Joe Cannon: Innocent beginnings: Roots of secular revolt

Published: Sunday, May 10 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

At the end of the 20th century, Jacques Barzun, now more than a century old himself, wrote "From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present." "It takes only a look at the numbers to see that the 20th century is coming to an end. A wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending at the same time."

This series of columns will examine the roots, causes and consequences of the ideas that are at the heart of this Modern Age. As will become clear, it is not possible to understand the sweep of the history of the West without understanding religious thinking and religious philosophy and the reaction to and accommodation of such thinking. For example, though profoundly different, both the American and French Revolutions were consequences of the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment, in and of itself, was also deeply revolutionary in its rejection of the Age of Faith that preceded it.

Jonathan I. Israel describes the Enlightenment in his massive work, "Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750." "During the later Middle Ages and the early modern age down to around 1650, western civilization was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition, and authority. By contrast, after 1650, everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason and frequently challenged or replaced by startlingly different concepts."

Israel informs us that prior to the middle of the 17th century, Europe was overwhelmingly a culture devoted to God. That is, "it was a civilization in which almost no one challenged the essentials of Christianity or the basic premises of what was taken to be a divinely ordained system. By contrast, after 1650, a general process of rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology's age-old hegemony in the world of study, slowly but surely eradicated ... belief in the supernatural from Europe's intellectual culture, and led a few openly to challenge everything inherited from the past — not just commonly received assumptions about mankind, society, politics, and the cosmos, but also the veracity of the Bible and the Christian faith or indeed any faith."

Of course, the Enlightenment did not spring from nothing. It, too, had antecedents. In "Ideas Have Consequences," Richard M. Weaver, a noted historian of ideas at the University of Chicago, traces the rudiments of the modern age to fourteenth-century William of Ockham (1284-1347), who was an early proponent of nominalism, a teaching that denies that anything universal has real existence. Many scholars include John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) as a co-conspirator with Ockham in undermining settled principles of natural law.

The issue, Weaver notes, "is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of man. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect (or spirit) and to posit as reality (only) that which is perceived by the senses." The consequence of this way of thinking is to deny things that cannot be known or understood except through physical experience.

This change in the definition of what is real was an early step in the development of two ideas that were central to Enlightenment thinking. First, Weaver notes that "with the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of 'man, the measure of all things.' " Second, the notion that all knowledge can only come from the application of our senses is at the heart of the Enlightenment-created doctrine of the scientific method.

Both William and Duns Scotus (often called "The Blessed") were devout men of deep faith. Neither had any intention of undermining the faith of others. Yet "though it couldn't be clear at the time, we with hindsight can recognize (the writings of Duns Scotus and Ockham) as a major turning point in the history of Western civilization, an important step towards that primacy of the individual which defines our culture," and lies at the heart of the Enlightenment project (Charles Taylor, "A Secular Age").

Next week: Descartes and Spinoza

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News.

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