May 20, 2005

The following is a more extensive version of a post from February 2004, under the same title.

My thesis is developed over against a widespread conception of the Renaissance as the beginning of the modern world, the beginning of secularism and humanism. I am not an uncritical fan of the Renaissance, but I think that this reading of the Renaissance is terribly one-sided, and I want to restore it to an honorable place in the history of Christian culture and thought. I want to set up the first part of an argument to the effect that, rather than being the beginning of modernity, modernity is in fact a counter-Renaissance movement. The Renaissance was in essential ways a burst of freedom for thought and culture, and modernity is an effort to bring the creative energies of the Renaissance back under control


February 4, 2004

Here’s an ouline for a lecture on Renaissance and Modernity:

Renaissance and Modernity
Credenda/Agenda History Conference
Pre-Conference Lecture
February 5, 2004
Peter J. Leithart

I. Assessments of the Renaissance and modernity.

A. What is “modernity”?

Slavoj Zizek in The Puppet and the Dwarf : “One possible definition of modernity is: the social order in which religion is no longer fully integrated into and identified with a particular cultural life-form, but acquires autonomy, so that it can survive as the same religion in different cultures.”

B. What is the Renaissance? Good question.
Norman Davies, Europe: A History : “The essence of the Renaissance lay not in any sudden rediscovery of classical civilization but rather in the use which was made of classical models to test the authority underlying conventional taste and wisdom . . . . No simply chronological framework can be imposed on the Renaissance. Literary historians look for its origins in the fourteenth-century songs and sonnets of Petrarch, who observed human emotions for their own sake. Art historians look back to the painters Giotto and Masaccio (1401-28), to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446), who measured the dome of the Pantheon in Rome in order to build a still more daring dome for the cathedral in Florence, or to the sculptors Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (c. 1386-1466). Political historians look back to Niccolo Machiavelli (1496-1527), who first explains the mechanics of politics as power for power’s sake. Everyone one of these pioneers was a Florentine.”

C. How is the Renaissance related to modern secularism?
1. Francis Schaeffer: Renaissance as birth of modernity.

2. Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis .
a. Renaissance is the beginning of modernity.
b. But 17th century witnessed a counter-Renaissance movement in philosophy and science, which reversed key values of Renaissance.

3. My aim is to recover the Renaissance as a movement within the history of Christianity, as a largely Christian movement, which was reversed in later centuries. That reversal is the founding of what I call modernity.
a. Philosophically, modernity involved “foundationalism.”
b. Politically and socially, modernity involved secularism.
c. To the extent that postmodernism is truly anti-modern, it revitalizes some of the important themes of the Renaissance.

II. Two cheers for the Renaissance.

A. Nicholas of Cusa, c. 1400-64.

1. In his discussion of possibility, actuality, and potentiality, he shows that the Aristotelian conception of potentiality is inconsistent with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo .

Jasper Hopkins’s summary: “anything (other than God) can become something else (other than God), since God Himself has the power ‘to turn any created thing into any other created thing.’”

2. In his doctrine of “learned ignorance,” he stresses the limits of all human knowledge.
a.Cusa believed that we could reason from creation to God.

“suppose that on the basis of the beauty of created things I say that God is beautiful; and suppose I know that God is so beautiful that He is a beauty which is everything it is able to be. Then, I know that God lacks nothing of the beauty of the whole world. And I know that all creatable beauty is only a certain disproportionate likeness to that Beauty (1) which is actually the possibility of the existence of all beauty and (2) which is not able to be different from what it is, since it is what it is able to be. The case is similar concerning the good and life and other things.”

b. Yet he also argued God surpasses all our conceptions of Him, and that we can know Him only through revelation and a kind of mystical/personal encounter.

He calls God ” Possest ,” a combination of the Latin word posse (able) and the Latin word est (is). God is all that he can possibly be. Then he adds, “This name leads the one who is speculating beyond all the senses, all reason, and all intellect unto a mystical vision, where there is an end to the ascent of all cognitive power and where there is the beginning of the revelation of the unknown God. For, having left all things behind, the seeker after truth ascends beyond himself and discerns that he still does not have any greater access to the invisible God, who remains invisible to him. (For God is not seen by means of any light from the seeker’s own reason.) At this point the seeker awaits, with the most devout longing, the omnipotent Sun ?Eexpecting that when darkness is banished by its rising, he will be illuminated, so that he will see the invisible God to the extent that God will manifest Himself.”

“the more an intellect understands the degree to which the concept of God is unformable, the greater this intellect is.”

3. Man is an inherently creative being, whose creativity mimics God’s creation ex nihilo .
a. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man makes a similar point. Here are the words he puts in God’s mouth as He creates Adam:

“To thee, O Adam, we have given no certain habitation nor countenance of thine owne neither anie peculiar office, so that what habitation and countenance or office soever thou dost chooses for thyself, the same thou shalt enjoy and posses at thine own proper will and election –We have made thee neither a thing celestial nor a thing terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that being thine own fashioner and artificer of thyself, thou maist make thyself after what likeness thou dost affect”

b. “Renaissance self-fashioning,” as literary historian Stephen Greenblatt has called it, is a manifestation of the same tendency.

4. For Cusa, this is all rooted in Trinitarian theology.
a. The eternal Son is the “art” of God, eternally begotten by the Father. This is the eternal, divine root of all human creativity.
b. The union of “possibility” and “actuality” in God is a Trinitarian union.

“Without possibility and actuality and the union of the two there is not, and cannot be anything. For if something lacked these, it could not exist. For how would it exist if it did not actually exist (since existence is actuality)? And if it were possible to exist but it did not exist, in what sense would it exist? (Therefore, it is necessary that there be the union of possibility and actuality.) The possibility-to-exist, actually existing, and the union of the two are not other than one another.”

The Father is “Absolute Possibility,” and the Son is “existence itself” and therefore the actuality of the Father’s possibility. The Spirit is the union of the two, “since natural love is the spiritual union of the Father and the Son.”

c. All things manifest this same Trinitarian structure. A rose is a unity of a possible rose and an actual rose.

“I see a triune rose from a triune Beginning.”

B. Some problems.

1. The Renaissance’s emphasis on change and mutability was sometimes worked out in a non-Christian framework.
a. For the ancients, change was a huge problem. Change meant degeneration toward death. Unchangeable things were better. The Renaissance frequently revived this notion. (Witness the problem of time in Shakespeare’s sonnets or Spenser.)
b. In a Christian framework, change and mutability is inherent in the creation, part of the “very good” world that God made. Not a problem at all.

2. Alongside this “tragic metaphysics” (the mutable world moving toward non-existence), th
e Renaissance revived the ancient theatrical genre of tragedy.
a. Tragedy had disappeared in the medieval world, revived in England by Chaucer.
b. When tragedy was revived, it was radically Christianized. Yet, sometimes imported ancient notions of the tragic.

3. Classical models were sometimes used in a way that suppressed innovation and creativity.

October 17, 2017

Modernity’s reduction of time to clock-time is not socially or psychically healthy. As Rosenstock-Huessy puts it:

“We need the intersecting of many rhythms of time. Our stomach and our consciousness respond to a 24-hour rhythm. Our faith and our hopes respond to centuries. Our noble passions like the love of husband and wife, of veterans, of sects, rule time spans of 25, 30, or 40 years. The 24-hour day and the week, the month and the year, should not becloud the spheres of greater revolution. The chronology of family succession, of wars and peaces, has been destroyed by the heresy that the mechanical time clock revealed all there is to be lived in time, by time, and by timing” (“Time-Bettering Days,” 16).

The development of a calendar is a cultivation of memory: “A day introduced into the calendar or a day stricken out of the calendar, means a real change in the education and tradition of a nation. Mankind writes its own history long before the historians visit its battlefields; days, festivals, holidays, the order of meals, rest and vacations, together with religiously observed rituals and symbols, are sources of political history, thought rarely used by the average political or economic historian” (Out of Revolution [OR], 8).

Calendars reveal history as the “autobiography” of a people, ultimately the unified autobiography of the entire human race. According to Rosenstock, mankind would lack autobiography if human society had “always been like modern society: completely sensational, totally forgetful, and wonderfully devoid of memory.” But man has not always been so. Rather, “mankind has always, with the utmost tenacity, cultivated its calendar.”

Calendars are another social and political instrument for cutting alleys of time. Calendars give shape to time in two senses. First, the cataclysmic events commemorated on calendars are products of political and social action, and these events open or close epochs, just as rituals of investiture and commemoration open and close alleys of time.

Second, it is not merely the events themselves that give form to time, but the creative social decision to mark events on the calendar. The Battle of Waterloo was a chaos of slaughter and death, so complex and confusing that no individual within the battle could know what it was all about.

The significance of a change in the calendar is not always immediately evident, and may not be evident for several generations. Yet, nations mark days as a bride marks her wedding day as the day of new creation:

“It is not necessary to record the everyday life of a nation for a thousand years in order to know its aim and inspiration. The great creations of history do not reveal their deepest sense nor their soul every day. But each has its wedding day; and the words and songs, the promises and laws of this period of a nation’s life express its character viva voce and settle its destiny once and for all” (OR 9).

Waterloo became a name, an impression, and a reality long before the historians sat down to write of it. Some features, some actions, some human traits, tower above the mire of incomprehensible sufferings and hardships as the individual tradition of this particular victory and defeat. Fears and hopes, envy and generosity, collaborated to coin the names ‘Belle-Alliance’ or ‘Waterloo.’ Man is a name-giving animal. Conscious experience is the presupposition of a new name (OR 693). Similarly, “Gettysburg, Saratoga, Yorktown, Marathon, are not facts but the creations of a nation’s memory” (OR 694).

National memory is not built by scientific history or by literature, because “it is not an effort of the intellect.” Instead, “The whole being of the nation is at stake in a great event,” and this experience can only be memorialized in more formal ways, through monuments and ceremonies. At the end of this process, “The climax is reached when an event is incorporated into the calendar as a recurrent date. Memory is fixed by the calendar of a group or a nation.”

A day of memorial for Becket was added to the calendar, identifying him as a martyr of the church by putting his day on a day earlier reserved for King David, immediately after the day of St. Stephen. This occurred only two years after Becket’s death, and this dating “under the authority of the Pope in Rome, tells us more about the mediaeval relations between Gregorian Rome and a local kingdom than do many discussions of the Anglicans during the nineteenth century.”

The day of Thomas was “the ‘Fourteenth of July’ of the Papal Revolution, and the Magna Charta of the common man from 1174-1535” (OR: 694-5).

Attention to calendars makes for more accurate accounting of the periods of history. Rosenstock-Huessy complains that “Periods like that of Humanism or of the Industrial Revolution are afterthoughts, not born of original, contemporary experience.” Far more candid are “the historical calendars built up immediately in the way of revolutions.”

Secondary periodizations like “Renaissance” or “Industrial Revolution” “should not be allowed to dominate the Great Year of mankind as it is pictured in the creations of real holidays and traditions by monks, papacy, free cities, princes, parliaments, citizens and workers” (OR 705).

Holidays are moments of shared memory, and contribute to the rhythm of time. Modern man has turned holidays into occasions for mere leisure. In the past, the distinction was understood, but historians can no longer recognize it. He cites one historian who speaks of the “idle Sundays” of the Puritans, and rejoins:

“If [he] had entered Dochester, Massachusetts, and experienced the architecture of the First Congregational Church there – the church of the Adams family by the way – he would have learned that people definitely fulfilled a duty, their highest duty, on Sunday, in founding the perfect body of which the mighty republic of the United States is a poor week-day edition” (Christian Future [CF] 203).

Christianity is similar to other religions in this regard, since “all religions, and even more all pseudo-religions, aspire to rhythmical activities. Dance is sanctified; religious dance recommended; and dancing is rhythm on a short wave.” In the church, “we have liturgical movement to revive the rhythm of the individual service and of the whole year of the Church as well. Sermons grown into continuous chains over months and even years” (CF 207).

Calendars enshrine this rhythmic character of religion: “Calendars are rhythmical forms of memory and cycles of worship. The liturgical rhythm is expressed in terms of Sunday and weekday, Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and Advent” (CF 207). These rhythms are not identical to the rhythms of nature, and the church in particular defies natural time:

“The former is a calendar of 365 days. The latter expresses within the scope of 365 days the true infinity of all time from beginning of the world to its end. For the reasoning mind, time consists of separate units, days or years. For our faith, one year’s course inducts into the whole linear expanse of all history. The calendar of the Western World, with its Fourth of July, is independent from nature’s mechanism. So much so, that from Christmas to Easter, a whole lifetime of thirty years is remembered, and from Pentecost to Advent, the whole experience of mankind through the Old Testament and our whole era is remembered” (CF 209).

Philosophical systems are not rhythmical, but religions are. Religion is closer to life in this respect, in that life itself expresses itself in the rhythm of the “mutual begetting of opposites: weeping and joy, winter and summer, victory and defeat, birth and death, make up the rhythm.” Religion mimics this with a pattern of Sunday and weekday (CF 208).

Yet, religion does not imitate the rhythms of nature. Nature is rhythmic, but “our time rhythm is unhinged from the solar revolutions.” Human sexual rhythms are different from the cycles of the animal world: “Whales and horses may take their law of mating from the seasons. The human is made miserable because his appetites are unpredictable. Sex, politics, studies, work, and especially our worries and anxieties, make us exiles from the annual cycle Man as exile from nature’s cycles, perpetually creates new rhythms” (CF 209).

April 23, 2014

In the final chapter of his magisterial The Mind of Egypt, Jan Assmann sketches out the path by which Egypt left its mark on the modern world. 

Interest in Egypt surged in the Renaissance, as “newly discovered manuscripts were hailed as the rediscovery of Egyptian wisdom” (427), but it was Hebraists who did the most systematic work on Egyptian civilization, partly in an effort to tease out the implications of Acts 7:22’s reference to Moses’ instruction in the wisdom of Egypt.

Through the work of John Spencer, Ralph Cudworth, John Toland, and William Warburton, European thinkers developed an account of ancient Egyptian theology and religion that lent itself to the obsessions of the age. Spenser argued that Moses borrowed virtually the entirety of his religion from Egypt, and Cudworth and Warburton claimed that Egyptians venerated the One Supreme Being under the guise of various gods. Especially in the Spinozian circles of the “radical Enlightenment,” with its complex interconnections with freemasonry and other secret societies, Egyptian wisdom became the alternative to Christendom.

Assmann writes, John “Toland’s theories were highly instrument in the emergency of Freemasonry, which originated in London around 1700 and made the ‘Sponozian’ version of Egyptian mystery religion central to its own system of mysteries.” Freemasons were attracted to the esoteric character of Egyptian religion, which they reproduced in their owns secretive rites. Treatises on ancient Egyptian mysteries were written by Ignaz von Born, the “master of the Viennese lodge to which Mozart and Haydn belonged” (429). Karl Reinhold write a treatise on The Hebrew Mysteries of the Old Religion of Freemasonry in 1788 under his Illuminati pseudonym, Brother Decius (429). 

Egyptian religion thus “became a precursor of the hotly debated religious ideas that were espoused by the champions of the Enlightenment and later elevated to the level of a state religion by the French Revolution. Egyptian religion . . . was conceived as a religion of Reason and Nature. With no recourse to revelation and guided by reason alone, the Egyptians had arrived at the same notion of the deity as Spinoza and Moses (properly understood)” (430). It seemed to provide ancient precedent for the Enlightenment “creed of tolerance” (431). 

Beethoven thought so. On his desk was a framed copy of some lines he had copied from Schiller, then thought to express the wisdom of Egypt: “I am what is. I am all that is, that was, that shall be; no mortal has ever lifted my veil. He alone is of himself, and to this One all things owe their being” (431).

September 28, 2006

Stallybrass and White again: The classical form “was far more than an aesthetic standard or model.” It might be better to say that there was a classicist aesthetic at work in other areas besides art. In any case, the classical body “structured, from the inside as it were, the characteristically ‘high’ discourses of philosophy, statecraft, theology and law, as well as literature, as they emerged from the Renaissance. In the classical discursive body were encoded those regulated systems which were closed, homogeneous, monumental, centred and symmetrical . . . .


February 23, 2006

Kumar suggests that “some of the principal hall-marks of modernity” are already evident in the Christian notions of time and history. Both Christianity and modernity separate time from nature, and humanize time; time is seen by both as “linear and irreversible”; both see history as an Aristotelian drama with beginning, middle, and end; both look to the future rather than toward the past (Christianity, he nicely says, “reverses chronology and views the story backwards, from its end point”); both create expectations about a future fulfillment and “set up a permanent tension between the present and the future.”


May 20, 2005

I’ve posted a number of times on Cusa in the past, and the following builds on notes and outline that I posted in Febrary 2004.

This is a continuation of the earlier essay on Renaissance and modernity. To keep my assessment of the Renaissance under control, and to have something other than glittering generalities to offer, I have restricted myself to the examination of one Renaissance thinker, one whose influence on the Renaissance as such is very difficult to assess or know, but one who exemplifies some of the key themes of the Renaissance. And this writer sets out these themes in an explicitly Christian context. I speak of Nicholas of Cusa. To justify concentrating on Cusa, let me cite Heinz Heimsoeth, who claims that Giordano Bruno was the greatest of the Renaissance philosophers. He goes on to say that Bruno?s philosophy is thoroughly indebted to themes he borrowed from Cusa: ?all other decisive themes of his speculation derive from Nicholas of Cusa and were virtually taken over from him in their profoundest formulations.?E


June 1, 2004

Sermons are rarely more tiresome than when they strive for relevance. Drawing from the latest headlines transforms the preacher into a one-man MacLaughlin Group, a Crossfire without the cross though perhaps with some of the fire, and leaves the congregation thinking, ?If I wanted Meet the Press , I could have stayed in bed.?E I spent some time once searching for the source of the exhortation, ?Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.?E My search was unsuccessful, which is doubtless just as well, else I might be tempted to follow an uncharitable impulse to construct a contemporary Purgatorio in which the author of that statement was forced to listen, unto ages of ages, to some of the sermons he inspired.

To be sure, there are times when one wishes the preacher were a bit more up-to-date. On Easter several years ago, the preacher at King?s College Chapel insisted that the ?scientific?Equestion of the resuscitation of Jesus?Ebody was no big deal and that Jesus did not go about showing off his body to ?prove?EHe had risen from the grave. One wonders if he ever read of how Thomas?s famous doubts were put to rest, but then ?Thomas?Ewas probably a product of the ?Fourth Evangelist?s?Eor his ?community?s?Eimagination anyway. One marvels too at the sheer intellectual dishonesty of such preaching; the unbeliever is far more honest, commonsensical, and, in fact, more Pauline when he says, ?If the whole structure of Christian faith and practice is built upon a fabrication or delusion, chuck it.?E If only the preacher at King?s had spent the week before Easter reading Time and Newsweek instead of German theology, he would have known that this ?scientific?Equestion remains, even for theologians, a very important one indeed and is, for most ordinary Christians, the very heart of true religion.

Centered on recent events, preaching inevitably loses most of its transformative power. From apostolic times, the task of preaching has never been a matter of providing a ?religious insight?Einto what?s going on, a new slant on what everyone already knows. The purpose of apostolic preaching was to announce an event that, according to Paul, no one could know without a preacher. The point of preaching is not to answer questions that are already circulating. The point is to challenge the entire worldview that gives rise to those questions, and to announce the reality of a new world in which all the old questions have to be reformulated or discarded altogether. Genuine sermons are necessarily application of Scripture to the world as it is; in that sense, as John Frame has argued, Scripture and the world are correlative. The question is, how does this application proceed? Do we start by finding the world full of square holes and search the Bible for appropriate pegs? Or do we let the Bible tell us what shape the holes are to begin with? At the same time, we should recognize the possibility that observation of the world will teach us something about the questions that the Bible asks and answers.

With a little sympathy, one can understand why preachers might prefer contemporary texts to the ancient ones. Let a modern preacher start talking about dead bodies rising from their graves, the sun standing still, seas splitting in two, prophets spending three days in the bellies of fish, and odds are the mental health folk will start sniffing around. By contrast, the modern world is quite content to let preachers offer pious commentary on current events, since such commentary assumes that what the Times says is real, is real. Preachers thus have a choice: They can preach the Biblical witness in all its fantastic oddity and be branded paleolithic if not insane, or they can preach from the newspaper in terms that modern elites can understand and be met with that mixture of pity, respect, and relief extended to those who are religious but not fanatical.

There is a larger point here, which goes to the heart of the church?s uneasy relation with modernity. From the beginning of the modern age, the church as a whole, and especially theologians, were presented with the same dilemma that faces the preacher. The scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo and the historical implications of the discoveries of the age of exploration challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible?s cosmology and chronology. As in the period following the Aristotelian renaissance, the church was faced with the threat of a theory of ?double truth,?Ewhich implied that the Bible might be theologically but not historically and scientifically true. Thomas rescued medieval theology from this fragmentation, but no Thomas was to appear in the early modern period to synthesize the Bible with the new science and history. Instead, Descartes resolved the contest of faith and reason decisively in favor of reason. As Klaus Scholder tells the story in The Birth of Modern Critical Theology , orthodox Dutch theologians recognized at the time that what was finally at stake in the abstract discussion of the relation of philosophy and theology was the authority of God over man.

In this intellectual climate, what has come to be known as ?higher criticism?Eoffered a tempting bargain to theologians and to the church: By making the Bible accountable to ?public?Estandards of rationality and historicity, the church could be saved from the obscurantism and marginality that would follow from continued insistence on the historical accuracy of Scripture and from idiosyncratic typological methods of interpretation. Public standards, however, are far from religiously neutral, and the triumph of Cartesianism meant that the public standards were profoundly rationalistic. In making the Bible accountable to standards of rationality whose assumptions were directly contrary to the standards of the Bible itself, higher criticism left Christians with a wrenching but often unrecognized dilemma: To accept this accountability was to concede the argument before it began but to refuse was to be condemned to the backwaters of intellectual life.

By no means were these narrowly hermeneutical or theological concerns. It is no accident that the major works of both Hobbes and Spinoza incorporated both a political theory and a biblical hermeneutics. In both cases, according to John Milbank?s account, the goal of the new hermeneutical method was to preserve the secularity of the public realm, and to achieve this both Hobbes and Spinoza launched pointed attacks on the traditional ?Catholic?Ereading of Scripture that highlighted allegory and typology. The public presence of a Bible interpreted according to ?subtle?Eand ?private?Ecanons meant the continuing presence of ?divine communication into the process of human historical becoming,?Ewhich must ?forever escape from sovereign mastery.?E To preserve the secular as a realm of autonomous human reason, typology had to be replaced with a rationalistic reading of Scripture, a reading which, not incidentally, emphasized submission to political authorities. In attacking this ?Catholic?Ehermeneutics, it must be emphasized, early modern theorists were in fact attacking the New Testament?s reading of the Old, not a method invented by Alexandrian or medieval neo-Platonists.

Seen in the light of this history, some ironic shadings and shadows emerge in the profile of the Religious Right. As one of the most anti-modernist sectors of American life, the Religious Right is engaged, in part, in trying to reassert the Bible?s position in the public square. I am strongly inclined to support this effort. I do not believe that Christians should feel compelled to translate the moral and political claims of Christianity into what Jeffrey Stout calls ?moral Esperanto?Ewhen they enter the public arena. Indeed, the central moral and political claims of Christianity cannot be so translated. There is simply no way to translate away the offensive particularity of the apostolic claim, ?There is another K

ing, one Jesus.?E But there are forms of translation that tend to escape notice. Historically, Christian political theory grew out of a typological interpretation of Scripture. Gelasius?Etheory of ?two powers?Ewas intimately linked to an elaborate typology, developed in various letters, between Melchizedek and Christ; Bernard likewise exhorted political leaders to protect the Pope by referring to the common notion that in Jesus the tribes of Levi and Judah, of priesthood and royalty, are united and mutually supportive.

The Religious Right rarely deploys the Bible in this way, preferring a more straightforward and apparently commonsensical reading. Instead of reading the first chapters of Genesis in terms of the Pauline typology of the First and Last Adams, for example, those chapters become source material for family or environmental policy. It is not so much that all the conclusions that the Religious Right draws are wrong, nor that the interpretations of the patristic and medieval political theologians were always right. Rather, the problem is that when the Religious Right brings the Bible into the public realm, it accepts the rules of the language game of modern politics that prohibits appeals to ?irrational?Etypology in public discourse. Accepting the rules, the Religious Right perpetuates rather than challenging a subtle form of what D. A. Carson has recently called ?the gagging of God.?E And, further, it was submission to these same rules that shaped destructive liberal interpretations of Scripture.

Scratch a preacher holding a newspaper, you might well discover a higher critic lurking beneath the skin.

April 19, 2004

David Hawkes reviews a book on Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton in the April 2 TLS , and has this to say about the early modern suspicion of attempting to “do things with words”: “The influx into Renaissance Europe of precious metals from America, and the consequent inflations and debasements of the coinage, revealed that financial value was not somehow incarnated in gold bullion but was an autonomous, efficacious sign: a sign that could do things. This revelation coincided with the reaction against religious idolatry that we know as the Reformation, and also with a violent campaign against witchcraft and magic. Each of these movements involved a strenuous attempt to establish that performative signification was the work of Satan. Furthermore, an identical critique was applied to magical, liturgical, and financial representation. The people of Early Modern Europe believed that the power of the efficacious sign was fetishistic and malign, whether this power was manifested in ritual magic, or in devotional idolatry, or in money.” Hawkes goes on to say that acceptance of such notions of “efficacious representation” lead straight to the conception of man as homo economicus, the rationally self-interested man posited in some free market economics (NOT Hayek, see earlier post). Because money is a sign and financial value has “no existence outside the human mind,” coming to see signs as efficacious means ceding authority and power to objectified representations: Blair Hoxby, the author of the book under review, brings a libertarian perspective to Milton studies, but “does not understand that the process of exchange gives agency, not to human beings, but to the objectified representation of human activity that we call ‘money.’ He is blind to the idolatrous nature of such representation, which violates the biblical strictures against adoring ‘the works of men’s hands,’ and he appears ignorance of the ethical critiques to which the efficacious sign has historically been subject.”

There is an important idea to be pursued here, namely, how new conceptions of sign (deriving, in Western history, from sacramental theology) lie at the foundations of modernity. Hawkes’ particular rendition of this seems implausible: After all, medievals believed in the efficaciousness of signs, yet did not create a capitalist system or reduce man to an economic being.

In any case, it is an interesting spectacle: Hawkes, a self-avowed leftist whose review is full of Marxist flourishes, chiding Hoxby “> Hoxby , a man of the right, for not paying sufficient attention to human agency. Hoxby comes off as the reductionist and economic determinist (and Hawkes labels him such), and Hawkes as the humanist. We live in strange times.

November 5, 2003

To what extent is modernity merely a recovery of the tragic? Tragedy, to my knowledge, simply didn’t exist in the medieval world. Drama revived late in the medieval period, but tragedy was reintroduced by the Renaissance. In Shakespeare, the tragic is set in a larger Christian comic setting, with profoundly Christian results. But later modern literature and philosophy seems to be a revival of ancient tragic metaphysics and literature.

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