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Point Counterpoint (The Defense, Part 13)

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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.

Written by janeh

October 16th, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Point Counterpoint (The Defense, Part 13)'

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  1. This is all pretty well period history as I understand it, too. But I would like to shade just a little the notion that something new started with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the reaction to them. Jan Hus is burnt alive in 1415 along with his writings. Jean Wycliffe is also codemmed to be burnt with his writings the same year, and since he was already dead, they had to dig him up in order to burn him. Note this is all pre-Guttenberg as well, and no one that I can find says “this set a new precedent.” Make Rome uncomfortable with your research and reasoning, and a stake in the town square was a very real possibility even in more liberal periods.

    I think what we’re seeing in the 16th Century is a general tightening-up and drawing-in. This happens when a community feels itself under siege. Christians and Jews were, across the board, much better off in the Islamic world during its zenith than they have been during its decline, and Muslims and Jews have (mostly) been better off in Western Europe at its political and military peak than they were during the Middle Ages.

    But that does suggest that when the Roman establishment felt itself threatened, the liberal arts were something expendable, and not a core to be defended.

    Concerning the Protestants, I’m in pretty well complete agreement–the implications of their doctrines took them places they did not foresee, and places the leadership had no desire for them to go. Principles are like that.


    16 Oct 11 at 1:29 pm

  2. At the risk of starting a firestorm, reading about the Protestants, started me thinking about the US and the Tea Party.

    Suppose you teach everyone to read, make Social Studies compulsory, and include economics and the Constitution in Social Studies. Will people continue to tamely accept the Supreme Court and Keynsian economics or will they decide to go with their own ideas?


    16 Oct 11 at 6:43 pm

  3. jd, I’d be willing to make the experiment, but I can’t see an honest effort at teaching American history or economics–let alone the Constitution–being much favored by our elementary and secondary teachers. Most of them don’t know the subjects well enough to teach them, for one thing.
    They’re happy to tell children what they should think, but not what they should know–those pesky factual bits like enumerated powers, for instance.


    16 Oct 11 at 7:19 pm

  4. When exactly was the Albigensian Crusade?


    16 Oct 11 at 7:19 pm

  5. Albigensian Crusade 1209–1229 according to Wikipedia


    16 Oct 11 at 8:38 pm

  6. The question was rhetorical.


    16 Oct 11 at 9:31 pm

  7. ab, you’ve lost me completely. What does the Albignesian Crusade have to do with the Protestant Reformation?


    17 Oct 11 at 12:48 am

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