Tag Archives: Enlightenment

The Parthenon Enigma

Preparing for the Sacrifice?  

“Athenians,” St. Paul begins his famous sermon in the Book of Acts, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That basic fact about ancient Athens–that it was, in classicist Joan Breton Connelly’s words, an “intensely religious” society–mostly escapes us today. Since the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to see Athens as the prototype of rationalism and liberal democracy. That’s why so many civic buildings in America, like the Supreme Court in Washington and Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, take as their model the most famous Athenian structure of all: the Parthenon.

In a provocative new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf), Connelly argues that the Enlightenment view is wrong, or at least crucially incomplete. One cannot understand the Parthenon, she says, without appreciating the central role religion had in Athenian life. Yes, the Parthenon was a political building. But in ancient Athens, politics, like everything else, was an extension of religion. To be an Athenian was to share an imagined identity as a descendant of Erechtheus, a legendary king born of a union (sort of) between the god Hephaistos and Mother Earth. Athenian citizenship, she writes, “was a concept whose sense extended far beyond our notions of politics, positing a mythic ‘deep time’ and a cosmic reality in which the citizen could not locate himself or understand his existence except through religious awareness and devotions.”

The centerpiece of Connelly’s book is a reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze. Since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has held that the frieze commemorates a civic festival known as the Panathenaia. Connelly argues, however, based in part on a recently discovered manuscript of a lost work by the playwright Euripides, that the frieze in fact commemorates the myth of Erechtheus and his daughters, one of whom offers herself as a human sacrifice to save the city. (The word “Parthenon,” it turns out, means “place of the maidens”). This reading of the frieze, she argues, resolves some puzzling aspects of the conventional understanding–for example, other Greek temples, without exception, depict myths, not civic festivals–and better fits what we know of the history, legendary and otherwise, of the Acropolis, the famous hill on which the Parthenon sits.

Unless one is a classicist, it’s going to be very hard to evaluate her claim. Much depends on the correct interpretation of the section of the frieze in the photograph above. Is that Erechtheus on the right, giving his daughter a burial shroud? Connelly certainly provides a lot of detail. But, detail or not, this is a fun and worthwhile book, and its central argument about the overwhelming religiosity of Athens is compelling. Turns out St. Paul was right.

Assmann, “Religio Duplex”

0745668429This February, Polity Press will publish Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion by Jan Assmann (University of Konstanz). The publisher’s description follows.

In this important new book, the distinguished Egyptologist Jan Assmann provides a masterful overview of a crucial theme in the religious history of the West – that of ‘religio duplex’, or dual religion. He begins by returning to the theology of the Ancient Egyptians, who set out to present their culture as divided between the popular and the elite. By examining their beliefs, he argues, we can distinguish the two faces of ancient religions more generally: the outer face (that of the official religion) and the inner face (encompassing the mysterious nature of religious experience).

Assmann explains that the Early Modern period witnessed the birth of the idea of dual religion with, on the one hand, the religion of reason and, on the other, that of revelation. This concept gained new significance in the Enlightenment when the dual structure of religion was transposed onto the individual. This meant that man now owed his allegiance not only to his native religion, but also to a universal ‘religion of mankind’.

In fact, argues Assmann, religion can now only hold a place in our globalized world in this way, as a religion that understands itself as one among many and has learned to see itself through the eyes of the other. This bold and wide-ranging book will be essential reading for historians, theologians and anyone interested in the nature of religion and its role in the shaping of the modern world.

Leopardiana

John Gray has an incisive and learned comment on the occasion of the firstLeopardi English translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone–partly a notebook of commentary and partly a diary from this brilliantly melancholy Romantic mind. Much of Gray’s commentary considers Leopardi’s relationship to Enlightenment rationalism, on the hand, and Christianity, on the other. For those with an interest in Leopardi’s political thought, may I also recommend Joshua Foa Dienstag’s superb discussion of Leopardi in his Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit.

Probably Leopardi’s poetry (his “Canti” especially) is the best known of his corpus, but my favorite of his work has always been Le Operette Morali or “Little Moral Tales.” These have been translated into English before, and for some years, I have set myself the project of doing a new translation. Let’s just say it’s in progress.

Here is a translation (Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs) of the opening passages from the first of the Operette Morali, “The Story of the Human Race”:

The story is told that all the men who first peopled the earth were created everywhere at the same time, and all as infants, and were nourished by bees, goats, and doves, as the poets describe in their fable about the nurture of Jove. They say, too, that the earth was much smaller than it is now, and all the land was flat, that the sky was starless, that there was no sea, and that there was much less variety and magnificence in the world than we see there now. But men, nevertheless, delighted in the pleasure they took in regarding and considering the earth and sky with great wonder, thinking them most beautiful, and not only vast but infinite in size, majesty, and loveliness; and they also nourished very joyous hopes, deriving an incredible delight from all their awareness of this life, and became most contented, so that they almost believed in happiness.

Having thus passed their childhood and early youth most sweetly and having reached a riper age, a change came over them. For their hopes, which they had postponed from day to day until then, had not yet been realized, so that they lost faith in them. And they did not feel that they could still be content with what they were then enjoying, without some promise of an increase of happiness, particularly as the appearance of nature and of every part of their daily life–whether because they had become accustomed to them, or because their spirits were no longer so lively as they had once been–no longer seemed as delightful and pleasing to them as in the beginning. They wandered about the earth visiting very distant regions–for they could do so easily, since the land was flat and not divided by seas or any other impediments–and after many years most of them became aware that the earth, even though it was large, had definite boundaries, instead of ones so vast that one could not define them; and that, but for a few very slight differences, all the places in the earth and all its inhabitants were just alike. And their discontent increased so much on this account that, though their youth was scarcely at an end, they were all overcome by a conscious distaste for their own nature. And in their manhood, and still more as their years declined, their satiety was converted into hatred, so that some of them came to be so despairing that they were no longer able to bear the light and the life they had at first loved so much, and thus of their own accord–some in one way, some in another–they brought their life to an end.

It seemed terrible to the gods that living creatures should prefer death to life, and that–without the compulsion of necessity–they should become the instruments of their own destruction….Therefore, Jove, having decided–since it seemed to be necessary–to improve the human condition and to help it to further the pursuit of happiness, reached the conclusion that the chief human complaint was that things were not as beautiful, various, and perfect as they had believed at first, but instead were very restricted, imperfect, and monotonous….

For Jove’s strategy to cure this state of depression and “noia” (ultimately unsuccessful, I’m afraid), get yourself a copy of Le Operette Morali!

Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I

To this point, we have seen that Tocqueville believes that religion is necessary to the well-being of society, and especially to market democracies. Since the religious sentiment is natural to human beings, religion should flourish when it does not lend itself to exploitation by the State. But the natural tendency toward religious belief is weakened or even overcome by a competing passion for wealth. Because American democracy celebrates and encourages the pursuit of wealth, our democracy exerts a ceaseless, grinding pressure that gradually wears down our religion. Thus, American democracy has a built-in disposition to destroy a necessary condition of its own existence. To guard against that, Tocqueville urges American leaders and opinion-makers to surround religion with their protection – without, however, enmeshing it in the State. If they are wise, they will understand that our religion is “the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times.” Democracy in America at 633 (Bevan trans.). “It is vital that all those who are involved in the future of democratic societies unite together and . . . diffuse throughout these societies the taste for the infinite, the appreciation of greatness, and the love of spiritual pleasures.” Id. at 632.

But what, exactly, are the doctrines of the “religion” that Tocqueville considers necessary for the proper functioning of American democracy? Granted, America in the period of his visit was overwhelmingly a Protestant Christian nation, and would surely remain so for the foreseeable future. But Tocqueville does not contend that American democracy depended on the vitality of Protestantism. Instead, in an important chapter entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” he argues that “[t]he belief in a spiritual and immortal principle united for a time with matter is . . . indispensable to man’s greatness.” Id. at 633. That is, he appears at first to argue that a prevalent belief in one religious doctrine — the immortality of the human soul — is the irreducible minimum required for a healthy democracy. He does not, however, mention here any other doctrine that is characteristic of Christianity, Protestant or other, even the existence of God.

Furthermore, when read closely, Tocqueville does not even insist on the belief in immortality, as Christianity has traditionally taught it. Rather, he indicates that the belief which he considers necessary need not extend to “the idea of rewards and punishments” after bodily death, nor even that the “divine principle” that survives death be understood as personal: it would suffice if most citizens believe that that the soul was “absorbed in God or transformed to bring life to some other creature.” Id. Thus, he says that it is better for citizens to believe in transmigration, “believing that their souls will pass into the body of a pig,” than for them to think that “their soul is nothing at all.” Id. Finally, he concludes with an observation that seems intended for his more perceptive readers: “It is doubtful whether Socrates and his school had very definite opinions upon what was to happen in the afterlife.” Id. Instead, “Platonic philosophy” simply teaches the “one belief” that “the soul has nothing in common with the body and would survive it.” Id. The prevalence of that “one belief,” which does not even amount to the idea of personal immortality, is the indispensable prerequisite for a vital democracy.

Tocqueville thus does not teach that Christianity, or any other form of revealed religion, is absolutely indispensable for democracy. Indeed, he does not even say that democracy cannot function well unless belief in natural religion in its entirety is widespread. Rather, at least in this place, he reduces the indispensable minimum to something even less demanding than natural religion as that was generally understood – i.e., to the “one belief” that he associates with Platonic philosophy. All he contends for, in other words, is an extremely thin belief that amounts to little more than the rejection of philosophical materialism, i.e., of the metaphysical position that he associates with the dominance of the drive for physical pleasure and wealth. Nonetheless, some religious, or at least metaphysical, belief must be widely held in order to ensure against political calamity.

In order to understand his thinking fully, we need to start with the idea of “natural religion.” What did Tocqueville think constituted natural religion, and from what sources did he acquire that idea? We will see that a large and important body of French thought underlies the brief and enigmatic remarks cited above from Democracy.

The doctrines of natural religion

In his marvelous account of the origins of Unitarianism in America, Conrad Wright distilled the essence of “natural religion” down to three essentials: “the existence of God, the obligations of piety and benevolence, and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America 140 (1955). The chief points of natural religion were understood to be discoverable by Continue reading

Strehle, “The Dark Side of Church/State Separation: The French Revolution, Nazi Germany, and International Communism”

Next month, Transaction will publish The Dark Side of Church/State 8725Separation: The French Revolution, Nazi Germany, and International Communism, by theologian Stephen Strehle (Christopher Newport University). The publisher’s description follows.

The Dark Side of Church/State Separation analyzes the Enlightenment’s attack upon the Judeo-Christian tradition and its impact upon the development of secular regimes in France, Germany, and Russia. Such regimes followed the anti-Semitic/anti-Christian agenda of the French Enlightenment in blaming the Judeo-Christian tradition for all the ills of European society and believing that human beings can develop their own set of values and purposes through rational means, apart from any revelation from God or Scripture.

Stephen Strehle’s analysis extends our understanding of church/state relations and its history. He confirms the spiritual roots of modern anti-Semitism within the ideology of the Enlightenment and recognizes the intimate relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Christianity. Strehle questions the absolute doctrine of church/state separation, given its background in the bigotries of the philosophes. He notes the nefarious motives of subsequent regimes, which used the French doctrine to replace the religious community with the state and its secular ideology.

This detailed historical analysis of original sources and secondary literature is woven together with special appreciation for the philosophical and theological ideas that contributed to the emergence of political institutions. Readers will gain an understanding of the most influential ideas shaping the modern world and present-day culture.

Nongbri, “Before Religion”

At least since the Enlightenment, the West has assumed that “religion” and “civil government” are separate categories. “Religion” concerns spiritual things like the soul and salvation; civil government concerns the things of this world: health, property, leisure. In fact, the Enlightenment separated religion, not only from politics, but from disciplines like economics as well. Not all cultures share the assumption that religion should be strictly segregated from other aspects of social life, of course, and not everyone in the West does, either. But the Enlightenment assumption still informs much of what we do, whether we think about it consciously or not. Brent Nongbri of Sydney’s Macquarie University has written an interesting-looking book on the history of “religion” as a separate category in Western thought, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale 2012). The publisher’s description follows:

For much of the past two centuries, religion has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri shows that the idea of religion as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Examining a wide array of ancient writings, Nongbri demonstrates that in antiquity, there was no conceptual arena that could be designated as “religious” as opposed to “secular.” Surveying representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period, while constantly attending to the concrete social, political, and colonial contexts that shaped relevant works of philosophers, legal theorists, missionaries, and others, Nongbri offers a concise and readable account of the emergence of the concept of religion.

Liveblogging Forum 2000: Religion, Ethics, and Law

This morning, I participated in Forum 2000’s second law-and-religion panel, “Religion, Ethics, and Law.” The panel (below) addressed the growing “divorce” between law and moral principles and the influence of secularization on law and ethics. The panel was chaired by Jiří Pehe, Director of NYU-Prague. Tomáš Halík, a sociologist and President of the Czech Christian Academy, opened the panel by discussing the different concepts of law in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The first two religions, Halík said, are essentially about law, unlike Christianity, which is essentially about faith; the first two emphasize orthopraxy, while Christianity emphasizes orthodoxy. He noted that Western law has been influenced both by Christian roots and by the secularizing effect of the Enlightenment, which was itself “the unwanted child of Christianity.” I followed with a discussion of the distinction between moral and legal advice in American lawyers’ ethics. Over time, I showed, American legal ethics have minimized the lawyer’s role as moral counselor; although 100 years ago a lawyer had a duty to impress upon his client the need for “strict compliance” with “moral law,” nowadays a lawyer’s duty is to provide legal, not moral advice. I argued that the change could be understood, in part, as an effect of secularization. William Cook, Professor of History and Religion at SUNY, discussed Tocqueville’s insights into private associations and their role in promoting democracy.  Günther Virt, Professor of Theology at the University of Vienna, spoke about translating faith commitments into public policy arguments, specifically, his experience working on bioethics committees in the Council of Europe and the European Union. (A great line: the increasing number of ethics committees in the West today is evidence of an ethical crisis). He also discussed human rights; although human rights can be justified intellectually without religion, he argued, religion provides the necessary motivation for honoring human rights in particular circumstances. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation, ended the panel with a discussion of the dialectic between faith and reason in all three Abrahamic religions. He argued that the key concept in all these religions is not conflict, but synthesis, between faith and reason. – MLM

*UPDATE: You can now watch the video from the “Religion, Ethics and Law” Panel here. -ARH

Classic Revisited: Dupre’s “The Enlightenment & The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture”

Today’s classic revisited is a wonderful work by a master of intellectual history, Louis Dupré (Yale), The Enlightenment & The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (YUP 2004).  Those wishing for a history of Enlightenment ideas — ranging through most of the major French and German figures and including some lesser-known names as well — will greatly enjoy it.  Here’s a passage about a favorite Italian philosopher of mine, Giambattista Vico, which is, I think, nicely done.  — MOD

Vico’s presence in this story requires some justification.  He firmly belongs to what Isaiah Berlin has called the anti-Enlightenment.  Working and thinking within the older Italian rhetorical tradition, he appears to be more a late humanist than an early Enlightenment thinker . . . . Vico understood the significance of the issues raised by Enlightenment thought and he shared Descartes’ epistemological concerns.  Yet he saw the unsatisfactory conclusions to which a rationalist philosophy would lead.  He accepted the modern axiom that truth originates in the mind.  Yet he denied that the mind operates exclusively by rational categories.  For him, truth is not primarily to be attained through a deduction process patterned on the model of mathematical reasoning, but through reflection on what humans have actually done in history.  Despite their erratic behavior, history follows a regular, recurrent pattern.  A true science of history, then, must be more than a chronicle of facts and events.  It must account for these returning movements and include a justification of their implied universal cycles.  Unlike the universals of rationalist philosophy, however, the historical ones are based on observation.  In his cyclical theory of history Vico attempted to fill the gap that separated universalist rationalism from historical empiricism . . . .

The Roman concept of sensus communis, well known to Vico through his sutdies of rhetoric and Roman law, justified the authority of those beliefs that theory alone cannot prove but that are indispensable for practical life.  Vico’s rejection of the need for indubitable foundations places him, together with Pascal, at the head of a line of critics of Descartes that stretches all the way to the present.  Modern epistemology, in his view, arbitrarily dismisses millennia of conscious life as if they were no more than a prolonged state of error and ignorance.  Yet to those early, prerational ages the human race owes all that made modern reflection possible: language, religion, and civilization.  (190-91)   

Nadler on Spinoza’s Political Theory

From Steven Nadler, what looks to be a very interesting treatment of Baruch Spinoza’s political philosophy, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton 2011). A description follows. — MLM

When it appeared in 1670, Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise was denounced as the most dangerous book ever published–”godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself.” Religious and secular authorities saw it as a threat to faith, social and political harmony, and everyday morality, and its author was almost universally regarded as a religious subversive and political radical who sought to spread atheism throughout Europe. Yet Spinoza’s book has contributed as much as the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to modern liberal, secular, and democratic thinking. In A Book Forged in Hell, Steven Nadler Continue reading

Lacorne’s “Religion in America”

Pretty much from the Founding, American religious culture has been a mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and dissenting Protestantism. These two influences have made American religious culture unique, though some argue that America is  successfully exporting its culture around the world today. Denis Lacorne (Sciences Po, Paris) discusses the American duality in his new book, Religion in America: A Political History (Columbia University Press 2011).  A description follows.  – MLM

Denis Lacorne identifies two competing narratives defining the American identity. The first narrative, derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, is essentially secular. Associated with the Founding Fathers and reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, this line of reasoning is predicated on separating religion from politics to preserve political freedom from an overpowering church. Prominent thinkers such as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Jean-Nicolas Démeunier, who viewed the American project as a radical attempt to create a new regime free from religion and the weight of ancient history, embraced this American effort to establish a genuine “wall of separation” between church and state.

The second narrative is based on the premise that religion is a fundamental part of the American identity and emphasizes the importance of the original settlement of America by New England Puritans. This alternative vision was elaborated by Whig politicians and Romantic historians in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is still shared by modern political scientists such as Samuel Huntington. These thinkers insist America possesses a core, stable “Creed” mixing Protestant and republican values. Lacorne outlines the role of religion in the making of these narratives and examines, against this backdrop, how key historians, philosophers, novelists, and intellectuals situate religion in American politics.