Exegesis

At the heart of Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity, moreover, lay a historicization of the New Testament. Locke's free approach to the text offered a historical interpretation of its purpose rather than a theological exposition of a 'revelation'. His approach is not unlike that of the Jewish philosopher, Spinoza (1632-77), who said that in biblical exegesis one was concerned not with the truth of a passage but with its meaning, and that one should not distort the meaning in order to make it fit some idea which one already held to be 'true'. One should treat the Scriptures as ancient historical documents, to which one applied judgement and learned scholarship. This link between freedom of thought, the critical reason and historical thinking also expressed itself through the work of eighteenth-century historians like Montesquieu (1689-1755), Gibbon (173794), and Hume who, perhaps influenced to some extent by Newtonian cosmology, abandoned the assumption that human history was directly under divine control, both in the immediate detail of events and in its final consummation. Scholars and scientists increasingly became tired of a theological time-scale heavily dependent on the book of Daniel, in which 'modern' history occupied a regularly extended 'fourth monarchy', an abstraction which had no meaning except as an interim before the supernatural Last Judgement, an event which no longer commanded the serious assent of the imagination of these historians.

The same attitude is marked by the publication of the first volume of Buffon's Natural History in 1749. That the planet was far older than the theological system suggested, and that its life-forms had not been fixed in their present form at the Creation, was realized by many of the educated elite in the course of the eighteenth century. Philo, in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, thought that the most plausible system was one which 'ascribes an eternal, inherent principle of order to the world, though attended with great and continual revolutions and alterations' (Hume 1963:148), a neatly ironical resolution of the problems which were beginning to emerge. As Norman Hampson wrote:

The twentieth-century reader is most acutely aware of the limitations of eighteenth-century science, of its ignorance of basic processes and of the presuppositions of earlier ages which led it still to think in terms of the Fall, of the original creation of species as they now exist and of degeneration from a distant Golden Age. What was more significant at the time was men's emancipation from an Old Testament chronology that made human and natural prehistory unintelligible This immense widening of men's intellectual horizons was bound to influence the way in which they now began to consider their own past.

(Hampson 1968:231-2)

The new historians quietly dropped the notion of supernatural intervention. They began to think of the past, not as a source of precepts and heroic examples, but as a mass of evidence which could be sorted out so as to reveal inner social relationships which might combine to offer this-worldly explanations of what had happened. Montesquieu said, in Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decay (1734), a book whose title itself was an example of changing historical attitudes, that there are general causes, whether moral or physical, which act in every society to prosper, maintain or destroy it.. .and if the chance of one battle—that is, a particular cause—has brought a state to ruin, there was a general cause which made it inevitable that the state perish through a single battle.. In a word, the main trend brings with it all particular accidents.

(Montesquieu 1951:173)

Montesquieu's interest, which he developed further in De l'esprit des lois (1748), in the effect of climate and geography on the long-term success or failure of societies was an example of a new awareness of the inter-relatedness of events in time and space, and this kind of historical analysis implied a new conception of politics as a conscious attempt to alter the future shape of a society.

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