Saturday, April 12, 2008

NOTES: Carl Becker: The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers

The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers
by Carl L. Becker
(New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene, 2003 [1932])

p. 3 – St. Thomas on natural law: "Since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law…; it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, form its being imprinted on them, they receive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law."
>>>> [ST, II-I, Q. XCI, art. ii.]
p. 10 – Litera gesta docet; quid credas, allegoria; moralis quid agas; quo tendas, anagogia = The letter teaches what we know / Anagogia what we hope is so / Faith's confirmed by allegories, / Conduct's shaped by moral stories.
pp. 20–21 – [Becker affirms the error that Galileo actually dropped balls (from a tower)]
p. 21 – 22 – C17 scientists worked with "a minimum of faith—except, of course (the exception was tremendous but scarcely noticed at the time) faith in the uniform behavior of nature and in the capacity of reason to discover its modus operandi."
p. 23 – "Science has taught us the futility of troubling to understand the “underlying agency” of the things we use."
>>>> [Which exactly how science was not born!]
p. 24 – It is one of the engaging ironies of modern thought that the scientific method, which it was once fondly hoped would banish mystery from the world, leaves it every day more inexplicable.
pp. 29 & 31 – My object is, therefore, to furnish an explanation of eighteenth-century thought, from the historical point of view, by showing that it was related to something that came before and to something else that came after. … I shall attempt to show that the Philosophes demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials.
p. 30 – But, if we examine the foundations of their faith, we find that at every turn the Philosophes betray their debt to medieval thought without being aware of it. … They renounced the authority of the church and the Bible, but exhibited a naïve faith in the authority of nature and reason.
p. 31 – They denied that miracles ever happened, but believed in the perfectibility of the human race.
pp. 36–37 – In spite of Candide and all the rest, Voltaire was an optimist, although not a naïve one.
p. 39 – C18 characterized by: not a disillusioned indifference, but the eager didactic impulse to set things right. Bienfaisance, humanité—the very words, we are told, are new, coined by the Philosophers to express ins secular terms the Christian ideal of service.
p. 42 – They were the secular bearers of the Protestant and Jansenist tradition.
p. 42 – persiflage : light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter
p. 43 – Emancipated themselves, they were conscious of a mission to perform, a message to deliver mankind; and to this messianic enterprise they brought an extraordinary amount of earnest condition….
pp. 48–49 – The picture of salvation in the Heavenly City they toned down to a vague impressionistic image of a “future state,” “the immortality of the soul,” or a more generalized earthly and social félicité or perfectibilité du genre humain.
p. 53 – Christian, deist, atheist––all acknowledge the authority of the book of nature; if they differ it is only as to the scope of its authority, as to whether it merely confirms or entirely supplants the old revelation.
p. 56 – Cleanthes does not conclude that nature must be rational because God is eternal reason; he concludes that God must be an engineer because nature is a machine.
p. 57 – "These Principles I consider not as occult Qualities, supposed to result from the specific Forms of Things, but as general Laws of Nature, by which the Things themselves are form'd."
>>>> I. Newton, quoted in Dampier-Whetham, A History of Science, p. 181, 183.
p. 60 – "Very few people read Newton because it is necessary to be learned to understand him. But everybody talks about him."
>>>> Voltaire, Oeuvres, XXII, 130.
p. 63 – They had only given another form and a new nature to the object of worship: having denatured God, they deified nature.
pp. 66, 69 – [Concerning Locke's naturalist epistemology of the mind as the impression of nature, and the unnerving consequences this had for the nature of evil as but the naturally misperceived whims of nature, quotes Pope:] "All discord, harmony not understood; / All partial evil, universal good; / And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right." …if nature is good, then there is no evil in the world; if there is evil in the world, then nature is so far not good. … Will they, closing their eyes to the brute facts, maintain that there is no evil in the world? In that case there is nothing for them to set right. Or will they, keeping their eyes open, admit that there is evil in the world? In that case nature fails to provide them with any standard for setting things right.
p. 82 -- …and what was atheism if not a confession of ignorance? … [In Hume's posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion] the Christian mystic, Demea, and the skeptic, Philo, following Reason to the bitter end, found themselves in the same camp, agreeing only in this, that reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question about God, or morality, or the meaning of life.
p. 87 – The soul of the individual might be evil, it might be temporary, it might even be an illusion. But the soul of humanity, this something "essential to" human nature, this "common model of ourselves" (and what was this but the old medieval "realism" come to life again?) was surely immortal because permanent and universal.
>>>> [cf. J.J. Rousseau, Eloise (1810), I, 4.]
p. 89 – If well enough satisfied with the present we are likely to pay our ancestors the doubtful compliment of approaching them with a studied and pedantic indifference; but when the times are out of joint we are disposed to blame them for it, or else we dress them up, as models suitable for us to imitate, in shining virtues which in fact they never possessed, which they would perhaps not have recognized as virtues at all. … In the sixth century [sic] … St. Augustine saw the advantages of a new history, and in fact created it by writing the City of God, which was undoubtedly one of the most ingenious and successful tricks ever played on the dead.
p. 92 – All Philosophers make the same complaint, that the orthodox historians accumulate facts for the sake of facts; all make the same demand, that the new history must be written by Philosophers in order to disengage from the facts those useful truths that will "lead us to a knowledge of ourselves and others."
>>>> [Fontenelle, Oeuvres (1790), V, 431.]
p. 97 – The reason [the Philosophes neglected the historical sense of development, as a function of the continuity of history] is that the eighteenth-century Philosophers were not primarily interested in stabilizing society, but in changing it.
pp. 101–102 – It is surely a paradox needing explanation that the Philosophers, who professed to study history in order to establish the rights suitable to man's nature on the facts of human experience, should have denounced Montesquieu precisely because he was too much inclined to establish the right by the fact. … Is it possible that they were engaged in that nefarious medieval enterprise of reconciling the facts of human experience with truths already, in some fashion, revealed to them?
p. 102 – The essential articles of the religion of the Enlightenment may be stated thus: (1) man is not natively depraved; (2) the end of life is life itself; (3) man is capable, guided solely by the light of reason and experience, of perfecting the good life on earth; and (4) the first and essential condition of the good life on earth is the freeing of men's minds from the bonds of ignorance [p. 103] and superstition, and of their bodies from the arbitrary oppression of the constituted social authorities.
p. 106 – Reason and common sense have noted the evil character of Christian philosophy; it will be history's function to exhibit it in action, to note the striking examples of its evil influence.
p. 112 – Very much as the Philosophers "adopted" Fénelon and made use of him to refute Bossuet, nineteenth-century writers adopted Montesquieu and made use of him to refute the Philosophers.
p. 115 – Before estimating a book it is well to read its title with care. And what is the title of Montesquieu's book? Not the laws, but the spirit of the laws.
p. 121 – …the specious present as held in consciousness at any time is a pattern of thought woven instantaneously from the threads of memories, perceptions, and anticipations.
p. 123 – In presenting a new version of the human drama, the Philosophers were employing tactics which Christian theologians had themselves employed long ago. The early Christian writers had won their battle, in so far as they did win it, by adapting to the needs and experience of the ancient world (which, like the eighteenth century, needed to be set right) the old Greek theme of cyclical decline and recovery. The classical idea of a golden age, or situation created by some happily inspired Lycurgus or Solon, the Christian theologians reinterpreted in terms of their own biblical story.
p. 126 – The Christian version out an end to the helpless, hopeless world by substituting for the eternal "nothing new" another world altogether new, a golden age to come in place of a golden age past and done with; it called on the future to redress the balance of the present, and required of the individual man, as a condition of entering the promised land, nothing but the exercise of those negative virtues which common men understood so well––the virtues of resignation and obedience. … No interpretation of the life of mankind ever more exactly reflected the experience, or more effectively responded to the hopes of the average men. … with fond memories to the happier times … of youth, to look forward with hope to a more serene and secure old age …. And what was the Christian story if not an application of this familiar individual experience to the life of mankind?
p. 128 – … independent of its historical accidents. The importance of the Christian story was that it announced with authority (whether truly or not matters little) that the life of man has significance, a universal significance transcending and including the temporal experience of the individual. This was the secret of its enduring strength, that it irradiated pessimism with hope: it liberated the mind of man from the cycles in which classical philosophy had inclosed it as in a prison, and by transferring the golden age from the past tot he future substituted an optimistic for a disillusioned view of human destiny.
p. 129 – No "return," no "rebirth" of classical philosophy, however idealized and humanized, no worship of ancestors long since dead, or pale imitations of Greek pessimism would suffice for a society that had been so long and so well taught to look forward to another and better world to come.
p. 130 – For the love of God they substituted the love of humanity; for the vicarious atonement the perfectibility of man through his own efforts; and for the hope of immortality in another world the hope of living in the memory of future generations.
p. 131 – They missed the simple fact (and there are till many who refuse to see it) that the true way to imitate the Greeks is not to imitate them, since the Greeks themselves imitated no one.
p. 135 – "We are under obligation to the ancients," he [Fontenelle] says, "for having exhausted almost all the false theories that could be formed."
>>>> Vis-à-vis Fontenelle's arguments in Les anciens et les modernes (1688) about cultural degeneration––it being accidental rather than historically necessary––and his distinction between arts and science, the former which the moderns could, with feeling and imagination, match but never surpass the ancients in, the latter in which the moderns could, with knowledge, surpass the ancients.
p. 140 – In this enterprise [viz., of situating the degeneration of their time in the larger scope of human Progress] posterity played an important rôle: it replaced God as judge and justifier of those virtuous and enlightened ones who were not of this world.
p. 144 – Men rarely love humanity more fervently than when they are engaged in deadly conflict with each other….
p. 146 – "No nobler use has history than this: it leads us as it were into the council of fate and teaches us to conform to the eternal laws of nature." (Herder, Sämmtliche Werke (1877–1913), XIV, 251–252).
p. 150 – "Posterity is for the Philosopher what the other world is for the religious."
>>>> (Diderot, Oeuvres, XVIII, 101)
p. 155 – Not until our own time have historians been sufficiently detached from religions to understand that the [French] Revolution, in its later stages especially, took on the character of a religious crusade. … [T]he new religion had its dogmas, the sacred principles of the Revolution––Liberté et sainte égalité. It had its forms of worship, and adaptation of Catholic ceremonial…. It had its saints, the heroes and martyrs of liberty. It was sustained by an emotional impulse, a mystical faith in humanity, in the ultimate regeneration of the human race.
p. 156 – "a religion which made the fatherland and the laws the object of adoration for all citizens would be in the eyes of a wise man an excellent religion. Its Pontiff would be the king, the supreme ruler. To die for the fatherland would be to achieve eternal glory, eternal happiness."
>>>> [Nicolas de Bonneville, De l'espirit des religions (1791), Part I, 39.]
p. 162 – Supplied with the dialectic of Hegel and the evolutionary theories of Darwin, Marx formulated, in Das Kapital, the creed of the communist faith which was to replace, for the discontented, the democratic faith of the eighteenth century. The new faith, like the old, looks to the past and to the future; like the old, it sees in the past a persistent conflict, and in the future a millennial state.
p. 163 – Like Diderot's Rameau, we are disposed, naturally enough, to think, "The devil take the best of possible worlds if I am not a part of it."

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