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April 13, 2008



While I agree that the Renaissance could not have arisen except from the ferment of the High Middle Ages, statements like "That superiority certainly did not originate in the late 15th century" sound like a stretch. The difference between Europe's technology and power and that of its neighbors became significant in the 15th century, especially as the Ottoman Empire's increasing introversion enervated the Muslim world, but the changes that allowed Europe to dominate the world reached their apex in the Industrial revolution, not at the end of the Reconquista or earlier. Perhaps the tutor sets the stage for achievement, but it is not as if going to Harvard was a superfluous.

All of which is more a rhetorical quibble than an actual criticism. In all it's a very interesting set of parallels, and reminds me of the "Singularity" about which transhumanists talk so much. We may be approaching another kink in our trajectory.

Joyless Moralist

There is something in the parallels you draw, Nathan, but as a Christian, how do you feel about an age that has replaced monastic orders with NGOs, the papacy with the UN, theology with economics (though I have to chuckle a bit at that one... everybody always thinks their own discipline the queen of the sciences*), and Catholicism with political liberalism? It doesn't take a very deep thinker to see the obvious trend, from Christian organizations to basically secular ones. We could argue for a lifetime about the degree to which each is actively in tension with a Christian life (and maybe will), but the overall trajectory seems plain. The medievals wished to have a society that placed God at its center and drew all authority and goodness from him. The moderns wish to have a society that, well, doesn't.

* Mine actually *is*, of course! :-)


"The medievals wished to have a society that placed God at its center and drew all authority and goodness from him. The moderns wish to have a society that, well, doesn't."

I think an underlying current to Nathan's thought is: though the new institutions, technologies and currents are secular (or rather, truly non-sectarian) in nature, moderns are at least trying to make a habit of drawing authority and goodness from _something_, rather that descending into the nihilism of _absolute_ pluralism.

Nathan Smith

re: Joyless Moralist.

Excellent question, to which I by no means have a complete answer. This question, the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man, has haunted me more and more of late. But to answer a question with a question, to myself as well as to Joyless Moralist, what was meant by the phrase, "My Kingdom is not of this world?"

Taking it down a notch, two partial answers are:
1. It's not clear that the secularization of the public sphere has reduced either intellectual commitment to or practice of Christianity much, except in western Europe, and much of the social science that has explored this question, for what it's worth, suggests the opposite.
2. The values that inhere in political liberalism (again, broadly defined; being pro-choice or in favor of no-fault divorce has nothing to do with the term as it is meant here) and the agendas of many NGOs are generally consistent with Christianity, and indeed historically rooted in Christianity, and are certainly *far* more substantively Christian than the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, or the murder of Jan Hus.
3. A lot of NGOs actually *are* Christian. And the retreat of Hobbesian sovereignty-- perhaps here Joyless Moralist and I can agree in identifying and lamenting one characteristically "modern" doctrine-- opens new opportunities for Christian churches and organizations to operate.

To say that "the moderns wish to have a society that, well, doesn't [place God at its center]" has three problems:
(a) there's no justification for reifying such a category as "the moderns," let alone attributing wishes to them, because the thought and experience of the past five centuries or so is too diverse to be usefully summarized under any label; and
(b) if you amend the claim to "modern people wish..." then it is certainly untrue of many moderns; and
(c) for many other moderns, such as myself, the word "society" is question-begging: I do desire a society centered upon God, but the character of the Kingdom of Heaven described by Jesus in the Gospels is so different from "society" in the sense of states and governments etc., that an attempt by the former to take over the latter always risks being the acceptance of the third temptation of Satan-- "all the kingdoms of this world-- as described by Dostoyevsky. In particular, the state uses force, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven is clearly non-coercive in character. A Christian might be subversive enough to regard the taxman as no better than a robber, but he is taught to turn the other cheek to both.

It seems to be a pattern in the history of the Church that it is always retreating from the world, and the world is always following; thus the irony that Christian societies clearly excel all others precisely in their *worldly* achievements, but it is far less clear, at least from looking at the external facts, whether they have become, in twenty centuries, any more Christian. The real good works of Christianity are fated to remain, in a strange and unique way, a secret.

Nathan Smith

re: "queen of the sciences."

I'd say economics is the one social science that has maintained a high degree of rigor, partly through a trait that was also pronounced in medieval theologians: a high intensity of logic and deductive reasoning, even of tautology, which can seem perverse or off-putting to outsiders, but which gives the discipline a coherence, and provides a framework for debate which people of very different preferences and prejudices and political inclinations can inhabit together. It is also the most *influential* of the social sciences, as I think even a philosopher might concede. I wouldn't want the label "queen of the sciences" because it seems to lump together the natural sciences with history, sociology, etc., whereas I would prefer to define science narrowly to describe the physical world, including the human body but not the mind. Such a demarcation corresponds, I think, to popular opinion, which is suspicious of the claims of, say, psychology to be a science; but in my case it corresponds to a metaphysics in which I really believe (not necessarily dualism but I'd accept the label).

I might agree that philosophy is queen of the sciences, in the way that the late Queen Elizabeth II was queen of the British Commonwealth.

Nathan Smith

... to extend the metaphor, we might call natural sciences the United States, and economics, Parliament...

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