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June 03, 2009

Comments

Joyless Moralist

Ack! This will never do. You cannot read Nietzsche this way; or if you insist that this is the only way you know how to read, then by all means, put him away and don't bother about him at all. It is utterly pointless to try to engage him as though he were the type of writer who starts with a logical preface explaining his goals, then defines terms, then sets premises and proceeds through careful arguments. This is Nietzsche, not Spinoza or Kant. He doesn't play that game. If that means that you don't understand him... fine by him. What you're doing is every bit as silly as the person who claims they badly want to understand Eastern religion, reads over a list of the koans, and then calmly points out that they don't seem to make any sense.

But even on this sort of reading, I'm surprised at some of the things you say. I would think you'd have at least found some entry points. For example: Christianity didn't reverse "estimates of value?" But surely it did. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Harlots shall enter the Kingdom before you. He took the form of a slave. Just think for a moment how shocking that must have sounded to the classical mind! It was a stupendous flipping of the natural conception of human society, wherein the strong and great are on top, and the weak and powerless on bottom. And then what about that favorite bit of yours about not seeking revenge? Isn't *that* quite a "reversal of value" as compared to how the ancients would have understood things?

When Nietzsche accuses Christianity of bringing about "the death of Europe" he doesn't mean physical death. The kind of death he worries about (which is to his mind much worse) is the groveling, self-flagellating pitifulness of those who have been taught to loathe all that is strongest or most noble in themselves. He's thinking of the pacifist who lets himself get trampled in the mud, and then feels a self-righteous pride for doing so. Or the ascetic who forgoes all the pleasures of life but dreams greedily of the rich compensation he expects to receive in the life to come. Of course, Nietzsche doesn't believe that there's any *real* self-sacrifice or humility in the Christian sense; all of these postures are to his mind just another manifestation of the will to power, but they are a contemptible, weak, passive-aggressive sort. He would have a field day with foreign policy today, wherein America flexes its muscles around the globe, but can't stop apologizing for it, while smaller countries beg for our help, and then get prissy and aloof with us after we give it. He loves that Gospel passage about how you can heap coals on your neighbor's head by forgiving them enough times... that's exactly what we want, he thinks. We reduce ourselves to pitiful weaklings, and then claim superiority for having done so.

The problem with living in a post-Christian age is that people don't even realize how completely their beliefs and values have been shaped by Christianity. Look at a poor soul like John Rawls, for example. Christ stunned the world with the incredible claim that the meek would inherit the earth; Rawls takes similar sentiments so much for granted that he thinks it perfectly reasonable to assume that we'd automatically agree on them if our minds weren't polluted by the "special conceptions of the good" that are imposed on us after birth. How concerned was the ancient world, do you think, with equality or respecting diversity or protecting minority rights? Whether legitimate or not, these are all offspring of the Platonic/Christian eras. The real "woodcutters" are the Bertrand Russells or John Rawlses, or more recently, the lightweight atheists like Richard Dawkins, who think they can manufacture some kind of commonsense morality based on equality or respect or somesuch thing, without appreciating how completely beholden they are to the Judeo-Christian tradition even in formulating such things as goods.

Well, unlike those men, Nietzsche does realize that he's trapped in a world completely suffused with the presumptions of Platonic theism. And he's mad as hell about it. One reason he seems so raving is because he knows that even the "rules" for "intelligent discourse" have all been laid down by the Platonists... so he goes off-road. Even the words available to him are completely overlaid with Platonic implications... so he doesn't define terms, and seems to contradict himself a lot of the time.

Does he thereby succeed in "escaping" the Platonic vice-grip? I don't know. At the end of the day, obviously, I don't think we need to. But it shouldn't be so hard to understand why people like MacIntyre see Nietzsche as one of the main (perhaps THE main) interlocutors. In a way, Nietzsche is one of the only modern thinkers who poses a *real* challenge to MacIntyre's way of thinking. Philosophers like Kant or Hobbes or Locke are in their various ways just working out the various details of the modern project... the defects of which MacIntyre thinks he understands pretty well. But Nietzsche, far from jumping on that bandwagon, rebels against the whole Platonic edifice... and blames Platonism and ultimately Christianity for giving birth to this modern monstrosity in the first place. Which is not a wholly implausible claim, since of course, these *are* important progenitors to modernism; it could never have arisen without them. For someone like MacIntyre, the project is to show how the mistakes of modernity are *illegitimate* offspring of Christianity, and not the only sort that can or do exist.

Nathan Smith

re: "You cannot read Nietzsche this way; or if you insist that this is the only way you know how to read, then by all means, put him away and don't bother about him at all."

I might do that, but one reason not to is Nietzsche's historical influence. A world in which we could afford to forget Nietzsche would be a better world, but he is a clue to the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. An intellectual might do well to read Nietzsche's philosophy for the same reason that a criminologist might read the diary of Jack the Ripper.

re: "If that means that you don't understand him... fine by him."

But just because Nietzsche would like to say that you don't understand him doesn't mean that you don't. Suppose I write: "Love and prudence and kindness and forgiveness are a lot of crap. If you don't realize that I just said something brilliant, I'm not surprised. Most people are too stupid to understand me." You need not be cowed. I'm not going to claim that I understand everything in Nietzsche, but I am also not going to grant him the right to be read only on his own terms. If I don't see any clothes on the emperor, I do not necessarily accept that my unworthiness is the explanation of his apparent nakedness.

re: "Christianity didn't reverse 'estimates of value?'"

I didn't exactly deny that Christianity reversed estimates of value, but that Nietzsche is in no position to make that charge, since he is reversing estimates of value himself. Possibly he would pretend to be merely restoring estimates of value that Christianity has previously reversed, but that's baloney. People have always preferred life to death, and the "law of thousandfold perishings" has never been popular. Christianity was a moral revolution, but, as Christ said, it "fulfilled" the law, rather than merely abrogating it. Nor did Christ invent forgiveness... C.S. Lewis does a good job of making this point somewhere.

re: "When Nietzsche accuses Christianity of bringing about 'the death of Europe' he doesn't mean physical death. The kind of death he worries about (which is to his mind much worse) is the groveling, self-flagellating pitifulness of those who have been taught to loathe all that is strongest or most noble in themselves."

Yes, I know Nietzsche is trying to write obscure metaphors. But taking him literally might sometimes be useful as a means of exposing him. If you make it clear that Christianity and modernity have brought *life*, in the literal, real sense of the word, Nietzsche's attempt to smuggle the connotations of the word "death" into his charges against Christianity through a metaphor may lose their plausibility. It is an effort at a sort of exorcism.

re: "The real 'woodcutters' are the Bertrand Russells or John Rawlses, or more recently, the lightweight atheists like Richard Dawkins, who think they can manufacture some kind of commonsense morality based on equality or respect or somesuch thing, without appreciating how completely beholden they are to the Judeo-Christian tradition even in formulating such things as goods."

I'm partly sympathetic to this argument, though I fear it's self-serving for me, as a Christian. What if I say: "I am indignant when others do *x* to me; I regard this indignation as evidence of a moral fact that *x* ought not to be done; others are human beings like myself; it follows that whatever rights I have *qua* human being they have as well; therefore I ought not to do *x* to others"-- what is wrong with that? No appeal has been made to God or the Bible. C.S. Lewis *begins* Mere Christianity with an argument of this kind. He sees this kind of basic morality as *prior,* logically, to Christianity or even theism. I am tempted to agree. If so, it's not clear why it should not be available to Rawls etc.

In any case, if Russell and Rawls and Dawkins are "woodcutters," it doesn't follow that Nietzsche is not a woodcutter, albeit sitting on and cutting off a different branch. What I am arguing, and I haven't heard much counter-argument from Nietzsche or JM, is that the very words "noble" and "higher" are parasitic for their meaningfulness on the very morality that Nietzsche is rejecting. If Nietzsche's attack on morality succeeded his own philosophy would lose what little intelligibility it has.

This is interesting. It strikes me that JM is actually accepting a lot of Nietzsche's argument that is questionable. That was one of the things that disturbed me about Allan Bloom's *The Closing of the American Mind*: he seemed to be troublingly sympathetic to Nietzsche, for example to the idea that the desire to be #1 can be, up to a point, good. Though there is far more good in Bloom's writings than in Nietzsche's, there is an element of the snob, the elitist, in him, which he shares with Nietzsche and which I do not think ought to be condoned.

Joyless Moralist

"But just because Nietzsche would like to say that you don't understand him doesn't mean that you don't."

Not logically, but I'm suggesting that it's the case here. You're all cranky about his failing to define terms and clearly lay out arguments with premises etc. Well, he isn't going to. Sorry. In itself that doesn't make him either confused or wrong, though. And also, incidentally you really didn't really seem to understand much at all what he was doing.

"Christianity was a moral revolution, but, as Christ said, it "fulfilled" the law, rather than merely abrogating it."

The *Jewish* law. In case you haven't gotten this, Nietzsche wasn't too keen on Jews either.

"If you make it clear that Christianity and modernity have brought *life*, in the literal, real sense of the word, Nietzsche's attempt to smuggle the connotations of the word "death" into his charges against Christianity through a metaphor may lose their plausibility. It is an effort at a sort of exorcism."

But not at all an effective one. Life in its literal, biological sense is not necessarily delightful to us -- for example, we're not necessarily too keen on an abundance of bacteria, or on thriving cancers. Yes, people live longer in the modern era, but that's really not to the point. You assert that Western culture is "thriving" but that's question-begging.

" What if I say: "I am indignant when others do *x* to me; I regard this indignation as evidence of a moral fact that *x* ought not to be done; others are human beings like myself; it follows that whatever rights I have *qua* human being they have as well; therefore I ought not to do *x* to others"-- what is wrong with that?"

The concept of "rights" is basically a modern one to begin with. But anyway, it goes deeper than that. Nietzsche hates the idea that the weak should particularly be protected, and that humility, poverty and peace are inherently good or virtuous. This is more particularly the idea that is so revolutionary coming from Christ, and that Rawls takes as a commonplace.

"the very words "noble" and "higher" are parasitic for their meaningfulness on the very morality that Nietzsche is rejecting."

Yes, well, as I said, all of language is suffused with Platonism; that's why he doesn't try to define terms or be consistent. Obviously he doesn't use the words to mean what a Christian would mean by them.

As I say, if he irritates you, just don't read him. I certainly don't think it's necessary to be a happy or fulfilled person. Or, you might get, to some degree, his charge against Christianity/Platonism/modernism/Western culture, and just decide that you're not really that bothered about it. But if you think he's merely a confused, muddleheaded rambler, you're just not understanding him.

Nathan Smith

re: "The *Jewish* law. In case you haven't gotten this, Nietzsche wasn't too keen on Jews either."

But my point is that Christianity is the fulfillment not just of the Jewish law, but of the moral law. That's not to deny that it stands in a special relationship to Jewish law, or that Jesus's meaning when He made the statement was, at least primarily, that the Jewish law was being fulfilled. But I think it's just a fact that wherever Christianity has gone in the world, though it has surprised and scandalized in certain ways, it has also been recognized as powerfully in harmony with pre-Christian moralities. Mercy, in particular, is not a Jewish invention; as C.S. Lewis says, it is found in every culture. I think that Christianity, for all its paradoxes, was not, and was not perceived as, a reversal of estimates of value. Whereas what Nietzsche is trying to do *is* a reversal of estimations of value. Of course, Nietzsche wants to isolate Christianity and claim that what Judaism and Christianity are teaching is an aberration; his historicism is a way of looking for allies in remote places. But just because he claims that doesn't mean it's true.

re: "Yes, well, as I said, all of language is suffused with Platonism; that's why he doesn't try to define terms or be consistent. Obviously he doesn't use the words to mean what a Christian would mean by them."

But, first, that's no excuse. Everyday language and experience are to a large extent common from age to age; one could start from there, and build up from that with metaphor and suggestion. If the word "noble" is to play such a central role in his philosophy, and if he is going to use it in a way that excludes mercy and love for one's neighbor and much else that is usually regarded as noble, he ought to use whatever materials he can to try to suggest what he means by it. That he refuses to do so suggests a fundamental dishonesty in his project, a dishonesty with his readers and with himself, because (a) to the extent that his harangues appeal to the intuition at all, their appeal is largely based on the connotations of words like "noble," which would probably be lost if Nietzsche told us what he meant by that word, and (b) it is not clear that either he or readers who think they understand him know what they do mean by "noble."

To the extent that I can grasp the sources of Nietzsche's value judgments at all they come from the same aspect of man's character that is at work when teenage boys get addicted to Warcraft and other video games. There's an adrenalin rush to fighting and killing, to slaying monsters and knights, to having magical powers. I remember playing Baldur's Gate II, planning battles, wielding bows and swords, slaying ogres and giant spiders, accumulating magic weapons, being made lord of a castle. The "law of thousandfold perishings" applies here: to make a video game fun, your party of adventurers has to be implausibly strong and successful, triumphing over hundreds of foes, some of whom ought, in common sense, to be far more powerful than oneself. Isn't that much grander than petty bourgeois respectability?...

It occurs to me that two can play at the Emperor's New Clothes game. Why can't we say that it is only thanks to Nietzsche's meanness and pride that he can recognize nobility only in the fantasy heroism, and is blind to the far greater nobility of any simple peasant who labors and loves and delights in his children and appreciates God's bounty morning, noon and night, let alone that of the saint who sacrifices his life for others? Let Nietzsche scoff; we know it is *he* who does not understand.

re: "if you think he's merely a confused, muddleheaded rambler, you're just not understanding him."

Is that redundant? If you say someone is a confused, muddleheaded rambler, isn't that more or less to say that they can't be understood? And yet there probably is some sort of logic in the ravings of every madman, some chain of causation or association by which his claim that he's Napoleon Bonaparte this minute leads to his fear of being overrun by giant spiders the next. It might be possible to understand him, but it would be a waste of time, unless, of course, one is a psychiatrist, trying to diagnose his malady so that he and others afflicted with the same sickness do not hurt themselves and others, in which case one would try to understand the chain of thought just enough to destroy it, in hopes of replacing it with something healthier. And that's the way I'm trying to read Nietzsche.

Nathan Smith

JM writes: "Christ stunned the world with the incredible claim that the meek would inherit the earth."

Psalm 25:9-12: "The humble He [the Lord] guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way... Who is the man that fears the Lord? He himself shall dwell in prosperity, and his descendants shall inherit the earth."

Psalm 37:11: "But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace."

How can Christ have stunned the world by saying the meek will inherit the earth, when this had been in the Jewish psalms for hundreds of years and was presumably well-known to his audience already? The effect of Christianity was to demand that men pursue virtue further than they ever had, and to fill them with joyous faith that virtue would triumph, not to redefine what virtue is, no?

Tom

The problem with religions before Christianity was that they were mostly exclusionary: they did not enfranchise people in general. In Judaism there's a chosen people. In ancient Egyptian mythology, only the emperors and their servants are favored. In Norse mythology, only those who die honorably in battle make it to Valhalla. What incentive is there for someone to believe in a religion that excludes them? Christianity's big promise is that everyone is equally considered and considered as equal. It is this claim that the lowest of the low is equal to the greatest godlike rulers of antiquity that is the major innovation. Nearly every other claim in Christianity is borrowed from prior sources.

Nathan Smith

I don't think universalism is so unique to Christianity. Buddhism is a universalist, proselytizing religion, as I think was Zoroastrianism though I don't know much about it. In the last centuries before Christ Judaism had begun to have hints of a universalist character, predicting that all nations would bow to their God and with stories like Jonah who preached to the Ninevites.

The really novel thing about Christianity-- the "good news"-- was the idea of God becoming man, being killed, and rising again. There is, I think, nothing like that in any other religion. There were myths of a "dying god," but the dying god was not *the* (monotheistic) God, even though something like a monotheistic conception of God seems to have been widespread in an abstract way. I am aware of no other cases of gods (even polytheistic lower-case "g" gods) becoming men. There were, of course, plenty of Greek myths about Zeus impregnating various human women, but that is completely different. Jesus himself seems to have borrowed nothing from any sources other than Jewish. Early Christianity did borrow heavily from Greco-Roman philosophy, but not from pagan religion except in superficial ways (e.g., I think the date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with and displace a winter solstice festival).

Tom

"...was the idea of God becoming man, being killed, and rising again. There is, I think, nothing like that in any other religion."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-death-rebirth_deity

Osiris was widely worshiped until the suppression of the Egyptian religion during the Christian era.

Several versions of the Sumerian death of Dumuzi have been recovered, as well as a tablet separately recounting Dumuzi's death, mourned by holy Inanna, and his noble sister Geštinanna, and even his dog and the lambs and kids in his fold; Dumuzi himself is weeping at the hard fate in store for him, after he had walked among men, and the cruel galla of the Underworld seize him.

Zalmoxis was regarded as the only true god by the Thracian Dacians. Herodotus was told by the Euhemeristic Pontic Greeks that Zalmoxis was really a man. Some accounts considered he actually lived in Hades for three years. He was considered dead and mourned by his people, but after three years he showed himself once more to the Getae, who were thus convinced about his teachings.

Dionysus' mother was a mortal woman. The rebirth of Dionysus is the primary reason why he was worshipped as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence.

The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were sometimes said to be incarnations of the gods Horus and Ra.

And so on.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. Let me just respond to the evidence Tom quotes.

He says nothing about whether Dumuzi was (thought to be) god or man. Nor does he say anything about resurrection. So that seems to be neither here nor there.

Tom says that Zalmoxis was regarded as the only true God by the Dacians, but that Euhemeristic Greeks told Herodotus he was a man. If the Dacians and the Euhemeristic Greeks are *different* peoples, as the use of different names for them suggests, this seems to be a case of a *disagreement* about whether a certain being was a god or a man. Apparently, neither of them believed that the only true God Zalmoxis *became* a man.

Dionysus mother was a mortal woman, Tom says; but Dionysus, I take it, was a god, not a man. The Christian dogma, again, is that *God became man*. No one seems to be claiming that Dionysus was a god and became man. Of course, there's also a difference between a pagan god and the One True God in which Jews, Muslims, Christians, and perhaps worshippers of Zalmoxis believe, and of which I think there are intimations in other religions.

The phaorohs may be examples of a type of doctrine of incarnation, and of course, the phaorohs died, so here we might have a doctrine of incarnation and death of a god, but not of resurrection. Also, the "sometimes said to be" weakens the claim very much; it sounds like a speculation or a rumor, rather than a faith.

I remember once before Tom used anthropology in an argument; that one was about nakedness. I claimed that shame, such as motivates men and women to cover certain parts of their bodies, is a universal trait of mankind. He gave examples of lots of peoples who would wear much less clothing that we're used to, or cover different things, and there were hints that public nakedness was tolerated on certain ceremonial occasions. It tended very much to confirm rather than to refute my claim, particularly since I could assume he was doing his best to find the examples least favorable to my claim. So here. My claim that:

"The really novel thing about Christianity-- the "good news"-- was the idea of God becoming man, being killed, and rising again. There is, I think, nothing like that in any other religion."

seems to stand as strongly as ever (though the phaorohs may be a counter-example to my "I am aware of no other cases of gods, even polytheistic lower-case "g" gods, becoming men. ")

Of course, a further crucial difference is that whereas these other dying-god religions were based on mere legend, Jesus Christ lived and died at a clearly-defined place and time, under Roman officials we know from other sources. And the doctrines of Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of God were not spun out tentatively as legends by poets or folklore but were forged immediately. They were certainly preached by Paul well within living memory of Jesus's life, as clearly as Paul was able to express them (which is not all that clearly, and later churchmen would do it better, but still). That sets Christianity very much apart from all the dying-god myths of earlier times. But even if we set aside the issue of historicity between Christianity and the various dying-god myths, the Christian doctrines of divine incarnation and resurrection are unique. At least, so it would seem on Tom's evidence.

Tom

There are plenty of cases of gods becoming incarnate and walking among men. There are plenty of cases of gods being killed and resurrected. There are plenty of cases of virgin births. Jesus is unique because he combines all three? Well Vishnu is unique because he assumes X number of forms. So what? Your attitude about other faiths is precisely the same attitude that non-Christians have about Christianity. News flash: you're all atheists! I just happen to believe in one less god than you do.

Nathan Smith

re: "There are plenty of cases of gods becoming incarnate and walking among men. There are plenty of cases of gods being killed and resurrected. There are plenty of cases of virgin births. Jesus is unique because he combines all three?"

"Plenty" is an exaggeration. Tom gives only one example that sounds like an idea of incarnation: the phaorohs. Just to cite Tom's evidence, it's not clear that he's given any examples of a god dying and being resurrected. Dionysus, Tom says, was *reborn,* not resurrected: there's a difference. Tom does not make it clear whether Zalmoxis was regarded as a god by the people who thought he was dead; also, was Zalmoxis actually dead, or did he "live" in Hades (that is, dwell in Hades, the land of the dead, as a living being)? I never claimed the virgin birth as a distinctive Christian teaching.

Also, there's a difference between *a* god and *the* (one true) God. The phaorohs seem to be examples of *a* god (or a couple of them) becoming incarnate, not the one true God. That's a big difference because only monotheistic deities tend to have the omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness that make the Incarnation so important.

Anyway, if you like, yes, Jesus was unique because he combines God becoming incarnate, dying, and being resurrected. "God became man that man might become divine," that is, might come to share the divine nature (not the divine essence), as I think St. Athanasius said. "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." The phaorohs were not resurrected, to they could not be a promise of resurrection to all mankind. Dionysus and Zalmoxis were, as far as I understand, not men, so they could not do so here.

Yet I should point out if it were true that there were a lot of religions that claimed that gods had become incarnate, were killed and resurrected, that wouldn't necessarily be a threat to Christianity. It could even be made into an argument for the faith. Look, one might say, man everywhere has seen that this is how salvation must come about! I wouldn't put too much stock in that argument, but it wouldn't be wholly implausible. Christians would say, of course, that the others were just myths, whereas theirs really happened, and this would be an easy argument to make, since there is actually a reasonably strong historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not enough to be compelling to one who has a strong prior commitment to disbelieving in the possibility of miracles or God, but certainly far more than for Egyptian or Greek myths which set the events described in the remote past.

It might be a threat to Christianity if it seemed like the early Christians had simply borrowed their doctrines from older dying-god cults. Though maybe not: you might, of course, say that dying-god cults reflected an intuition that Divine Incarnation was the only way to save mankind, and that when the Christians witnessed the real event the dying-god myths helped them to recognize it. But the influence of a dying-god could be an alternative explanation of the way the apostles solved a doctrinal "coordination problem," as it were (alternative, that is, to the story that they were simply telling the truth). Yet it seems obvious that the dying-god cults had no influence on the origins of Christianity. The apostles were fishermen, some of them probably illiterate, none of them well-educated, and it seems unlikely that any of them would have heard of Zalmoxis or Osiris. Moreover, their cultural education would have given them an overwhelming impulse to reject such influences if they did hear anything about them.

Tom writes:

"Your attitude about other faiths is precisely the same attitude that non-Christians have about Christianity."

Well, um, yeah. I think non-Christians are wrong in important ways, and they think we're wrong in important ways. I wouldn't necessarily deny the uniqueness of Islam or Buddhism; I would deny its truth. Likewise, a non-Christian might agree that Christianity is unique, but false. Or he might say that Christianity is not unique, that its theology was anticipated by other religions to the extent that there was nothing new in it. But if he maintained that, I would say he is wrong.

Nato

My feeling is that Christianity was the first new peoples' religion fully informed by advanced Hellenistic thought. That said, Mithraism may have taken on a number of very "Christian" features contemporarily with or even antecedent to Christianity. Certainly the Roman army adjusted easily from widespread Mithraism to Christianity, though perhaps this was just because they got to keep the Feast of Mithras as Christmas.

Nato

It just seems like 1st century BCE Levant was a muddle of competition/conflict between more and less Hellenized Jews, charismatic sects (e.g. Essenes), political rebels and elites. With as many upheavals and influences as there were it seems unlikely that doctrines espoused by even the least educated could avoid being shaped by the defining tensions of the era. The apparent discrepancies between the various gospels and other books make perfect sense within the context of synthesis of several major perspectives during the first century. Especially the large Jewish diaspora, residing on the interface between cultural Aramaic and trade Greek, would be familiar with the difficulty of a universal God that holds a covenant only with Jews. Teachings that promised a resolution, whatever their source, would present obvious advantages and be the only doctrines likely to spread out of the levantine context. The whole bit about throwing Gentiles getting miracles as bread crumbs followed by the blanket admission of Christ-followers to Abraham's family is easily viewed as a tracing that reconciliation. Given that the Greeks themselves were by this time under Roman domination, an inclusive religion acceptable to out-of-power, Hellenized peoples would be poised for breakout success. And indeed, various interpretations of Christianity proliferated everywhere in the Hellenized world.

Of course, I've been so secular for so long that only sociological exegesis tends to strike much of a cord with me. History seems to proliferate with successive waves of religious claims, all of which seem very much products of their respective eras and thus unique in their own ways. Judaism seems well suited to maintaining ethnic and cultural integrity while buffeted by the vagaries of history, Christianity offers a doctrine for the dispossessed with wide appeal in an age of Empire, Islam provides conquerors with guidance for taking and holding vast regions. Buddhism offers solace and hope of relief for people locked in the unusually-integrated, stable, vast, and land-based Middle Kingdom. Hinduism updates neolithic tribal polytheism to accommodate a medieval model of social stratification. Do these "just so" stories obscure some deeper novelty in one or more religion? Perhaps so, but nothing humanity has ever done seems more novel or successful than the Enlightenment.

Nathan Smith

These sociological explanations of the origins of religion are, as Nato says, "just so" stories: untestable, with no rational way of deriving the objective probability thereof.

re: "nothing humanity has ever done seems more novel or successful than the Enlightenment."

What does that mean, though? The immediate political results of the Enlightenment were (a) the French Revolution, and (b) arguably, the American Revolution.

Concerning the American revolution, the Enlightenment thinker who influenced America most was Locke, followed by Montesquieu. Locke was a Bible-believing orthodox Christian whose political theory had an explicitly theological and Biblical basis; Montesquieu was more narrowly a political theorist. Thus it makes no sense to reify the Enlightenment, distinguish it from Christianity, and compare whether the Enlightenment or Christianity was more novel or successful. Locke is a figure in Christian history. Nor was he particularly novel; in his political thought he was to a large extent channeling the medieval schoolmen, in response to the more radical and rationalistic, but highly illiberal, thought of Thomas Hobbes.

The French Revolution led in short order to terror and massacre, then to military dictatorship and aggression, and immersed the European continent in two decades of war. It was unambiguously a failure and a setback for civilization, and the only good it did was in the reaction it provoked, as the forces of legitimacy in Europe became committed to arranging for peace and stability, which laid the groundwork for a century of progress. But the reaction to the French Revolution was not part of the Enlightenment, but of a new intellectual trend, with a new traditionalism and historicism symbolized by the thought of Edmund Burke.

What did the Enlightenment contribute? Did it free the slaves? No. Even John Locke justified slavery; it was the evangelical movement led by men like William Wilberforce that ended slavery? Did the Enlightenment give us modern science? No. The roots of modern science go back to the medieval schoolmen; Copernicus and Galileo, Leeuwenhoek (inventor of the microscope) and Columbus, etc. lived before the Enlightenment, and Isaac Newton, though a hero to Enlightenment philosophers, was rather narrowly a natural scientist except for his theological thought and writings, and had little in common with the moral, political, and cultural attitudes of, say, a Voltaire. Did the Enlightenment give us democracy? Not really: parliamentary government had existed in Great Britain since the Middle Ages, and representative government in North America from the early 17th century. Did the Enlightenment invent reason? Of course not; reason has always been a faculty of man, and was highly valued, for example, by the medieval schoolmen.

If the Enlightenment is an intellectual and cultural epoch real enough to merit a name, and if it can be credited with helping to consolidate the commitment to reason, liberty, democracy, and science in the West, then in fairness it must be blamed for the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, which in turn were the forerunners of 20th-century totalitarianism. Why did the Enlightenment have such disparate results? The obvious explanation is that where and to the extent that the Enlightenment represented, or played the role of, a continuation of tradition and Christianity, it was beneficent; but where and to the extent that it represented a break with and a revolt against tradition and Christianity, its novelty consisted in new nightmares for mankind.

In the United States, a whitewashed version of the Enlightenment is popular: the Enlightenment fathere the revolution and has been with us ever since in the form of the Constitution, and that's about it. It also may be vaguely credited with innovations such as representative government, science, and the university, which are actually medieval in their origins. This view of the Enlightenment has an all-American, 4th-of-July feeling which gives a warm glow to Americans, but it's not good intellectual history.

Nato

"These sociological explanations of the origins of religion are, as Nato says, "just so" stories: untestable, with no rational way of deriving the objective probability thereof."

But isn't that usually true? "the Enlightenment thinker who influenced America most was Locke, followed by Montesquieu." Nathan says, as if some historical physicist could measure influence unambiguously. Really, I think we can find arguments for and against, then decide which way the balance of evidence points. Or are religions immune to such analysis?

As for the whole "the Enlightenment was only good insofar as it transmitted Christian values" line of reasoning, I have to wonder why Christian values produced so little democracy, justice and etc for the first 1500 years or so. Perhaps wrapping up the Renaissance thinkers and Christians in the Elightenment package results in a meaningless label. If so, then perhaps we should find a better one, because attributing the sudden leaps of the last 2-3 centuries to the triumph of Christianity would seem extremely poorly motivated to me.

Nathan Smith

re: "I have to wonder why Christian values produced so little democracy, justice and etc for the first 1500 years or so."

Except that it produced a lot of justice and political progress. Early medieval Christianity ended slavery, and introduced a governance ethic based on mutual responsibility and rights, in the form of feudalism. Later medieval Christianity saw the introduction of the first parliaments, as well as the emergence of the universities, the natural sciences, and the commercial republics of Italy, with double-entry bookkeeping, insurance, banking, etc. Why did it take 1500 years to see the emergence of democracy? Because democracy is complex, and requires a lot of institutional foundations and scaffolding to be built. And also because some unfortunate detours were taken, in particular (a) the ideal of sacred monarchy, which was especially damaging in the east, and (b) the usurpation of autocratic spiritual leadership by the popes in the west, and the disastrous innovation of using force to impose religious unity.

re: "attributing the sudden leaps of the last 2-3 centuries to the triumph of Christianity would seem extremely poorly motivated"

But there were no sudden leaps, but rather steady progress with some interruptions. This is evident, for example, in the case of the English constitution, which was not invented overnight in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but evolved over the course of a thousand years, so that in 1688 Englishmen could see themselves, accurately enough, as revolting against a foreign monarch in defense of their *traditional* liberties.

nato

Free farmers had rights stripped by Constantine that set the stage for serfdom. Slavery was explicitly endorsed by one pope, then pronounced a sin by another, apparently only referring to the enslavement of Christians. Oliver Cromwell forced Catholics into indentured servitude and sold Roma as slaves. Who were the major Enlightenment figures who were pro-slavery? Really, it seems to me that the condition of villeins and other not-free-but-not-slave people benefited more dramatically from the Plague than any other advancement in moral reasoning prior to the Enlightenment.

nato

I guess I shouldn't say they benefited, exactly, since by and large they died of it, but the change in balance of power benefited the surviving peasantry.

Nathan Smith

In the late Roman empire, not only under Christian emperors but beginning with Diocletian, there was an unhealthy drift towards a caste system. It was after the fall of the Roman empire, in the early medieval centuries, that slavery in Europe ended and Europe became one of the first if not the first non-slave society, under the influence of the popes. Nato mentions that a pope pronounced it a sin to enslave Christians. In a society where everyone is Christian this is as much as to abolish slavery. There were, however, Jews in Christian society, and they were not enslaved either.

The Black Death helped to bring about the end of *serfdom,* but serfdom is not the same as slavery; serfs had legal rights and could own property. (Serfdom did become something close to slavery in tsarist Russia, but the western European practice was different.) In practice, too, serfs could leave the lands where they were enserfed as long as some other lord was willing to take them, which was often the case even in the 13th century when population densities were relatively high. The "villeins and other not-free-but-not-slave people" whose conditions was raised (if they survived) by the labor shortage following the black death were already not slaves thanks to Christian society and the Christian church.

As I said, John Locke was a major Enlightenment figure who endorsed slavery. Montesquieu was abolitionist but that made him rather unusual and advance of his time. However, by the time the Enlightenment came along Europe had been a non-slave society for centuries. Slavery was revived by Europeans at a time when papal authority had been weakened, and was sternly and consistently condemned by the popes, to no avail; however, it was revived mainly by Europeans outside Europe. The new slavery never took root in western Europe itself. To Enlightenment thinkers in western Europe, it was easy to be anti-slavery, for an anti-slavery value system and social order had already been created and made the norm in the Christian centuries that preceded them. Of course, in practical terms, slavery retreated and vanished in the Middle Ages, whereas during the Enlightenment it expanded sharply. Indeed, most of the rise of modern slavery occurred precisely during the Enlightenment, both in the New World and in Russia, whereas traditional serfdom evolved into something close to slavery precisely under the czars who were the devoted emulators of Enlightenment Europe, such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. It was in the Victorian age, a more religious age and one which largely repudiated the Enlightenment which was seen as culminating in the French Revolution, that modern slavery was abolisheed.

nato

Classical slaves frequently had legal rights* and could own property, frequently paying tribute rather than direct service. Nor did slavery in Europe end with the Roman Empire. Rather, *Roman* slavery ended with the Roman empire. Slavery of various kinds under various names persisted until the early 19th century throughout the world. China had a class of people generally translated as slaves, many of whom were military commanders and high officials, which complicates the whole idea of slaves. Serfs could not be bought and sold, but were tied to their land, which could.

With the Enlightenment the manner of slavery certainly changed into something more totalizing and thus dehumanizing. I would in fact agree in some respects with those who lay this directly at the feet of the Enlightenment, since in order to maintain the old class divisions - especially slavery - one must more rigorously invent the inhumanity/inferiority of those enslaved. That said, this would seem to be a countervailing effort of the self-serving against the great current of Enlightenment thought, not a natural outgrowth. The number of slaves surely increased, but it doesn't seem clear that exponents of the Enlightenment were the primary enablers. Rather, the West came to dominate the world because of its (Enlightenment-conferred) superior political and martial technologies and so was able to take as many slaves as it pleased. And it didn't please to for very long. If we regard the height of the Enlightenment as the mid 18th century, then it wasn't much more than a hundred years before every Western nation had abolished slavery.

Locke sort of approved of slavery, and was an Enlightenment figure, but he was also, as Nathan notes, theologically motivated. So, was that Enlightenment thought or Christian theology endorsing slavery? Also, Nathan asseverates that the Victorian age "largely repudiated the Enlightenment" because of the association between the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Perhaps he should offer some examples of such repudiation, because it seems to me that conventional history regards the century prior to the first world war as more or less the Enlightenment's victory lap.

*One could argue as to whether these were really rights, I suppose, but if so then serfs' "rights" were similarly dubious.

Nathan Smith

re: "Slavery of various kinds under various names persisted until the early 19th century throughout the world."

This is misleading. Slavery persisted in the 19th century throughout much of the world, but not in western Europe, where it disappeared in a few centuries after the fall of Rome.

re: "Nathan asseverates that the Victorian age "largely repudiated the Enlightenment" because of the association between the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Perhaps he should offer some examples of such repudiation, because it seems to me that conventional history regards the century prior to the first world war as more or less the Enlightenment's victory lap."

Sure.

In politics, the Congress of Vienna. This was a triumph of legitimacy, of the spirit of Edmund Burke, the great conservative. The whole idea of the system was to put back in its bottle the genie of revolution, and to uphold instead older political forms, exemplified by the Romanov, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties. And it was under this restorationist regime, *not* under the revolutionary regimes begun in France and extend elsewhere through the Napoleonic wars (and of course in Britain with its thousand-year-old constitution) that the takeoff of modern economic growth occurred.

In literature, the Romantic movement was a reaction against the dry reasonings of the Enlightenment. There was a major revival of religion in the Victorian era, a reaction against the comparative irreligion and looser sexual mores of the 18th century. There was also a rise in historical consciousness and studies of other cultures in the 19th century, which stood in stark contrast with the naivete with which a Voltaire or a Diderot expected to discover universal truth by "reason." One effect of this was to make Europeans feel very much superior to other cultures and to the past, in contrast with Diderot ignorantly imagining a sort of heaven-on-earth in hedonistic Polynesia or Voltaire in tolerant China.

In these and other respects the Victorian era was not the heir of the Enlightenment but of the reaction against it. Even when the Victorian era's achievements vindicated (much of) the optimism of certain Enlightenment thinkers like Condorcet, it did so through quite different ways of thinking and acting than those practiced and advocated by the most popular and characteristic thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Nathan Smith

The figure of Gladstone, a devout Christian and the greatest leader of the free-trading 19th-century British Liberals, may be symbolic of how much the Victorians' success in realizing the best of Enlightenment ideals owed to their reaction moral and philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment, or at least to that part of the Enlightenment that represented a departure from, rather than an extension of, Christian tradition.

nato

I believe that England regarded itself as counter-revolutionary, but never counter-Enlightenment. Further, while the conflict between the rational and empirical certainly featured prominently in the Enlightenment, I had never understood the Enlightenment to be distinctly aligned with the former. Further, I'd always taken Burke to be part of the Enlightenment, not its antagonist. He didn't even condemn the French Revolution immediately, which would have been strange if he'd been opposed to Enlightenment projects in a general way.

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