Tag Archives: History of Ideas

Burson & Lehner, eds., “Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe”

This month the University of Notre Dame Press publishes Enlightenment and Enlightenment and Catholicism in EuropeCatholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, what looks to be an extremely interesting collection of essays on the intellectual history of the Enlightenment edited by Jeffrey D. Burson (Georgia Southern University) and Ulrich N. Lehner (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows.

In recent years, historians have rediscovered the religious dimensions of the Enlightenment. This volume offers a thorough reappraisal of the so-called “Catholic Enlightenment” as a transnational Enlightenment movement. This Catholic Enlightenment was at once ultramontane and conciliarist, sometimes moderate but often surprisingly radical, with participants active throughout Europe in universities, seminaries, salons, and the periodical press.

In Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, the contributors, primarily European scholars, provide intellectual biographies of twenty Catholic Enlightenment figures across eighteenth-century Europe, many of them little known in English-language scholarship on the Enlightenment and pre-revolutionary eras. These figures represent not only familiar French intellectuals of the Catholic Enlightenment but also Iberian, Italian, English, Polish, and German thinkers. The essays focus on the intellectual and cultural factors influencing the lives and works of their subjects, revealing the often global networks of intellectual sociability and reading that united them both to the Catholic Enlightenment and to eighteenth-century policies and projects. The volume, whose purpose is to advance the understanding of a transnational “Catholic Enlightenment,” will be a reliable reference for historians, theologians, and scholars working in religious studies.

Conference: “Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine” (June 11-13)

Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center will host a conference, “Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine,” on June 11-13:

Perhaps the two most enduring legacies of Hellenism are Platonic philosophy and democracy. Yet the two are seemingly antithetical–Plato denied that democracy could lead a population to truth and, consequently, rejected the notion that democracy was good for the state. This conference explores the modern relationship between Christianity–with its Platonic roots–and democracy, and the extent to which it was shaped by the Constantinian revolution.

Details are here.

Walker, “Reason and Religion in Late Seventeenth-Century England”

WalkerThis January, I.B. Tauris will publish Reason and Religion in Late Seventeenth-Century England: The Politics and Theology of Radical Dissent (2013) by historian Christopher J. Walker. The publisher’s description follows.

Reason has always held an uncertain position within Christianity. “I believe because it is absurd’,” wrote Tertullian in the third century as he dismissed rational thought. For Augustine of Hippo, reason had some merit as a route to faith but otherwise was of limited value, since it could undermine a person’s ability to approach God: “the wisdom of the creature,” he opined, “is a kind of twilight.” In seventeenth-century England, reason had come to mean, most usually, a spirit of free enquiry: the exercise of human intelligence upon some form of truth, whether religious or scientific. The notion of revelation, by contrast, indicated the wider accepted divine scheme within which human existence was situated. Christopher J Walker here explores the tensions between the forces of reason and revelation within English religion in the volatile period following the end of the Civil War. Ranging widely across the ideas of The Great Tew Circle, the Cambridge Platonists and dissenters like Paul Best and John Bidle (the “father of English Unitarianism”), the author shows, controversially, that the rational thinking and politics of many of the most supposedly radical figures of the era were not antipathetic to Christian faith but actually integral to it. His book makes an important contribution to the history of both religion and ideas.

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.

Classic Revisited: Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and though Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity (2008) is a little young for “classic” status, it is a learned and original intellectual history of modernity.  Gillespie’s thesis is that the conventional account of modernity as setting itself in opposition to or as rejecting altogether religion and theology is mistaken.  Instead, as he puts it early in the book:

[F]rom the very beginning, modernity sought not to eliminate religion but to support and develop a new view of religion and its place in human life, and did so not out of hostility to religion but in order to sustain certain religious beliefs.  As we shall see, modernity is best understood as an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man, and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself . . . . I will argue further that while this metaphysical/theological core of the modern project was concealed over time by the very sciences that it produced, it was never far from the surface, and it continued to guide our thinking and action, often in ways that we do not perceive or understand.  I will argue that the attempt to read the questions of theology and metaphysics out of modernity has in fact blinded us to the continuing importance of theological issues in modern thought in ways that make it very difficult to come to terms with out current situation.

Gillespie goes about making his case by beginning with the contest between scholasticism and nominalism (the view that what is real is particular and individual, not universal, and so “God [cannot] be understood by human reason but only by biblical revelation or mystical experience”).  The conflict was, as he says above, primarily and originally a late medieval conflict, not one which came into being in the Enlightenment (let alone later).  “The God that Aquinas and Dante described was infinite, but the glory of his works and the certainty of his goodness were manifest everywhere.  The nominalist God, by contrast, was frighteningly omnipotent, utterly beyond human ken, and a continual threat to human well-being.  Moreover, this God could never be captured in words and consequently could be experienced only as a titanic question that evoked awe and dread.  It was this question, I want to suggest, that stands at the beginning of modernity.”  (15)

One feature of the book that was particularly enjoyable for me is Gillespie’s emphasis on the poet Petrarch as the representative both of this struggle and of the turn toward nominalism (in graduate school years ago, Petrarch’s poems about Laura in the Canzoniere were one of my favorite things).  I confess that before reading Gillespie’s book, I had never thought about Petrarch as an important or even a notable figure with respect to these kinds of issues.  Gillespie devotes roughly a chapter and a half to him.  He claims that Petrarch was the first writer to face the nominalist challenge — the view that “there is no divine logos or reason that can serve as the foundation for a political, cosmopolitan, or theological identity.” (45)  Confronted with the political and social chaos of the mid-14th century, Petrarch looked “not to the city, God, or the cosmos for support, but into himself, finding an island of stability and hope not in citizenship but in human individuality.”

I cannot do justice to Gillespie’s superb treatment of Petrarch, but here’s a relatively late summary paragraph in his discussion:

It is difficult today to appreciate the impact Petrarch had on his contemporaries in part because we find it so difficult to appreciate his impact on us.  Petrarch is scarcely remembered in our time.  There are very few humanists or academics who can name even one of his works; and none of his Latin works makes it on to a list of great books.  And yet, without Petrarch, there would be no humanists or academics, no great books, no book culture at all, no humanism, no Renaissance, and no modern world as we have come to understand it.  Why then have we forgotten him?  Several factors contribute to his oblivion: the neglect of Latin literature as literary scholars have increasingly focused on national literatures, changing scholarly tastes and fashions, and the fact that many of his works fall outside of familiar genres.  But the real cause lies deeper.  Petrarch seldom tells us anything that we don’t already know, and as a result he seems superfluous to us.  But this is the measure of his importance, for what he achieved is now so universally taken for granted that we find it difficult to imagine things could have been otherwise.  (69)

One last side note, and please forgive the musical addendum, but Franz Liszt certainly did not forget Petrarch.  Have a listen to his extremely beautiful song cycle, “Les Années de Pèlerinage” (“The Years of Wandering” — which is just what Petrarch did for most of his life), and particularly Year 3 in that cycle (“en Italie”), which contains some wonderful settings of several Petrarchan sonnets.  Number 47 is really spectacular and, maybe, captures a little of what Gillespie is talking about.

Hedstrom, “The Rise of Liberal Religion”

This one looks like an absolute must-read — a fascinating and innovative thesis related to the phenomenon of civil religion in America (brought to prominence by Bellah).  The claim is that beginning in the 1920s, religious institutions and leaders joined forces with book publishers to forge a kind of national “spiritual unity” loosely connected with mainline Protestantism but also to emerging themes in psychology and other modern developments.   

The book is The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (OUP 2012) by Matthew S. Hedstrom (UVA).  The publisher’s description follows.

In The Rise of Liberal Religion Matthew Hedstrom tells the story of how, beginning in the 1920s, American religious leaders joined forces with the publishing industry in an attempt to form a ”spiritual center”–a set of widely accepted religious ideas, practices, and presuppositions that would hold together a fragmenting society, create new markets for books, and maintain the privileged status of these arbiters in American religious discourse. The consensus they sought to form was essentially a liberal Protestant one, but with elements of mysticism and psychology drawn in from the margins. With the coming of World War II, however, political leaders declared “books as weapons in the war of ideas,” and the National Conference of Christians and Jews became the central broker of religious reading, coordinating a massive, nationwide Religious Book Week campaign that ran from 1943 to 1948. Spiritual unity was seen not simply as morally desirable for individuals but as essential to national survival. The idea of a religious center expanded to include, however tenuously, Jews and Roman Catholics and the term “Judeo-Christian” entered the national vocabulary. These developments laid the foundation for a culture of spiritual seeking that had lasting implications for middle-class American religious beliefs and practices for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. 

Horwitz on the Impact of Justification Scholarship

Our friend Paul Horwitz offers some thoughts about the questions that Steve, Ron, Mark, and I are batting around here involving the state of religious liberty and the effect or importance of justifying it in new ways.

How French Catholicism Accepted Liberalism

Princeton University Press has published a posthumous work by the late  Cambridge lecturer Emile Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought (Richard Rex trans. 2012). The publisher’s description follows.

Catholicism and Democracy is a history of Catholic political thinking from the French Revolution to the present day. Emile Perreau-Saussine investigates the church’s response to liberal democracy, a political system for which the church was utterly unprepared.

 Looking at leading philosophers and political theologians–among them Joseph de Maistre, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Charles Péguy–Perreau-Saussine shows how the church redefined its relationship to the State in the long wake of the French Revolution. Disenfranchised by the fall of the monarchy, the church in France at first embraced that most conservative of Continue reading

Koritansky ed., “The Philosophy of Punishment and the History of Political Thought”

Another superb-looking book about the intellectual history of punishment edited by Peter Karl Koritansky.  The book is The Philosophy of Punishment and the History of Political Thought (U. Missouri Press 2011).  Professor Koritansky’s fine volume on Aquinas’s thought about punishment is noted here.  The publisher’s description follows.

What does the institution of punishment look like in an ideal political system? Is punishment merely an exercise of violence of the strong against the weak? And what does the phenomenon of revealed religion add to the understanding of punishment? These are some of the many questions contemplated in The Philosophy of Punishment and the History of Political Thought, which provides a provocative exploration of the contributions of nine major thinkers and traditions regarding the question of punitive justice.
 
For the last half century, the philosophical debates over punishment have been deadlocked at two schools of thought: Utilitarianism and Retributivism. In his introduction, Koritansky provides an overview of the stymied debate by analyzing H. L. A. Hart’s argument for a philosophy unifying the theories of Utilitarianism and Retributivism. While Koritansky allows that both theories have contributed substantially to the contemporary understanding of punishment, he points out that Hart’s lack of success in combining these theories proves that both are less than ideal. From this starting point, Koritansky urges transcendence from these two theories in order to respond to new developments and circumstances surrounding the enactment of punishment today.
 
Conveniently divided into three sections, the book explores pagan and Christian premodern thought; early modern thought, culminating in chapters on Kant and classic Utilitarianism; and postmodern thought as exemplified in the theories of Nietzsche and Foucault. In all, the essays probe the work of Plato, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Cesere Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Michel Foucault.
 
These essays devoted to the philosophy of punishment from the perspective of political thought delve deep into key contributions from thinkers of all eras to help further debates on punishment, provide the history of political thought in order to trace changes and effects on future theories, as well as expose the roots of the two prevailing schools of thought. This collection will engage all social scientists interested in the issue of punishment and energize the ongoing debate surrounding this complex issue.

Classic Revisited: Witte, “God’s Joust, God’s Justice”

Today’s classic revisited is not so old, but it is already worthy of being designated a classic: John Witte’s God’s Joust, God’s Justice: Law and Religion in the Western Tradition (Eerdmans 2006).  CLR Forum readers will greatly enjoy this learned historical treatment; indeed, I cannot think of a book more at the heart of the study of law and religion than Witte’s extraordinary book.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

There are three things that people will die for — their faith, their freedom, and their family. This volume focuses on all three, including the interactions among them, in the Western tradition and today. Retrieving and reconstructing a wealth of material from the earliest Hebrew and Greek texts of the West to the latest machinations of the Supreme Court, John Witte explores the legal and theological foundations of authority and liberty, equality and dignity, rights and duties, marriage and family, crime and punishment, and similar topics. God’s Joust, God’s Justice is a lucid scholarly introduction to the burgeoning field of law and religion and a learned historical inquiry into the weightier matters of the law.