accounting for modernity

This is one of my placeholder posts, in which I lay out the barest outline of thoughts that I hope to develop in detail at some later date. Points here will be asserted rather than supported.

Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation retell a story that’s about a hundred years old now. I am not certain when and with whom it originated, though its most influential early proponent was probably Etienne Gilson. The story goes like this: thanks largely to the rise of the great European universities, the High Middle Ages saw the gradual emergence of a fully-orbed philosophical theology that reached its omnicompetent fullness — insert here the inevitable comparison to Chartres Cathedral — in the work of Thomas Aquinas. In the mind of the Doctor Angelicus the greatest pagan thinkers found their proper place and their teleological fulfillment as buttresses of a Christian theology that adequately accounted for (which is not to say explained or explained away) all that we know and believe about God, humanity, and the rest of Creation. But cracks in this great edifice soon appeared, thanks to the ongoing rivalry between philosophy and theology. This division in turn allowed nominalism to emerge, primarily in the work of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and their ideas widened the cracks dangerously. Then Luther, trained in this destructive nominalism, stuffed explosives in the gaps and blew the whole thing to smithereens. This is called “The Birth of Modernity.” It is the disaster from which our culture has never recovered.

No two thinkers tell this story in exactly the same way — there are disagreements especially about who the chief villains are — but the account has been remarkably consistent over time, and pretty much impervious to scholarship that would complicate the picture. See for instance the incisive, assured, and masterful work of Heiko Oberman, who long complained that people committed to the story I have just related simply would not listen to a more nuanced and complicated account of nominalism. (Oberman demonstrated again and again that widely divergent thinkers get lumped together in the “nominalism” category.)

All this as background for my complaints.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.