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The Making of the Modern Mind

February 15, 2007

I love teaching humanities classes at a local college here in Texas. This semester, In addition to our departmentally mandated text book, I have assigned Sophocles’ Theban Plays, Plato’s Euthyphro, Crito, Meno and Phaedrus, and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In the past, I have assigned Plato’s Symposium, Anselm’s Proslogion and selections from Thomas Aquinas’ opera. In short, I try to complement our historical survey, which covers prehistory to the fourteenth century, with primary sources penned during the very era we are studying. I assign works that I feel ought to be read by anyone who wants to claim any real familiarity with the history of Western civilization (I lecture briefly on the Presocratics, Aristotle, Augustine, the Victorines, Abelard and Suger).

What strikes me is how very foreign so many of the basic concepts found in these texts are to my students–concepts such as fate, providence, communalism, being and the synergy between religion and government. This is not due to any shortcomings on the part of my students (when I entered college, I, too, was adrift in these waters), but due to the intellectual revolution of modernity which played itself out not only in science, political theory and religion, but also in living societies themselves. In short, ideas–even the most esoteric–affect the workings of the world.

What my students provide me with is the insight that the modern world, which in itself is no monolith, is markedly different than that of the ancient and medieval periods. It seems that the natural orientation of attitude toward the world, that is, our daily, unadulterated worldview, is largely a product of modernity, albeit not exclusively so. Even those of us who study the history of ideas must modify, as it were, the orientation of our thinking in order to grasp at the concepts and living order of “pre-modern” life in Western society.

At this point, I am fully aware of my post’s susceptibility to postmodernism’s “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” but nevertheless I press on.

What is this modern mindset that has conditioned our contemporary world? All I can do at this point is to sketch an historical picture of the questions, inquiries and findings that provided the shift (not a break!) in thinking. I leave it to you to fill in the gaps that I will inevitably leave.

Watershed moments
We can, perhaps, list four historical moments that remapped the intellectual and culture landscape cultivated during the medieval period:

1. The (re)discovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts
2. The invention of the printing press
3. Martin Luther’s challenge to Catholic ecclesial authority
4. The fissure between Church and state

These four moments were successive and related, though I hesitate to declare them causally so. But if we are to isolate a sort of cause of the modern mind, perhaps we can find no better candidate than the discovery of original Greek and Latin texts.

During the high Middle Ages, many ancient texts were acquired through relations with Muslim intellectuals who possessed several Arabic translations of Plato, Aristotle and the neo-Platonists (to name only a few). While there were some Greek manuscripts extant, the transmission of the bulk of the Aristotelian and neo-Platonic corpora was transmitted to the Latin West via Arabic sources. By the close of the 14th century, original Greek and Latin manuscripts were discovered, prompting many scholars to immerse themselves in the classical languages (medieval Latin and ancient Latin differed greatly in terms of structure, vocabulary, idiom and pronunciation). The invention of the printing press would eventually make these manuscripts more widely available outside centers of learning and research, extending education and study beyond the monastery and medieval university walls and into the hands of the individual.

The discovery spawned much excitement among the European elite, which eventually developed into an intellectual trend, so to speak. One of the chief characteristics of the Renaissance was the idea that a recovery of the styles of the ancients would prompt a rebirth of the classical age that would bring about ideal social and intellectual conditions. If the “Middles Ages” could be by-passed, it was thought, the two eras which flanked them could somehow merge conceptually and, less likely, practically. When one considers this paradigm of thought, it is no surprise that a young Martin Luther, caught up in this naive Zeitgeist, would call for a return to some ancient, more primitive style of Christianity in opposition to what he perceived to be the ossification of faith and the tyrannical jurisdiction within the medieval Church. Of course, the caricatures of early Graeco-Roman life constructed by Renaissance scholars and the caricatures of apostolic Christianity constructed by the Protestant Reformers would be exposed and dashed by the historico-critical studies of 19th century German historians.

By the time of Descartes, a more sober view of classical learning emerged. It was no longer thought possible to somehow resurrect the intellectual and social life of antiquity. However, what did seem possible was not so much a recovery as an emulation of the manner in which the ancients thought. That is, one could philosophize just as the great Plato and Aristotle had. This would, of course, entail jettisoning the theological and philosophical legacy forged by the likes of the Cappadocians, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Scotus, and even Ockham. By cleaning the intellectual slate, so to speak, one could perhaps mimic the style of a Plato or an Aristotle without entertaining some romantic notion that life in modern Europe could somehow embody life in ancient Greece, Macedonia, Carthage or Rome. Likewise, any outside authority such as the Church or society was held in suspicion, for they risked contaminating and obscuring the individual’s pursuit of truth.

Intellectual trends
What emerged in intellectual circles was a concentration on the re-creating, re-imaging, re-imagining and re-constituting of the world through the efforts of the individual. Three general characteristics of this worldview or thought-form are:

1. I know with relative adequacy that there is an external world “outside” me, but I know with absolute certainty that the self (i.e. that “I”) exists. All knowledge, therefore, will proceed from this certainty of myself or at least accompany this certainty.

2. When I talk and make judgments about the world, I make no reference to the world apart from my own ideas, taxonomies, (meta-)narratives and perceptions of the world. It is not that the world simply exists, it’s that I understand the world to exist according to my own understanding.

3. The narrative history of humanity is a chronicle of self-interested, autonomous individuals interacting with one another and resolving conflict.

The attempt to re-connect this new concept of “individual”, which is not coextensive with the concept of “person” (which also includes social reality), results in socio-political models that ultimately aim to serve the individual(s) rather than the person(s) or the whole community. It is no surprise that this individualism, divorced from both community and Church, bred such phenomena as free market capitalism, utilitarianism, secularism, and religious non-denominationalism. Indeed, how can any of these phenomena survive without their underlying and unifying foundation in individualism?

Even Catholics who embrace one or more of these phenomena cannot help but distort and mutate the fundamental creativity of the human person, morphing a true creativity that is essentially priestly and divine into an illusory creativity that is marked by individual effort at constituting reality in one’s own image. Indeed, I wonder if these same Catholics have sought the intellectual roots of these phenomena in Calvin, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, A. Smith and J.S. Mill, all of whom were without Catholicism as a touchstone. An honest attempt at philosophical and economic genealogy would likely dispel the myths that these phenomena, at their deepest roots, are in any manner or measure commensurable with Catholic faith.

And so when we think of the making of the modern mind, we cannot help but characterize it in terms of a theoretical individualism that is awkwardly re-connected/re-inserted into practical communal living. Is it any wonder that our modern (contemporary) ideas of society, religion and economics are so vastly different and foreign from those ideas of Christ and the early/medieval Church? Is it any wonder that many self-described orthodox Catholics equally struggle to break from these inculcated Protestant/modern ideas, confusedly championing individualism in economics and politics on the one hand, and a robust Catholicism on the other?

Pope Benedict, it seems to me, in his two marvelous little volumes, Christianity and the Crisis of Culture and Values in a Time of Upheaval, sketches a sure path out of individualism by raising the Catholic consciousness above the murmurs of individualism disjointedly tied to communion. Unless we are willing to be critical of our own ideas, we shall remain circumscribed by them.


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