Monday, June 15, 2015

Some Reflections on the Enlightenment

René  Descartes 

I was raised in a very Catholic environment and before the Second Vatican Council.  I lived in a strong Catholic Ghetto in which public school education was anathema and you didn’t go to the YMCA even though they had an indoor swimming pool.  The Sisters of Mercy taught me in primary school—from which I graduated in 1962, the year Vatican II opened.  I had the Jesuits in High School and Vatican II held its final session in December of my Senior Year.  These were formative years for me and there was great harmony between the faith that I was being taught in school and the faith my parents, both devout Catholics, were conveying to me and my siblings at home.  My Mom was a member of the Parish Altar and Rosary Society; my Dad a member of the Holy Name Society.  Together they were members of the Christian Family Movement and hosted in our home bi-weekly meetings of other couples who, with one of the parish priests, studied the faith together.  My Dad was a daily communicant and devoted to the rosary.  Our home was consecrated to the Sacred Heart.  We regularly—often two or three nights a week—had various priest friends at our home for supper.   All this is to establish my credentials as having been raised an authentic dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholic in the best of pre-Vatican II faith. 
That being said, we believed that somewhere just slightly after the Blessed Mother and somewhere up the ranks from the seraphim and cherubim stood robed in the glory of God, Franklin D. Roosevelt.   We believed that, while we each have a personal responsibility for charity, through the collective agency of society represented by government, we have an joint obligation to assist those less fortunate members of society and to level—to some authentic degree—the playing field so that all had a relatively equal access to building a future for themselves.  We were taught to believe that workers had a God-given right to organize and had as much right to the profits of their work as did the owners of capital.   This was before Mater et Magistra or Laborem Exercens, or Popolorum Progressio, but we were schooled in reverence for Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.    While it was in the day before LGBT issues emerged from the social closet, we were taught to believe that discrimination against individuals for any reason—racial, ethnic, religious—was inherently unjust and that while we might disagree with a person whose opinions were different than ours, there were rules of civility to be followed.  And we were taught that while the Middle Ages represented a flourishing of our Christian Faith, and the Protestant Reformation represented a breakdown of the social order, that the Enlightenment was the foundation of all that is good in our modern world and especially in these United States. 
I still agree with most of what I learned in those years of my Catholic youth but I am seriously questioning the Enlightenment.  In fact, the more I look at it, the more insidious I see its effects. 
The name attempts to sell the basic goodness of the period.  Enlightenment.  Don’t we all want to be enlightened?  First of all, the name, Lumières,  was coined by one of its leading proponents, the Abbé Jean Baptiste Dubos.  Always be aware of self-advertising. Dubos, though a priest, did not practice his ministry but was noted for his work as a historian and litterateur.  He was a member of the Académie française and elected perpetual secretary of the same in 1723.  Kant introduced the term into German as Aufklärung (from aufklären—to make clear, to enlighten) in 1784.  The term Enlightenment only came into English in the second half of the 19th century, long after its havoc had been wreaked on the western—and in particular, the American, mind. 
In many ways the intellectual revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries that we sanctify with the title “the Enlightenment” was a consequence of the Protestant Reformations and the breakdown of Traditional authority structures that the Reformations both represented and caused.  This breakdown of Traditional authority structures, structures that were petrifying into absolutism both in Church and State, was far from all bad.  Monolithic power—whether represented by Royal Absolutism in Tudor-Stuart England, Bourbon France, Hapsburg/Bourbon Spain, or by the growing power of the papacy in post-Trent Catholicism was putting western society on an intellectually and politically suicidal trajectory that the intellectual challenges raised by Enlightenment scientific and philosophical figures were able to thwart before we sank back into a new Dark Ages.  Protestantism, from the mild variety of Luther to the radical strains of the Anabaptists and Unitarians, made sure that the western mind knew that there must be nothing beyond questioning yet Protestantism itself, when once established by the State in Anglican England, Lutheran Denmark, Calvinist Geneva, took itself as seriously as the Inquisitorial Catholicism of Spain.  It took the post-Christians philosophes to continue to insist on the freedom of the intellect to inquire and challenge. 
In many ways the Church’s lock hold on intellectual life began to crack not only before the philosophes of the Enlightenment but even before the Reformers posed their theological challenges.  William of Ockham (1287-1347), an English Franciscan Friar who taught Philosophy at Oxford challenged the established thought of his time by pioneering Nominalism—a philosophy that denies the existence of universals or abstractions and posits that things exist only in their individual realities.  Ockham also posited, in distinction to Aquinas, that theological truths could only be apprehended by faith and that reason plays no part in theology.  This opened a philosophical chasm by which theology—or even faith in God—could be separated from science and scientific reasoning.
That separation would be put to the test in the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish/Prussian astronomer.  Copernicus was a true polymath and was educated in Poland and in Italy with backgrounds in mathematics, geometry, philosophy, classical languages, medicine, Canon Law, and astronomy.  Although he was never ordained a priest, his maternal uncle Lucas Watzenrode, Prince-Bishop of Warmia, arranged for him to be a canon in his cathedral.  His duties as a canon, since he was not a priest, were mostly administrative but also included the practice of medicine.  Through his entire life he was fascinated with astronomy and during his studies in Italy he shared a residence with Dominico Maria Novara de Ferrara whose chief assistant he became for the years he studied in Bologna.  His interest in astronomy continued and he began to acquire the writings of ancient astronomers such as Aristarchus of Samos, Cleomedes, Heraclides Ponticus, and Ecphantus the Pythagorean.  His studies led him to return to the ancient Greek theory that the earth revolved around the sun rather than that the sun and planets revolved around the earth. 
This idea that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system was perceived to be a direct threat to Christian faith by Church authorities for whom the Bible clearly taught that the earth and its inhabitants are the very reason for the existence of creation and therefore must be its center.  In fact, several of the ancient astronomers had long posited that the earth revolved around the sun, but the triumph of Christianity in Western Europe and Islam in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain both theologically demanded a geocentric universe.  (To be fair, Aristotle and Ptolemy both held to a geocentric model so it was not without its advocates outside Judaic/Christian/Islamic sphere.) 
Copernicus’ theories did not raise a lot of theological dust within his lifetime, but it sure got Galileo in a boatload of manure despite his friendship with Pope Urban VIII who was a strong admirer of Galileo and who often spoke with him about heliocentrism.  Unfortunately in one of his books defending a heliocentric universe Galileo used the Pope’s conversations in a way that made Urban look foolish and that brought down the theological establishment both on the astronomer and his theories.  Of course, while in the short run Galileo paid for his intellectual adventurism, in the long run the Church came out looking absolutely stupid for its opposition to contemporary science.  (Hmmm, is there a lesson to be learned here.)
In many ways the Enlightenment is rooted in the scientific discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries, which not only challenged but overturned the received wisdom of earlier ages.  The Englishman, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), is considered to be one of the founders of modern science.  Bacon was both a philosopher and a scientist—and, for that matter, a man of religious faith. (He was Church of England.) Bacon advocated the use of experiments and observation to advance scientific knowledge rather than abstract philosophical argument.  It seems elementary to us today that one advances knowledge by observation of the facts but in the theologically dominated world of the time all truth was seen as needing to be conformed to theological and philosophical principles rather than having an integrity of its own.  This was basically the same problem faced by Galileo: when our observation of physical realities conflicts with biblical texts or theological principles, which “truth” is to be accepted?   And so we have this famous quote
God made dinosaurs 4,000 years ago as ultimately flawed creatures, lizards of Satan really, so when they died and became petroleum products we, made in his perfect image, could use them in our pickup trucks, snow machines and fishing boats.
Well, maybe she didn’t really say that, but there are people who believe something mighty close to this freakish idea because for them religion still trumps science. 
Another figure on whom the Enlightenment is founded is René  Descartes (1596-1650).  Descartes was a mathematician, the founder of analytic geometry.  But he is remembered precisely for his philosophical role.  Descartes considered himself to be a devout Catholic and indeed, though he lived much of his life in the Calvinist Netherlands and Lutheran Sweden, he remained constant in the practice of his faith and was ultimately buried in one of my favorite Parisian churches, Saint Germain de Prés.  Descartes is famous for his Cogito ergo sum: I know, therefore I am.  This is theologically revolutionary.  No longer is it that the certainty of my existence is contingent on God’s being, but rather I can be certain of my existence because I am self-aware.  The philosophical center has shifted from God who has created to the human person who is aware of his own being.  Note, this self-awareness does not deny the existence of God, nor does it deny that God is creator, but it does rob God of some of his thunder because it permits me my own existence on my own terms.  I no longer need God—or the Church—as an authority because I can rely on my own knowledge that comes not from outside “givens” but from my own observation and reflection.  The human intellect, not the Bible, not the Church, now is the arbiter of truth.Descartes sent the pious Pascal into paroxysms of religious fury and ended up after his death with his works on the Index of Forbidden Books. 
When it comes to Copernicus or Galileo or Descartes and the interplay between religious faith and scientific knowledge, I don’t have a problem and indeed I would argue that science, even the broader sense of all human knowledge,  has to be able to pursue its exploration without having its conclusions short-circuited by religious doctrines.  But we have only scratched the surface of the Enlightenment.  In future postings I think we can see some of the serious problems the rationalism of the Enlightenment will spawn.   

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