual revolution, he turned on its head the notion that true knowledge comes primarily by logical deduction from the premises of these ancient philosophers.  Instead, Bacon gave priority to discovering laws of nature through inductive reasoning from experience and observation of nature, including experiment to tease apart cause and effect.  This approach opened up acquisition of knowledge to allow exploration of new worlds never envisioned by the ancients, unfettered by the presumptions of those who never set eyes on these new worlds or, in the case of the mundane nature around us, who never bothered to carefully observe how nature actually works.

Quoting from Prof. Kors’s summary of Bacon in Lecture Three:

Instead of the unholy alliance of minds and words, human creations, we needed a marriage of mind and things of God’s creation, and that marriage should be chaste, by which Bacon meant without ornamentation or flights of fancy.  It should be holy, by which Bacon meant with proper reverence and humility and motivated by Christian charity.  And, it must be legal, by which he meant according to rules and proper methods.

Prof. Kors cites four “great themes” in Bacon’s thought.  First, knowledge should be useful.  We should apply knowledge of causes and forces in nature to enhance the human condition and minimize human suffering.  Second, natural philosophy (science) should be separated from theology.  Let theology speak to matters of God and faith, but to learn the nature of God’s creation, we should study that nature and let it speak for itself.  Third, method lies at the heart of human knowledge.  Genius is useful but not necessary as long as we tread the path of proper method—not deduction from received authority but induction from the particulars of nature.  Fourth, science is a dynamic, cooperative and cumulative enterprise.  There is no static knowledge; we will always be learning from nature through observation, experiment and inductive reasoning—adding, correcting and amending. No single mind (not even as brilliant a mind as Aristotle’s) can embrace the whole of nature in a brilliant scheme.  With humility, we need collective effort to compensate for our inherent biases and errors—testing each other’s work, to confirm or correct the conclusions.

Each of these four themes was a radical departure from the dominant intellectual culture of Europe in the early 17th century.  The Scientific Revolution had begun.

Note that Bacon did not reject theological authority; he was a devout churchman, like most of the early natural philosophers we now call scientists.  But he maintained that theological authority should not eclipse the authority of nature as the true guide for acquisition of knowledge about nature.  Nonetheless, Bacon fostered an attitude that theological authority should not intrude where it does not belong.  That attitude continues, and it now fosters an ongoing contraction of what is considered the legitimate domain of theological authority, not just in science but also human society in general.

The New Astronomy

Bacon could have been ignored, but the astronomical observations, calculations and mathematical logic and conclusions of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei could not.  Aristotelian scholasticism embraced the geocentric astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (circa 90 – circa 168).  Remember that astronomy was the science worth studying because it described the perfection of the heavens.  In the 2nd century, Ptolemy proposed an elaborate system in which the universe revolves around the planet Earth – geocentrism.  Subsequent interpretations of new astronomical observations were bent to conform to Ptolemy’s system, in part because his system was actually pretty good at predicting the time and place of celestial phenomena, very important for the practice of astrology.  So important, given the movement of the heavens was so consequential for human activity in the Late Middle Ages and into modern times, that there was ongoing effort to make increasingly accurate predictions of those movements by ever more carefully observing and recording the movements of planets and stars.

In the 1500s, Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed a heliocentric system of understanding the heavens, with the Earth revolving around the Sun.  His system initially had little influence, even on Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the Danish nobleman who devoted much of his life to meticulous collection of a huge set of astronomical measurements.  These data became the grist for the remarkable mathematician and astronomer (as well as mystic, fortuneteller and astrologer), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).  Prof. Kors tells the ironic story:

The secret of Kepler’s Herculean labor to fit Tycho’s data to Copernicus’s heliocentrism – the sun at the center of the system – was Kepler’s deep faith.  Long before any of his work allowed him to conclude it, indeed from the outset, that with the sun at the rightful center of the universe, the quantitative and geometrical harmonies and ratios of God’s creation would be disclosed.

So religiously motivated, Kepler persevered through an ordeal of mathematical hard labor, without the benefit of analytical geometry or the calculus, neither of which were invented until later in the century, arriving in 1619 at his three laws of planetary motion that “brought order out of astronomy and Copernicus’s system.”  However, even Kepler’s correspondent and fellow mathematician-astronomer, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), did not accept Kepler’s conclusions, though Galileo had already become an enthusiast for Copernicus’s system.  In fact, it was only later in the century that the work of Isaac Newton confirmed Kepler’s laws.

What Galileo did share with Kepler was a commitment to understanding nature and nature’s God quantitatively rather than in terms of perfections or purposes as the Aristotelians sought to do.  Galileo further contributed to our understanding of mass in motion – physics – but he sought more, nothing less than a restructuring of our understanding of the world.  A brilliant but brash polemicist, Galileo tended to make enemies unnecessarily, especially among the intellectually long-dominant Dominicans in their rivalry with the newly emerged and equally intellectual Jesuits.  At first, he enjoyed the friendship and political support of the Pope himself.  From this relationship evolved the famous conflict between Galileo and the Church over the truth of heliocentrism.  Given the iconic nature of this conflict for those who believe that religion and science are inherently in conflict, it is worth digging into the real, rich history vs. the “urban myth” (soon you will understand the pun!).

The Galileo Affair

Prof. Lawrence Principe devotes two lectures just to explaining the real story of the Galileo Affair in his course “Science and Religion,” another of the Great Courses.  If you care enough, I recommend you read or hear these two lectures to convince yourself that what the general public knows of the Galileo Affair is misleading at best and in important respects just plain wrong.  For those who prefer an executive summary, I offer here a short version of Prof. Principe’s two lectures.

To start off, please remember that while we take for granted that the Earth rotates on its axis once a day, and revolves around the Sun once a year, we cannot see proof of this is our everyday experience.  The Earth seems quite stable and unmoving.  Therefore, Copernicus’s heliocentric system is completely counter-intuitive and requires compelling proof to overcome our common sense.  Religion-centered as the time was, much concern was expressed about the apparent contradiction between the Bible, in particular the story of Joshua and the Sun standing still, and the heliocentric system that Galileo publicly supported through his teaching in Florence.  The mother of the Grand Duke of Florence wanted to know if there was some plausible explanation, and Galileo supplied one in a letter, in which he provided his own reinterpretation of the Joshua passage in light of what he considered the evidence from nature.  In doing so, Galileo was thoroughly consistent with Augustinian principles of biblical interpretation.  The doctrine of “accommodation” holds that Scripture, though inspired by God, was written by people who understood that messages had to be delivered in the language and concepts that audiences of the time would understand and find credible.  And St. Augustine’s “unity of truth” – that the Two Books of scripture and of nature cannot contradict one another, being products of the same Truth from God – requires that scripture be reinterpreted in ways that are consistent with new evidence of the way nature works.

However, Galileo made two crucial errors.  First, he was known for arguing that theologians should stay out of the business of natural philosophy—science.  Yet he took it upon himself to reinterpret Scripture, which was an intrusion by a natural philosopher into the work of theologians.  He was not considered qualified to do such important work.  So a minor Dominican friar sent a letter of complaint to the Inquisition.  Prof. Principe says that upon reading the records of the Inquisition, “most people are struck by the attention to protocol, to due process, and to clarity.  In their usual efficient way, the Inquisition examined the complaint.”  They found no grounds for alarm, so they dismissed the case.  They did not declare heliocentrism to be heretical, but they did refer Copernicus’s book to the Office of the Index (the official church censor—what we would call an editorial board), which decreed that the book should be “corrected.”  Four years later (obviously not a priority), a revised version with ten altered passages was published.  The offending passages either had offered interpretations of scripture, or they very directly had asserted that heliocentrism was absolutely true.

The Inquisition also told Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, a Jesuit and the most powerful churchman of the time, to meet with Galileo to inform him of the decree of the Index and to give him a verbal warning that he should abandon his assertions that Copernicanism was absolutely true.  This meeting took place in February 1616.  Bellarmino, like his Jesuit and Dominican brethren, valued reason as much as faith, and he reasonably demanded of Galileo credible evidence that the Earth does indeed move before the Church committed itself to a reinterpretation of the Bible.  The policy was clear and wise: the Church would not reinterpret scripture to accommodate every hare-brained theory about how the universe works.  To do so would create confusion and dissension among the laity.  This policy was particularly strengthened by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), at which Bellarmino had great influence, to counter the growing tendency within Protestantism to allow, even encourage, personal interpretation of the Bible, often in naïve and strange ways.

Bellarmino was open to the possibility that scripture would have to be reinterpreted, but he held out for a sound proof.  Galileo could not provide it.  Galileo’s main “proof” was his theory of what causes the tides—the rotation of the Earth, he asserted.  Bellarmino was unconvinced, and he was right to be so.  Galileo’s theory ultimately turned out to be flat wrong!  So Bellarmino delivered the warning, and Galileo agreed to abide by it.  That should have been the end of the affair.

Fifteen years passed before Galileo got into trouble again, much worse trouble, with the publication of his book “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” in 1632.  The genesis of the book was in his long-time friendship with the man who became Pope Urban VIII (the pun!).  Shortly after becoming Pope, Urban held several meetings with Galileo in 1624, in which it seems Urban gave permission, if not encouragement, to write a book about Copernicanism, as long as Galileo argued that the notion of the Earth’s movement had to be regarded as hypothetical.  The Pope required that Galileo include the argument that, given God is omnipotent, any determination of ultimate causes can never be absolutely certain.

Galileo took years to write the book and ran into various problems with getting it published (any published author is nodding his or her head in recognition just now).  He included the required argument:

God in his infinite power and wisdom could have conferred on the element of water the back-and-forth motion that we see in it by some other means than by making its container move.

But the way he included this argument was his second crucial error.  He wrote the book as a dialogue among three characters: an advocate for Copernicanism (Galileo’s brilliant alter ego), an impartial intermediary, and an advocate for Ptolemaic cosmology (named Simplicio and often coming across as a gibbering idiot).  At the very end of the book, Galileo put the Pope’s argument into the mouth of Simplicio, the fool!  Urban was furious with embarrassment.  He felt betrayed by his friend (the worst kind of betrayal) at the very time he was fighting for his political life in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.  He was in no mood to protect Galileo from those who had their personal reasons to send him back to the Inquisition.  The Inquisition worked out a face-saving deal with Galileo, but Urban would not accept it.  This time there was a trial, not for heresy so much as for violating the agreement with Bellarmino, who could not counter willful misunderstanding of their agreement, because he had died long before the trial.  With due respect for Galileo himself, the Inquisition banned his book and sentenced him to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.  He lived until 1642, and during his imprisonment he wrote arguably his most important book “Two New Sciences.”

The Galileo Affair would be a minor footnote in the history of science if it had not become a cause célèbre in the intellectual war between Protestants and Roman Catholics, which continued well into the 20th century.  The English-speaking world has been more influenced by the Protestant polemic than the Roman Catholic, especially by the anti-Catholic histories of the 18th century Enlightenment, like Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which exaggerated the “darkness” of the Catholic-dominated Middle Ages.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, the anti-Catholic histories have morphed into anti-Christian revisionism that cites the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as evidence of the irrationality and cruelty of Christianity, if not religion in general, and the Galileo Affair as evidence of the anti-science nature of Christianity and even religion in general.  My reading of more objective history, summarized in the previous posts of this Average Joe’s History series, reveals how trumped up and agenda-driven are these charges.  Regarding the Galileo Affair, willfully anachronistic misinterpretation persists to this day.

The general understanding of scientific knowledge, even for most scientists, is that it describes reality as it really is.  We accept this notion as such a matter of fact that we are surprised to learn from Prof. Principe that in Galileo’s time a different understanding of knowledge, including what we now call “scientific,” was dominant.  The fundamental cause of Galileo’s conflict with Church authorities was the ancient “knowledge problem,” dating back to Plato and Aristotle.  Prof. Steven L. Goldman of Lehigh University devotes 24 lectures to the history of this conflict within and about science in one of the Great Courses, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It.  Science is part of this more general “knowledge problem.”  Goldman’s course explores whether the object of scientific inquiry is “reality” (which is universal, necessary and certain) or “experience” (which is contingent, uncertain and particular)?  We can only know reality through our own experience, filtered through our senses and mental processes, which obscure reality, that which is invariant.  Yet reason and reasoning depend on invariants; something has to be constant for us to engage in reasoning, to have an anchor or starting point for reasoning – starting assumptions about reality.  But science is “historical;” it evolves over time in every aspect, including its starting assumptions.

To see this clearly, think how different was the scientific community’s understanding of physics at the levels of both the universe and the atom in 1900, before relativity theory and quantum mechanics were conceived.  Because we can perceive reality only through our own senses, and the scientific instruments and analytic techniques through which we extend the reach of our senses, there is lingering uncertainty about how distorted is our perception of reality, “as through a glass darkly.”  Even our assumptions have to change over time as we “discover” new ways of perceiving and surmising reality.  We cannot assume that our understanding of physics, or anything else for that matter, will not be just as dramatically different in another 100 years.

Goldman suggests that the object of science is not “reality” in all its metaphysical qualities but “actualities” that are related to reality in some scientifically unknowable and even unimportant way, but clearly correlated with experience – justifiable instrumentally, meaning “it works;” it explains, predicts and gives us control. Ironically, this understanding of knowledge is closer to the dominant view in Galileo’s time than to the current popular view of science as offering certainty about the nature of reality.  The Church revealed itself to be an institutional creature of its time by insisting that Galileo not treat heliocentrism as a fact but as a useful theory that could actually make astrological calculations easier to perform.  The Pope reminded his old friend Galileo that there might well be explanations for the data other than the one advanced by Copernicus and Galileo.  As long as that uncertainty lingered, it would be unwise to challenge the authority of the Bible and its legitimate interpreter, the Church, especially at a time when the Protestant challenge had become such an existential threat.  Galileo made the unwise choice.  Given the times he lived in, continued obstinacy could have led to his premature death.  Fortunately, he relented and lived on to do his most important work.

By the way, Prof. Principe says that Galileo did not mutter “and yet it [the Earth] moves” after recanting his heliocentric views before the Inquisition.

Galileo, like Kepler and Isaac Newton and many other scientists to follow, was novel in his belief that his work was offering not just a more accurate and convenient calculation methodology but an actual description of “the way the heavens go.”  He and they believed that mathematics is the language of the universe and, in the tradition of natural philosophers of the Church, that their work could reveal even the mind of God – the major motivation for the development of science within Western Christianity of the Middle Ages.  Heady stuff; remarkably arrogant as well.  However, as Prof. Goldman says, the effort was justifiable instrumentally, meaning it produced new understanding of reality that explained and predicted the phenomena of the natural world and gave humanity increasing control of these phenomena, for both good and ill, but mainly for the good in the long run.  It is no wonder the popular notion of science is that it describes reality as it really is.  Yet the uncertainty lingers; therefore, humility is the wise choice for those communicating the current scientific understanding of the universe.

René Descartes

If you have taken a basic course in philosophy, you probably have detected in this argument for uncertainty, and therefore humility, the seeds of classic Greek skepticism.  The Roman Church of Galileo’s day was skeptical about human ability to know reality, especially divine reality.  It was not in the least skeptical about the reality of the Divine Being.  The Church’s faith was in the reality of divine revelation in scripture and nature and the Church’s ability, with divine inspiration, to interpret that revelation to know the nature and will of God.  But the Reformation challenged that faith in the Roman Church’s role as final arbiter of what we know about God and God’s creation.  There were now two churches, then several, offering conflicting understandings of God’ truth and revelation.  The Reformation thus spawned an epistemological crisis, summed up by Prof. Kors as this question: “What is a criterion of truth that allows one to determine the truth or falsity of mutually exclusive claims?”  For every criterion we might offer, the question becomes “What is a criterion for a criterion of truth?”  In other words, every claim we make depends on accepting one or more assumptions that we take for granted as true.  But how do we know our assumption is itself true?  We are in an infinite regress, culminating in skepticism.

In the post-Reformation 1500s, there was a revival of classic Greek skepticism among intellectuals, whose publications were a big hit with the reading public.  Skepticism is a fun weapon for the young to use in challenging their teachers.  It is also highly corrosive of respect for the presumed authority of past as well as present writers and institutions.  It becomes particularly dangerous to society in general, and religion or even science in particular, when skepticism is taken to the ultimate conclusion that we cannot even be certain that nothing can be known with certainty.  We are left with literally nothing to hang on to, no anchor to which we can attach any logical argument.  We know nothing!  All logical discourse becomes fruitless.

Philosophy was supremely important in late Medieval Europe, much the way science is in modern times, so a philosophical response was needed – desperately.  In providing that response, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist, René Descartes (1596-1650) became the “most influential Continental philosopher of the 17th century,” according to Prof. Kors.  He generated a series of publications in the period 1637-49, the decade after the second phase of the Galileo Affair.  He challenged both Aristotelian scholasticism and the philosophical skeptics by taking skepticism to its extreme in order to overcome it.  He sought to take us back to the most basic proposition that we can know to be true and from there to build up a logically derived understanding of reality.  Prof. Kors captures the Cartesian approach very well in his Lecture Five:

I can doubt whether two plus two equals four; I can doubt whether I’m sleeping or waking.  I can doubt whether I’m really here or not here. I could doubt whether I exist or don’t exist, that I myself could be a dream to me.  But wait a minute.  If I’m wrong, I must exist to be wrong.  If I’m right, I must exist to be right.  If I doubt, I must exist to doubt.  In short, if I think, I must exist.

Cogito ergo sum.  I think, therefore I am.

It cannot be doubted.

From this self-evident proposition, dependent on no other thing being true, Descartes built a totally logical understanding of reality, including two proofs of the existence of God (through what feels to me like philosophical gamesmanship).  He further concluded (again I quote Prof. Kors) that there are three fundamental entities that constitute reality: God, uncreated, the perfect being, who created two distinct entities.  One, immaterial, not occupying space; you can’t push it; you can’t cut it in half—mind, thought.  Two, body—which is wholly quantitative.  The essence of soul is thought; the essence of body is extension in height, width and depth.

That last point should remind you that Descartes invented the Cartesian coordinates we all know and love (x-axis, y-axis, z-axis).  Like Galileo, he proposed that the physical world is dimension, motion, and the mechanisms of matter touching and communicating force to matter.  In addition to the mind-matter duality of the universe, the powerful Cartesian inspiration for 17th century intellectuals pointed toward a new science tasked with discovering the laws, the mechanisms and the effects of matter in motion.  His philosophical system incorporated the Medieval notion (dating to Abelard of Bath in the 12th century) that material or natural phenomena must be explained by material or natural phenomena.  Theological explanations that invoke immaterial (spiritual) causes may be true, but they don’t tell us how it works in the material world, thereby giving us the ability to predict (science) and even to control through practical application (technology).

Again paraphrasing Prof. Kors, Descartes dismissed the presumptive authority of Aristotle and other ancients and invited intellectuals to begin with absolute doubt, giving human reason an absolute right to seek certainty before belief.  He asserted that our understanding of the natural world must be reconstructed from the evidence found in nature and logical induction from that evidence.  In this sense, Descartes was both a rationalist (focusing on logical deduction from self-evident, universal truths) and an empiricist (focusing on logical induction from the evidence of human experience).  However, Descartes was not nearly as much an empiricist as the next generation’s equally influential English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704).

John Locke

The differences between Descartes and Locke are extensions of the ancient debate about the “problem of knowledge” discussed by Prof. Goldman.  Locke differed from Descartes in a crucial starting assumption.  Descartes asserted that the immaterial human mind is endowed with certain innate ideas, true by virtue of being self-evident to the human mind and independent of anything else being true.  Locke asserted that the newborn human’s mind is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, on which experience, and reflection on that experience, writes ideas.  The mind combines simple units of experience and reflection to build increasingly complex ideas.

Descartes concluded that our innate ideas directly represent the real qualities of the world that are universal, necessary and certain.  By building logically outward from these innate ideas in combination with the evidence of experience, humans can develop a perfect knowledge of ultimate reality.  Not so, concluded Locke.  We can only know what we experience through our senses, and that experience is limited to the world in which we grow up and live our lives.  Our knowledge is contingent, uncertain and particular.  We can only assert that something is probably true; we cannot know something for certain. The more we experience that “something” in diverse ways and situations, the more probable will be our knowledge of it.  But we can never say for certain that the next experience of that “something” will not overturn our current understanding.  For example, a person raised in the tropics without hearing about colder climates will dismiss the possibility that a person can walk across a river without getting wet.  Yet the ultimate reality of water includes freezing solid at cold-enough temperatures.  Humans do not have the capacity to know ultimate reality with certainty, only through the distorting lens of contingent, particular experience that comes to us through our senses.

Prof. Kors focuses on intellectual history, the story of how people in particular times and places think and how they think about thinking—the general concepts and particular ideas that hold sway in their culture and therefore their mental lives.  Whether these concepts and ideas are true or even reasonable is beside the point of intellectual history.  Rather, what is historically important is that these concepts and ideas were held to be true by a great many intellectuals of the time and place.  They were enormously influential in what was taught to the next generation.  Prof. Kors contends that Locke as a philosopher of knowledge, an epistemologist, is not well regarded by philosophers and is barely taught in philosophy courses today.  But he says that Locke is enormously influential on the thinking of the late 1600s and all through the 1700s, which is why he is so important in our intellectual history.

According to Prof. Kors, Locke seems to agree with Descartes that humans are made of two different kinds of stuff: bodies (material) and minds (immaterial).  But we cannot “know” this dualism to be true; we cannot know the real qualities of the world, which underlie what we experience through our senses and through our consciousness of thinking about what we experience.  Prof. Kors, on the question of whether the distinction between body and mind is real, powerfully sums up Locke’s position this way:

But philosophy can’t answer that question.  Human knowledge can’t answer that question.  We must admit our ignorance.  … the problem is not to know what mind is—we are not made for that knowledge—but how in our experience mind behaves.  We need a psychology, not a metaphysics of mind.  The problem is not to know what matter is, but how in our experience the world behaves.  We need a physics and a set of sciences, not a metaphysics of matter.  Such knowledge is based not on logic or innate ideas but on experience, and thus it is always open to correction based on further experience … it is time for philosophy to understand the proper role of intellectual limits and humility.

Very Baconian.  Very supportive of the emerging scientific revolution.  Very appealing to the early modern mind.  Locke demystified knowledge and ideas.  Any reality-based proposition or system of thought can be broken into simpler component ideas, all grounded in experience and testable against new experience. Quoting Prof. Kors again:

[If] you are a Lockean, you have not only the right, but if you think clearly, you have the intellectual obligation to say, “How do you know that?  What experiences support and confirm your view?  What in experience allows one to make that claim about the world?”

Prof. Kors points out the dramatic social implications of Locke’s empiricism.  Our knowledge, including our ethics, is of our experience, of our environment.  Changing that environment, therefore, would change the kind of people we are – our beliefs, our values, our very character.  Think what a radical departure this was from the Aristotelian notion that every human being has a fixed essence or character, determining a fate that can only be played out to the inevitable end.  In the Lockean culture of the 1700s, a whole new storyline emerged for biographies, plays and novels focused on how people became who they are, due to the time, place and circumstances of their childhood and later character development.  This perspective was transformative of the way the early moderns thought about human beings, their education, their society and the possibility of social reform.

There is another profound implication – moral relativism.  If our beliefs, values and character are derived from our experience and our reflections on that experience, then our very notions of what is good and what is evil must vary dramatically from culture to culture, even person to person, in response to different social and physical environments in which people grow to maturity.  Today, we might take this for granted.  But the early moderns were still steeped in a religious worldview; no matter their alienation from institutional religion, almost no intellectuals could accept the radical materialist conclusions of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a contemporary of Galileo and Descartes.

Hobbes had a strongly negative influence on the thinking of 17th and 18th centuries.  Intellectuals were determined to refute Hobbes as an atheist, a rather rare and dangerous accusation at the time (the last British execution for heresy was much later, in 1697 in Presbyterian Scotland), but as the former tutor to King Charles II, Hobbes was protected.  He started with the same empiricist position as John Locke did decades later, asserting we can know only what we perceive through our senses; only material things can impact our senses, so we can only know the material world.  But Hobbes went further by asserting that any knowledge claims based on immaterial things or causes are very literally “nonsense,” not from the senses.  Not that the immaterial is impossible, but to advance the improvement of the human condition (a goal almost new in the 17th century – remember Bacon’s new purpose for natural philosophy), our philosophy must be constructed as though the immaterial does not exist.  Philosophy must serve our need in this material world for real knowledge of real causes, so it cannot contain any “nonsense,” which would exclude God.

Like Galileo and Descartes, Hobbes believed that the material world is composed of measurable matter in measurable motion conforming to fixed quantitative rules.  Like many contemporaries and later natural philosophers, Hobbes conceived of the material world as mechanistic, but he extended this include to humans.  Quoting Prof. Kors again:

That governing mechanism in human beings, for Hobbes, is pleasure and pain.  That is the mechanism; ego psychology, pleasure, and pain are the cause of human actions.  All organisms seek pleasure and flee pain.  With that mechanism understood, all of human behavior falls into place.  … Hobbes reaches categorically relativistic conclusions about human ethics.  All that we mean by “good” is that which we believe will lead to our happiness.  All that we mean by “evil” is that which we believe will lead to our suffering and pain.  Thus, for Hobbes, there is no goodness or evil in and of themselves, there is only good and evil in relationship to the human condition and the contribution of something to human happiness or human suffering.  … The century hears those arguments and recoils.

Thus, the empiricism of John Locke skated alarmingly close to Thomas Hobbes when asserting that humans acquire all their ideas through experience and reflection on that experience.  That means all ideas of good and evil are also acquired ultimately from experience.  Experiences that lead to our well-being define what we call “good” and, conversely, what we call “evil.”  However, Locke remained committed to the reality of divine providence; God so designed the world that the experiences we have of happiness and pain cause us to define good and evil as they should be in divine sight.  This notion of providential design nudging us in the right direction, without God’s direct, real-time intervention, will become a major theme of the 18th century.  But Prof. Kors says Locke bequeathed us a dramatic question:

How does one demonstrate the truth of religion, if all of our knowledge is probabilistic and acquired by experience?

Ever the empiricist, Locke argued that Christianity is indeed reasonable, because we have the empirical evidence provided by unimpeachable witnesses, the Apostles and others.  They were unimpeachable, because they were willing to endure imprisonment, torture and death as the price of attesting to the truth of what they claimed to have seen.  You can’t ask for more credible witnesses than that!  Therefore, it is reasonable to believe the content of Scripture when it is rationally and reasonably read and understood.  Nonetheless, this empirical defense of Christianity in particular, and religion in general, encouraged some remarkable 18th century minds to question more skeptically whether the miracles really occurred and the prophesies were actually fulfilled.

Isaac Newton

Even as John Locke was writing, another Englishman, a brilliant but still obscure mathematician named Isaac Newton (1643-1727), was sitting for nearly two decades on a manuscript he wrote as a young man in 1666-68 while sheltering at his father’s estate from a plague epidemic that had struck Cambridge University and other urban areas.  During this remarkably fruitful 18 months, Newton had worked out the foundations of the calculus (independently of the co-founder Leibnitz in Germany), he derived the inverse square law for the theory of gravity, he derived the laws of motion and of planetary motion, and he developed the modern theory of light.

In 1684, the great astronomer Sir Edmund Halley (as in Halley’s Comet), in league with the equally great Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, was seeking a mathematical proof  that the inverse square law would account for Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion and be consistent with the laws of motion in general.  Failing to come up with their own proof, they agreed that Halley should consult with Newton, because of his reputation as one of the finest mathematical minds in England.

Prof. Kors reports that Halley asked Newton: “What would be the curve produced in a satellite if there were a force that diminished according to the square of the distance between two bodies?”  Halley was probably expecting a collegial exploration of the possible answers and how they might be derived mathematically.  Instead, Newton already knew the answer: an ellipse.  Halley was stunned that Newton had worked it out years before!  To account for his silence on the matter, Newton admitted that his calculation did not correspond to the actual center of the earth.  He managed to find the old manuscript in a drawer.  Halley read it and immediately saw the error in Newton’s distance to the center of the earth (Newton did not have access to the correct number when he was working at his father’s house).  Once corrected, the whole solar system fell into place.  He could see that Newton had confirmed Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and “had the mathematical proof of the nature and system and forces of the world,” as Prof. Kors put it.

Halley urged and funded Newton to integrate his findings into a coherent work and publish.  It appeared in 1687 as The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (it was actually in Latin and became known as the Principia)Brilliant as this work was, it benefited from its reception by an intellectual community already eager for a systematic, quantitative and mechanistic explanation of how the world and the universe operate.  In the prior half century, self-styled followers of Bacon and the “new philosophy” were already meeting informally outside the universities still dominated by Aristotelian scholasticism.  They shared observations of the natural world and discussed their meaning and implications for general theory.  One of these groups gained royal patronage and became the Royal Society in 1662.  Bacon had offered them inductive method, and Descartes and Galileo had offered them quantitative concepts and tools; they were inspired to seek general laws that explain their observations of the natural world.  Newton’s Principia offered them general laws that seemed to apply universally, describing mechanisms governed by mathematical formulae.  It was a magnificent validation of their Baconian hope for a grand, unifying physics, built up – induced – from observations of heavenly bodies and mundane matter in motion.  The human mind was enabled by work of the human mind to comprehend the universe.  To quote Prof. Kors:

[The Principia] changed a culture and a culture’s way of understanding the world and a culture’s sense of the relationship of the human mind to nature.

The first modern generation was predisposed to find what it needed in Newton’s work.  Ironically, very few could actually understand Newton’s work, but enough were able to both understand and popularize Newton that the Principia became a touchstone for the early moderns, an affirmation of their Baconian optimism in human capacity to understand nature.  The predictions that followed from the Principia were true.  Think how exhilarating that must have been!  They went further still, to claim for humanity the capacity to understand nature’s God.  Like many others, Newton believed that mathematics was the language of the universe.  By using Baconian method to decode that language and reveal the universal laws written in that language, the human mind is capable of understanding God’s design for nature, the very will and wisdom of God made manifest in the natural world.  No wonder that Sir Isaac Newton is buried with royalty in Westminster Abbey.  Alexander Pope wrote his epitaph: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night.  God said ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.

Blaise Pascal and Pierre Bayle

The enthusiasm for Newton and his work was overwhelming.  But there were dissenting voices.  Indeed, dissenters were distinguished and articulate and well known to the reading public.  First were the Cartesians, who could not accept that gravity is a force that affects objects without touching them, like the occult forces of Aristotelian scholastic physics they had worked so hard to banish.  Descartes had asserted that matter has to be in contact with matter for the two to affect one another.  While Newton could not guess the true nature of this gravitational force, he asserted that observation and mathematics show that it must be real, whatever it is.  Some were not satisfied.

Second, two Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) on the Roman Catholic side and Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) on the Calvinist side, both asserted the fideist (as in fides—faith) view that the human mind by reason alone is incapable of knowing God or the true nature of reality; only a mind inspired by faith through the grace of God can know the divine, and it cannot be a rational understanding.  They urged humility in knowledge claims about nature and especially about the will or design of God.  Notice how this call for humility in knowledge claims is similar to John Locke’s view that we can “know” only that which we can sense—the material world—and even foreshadows the current resolution of the “knowledge problem” put forward by Prof. Goldman!  Yet this view was very much against the grain of the first modern generation at the advent of the Age of Reason.

We should not think of this dissenting view as the religious position vs. the scientific position.  Religious thinkers were pioneers of the Age of Reason.  It is more the Augustinian position (from St. Augustine) vs. the Thomist position (from St. Thomas Aquinas); the original Protestants, specifically Luther and Calvin, were intellectual heirs of St. Augustine’s mysterious theology of grace, while the Roman Catholic Church, in its Counter-Reformation, had embraced the rational theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.  The latter views faith as the partner of reason—our faith can be justified by rational argument from first principles (accepted on faith) via logic to conclusions confirmed by experience and Scripture—we can develop philosophical proofs of the rational validity of our faith.  However, both the rationalist and fideist views were found in both Catholicism and the dominant Protestant denominations.  The fideists like Pascal and Bayle were reacting to the ascendance of rational theology in their time, which ascendance was very much encouraged by and encouraging to the scientific revolution in natural philosophy.

Pascal’s story is fascinating.  He was one of the leading figures of the scientific revolution of the 1600s.  Here is Prof. Kors’s summary of his contributions:

He was a child prodigy in mathematics.  He did groundbreaking work on conic sections and cycloid curves.  He is an essential figure in the history of barometrics, fluid dynamics, pneumatics, and the mathematical calculus of probability.  … Pascal even devised a calculating device, based on a binary system of zeros and ones, to make calculations, which is why one of the premier programming languages in the computer age is named in his honor, “Pascal.”

The fact that Pascal … was so deeply involved in the kind of knowledge that could be acquired by inductive empiricism, quantification, and mathematical reasoning lent particular force to his turn toward fideistic philosophy and theology.  Pascal … essentially abandoned his extraordinary scientific career after his encounter with a movement within European Catholicism that is known as Jansenism, named after a Dutch bishop, Jansen, who had written a book on the theology of St. Augustine.  Pascal … became one of the great religious apologists [defenders of the faith] of Jansenism, Catholicism and Christianity.

For Pascal, there could be no rational proof of God.  Given his understanding of probability, which made him a popular figure in his gambling-crazy society, Pascal posed the question of God’s existence as a wager each of us must make—either there is or there is not God.  What is the potential gain or loss you could expect from each of the two bets?  If you bet there is no God, and you are right, then you gain absolutely nothing.  If you are wrong, according to the believer Pascal, you lose infinitely everything.  On the other hand, if you bet there is God, and you are right, then you gain infinitely everything.  And if you are wrong, you lose absolutely nothing.  What rational human being would not see the merit in believing in God?

Notice two very interesting implications of Pascal’s Wager.  First, it is thoroughly modern in its appeal to the rational and secular mind.  It is not a theological or even philosophical argument.  It is consistent with the modern understanding that such a question cannot be answered with direct evidence of God (miracles, witnesses, etc.) or with a test of any theoretical prediction emanating from the existence of God.  Second, the wager is directed to those who might doubt the existence of God, which is a modern doubt, not a medieval one.  The medievals argued over doctrinal differences arising from different understandings of the nature and will of God, not over whether or not God exists.  Atheism was very rare among intellectuals before Thomas Hobbes.  It remained quite rare for generations after, but atheism became prominent enough to worry religious intellectuals into more and more attempts to refute it.

Pierre Bayle is an ironic figure in intellectual history.  For about 150 years, his books were more commonly found in private libraries than any other; he was an intellectual superstar, yet he is virtually unknown today.  Even more ironic and more important is the impact of Bayle on those who owned his books, especially in the 1700s.  Pierre Bayle was at the intellectual center of the French Huguenot community in exile in Holland in the late 1600s, following the royal revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which reversed the long period of tolerance of the Calvinist Huguenots in France.  Much like the Jansenist role in Catholicism, Bayle was outspoken in criticism of his co-religionists, pushing his criticisms and arguments often to the point of seeming irreligious.  He sought to humble reason as the path to knowing God, more or less the same fideist argument against rational, philosophical theology as Pascal made – the  human inability to know God’s nature and will except through faith.  Bayle was particularly incensed by the intolerance of his age, of which he had very direct, cruel experience as a Huguenot in France.  He ascribed religious intolerance to an arrogant confidence in one’s religious belief that could justify killing others with contrary beliefs, even in God’s name (the most heinous of sins).  Such arrogance comes, Bayle argued, from overextension of human claims derived from intellectual theology that abandons simple, tolerant faith.  Bayle values not only faith but humility.

Bayle ruled out reason applied to study of the natural, material world as a way to know that which surpasses all human understanding, God.  His readers were supposed to understand that Bayle was not posing a contradiction of religion and natural philosophy (science) in the quest to understand the material world.  He was criticizing those who sought to apply their rational, philosophical method of understanding the material world to the task of understanding the immaterial, spiritual world, to knowing God.  But many 18th century readers hailed a different (and erroneous) message they took from Bayle—that religion is in conflict with reason and, therefore, with science.  His assertion of the primacy of faith over reason was misunderstood.  Because he had been so hard on his fellow Calvinists, Bayle was ironically hailed by the French Enlightenment as an unbeliever, a religious skeptic, an intellectual father of the Enlightenment.  They saw what they wanted to see.

On the Cusp between Medieval and Modern

Both Pascal and Bayle were swimming against the very strong intellectual currents of the Age of Reason, the Scientific Revolution and the dawn of the Enlightenment.  Their calls for intellectual humility and prudence were swept away by the enthusiasm for natural theology, which proposed that God is revealed by the creation we can observe with our senses and reflect upon with our rational minds.

The cusp generation, the first modern generation, was both excited and unsettled by what they were so avidly reading about the discoveries in the world beyond Europe and in the new understanding of how the world works around them.  They learned of the accomplishments of the “new method of knowledge,” as Prof. Kors calls it:

… the generation from 1685-1715 increasingly associates the awesome accomplishments of 17th-century natural philosophy—science—with induction from nature, ordered by reason into laws as general and as universal as possible, confirmed by rigorous experiment and experience and wherever possible put the use and the benefit of humankind.

This was the New Philosophy that overturned the presumptive authority of the past in favor of learning from experience, through methodical use of the human mind to acquire new knowledge.  There was a sense that the relationship of humans to nature had been altered in our favor.  There was also a sense of optimism about the limitless possibilities that this new vision and method opened up to humanity.  Fideism and skepticism were about to be swept away by the new confidence in natural philosophy.  Confidence in the power of the human mind properly applied led to great optimism and more than a little arrogance about our ability to know enough about nature, and even God’s will, to reshape nature and society for the better.

Enter the ambitious project of the 1700s and beyond – the Enlightenment.              

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—The Terrible Transition toward the Modern Worldview (1500 to 1700)

[This is the seventh installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In my previous post, I described how the expansion of the Ottoman Turks and the discovery of the New World shifted the center of political and economic gravity from Italy and the Mediterranean Sea to north of the Alps—the resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V—and to the Atlantic coastal countries—Portugal, Spain, France, England and Holland extended their competition to the New World through trade and colonization.

Charles V of the Habsburgs inherited the Spanish throne in 1516 and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, thereby creating the largest political entity in Europe since the Roman Empire.  He united the German principalities and the Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian kingdoms with Spain and its control of the Low Countries (now the Netherlands and Belgium) and parts of Italy as well as Spain’s New World colonies.  He ruled this vast collection of semi-autonomous states and dependencies until he resigned in 1556 in favor of his brother Ferdinand I as Holy Roman Emperor and his son Philip II as King of Spain.  Like his predecessors in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabela, Charles V was devoted to Roman Catholicism.  In fact, he regarded himself as the Church’s leader and protector in temporal matters, partner to the Pope as Vicar of Christ in an alliance of the separate realms of the temporal and the spiritual.  He embraced the crusading zeal for defense of Christendom along with imperial ambition to exploit the New World in service of imperial and Church objectives.  He also presided uneasily over the launch of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the first Wars of Religion.

Lutheran Reformation

Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation, starting in 1517 by circulating his “Ninety-Five Theses” objecting to the selling of indulgences by the Church (interpreted as offering tickets to personal salvation in order to raise revenue for the Church’s worldly projects).   He quickly gained a wide readership thanks to printing and the resonance his argument found with so many people disgusted by obvious Church corruption.  By itself this document was not considered heretical by the Church.  But the selling of indulgences symbolized so many other, more fundamental features of Roman Catholic belief and practice that Luther and his followers objected to, and Luther spelled out the details of these strong objections in three books published in 1520.  These could not be ignored.  Luther was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520 and a call for his arrest was put out by Charles V in 1521.  But the politics of the Holy Roman Empire were complicated; princes and their equivalent in the various states had wide latitude to subvert the will of the Emperor and often had scores to settle with him and his allies.  Luther might very well have been executed for heresy (not by the Church but by imperial authorities), like Jan Hus a century earlier, except that he was protected by Frederick of Saxony, who installed Luther at Wartburg Castle, where Luther churned out volumes of new challenges to the Old Religion as well as a German translation of the Bible that helped establish the modern German language.

From Wikipedia, I offer this short summary of Martin Luther’s religious views.  He taught that salvation is not earned by good deeds but is received only as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer from sin.  Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the Pope, claiming that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge.  He also denied the legitimacy and authority of a closed caste of priests to mediate for us with God.  For Luther, all baptized Christians are a holy priesthood, able to interact directly with God.  These became the basic tenets of the Lutherans.

Luther’s revolt was religious not social in nature, yet his writing encouraged many of the German peasantry to rise up in a social revolt against the landlords of some states of the empire.  Luther was appalled by the evil actions of the peasants against their masters and called for their brutal suppression.  It was not for humans to change society, the product of God’s plan for the world.  This view was hardly original to Luther.  It was the general assumption on which social, economic and political organization rested.  It was a human’s task to discern God’s will through the evidence in Nature and Scripture.  Luther did not desire an overturning of the social order; he differed with the Roman Church on questions of whose interpretation of God’s will should be taken seriously.  Yet the social implications of Luther’s religious revolt were profound.  Many nobles and peasants alike harbored deep, simmering resentments against political, social and economic domination by remote authorities aligned with the Roman “confession.”  They wanted greater autonomy and more local authority to organize their lives, communities and states.  Luther gave them religious vocabulary and cogent arguments to support their taking action.  The Lutheran revolt spread rapidly.

English Reformation

At the same time as the rapid spread of Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire, King Henry VIII of England repudiated the authority of the Pope and in 1534 declared himself supreme head of the Church of England.  While it is well known that Henry wanted a divorce that the Pope would not grant, his move to separate from Rome played very well with the nobles who wanted to acquire land owned in perpetuity by numerous monastic houses, which Henry simply dissolved so that he could expropriate and sell the land.  Thus, this was a royal reformation that had very little to do with theology; Henry insisted that the Church of England maintain most of the features of Roman Catholicism.  However, his son Edward, who reigned 1547-53, brought the English church more into line with continental Reformation theology, including the publication of the Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Uniformity which abandoned the Catholic mass and allowed clerical marriage.  Edward was followed by Mary the Catholic and her bloody attempt to restore England’s allegiance to Rome and then Elizabeth I, a pragmatist who enforced an uneasy peace in which the Church of England regained some but not all of its Protestant features and Catholics were allowed to practice their faith in private—at least until she was declared a heretic by the Pope, plots against her were attributed to Catholics, and Philip II of Spain attempted unsuccessfully to invade England with his Spanish Armada in 1588.

Reaction in the German Lands

Whole states of the (especially northern) German lands of the Holy Roman Empire became Lutheran and formed the Schmalkaldic League to resist with military force the action by Charles V to bring them back under the banner of Roman Catholicism.  Charles V was forced by military stalemate to recognize in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that Lutheranism could not be uprooted and therefore would have to be accommodated within the German lands.  The resolution of this war in the name of religion was that each prince would determine the religion that all citizens of his state would have to embrace (allowing those who could not do so to move their families and possessions unimpeded to a state that had embraced their preferred religion—a remarkable concession for the time).  The notion that all citizens of a state should share the same religion startles our modern sensibilities, but we must understand that since antiquity the fundamental concept of communal harmony, from villages to empires, was that its members share the same values, which meant the same religion, at least in public if not uniformly in private.  The fact that the Holy Roman Empire could tolerate both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as official religions coexisting in neighboring states of the empire was quite revolutionary.  It also broke forever the historic unity of Christendom, a common, continental set of values, language and culture that recognized one source of Authority regarding what is true, right and good, the glue that united Europeans despite their often violent commercial and political competition.


At first it seemed that Roman Catholicism was doomed to decline in the face of the vigorous revolt of the Protestant Reformation.  But urged on by Charles V, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent at which Church leaders carefully considered the objections raised by Luther and other Protestants.  Other than making some important reforms to stamp out corruption in the Church hierarchy, the Council finally and fatefully decided to stand its ground, thereby launching the Counter-Reformation.  I quote Professor Bartlett:

In the years of its deliberation, 1545-1563, the Council of Trent redefined and reinforced Catholic doctrine and hierarchy, largely rejecting Protestant demands.  The Latin Vulgate Bible was affirmed as the true source of scripture.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century scholastic theologian, was adopted as the central thinker for the shaping of Catholic dogma.  The central authority of the pope was maintained, the seven sacraments were upheld, and the saints were still recognized.  The centrally managed Roman Inquisition was sustained to identify heresy; and in 1559, the Index of Prohibited Books was decreed to control heretical ideas.

The driving concern that spawned the Inquisition and the Index was the Church’s felt need to provide guidance for the confused laity who sought answers regarding what to believe and what not to believe.  As I described in a prior posting, the Church felt keenly its obligation to prevent its followers from being led astray from the will of God, as interpreted by the Pope and the hierarchy in Rome.  The same zeal for defense of the faith had led in 1540 to the founding of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) by Ignatius of Loyola and a small band of associates.  Like the Dominicans starting in the 1100s, the Jesuits’ reason for being was to engage opponents of the faith in reasoned argument based on the best knowledge of the day, and to win the argument convincingly but peacefully and with respect.  But also like the Dominicans in earlier centuries, the Jesuits often unwittingly (or not) provided intellectual cover for violent suppression of the enemies of the faith.  Again quoting Professor Bartlett:

[The Jesuits] provided the instrument by which that faith would be affirmed, taught and spread.  These priests were to live among the people, engaging in teaching, preaching and missionary activity.  The natives of the new world were to be converted to Roman Christianity and souls both protected and won back from the Protestants in Europe.

The spirit that brought about the Jesuits also brought about the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Jesuits and their superb schools, together with the Inquisition and the Index, represented a different kind of religious war: a war of the spirit and of will between Protestants and Catholics.  Europe had been divided by religion, and the ultimate consequence of this was a century of unspeakable suffering.

Let us remember, however, that the consequent wars were fought in the name of religion but actually in service of temporal politics.  Religious vocabulary and concepts were still regarded as the sole means of justifying human action, even to achieve distinctly secular ends.


By breaking the unity of recognized spiritual and moral Authority, Lutheranism opened the door for a wide variety of independent religious reform movements, often in protest against both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.  The most influential of these was started in 1536 by John Calvin as he turned Geneva into a theocracy in which all behavior and even thought was to be controlled by the city leadership, who thus became the ultimate authority representing God’s will.  Despite the totalitarian austerity imposed by Calvin in Geneva, his simple, clear message was welcomed by Europeans deeply confused by the Reformation.  This new religion spread quickly to France, the Low Countries (Holland) and Scotland thanks to Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion as a guide for setting up independent Calvinist cells, as well as thanks to the printing presses and the University of Geneva that provided the intellectual support for Calvinist missionary work throughout Europe.  Just as Germany was fairly evenly split between Lutheran and Catholic, France became split roughly half and half between Catholics and Calvinists (Huguenots), leading to a French civil war in the name of religion that finally ended in 1598 when King Henri IV achieved religious reconciliation and provided toleration and full civil rights to Huguenots in his brilliant Edict of Nantes (only to be revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, leading to mass emigration of Huguenots to the New World, South Africa and other parts of Europe).

Thirty Years’ War

In the Low Countries, the Catholic King Philip II of Spain (also monarch of the Low Countries) sought to suppress Calvinism through military force, thereby sparking the Dutch Revolt, which started around 1568.  This revolt festered into the 1600s and became part of a continent-wide conflagration—the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-48, which ended with the near total destruction of Europe and the Treaty of Westphalia.  The Thirty Years’ War started with an intensely overzealous effort to impose Catholicism on Bohemia, the home of the earliest proto-Protestant movement, the Hussites.  It soon engulfed the German and Austrian lands of the Holy Roman Empire and then drew in the Lutheran kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, and then Catholic France (but on the side of the Protestants, because of fears of the encirclement by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and Spain!).  All the while, Spain was financing the war in Germany and engaging the Dutch rebels, and the English were fighting their own civil war (as well as wars in Scotland and Ireland)—all in the name of opposing religious identities.  The brutality on all sides, characteristic of civil wars, was as Professor Bartlett wrote “unspeakable.”  In central Europe, which suffered the most, the combatants literally soldiered on despite the eventual bankruptcy of their respective sponsors, causing the armies to live off the land, which means taking what they wanted from the populous and killing those who objected too strenuously.  Europe’s economy collapsed.  Millions were killed or starved to death.  A census of Bohemia after the war found that several thousand villages had been abandoned!  Europe had never seen such widespread and profound devastation.

Old Social Mold Irrevocably Smashed

In its exhaustion, Europe understood that a new political and social arrangement had to be found.  The will to change society could no longer belong solely to God (or God’s interpreters).  Human leaders would have to take matters into their own hands and use reason and experience to the best of their ability.  Much as the Protestants and Catholics now hated each other, they had to tolerate each other’s existence, even in the same states.  Individuals had to be allowed to follow their own consciences in their choice of religious affiliation.  It would no longer be legitimate to use minor theological differences as an excuse to hate those whom we are predisposed to hate anyway for reasons of ethnicity, culture or class.  The passions generated were just too fearsome, the costs far too great.  No longer could sovereignty of states be subsumed to transnational religious confessions.  What was best for the nation or local community had to take precedence over religious affiliation.  In fact, the concept of the secular sovereign nation state led by a sovereign leader started to emerge in theory (Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes in 1651) and in practice (Louis XIII of France under the guidance of the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu, who put the interests of France above those of his Roman Catholic Church).  Not that these changes were fully realized immediately after the Thirty Years’ War or even in the next few centuries, but the old social mold had been irrevocably smashed.  The process of putting together a new order merely advanced a step or two forward in the unprecedented international congress of nations and states involved in the war, convened in two German cities of Westphalia.

After the Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War, “He who comes in the name of the Lord” would be subject to sharp questions and deep suspicion.  By what authority does he represent the Lord?  Whose notion of the Lord does he represent?  And coming in the Lord’s name might mean good or evil intentions depending on our difference or similarity of ethnic, class or political affiliation.  The notion of ultimate Authority had been irrevocably shattered into many, competing authorities, leaving Europeans confused and at odds.  A few started to wonder out loud whether the Lord even exists.  Perhaps we have nothing but our human values to guide us; perhaps we can look only to ourselves or our community or national leaders for guidance regarding what is true, right and good.  In the 1600s and 1700s, the Enlightenment, fueled by the Scientific Revolution, would provide intellectual voice to those looking for a new notion of authority to guide them.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—The Wheels Come Off in the Late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500)

[This is the sixth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In 1348, a Genoese ship arrived from the Black Sea carrying rats infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague.  The resulting Black Death killed about one third of the population of Western Europe by 1350, more in the cities and towns.  No one, not even the learned Church, could provide any relief or explanation.  Even worse, the Plague returned at unpredictable intervals (but with less impact) over many centuries thereafter.  Recent findings indicate this medieval disease organism was no more virulent than its modern-day form found in many species of rodent around the world.  It seems the crowded, unsanitary conditions of medieval urban life, coupled with poor nutrition from expanding population and decreasing agricultural output as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age in Europe, made Europeans exceptionally susceptible to the disease.  Today we can hardly imagine the psycho-social, cultural and economic impact of such an unprecedented and pervasive calamity as the Black Death (nothing comparable had been seen since the Plague of Justinian in the 600s and 700s), especially in 1348-9 when it struck so quickly and violently.  It is equally difficult for us to conceive of how a society could recover from the Black Death.  Ironically, Western Europe recovered quite quickly and became more prosperous and innovative than ever before.  In fact, the Black Death saved Europe from an economic collapse that struck in 1343.

Black Death Recapitalizes Europe

The population and economic growth in the High Middle Ages, resulting from agricultural innovation, good weather, and related growth of trade and towns and the economic stimulation of the Crusades, was particularly felt in the Italian Peninsula.  Leading families of the mercantile cities, especially Genoa, Florence and Venice, became enormously wealthy.  Control of trade between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Levant (eastern Mediterranean shore) allowed these families to accumulate capital and invest it in new business ventures proposed by adventurous young men with no wealth of their own but the courage to risk life and reputation in pursuit of wealth and recognition.  Some families, most notably the Bardi and the Peruzzi of Florence, set themselves up as bankers to Europe, even the monarchs of England and France as they waged the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) for control of France.  The vital role of these two banks for lubricating the economy of Western Europe (and the associated risks of supporting both sides of a princely conflict) was dramatically demonstrated when Edward III of England in 1343 repudiated his enormous loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi.  The Italians were kicked out of England, their property was confiscated, and their banks collapsed, taking the whole economy of Europe down with them, since so many tradesmen and artisans had placed their small and large savings with the banks or depended on them for working capital loans.  The European economy was decapitalized overnight.

Then it was recapitalized almost as quickly by the Black Death.  How could this be?  First, the survivors of the Plague were in more demand for their labor and skills.  Wages rose and so did opportunities for social mobility in the towns.  Second, Professor Bartlett cites the “inheritance effect.”  The survivors in wealthy families inherited from family members killed by the Plague.  Surplus capital accumulated in fewer hands.  This stimulated new investment and consequent economic growth.  It also gave rise to new confidence of the mercantile families, who had the leisure and the wealth not only to pursue creature comforts but also develop their own distinctive cultural identity, setting the stage for the Italian Renaissance.

Italian Renaissance and Humanism

According to Professor Bartlett,

The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and then spread somewhat unevenly over the rest of Northern Europe in the late 15th and 16th centuries.  The most perfect actualization of this new culture arose in Florence.”

With the Ordinances of Justice in 1293, Florence became a merchant-controlled republic.  Its governing merchant class sought “a cultural model for their self-definition,” which had to be found outside the definitions and structures of the feudal system.  They saw themselves reflected in the Roman Republic of antiquity, where

“the state was an instrument to help us here on Earth.  Salvation was left to faith, as the secular and divine were separated in function.  Social mobility and competition were valued, as was personal responsibility.  These were the fundamental ideas that collectively came to be known as humanism.”

Florentines perceived themselves as different from the men of the Middle Ages, which [their] historians described as barbarous and Gothic.  Celebrated by Florentine writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio, the place of human values became supreme, and the Middle Ages came to define that chasm between classical antiquity and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.  Humanist values and practices spread broadly across the Italian Peninsula, as learned laymen were produced by humanist schools and sought employment in republics, monarchies, and papal Rome.  Humanism proved a remarkably flexible and effective tool, setting the standards for style, scholarship, and communication, as well as art and architecture throughout Italy.”

Having heard the term “humanism” throughout my (partially) educated life, I thought this worldview had emerged in the Renaissance as a truly new way of looking at the world, so I was surprised to discover from Professor Bartlett that Renaissance humanism was in fact the “revival of antiquity and its application to contemporary issues.”  My confusion is understandable given the very broad use of the term these days, even as a softer label for atheism.  The Renaissance humanism actually arose as a reactionary “back to the good old days” denial of the Church-centered medieval culture.  On one hand, Florentines and other wealthy, educated laymen had become aware of the sophistication of Roman and Greek culture through recently re-discovered writings.  On the other hand, nearly a millennium had passed without direct exposure to the truly barbaric aspects of ancient Greek and Roman life.  So the ancient world could take on the aura of a lost golden age of civilization that preceded the “dark ages” (Petrarch’s term) from which the nouveau riche Italian republicans sought to free themselves. As described in my previous post, there was already underway in the prior century a reform movement led by the mendicant orders and especially St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas to revitalize the Church-centered medieval culture and make it more human-centered.  But this movement didn’t fully serve the purposes of the Italian merchant class.  For them there had to be a clear distinction between the Church-centered culture that supported the feudal system and a superior new culture of those who were, almost by definition, outside the feudal system.  St. Thomas Aquinas had already done the heavy intellectual lifting to legitimize Aristotle (and by association, pagan antiquity) in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.  Without challenging the Church’s authority on theological and spiritual issues, the Renaissance drew from the ideas and examples of antiquity to create a self-consciously alternative culture for the here-and-now material world.  This very practical new culture served the townspeople and kings of Western Europe very well indeed.

Humanism was technically the study of the humanities—the literature and art—of ancient Greece and Rome.  In practical terms, however, humanism inspired not only emulation of classical literature and art during the Renaissance but also a form of secular education that emphasized the importance of precise use of language, the formal Latin language of Cicero, to influence others through elegant rhetoric.  These and other secular skills, such as arithmetic and bookkeeping, made the graduates of humanist schools quite valuable employees in the administrations of city-states, kingdoms and even Papal Rome.  This humanist education became a requirement for career advancement and achievement of social position for the sons of the Third Estate and eventually all who would be regarded with respect.  Such education became a new “caste mark” (as Professor Bartlett calls it) of the educated, upwardly mobile, competitive achiever—the Renaissance Man on the street.

Humanism’s Setback of Scientific Development

It is ironic that the fashion-driven preference for the formal Latin of Cicero (which had never been spoken on the streets of Rome) more or less killed Latin as a living language that could evolve with the times.   Equally ironic is the setback that humanism gave to the development of natural philosophy (science).  In setting up the Greek and Roman writers as their reference point for what is true and right and good, the humanists dismissed the work of Thomas Aquinas and his followers in the early universities, known collectively as the Scholastics, in favor of a return to unsophisticated acceptance of Aristotle as the final authority on nature and how it works.  In his excellent book, The Genesis of Science, James Hannam shares new insights on medieval science derived from recent historical research.   Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, notably Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Richard of Wallingford, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and the Merton Calculators of Oxford University (including Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Swineshead and William Heytesbury), and on the Continent, John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and others built on and challenged each other’s work and in the process distilled and further developed the great value of Aristotle’s rational method while correcting many of his obvious errors.  They succeeded in building on and up from Aristotle’s pioneering work in natural philosophy.  It seems that Aristotle seldom bothered to actually test his ideas about how the natural world works by just observing nature in action, even the simplest mechanics of projectiles and falling objects.  The Scholastics made great strides by committing themselves to observe the natural world and try to explain its behavior through reason aiding by their pioneering though still rudimentary mathematics.

The Black Death took the lives of some of the Scholastics and no doubt left the confidence of others deeply shaken.  But worse was the derisive dismissal of the Scholastics by the humanists.  History is written by the victors, it is said, and in the cultural triumph of humanism and the Renaissance, Scholastics were not just ignored as though they never existed, they were derided as fools caught up in meaningless theological speculation.  If the Scholastics ever wondered how many angels danced on the head of a pin, writes James Hannam, they surely were just teasing each other, but the joke was turned against them.  The extent of anti-intellectual character assassination is reflected by the origin of the word “dunce” from the name of Duns Scotus.  Aristotle, along with the other Classics, was enshrined in the curricula of universities for centuries after, perpetuating his laughable errors along with his materialism and commitment to logical reasoning from a priori (i.e., unquestionable) premises as the sole source of knowledge.  Even worse for the Scholastics, they were blamed in later centuries (notably by Francis Bacon) for this over-commitment to the truth of Aristotle and his tedious, hyper-rationalist method.  I will return in a later post to the Scientific Revolution and its origins in medieval philosophy.

Christian Humanism

As humanist education and values spread to the schools of Europe north of the Alps, humanism took on a more Christian identity.  In Italy there had been a tradition of secular schooling (the abacus schools that prepared young men for careers in their fathers’ mercantile businesses), so it was possible for humanism to be taught to youth without much reference or challenge to Christian theology and practice.  Humanism and the Church could coexist without much interference in Italy.  In northern Europe, on the other hand, education was provided by the Church (such as the cathedral schools of France, Germany and Britain).  There was no tradition of secular education.  Since humanism was in effect a lens through which to study literature and art, and since the texts to be studied in northern Europe were not the Classics of Rome and Greece but the Bible and writings of the early Church Fathers, humanist education led to new ways of interpreting the Christian religion – the Christian humanism exemplified by the writings of Desiderius Erasmus of Holland and Thomas More of England (who were close friends).  These and other Christian humanists raised awkward questions about the dissonance of the Judeo-Christian idea (and its elaboration in Christian theology) and the actual operation of the Roman Catholic Church in practice.  Moreover, their books were widely read and very popular, thanks to the spread of literacy and education in Western Europe and even more the invention of the printing press with moveable metal type by Johann Gutenberg, marked by his first Bible in 1455.

Crisis in the Church

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church was doing just about everything possible to undermine its own legitimacy and authority.  In the Late Middle Ages, Rome was an unpleasant and dangerous little city, to the point that popes feared for their own lives, due in part to their involvement in temporal struggles for power in the Italian Peninsula and beyond.  In 1309, Pope Clement V, who was French, moved the papal court to a safer, more comfortable location in Avignon in what is now France.  Critics derided the following decades and seven French popes residing in splendor in Avignon as the Babylonian Captivity, not to be confused with the Babylonian Captivity of the Jewish people of the Old Testament.  Whether true or not, England and its allies believed the papacy was favoring the French crown and its allies and therefore supported Rome as the rightful residence for a pope, preferably not a Frenchman.  Then in 1378, two popes were elected, one in Avignon, the other in Rome, and this was followed by a series of rival claimants to the papacy and deep confusion in Western Catholicism about just who held the ultimate position of authority as Vicar of Christ on earth.  This episode of Church history was known as the Western Schism; in contrast to the Great Schism of 1054 that officially separated Western and Eastern Christianity, the Western Schism had no theological implications.  It was simply a question of where and who was the locus of ultimate authority on theological and moral questions when they arise.  But both schisms had the effect of undermining the notion that the authority of God could be represented on earth by just one entity or one person.

The Western Schism was resolved in 1417 by the Council of Constance, which elected Martin V as the one and only legitimate pope and sent him to reside in Rome.  However, the cultural impact of the Western Schism was not so easily resolved.  Corruption continued to be blight on Roman Catholicism as the pope and the Church hierarchy competed for political power and sought greater revenue, including the selling of indulgences later made famous by Martin Luther.  To quote Professor Bartlett:

“As a consequence many pious people began to look outside the Church for spiritual comfort.  There was a huge increase in lay religious movements, more or less orthodox, that promised a close communion with God on a personal level, thus bypassing the institutional structure of the Church that had become so questionable.”

This trend was strengthened by the rise of Christian humanism and its rapid spread through humanist education and the printing of books.

In my prior posting on the High Middle Ages, I mentioned the heresies that challenged the role of the Church and its priests as necessary intermediaries between the individual Christian and God.  The first major heresy of this type was led by Jan Hus of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).  Hus foreshadowed the Reformation with his sweeping theological challenges to the prerogatives of the Church, but his followers were motivated as much by the local politics of Czech vs. German in Bohemia, a state within the Holy Roman Empire.  This empire was founded by Charlemagne but it quickly disintegrated and reconstituted as a German-dominated federation of principalities and kingdoms covering what is now mainly Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy.  Usually the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were vying with each other for political control, particularly in Italy.  But in the case of Hus and his followers, the Hussites, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Church found common cause in putting an end to these heretics.  However, the treacherous execution of Jan Hus and a few others at the Council of Constance in 1415 ignited a decade-long Hussite Rebellion in Bohemia that was finally crushed by the Emperor’s forces.  This incident illustrates the explosive blend of religious and ethnic grievances against both the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.

Turkish Threat to European Civilization

We moderns think of the past couple of centuries as a time of amazing change.  And they were, of course, but surely it is hard even for us to imagine the turmoil created by all these events starting in the 1300s and flowing into the 1400s.  But there were soon even more unprecedented and deeply disruptive developments.  While the events in Western Europe were unfolding, the Ottoman Turks were sweeping across the Islamic Middle East, Egypt and the Anatolian Peninsula, winning victory after victory against the Byzantine Empire until Constantinople itself finally fell in 1453.  The shock of this news in Western Europe of the impossible-to-believe loss of the last vestige of Roman rule in the East, the fortress city of Constantine, was quickly compounded by the Turkish conquests in Eastern Europe, including Serbia, Greece and Bosnia.  The Turks appeared to be super-human, unstoppable warriors.  The Black Sea and the Mediterranean became Turkish lakes, halting the Mediterranean trade that had enriched Italy, thereby dooming the Italian Peninsula to centuries of decline.

After a pausing for a few decades, the Ottomans under Suleyman the Magnificent surged deeper into central Europe, annihilating a massive Christian army led by King Louis of Hungary in 1526 and then laying siege to Vienna in 1529.  The siege was lifted only because the Ottoman army had over-extended its supply lines from Constantinople and could not withstand the winter.  The Ottomans would lay siege to Vienna again in 1683, but that siege was broken by intervention by Polish-Lithuanian forces combined with those of the Holy Roman Empire, and this marked the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.  But the Europeans of the 1400s and 1500s were gripped by reasonable fear that Christendom would soon be overwhelmed by Islam, destroying life as they knew it.  They were even more troubled by a deep sense that God was using the Turks to punish them. What had they done wrong?  Perhaps the transgressions so widely displayed even by the Church itself.  What could they do to recover God’s favor?

The effects on society and politics were profound, especially in Spain, where a new Christian militancy arose with the reign of Ferdinand and Isabela, who joined two of the main political units of the Iberian Peninsula.  Reflecting the fear and loathing throughout Christendom, the Spaniards were hungry to reassert the dignity and honor of the Christian identity and push back against the Muslims, seeking any kind of victory over the seemingly invincible Turks.  For centuries, Spain had been the principal point of mutually tolerant contact between the cultural and religious traditions of Western Christendom and Islam, as well as Judaism.  The Iberian Peninsula had been the gateway to Europe for the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Islamic learning that sparked the resurgence of European culture.  But that tolerance was overwhelmed by a new crusading zeal to restore the ascendancy of Christendom, driven by fear of Islamic expansionism and political jealousy of the favored position of Jewish converts to Christianity.  The result was military conquest of all Moorish Muslim areas of the southern Iberian Peninsula, the mass expulsion of Muslims and Jews, and the Spanish Inquisition (an appalling perversion of long-standing practice of the Church to inquire fairly into reports of heresy) that focused on rooting out the Jewish converts.  That the Moors of Spain had almost nothing in common with the Ottoman Turks except their religion meant little to the Spanish Christians.  Any victory over Islam would do to relieve the simmering panic that had gripped Christian Europe.

Sailing Around the Turks and Discovery of the New World

At the same time, the Portuguese were circumnavigating the African continent and discovering a long way around the Turkish blockade of the Mediterranean and overland trade with the Orient.  Denied both these routes, the Spanish crown was receptive to Christopher Columbus’s proposal to explore the possibility of a third route to the Orient, by sailing straight west across the Atlantic Ocean.  No serious thinker of the time actually thought the earth was flat (it was known to be a sphere since the ancient Greeks).  Rather the question was how big the earth was, and therefore whether the distance across the Atlantic was too great to allow a ship and its crew to make the journey before
exhausting their provisions of water and food.  Columbus had calculated the distance to be about half the real distance to Asia (which the Alexandrian Greeks had calculated already with fair accuracy) and used this erroneous calculation to convince Queen Isabela to sponsor his expedition.  While Columbus was convinced that he did in fact reach the East Indies in 1492, those who followed him soon understood that they had discovered a New World.

This remarkable discovery was a shock to more than the unsuspecting inhabitants of the New World.  It posed a peculiar challenge to Christendom; this strange land and its human and other inhabitants were not mentioned in the Bible.  What were they?  To imagine the psychological impact, think how we moderns would react to discovery of extraterrestrials?  As David Brog describes in In Defense of Faith, it took some time for the Dominicans who accompanied the Conquistadors to convince Europe that the Amerindians were in fact human beings, children of God and therefore brothers and sisters of all those races named in the Bible and known to Europe – and should be treated as such rather than enslaved or killed.  Remarkably the Spanish Crown, and not so remarkably the Pope, accepted this argument early on and banned mistreatment of the New World people.  But the Conquistadors were cut from vicious cloth and determined to get what they wanted regardless of the cost to others.  And even the Spanish crown was unable to reach across the Atlantic to force these cruel men to follow the dictates of Christianity.  For Europeans in general, the New World was yet another surprise that upended their worldview and forced reconsideration of all they had taken for granted for millennia.

In this context of cultural, political and economic upheaval, Western Europe entered a violent transition, during the 1500s and 1600s and beyond, from the medieval worldview to the modern one.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—Big Changes in the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300)

[This is the fifth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

The moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church was nearly unquestioned in the affairs of medieval Western Europe for most of Late Antiquity (A.D. 300 to 650) and throughout the Early Middle Ages (650 to 1000).  Contrary to conventional wisdom of the past few centuries, historians now regard the Catholic Christian intellectual and moral tradition as the foundation for Modern notions of rational inquiry, human rights, and civilized living.  But this tradition was compromised daily in temporal medieval practice.  No doubt the Church’s temporal and spiritual efforts to tame the knights and protect the weak against their arbitrary violence somehow fostered emergence of the Christian knight’s code of chivalry (from the same root as “cheval” for horse) by the advent of the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300).  But contradictions were baked into the Church’s collaborative roles within the Romano-barbarian feudal system, as discussed in my previous post on “fallen institutions.”  Moreover, as times changed, any challenge to the feudal system became by association a challenge to the authority of the Church as well.  The High Middle Ages, and even more the Late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500), brought huge changes that challenged the feudal system and the Church itself, drastically transforming both but failing to destroy either.  Again I depend on Professor Bartlett’s course for most of what follows.

The Rise of Islam and the Crusades

Chronologically, the first major external challenge was the rise of Islam in the Early Middle Ages.  Islamic armies swept out of Arabia and overwhelmed the Christian Middle East and North Africa, then invaded Spain and moved north into southern France before being stopped by Christian (mainly Frankish) forces led by Charles Martel, most famously in the Battle of Poitiers (Tours) in 732.  Charles Martel then continued to defeat the Islamic forces and drove them south of the Pyrenees Mountains, never to return north into France.  What followed was a long period of Christian-Muslim standoff through the Early Middle Ages.  But ongoing Muslim control of the Holy Land rankled the Church until Christian nobles and peasants alike responded with unexpected enthusiasm to the call of Pope Urban II to go to the assistance of the Byzantine emperor to repel the invading Turks from Anatolia and retake Jerusalem for Christianity.  Thus was launched the First Crusade (1096-99), which succeeded in recapturing the Holy Land (though only for about a century).  This and the following eight crusades to the Holy Land were as much peoples’ movements as military campaigns.  They were often ill-disciplined and violent, with disastrous results for the Jewish and Christian communities through which these rag-tag swarms made their way like locusts through Europe and Anatolia toward the Holy Land.

Re-Emergence of Trade, Money Economy and Towns

We are familiar with the controversies over the Crusades, but generally not with how the Crusades stimulated the economic transformation of Europe.  In the one or two centuries before the Millennium, Western European populations began to grow again, due to improvements in agricultural productivity, especially the iron plowshare and moldboard, the horse collar that allowed horses rather than oxen to pull the plows, and the three-field rotation system.  With more food available, towns and even small cities could form and grow as trade centers with increasing specialization of labor.  However, the basically subsistence-oriented feudal system had made no provision for towns and cities—a rich merchant or craftsman had no more status than a peasant farmer; both were members of the Third Estate and could never aspire to the social status of even the poorest knight.  Moreover, the feudal system was based on the manorial subsistence economy that operated without money or enforceable commercial contracts, which are essential to facilitate long-distance trade.

The First Crusade sent thousands of knights and their retainers by sea to the Holy Land through the Italian city-states on the sea (Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi) that controlled Mediterranean Sea trading routes.  Small cities had managed to survive the Early Middle Ages on the Italian peninsula and were in prime position to take advantage of economic opportunity offered by the Crusaders.  Florentine families were already developing banking services to enable the cloth, linen and woolen trade between northern Italy and Flanders via the trade fairs of Champagne. Venetians were already dominating Mediterranean trade between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire.  Many Italians and others along the several routes to the Holy Land became wealthy as they provided the goods and services needed by the pilgrim Crusaders.  The First Crusade jump started the nascent economic engine of Western Europe, stimulating revival of coinage (notably the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat) and use of Roman law (with innovation of contract law, including the legal concept of the corporation owned by shareholders, which was developed from monastic life) and other commercial infrastructure vital for an economic boom that benefitted mainly the new towns and older cities.

Undermining the Feudal System

To quote Professor Bartlett again:

The rise of urban life, long distance trade, and a money economy were the factors that first challenged and then corroded the rural, subsistence, localized feudal world.  The development of trade and a money economy permitted people living in towns to develop wealth and power to the point that they could ultimately join in the undoing of feudal fragmentation by assisting a central authority—like the king—in establishing power and weakening the resistance of the fractious nobility.”

The increasing demand for luxury goods among the feudal nobility damaged their economic power and introduced a cash economy that undermined the manorial system.  Inflation affected everyone.  Grain prices rose faster than wages throughout the late medieval period.  Mutual obligations, personal loyalty, customary regulations, cooperative agriculture all began to be undermined by the introduction of money into the system.”

Thus the rising power of townspeople created a new center of gravity in medieval Europe, in tension with the centralized authority of the Church and the decentralized authorities of local feudal lords, over which kings had little real control.  On the margins of the long-standing feudal system, the king and the townspeople generally found alliance against the feudal lords to be in their mutual interest, and the Church often found itself in the middle.

Dissonance of Church Behavior and the Judeo-Christian Idea

For almost a millennium, the Roman Catholic Church had provided coherence to Western Europe with a common religious worldview guided by one institutional hierarchy with one language of learning and continental communication.  This cultural dominance was abetted by extreme fragmentation of political and ethnic loyalties.  As the growth of trade and towns made movement around the continent easier and safer, ideas and the people who held them could also move more easily from one region to another, giving Western Europe a sense of cultural coherence that it hasn’t enjoyed in more recent centuries, when nation states and ethnic identities have divided Europeans profoundly.  One by-product of this cultural unity was a growing awareness and resentment of the dissonance between the “fallen” behavior of the Church and the great Judeo-Christian idea, as David Brog calls it in his In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity the belief in the sanctity and equality of all humans at the core of both Judaism and Christianity.  As often as the Church stood up for its great idea in the face of cruel expediency, it allowed its officials to cling to hierarchic social privilege and material luxury, to engage in political adventurism, and even to cruelly suppress ideological and political opponents.  All this undermined the Church’s spiritual as well as social authority and invited “heresy.”


Let me reflect a moment on the meaning of heresy for the medieval Church.  We moderns find the medieval worldview extremely difficult to understand, the sense that all life is bound up with God, that nothing has meaning except in its relationship to God’s will, which is basically that each of us should strive toward eventual union with God in an eternal life beyond this material world.  The medieval mind regarded the Church’s highest calling as guiding and supporting the individual soul’s journey to God.  Anything or anybody who derailed that journey was committing mortal sin that destroys the soul.  Misleading a great many minds constituted a mortal threat to whole societies of souls.  It was the Church’s solemn responsibility in the material world to prevent such misguiding influences, or heresy, from destroying souls.  The Church could tolerate a good deal of quiet disagreement with the teachings of the Church, but it could not tolerate aggressive spreading of heretical teaching to unsuspecting minds and souls.

It seems that most of the early heresies against Church teachings involved a reaction to the seemingly inexplicable corruption and evil doings of the real world, including within the Church itself.  Surely there could not be one benevolent God at work – there had to be a dualism between the God of love and another god of evil, often posed as a god of the spirit and a god of the here-and-now.  This heresy often devolved into denial of the reality or value of material life in favor of a purely spiritual world.  In effect, God could not have created the material world, much less have manifested as a material person – Jesus.  The practical implications were anarchic denial of social institutions, such as marriage and procreation and even the value of the human person as a material being.  Apart from how this thinking could distract the soul from its journey, the Church had to be deeply concerned about the social disintegration such heresy could cause.  The danger in such concern, however, was that the Church could perceive any threat to its dominant position in society as a threat to social order—generating a reactionary response.  (In later centuries, heresy often took the form of objecting to the Church’s claim to be the sole legitimate intermediary between an individual and his or her God, but more on that later.)

The Mendicant Orders

In contrast to the heretical movements, there arose in the late 1100s and early 1200s religiously orthodox but highly unconventional movements to reinvigorate the life of the Church in service of the Judeo-Christian idea.  These were the “mendicant orders” – the main ones being the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Servites and Augustinians – who walked a fine line between challenging the institutional Church and adhering to its teachings.  Inspired by Francis of Assisi and his follower Anthony of Padua, they passed up the comfort of the parish and monastery to take to the streets and rural roads as “friars,” preaching the Gospel and serving the poor.  The label “mendicant” comes from their begging or depending on the charity of ordinary people, in imitation of the life of Jesus and his disciples.  They sought to provide a model of God active in the world, much in contrast to the dualist heresies.  Despite the embarrassment of being upstaged by these ragged, roving preachers to the people, the Church recognized their orthodoxy and wisely blessed and adopted the main mendicant orders as part of the life of the Church, alongside its parishes and monasteries.  Not coincidentally, the friars were particularly welcomed in the emerging towns.

Saint Francis of Assisi

G.K. Chesterton claimed in his biographies of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas that these two men in particular set European civilization on positive new paths we take for granted today.  Saint Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant of the Umbrian hill town Assisi.  Francis was fascinated by the French troubadours, the minstrels who entertained the medieval towns with their epic ballads of unrequited love of knights for the lady of the local lord.  After a humiliating failure to achieve valor and honor in war, Francis experienced a profound conversion to true devotion to Christ.  He was a small, intense, often flamboyant man who turned his life into a religious form of performance art, starting with a dramatic gesture in the public square of Assisi.  He handed his clothes to his wealthy father in front of the local bishop and walked naked into the surrounding hills, singing of his love of God and all God’s creation.  This was a profound repudiation of the existing social order but through a personal demonstration of a different way to live.  Francis was an extreme romantic, a self-described Troubadour of God.  He was an ecstatic yet anchored firmly in reason and the real world.  He attracted companions by his profoundly sincere interest in and acceptance of every person he encountered as he wandered the Umbrian countryside.  Even highwaymen who would normally rob and kill would fall under his spell.  He was an original, unique in every sense.  Some thought Francis was Christ himself, come again, but Francis would hear none of that.

In one of his many grand gestures, perhaps the grandest of all, Francis decided to end the Crusades by simply persuading the Saracen Muslims to become Christians.  So he made his way to Egypt where the Crusaders were laying siege to Damietta.  According to Wikipedia, Francis took advantage of a cease-fire to cross the military lines and enter the encampment of the Saracens, where he was received by none other than the Sultan of Egypt (nephew of the great Saladin).  His conversion effort failed, but his safe return to Italy (and subsequent Saracen tolerance of the Franciscans as custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land) testified that the Saracens realized they were in the presence of a truly holy man, a true Christian, not a Crusader.

G. K. Chesterton believed that St. Francis revived the Europeans’ emotional connection to their religion and introduced new patterns of thought that underpin humanitarianism and the arts as we know them today (he is considered the first Italian poet, writing in the local Umbrian dialect such verse as the Canticle to the Sun).  In his devotion to God and his imitation of Jesus, Francis embraced humanity and nature as God’s creation, to be revered as part of God, not to be dismissed, transcended or destroyed.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was the son of a prominent Italian family near Naples with blood relation to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.  He was a very large and placid man with a profound intellect.  As a youth, Thomas was clearly predisposed to religious life, but he rejected his family’s design that he should become prominent in the local Benedictine abbey.  Despite the family’s excessive effort to prevent him, he joined the new order of mendicant Dominicans and took to the streets and roads to beg and preach for his living.  He was of the generation that followed Francis of Assisi or Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Dominican order.  St. Dominic was a Spaniard who decided that the way to counter the Cathar heresy in southern France was to use reason and disputation to persuade the Cathars to abandon their obstinacy.  The attempt failed, and ultimately the Cathars were wiped out in a “crusade” that ultimately was about northern France dominating southern France.  But Dominic had established an order of friars that educated local populations in the true meaning of Christianity.  Thomas Aquinas took this charge to the next level under the initial tutelage of the Dominican Alfred the Great in Cologne, Germany.  Together they later established themselves at the new University of Paris.  The gentle giant, called by fellow students the Dumb Ox because of his shy silence, turned out to be the greatest intellect of his time and, according to G. K. Chesterton, the greatest philosopher of all time.

St. Alfred was a proto-scientist, a natural philosopher among his many other disciplines.  He observed and described the natural phenomena of the real world in an effort to understand God better by understanding God’s creation.  Alfred’s method was inspired by Aristotle’s effort to comprehensively describe how the natural world works.  Most of Aristotle’s writing, along with most of ancient Greek learning, had been long lost to medieval Western Europe but was regained from Arab and Byzantine sources (many discovered during and after the First Crusade) and a frenzy of translation from Greek and Arabic into Latin in the 1100s.  In contrast to Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, for whom the ethereal world of ideal “forms” was the true reality (while our material here-and-now world is merely an imperfect, even distorted reflection of these ideal forms), Aristotle insisted that the material world was the only reality.  He was a materialist.  Some historians of philosophy contend that Plato and Aristotle, teacher and student, represent the two main opposing arguments of all philosophy, from antiquity to this day.  Their opposition was captured subtly but dramatically in the fresco painting by Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1510), in which the world’s greatest philosophers are depicted together in one scene, at the center of which are Plato, pointing to the heavens, and Aristotle, pointing to the ground.  We moderns continue to be torn between the two ancient Greek thinkers—in simplest terms, between idealism and realism.

At first, despite enormous medieval respect for his rational system, Aristotle was regarded with great suspicion by many intellectual leaders of the Roman Church.  First, Aristotle was a pagan materialist.  Moreover, his ideas and commentary on those ideas by the Arab scholar Averroes caused a flood of new thinking in the cathedral schools (originally established by Charlemagne) and the new universities in Paris and Oxford.  This flood heightened the Church’s concern about heresy.  Plato had been revived and massaged long ago by the Neo-Platonists of the first few centuries of the Christian era, and their interpretations of Plato’s thought had been reconciled to Judeo-Christian thinking by St. Augustine in the 400s.  Through the enormous influence of Augustine, Plato’s emphasis on the spiritual world had held Christianity in thrall for centuries.  So Aristotle’s materialism was a true challenge to Christian thinking; Alfred was “pushing the envelope” just by emulating Aristotle’s rational method of natural philosophy.  At the same time, the Dominicans found Aristotle’s reputation and ideas useful for rational argument against less rational heretical ideas.  Into this scene came Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas did for Aristotle what St. Augustine had done for Plato—he reconciled Aristotle’s work and thinking to the orthodox Christian thinking of the day.  Building on Alfred the Great’s attention to the working of the real world as a reflection of God’s mind and on Aristotle’s use of logic to deduce reality from first principles, Thomas constructed a coherent explanation of the Christian worldview that was eminently rational.  It was derived from the “first principles” given by Judeo-Christian scripture and grounded in what Aristotle and Alfred contended were the real facts on the ground.  Thomas’s Summa Theologiae might be regarded as a rigorously reasoned update of Augustine’s reconciliation of the Two Books of nature and scripture (and much more!).  For Thomas, this grand explanation had to be anchored in the reality of the world we live in.  With this insistence on reason and reality, St. Thomas Aquinas set out on the path to modern natural philosophy, now known as “science.”  Chesterton wrote it far more eloquently:

“… Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies.” (pp. 13-14).

Moreover, he used his brilliant mind and powers of disputation to win over the Church to embrace Aristotle and his “science,” just as Thomas had earlier defended the mendicant orders as a boon rather than threat to the advance of orthodox Christianity.  The impact of St. Thomas Aquinas on Christian thinking going forward was and continues to be enormous.

Renaissance of Emotion and Reason in Christianity

In essence, St. Francis of Assisi revived the emotional life of Christianity, and St. Thomas Aquinas revived the rational life of Christianity.  To quote Chesterton again, “These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things” (p. 16).  Together they fomented a true renaissance of Western European civilization.  Ironically, this was not the Renaissance of historians.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Fallen Institutions” of the Middle Ages

[This is the fourth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

I’ve been searching for years for a book or a course that would guide me through the intellectual history of Western Europe from the time of Charlemagne (A.D. 800) to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (1600-1800).  How did events and people in this time manage to unseat Christianity from its monopoly of moral authority in medieval Western Europe on questions of what is True and Right and Good (see my January 2011 post on “Science and Religion—Where is the Source of Authority?”).  In my just-previous post (April 2011), I shared my discovery that there was so much about the Medieval Mind, thoroughly imbued with the Christian worldview, that fostered development of the Modern Mind.  Yet the Modern Mind is deeply conflicted about Christianity as the Source of Authority, or even a source of authority, and wants to search for other authorities, any other for some of us.  What happened to cause this reaction, even rejection?  Most of us have taken for granted what popular authors of the past three centuries have glibly told us about religion, especially Christianity, as a reflection of ignorant bias, a cause of war and suffering, and an impediment to science and progress.  Satisfying as this dismissal may be for many, it has the unfortunate burden of being historically incorrect on all three counts of the indictment.  Therefore this glib dismissal itself must be a reflection of some ignorant bias.  Where did this bias come from?

I finally found a comprehensive course that filled the historical gap for me:  “The Development of European Civilization,” taught by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett of the University of Toronto as one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company (, published in 2011.  Unless otherwise noted, my main source for the facts and interpretations I offer here and in the next four posts is this course by Professor Bartlett.  I am embarrassed to admit that millions of university students have taken a similar “European Civ” course as freshmen or sophomores to fulfill their core course requirements.  I did not.  I went to Cornell University, specifically because in the 1960s this was one of the first of the big-name universities to de-emphasize “liberal arts education” in favor of allowing eager students like me to focus almost immediately on a specialty—biological sciences in my case.  As I’ve puzzled over the difficult questions of life beyond my initial profession, I’ve keenly felt this deficit in my basic education and had to do remedial work (such as the reading for this Idiot’s History).  Often I’ve learned from my son’s coursework within a more traditional core curriculum (I’ll offer an example in a moment).

Fallen Institutions

I take the title of this post from a conversation with a friend, Dr. Robb Davis, an accomplished scientist, practitioner of international development and a deeply thoughtful Christian.  His conversation point is captured in this passage of an article Robb wrote for The Ellul Forum (p. 7 of the Fall 2010 issue):

Included in this broader understanding [from the writings of St. Paul] is the idea that institutions and systems which God has created for good act as dehumanizing forces; essentially trading their true role in maintaining the conditions for human flourishing for other ends, including their own survival.  In this way they reveal their ‘fallenness.’” (© International Jacques Ellul Society.

This point would have been understood easily by the Medieval Mind, because of the immense influence of St. Augustine’s writings, in particular on the concept of Original Sin.  Human institutions may be divinely conceived and constructed from divine inspiration, but they are nonetheless built, staffed and run by humans, who suffer the burden of Original Sin, which arose with the Fall of Adam and Eve from God’s Grace in the Garden of Eden.

This concept has enormous explanatory power for Christians trying to make sense of the ways of the world.  It generates a testable prediction, that a human being is not born good, only to be corrupted by interaction with family and society (which is a popular view in the Modern Mind), rather a child is born with free will, which has a tendency to self-absorbed evil in the absence of self-discipline that comes from education by adults who have mastered this self-discipline.  The Medieval Mind took this notion for granted, attributing this self-discipline to Christian education benefiting from God’s Grace through the work of the Holy Spirit.  It was no big stretch to extend the concept of “fallenness” from human individuals to human institutions—divinely inspired, perhaps specifically mandated by God, but subject to the entropy of human “fallenness,” constantly corroding all it touches and so requiring regular correction, just as a house needs an occasional new coat of paint and other forms of routine maintenance to keep it from rotting away and falling down.  The falling of institutions, even divinely-inspired ones, has been seen over and over as “trading their true role … for other ends, including their own survival.”  And so it must have been that dominance for a thousand years took their toll on Christianity and the Christian-soaked institutions of the Middle Ages.

The Three Estates of the Feudal System

Let’s look at those Christian-soaked institutions of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, in light of the course by Prof. Bartlett (who shows no pro- or anti-Christian bias in his presentation of history, as far as I can tell).  He starts with the disintegration of the Roman imperial system of laws, administration, roads and ports, and coinage to facilitate trade, in the fearsome chaos of successive barbarian invasions from the north and the east. All that was left was a diminished population with a shrinking economy shattered into hundreds of isolated pieces and a memory of the imperial system of which only the still-relatively-new state religion, the Roman version of Christianity, remained just barely standing.  As I explained in an earlier (March 2011) post, Thomas Cahill, in Mysteries of the Middle Ages (p.39), described the local bishop as often the only Roman official who stayed at his post and was “capable of implementing a body of law and custom that could reestablish social peace and guide the new barbarian ruler (and the mixed population of Romans and barbarians that he now ruled) toward a rational political settlement.” Roman popes and their bishops and priests had to make deals for the Western Church to survive; circumstances required that they be practical and flexible. This was not a time to be overly zealous about fine points of theology.  Romans long had a deeply practical streak, even in their theology, preferring to focus on the literally down-to-earth implications of the Incarnation of God as a human being like themselves.  If God could accommodate human beings through the Incarnation, surely the Roman Church could accommodate the barbarians in all their loathsomeness.  Moreover, the Church had no choice.

From the chaos, this awkward accommodation of Christian officials and barbarian overlords built the “feudal system” with its three “estates”—the landed nobility, the Church, and everyone else who did the hard work.  The feudal system had its origins partly in the Roman custom of patronage, in which prominent men drew prestige from literally being followed through the streets by less prominent men who sought prestige by association and a share of the favors the Man could provide to loyal followers.  Even more, the feudal system drew from the similar Germanic custom of comitatus, in which a heroic warrior was surrounded by other proven warriors who gained honor and favor through their valorous military service to their hero-chief as well as first pick of the spoils of victory in battle.  Prof. Bartlett offers the colorful analogy of these Germanic warrior alliances to modern biker gangs—in the absence of any effective state apparatus, they could do pretty much what they wanted, with no constraints other than their own code of ethics—public power in private hands.  However, to enjoy the spoils of their victory, these strong men (kings) and their henchmen (nobles) had to prepare for defense against the next wave of barbarians as well as the miscreants of their own tribe.  And they had to eat!  Without money to pay for the military service of the nobles, the king had to offer them control of food-producing land and the people who would work it for them.  So, with the collaboration of the Church (presumed to be essential for gaining the cooperation of the Third Estate), these biker gangs settled on the land and developed the feudal system and the “manorial economy.”

Knights and Monks

The stirrup, one of the many prosaic inventions of the Middle Ages, made it possible to fight on horseback, protected by heavy armor and able to use high-impact lances and other heavy weapons.  The warriors became knights, the fearsome medieval equivalent of modern military tanks.  The care and feeding of a knight and his horse “takes a village” and enough good land to feed and clothe both the knight’s family and the villagers and their priest, who all benefited from the knight’s protection from outsiders—this was the “manor” over which the knight ruled as he chose to rule, constrained only by the web of customary practice and mutual obligation that governed nobility and villagers alike with the blessing and help of the Christian authorities.   The king provided the land and people to support the knight and in return had the right to call upon his knights to gather in defense of the kingdom or to attack other kingdoms.  Otherwise, the knight was the lord of his own manor, with little support or interference from other knights.  The manor was a self-contained and self-supported economic and social unit.  All administration, economy and social life itself was supremely local and, in the best of times, mostly isolated from the rest of the world.  Trade among these local units was hampered not only by marauding bandits and lack of roads and bridges but also by lack of money—literally no currency with widely recognized value.

Some of these local units were abbeys—spiritual communities of monks (monasteries) or nuns (convents), most organized according to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Their number exploded in the period 550-700.  This seems strange in the chaos of the time, when we might assume that mere survival would trump the luxury of supporting whole communities of Christian contemplatives removed from the world.  The monastic movement was effectively autonomous of Church control but benefited from Church endorsement and grants of land by a king or other noble.  The phenomenal growth no doubt reflects the pervasive esteem for Christianity as well as the need to protect its traditions and learning from the barbarian onslaught and for many, of course, the opportunity to take refuge from the danger and hard work experienced by most people of the time.  An abbey was the fortified great house of a manor, supported in the same way as for a knight, by a village and land worked by the villagers for the benefit of the abbey’s residents.  Often the monks and nuns themselves worked very hard, too, along with the villagers, to support the manorial economy and protect life and property from marauders.  Moreover, the abbeys were responsible for much of the remarkable inventiveness of the Middle Ages and the preservation and advancement of learning and arts.

While recognizing that Wikipedia accounts need to be treated with caution, I find they often provide succinct descriptions as good or better than I can offer (for now, at least).  I will occasionally quote from Wikipedia to summarize what I have found in other sources that confirm the facts offered, such as this one (just as Wikipedia welcomes correction and amplification, so do I—please comment):

“The Benedictine monasteries went on to make considerable contributions not only to the monastic and the spiritual life of the West, but also to economics, education, and government, so that the years from 550 to 1150 may be called the ‘Benedictine centuries’.” 

Meritocracy Corroding into Aristocracy

This feudal system lasted so long because it met the needs of people bereft of the protection and administration of a larger government.  It was most developed in France, England and Germany but similar forms were widespread throughout the former Roman Empire.  It worked especially well when it was still a meritocracy, with the bravest, most capable warriors becoming knights and the most spiritually committed Christians becoming priests, monks and nuns, thereby justifying the privileges and honor yielded to them by the Third Estate in exchange for their protection and assistance in the temporal and spiritual worlds.

Over the centuries, however, meritocracy corroded into aristocracy.  A knight’s investment in the years of training and equipment needed to prepare his successor was most efficiently focused on the knight’s own sons.  And to maintain the minimal size necessary for a manor to support a knight and his family and horse and so on, the “law of primogeniture” arose to forbid the knight from dividing his manor among his sons.  From these practical constraints arose the cultural assumption that succession was the eldest son’s birthright, sometimes in spite of rather than because of the son’s competence.  Surplus sons were destined to join the Church, as the only respectable alternative profession for the sons of nobility.  While members of the Third Estate could become priests and advance up the ranks of the Church, most commonly the privileged status of the nobility adhered to the sons who joined the Church, so that privileged positions of status within the Church, especially the bishops and abbots, were mostly given to those born of noble families.  Given that the boys typically did not freely choose to join the Church, they were not dependably pious or even of good moral character.  For both knights and leaders of the Church, moral leadership and self-sacrifice for the common good, even administrative competence, too often melted away, leaving only the seeking and protection of privilege and luxury.  These baked-in contradictions of the feudal system would play out over many, many centuries, even well beyond the Middle Ages.

The principal contradiction was between the ideal of the Christian life (loving and serving God and each other as God’s children, each an invaluable part of the mystical body of Christ) and the Roman and barbarian reality (violence met with violence and might making the right to enforce a rigid hierarchy of status, rights and privileges).  Being the state religion at the time of imperial disintegration and the only widespread and remotely effective guardian of moral and civic order afterward, the Roman Catholic Church had both the opportunity and the self-imposed duty to concern itself with the temporal as well as spiritual lives of its parishioners, Roman citizens and barbarians alike.  In retrospect, it is easy for us to foresee the danger in religious leaders (promoters of the ideal life) taking responsibility for the messy job of creating and maintaining civic order.  But only some of the religious could exercise the monastic option to attempt withdrawal from the real world.  The rest, from the Pope to the parish priests, had to find a way to work with and even support the emerging social and political order, no matter how far it was from the Christian ideal.  The danger, of course, is guilt by association.  If you undertake to fix it, you often end up owning it.  After centuries, the Church was thoroughly entangled with the feudal system.

Beowulf and the Unpleasant Compromise

The tension and danger in the process of Christianizing the barbarians is illustrated by the earliest of Old English literature, the epic poem Beowulf, the date and author unknown but believed to be as early as the 700s (but maybe as late as 1000).  My son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote a “final paper” for Loyola Marymount University’s History 100, in which he interpreted Beowulf as emblematic of the tension in the Middle Ages that finally produced an unpleasant compromise.  In addition to the history course on European civilization, Jeremy drew from his Jesuit high school freshman English course that focused on the study of Beowulf.  At Jeremy’s age, I would not have been caught dead reading Beowulf, nor did he choose to read it!  But he clearly gained a much deeper understanding of both European history and Christianity from this forced exposure, as well as benefiting in some way from reading one of the Great Books of our civilization.  I learned so much from his essay that I thought it worthwhile to share it (posted just before this piece).

The relevant point in Jeremy’s essay is that the poet employs all the classic elements of a Norse epic to introduce his pagan audience to the Christian worldview and way of life.   Beowulf is the proud hero that the Germanic newcomers to England could admire and understand, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit, whose valor and accomplishments were admired above all else.  Having established his credibility as a true hero in pagan eyes, Beowulf gradually morphs into a Christian in what he says and does, embodying Christian virtues.  In death, Beowulf becomes a Christ-like figure, saving his people from the clutches of evil and fulfilling his duty to promote the common good of humanity.  Jeremy’s interpretation is that the poet engaged in a very modern type of message packaging—telling the Christian story to pagan Germanics in the language of their own culture and in terms they could understand and embrace.  However, the flash of insight (from either Jeremy or his teachers or both) is that “While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street.”  The Church’s accommodation with the barbarians created the feudal system, but it proved to be a Faustian bargain.

Quoting from Professor Bartlett:

Thus, by the end of the 11th century, Western Europe was fragmented into small units, ruled by a professional warrior class, who obeyed no laws but their own principles of feudal practice and custom, known as chivalry.  Although the Church knew that it could not change these professional killing machines into men of peace, it also knew that their power and aggression could be turned against the enemies of Christendom.  It was not an accident, then, that the Crusades erupted at just the time when these principles of chivalry were beginning.

I’ll let Jeremy finish this post:

Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed by the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character.  Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the ‘Dark Ages’ for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples.  Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.”

Not that the medieval Church approved of all that the Christian knights did or that it took no effective action to moderate their behavior, but the society that gave rise to the Crusades was formed in large part by the Roman Catholic Church.  The Crusades were only one of the new developments in the High Middle Ages that ultimately undermined the moral authority of the Church as well as the feudal system.  In my next post, I will delve into specifics of what happened and how figures like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas sparked a true renaissance that might have saved Christianity from its later fate.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—Beowulf and the Christian Compromise

[In support of my next post in the Idiot’s History series, I am posting the full text of a paper my son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote for a history course at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.]

Stemming from the roots of Judaism, Christianity developed in the wake of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the first millennium following his death, the new religion cyclically spread and morphed to fit the time period and people who became enveloped by the ever-growing phenomenon. As pagan traditions were integrated into monotheistic Christianity, the core foundations of the religion managed to remain steadfast until end of the Dark Ages. Around this time, grand transformations in how the Europeans interpreted and lived out the teachings of the Church began to occur. By comparing the historical texts that connect Christ to the Christendom of the High Middle Ages, we can clearly discern that the shifts that occurred were fundamentally in line with classic Christian tradition to a point, but by the time of the Crusades had completely obliterated the philosophies of Christ and Augustine. Pagan ideals that emphasized physical wealth eventually overcame the righteous nature that had defined followers of Christ since the time of the Pax Romana. The centrality of Christian piety remained a constant across the earlier centuries, but between the Dark Ages and High Middle Ages its definition drastically changed from one of selfless sacrifice to one of zealous materialism.

The strong Jewish ancestry of Christianity is shown in the Old Testament. In Exodus, the Hebrews name themselves as God’s “chosen people,” the first recipients of His law and constituents in the Covenant. Essentially, the Covenant says that God will bless His people so long as they obey His law, made explicit in the Ten Commandments. The concept of sin, introduced in Genesis and later expanded upon by Saint Augustine, is defined as the usage of man’s free will to violate God’s laws and breach the Covenant. Original Sin, the origin of evil illustrated in Genesis by the eating of an apple from the tree of knowledge, can be simply described as man acting selfishly to fulfill his own desires rather than living life in the name of God. As the first to present the concept of ethics, the Hebrews symbolized the shift from this-worldliness to the supernatural that would be developed in the Christianity that followed.

Thousands of years after prophets first began to preach of a Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth expounded Old Testament philosophies and taught what would become the apex of Christian doctrine. According to the Gospel of Mark, the greatest commandment of all is to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Central to the early Christian worldview were the notions of selflessness and living as a vassal for God’s grace. The Beatitudes, outlined by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, were meant to curb the worldly, egocentric vices of pride, revenge, and greed. Jesus’ teachings especially appealed to the poor, meek, downtrodden, and persecuted who felt left out by Rome’s grand successes.

As Lactantius describes, Greed is the source of evil and is the principal cause for the degeneration of society. Thus, as Jesus commanded, generosity towards the needy is the basis for achieving social justice and bringing order to the earth. Concern for the common good was of primary moral importance, and it was on this point that Saint Augustine based his most famous work, City of God. Augustine’s central premise is that when human beings turn away from God to follow their own appetites (in effect succumbing to original sin), they fall into evil and cannot possibly find true happiness (happiness here is equated to an afterlife in heaven). He says that, “When a man lives ‘according to man’ and not ‘according to God’ he is like the devil,” and that while human nature inherently involves the capacity for sin, we can overcome our natural immoral desires to work for God and attain eternal salvation. As opposed to the City of Man, there exists in the City of God, “a piety which worships the true God…and all of the citizens are personally immortal with an immortality…which even human beings can come to share.”  Happiness, he says, cannot come from man alone but only through God in the afterlife; to sin is to live according to oneself and thus lose God. Pagans claimed that happiness was achievable in this world, but Augustine argued that the only perfect world is heaven with God. He asserts that it is in swallowing our pride (the foundation on which sin is built) and complying with the laws of God that we might be saved by Jesus Christ and gain entrance to this City of God.

Once Constantine reunited the Empire, made Christianity legal in 313, and officially established Christian dogma with the Nicene Creed in 325, the spirit of Christendom spread like wildfire. A vivid example of how Christendom was achieved in the Dark Ages is the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. When Rome abandoned the Britons, they were a newly Christian society that was now vulnerable to powerful pagan Germanic tribes. As Bede describes, Christian monks slowly assimilated the newcomers to their religion through slow integration. While Beowulf includes certain values such as pride, material wealth, and desire for fame and glory, its message has a clear Christian tone of selfless piety. The writer’s expression of the story is plainly steeped in a deeply pagan tradition (empathizing with his readers), yet he focuses on distinctly Christian ethics, signaling his attempt to quicken the expansion of Christianity to the Viking commoners.

In essence, the opening passage depicting an all-powerful, omnipresent force to whom all creation owes its existence, perfectly in line with the Christian image of God that was developed in the Roman Empire, serves to offer insight into the audience for whom this poem was intended – the common people who could be hearing the Creation story for the first time and whom the writer hoped would come to understand Christianity, if not fully convert. God’s counter-character, Grendel, is directly juxtaposed to the, “Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of Heavens and High King of the World” (180). Grendel evidently defies the pagan ideals of prideful boasts and cunning, strategic battle while also challenging Augustine’s Christian view that man should act solely for the purpose of serving God rather than fulfilling his own worldly appetites. The beast is simply living to literally fulfill his own appetites by eating men, thus embodying the exact animalistic evil identified by Augustine in City of God. The author of the poem thus drives home the Christian message of the immorality of living for one’s selfish desires, using exaggerated images of the savage slaughter of the Danes that would be considered evil by pagans and Christians alike.

On the other hand, the Great Hero demonstrates virtues that were idealized by the Anglo-Saxons. We find aspects of both pagan and Christian traditions portrayed in the writer’s characterization of Beowulf as proud to the point of arrogance, yet at the same time willing to trust in God and submit to a greater destiny that will ultimately decide his fate. For example, when introducing himself to Hrothgar, Beowulf says that, “every elder and experienced councilman among my people supported my resolve to come here to you…because all knew of my awesome strength” (415). The Germanics needed a proud hero to relate to, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit. They came from a lawless barbarian culture in which, as Tacitus described, valor and accomplishments were admired above all else. For the Anglo-Saxons to support Beowulf as their champion, the author needed to show his experience, credibility, and merit. Because prideful boasts, while not at all a Christian idea, were valued highly by the pagans, they were a necessary inclusion to the story for the audience to accept the concept of piety which the poet would later introduce.

In what some might call a conceited display of pure egotism, Beowulf renounces his weaponry so as to even the playing field when the time comes to grapple with the monster. In essence, he is welcoming the challenge from evil, firmly asserting his confidence not only in his own abilities, but in his God as well. With this act, Beowulf expresses his utmost assurance that he is fighting for the right cause, and that, no matter what unfavorable circumstances might confront him, he cannot lose with God on his side. He proclaims that, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God…Fate goes ever as fate must” (440-455), and later, “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever He sees fit” (685). In one sense, fate is primarily a pagan attribute, as Christians believe that man was given the power to voluntarily disobey God’s will (deemed “sin”). Beowulf feels that all of his strength is God-given and every battle he wins is ultimately the result of God’s judgment. To a degree, he sees the outcome of each campaign as somewhat pre-determined, consequently deeming the specific details of his own actions insignificant. This might lead us to believe that the Anglo-Saxons followed in the footsteps of the ancient Sumerians (as portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh) who viewed fate as the dominating force in the universe and entirely disregarded free will.

Yet, as the poem continues, a distinctively Christian tone emerges and eventually consumes the pagan theory of fate. In living as though he is enmeshed within the greater framework of fate, Beowulf seems to exhibit signs of belief in the Christian idea that there are multiple parts to one Almighty God. He is constantly claiming that, while God’s will always wins in the end, God is working through him to achieve that end. It is almost as if the hero is indicating faith in a sort of “Holy Spirit” force that drives man to carry out the will of God. In most pagan traditions, the gods were directly involved in bringing their decrees to reality, but in Beowulf fate is realized through man. The author thus ties the two together:  it is not fate versus free will, but fate with free will. For Christendom to be achieved, the Anglo-Saxons must understand free will in terms that can be reconciled with their pre-existing beliefs. Beowulf’s expression of both signifies that God works indirectly through man to bring forth an ultimate fate; God cannot paint the image of fate Himself, so He needs man as His brush. After this combination cosmology had been accepted, the English could be fully converted to the ethical morality of pure free will that devout Christians believed to be truth.

In addition, Beowulf’s main goal in life appears to be achieving fame and glory on this earth, undoubtedly pagan objectives. While acknowledging that, physically, “all of us…must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body…sleeps on its deathbed” (1003), he seeks eternal life through legends and tales of his epic accomplishments. Beowulf is showered in gifts honoring his triumphs, which he graciously accepts. These rewards are earthly, and it seems as though Beowulf does not recognize the Christian concept that one’s true recompense comes through everlasting life with God in Heaven. Again, as Bede’s process of slow assimilation suggests, the idea of an afterlife may have been completely unfamiliar to the pagan barbarians. Christian missionaries had to relate to the worldly views of the Anglo Saxons before introducing such a wildly outlandish proposal.

Much later in the poem, Beowulf displays a very Christian selflessness. Upon his deathbed, he announces, “To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure…that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die” (2794).  At this point, he could potentially be considered a Christ-like figure. In death, both leave their respective people free from the clutches of evil and rejoice in the fact that they have fulfilled their duty by truly contributing to the common good of humanity. The author thus attempts to create a Christ figure for the English since they could not yet read the Bible. It was in writing down a relatable story in their own language (Old English) that they could spread the new ideas amongst themselves without having to hear monks read alien Bible stories in Latin. The result would be exactly what the missionaries had hoped for – Germanic peoples being introduced to Christianity in the language of their own culture and terms they could understand.

For most of the poem, contrasting pagan and Christian concepts appear to balance each other in emphasis. But in his final speech to Wiglaf, Beowulf makes it clear that even more than any personal reward of power, wealth, or fame, he wants to depart from this world knowing that he used all of his God-given talents to help mankind thrive. Most pagan societies would place utmost importance on personal achievement, but Beowulf embraces the unmistakably Christian philosophy of caring for others before oneself. Contrary to pagan beliefs, Beowulf is revealed to have lived as if his own true happiness came from devoting his life to making others happy. Instead of scoffing at this concept, the pagan audience is open to it because it is placed within framework of God’s will. The author has thus accomplished his goal, successfully presenting Christianity through a pagan lens and slowly leading his audience from admiration of pride to ultimate acceptance of Augustine’s Christian piety as heroic. The pagan aspects of the story served as a permeable buffer between the writer’s pagan audience and his own Christianity.

As the Dark Ages progressed into the High Middle Ages, Christianity drastically altered in both practice and principle. While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street. Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed in the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character. Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the “Dark Ages” for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples. Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.

Copyright 2010 by Jeremy Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Jeremy Dunford (

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Dark Ages” and the Medieval Mind

[This is the third installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill tries to tell us what was lost as the barbarian hordes overwhelmed Roman civilization by describing the life, works and thought patterns of Augustine of Hippo, “the last great man of Roman antiquity” (p. 65) and the only theologian of the ancient Western (Latin) Church “worth speaking of” (p. 63).  Augustine reconciled early Christianity with Plato and his Latin interpreters, the Neo-Platonists.  His classical education, brilliant mind and commitment to seeking the Truth led Augustine to create a Christian theology based on Reason applied to inspired scripture and existing knowledge of the real world.  Though much of the classical literature that formed Augustine’s mind was effectively lost to Western Europe, his books and sermons continued to form and guide the Medieval Mind of the Catholic bishops who tended the barely glowing embers of Classical philosophy, Christian morality, and Roman law and order through the Dark Ages.  While the mass of medieval humanity lived in illiterate fear and fantasy, the few educated Church leaders had faith in the power of reason and the possibility of progress—thanks almost entirely to Augustine’s synthesis of Jewish Christianity and Greek philosophy and the enormous influence of his powerful writing and personality. 

Reason and Progress

Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason has richly expanded the perspective on medieval Europe that I’ve gained from Thomas Cahill’s books.  Stark’s subtitle sums his thesis – How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.  Stark maintains that Christianity, particularly Western or Latin Christianity, has had all along certain features that other religions did not and that provided a fertile seedbed for the development of Western Europe’s world-dominating culture and economy. He comes at his subject from an economic conservative’s viewpoint, but Cahill is clearly a social-justice liberal and finds in the Mysteries of the Middle Ages precursors of Euro-American feminism, science, and art in the medieval cults of Catholic Europe.  Both historians are using their deep knowledge of the Middle Ages to overturn the popular notion that Christianity has always been an indomitable foe of human reason and progress.  In fact, Western Christianity became the Authority that arched all authority for so many centuries because it fostered reason and progress.  In doing so, however, it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction as the ultimate authority, but that comes later. 

Here are key distinctive features cited by Stark, with which Cahill would likely concur:

Celebration of Reason – “as the means to gain greater insight into divine intentions” (p. 7), because God is a rational being.  Augustine “held that reason is indispensable to faith.” (p. 7).

Belief in Progress – the “application of reason can yield an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will” (p. 9).  Because its creator is a rational being, the universe “necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension” (p. 12).

Focus on the Individual – given the doctrine of free will and emphasis on personal salvation, the Christian focus is on the individual self, with “the opportunity to choose, and the responsibility to choose well” (p. 25).

Theoretical Equality of Rights – all selves are equal in the eyes of God.  “If we are unique beings, all to be judged by our actions freely taken, what is the duty of Christians with regard to one another’s freedom to act?” (p. 26).  Christian theology undermines the legitimacy of slavery and other differentiation of fundamental rights of different types of human being. 

Better Off than in Roman Times

Stark explicitly asserts that the average medieval person was better off in almost all ways than his or her counterpart in the glory days of the Roman Empire, and Cahill obliquely agrees.  However, neither Stark nor Cahill is asking us to believe that medieval life was comfortable or civilized—to the contrary, life was distressingly nasty, brutish, and short (to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes).  Nor do they expect us to believe that medieval leaders, despite the overarching Authority of the Church, lived up to the ideals of Christian morality.  In fact, the leaders, even of the Church, very often were irrational, hostile to the dignity of the individual person, and determined to thwart progress—to put it mildly!  But there was a difference from the post-Modern world we live in—the culture did not cynically accept the real and laugh at the ideal.  Humans were not expected to be perfect, in fact quite the opposite, so it was no great surprise when evil stalked the land.  But humans were expected to aspire toward the holy ideal, to seek divine grace in that aspiration and to experience the love and mercy of Christ when they fell short.  Forgiveness was ever available, if sincerely sought, but it was never “okay” to be “only human.”   

Because of these distinctive features of Christianity, says Stark, “rapid intellectual and material progress began as soon as Europeans escaped from the stultifying grip of Roman repression and mistaken Greek idealism” (p. 32).  This startling contention seems to hold up as Stark presents detailed evidence that “the so-called Dark Ages saw an extraordinary outburst of innovation in both technology and culture.  Some of this involved original inventions, some of it came from Asia.  But what was most remarkable about the Dark Ages was the way in which the full capacities of new technologies were rapidly recognized and widely adopted, as would be expected of a culture dominated by faith in progress—recall Augustine’s celebrations of ‘exuberant invention.’  Nor was innovation limited to technology; there was remarkable progress in areas of high culture—such as literature, art, and music—as well.  Moreover, new technologies inspired new organizational and administrative forms, culminating in the birth of capitalism within the great monastic estates.  This, in turn, prompted a complete theological reappraisal of the moral implications of commerce—the leading theologians rejected prior doctrinal objections to profits and interest, thereby legitimating the primary elements of capitalism” (p. 37).  

The Medieval Mind

Stark’s assertions of cause (Latin Christianity) and effect (innovation and progress) may be conjecture from coincidence, but the facts seem to support Stark’s and Cahill’s separate theses that the Medieval Mind, dominated though it was by ancient Roman Catholic Christianity, was already moving rapidly in the direction of the Modern Mind, even before the year 1200.  In fact, medieval theology offered carefully reasoned justifications for this movement. 

Thomas Cahill claims that Augustine of Hippo “was among the last of classically educated men” (How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 42), but in his Confessions published in 401, Augustine also became “the first human being to say ‘I’—and to mean what we mean today” (p. 39).  His self-revelation was totally unprecedented in classical literature; “with Augustine human consciousness takes a quantum leap forward—and becomes self-consciousness … as modern as … a character in Camus or Beckett.  He is the father not only of autobiography but of the modern novel.  He is also a distinguished forebear of the modern science of psychology” (p. 41).  Heady claims!  You’ll have to read Cahill for yourself to understand and accept his logic, but no one disputes the profound legacy and impact of St. Augustine on Western Christianity.  Given his foreshadowing of the Modern Mind at work, along with his influence on medieval and early modern Western Christianity, it should not be a great surprise that the Medieval Christian Mind bore the seeds that developed into the Modern Mind. 

Eight centuries later, at the University of Paris, there was finally a man whose intellectual stature and huge influence on Latin Christianity, and therefore the future of Western Europe, would match and even surpass that of St. Augustine—he was Thomas Aquinas.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!