The Watershed Century, 17th or 14th ?

        Many observers accept the standard wisdom that modern times entered with the scientistic rationalism of the 17th century. They see the definitive mind-body split resulting in the mechanization of the universe set in stone with Newtonian physics and Descartes’ definition of matter as res extensa opposed to mind as res cogitans.

          But, I see modern “disenchantment” as the cumulative effect of the endemic dualism of the west, … a disenchantment that became clearly noticeable in the 14th century.  The enlightenment, in my view, simply put the capstone on a process already well underway.  It is my contention that from ancient times, western christian ideology contained elements that were so out of touch with reality as to be ultimately untenable – a catastrophe waiting to happen. 

         The catastrophe occurred in the 14th century.  This all became agonizingly clear when Wes­tern christians found themselves categorically incapable of accepting the plague of 1348 as a random occurrence; and the result was an avalanche of anguish and alienation from which the west never recovered.  The “God” of Augustinian providence and predestination, eternally insulted by “original sin,” came to be seen as a punitive monster “Spirit,” alien to this world of matter and eternally hostile to humankind.  That disenchanted universe ruled by a distant, angry, narcissistic “God” was the one I was raised in.  But it had began three hundred years even before Descartes and Newton.  Many still live in it today.

         Consider:  (1) There is just as profound a hatred and fear of the “flesh” in Augus­tine of Hippo (5th c), Francesco Petrarch (14th) and Thomas à Kempis (15th), as you will find in any “modern” post-enlightenment writer.  Alie­n­ation from the body and a disdain for matter was not an invention of the 17th century.  (2) There is a deeper cynicism about the ability of reason to assure itself of the traditional elements of the religious world-view, namely the existence of “spirit,” and the afterlife of reward and punishment, in the Franciscan William of Ockham (d.1348) than in René Descartes and Isaac Newton.  By making a fetish of the triumphs of “reason,” the enlightenment actually reaffirmed a philosophical belief in “spirit” that the 14th century had claimed could no longer be “proven.”  And (3) there was more skepticism about the operations of divine providence in Juliana of Norwich and Geoffrey Chaucer (1385) than in Alexander Pope (18thc) or John Milton.  The breakdown of the “Alchemist” vision of a divinely permeated sacred universe was well underway by 1400. 

         It is my opinion that the marked increase in the persecution and expulsions of Jews, the expansion and intensification of the inquisition, the birth of a money economy ruled by usury and avarice in which the Church itself was a major player, the perpetration on a massive scale of outrageous injustices on primitive  peoples accomplished with the open complicity of the Church – all phenomena of the 15th and 16th centuries, before the enlightenment – were symptoms of the breakdown of the hieratic vision and communitarian spirit of mediaeval christianity.  In the 17th century the separation of “God” from material creation, begun in the 14th, was completed by the advent of “modern science.”  The enlightenment scientists believed that “God,” like a clockmaker, had set the material universe in motion, but otherwise had nothing to do with it, because “He” was spirit, and “it” was matter.

         To my mind, 17th century rationalism gave dualism a new lease on life by “scientifically” confirming the separation of the spiritual from the physical, – quarantining spiritual elements and preventing them from being contaminated by the dead passive docility of matter.  Matter became a flat and transparent mechanism, absolutely devoid of life, and “spirit” was encouraged to flourish “in its own sphere” unaffected by any intrusive clamor arising from matter (the body) which it was destined to conquer and discard.  The “spirits” whose existence a discredited platonism could no longer guarantee in the 14th century, were set firmly on their feet by Descartes’ cogito in the 17th, under the rubric of reason as precisely that-which-conquered-and-controlled-matter and therefore had to be there.  Thus, it re-esta­blished the independence of the mind separate from the body more securely than ever before.  “Spirit” now, enjoyed a renewed respect as “reason,” the power that rendered matter tractable and transparent.  It was an age of inevitable other-worldliness as spirit became even more convinced that it did not belong to this material world and struggled in vain to understand why it was here at all.  Escape, i.e., “salvation” and its foretaste in religious or esthetic rapture, alone made any sense.  Our life belonged to another world.  And death was accepted by being absorbed into the universal disdain for matter and the body.  Does this sound familiar?  It was the traditional christian spirituality, in all fundamentals unchanged since Augustine’s time.  I was born into this vision.  It’s what religious life was all about.

        Why is this of any more than academic interest?  Because it dispels the myth that what “disenchanted” the world was “modern science” and not “religion.”  I contend that the enlightenment mindset was a subroutine of perennial christian ideology.  The “modern” world-view was the culmination of a growing disenchantment latent in Roman christian thinking from early on, and which burst forth like the pustules of the plague when the Augustinian doctrines of “original hostility” and the corruption of the flesh came to dominate the perception of the world in the 14th century.  It was the 14th century that saw the fatal crack in the world-view built on an untenable, pathological dualism.  If the West was not shizoid and alienated throughout the prior millennium, it was only because these monstrous elements of Augus­tine’s theology – original sin and divine predestination – had never before been given such exclusive authority to explain events.

        Earlier, in the 9th century, as expressed by Eriugena in the imagery of the Cappadocian Fathers, material creation was called the “theophany” of “God,” the outward expression of “God’s” creative immanent presence.  All this evaporated in the searing conflagration of the plague.  The Plague could not be explained in Roman (Augustinian) categories without declaring that a non-resident “God” was insulted, enraged and pitilessly punitive.  The culprit, in other words was and, to my mind, remains, Roman christian ecclesiastical ideology which always clutched a flesh-hating dualism and an absurd insulted “God” to its bosom.  The enthusiasms of the 17th century simply reaffirmed and set on a more solid intellectual footing, the very same human self-loathing that tormented christians since ancient times.  It’s what drove Origen to castrate himself.  That was 235 c.e.  The enlightenment reinforced and intensified these elements of the western chris­tian view of the world.  And in that view “matter,” and our flesh with it, was lower than excrement, hated by “God,” corrupt by nature and deserving of punishment.  The sufferings of life for human beings were explained as the abiding wrath of “God” torturing us in the dungeon of our own flesh.  How “disenchanted” can you get?

         It was Augustine’s conception of what “original sin” had done to corrupt the human body and all material creation with it, that wracked Petrarch’s soul in the 14th century, that fed Thomas à Kempis’ world-hating isolation in the 15th, that explained Luther’s contorted “justification” in the 16th, that provided the subject for Pascal’s pensées in the 17th in which he called marriage “the lowest of the conditions of life permitted to a christian.”  The “disenchantment of the world” was the demonization of matter and with it the human body; it was a central element of western christianity’s “spirituality” since at least the third century of the common era.  The enlightenment simply recapitulated it all in a new key: the key of Cartesian geometry. 

         There are many thinkers who see the Enlightenment as the force that turned us away from a sacred universe to one that was dead, flat, inert and devoid of any divine presence.  I present this commentary as a defense and explication of my own position.





  1. mike says:

    In Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says “Shit is a more significant theological problem than sin.”

  2. Neil Sullivan says:

    Why start with Augustine? The ancient Israelites raised graven images from every hill in the Promised land. There were not many gods but one. Was not this the beginning of the disenchantment of the world? Is this not evidence that the Jews (and their Christian children) were their own executioners? No more “enspirited” world just One connection to the divine – one easily severed with a single hefty secular swing.

  3. Tony, Yes, yes, yes. I agree. And appreciate the gaps you fill in in the process of my own reasoning in reaching similar conclusions.

    It does occur to me that to the extent that modern science can be separated in an individual’s experience from the context of religion, it can be hugely liberating. I myself have found that it is science which has led me to a transcendent, almost mystical, view of the world. It gives me a sense of grounding, of sensing that my life is part of the whole, its meaning going far beyond the small limitations of the few allotted years given to each of us. It doesn’t do this by separating me from the universe but by making me far more completely, intrinsically, part of it.

  4. tonyequale says:

    Terry, hi!
    Thanks for your comment.
    My vision shares a sense of the sacredness of all things with that extraordinary 9th century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena (not to be confused with the 14th century Duns Scotus). In Eriugena’s Periphyseon in a number of places he even suggests that “God” somehow “creates” or elaborates “him”self through the “theophany” of creation.

    Of course he was able to get away with such provovative imagery because in the 800’s there was as yet no Inquisition. When the Inquisition finally did get rolling more than two hundred years later, one of the first things they did was to condemn him as pantheist, disinter his bones, and BURN THEM …

    Anyhow I also think it is an interesting indicator of where the heart of the matter (as it were) resided for that view of things. I contrast Eriugena’s divine immanence with the traditional Augustinian projection of an insulted spiritual Warden-God punishing a prison full of material deviates. Such a “God” was apparently considered by the authorities to be very important for the maintenance of good order.

    We’re well rid of that … aren’t we?

  5. What a marvellous way of putting it: “an insulted spiritual Warden-God punishing a prison full of material deviates.” Unfortunately, we’re not well rid of that, are we? When I’ve been assured that I’m on my way to hell for espousing theories about evolution or the Big Bang, I do not believe it. But even if my accusers were right, I can’t imagine wanting to spend eternity with such the unforgiving, bullying god they seem to believe in.

  6. John B. says:

    I come at this from a slightly different perspective, partly inspired by a re-reading of Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” and the daily newspaper.
    It seems to me that there are certain watershed eras in the history of humanity when the way western civilization is organized experiences a huge, irreversible tectonic shift challenged and eventually succeeded by a competing method (or ‘ideology’ if you like) for organizing the economy, polity, and society at large.

    The ancient world of Greek and Roman civilizations eventually gave way to the Christian era some time after Constantine’s conversion, when the Pope sitting in Rome became the supreme authority. He dolled out the titles, the land, and salvation while raking in the bucks.

    The fourteen century was such a time, too, when the Pope’s authority was directly challenged by land-owning barons and secular authorities throughout Europe. This eventually led to the rise of the ‘nation-state’ albeit in the form of hereditary royal rulers. The eighteen century was another watershed era, when democracy arose to challenge the way the nation-state was organized and designated its rulers.

    Over seven hundred years the power to organize and run society and its economy, or much of it, effectively shifted from the Roman Emperor to the Pope to Royal Houses to the common man.

    I believe as the 21st century opened we saw another watershed era forming. It takes the shape of the ‘international’ or ‘stateless corporation’ challenging the democratic nation-state. Rather than power being centered in the nation-state as decided by the periodic votes of the common people there are forces loosed in this world today who are working to center economic, social, and political power in the hands of what they regard as the true ‘stake holders’ or ‘shareholders’ of society — those who possess the greatest wealth.

    We see signs of it everywhere, although they often are misapprehended as mere temporary distortions of proper governance. The growing disparity in wealth of the top 2 percent. The ‘Citizens United’ case. The brazen freedom of the corporate form to ‘center’ or ‘move’ itself anywhere in the world to gain advantage, say, by avoiding a nation’s taxes or take advantage of cheaper labor. Politicians elected by the people to run the nation-state who are so thoroughly corrupted by corporate financing that they brazenly disregard the will of the people (e.g, the U.S. Senate last week unwilling to so much as have a vote on a measure for tightening background checks which polls suggest 93% of the people want to stem the daily gun violence).

    Stateless corporations even have it within their reach to field their own armies, albeit under deeply deceptive names. See, “Blackwater Security” aka “Xe” aka “Academi” (See Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2011.)

    If past is prologue, the Stateless Corporation will be — already is — the most serious challenge to democracy since King George. That challenge is every bit as lethal to democracy and the nation-state as the nation-state was to the power of the Pope and as the Pope was at one time to the Roman Emperor.

    To borrow hapless George W. Bush’s artless words, who will become “the decider” for society at large? The men and women who live in it — the voters? Or, the self-proclaimed “stake holders” — the “shareholders” who run stateless corporations and who own most of the world’s wealth?

    Check back in a hundred years — or less.

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