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It’s So Enlightenment Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 04 August 2014

One of the lamest forms of non-thinking in our public rhetoric is to condemn something as “medieval.” The critic doesn’t mean the rose window at Chartres, or the mystical treatises on divine love by Bernard of Clairvaux, or the elaborate male/female codes of the chivalric tradition. Somehow these don’t count as “medieval.” Only the brutality, common to all ages (alas), seems to qualify – and some special religious benightedness, which is rather hard to find in the historical record, even compared with our own confused age.

The slander about medieval superstition and violence got going in the Renaissance – even though the Renaissance “rediscovery of reason” was a decline from the level of medieval rationality. And anyone who glances at Renaissance politics will see that it’s not exactly a bright light after general darkness.

The medieval slander got another boost from the Reformation and Scientific Revolution. Curiously, St. Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his religious beliefs in the England of 1581 – when the Reformation and science were rising – but somehow we don’t disparage such events as “so Reformation” or “so early modern.”

The biggest imposture on our assumed Western history, however, has to do with the Enlightenment. The real Enlightenment actually took several forms, some helpful – good to remember next time you or someone you’re close to needs an antibiotic – and might have been even more so had they maintained deeper continuity with earlier wisdom. Many Enlightenment figures, even if they became Deists, retained belief in a Supreme Being, the immortality of the soul, judgment after death, and eternal life in heaven or hell (See Rousseau’s Vicar of Savoy). Without that minimum, they thought, human life would be morally adrift.

But the radical Enlightenment – the part that Edmund Burke discerned in the French Revolution as operating “with the metaphysics of an undergraduate and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman” – is with us still and often provides the background music to our lives. We see it in public figures who seem to believe that there are known remedies for all social ills, which have been “blocked” because of the ill will of the privileged or the ignorance of the underprivileged, both of whom it’s okay to ignore and perhaps even to eliminate from the conversation.

Burke added: “It is remarkable, that, in a great arrangement of mankind, not one reference whatsoever is to be found to anything moral or anything politic; nothing that relates to the concerns, the actions, the passions, the interests of men. Hominem non sapiunt.” [“They do not know man.”]

Things haven’t gotten better since he wrote. If you look around at the most characteristic Enlightenment influence on us, it involves things like a belief that people’s “real” interests are economic, and everything else is an illusion, delusion, or worse. Wars have been fought for economic interests, of course, but surprisingly few in recent centuries: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq?

 
        Two truly enlightened Edmunds: Campion (left) and Burke

We currently have a war in Ukraine that our president believes stems from a “nineteenth-century” mentality that, the sophisticates in the international community know, doesn’t even recognize its own self-interest. We understand Vladimir Putin better than he understands himself. The really up-to-date elites know that we should all just stick to economic development and international co-operation – and of course, we know in advance what such co-operation ought to look like – because all legitimate human goals are now understood in advance, a presumption that’s oh-so-Enlightenment.

We have wars between the ancient people of Israel and the Muslim occupants of Gaza and the West Bank, and between different religious factions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, etc. Deplorable – and oh-so-Enlightenment – to think that human beings would actually cling to guns and religion and history this way. Unless, instead of looking at our own views of what should motivate people, we look, with Burke, to “the concerns, the actions, the passions, the interests of men,” – and real existing human beings, not the ones we’d prefer existed and could deal with.

When we look at the latter, it makes perfect sense that people are going to “cling” to religion, families, country – and be willing to defend them, with force if necessary, and even if it doesn’t advance “economic interests” – because most people don’t take their bearings from or place their enthusiasms in abstractions. Human beings aren’t built that way. It’s so very Enlightenment to think they are.

Or rather, that’s one of the Enlightenment’s self-contradictions. Because if you took seriously the effort to reduce man to an animal, those bonds of the pack would make immediate sense. As Vladimir Soloviev once joked, tartly, the modern view is, “We are all descended from apes. Therefore, let us love one another.”

Of course, if you took the Enlightenment reduction of human beings to just a complicated animal, and even further to just a complex set of chemical interactions, you wouldn’t really believe in the existence of any of the things that traditionally made us human. And why would you take seriously that what really just amounts to complex chemical reactions has any authentic rights, freedoms, or goals beyond physical well-being? The technocrats are working that line hard.

It took a while for this oh-so-Enlightenment attitude to work itself into public discourse. There are currents in our culture – postmodern, neo-orthodox, philosophical – that have seen the narrowness and danger of this development. They row against the current, but often add fuel to skepticism rather than restoring a richer sense of truth than an earlier, proud rationalism allowed.

The ancient and medieval thinking that supported our sense of human beings as something special – and rooted in a world that had a special place for such specialness – may have been banished from the public square. And for the moment some may think of it as a liberation. But that’s oh-so-Enlightenment a view, and as the consequences play out, it may not be long now in making us yearn for a far less glaring light.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
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written by Randall, August 04, 2014
Casual and ignorant dismissal of the Middle Ages is one of my major pet peeves. (Can I describe something as both 'major' and 'pet'?)
Anyway, I like Mr. Royal's angle regarding the pernicious influence of so-called Enlightenment thinking in our own age. It really is reductive and contradictory and just plain anti-human when you examine it.
Readers might like to read Régine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages! for a nice 180-page examination of high cultural achievements of that period of human history.
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written by Jack,CT, August 04, 2014
Robert,
I can not think of a time in the last thirty years
where the world was swimming in blood and we as the world
super power seemed so dam disengaged.
As we literally deal with hemmoragic fever(ebola),on our
own soil the middle east is dealing with its own societal
form 'WAR.
God Bless and as always a great piece,have a great week.


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written by Ray, August 04, 2014
Someday a future blogger will be able to write a similar article on "Those Traditional Catholics"!!!
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written by grump, August 04, 2014
"Wars have been fought for economic interests, of course, but surprisingly few in recent centuries: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq?"

I think you need to rethink that statement, Robert. Ask yourself, Cui Bono? In the 20th century, the military-security state continues to reap the vast profits of war while politicians are willing to send YOUR son to die for THEIR country. Consider, for example, the $3 billion sent to Israel every year from U.S. taxpayers -- nearly $100 billion since 1948. Where did the money go? Besides some of the pockets of the elite, most came back to buy missiles, tanks, warplanes and other military gear, recycled to American arms makers. Writ large, foreign and military aid is nothing more than a giant laundering scheme for the Halliburtons and General Electrics of the world.

As Gen. Smedley Butler said, "War is a racket" and the racketeers are ever conniving to promote perpetual war for perpetual peace.

As for the "wisdom" of the Middle Ages, your TCT colleague Brad Miner once led me to Barbara Tuchman's excellent book, "A Distant Mirror: The Calamatous 14th Century", which contrasts a glittering age of crusades, cathedrals and chivalry with the corruption and venality of the Renaissance Popes and the horrible lives that most lived, most cut short by extreme poverty, disease (the infamous Black Plague) and widespread famine.

As Voltaire said, "History does not repeat itself. Man always does."
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written by Robert Royal, August 04, 2014
Grump, you're mixing up two things. I've lived in Washington for quite a while and know how corrupt the military procurement process is. But that's quite different than the reasons for wars. Hamas and Israel would be going at one another with or without U.S. arms sales. In my view, you're close to taking the same approach as others who think economic causes are the only real ones. Hamas and Israel could both be armed to the teeth, but without quite understandable human differences involving religion, history, ideology, etc., they might live as peacefully alongside one another as Israel and Jordan.
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written by grump, August 04, 2014
Robert, I realize the Palestinian-Israel conflict dates back several centuries to Esau and Jacob and, of course, a clash of religions sometimes is a casus belli. No doubt if you took out U.S. arms sales, the two combatants would still be fighting albeit with less lethality and certainly in a less lop-sided manner.

To discount the economic motive for wars is in my view naive and ignores historical truths that the "winners" are always much better off materially than the losers.

Do you really think we're in Iraq and Afghanistan to give the inhabitants freedom and democracy? Or could it be because of oil and other earthly riches. For example, the $7.6 billion Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, scheduled to be completed in 2017 if only those nasty Talis would get out of the way, will transport natural gas across the region to India. Financed by the Asian Development Bank, a front for Western business interests, the pipeline is but one example of the real reason the U.S. and other developed countries have spent more than a decade keeping the war machines humming.

Whether the Arabs and Israelis can ever live peacefully side by side is doubtful. However, it should be remembered than Esau and Jacob eventually reconciled although it took a lot of blood and money before they buried the hatchets.
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written by Oldgeezer, August 04, 2014
Bravo Robert! Excellent piece.
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written by Bendict Augustine, August 04, 2014
Grump, I think you place too much faith in the competence of "Western business interests" if you believe they can coordinate multiple wars and install a pipeline across Asia in the aftermath. The U.S. can't even successfully lay out a pipeline from Canada, let alone other places! To immediately assume that economic incentives inspired our latest ventures in Afghanistan or Iraq can only qualify as paranoid speculation. As Royal suggest, a blithe belief in Enlightenment ideals most likely guided American actions, and continue to guide them, which might account for their current failure. Those ideals led us to believe that democracy and pluralism were self-evident and that economic conditions could smother ancient religious prejudices. What you observe now is the product of that misunderstanding.

Concerning the 14th century, in which people in Europe suffered from famine, plague, the Hundred years War, mediocre popes and kings, and Muslim aggression, I'd challenge you to attribute those things to Medieval ideals. As Pernoud's book suggests, European educational, political institutions, and religious started recovering the values of ancient Rome and started applying them at this time. Far from leading to progress, this diminished the rights of women, centralized political power, and separated the religious sphere from the educational and legal sphere (increased secularization). This in turn led to monarchs overturning the autonomy of the church by installing their own stooges in powerful positions, and it led to wars waged over material interests. Keep in mind, many of these developments and their causes foreshadowed the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the feudal world of the two previous centuries, these societal problems were largely checked and a relatively great deal of progress and increased prosperity could be observed. While it wasn't impervious to decline--no human society ever can make that claim--it does not deserve the ignorant derision that it receives from presumptuous modern ideologues.
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written by Manfred, August 04, 2014
I must have been been napping during my university courses on American history, as I distinctly remember that the ideas which gave us our three branches of government, which has become the envy of the world, came from Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Hobbes. The idea of "checks and balances" stemmed from the knowledge that people were corrupt and tended toward venality, just as we see it occurring today (Read: This Town). This system was designed to keep the monarch, or in our present case the tyrant reined in.
BTW, if anyone wishes to be a Middle East maven, you should really go to You Tube and investigate The General's Son who is Miko Peled. Otherwise you will continue to parrot the Main Stream Media on this important subject.
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written by Brad Miner, August 04, 2014
I think you were napping, Manfred -- at least when the checks-and-balances concept (really the separation of powers) was discussed. That was Montesquieu, a favorite of James Madison. You'll be pleased though to know that his Spirit of the Laws was on the Church's index.
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written by Howard Kainz, August 04, 2014
@Grump: Esau and Jacob? You mean Isaac and Ishmael?
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written by grump, August 04, 2014
@Bendict (sic): At last report, the U.S. led the world by far in arms sales at $640 billion, roughly 40% of the total. A distant second is China at 10%, followed by Russia and Saudi Arabia, both in the single digits. No doubt fueled by "paranoid speculation."



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written by Manfred, August 04, 2014
@Brad: I stand corrected. It is this sharing of erudition that draws me to TCT.
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written by Seanachie, August 04, 2014
Thought provoking article, Robert. I suggest that the "oh-so-Enlightenment...view" will, in the long run, have about the same permanency and effect on U.S. society as the passage of fetid gas in a strengthening wind. Lincoln may have had the wisest outlook on elitists and their views when he (putatively) said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." Let's hope Lincoln has it right.
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written by Bill Mulligan, August 05, 2014
Nice, insightful article. I would only disagree with the opening premise. I would submit, that in the minds of many moderns, the pejorative "medieval", means precisely things like treatise on the Divine and chivalry.
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written by Mark Rigoglioso, August 05, 2014
David, thank you for reminding us that the so called "Dark Ages" preserved and advanced the wisdom of God in the Church during the chaos of post-Roman Europe, which led men to the insights of science and culture. Now the downside of this great freedom was the opportunity to use the new powers of expression to spew lies and to reject sound doctrine - heresy on a global scale, like the radical atheistic philosophers did with all the resulting chaos that ensued.

The unbelievers of our day seek to use separation of powers to silence the Church, not to protect the Church from the state. So they try desperately to squash the Gospel - that reminds us our individual sin is the problem today, not social structures. For we have achieved the civil victories many people fought so hard for - equality of opportunity, equality of races, equal respect for genders. What we lack is a people able to appreciate these already-won victories and a sincere, social respect for life over and above individual lust for pleasure - a true degeneracy compared to our Medieval kin. They would be astounded by our triumphs and horrified by our blindness to these blessings sitting right in our midst. Our modern callousness would horrify them, and rightly so.

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