The Origins of Modernity

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Dating modernity from the seventeenth century implies that the Protestant Reformation - the most plausible alternative candidate for the origin of the modern world - is essentially premodern, still part of the Middle Ages. The clearest way to state the relationship is to say that the Reformation of the sixteenth century created the preconditions for a modernity that first emerged on the stage of history a century later. Or, expressed in different metaphor, modernity was conceived in the Reformation but born in the Enlightenment. Protestantism represents the fracturing of the "one holy order" that had held the imagination of Western European civilization in thrall throughout the Middle Ages. That ideal unity, of course, was never fully realized in practice; yet its powerful hold over the medieval imagination is one of the defining characteristics of premodern Christian civilization. By its rejection, in both theory and practice, of the unitary authority of the Roman Church, the revolt of the Protestants brought to an end the ideal of an ecclesiastically centered civilization of Christian peoples. The immediate political consequence was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), in which Catholic and Protestant forces, marching under the banners of competing religious absolutes, wreaked havoc over much of Europe and left Germany, in particular, in physical and cultural ruins. A similar lesson about the consequences of confessional strife was meanwhile being learned in Britain as the forces of a Puritan Protestantism succeeded in breaking the hold of the old ecclesiastical-political order. The fact that the traditional institutions of Church and State were restored did not erase the rift in the hearts and minds of the Anglo-Saxon cultural elite, many of whom assumed leadership in the emerging modern world. The concrete symbol of the end of the old order and the new religious and political pluralism in Europe was the formula at the heart of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that put an end to the wars of religion: cuius regio eius religio. Henceforth every principality would worship according to the religious convictions of its prince. This new order ought not to be confused with freedom of religion, which still lay in the future. Rather, it legitimated a system of juxtaposed "absolutes" in which rival claimants to ultimate authority coexisted side by side: unmistakable evidence that the era of religious uniformity had passed into history.

A good way to conceptualize the radical disjuncture between the modern world and its ancient and medieval predecessors is to start at the level of world-view in the most concrete sense of the term: the picture of the world that every age carries in its imagination, and which functions as a means of physical, psychological, and religious orientation. Historians and philosophers have long associated the "Copernican Revolution" (the label was coined by the modern philosopher Immanuel Kant) with the origins of modernity and its break with the past. To understand why it was revolutionary, one must look at the image of the world that it displaced, which can be called the Aristotelian-Christian world-view.2 As the name suggests, this picture of the world originated in Greek antiquity, specifically in the philosophy of Aristotle, and was subsequently elaborated in the astronomy of Ptolemy (second-century ce). It was appropriated by Christian thinkers early in the Church's history and served as the common assumption of Christian civilization until it was dislodged in early modernity by the heliocentric schema of Copernicus and his successors. In the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world-view the earth was located in the center of a finite universe and enclosed within the concentric spherical shells of the seven planets (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), which were in turn enclosed by the sphere of the fixed stars. From Aristotle on, a sharp distinction was made between the heavens, the realm of perfection and harmony, and the "sublunary" region including the earth, characterized by corruption and change. Aristotle thought of God, the prime mover who imparted motion to the universe, as surrounding it nonspatially. In the Christianized version of this world-view the invisible heaven was conceived spatially as identical with, or beyond, the outermost firmament. This heaven, the abode of angels and saints, was counterposed to its opposite, hell, located in the center of the earth at the point of farthest remove from God. The ascension of Christ, as well as the blessed, was accordingly thought of as an upward movement through the lower heavens to the highest heaven beyond the spheres.

The Aristotelian-Christian world-view was thus far more than an astronomical theory, comprising the stage or framework for the whole divine-human drama of creation and redemption. For just this reason, its replacement by the new Copernican picture of the heavens was a "revolutionary" event for theology as well as astronomy. On the one hand, it represented the displacement of man from the center of the universe. (As the Old Cardinal in Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo, puts it: "Mr. Galilei transfers mankind from the center of the universe to somewhere on the outskirts. Mr. Galilei is therefore an enemy of mankind.") The other side of the coin, however, is that the new world-view has been discovered by human reason, so that in a different and more important sense, man is more than ever at the center of things: the old geocentric world has been replaced by the modern anthropocentric world. The old Aristotelian-Christian world-view persisted in the Catholic theology of the Counter-Reformation, but its hold gradually loosened in the new Protestant theologies, especially among Lutherans. Lutheran orthodoxy, following Luther himself, ceased to think of heavenly glory in spatio-temporal terms at all; even Christ's ascension took spatial form only until he disappeared into the clouds, and then only for the sake of the disciples' limited understanding. This doctrine was attacked by Reformed theologians, who as late as the early eighteenth century were still opposing the teachings of Copernicus as unbiblical. The original appearance of Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was due to a Lutheran theologian and reformer of Nürnberg, Andreas Osiander, who first published it in 1543 together with his own preface. Despite this promising start, however, the Lutheran universities were among the slowest to adopt the new Copernican theory, primarily because of the opposition of Luther's leading associate, Philipp Melanchthon, who attacked it on scientific grounds in his textbook on physics.

The theological revolution represented by the destruction of the old Aristotelian-Christian world-view is epitomized in an exchange that allegedly took place between the Emperor Napoleon and the modern astronomer Laplace. To the monarch's pious query, "Where is God in your system of the universe?" the scientist reportedly retorted, "Sire, we have no need of that hypothesis!" The papal astronomer in Brecht's play Galileo, after learning of Galileo's discoveries, makes the comment, "Now it's for the theologians to set the heavens right again" - which can be taken as a motto for the task of modern theology.

The modern world that appeared on the scene in the course of the seventeenth century - the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 makes a useful symbolic date of birth - can be seen as the outcome of three factors, two negative and one positive.

The first was the new awareness of plurality that was the unintended legacy of the Reformation. The result of the Thirty Years War was to legitimize confessional multiplicity and to provide it with a constitutional basis. Henceforth Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Christians - each claiming supreme religious authority - were forced to coexist in mutual proximity and animosity, a situation that spoke louder to the European peoples than the voices of their several theologians and creeds. The lesson inevitably drawn by many from this arrangement was the skeptical one that none of the confessions had a monopoly on the truth, and this realization undermined the authority of the churches and eventually the doctrines they taught. The classic statement of this modern attitude toward religious doctrines is expressed in the play Nathan the Wise, by the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher G. E. Lessing (1729-81). His parable of the three rings epitomizes the twin attitudes of the Enlightenment toward religion: tolerance, along with an underlying skepticism about religious orthodoxy.

A second factor in the birth of modernity is closely related to the first: a growing weariness over religious wars and persecution. Not only had confessional division undermined the authority of religious institutions, but it had also eventuated in mutual hatred and violence. The wars of religion had awakened a deep yearning for unity and peace, the very qualities once guaranteed by religion but now seemingly destroyed by confessional strife. And the happy exception of the Netherlands also seemed to offer a lesson: tolerance pays. Here was a nation that permitted religious freedom and was thriving economically!

In addition to the negative incentives of competing ultimate authorities and religious warfare, emerging modernity was given positive encouragement by a third factor, the rise of what was then called the "new science" and has come down to us as modern science. The full impact of the change that had been heralded by Copernicus was brought home in the work of Galileo (1564-1642), who produced actual evidence for the heliocentric theory, firmly linking celestial with terrestrial reality. Using the newfangled technology of the telescope, he was able to demonstrate that the same principles applied "up there" as "down here." It is surely no accident that the most notorious clash between the official church and modern science was occasioned by Galileo's discoveries, which brought into stark contrast the incompatible paradigms of the old world picture and the new. The new science reached its culmination in the work of a man born the same year that Galileo died, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whose Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica first exhibited the new world-view in all its glory. It appeared as a vast cosmic machine in which space and time are the infinite and uniform containers of material bodies, which move according to universal laws. The most powerful feature of the Newtonian theory was its contention that those laws are written in the language of mathematics, and are thus universally applicable and knowable in principle by all men on the basis of their natural endowments. Newton was also prepared to say where God was located in his system - namely, external to it as its creator, who had originally set it in motion and now intervened only occasionally in order to make minor adjustments to the mechanism. It was not long, however, before even this weakened notion of divine providence withered away, leaving the "watchmaker" God of the Deists.

Paralleling the new science was an equally revolutionary shift in philosophy. The thinker usually acknowledged to be the founder of modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650), likewise belongs to seventeenth-century Europe. The essence of the revolution he brought about is the concept of methodological doubt. (Brecht's Galileo: "The millennium of faith is ended, said I, this is the millennium of doubt.") But Cartesian doubt is not an indication of unbelief but rather a doubting for the sake of certainty. By making doubt the first principle of philosophy, Descartes intended not to undermine religion but rather to set it on a new and secure foundation. The method bears a striking resemblance to the science of this day, to which he was also a notable contributor. His thought experiment rests on a simple premise: if one employs doubt as a kind of epistemological acid to dissolve away all doubtful propositions, one will be left with the indubitable core of experience, which Descartes expressed in that most famous of philosophical utterances, cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). The sheer awareness of my own existence, he is saying, I can by no means doubt away. And this survivor of doubt, this cogito, then becomes the foundation for a new philosophical program, in which the philosopher is able to establish even belief in God with new certitude. Beyond the question of whether the Cartesian method is plausible, however, is the new "metaphysical" quandary in which it leaves philosophy. For Descartes was forced to acknowledge two "substances," two kinds of fundamental reality, which he called res cogitans ("thinking substance") and res extensa ("extended substance"). This situation leads to the infamous "Cartesian dualism" of mind and matter, much lamented by modern philosophers because it apparently leaves the thinking subject isolated from the world of material objects. Descartes' achievement, on the other hand, is considerable, for he has provided an answer to the question of Laplace by finding a place in the modern world for God, a secure place within the human subject. Less successful is his attempt to relate God to the external world machine of modern science, for he was the first thinker to compare the creator to a fine watchmaker, who plays a necessary role in the origin of the world but then has no apparent job to do in its ongoing history.

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