Hillary Versus America: Part VII — The West at Noon

Before we begin, please take a few minutes to put yourself into the mindset of a medieval monk. Listening to as much of this music as you can sit through is the best way I know of to do that on short notice:


When I hear this, I can imagine waking long before dawn to begin a day that would be just like the ten thousand days that came before it. I pray; read approved works, mostly the Bible; read some more; toil in a field; sing hymns; eat bland food; toil; pray; read; sing; sleep briefly, and begin again, in the dark.

The music is, I think, unquestionably beautiful: simple, and pure. But I can’t make it through more than a few minutes, unless as background music for something more active. It’s too monotonous. For some, simplicity, rigidity, and repetitiousness are the hallmarks, not only of beautiful music, but also of a good life, well lived. Not for me.

Although it’s not to my taste, this kind of life makes sense, as as an ideal, if you can think like a medieval monk. Because monks Know the Truth. If you already know everything that’s important to know, there’s no need to explore, to learn, or to grow. Perfection is a cycle, orbiting around a central truth, like the sun orbiting around the earth, like the earth turning through its seasons.

In the last installment, that peculiar monk, Thomas Aquinas, had established an unstable symbiosis between Athens and Jerusalem, between reason and faith. His balance of the West’s antipodes would never come to rest. In some times and places, faith would rise. In others, reason would be resurgent. Although reason never, ever reached a zenith, it also never fell below the West’s horizon again.

At the outset, I said that the values distinctive to Western civilization, the values that determine Western civilization’s worth, are individual rights and reason. Aristotle brought the first systematic understanding of reason to the West. Aquinas later carved out a space for individuals to exercise their consciences, even against the wishes of “legitimate” authorities. But, hundreds of years after Aquinas’s death, even after the Renaissance explosion of cultural, economic, and intellectual productivity, the idea of individual rights had never been given voice. It would be a long and meandering path leading from Aristotle, through Aquinas, to America — but we can retrace it in outline.

For centuries after Aquinas lived, there was only one Christian church, headed in Rome by the Vicar of Christ. There were recurring power struggles between the papacy and the secular authorities, but the church held the high ground. This was because if any church-state conflict were to devolve from words to swords, the men fighting knew that loyalty to a king might win them treasures on earth, but loyalty to the church would earn them treasures in heaven. And, also, if a man is forced to chose between keeping his body together and keeping his soul together, he will tend to prefer the latter (providing, of course, he believes in souls).

If this was not enough, another way the church maintained its grip on spiritual authority was to establish itself as the intermediary between men and God. In the medieval church, priests might be able to read the word of God, but common men, and most nobles, were illiterate. Even if they had been literate in their native tongues, they would not have been able to read the Bible as it existed then: either in archives of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, or in churches, where priests used excerpts from Latin translations.

In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe, and began printing one of these Latin translations of the Bible. This was a technological revolution that would dovetail into a spiritual one. Before the introduction of the printing press, manuscripts were copied longhand, a painstaking process that put severe physical limits on the volume of texts that could be copied and spread throughout Europe.

Because copies of the Bible, and of all texts, were in such short supply before Gutenberg’s revolution, it was not only culturally impossible for anyone to challenge the Catholics’ priestly monopoly on the Bible, it was technically impossible as well. (I note that this is not the first time that the changing limits of technology had a powerful effect on the nature of human society. Consider that, before the invention of agriculture, for example, it was impossible for enough food to be set aside to allow large population centers to form and stabilize. And until large population centers could form and stabilize, it was impossible for humans to diversify their productive (or unproductive) activities through a division of labor. In other words: granaries make priests possible.)

But after Gutenberg’s revolution, all bets were off. For centuries, the Catholic church had been the undisputed moral authority for all of Europe. For centuries, the church had been teaching that the individual conscience was the highest authority in practical life. For centuries, this teaching, even though it concerned how everyday life should be practiced, was not practiced in everyday life. Aquinas’s teaching about the inviolability of the individual conscience presided over a church which presided over the Spanish Inquisition. Victims of the Inquisition, whose confessions of “heresy” had been prepared under torture, but who later refused to repent for their “heresies,” were burned alive, and conscious, at the stake. (Apparently, if you repented for your heresies, the Inquisition would do you the kindness of strangling you or breaking your neck before burning you at the stake.)

And then Martin Luther happened. In 1517, Luther published a list of disputes with Catholic church doctrine. This event is recognized as the beginning of the Reformation, the breaking-up of the Christian church from the one Catholic church, to many diverse congregations of believers, each promulgating their own interpretation of God’s will and word. A complex cultural interaction — among Gutenberg’s printing technology, Luther and other reformers’ doctrinal challenges to the Catholic monopoly, the expansion of literacy, Aquinas’s idea of the sovereignty of the individual conscience, the pre-existing political divisions in England and in Europe, and the continuing influence of Aristotle on learned men — fired an intellectual crucible. In the end, the molten mixture would solidify into the precursors of individualism as a political philosophy and experimental science as an expansion of the Aristotelian method.

Luther rejected the idea that a priesthood should control and mediate God’s relationship with individual men. For Luther, building upon the idea of the sovereign individual conscience, each man was to be his own priest, reading the word of God directly, and deciding for himself, through his conscience, what God’s word meant. There was no room for an authoritarian Church in this conception of man’s relationship with God. Churches existed to provide guidance and fellowship, not to step between man and his God. This Lutheran doctrine is known as sola scriptura, “by scripture alone,” and means that Christian doctrine should come only from the Bible, from each conscience-guided individual’s reading of the Bible, not from thick books of Catholic theology or the pronouncements of popes.

Luther’s ideas spread like dank memes through Twitter, and they carried world-changing implications. First, if every man would find his own, personal, relationship with God through the study of scripture, he needed to be able to read scripture. Protestantism thus melded with the results of Gutenberg’s printing technology to inspire and enable a massive increase in literacy. Second, if every man was supposed to develop his own relationship with God, then, by implication, every individual was worthy of having a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Think about that. Under Catholic rule, God had One Order for the world, which he communicated through his vicars; everyone had a fixed place in that Order, assigned to them at birth. But if you are worthy to forge your own relationship with the author of all things, then who can tell you what your place is, but God himself? Protestantism thus prepared the way for individualism by honoring and sanctifying the individual in ways totally new and alien to prior belief. Third, increased literacy had secondary effects. It created general readers: readers of bills, of accounting books, of newspapers, of pamphlets; literacy enabled the beginnings of an information economy, and concomitant wide-reaching expansions of economic activity, of the division of labor, and, ultimately, of wealth.

The massive, disruptive, liberating, chaotic, and deadly change catalyzed by Protestantism broadcast this message to everyone in Europe who was prepared to hear it: “IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT!” And because of the beginnings of mass literacy, there were many, many more minds prepared to hear (or to read) this message than there ever could have been before Gutenberg and Luther. How could any educated person fail to notice the terrible and awesome power of ideas in a world scarred and broken by wars — over ideas?

The Hanging by Jacques Callot

The Thirty-Years’ War, which began as a Protestant-Catholic conflict, would eventually kill 8 million people. One soldier in this war over ideas was the philosopher René Descartes, who later wrote in his Discourse on the Method that, during his tour of duty, he had begun to conceive of a new approach to knowledge. Descartes’ work would become the foundation of modern philosophy, supposedly rejecting Aristotle in favor of a fresh way of looking at the world and deriving knowledge from it. In fact, Descartes, and the most important philosophers who came after him and shared his project, did not so much reject Aristotle as they rejected Scholasticism, the blend of Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic doctrine that had been the foundation of higher education in Europe, by Descartes’ time, for hundreds of years. They saw Scholastic thought as stale, a dead end. But the proliferation of texts in the late 16th- and 17th-Centuries, the era of Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, and Francis Bacon, had inaugurated an almost feverish exchange of ideas, and this happened against a backdrop of deadly ideological conflict that underscored just how powerful ideas could be. Ambitious men, men ambitious enough to want to change the Western world, perhaps men weary of war, began looking for new ways to think about the world and man’s place in it. It was time for Aquinas’s unstable balance to shift again, and for reason to rise from the very ashes of faith’s ravages.

The man who seems most singly responsible for this shift in the Western balance was Francis Bacon. Bacon was a wily one. Like many philosophers, he seems to have played at the game of esoteric writing, meaning he wrote with a double-meaning: one for his intended audience, and one for everyone else. This was necessary, or at least prudent, because what Bacon wanted to say would not have been pleasing to many Anglicans. What he wanted to say was: “Faith has held Europe in a stranglehold for more than a thousand years. We suffer, fight, starve, bleed, and die, all more than we need to, if indeed we need to at all. As long as men can claim to see different invisible truths, and then proceed to kill each other over these self-conjured ghosts, we will never have peace. The times are such that there are enough of us, now — who are well read, who understand our Aristotle, who know where knowledge really comes from — we can change the world. Let faith wane in influence as reason waxes. To make this possible, let’s take Aristotle’s work a step further: let’s make the method of reason even easier to follow. Let’s convince men to focus their intelligence on the natural world, not the spiritual. Let’s teach man science.”

Since he could not say this openly, and since he was a wily philosopher (but I repeat myself), what Bacon actually said was:

The greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or farthest end of knowledge: for men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a tarrasse, for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.

This was masterful rhetoric, perfectly pitched to its audience: the authorities of the Christian West. Bacon wanted freedom of scientific inquiry, for experimentalists using the new methods he pioneered to be able to investigate nature without having to account, to a skeptical religious authority, for their every unsettling discovery. He knew that Christian authorities praised charity and service to the poor. He knew they condemned pride. He thus presents free scientific inquiry (here and elsewhere) as, not a means of self-aggrandizement, but as a means to the “relief of man’s estate.” Whose “estate” needed relief? Kings’, lords’, and bishops’? No. The poor. They needed food, shelter, medicine, a means to a more humane existence. How could any Christian say no?

Bacon’s rhetoric worked. His method spread. Scientific inquiry proceeded in the Western world at an ever-quickening pace. As discovery piled upon discovery, as techniques of food production and the manufacture of goods consequently improved, life in Europe became progressively easier. Man’s estate began, incrementally, slowly, to be relieved. Literacy, numeracy, and the beginnings of a scientific understanding of the world dispersed from the small circle of philosophers and other educated elites to the wider culture. And the wider culture reflected on these developments, and slowly, Europe began to think: maybe the human mind is something noble after all? Maybe man is not merely a poor, miserable sinner: fallen, corrupt, pitiable, and worthless without God’s grace? Maybe whatever is meant by “divine” is something in man?

However far reason and science progressed, by the late 17th Century, the Christian ethos still dominated all of Europe. The relief of man’s estate was all well and good, but man was still corrupt and sinful, still needed the firm hand of God’s vicars and officers and kings to guide him toward right conduct. And there were mysteries that this new science would never unravel, gaps in man’s mortal understanding as wide as chasms. All one had to do was look up into the vastness of a night sky, where untouchable celestial bodies — bright, beautiful, cold, distant, and perfect — moved according to God’s immutable and impenetrable will.

And then Newton happened.

Contemporary man has to stretch herself until it hurts, and maybe even further than that, to even begin to understand how big a deal Newton’s law of universal gravitation was. When Newton published his findings in 1687, it was like some Herculean hero had taken the sky — from, not Atlas’s shoulders, but God’s hands — and put it in a book that any man could carry. In metaphor, in symbol, Newton had brought heaven to earth through the power of human reason. In metaphor, Newton had raised man up to stand eye-to-eye with God.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote this epitaph:

NATURE and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

The intellectual world of Western civilization came alight, burning incandescently for the next hundred years. This was the Enlightenment. This was mankind’s high noon.

Almost simultaneously with Newton’s great discoveries, John Locke published his Second Treatise of Government. He argued that every individual was sovereign, and that governments, or communities of any kind, existed to serve individuals, to secure opportunities for individuals to pursue the goals that furthered their own lives.

And here is that music coming again. Locke sketched in the final note of the triad: Man’s epistemological independence from Aristotle, his (partial) moral independence from Aquinas, and, now, at long last, his political independence. Enlightenment man did not exist to serve the glory of the state or the church, he existed, for the first time, if only implicitly, for his own sake.

Now the West had reason and individual rights. In a few decades, the chord Locke had sketched would sound out for the first time, as a gunshot, heard ’round the world.

When Beethoven heard, not too long after the American Revolution, that Napoleon Bonaparte was bringing down the false authority of kings and nobles, he dedicated his work-in-progress Symphony No. 3 to him. Napoleon later betrayed human freedom by declaring himself Emperor, and so Beethoven scratched his name off of the dedication page of this symphony. But Beethoven’s Third still records, better than any gunshot, what it sounds like when man breaks tens of thousands of years of chains, finds his nobility, sees the horizon open up, and knows the heavens, even, are his. To my ears at least, no monk’s hymns can compare:

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