Archive for March, 2014

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. 


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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!