Archive for October, 2011
So, the title obviously indicates that I’m not getting back to the defense again today, but that’s because, after a rather miserable week, I’ve got the week end.
And there are some good things about the weekend. There’s a nearly three day Murder, She Wrote marathon on one of the Lifetime channels, which means I can indulge my obsessions with the fair play mystery in both print and on screen.
A friend of mine sent me the entire Dorothy L. Sayers opus a while back, and I still have some of those to reread, and I’ve got a lot of Christie, and a ton of the Joan Hess Claire Malloy series.
So, on the mystery front, I’m in good shape.
The other thing, though, is not so wonderful–sometme in the next 36 hours, we’re going to get hit with the first nor’easter in the season.
And it’s not even Halloween.
They’re projecting six to twelve inches of snow overnight Saturday into Sunday, plus some snow and freezing ran today.
As prepping for nor’easters go, I’m not in bad shape, although I didn’t run out yesterday and buy forty thousand bags of potato chips.
That’s what we do in New England when we’re faced with being snowed in. We buy potato chips.
The temperatures are then preducted to get high again, into the 40s, and into the 50s, and then close enough to 60 to make no difference. I don’t expect this will be an onerous shoveling job.
I’ve got a teenaged boy for the shoveling job, a house full of food (although no potatoes, which means I either make the corned beef with just carrots or skip it until I feel it’s safe to go out to the store), all those books I’m talking about and a manuscript that has started to go a little better, finally.
And the blog.
As long as the electricity holds out.
And no, I’m not afraid of driving in the rain that comes before the snow. That’s not the safety I crave. I crave the safety of being out of the way of crazed little old ladies stocking up on potato chips as if the Armegeddon had come and the chips were the only food safe from fallout contamination.
But, for what it’s worth, a couple of observations along the way:
I’m with Robert. The modern university–public or private–is one of the least free-speech-friendly places on earth. Between the endless speech codes (which are not about “civility” but about declaring certain ideas to be unexpressible) to the mandatory “orientation” sessions featuring coercive roleplaying sessions meant to brainwash new students into having the “right” ideas about race, religion, sexuality and who knows what else, they’ve become the place in this society where you’re least likely to find a free expression of ideas.
And no, I don’t think this mirrors real life. Certainly, in real life, we get to discuss whether or not affirmative action (in its various guises) results in people of different races being judged by different standards, whether or not the practice of various sexual acts is a good thing or a bad thing for society as a whole, and whether illegal immigration should be halted altogether.
It’s why I’ve never liked Donna Shalala. She was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin when the SCOTUS struck down that university system’s speech code–TWICE–as unConstitutional restriction on speech, and her response was: we’re going to go on doing this until we get a court that will let us have what we want.
In the second place, I read an essay put up on FB by Cathy F that I wish all of you would read, but I’m having trouble, as usual, getting the link up:
Try that one. Copy and paste if you have to.
But I’d really like to see some reactions to that.
But back to the Catholic and Protestant versions of the Enlightenment, and why the US revolution was the first and last ever fought exactly on philosophy–later.
I’ve got to fear the snow.
Sometimes I think that the greatest bar to understanding is that we all think that we know what everything means.
I have no idea if that sentence made any real sense.
I do know what I’m trying to say, however, so maybe I’ll make it work better if I go at it that way.
We all tend to use words which we feel we have no need to define because “everybody” already knows what they mean.
It’s almost always the case, however, that a vast variety of words mean different things to different people even within a social subculture, and that they almost certainly mean different things over time.
I could get into a fairly big can of worms here just arguing this position in twenty-first century America–should local school districts be able to mandate teacher-led Christian prayers at the start of their school days? how about nondenominational prayers? how about student led prayers? should different states have the right to different laws on the official recognition of gay marriages?–
But right now, I want to talk about this issue as it played itself out in the 17th and 18th centuries in England, the (eventual) United States, and France.
For better of for worse, that was where the next clash and consolidation of religion and the liberal arts happened.
And contrary to AB’s declaration, philosophy had everything to do with it.
Let’s start, first, with the English (Scottish) Enlightenment, which grew out of the attempts of Calvinist reformers to find a way to stablize their societies by bringing “Greek learning” back together with Christian principles, and by finding a place where they could practice their religion in peace and freedom.
The word “prove,” for instance, tends to be used these days to mean “show to be true.” In Elizabethan England, the word meant “test.” So that what seems to be a nonsensical piece of puffery (“the exception that proves the rule”) actually makes perfect sense if you get the definitions right. Exceptions do not show the rule to be true. Exceptions test the true-ness of the rule.
One of the words that never really gets defined or examined is the word “free.” We are all convinced that we know what “free” means, which is probably why we’re always so convinced that we can bring it to other people in other places whose cultures, religions and habits of mind are nothing at all like ours.
To the extent that we have a common understanding of “freedom” at all, however, that understanding is essentially Greco-Roman. And the Greeks and the Romans–and the American revolutionaries and the French ones–understood something we mostly no longer do: that an atomized freedom is not felt, by most people, to be freedom at all.
Robert Nozick had a famous insight into this in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he pointed out that it is never enough to allow each individual to go his own way. That way will be inevitably be restricted by the dominant tenure of the culture at large. Therefore, if people are to be free, they must be able to retreat into conclaves of their own where the world will operate by their own chosen rules. They must be able to opt out of the society as a whole in radical ways.
Now, I have more than a few problems with this formulation of freedom. To some extent, we can see it already working, in such things as the accommodations we make to allow the Amish to live as Amish. On the other hand, I not only don’t want to see a little enclave of conservative Muslims operating on shari’a law, complete with beheadings for apostasy and homosexuality, in Detroit. I not only think that would be a bad thing to allow because it’s not law I agree with. I think it would be an objectively bad thing for the country as a whole. In the end, I think this country depends on the extent to which it defends individuals as individuals, not as members of groups.
I could get myself into a big can of worms here, just by referencing a few modern issues–should a community be able to decide to start each school day with a Christian prayer? what about a nondemoninational prayer? should different states be able to have different laws about whether to official recognize gay marriages?
At some point or the other, I’d be more than happy to get into things like that. In fact, I make it practically an avocation.
At the moment, though, I want to look at the attempts of seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestant communities to be able to practice their religion in peace and freedom.
And the issue isn’t nearly as clearcut at you would think.
It was one of the commonpace cheap shots of my generation to say that the Puritans came to American because of religious bigotry–their own.
But Nozick is at least partially right. Being allowed to think whatever you want to think and practice your religion as an individual in concert with other individuals isn’t the same thing as being free to order your community according to the principles on which you think it should be run.
And it was this definition of political freedom–the right of a political community to rule itself by its own principles–that was the one the Greeks handed down to us, and to Plimouth Plantation.
The point of the founding of the original English colonies in New England was not that they should be beacons of individual freedom of conscience, but that they should be free self-governing Puritan states.
Climate matters, and the intent was not simply to be able to worship in church without being rousted by the authorities, but to create a world in which Puritan precepts and principles were the prevailing structure of civil life.
No Puritan would have understood the modern idea of religious puralism in a religiously neutral secular state. They would have assumned that such a thing was unrealizable in practice, and a fair number of modern Americans would agree with them still.
They also would have thought that such a thing was a bad idea. They–and the Catholics–would have called it “indifferentism.” It meant not only that the state would not enforce the precepts of true religion, but that even the secular laws of such a state would tend to undermine religion, morality, and secular government itself.
It’s the dilemma of trying to raise conservatively moral children in a world where MTV is a click away on the television–and birth control is available at the school nurse’s office.
The point I’m blithering around at here is this: both the Protestants and the Catholics spent these two centuries attempting to be “free” by this definition of freedom, by attempting to create communities that mirrored and enforced their relgious commitments.
Both of them felt that unaniminity in religious and cultural matters was vitally important for the health of the state and the individuals in it.
And I feel like I’ve gone completely all the rails.
More tomorrow, maybe.
On the liberal arts and the creation of a self governing people, yet again.
Back on track.
A long way back there, I said that it was possible to look over the course of history and see where the provision of a liberal arts education where none had been before–or a very weak version of which had been before–was followed by an overall improvement of the basic morals of society at large.
And since society is made up of individuals, and the overall moral improvement of society cannot come about unless at least some individuals (and probably lots of them) are also showing moral improvement, then the fact that individuals improve in periods where a liberal arts education is vigorously offered and pursued is at least indicative of there being some kind of connection between the two.
It is also of at least some interest that the men and women who re-introduced liberal learning to their societies at least believed that a re-introduction would result in elevated moral functioning by the citizens around them.
There are going to be enough of you out there who will say that correlation is not causation, and that not only I, but the men who made these arguments in the 18th century, are engaging in an orgy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
About the men of the 18th century, that may be true. I think I’m a little more circumspect.
However that works out, however, I need to point out one thing: no matter what you’ve been told, there were two Enlightenments, not one.
And those two Enlightenments came out of what had become, over the previous hundred odd years, very different religious, philosophical, cultural and material environments.
And that was true even though it took nearly to the start of the 18th century and the rise of the Enlightenments (plural) to pull the two parties to the dispute apart.
Except, of course, that by that time there were many more than two parties. There was a joke when I was a child that went: any time you get three Greeks together, you have seven political parties.
This is, after all, the civilization the Greeks made, and it was always that even in its Christian incarnations.
And all the parties to the dispute shared one common circumstance: they were witnesses to the violent upheavals of the wars of religion and everything that went with them.
This was the period of the great witch hunts–not the Middle Ages, but here, as everybody and his brother insisted that the lady next door (or, yes, her huband) were sleeping with the devil, and you could know that because she said the Hail, Mary or stayed away from the confessional or…
There were lots of ors.
The Protestant reformers turned out to have been very wrong about the most basic thing.
It was not the case that every man could read the Bible for himself and see the “plain” meaning of it. The meaning turned out to be not so plain, and instead of a vast sea of Christians living in spiritual equality and all practicing religion as Christ had commanded it, what we got was forty new Churches a year, each with its own idea of what the Bible “plainly” said.
And there was no end to it in sight, and no indication that there could ever be an end.
And that’s where each side of the discussion turned back to the idea of the liberal arts, but did it in its own particular way.
And the particular ways mattered.
For Catholics, the purpose of bringing back liberal education was to use it to shore up the central teaching authority of the Church.
Priests, being armed with better educations than the people in the pews, would also be better able to refute heresies and squash any rebellious attempts to assert the “right” of individuals to their own interpretations.
Catholicism was always about centralized authority, the Church (meaning now the body with Christ at its head, including the clergy and the laity and the religious, as well as the souls in Paradise and the souls in Purgatory)–the Church speaking in “one voice.”
One voice could be attained in only one way–if there was Authority at the top, with all the rest following “docilely” underneath.
What’s more, such unanimity was important. Without it, there was nothing but confusion, and the constant danger that the whole world would be turned over to the Devil and his everlasting torments. A man preaching something other than the Church’s understanding of religion was not following his conscience. He was a stalking horse for hell, and if he was left free to make his case he would drag many more souls down into the pit with him.
The Protestants had a similar understanding of the damages done by heretics. If you don’t believe me, go look at what various Protestant communities did to the Quakers and the Baptists among them.
What the Protestants did not have was an ingrained need to assert and enforce a centralized authority about religion or anything else. At the core of the Protestant idea was that precept–that every man and woman could read the Bible and know what it meant himself, without the intervention of a Church’s teaching authority.
It was not comfortable that, having installed their idea of religion in various countries of the world, those countries seemed to be landing in just the chaotic mess the Catholic Church had prophesied they would.
The elders of the various Protestant Churches began to bring back liberal learning in the hope that it would cure the chaos–with the thought that by better training the minds of clergymen and laymen alike, those minds would see clearly the outlines of “true religion,” and the chaos would settle into agreement.
Both the Catholics and the Protestants were, quite simply, wrong.
I think that, by its very nature, liberal learning leads not to unanimity but to diversity of opinion, belief and practice.
I think that applying the light of reason to a question that is anything but a simple material one will lead us, inevitably, into a situation where each researcher will have different perspectives, different inclinations, different focuses.
I think that the social sciences are not sciences not only because they were never meant to be–they were meant to be substitutes for religion–but because they could never be. There subject matter will not lend itself to real scientific investigation.
If you don’t like the word “choice” then call it whatever you do like–but nothing will get you out of the basic problem.
If we teach men and women to apply reason and logic to human problems, they will inevitable disagree with each other about what the solutions to those problems are.
They’ll do more than that. They’ll even disagree with each other about what those problems are.
The two Enlightenments arose as answers to this question: what do we do about the fact that reason and science will not produce social and religious unity about the most important questions in human life?
And Catholics and Protestants proceeded to act like Catholics and Protestants, even when they were calling themselves Philosophes and Deists.
More, with any luck, tomorrow.
I will get back to The Defense (Part 13?) in a day or two.
All I can say in my own defense–and it’s not much of a defense–is that dealing with the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation is the thing that makes me most nervous about that entire exposition. It’s the part I’m least sure of.
I’m on surer ground with results of the Counterreformation–but then, the effects of the Reformation include the founding of this country,and that founding (and the assumptions on which it was based) speak to these little asides, too.
So, just to make everybody unhappy:
Cathy says that when we train people in the “helping” professions (and I think the “helping” ALWAYS requires quotes) we try to teach them that the people they deal with are not inherently helpless, but it doesn’t usually take–
I don’t think it can take, for most of them. They are entering a profession in which it is in their best interests to have the largest possible number of people be permanently helpless. Helpless people create more work for helpers and more demand for new helpers. They expand the scope and power of helping agencies. They create pressure on governments to increase the funding for those agencies. They even increase the size and money accorded to programs to teach people to be helpers in those agencies.
I’m not saying I think this is conscious or deliberate. I just think the underlying structure of this situation is such that it will inevitably lead to pressure in one direction and one direction only: the direction of defining more and more human beings of being incapable of leading their lives without “help.”
This is why I have always said and still think that the best way to provide social welfare spending is in the form of a negative income tax/earned income tax credit–give them the money if they need it, then go away and leave them alone.
Since a NIT/EIC is dependant on your having income from work, that solves the work problem, too. You’ve got to have a W-2 form of you don’t get the benefit, and we don’t need an army of investigators to ensure that you’re not cheating.
We also won’t need an army of social workers trying to ensure that beneficiaries are running their lives in the standardly approved “right” way. More of the money could go to people who, you know, actually need money, and those people would not be required to pay for it in learned helplessness.
We could also have small social service departments meant to take care of people who are undeniably unable to do anything for themselves–but the emphasis would be on voluntary involvement with such services.
In other words, it’s only help if you ask for it, not if it’s forced on you.
And I’m with Robert on one very important thing–we should leave the interior lives of our citizens alone. I don’t want the government to have anything to do with my social, moral or ethical functioning. As long as I don’t commit any crimes and make my own living, they should be out of my–and my family’s–lives.
In the end, I just don’t think the government should be in the business of “fixing” people so that they function like the rest of us. I especially don’t think it should be in the business of doing that against the will of the individual involved, or as a condition of providing material aid.
The coercion bothers me in principle–it is, in a way, the establishment of a state Church, the Church of Normal Functioning, with “normal” decided by departments and bureaucracies outside of anybody’s control.
I don’t even like the idea of ordering people convicted of drug crimes into rehab. Offer rehab services if you want, but don’t make them part of a sentence or an incentive to getting parole.
If people voluntarily want to change the way they think, that’s one thing. If they don’t, they don’t, and they just keep getting arrested and ending up in jail.
Second–the students I teach, even the most remedial of the remedials, are by no means the bottom of anybody’s barrel.
They are, in fact, often the cream of the crop of their neighborhoods. Their schools may have had standards better fit for ten year olds than eighteen year olds, but they still had some standards, and my kids managed to meet them. They got themselves through four years of high school and at least nominally graduated, or they wouldn’t be in my classroom.
The bottom of the barrel is considerably less functional than this–they stopped going to school at twelve or fourteen, had their first child around the same time.
And I agree that we arrest people at too high a rate, and that we should legalize drugs and stop incarcerating huge swatches of young men for doing what I don’t think the Constitution gives the government the right to criminalize anyway. (Tell me again: why was it exactly that we needed a Constitutional amendment to outlaw liquor, but don’t need one to outlaw heroine and cocaine?)
But in spite of all that, the system as it exists creates a lot of learned helplessness, and it’s not necessarily “welfare” that does it. I’d give at least equal billing to the schools in these neighborhoods, where the key to getting extra money to help run the place often rests on your being able to prove that you have lots of children with “special needs.”
And some of those children will, of course, have “special needs.” But others will be there because the system encourages ever-expanding definitions of “disability.”
And defining children as “disabled” teaches them to look at themselves and their possibilities and their lives in a way that does not help them.
The same is true of demanding that people define themselves as having “disorders” the require “treatment” when they develop bad habits that are hard to break or when they have temperaments well within the range of the historically normal that are not the best way to approach life and need work to control.
Third, certainly it is true that there are free riders in all classes–but they are not all created equal.
If I have a ne’er do well Uncle Fred, it’s my choice to spend my money to keep him afloat–or not.
Just as it’s my choice to spend my money on The Da Vinci Code.
This is a far cry from demanding that other people should pay for my Uncle Fred whether they want to or not.
When you’re spending your money voluntarily, that is not–and should not be–any of my business. When you’re taking mine, it is.
Finally, I would not put the local drug dealer–or even the local petty thief–into the class I’m talking about here.
Both of those things take a certain amount of initiative.
So, it’s about five o’clock in the morning. I got home last night after ten, got to bed around midnight and got up this morning at 4:30. The 4:30 isn’t unusual, but it’s Friday, and that means I have to teach an eight o’clock.
You can ask me how I got into this crazy schedule, but the answer would be that I’m not entirely sure. I tend to say “yes” a lot when people sound like they’re in distress, and sometimes I don’t keep track of what I’m saying yes to.
Some of this was just a desperate attempt to save this idea I had, that I could aim myself at the kids who had the worst luck–who’d come from awful schools in awful neighborhoods where nobody was taking them seriously or even trying to provide them with an education on any definition of the term–that I could aim myself at those kids and give them a shot at something they mostly hadn’t had before: a teacher who actually knew something and cared about whether they learned it.
The remedial kids I teach are drowning in an ocean if bad-everything. I’ve seen some of their neighborhoods, and I’ve written about them here. It’s not just that their schools are bad and demand nothing of them–and by bad, I mean things like having half the textbooks they need and those out of date, buildings that are falling apart and sometimes dangerous to be in, no science courses because there are no science labs.
The problem is a world in which the name of the game is nearly infinite passivity. The politest of my kids–and some of them are very polite, the product of mothers who insisted–will sit quietly at their desks or computer stations, “not making a fuss” while they are unable to participate in class (or understand it) because their computer isn’t functioning or because they have no idea what is going on.
The less polite ones talk and text through class, fuzz off and pay no attention, tell jokes and talk right through the lectures, and do all the other things I was complaining about last night.
They’ll also tell you some very interesting things. One of those things is that they virtually all come from homes where there is more than one television. One kid in one class told me that there was a television in every room of his home except the bathrooms–and they’re big televisions, not my dinky $125 Wal-Mart special.
These televisions play all day and all night, even when people are sleeping. A lot of my kids say they can’t get to sleep at night without the noise.
And this wouldn’t necessarily be bad news, except that the televisions aren’t turned to anything that would be any help.
They watch a lot of Law and Order. They watch a lot of cop shows, music videos and reality tv, which is not about reality. They like Bad Girls Club and Basketball Wives and, especially, Jersey Shore. They don’t know the difference between state and federal law, or the names of their governor or their senators, or what it would take to outlaw abortion (which most of them want to do).
Sometimes, they come off as auditioning for a reality show based on welfare stereotypes–which is a good trick, because this state has stricter welfare requirements than most, and you’re stuck with a five-year lifetime limit.
Most of them tell me they’d go on welfare if they could, but that their mothers would stop talking to them if they got pregnant, and they’d have to get pregnant to get on welfare. They say that if they could get on welfare they’d sit back and laugh at their friends who were working, because the friends would be working to pay them for not working.
Sometimes, they sound like the kind of thing I thought only happened in Newt Gingrich’s fantasies.
Mostly, though, they just don’t care. They don’t care enough even about making a lot of money to actually want to do anything.
I’m not sure of a lot, but I’m sure that people like this cannot build and run a country. They cannot build and run a corner grocery store. I’m not sure most of them would last a week working at McD’s.
And I’m getting to this very weird place where I’ve started wondering why, if they don’t care, I should.
And now it’s time for me to bolt for the car if I’m going to get to class.
Hi. This has nothing to do with anything, except that I’m sitting here proctoring a final exam in a night class. And I like his class. They’re adults. They’re serious.
This afternoon wasn’t so wonderful. In two classes, one for upperclassmen, nobody–and I mean nobody–knew who Gadhaffi was. I just don’t know if that’s how we’re spelling it.
What was worse was the thing that makes me sometimes feel that this is not worthwhile. That’s my one remedial class, where they don’t bother to take notes, don’t know how to use Blackboard, won’t bother to ask in the writing center to find out, won’t buy their books, and then when they’re given an assignment suddenly freak an go “but that’s not in the book.”
Apparently a fair number of teachers just read out of the textbook. I don’t.
I am, at any rate, really depressed at the moment. And it’s late. And I have to get up VERY early tomorrow.
And I’ll miss this class I’ve got right now.
It wasn’t a rhetorical question, it was a snarky one.
But I’ll stick by my account, because it’s accurate, and the Albigensian Heresy is evidence of that accuracy.
I never said that the Roman Catholic Church did not punish heretics before the Counterreformation, I said that the Counterreformation was the period of the great Inquisitions, and it was.
The Cathars (which is what the Albigensians were called by most people) are famous precisely because they’re unique. They represent the only attempt to wipe out an entire group of laypeople for heresy in the High Middle Ages.
The High Middle Ages definitely saw heresy trials and heresy convictions and heresy executions, but there were relatively few of them, and the Church maintained no office charged with seeking such people out, at least as long as they weren’t clergy. Laypeople were, by and large, secure in their persons, as the saying goes, unless they did something specifically to make a fuss.
Priests and people in religious life (monks and nuns) were under closer scrutiny, which makes sense, because they were the official representatives of the Church to the people.
But even with that scrutiny, the lattitude given to not-quite-orthodox religious ideas was fairly broad, and the latitude given to secular ideas was expansive.
Unlike Islam, Christianity found a way to “baptize” “Greek learning” and make considerable progress with it. Clergy and religious as well as laypeople engaged in scientific and philosophical inquiry without being harassed by authorities, and often while being supported by them.
Copernicus’s studies were largely funded by one Pope and disseminated by another. Aquinas died on his way to testify at an inquiry into his studies, which was brought because one of his rivals claimed (falsely) that he was preaching that God was not omnipotent–but in the Middle Ages such inquiries were more often resolved in favor of the defendant than against him.
And the inquiry into Thomas’s work was definitely decided in favor ot it, not against it. He was canonized only fifty years after his death and his work has been treated–and officially acknowledged by the Catholic Church–as the best work for the preparation of priests.
What went on in the Counterreformation was very different.
Not only were heresy charges brought against large groups of individuals at once, but they were largely brought against laypeople.
And unlike either inquiries or even heresy trials in the Middle Ages, the ones in the Counterreformation were largely kangaroo courts. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. There was such a frenzy of bloodletting that it became easy cover for taking revenge on your enemies or for appropriating property.
(A good majority of the persecution during the Spanish Inquistion was a cover for the Spanish crown’s wholesale expropriation of the property of Jewish converts to Christianity.)
And, by the way, that sort of thing went on on both sides.
What’s more, the Reformation and Counterreformation saw much more involvement in these things by secular rulers and secular states. The Spanish Inquisition itself was a project of the Spanish Crown, not of the Spanish Church, although they Church was happy to approve it.
The final thing, of course, was the fact that in the Counterreformation, the Church turned inward. Most of the heretics lived in countries that had gone over completely to their heresies–most Protestants lived in Protestant states. That left the Church with a much smaller territory to police and a much smaller population to purify, and it did so by ripping to shreds practically everything it had learned in the High Middle Ages.
No Catholic country ever again became the focal point of Western Civiliation, not even France in the days when everybody loved the art.
I’m going to go finish off the day somehow.
I’ve got a lot of running around to do.
Every time I start talking about these things, I get to this place and find myself stymied.
We are all taught, in schools–or used to be taught–a great deal about the Renaissance and something about the Middle Ages. A lot of what we’re taught is wrong, but we at least get the idea that there were such eras.
We are taught virtually nothing about the Reformation or the Counterreformation, not even the fact that those terms are the Protestant ones for the events of that period. The Catholics didn’t think that what the Protestants did was “reform.” They called it apostasy.
The Reformation/Counterreformation was not the first period in Western Civiliation when the liberals arts came smashing down and were replaced by a largely anti-intellectual form of religion.
Something very similar happened after the fall of Rome, when Christianity spread and eventually became the common cultural paradigm. There is enough fulminating about the evils of Pagan learning in the works of the early Church Fathers to keep an atheist blog busy for a year. Even Augustine, one of the great Humanists of his or any other era, couldn’t quite get rid of the feeling that the very Greek learning he had been raise on had been the cause of his moral failings right up to the point where he accepted Christ.
The Reformation and the Counterreformation were virulent in a way that previous eras of anti-intellectual reaction were not.
This was, I think, mostly a matter of the perceived stakes: men and women were playing for eternity, and the eternity they were playing for was unforgiving. Get religion right and you spend forever in paradise. Get it wrong, and you spend forever in unremitting horror and pain.
What’s more, every man was playing, in this, not only for himself, but for his fellow men.
This was not an era when the separation of church and state as we conceive it was even conceivable, never mind viewed as desirable. Nor were the inclinations of the Protestant reformers anything like in that direction.
In fact, they were firmly in the opposite direction. The very first idea of a separation of church and state in the West–of religion being independent of government–was in fact the early and medieval Christian Church. It meant not that the Church should keep out of politics, but that politics should be kept out of the Church. It meant as well that clergy did not rule government, that they were, as the French liked to put it, a separate “estate.”
Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, however, wanted a much closer relationship between Church and State.
They wanted not only for the Church to be established. All Churches were established. They wanted the Church to be publicly committed to the health and well being of the particular nations that had established it, and to be so to those states individually, rather than to something called “Christendom” as a whole.
This was, in fact, one of the advantages Protestantism offered the sovereigns of Europe. Under the Catholic dispensation, a single organization oversaw the spiritual needs of the entire continent. When one Christian Prince was at odds with another, the Church took sides. Which side it took could be manipulated by bribery, relationships and force of arms.
Under the Protestant dispensation, the Church in Germany was loyal to Germany, and the Church in England was loyal to England. Spiritual and temporal power were brought closer together and more closely identified with each other.
What is important to us here, however, is that neither side was very fond of Christian Humanism and the liberal arts in this period. For the Reformers, the liberal arts had corrupted the Church and turned it into a tool of Satan. For Catholics, the liberal arts had fostered doubt about authority and threatened the very idea of hierarchy.
They were both right.
I don’t think that the devil is always in the details, but in this case it definitely was.
In Catholic countries, the first order of business became to shore up authority as authority. It was the very structure of the Church that had been threatened and nearly brought down. The first order of business was to assert and maintain the right of Rome to rule, of the Pope and the bishops to define the Faith and to serve as the gatekeepers to the kingdom of God.
“You are Peter,” Christ said, and gave the Apostle the right and power to forgive (or refuse to forgive) sins.
And, of course, in upholding this right and power, the Catholic Church implicitly upheld the right of secular monarchs to rule. There was and could be no question of equality of power or status among men of all classes.
Virtually everything in the Enlightenment’s account of the depredations of the Catholic Church in its encounter with “science” (meaning all secular learning) is true–but only about the Church of the Counterreformation.
In the Counterreformation, the Catholic Church turned on itself and its own traditions–traditions that had lasted for centuries–and went about dismantling them piece by piece.
This is the period of the great Inquisitions, Spanish and otherwise. All theoretical theology was stopped cold. You parrotted the party line without deviation in any direction or you put your life at risk. The monastic orders–the great engines of Medieval intellectual advance–were scrutinized and tightened up. Any practices that seemed to imply a criticism of the way the Church operated were rooted out when possible and harrassed when not. John of the Cross was thrown in prison for helping Teresa of Avila with her reform of the Carmelite order. Teresa escaped only because she had the ear of the Pope. Still, it was embarrassing–all those nuns and priests going around without shoes and living in abject poverty when bishops and Popes lived in palaces and ate better at table than kings.
Over the course of the next hundred years, the Catholic Church largely trashed its entire intellectual tradition. What was left of the liberal arts in Catholic Europe could be divided into two parts: the books on the Index that nobody was supposed to read, and the works of Thomas Aquinas. They should be forever grateful to Aquinas. By the time they got through banishing everything they thought was a danger to the faith, Aquinas was their only route back into the secular core of Western Civiliation.
In the meantime, the Protestants had a deeper and more abiding problem. Luther was not a fan of egalitarianism. He wanted to uphold authority, order and hierarchy just as much as any Catholic did.
The very foundation of the Protestant idea, however, was inherently opposed to such authority and hierarchy. If every man and woman could read the Bible and understand it for himself, without benefit of the Church magisterium, why couldn’t he just as well decide on everything else, such as what laws there would be, or who should be the head of the state?
If you go looking for a timeline, you’ll be surprised to find how early such ideas began to crop up. In fact, much to the horror of people like Luther, they’re there from the very beginning.
And, what was worse, everything about Protestantism tended to push the edge of acceptable challenge to hierarchy.
There was, for instance, the matter of reading. For Protestants, the important thing was to read the Bible and hear the word of God for yourself. You couldn’t do that if you couldn’t read. Protestant Churches across northern Europe therefore embarked on a vast drive to make the people literate, all the people if they could.
They did a very good job. Such a good job, that the people so made literate were disinclined to restrict their reading to the Bible and a few approved commentaries on it.
What’s more, having before them the example of the great Reformers themselves, they were disinclined to be told that their personal interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and very, very disinclined to accept any authority trying to force them to denounce what they’d decided to believe.
Religious dissent went from being a horrible stain on the honor of a nation–a nation who couldn’t keep the deposit of faith uncorrupt–to a hero narrative of its own. In that same hundred years when the Catholics were trashing their intellectual tradition, the Protestants were (mostly unintentionally) developing a new narrative of their own: the narrative of the heroic believe who will not bend in his full-throated witness to the truth even if the entire weight of the world stands against him.
They didn’t invent these ideas wholesale, of course. Christ himself gave witness to the truth unto death. What they did do is to apply this narrative to ordinary people, now, not just to an extraordinary age while Christ was on earth.
And it has been the dominant narrative of the West ever since.
In the meantime, several figures in Catholic Europe began to feel that the Church had gotten badly off track. A few of them tried hard to set up systems to teach their own people to read. St. Vincent de Paul started the Daughters of Charity to do just that–but he had to do it in secret and in opposition to Rome, who didn’t want the masses literate and who didn’t want nuns who worked in the world instead of being cloistered away from it.
The Catholics got there, eventually, but it was eventually. And they never did pick up the ferocious individualism of the Protestant understanding of the principle of the primacy of conscience, even if the principle had been Catholic dogma since the Middle Ages.
Then everybody went to war over religion, inside states as well as between them.
On the other side of that, the liberal arts came back–but they came back in different ways in the two parts of Europe, and they resulted in two very different kinds of Enlightenment.
I need tea.
This week end is not going to be as productive as others have been, because I’ve got things to do and not a lot of time to blog.
But it occurred to me yesterday that I know of something that might help to illustrate the decadence of the Renaissance and the way in which the liberal arts were being transformed during that period from what they began as (the education that makes a self governing people) to what they always become in decadent periods (a form of accessory for the rich and their followers).
There was a man in the early Renaissance named Pier Paolo Vergerio. He’s little read or known now, but in his lifetime he was something of a major deal. He was renowned as a scholar, and taught at three or four of the major universities, including Bologna, the most prestigious one.
In 1402, he published a small book called, in Latin, Di Ingenuis Moribus. I went looking for a translation this morning, but I couldn’t find one. I didn’t have a lot of time to look, though, so you may have more luck. My guess is that Loeb will probably have a dual language edition of it.
At any rate, the point about this book is this: it is a guide to what studies should be undertaken by “freeborn youths” in order to develop “noble minds.”
The intent, in other words, is the same as that claimed by John of Salisbury and Hugh of St. Victor almost two hundred years earlier.
The intent is the same, but the content is not.
It doesn’t take long to realize that when Vergerio says “noble,” he’s not talking about nobility of mind but nobility of earthly station. Where Hugh and John wanted to make “great souls” whose very existence would result in (as the Jesuits would later say) “the greater glory of God,” what Vergerio wanted was to make sure that young men of “good family” were educated in a way that emphasized their upper-class status and made them an asset in the company of other men and women of high birth.
And although Vergerio says that such youths should be taught to value learning over wealth and status, it’s not because he thinks that wisdom lies in despising temporal advantage, but because he thinks it’s vulgar for to chase after such things. After all, the truly noble youth is born to wealth and status. He doesn’t have to seek it. Anybody who does have to seek it is, well, obviously declasse.
The kicker comes in the way in which Vergerio describes the course of studies such young men should persue.
Should he study art? Well, to an extent–after all, it’s a noble activity to buy statues and vases, and studying art will help the noble youth recognize the real thing and reject fakes, so he’s not cheated by salesmen. As for all that other stuff, perspective and color and that kind of thing, that’s for ordinary tradesmen, painters and people like that. It would harm the noble youth’s mind to know it.
The judgments go like that on subject after subject. Medicine? Absolutely not, that’s for butchers. Literature? Absolutely, that gives examples of noble people acting nobly for him to follow.
And then there’s the level of the work itself. Noble youths should not be required to work too hard or too much. As freeborn members of the better classes, they are born with high spirits and a natural dislike of being “yoked” to the grinding drudgery of work.
They should be given ample time to express their natural high spirits, and to compete in “noble contests” like wrestling and other sports.
This from the man who was probably the preeminent scholar of his day, and one of the most important and influential educators.
He sounds like the headmaster of one of those private schools where self-expression is the beginning and end of education and standardized tests are verboten because they might stifle the students’ creative flow.
I’ve got to go teach class.
Maybe more tomorrow.
I have looked at the comments, and beyond what’s obvious–I’m getting a little tired of being presented with demands to provide “evidence” of a fairly standard historical account by someone who never provides any evidence of anything at all, just assertions–
And I’ve decided the following:
I will in fact stick with the standard historical and academic accounts of the period between the Fall of Rome in the 5th Century and the Reformation and Counterreformation in the 16th.
That would make the period between the Fall of Rome and the investiture of Charlemagne the “Dark Ages” or what is known academically as the “early Middle Ages,” the period between that and the 15th century the Middle Ages proper (sometimes called the High Middle Ages for the period between that and the 15th Century, and the Renaissance follows that.
And yes, of course, I know no historical age halts abrutply. And yes, I’ve been saying since this started that what we’re looking for is evolution, which means there are no abrupt beginnings and endings.
But to try to label an event–the signing of the Magna Carta, say–that occurred smack in the middle of the Crusades as being part of the Renaissance is something worse than ludicrous.
And I will say that no matter what personal commitments Machiavelli might have had, what this culture took from him and embraced was realpolitik–which is why when you describe a political policy as “Machiavellian” you’re not talking about limited government and the rise of representative politics.
That said–please note that I never claimed that the Renaissance was “stagnant.” What I did claim that it was decadent, and that’s undeniable.
It was not just the increasing corruption of government and religion, which was destructive enough. It was the entire screeching narcissism of a culture of money. Cultures of money are always narcissistic, and they always trade substance for style. There’s the endless mania for acquiring more and more “stuff,” along with the obsession with displaying it in public. There’s the casual acceptance of a kind of opportunism that, although practiced in all ages, tends to be considered shameful in periods when money is not the one and only point.
The career of Francis Bacon is illustrative on that last point.
And there was, of course, the art. Decadent periods tend to be good for two things: the art, and individual genius. Think of it being one of those great flares of light that happen when the transformer blows up down the street. In the long term, it’s dead.
Yes, there was some (steady) progress in some of the sciences, and a lot of progress in art–but the Renaissance is a picture of a society that had lost its belief in itself.
Petrarch’s beloved Christian Humanism, which had originally been an attempt to wed Christian virtue to Pagan science, became, for most of the people who claimed it, mostly an accessory. Rich men had palaces so that the people could see how well they lived, clothes threaded through with strands of gold so that the people could see how little they cared about money, and culture so that the people could how very different and superior they were to the ordinary common men who were supposed to be their fellow citizens.
As for evidence–I give you any history of the Medicis, or the Borgias, or any history of the fate of Florence in the Quatrocento, which, far from being an early model of Republican government, was ruled by its great families as absolutely as any monarchy.
And when changes in the government came, they came increasingly through assassination and conspiracy rather than through elections or council meetings.
And if you want evidence of that, I suggest you compare what happened to Dante in Florentine politics with what happened to and through Lorenzo di Medici. Dante was a figure of the Middle Ages. Lorenzo was a figure of the Renaissance.
(Oh, an aside–there’s a nice little book out there on the subject of the attempted assassination of one of the Medicis, called April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against The Medici, by Lauro Martines. He’s one of the most respected Renaissance scholars in the world, and the book is concise and–well, illustrative. Welcome to decadence.)
The Reformation (and the Counterreformation) happened because, faced with a counter-movement increasingly unhappy with the corruption of both religious and secular institutions, the Humanists themselves were increasingly unable to defend the society that Humanism had built.
In fact, not only were they unable to defend it, they often seemed embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Even great Humanists like Erasmas–who surely did try–couldn’t deny the corruption, debauchery, violence, opportunism, and immorality that had taken hold even in the Church.
I think it’s a reasonable question to ask if there is something about a liberal arts education–which is, after all, what Christian Humanism was all about–that inevitably leads to such decadance, or that makes such decadance more likely.
Certainly many people over the centuries have thought so, starting at least with Augustine (and plausibly going back to Cicero) and including such disparate figures as Martin Luther and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
When periods of Humanism end, they always end in the same place: in periods of resurgent religion.
And it’s not really difficult to understand why this happens.
Events are driven not by “everybody” and what they want, but by a small subsection of the population that cares passionately about how things work out and is willing to fight for it. Religion is a powerful motivator for people like that, and that’s true whether you’re talking about traditional religion or the secular political faux-religions we’ve gotten used to lately.
And the liberal arts tradition is a powerful pull away from religious certainty, because it stresses a comprehensive knowledge of all the ideas that have been central to this civilization and a spirit of open inquiry into them.
There is a natural tension here. It may not be resolvable in the long run.
But it left people like Luther and Zwingli with a problem–the liberal arts tradition led to the corruption of manners, morals, and religion; but lack of the liberal arts tradition led to narrowness and no less heresy than before.
In fact, Luther and Zwingli were products of a somewhat dumbed down version of Christian Humanism, and it soon began to look to them as if chucking out the whole of the liberal arts left Christians less capable than they should be of a “proper” interpretation of Scripture.
And that’s why, after the crash–the liberal arts came back again.
But more on that tomorrow. It’s my Day from Hell.