Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Continued Reflections on the Enlightenment

Awaiting the Encyclical 
Well, back to our critical look at the Enlightenment, perhaps timely as we await the much anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sii and we see how various Catholics regard the relationship between science and Christian faith.  Actually, I initially had a picture of Caitlyn Jenner posted on this entry for reasons that will become clear towards the end of the posting, but I think Francis' upcoming Encyclical might be even more controversial, at least for those who are trying to live in the pre-modern world.  
As I wrote in the previous entry, the Enlightenment has certainly irrevocably shaped the way we think in Western culture and there is much good for that.  While the medieval universities of Catholic Europe were noted for their freedom of scientific inquiry and philosophical debate, in the sixteenth century religion increasingly tried to impose an intellectual stranglehold over European culture.   It was no accident that this was also a time of political absolutism with the rise of nation states and absolute monarchies throughout much of Europe.  The Protestant Reformations and the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries resisted that absolutism in matters both political and intellectual but in some ways, we shall see, there was an attempt by Enlightenment thinkers to impose a monolithic intellectual framework on Western culture that was as tyrannical and exclusionary as the absolutism as that against which the philosophes were rebelling.
I grew up, as I mentioned in the previous posting, in a thoroughly Catholic environment and yet in one that also idolized Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette.  As I have grown older and studied more—and remember, I am a historian by training, but an Europeanist—I am having some second thoughts about the philosophical basis of our Republic.  Don’t get me wrong.  The cause for independence was a just one and the idea of a Republic remains a good one.  But I think there are some serious bugs that were programmed into the American myth that we need to reexamine and perhaps change the future course of our society by a few degrees. 
The Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) is a pivotal figure in the Enlightenment and in the development of our national culture.  Locke was a physician and so had a scientific training.  He was a member of the Royal Society and worked with Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, and the polymath, Robert Hooke. Religiously he was Low Church and politically he was a Whig (one of the first) and opposed to Royal prerogatives.  He supported the cause of William and Mary against James II not only out of distrust of James’ Catholicism but because he was opposed to the sort of absolutism represented by the senior branch of the Stuart line.  Locke was, in addition to his being a medical man,  a philosopher and was especially concerned about the philosophy of government.  Locke believed that life, liberty, and property are natural rights to which all are entitled.  He also believed that the human person was by nature reasonable and tolerant and that our rational nature would lead us to make moral decisions.  This confidence in the goodness of human nature is reflective of a certain Pelagianism that overlooks the effects of original sin in the human person and it would influence later philosophes and help produce the un-self-reflective moral naïveté of a Jefferson and Franklin.  Although Locke had begun as an orthodox Christian, he soon devolved into Unitarian rationalism that rejected the philosophical conundrum of a Trinitarian deity and the consequent dependent doctrine of the Divinity of Christ. 
Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a Scottish philosopher who very much concentrated on economics.  Smith had a passion for the idea of liberty and saw the essential importance of the human person have the liberty needed to acquire wealth.  He recognized the self-interest that motivates the human person and believed that rational self-interest is the foundation of economic prosperity.  While his insights about self-interest reflect the Calvinist environment in which he had grown up, Smith does not see it as sinful but rather as the foundation for strong political and economic good.  Margaret Thatcher carried a copy of Smith’s Wealth of Nations in her purse throughout her political career. Adam Smith had long before left his Calvinist Roots in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland for belief in an impersonal Deity, impervious to our prayers and inattentive to our moral failings, but he was not, strictly speaking, either a Deist or an atheist.
David Hume, another Scots humanist and an intimate of Adam Smith’s, was an atheist however.  Hume and Smith were both convinced that moral behavior was entirely a matter of sentiment without any objective anchoring.  For most Enlightenment thinkers truth did not exist as an absolute, or—for those for whom it did—it existed only as an abstract concept and never in the particulars of human choices.  There was always this radical subjectivity in the realm of the right and the wrong.  Hume saw Catholicism as superstition and most Protestantism as having devolved into nothing more than enthusiasm.  Religion itself, he believed, was rooted in a dread of the unknown.  This would lead later generations of thinkers to see religion, or even faith, merely as a neurotic projection. 
Unlike other Enlightenment figures of whom we have so far written, Baruch Spinoza did not grow up in a Christian—Protestant or Catholic—home, but an orthodox Jewish one in Amsterdam to which his ancestors had fled when the Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492.  Nonetheless, like many of his Christian counterparts, he early parted ways with the doctrinal demands of his religion and by the age of 23 had been expelled from his synagogue.  Philosophically Spinoza was a materialist.  Spinoza saw a mechanistic universe by which nothing proceeds by chance but which is rigidly determined by the laws of nature.  Human ethics, on the other hand, are highly subjective and nothing is either intrinsically good or intrinsically evil but finds its moral worth in the particular context.  Though Spinoza’s work is open to various nuances, most regard him as being a pantheist, that is as holding that the material universe and God are one and the same.  Thus Spinoza’s universe is unbendingly regulated according to its own laws.  Moreover there is a fundamental unity to all that exists.  Only the realm of the material has an objective reality; there is nothing that transcends concrete material existence. 
A final philosopher at whom I would like to look for this posting is Joseph Priestly (1733-1804).  Here we come back to a philosopher who was rooted in the sciences as well as theology and political theory.  As a scientist he had isolated oxygen in its gaseous state. He also invented soda water and, like Benjamin Franklin, experimented with and wrote on electricity.  Coming from a non-Conformist (Protestant but not Church of England) background himself, Priestly developed a strong political argument for religious freedom for every individual stating that the State should stay away from limiting the individual conscience.  Religiously Priestly moved, like many others, from orthodox belief in the Trinity to the more rational Unitarianism.  He was a strong supporter of the French Revolution even as it moved to the excesses of the Terror and the Directory.   He argued with Edmund Burke about the role of religion in society, arguing that religion should play no part in civic life but be limited solely to one’s personal life.  By 1794 his political and religious views had made him so unpopular in England that he and his family moved to the new American Republic, settling in Pennsylvania.
I think we can see the fatal cracks in the Enlightenment beginning to show.  A healthy spirit of inquiry is gradually being replaced by a cynicism towards any received tradition.  There is no attempt to integrate new discoveries with established knowledge, but only to reject out of hand that which does not fit the new world view.  Whereas in the physical sciences  there is an observable objectivity to which the newly discovered must measure and against which the old ideas can be judged, for many of the philosophes of the Enlightenment raw subjectivity was often the only measure required for their philosophical abstractions. And if in the world of Counter-Reformation absolutism, theological rigidity held learning bound, now cold rationalism, or subjectivity masquerading as rationalism, exercised that same stranglehold.   
I am not sure that we do not see some of the same uncritical thinking today.  For many neo-trad Catholics Pope Francis’ concern about the environment is the result of his having drunk the pseudo-scientific Kool-Aid of the political left when in fact like so many krazies they themselves ignore the vast body of scientific evidence that threatens their pre-existent world-view where the industrialized nations by right exploit the developing societies.  But such stupidity is not the only fault today.  Even for main-line Catholics there is a hesitancy to look at the scientific questions needed to better understand the complex issues of gender identity, embryonic and fetal development, same-sex attraction, and other questions that have an intense social urgency.  On the other hand, we see main-line Protestant churches blithely overthrowing established moralities solely on subjective argument and without serious theological reflection, and we see our larger secularized society totally adrift and at the mercy of fast-changing public opinions when it comes to complicated issues regarding human life and dignity.  “Right” and “wrong” are mere social constructs and any sort of ethical cohesion in society is coming apart at the seams.  And the average citizen gets his political and moral compass from sound-bites that do not require any deep critical reflection. 
We have a huge amount of work to do in our society to build a future in a rapidly evolving world.  The information explosion has opened up what seems to be an infinite amount of information that needs to be examined, reflected on, and integrated into a consistent socio-political philosophy that can give us a common ground to build a society in which the common good is the guiding principle and the rights and dignity of all and of each can be established and protected.  This requires the scientific exploration of the Enlightenment but it also requires a philosophical discipline that was for the most part lacking and which has left us in 21st century America in a house built on sand.  

No comments:

Post a Comment