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.