In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

Alan Jacobs recently posted an outline of an argument against a certain sort of story about the origins of modernity told by many Thomists—the sort of account given by Gilson in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and by Maritain in Three Reformers; the Ockham→ Luther→ Calvin→ Bacon→ Descartes→ modernity tale of decline. Jacob’s makes six complaints about this sort of account. No two versions of the account are the same, and so Jacobs focuses on the versions of it presented by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation  and Thomas Pfau in Minding the Modern. I haven’t read Pfau, but I have read Gregory, and while I would quibble with some of his points, I agree with the basic outline of his argument. So I disagree with Jacobs, and in what follows I give a brief response to all six of his complaints.

Most of Jacob’s complaints reduce to the idea that this sort of account is a too simple account of something far more complicated, a just-so story, a myth. This was bascially Phaedrus’s objection to Socrates’s myth of the invention of writing: “You can easily make up stories about the Egyptians or any other people, Socrates.” (Phaedrus 275a) That is a great line, but it’s implicit accusation is itself in need of demonstration.

Complaint 1: The story that Pfau and Gregory tell is nearly a hundred years old now, and people who praise their books don’t often enough acknowledge the earlier embodiments of it, by Gilson, by Jacques Maritain, by a whole range of largely Thomist theologians who see their account as the authentically Catholic one — despite the fact that, as Oberman points out, there is an almost equally longstanding Franciscan counter-narrative that defends the orthodoxy and the intellectual coherence of some of the nominalists.

The first part of this criticism might well be true—it might be rhetorically helpful to acknowledge the long lineage of this kind of account more. The second part strikes me as unfair. One of the “people who praise” Brad Gregory’s book is Alasdair MacIntyre (in the publisher’s flap copy), but if one reads the chapter on Scotus and Ockham in MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities, it is hard to accuse him of not taking arguments for their orthodoxy and coherence seriously.

Complaint 2: I simply don’t agree with the story. I do not see Thomist thought as the intellectual equivalent of Chartres cathedral; I believe the dialectical structure of Thomas’s thought, imposed on him by the institutional structures of the medieval university, yields a categorical rigidity that renders certain vital insights inaccessible to him. The nominalist critique of Thomas is far, far stronger than the neo-Thomist narrative of modernity’s emergence acknowledges.

The idea that St Thomas’s method gives “categorical rigidity” to his thought seems totally wrong to me. What strikes me when reading St Thomas is his marvelous patience in teasing out the truths implicit in our most basic and visceral experience of the world. Like the stained-glass of Chartres Cathedral making the implicit colors of sunlight visible, and then re-synthesizing them into the white light of the interior, St Thomas’s dialectical method makes explicit and distinct what is contained in an implicit and confused way in our common experience of the world, but without ever abandoning that experience and letting it be trumped by a categorical system. The dialectical back and forth of St Thomas’s thought is at the service of resisting the sedimentation of concepts that distances them from reality.

Complaint 3: Relatedly — though in terms of influence rather than philosophical coherence — I think the systematic ambitions of Thomist thought are misplaced and ultimately destructive. I am deeply sympathetic to the argument made by Simone Weil, most fully in her essay “The Romanesque Renaissance,” that the High Gothic era, rather than achieving an admirable completeness of philosophical and theological understanding, fell victim to the temptations of a “spiritual totalitarianism.” The much-admired synthesis of Thomist thought carried with it, necessarily, a lamentable arrogance (which perhaps Thomas realized in his famous end-of-life self-denigration: “all that I have written seems like straw to me”). That synthesis — which never achieved its own aims — needed to be broken; we would not benefit by its restoration.

St Thomas’s thought is not “systematic” in the sense that Jacobs has in mind. As Charles De Koninck argues a philosophical system can be defined by its beginning with distinct notions about things rather than the confused first conceptions of things given in experience. A philosophical system substitutes the definitions of things for the things themselves. But this is the very opposite of what St Thomas does. Moreover, as Michael Waldstein (my father) has argued to see the Summa as a systematic work of the Cartesian or Hegelian type neglects the profoundly theological character of the work:  «[T]he Summa Theologiae is not a systematic text in a sense akin to a geometric demonstration where one proceeds from foundations to what is implicit in those foundations […] its parts are designed to interlock, to open up more and more what remains inexhaustible, namely, the rivers of the Trinity flowing from the side of Christ into the world, as mediated by the word of Scripture.» (p. 92)

Complaint 4: Gregory and Pfau want to tell us, along with Dostoevsky, that ideas have consequences, and indeed they do. But other things have consequences too: the organizational structures of institutions (like universities) and of whole societies; the emergence of technologies that enable widespread communication, travel, and trade; the rise of the nation state, a topic whose importance for evaluating religious experience and conflict has been powerfully described by William Cavanaugh. Too often Gregory and especially Pfau write as though ideas can be neatly detached from these and other forces.

I can’t speak for Pfau, but Gregory is highly influenced by MacIntyre, and through MacIntyre by Marx— he does not neglect the importance of economic and technological developments.

Complaint 5: Modernity, and the Reformation, have their good sides — their very, very good sides, their contributing-to-human flourishing sides, their advancing-the-Gospel sides — that neither Gregory nor Pfau, despite occasional tips of their scholarly chapeaus, treat with sufficient seriousness.

This objection could be made against the rejection of anything bad. Evil is entirely parasitical on the good, and thus anything bad will have “good sides.” A fire burning down my house is good insofar as it has pretty colors. “There is no great loss without some small gain,” as the father says in the Little House books. Everyone admits that modernity has brought gains in certain respects; the question is whether the gains outweigh the losses.

Complaint 6: Gregory and Pfau, again with infrequent half-hearted chapeau-tipping, treat Modernity as effectively monolithic. In fact there were always powerful forces resisting or countering what we now think of as the mainstream of modernity, just as a little later on there was a “Counter-Enlightenment” that existed alongside and in constant creative tension with what we usually (loosely, vaguely, inaccurately) call the Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin being the best describer of that vital and neglected movement. There were many modernities, many Enlightenments, and many ways of dissenting from them all.

One of the problems with modernity is precisely its ability to absorb successive waves of reaction against itself, and integrate them into its basic cultural structure. Slavoj Žižek both analyzes and exemplifies this lamentable characteristic of the modern: why do we buy organic apples that are both more expensive and less good than the pesticide-sprayed ones? It is because capitalism has absorbed anti-capitalist environmentalism and turned it into a way of making even more money. Why do we watch Žižek clips on youtube? Similar reason.

6 thoughts on “In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

  1. I wonder if there is greater force behind these objections than you give him credit for. Granted, the overall narrative of the rise of modernism seems salient, there seems to be something to complaints 1 and 3 for example, if one considers Thomism as characterized by Gilson and Maritain (Here I am thinking of there willingness to just throw-out tradition and traditional readings based on little more the a whim).

    Also, it seems your response to complaint 2 is fair, but could be more developed if one did as Thomas does, and made the argument of your objector as strong as possible. I agree with you that there is no mindless rigidity in Thomas, but there certainly seems to be something closer to that in the late scholastics and neo-scholastics. The latter being characterized by a rather dogmatic adherence to the 24 Thomistic theses.
    Anyway, given that he admits that he was merely sketching an argument, truth might better be served by strengthening his position in this case.


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