living in the past

In later posts I’ll strive for a substantive engagement with Ruskin, but I want to make a general preliminary comment here. Ruskin was one of those figures who lived through a massive social transition and who never forgot what the world was like before its change. “It has been my fate,” he wrote in a late work, “to live and work in direct antagonism to the instincts, and yet more to the interests, of the age; since I wrote that chapter [in the first volume of Modern Painters] on the pure traceries of the vault of morning, the fury of useless traffic has shut the sight, whether of morning or evening, from more than the third part of England; and the foulness of sensual fantasy has infected the bright beneficence of the life-giving sky with the dull horrors of disease, and the feeble falsehoods of insanity.”
That sounds like the ranting of an angry old man, and yet … Ruskin not only watched the sky and noted the weather every day but also kept a detailed record of what he saw — for decades. And in a pair of lectures called “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” he described in great detail the alterations in the sky and the weather, not just of England but of Europe as a whole, that he had observed. It turns out that everything he said in this seemingly most crazily extreme of his writings was precisely correct: the emissions of factories, and other side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, really were changing European weather. As Wolfgang Kemp records in his excellent biography of Ruskin,

The 1870s and 1880s form a unique period in the history of environmental and weather study. The skies darkened, the air became thicker and unhealthier, the climate damper and colder. One result was a progressive increase in the numbers of people dying from respiratory ailments. Trees and animals died too, not only in foggy England but also on the Continent. For example, starting in the 1880s, there were widespread reports of damage to forests in Germany. Rosenberg tells us that “From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years … reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade.”

So old men may complain about the condition of their times simply because they’re old men and (therefore?) grumpy; but they may also complain because things really have changed and they’ve seen it. And the people who live on both sides of a cultural or political (or even meteorological) divide may be very useful observers of their scene.
Jacques Ellul is another such figure, who lived through a massive transformation in French society; and I might also cite Lesslie Newbigin, who left England as a young man to serve as a pastor in South India and returned forty years later to find a very different culture, which he sought to address theologically and pastorally in a brilliant book called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. People who have experienced massive social changes and do not merely react against them, but rather strive to comprehend them analytically, tend to be very valuable thinkers indeed. And their habits of critique can be enormously helpful to those of us who are living through our own period of change. That is why when I try to understand our current technopolic moment I find that the thinkers who help me the most are not the ones fully immersed in our own time, but those who remember an earlier time, or those from the past who underwent similar social transformations. It is very hard from within this technologically oversaturated moment of ours to discern its outlines clearly. I’m therefore drawn to thinkers whose vocabularies are tilted or skewed in relation what I see and hear every day. This is one of the many uses of reading old books.
More details about Ruskin soonish.

rewriting ancient history

This fascinating article by David Graeber and David Wengrow challenges a strongly established historical account — one, they say, having its origins primarily in the work of Rousseau — that posits, in the early human era, egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures displaced by farming cultures that brought technological progress but also social inequality. That narrative is, shall we say, problematic:

That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way. 

Graeber and Wenbow think the existing evidence — which necessarily is rather spotty — tells a different tale:

Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. 

You can read the essay for their argument, which I think is strong, if not utterly compelling. (It will be interesting to see the responses it gets from paleohistorians and archaeologists.) For now, I just want to call attention to the concluding paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place. 

What I find noteworthy here is the pre-cooking of the evidence. The “historical verdict” isn’t in yet, but Graeber and Wenbow, miraculously, already know what it will say: that when we peer into the distant past we see that the great impediment to human freedom is not the technological and capitalist order created by farming, but rather, yes, the family. The family is the monster in the closet of human prehistory. It is the family that must be destroyed. [UPDATE: Graeber and Wengrow do not say this, and I was wrong to claim that they do. See Graeber’s comment below. I’ve also struck through some of my extravagantly premature conclusions below, while leaving them visible in order to accept the shame I deserve.]

To which my first thought is, more or less, this. And my second thought is that I’m tempted to blog my way through Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.

But beyond that, I’ll just note that it’s pretty sad that this from-the-ground-up reconsideration of history, this utter dismantling of conventional narratives, this opening of the door to radical new possibilities, is all in the service of … reaffirming and reinscribing the decontextualized, autonomous subject of the liberal order. Graeber and Wenbow throw out the historical narrative pioneered by Rousseau in order to provide a slightly different justification and celebration of Rousseau’s picture of the human being. “I love to tell the story, … to tell the old, old story …” It seems yet another illustration (as if any were needed) of Patrick Deneen’s thesis that liberalism fails through succeeding, and when confronted by that failure, always replies with the demand for mo’ better liberalism. Graeber and Wenbow lack the imagination to think their way beyond what in our time is the most conventional of all anthropologies. It turns out that a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of early human history just happens to confirm everything Graeber and Wenbow already believe. What were the chances? 

I have more to say in another post about hunters, gatherers, and Adam Roberts. Stay tuned.

historical knowledge and world citizenship

Few writers have meant as much to me, as consistently, over many years as Loren Eiseley — I say a bit about my teenage discovery of him in this essay. I am now writing a piece on the new Library of America edition of his essays for Education and Culture, and, man, is it going to be hard for me to keep it below book-length. I keep coming across little gems of provocation and insight. In lieu of buttonholing my family and making them listen to me read passages aloud — though I’m not saying I’ll never do that — I may post some choice quotations here from time to time.

Here’s a wonderful passage from the early pages of The Firmament of Time, Eiseley’s lapidary and meditative history of geology, or rather of what the rise of modern geology did to the human experience of time. I like it because it illuminates certain blind spots of today’s academics — and people more generally — and because it reminds us just how essential the study of history is.

Like other members of the human race, scientists are capable of prejudice. They have occasionally persecuted other scientists, and they have not always been able to see that an old theory, given a hairsbreadth twist, might open an entirely new vista to the human reason. I say this not to defame the profession of learning but to urge the extension of education in scientific history. The study leads both to a better understanding of the process of discovery and to that kind of humbling and contrite wisdom which comes from a long knowledge of human folly in a field supposedly devoid of it. The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

He has learned something of the forces which play upon the supposedly dispassionate mind of the scientist; he has learned how difficult it is to see differently from other men, even when that difference may be incalculably important. It is a study which should bring into the laboratory and the classroom not only greater tolerance for the ideas of others but a clearer realization that even the scientific atmosphere evolves and changes with the society of which it is a part. When the student has become consciously aware of this, he is in a better position to see farther and more dispassionately in the guidance of his own research. A not unimportant by-product of such an awareness may be an extension of his own horizon as a human being.

morphosis

Here’s a passage from my review of Adam Roberts’s edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

As the culmination of the long repudiation of [David] Hartley’s thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the “Fancy,” which “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.” The Fancy indeed merely plays with the “counters” that have been given it by the memory; “it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The importance of this distinction is evident from Coleridge’s redeployment of it in other terms elsewhere in the Biographia: “Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις [morphosis], not ποíησις [poiesis]” — shaping, not making. Roberts, whose background in classics serves him very well as an annotator of Coleridge, points out that “when Coleridge uses [morphosis] in the Biographia he has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the King James version translates as ‘form’” — mere form, as it were, mere appearance. And it may be also that Coleridge is thinking of the New Testament uses of poiesis and its near relations as well: for instance, when Paul writes of human beings (Eph. 2:10) as poiesis theou — “God’s workmanship”; God’s poem.

(Not incidentally, Adam’s blog is called Morphosis.) I’ve just discovered in my Great Pynchon Re-Read that the word “Morphosis” is used five times in Mason & Dixon, though not, it seems, in Coleridge’s sense of the term. Here’s the best example:

If you look at the OED entry for the word here’s what you see:

(You might have to right-click or control-click on the image and open it in a new window or tab to see it properly.) The very bottom is the first relevant thing here, since, in the passage earlier cited from Mason & Dixon, the apostrophe at the beginning of the word suggests that it is an abbreviation of “Metamorphosis” — and indeed, all five uses in the novel employ the apostrophe. 
But it’s also worth noting that Maskelyne — this is Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 — clearly uses the word in a pejorative sense: morphosis is “veering into error.” (I can’t help being reminded here of the root meaning of hamartia — the New Testament word for sin, and Aristotle’s word for some trait of the tragic hero that no one has ever been able reliably to identify — is to “miss the mark.” This is all very Pynchonian, who is obsessed with vectors, especially tragic ones.) And most of the meanings of morphosis listed in the OED are either subtly or clearly pejorative: John Owen’s identification of Catholicism as an inadequate morphosis of true faith, which is clearly derived from the biblical meaning of mere semblance; but also the medical sense of a “pathological” or “morbid” change of form — the most obvious example of which being a malignant tumor, which is nothing other than unchecked morphosis: the healthy organ does not so change, but rather retains a stability of form and function. 
What makes all this especially interesting for the reader of Mason & Dixon is that three of the five uses of the term occur within a few pages, and all refer to Vaucanson’s famous Digesting Duck, who plays a significant role in the story by virtue of having become animate and articulate: the duck refers to this as his ‘Morphosis. And this should call to mind an earlier post about the Bad Priest in V. and her “progression towards inanimateness.” To be animate, to be organic, is necessarily to undergo morphosis, and so life itself, in this account of things, is therefore intrinsically malignant, cancerous. 
The view shared by the Bad Priest and the animate duck is perhaps the opposite of that articulated in the famous closing sentence of Darwin’s Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (form being, of course, μορϕή). For the Bad Priest evolving, changing, is itself an evil — perhaps the root of all evil — and certainly not something to take delight in, as Darwin did. 

And this preference for the inanimate over the animate may be interrogated from another perspective as well. In a wonderful essay from many years ago — one which I cannot, alas, find online — Wendell Berry describes his encounter with an advertisement celebrating a John Deere tractor as an “earth space capsule” that fully isolates its driver from the outside world with all its changes of weather. Berry finds it both curious and sad that farmers, of all people, would desire to be so separated from the natural world. And he comments, more generally, 

Of course, the only real way to get this sort of freedom and safety—to escape the hassles of earthly life—is to die. And what I think we see in these advertisements is an appeal to a desire to be dead that is evidently felt by many people. These ads are addressed to the perfect consumers: the self-consumers, who have found nothing of interest here on earth, nothing to so, and are impatient to be shed of earthly concerns.

After all, the perfect “earth space capsule” is the coffin. 
Pynchon’s novels return again and again to this fear or hatred of organic life, of time and change, not to celebrate it, but to understand it. I suspect that for him this repulsion is at the heart of technological society, of a culture-wide compulsion to trust in and defer to the inorganic and the human-made — which is, ultimately, a form of idolatry: as the Psalmist says, “They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” 
There is much more to be said about all this, and I hope to say some of it in this book on Pynchon and theology that I am trying to write. For now I’ll just note that my respect for Pynchon’s acuity on all these matters — respect that was already verging on awe — has just been significantly increased by my reading of Jessica Riskin’s astonishing book The Restless Clock. I can’t say too much more, because I have just written a lengthy review of Riskin for John Wilson’s forthcoming joint Education and Culture, and I’ll link to that review in due course (probably in a couple of months); but the combination of reading Riskin and reading Pynchon has seriously altered my understanding of the last five hundred years of intellectual and cultural history, and has significantly intensified my belief that the only truly theological account of modernity is one deeply immersed in the technological history of this past half-millennium. 

the Roman world and ours, continued

To pick up where I left off last time:

Imagine that you are a historian in the far future: say, a hundred thousand years from now. Isn’t it perfectly possible that from that vantage point the rise of the United States as a global power might be seen primarily as a development in the history of the Roman Empire? To you, future historian, events from the great influence of Addison’s Cato upon the American Revolution to the Marshall Plan (paciere subiectis, debellare superbos) to the palpable Caesarism of Trump are not best understood as analogies to Roman history but as stages within it — as the history of the British Empire (Pax Brittanica) had been before us: Romanitas merely extended a bit in time and space. We know that various nations and empires have seen themselves as successors to Rome: Constantinople as the Second Rome, Moscow as the Third, the just-mentioned Pax Brittanica and even the Pax Americana that followed it. In such a case, to know little or nothing about the history of Rome is to be rendered helpless to understand — truly to understand — our own moment.

A possible chapter title from a far-future history textbook: “The Beginnings of the Roman Empire: 31 B.C.E. to 5000 C.E.”

Self-centered person that I am, I find myself thinking about all this in relation to what I’ve been calling the technological history of modernity. And Cochrane’s argument — along with that of Larry Siedentop, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject — pushes me further in that direction than I’d ever be likely to go on my own.

In the Preface to his book, Cochrane makes the summary comment that “the history of Graeco-Roman Christianity” is largely the history of a critique: a critique of the idea, implicit in certain classical notions of the commonwealth but made explicit by Caesar Augustus, “that it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader.” Another way to put this (and Cochrane explores some of these implications) is to say that classical political theory is devoted to seeing the polis, and later the patria and later still the imperium, as the means by which certain philosophical problems of human experience and action are to be solved. The political theory of the Greco-Roman world, on this account, is doing the same thing that the Stoics and Epicureans were doing in their own ways: developing a set of techniques by which human suffering might be alleviated, human anxieties quelled, and human flourishing promoted. That political theory is therefore best understood as closely related to what Foucault called “technologies of the self” and to what Martha Nussbaum has described as the essentially therapeutic character of Hellenistic ethics. The political structures of the Roman Empire — including literal structures like aquaducts and roads, and organizational ones like the cursus publicus, should therefore be seen as pointing ultimately towards a healing not only of the state but of the persons who comprise it. (Here again Siedentop’s history of the legal notions of personhood, and the relations of persons to families and communities, is vital.)

And if all this is right, then the technological history of modernity may be said to begin not with the invention of the printing press but in the ancient world — which in a very real sense, according to the logic of “great time,” we may be said to inhabit still.

synopsis of Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture

  • Augustus, by uniting virtue and fortune in himself (viii, 174), established “the final triumph of creative politics,” solving “the problem of the classical commonwealth” (32).
  • For a Christian with Tertullian’s view of things, the “deification of imperial virtue” that accompanied this “triumph” was sheer idolatry: Therefore Regnum Caesaris, Regnum Diaboli (124, 234). 
  • “The crisis of the third century … marked … an eclipse of the strictly classical ideal of virtue or excellence” (166), and left people wondering what to do if the Augustan solution were not a solution after all. What if there is “no intelligible relationship” between virtue and fortune (171)?
  • Christians had remained largely detached during the crisis of the third century, neither wanting Rome to collapse nor prone to being surprised if it did, since its eventual fall was inevitable anyway (195).
  • Then Constantine came along and “both professed and practiced a religion of success” (235), according to which Christianity was a “talisman” that ensured the renewal of Romanitas (236).
  • After some time and several reversals (most notably in the reign of Julian the Apostate) and occasional recoveries (for instance in the reign of Theodosius) it became clear that both the Constantinian project and the larger, encompassing project of Romanitas had failed (391).
  • Obviously this was in many ways a disaster, but there was some compensation: the profound impetus these vast cultural crises gave to Christian thought, whose best representatives (above all Augustine) understood that neither the simple denunciations of the social world of Tertullian nor Constantine’s easy blending of divergent projects were politically, philosophically, or theologically adequate.
  • Thus the great edifice of the City of God, Cochrane’s treatment of which concludes with a detailed analysis of the philosophy of history that emerges from Augustine’s new account of human personality: see 502, 502, 536, 542, 567-69.
Just in case it’s useful to someone. Those page numbers are from the Liberty Fund edition, which I ended up using for reasons I’ll discuss in another post. 

a clarification

A quick note: in response to my previous post several people have emailed or tweeted to recommend Jacques Ellul or Lewis Mumford or George Grant or Neil Postman. All of those are valuable writers and thinkers, but none of them do anything like what I was asking for in that post. They provide a philosophical or theological critique of technocratic society, but that’s not a technological history of modernity. If you look at the books I recommend in that post, all of them are deeply engaged with the creation, implementation, and consequences of specific technologies — and that’s what I think we need more of, though in a larger frame, covering the whole of modernity fromt he 16th century to today. A deeply material history — a history of the pressur of made things on human behavior; something like Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command but theologically informed — or at least infused with a stronger sense of human telos than Giedion has; a serious critique of technological modernity that’s not afraid to get grease on its hands.

the technological history of modernity

I’m going to try to piece a few things together here, so hang on for the ride —

I have been reading and enjoying Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and I’ll have more to say about it here later. I strongly recommend it to you. But today I’m going to talk about something in it I disagree with. On the book’s first page Crawford writes of “profound cultural changes” that have

a certain coherence to them, an arc — one that begins in the Enlightenment, accelerates in the twentieth century, and is perhaps culminating now. Though digital technologies certainly contribute to it, our current crisis of attention is the coming to fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.

With this idea in mind, Crawford later in the book gives us a chapter called “A Brief History of Freedom” that spells out the philosophical ideas that, he believes, paved the way for the emergence of a culture in which lengthy and patient attentiveness is all but impossible.

Since attention is something I think about a lot — and have written about here and elsewhere — I’m deeply sympathetic to Crawford’s general critique. But I am not persuaded by his history. In fact, I have come to believe — as I have also written here — that the way Crawford tells the history has things backwards, in much the same way that the neo-Thomist interpretation of history gets things backwards. I don’t think we have our current attention economy because of Kant, any more than we have Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because of Ockham and Duns Scotus.

To make the kind of argument that Crawford and the neo-Thomists make is to take philosophy too much at its own self-valuation. Philosophy likes to see itself as operating largely independently of culture and society and setting the terms on which people will later think. But I believe that philosophy is far more a product of existing social and economic structures than it is an independent entity. We don’t have the modern attention economy because of Kant; rather, we got Kant because of certain features of technological modernity — especially those involving printing, publishing, and international postal delivery — that also have produced our current attention economy, which, I believe, would work just as it does if Kant had never lived. What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success” — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.

So while it is true that, as I said in one of those earlier posts, “those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology,” we also need better history — what I think I want to call a technological history of modernity.

To be sure, that already exists in bits and pieces — indeed, in fairly large chunks. Some existing works that might help us re-orient our thinking towards a better account of how we got to Us:

Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don’t think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate….

My current book project has convinced me of the importance of these issues. All of the figures I am writing about there understood that they could not think of World War II simply as a conflict between the Allies and the Axis. There were, rather, serious questions to be asked about the emerging character of the Western democratic societies. On some level each of these figures intuited or explicitly argued that if the Allies won the war simply because of their technological superiority — and then, precisely because of that success, allowed their societies to become purely technocratic, ruled by the military-industrial complex — their victory would become largely a hollow one. Each of them sees the creative renewal of some form of Christian humanism as a necessary counterbalance to technocracy.

I agree with them, and think that at the present moment our world needs — desperately — the kind of sympathetic and humane yet strong critique of technocracy they tried to offer. But such a critique can only be valuable if it grows from a deep understanding — an attentive understanding — of both the present moment, in all its complexities, and the present moment’s antecedents, in all their complexities. In the coming months, as I continue to work on my book, I’ll be thinking about how that technological history of modernity might be told, and will share some thoughts here. That will probably mean posting less often but more substantively; we’ll see. The idea is to lay the foundation for future work. Please stay tuned.

ideas and their consequences

I want to spend some time here expanding on a point I made in my previous post, because I think it’s relevant to many, many disputes about historical causation. In that post I argued that people don’t get an impulse to alter their/our biological conformation by reading Richard Rorty or Judith Butler or any other theorists within the general orbit of the humanities, according to a model of Theory prominent among literary scholars and in Continental philosophy and in some interpretations of ancient Greek theoria. Rather, technological capability is its own ideology with its own momentum, and people who practice that ideology may sometimes be inclined to use Theory to provide ex post facto justifications for what they would have done even if Theory didn’t exist at all.

I think there is a great tendency among academics to think that cutting-edge theoretical reflection is … well, is cutting some edges somewhere. But it seems to me that Theory is typically a belated thing. I’ve argued before that some of the greatest achievements of 20th-century literary criticism are in fact rather late entries in the Modernist movement: “We academics, who love to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of thought, are typically running about half-a-century behind the novelists and poets.” And we run even further behind the scientists and technologists, who alter our material world in ways that generate the Lebenswelt within which humanistic Theory arises.

This failure of understanding — this systematic undervaluing of the materiality of culture and overvaluing of what thinkers do in their studies — is what produces vast cathedrals of error like what I have called the neo-Thomist interpretation of history. When Brad Gregory and Thomas Pfau, following Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain and Richard Weaver, argue that most of the modern world (especially the parts they don’t like) emerges from disputes among a tiny handful of philosophers and theologians in the University of Paris in the fifteenth century, they are making an argument that ought to be self-evidently absurd. W. H. Auden used to say that the social and political history of Europe would be exactly the same if Dante, Shakespeare, and Mozart had never lived, and that seems to me not only to be true in those particular cases but also as providing a general rule for evaluating the influence of writers, artists, and philosophers. I see absolutely no reason to think that the so-called nominalists — actually a varied crew — had any impact whatsoever on the culture that emerged after their deaths. When you ask proponents of this model of history to explain how the causal chain works, how we got from a set of arcane, recondite philosophical and theological disputes to the political and economic restructuring of Western society, it’s impossible to get an answer. They seem to think that nominalism works like an airborne virus, gradually and invisibly but fatally infecting a populace.

It seems to me that Martin Luther’s ability to get a local printer to make an edition of Paul’s letter to the Romans stripped of commentary and set in wide margins for student annotation was infinitely more important for the rise of modernity than anything that William of Ockham and Duns Scotus ever wrote. If nominalist philosophy has played any role in this history at all — and I doubt even that — it has been to provide (see above) ex post facto justification for behavior generated not by philosophical change but by technological developments and economic practices.

Whenever I say this kind of thing people reply But ideas have consequences! And indeed they do. But not all ideas are equally consequential; nor do all ideas have the same kinds of consequences. Dante and Shakespeare and Mozart and Ockham and Scotus have indeed made a difference; but not the difference that those who advocate the neo-Thomist interpretation of history think they made. Moreover, and still more important, scientific ideas are ideas too; as are technological ideas; as are economic ideas. (It’s for good reason that Robert Heilbroner called his famous history of the great economists The Worldly Philosophers.)

If I’m right about all this — and here, as in the posts of mine I’ve linked to here, I have only been able to sketch out ideas that need much fuller development and much better support — then those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology. Which is sort of why this blog exists … but at some point, in relation to all the vital topics I’ve been exploring here, I’m going to have to go big or go home.

imagining Thomas More (or not)

The good folks over at First Things are unhappy with the treatment of Thomas More in Wolf Hall, the TV series based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same title: here is George Weigel’s response, and here is Mark Movsesian’s. I offered some thoughts on related issues when I reviewed Mantel’s novel five years ago for Books and Culture:

Much of the material culture of the past can be known. When Cromwell describes for the women of his household the clothing of Anne Boleyn — the fabric of her gown, the cut of her headdress — we believe that indeed it was so. If Mantel did not get these details right, she could have and should have. But people’s inner lives are always constructed in our imaginations, and this is true whether they are our contemporaries or figures from the distant past. The story of the courtier who finds Cromwell weeping, and to whom Cromwell expresses his fear that he will fall with Wolsey, was not invented by Mantel: it’s part of the historical record. Mantel’s contribution is the notion that Cromwell lied about his tears and was really thinking of his beloved dead. And this could have been the case; we cannot know. But that’s not because Cromwell lived half a millennium ago. When Lord Chancellor More adds to the charges against Wolsey one that Cromwell knows to have been fabricated, Cromwell tries to imagine what went through More’s mind when he made that claim — but he cannot do it; More lies always beyond the reach of his imagination, even though the two men are in frequent contact.

Such deep meditations on interior lives are, we have often been told, the fruit of the Reformation. It was Luther and his heirs who taught us to look within and see the baseness there, to be clear-eyed and unwavering in discerning our sin nature, so that we can turn to God and plead only his mercy: “We do earnestly repent, and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burthen of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake forgive us all that is past” — so says the General Confession written by Cromwell’s contemporary Thomas Cranmer. And was not Cromwell the effectual architect of the English Reformation, the man whose policies made the emergence of the Church of England possible?

The architect, yes; but — again, this is the conventional narrative — not out of conviction, rather out of mere obedience to King Henry’s wish to be freed from the authority of Rome. But, again, who really knows what Cromwell’s thoughts on such matters were? The Cromwell conjured by Mantel is deeply drawn to Tyndale’s Bible and Tyndale’s Lutheran theology — on the deaths of his wife and daughters, he reaches there for comfort rather than to the Catholic piety of his wife, to which he also publicly assents — but “to be drawn to” is not “to be committed to.” Cromwell’s religious convictions are elusive to us, but Mantel would have us see that they were elusive even to himself. (The same can be said for many of us.) What this Cromwell clearly does believe is that More’s theological and ecclesiastical certainties, and the fierce campaign against heresy that they engendered, are bad policy and immoral besides. He — he who is kind even to dogs and cats — flinches at More’s cruelties, and sympathizes with the Protestants simply because they are hunted down and persecuted. When he rises to be Henry’s chief minister, he becomes a remorseless enemy of the Church’s power not because he hates the Church but because he sees how thoroughly power corrupts, and wants to limit it wherever he can.

Again, in all these ways Mantel’s Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.

What George Weigel, in the first FT piece I linked to above, calls “upmarket anti-Catholicism” is, in my view, simply a failure of historical imagination. Hilary Mantel could only present an admirable Thomas Cromwell by assuming, or pretending, that he’s a lot like people in her social circle: tolerant, skeptical, indulgently affectionate towards children, fond of animals, shy of violence — a typical 21st-century educated Londoner who was inexplicably born half a millennium too early. Having created Cromwell in her own image, Mantel then makes him the proxy for her own inability to make sense of someone like Thomas More.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I seriously doubt that Peter Ackroyd’s beliefs are any closer to Thomas More’s than Hilary Mantel’s are, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a deep and sensitive understanding of the man in his brilliant biography. Mantel simply shirked the hard labor of trying to understand people from the distant past, and because her readers, by and large, and the people who made Wolf Hall into a television series, aren’t interested in that labor either, we get the cardboard caricature of More that Weigel and Movsesian rightly protest.