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Heroes of Suffering vs. Heroes of Accomplishment

Steve Sailer has an even more than usually insightful piece up at VDare on "That Texas Schoolbook Massacre" - you know, the Texas Board of Education's recent "challenge to the Left's post-1960s dominion over the past" - in which he takes a close look at one prominent example of the sort of high school "history" text that the "Texas Taliban" wants to replace. The whole article is so good that one hates to single out just one thing, but I was particularly struck by Sailer's point that, over the past century, "heroes of suffering" have replaced "heroes of accomplishment" in the American imagination - a point that he attributes to the formidable Gregory Cochran.

So the likes of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, William Shockley, Robert Noyce, Jack Kilby, Claude Shannon, James Watson, Francis Crick, Raymond Spruance, Clarence Wade McClusky, Max Leslie, Clifton Sprague, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and even the Wright brothers, fade into obscurity, while the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony crowd to the front of the educationist bus.

Would it be mischievous for me to suggest that this interesting phenomenon represents the ultimate triumph of the Christian aspect of our Western cultural inheritance over both the Greco-Roman and the Germanic aspects?

So far as I can determine, neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor the Germanic tribes ever regarded the victims of history with anything but contempt. They were champions of achievement - especially military achievement. If any of them ever lost any sleep over the sufferings of the losers, I have yet to hear about it.

But the deification of the victim - God on the Cross - lies at the very heart of Christianity.

Vicisti, Galilaee.

Comments (45)

Steve,

For the moment, I will ignore your provocative thesis and simply thank you for turning me on to that Sailer piece. When he is good, he is really, really good. One of my favorite little asides:

Consider that there are almost as many people of Mexican descent in the U.S. as there are blacks. Everybody can name famous blacks. But how many famous Mexicans can you remember?

Let’s see how many I can now recall after reading the book. There’s Cesar Chavez, and then there’s Sammy Sosa, who is cited on p. 1123 (interestingly enough, that is the same page on which Lawrence Auster appears as a bogeyman for writing The Path to National Suicide). But, he’s not Mexican, he’s Dominican. (Sammy, I mean, not Larry.)

That last line is just perfect!

Mischievous indeed!

It would be a little less obvious if the left-liberal lock allowed for the likes of Frederick Douglas and Clara Barton, people who both suffered AND accomplished.

Yes, but Christ's victimhood was also the ultimate achievement. One of the insights of Christianity is that suffering can be redemptive, meaningful, and spiritually powerful.

The heart of Christian anthropology, if you will, is not victimization as such, but heroic virtue. Not all suffering is virtuous or meritorious; nor is heroic virtue always manifest through suffering. But you're right in that our heroes look different from those of the ancients for that reason.

What I think you are finding with the new "victim" cult is a worldly perspective which views all suffering and hardship as unjust and intolerable - a view not very far removed from paganism, which holds the world's "losers" in contempt. The common thread here is that "victims" are either venerated or vilified without regard to the metaphysical realities beneath the surface.

"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us." Rom. 8:37.

According to Rene Girard's theory:

In Girard's view, it is humankind, not God, who has the problem with violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire). This causes a triangulation of desire and results in conflict between the desiring parties. This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. The keyword here is "content", scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people. Girard contends that this is what happened in the case of Jesus.

If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. René Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.

His point is that with Pre-Christian mythology such as described in Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, the victims of the sacrifice (the Scapegoat) are considered sacred because of the peace and unity they have brought to the community. So he believes old religious myths have there origins in some form of reality. The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king (similar to Jesus). If this is true, then the glamorisation of victim hood has existed with humanity since the dawn of religion itself, and aprior to Christianity, its just that Jesus was innocent and in the other myths the scapegoats are not.

In Greek mythology, for example, a religious oracle identifies Oedipus as the person responsible for a plague that strikes Thebes. According to the oracle, Thebes will be delivered from the affliction only when Oedipus is expelled from society. Oedipus becomes the guilt-ridden scapegoat whose punishment serves the greater good of Thebes. Hence he is an example of the scapegoating mechanism within there mythology, they look down on the weak and at they same time treated them with a sacred reverence.


An example of Greek scapegoating.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmakos


Rene Girard's views on the difference between old religious mythology and Christianity.


The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — a bodily re-presentation in this case — in the Eucharist. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim inasmuch as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence.

The evangelical "good news" clearly affirms the innocence of the victim, thus becoming, by attacking ignorance, the germ of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job, ...), and the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that are unveiled these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35), the foundation of social order on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion.

This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion (Mark 14: 66-72; Luke 22:54-62). Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" (skandalon, literally, a "snare", or an "impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall") as signifying mimetic rivalry, for example Peter's denial of Jesus. No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).


The thing is, I consider all this "guilt by association" stuff between Christianity and liberal victimology to be sort of uninteresting. You might as well blame Christianity for the existence of every kooky Christian-imitating cult that has come down the pike, on the grounds that if Christianity hadn't existed, these obvious distortions of it wouldn't exist, either. Well, okay, but really, who cares? It certainly doesn't tell us anything about the truth-value of Christianity. I'm perfectly happy to grant as a not-too-wildly-implausible thesis that liberal victimology is a kind of bizarre distortion of Christianity, a distortion that gotten much worse _precisely_ as knowledge of and firm belief in true Christian doctrine has waned in the culture and people are searching for a substitute religion.

St. Paul said that Jesus conquered the powers of hell and made an open show of them--clearly using the Roman trope of the parade the conqueror made of his conquered opponents. The concept of Christ the victor over death, Satan, and hell (in both his death and resurrection) is deeply woven into Christian iconography, art, and liturgy. The proper preface for Good Friday contains the words, "That he who by a tree was the victor [meaning Satan] might also by a tree be vanquished." In the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Dream of the Rood," Jesus is portrayed mounting the cross as a young warrior. The fallen, "blasted" soldiers with Jesus rising or stepping out of the grave over them are a staple in paintings of the resurrection, deriving from the biblical account of the knock-out of the soldiers by the appearance of the angel who rolled away the stone. I could go on and on.

The "pale Galilean" is a figment of the modern imagination and always will be, and Christians need not be embarrassed by the nonsense perpetrated by a feminized culture, as it has nothing to do with true Christianity.

Moreover, any choice offered between some sort of ruthless, "devil-take-the-hindmost" attitude that cares nothing about the losers on the one hand and suicidal liberalism on the other is a plain or garden false dichotomy.

Rise up, oh men of God.

When I first heard the insult "Texas Taliban," I thought it was directed at the American mullahs fomenting terrorist ideas among their people in Texas. I found out later that it was referring to sweet Christian folks just trying to exercise their power of self-governance, the very thing that the Taliban opposes. And then I found out that the guy who employs the term "Texas Taliban" says it is wrong for immigration officials to make sure that possible immigrants of Islamic belief do not harbor the actual views of the Taliban. But this guy also says that the sweet Christian folks should not exercise their power of self-governance. So, the guy who calls the Christians the "Texas Taliban" is against self-governance and does not want the Taliban to be restricted from immigrating to America.

It looks like the philosopher's gourmet is serving bull**it.

Steve, you left out the ancient Celtic tribes! :)

The ancient pagans were grounded in time, place and people. Their religions were ancestral cults - passed on by blood and progeny - whose aim was the continuation of the tribe, for, without blood descendants, no one would be around to worship their ancestors. While they sometimes could be cruel, they also could be compassionate and magnanimous. But ultimately, unlike people today with their universalist aspirations, the world of the pagans was local and concrete, replete with a tapestry of mundane deities and ancestral obligations - interwoven with their own family histories. As noted by the 19th-century Breton Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, author of Ancient City, for these ancestral religions familial and ancestral duties (such as procreation and remembering the dead) were central. Unlike many modern religions, ancient paganism wasn't concerned so much about ideas as about blood. Their gods were their ancestors, both in the immediate domain of gods like the penates and in the removed sphere of lineages traced back to major gods (e.g. Romans tracing their lines to Aeneas to Venus, or Germans tracing their lineages to the Vǫlsungs to Odin).  And it is one’s duty not to let the family line, interwoven with the gods, die out.  It’s no coincidence that maritare in Latin means both “to wed” and “to procreate.” Preserving the tribe meant everything.

Contrast this with much of post-Enlightment Christianity that values universalism and the dissolution of a people. As I've said before, the religion that gave us Chartres Cathedral and Bach today produces:  strip-mall Christian bands singing classics like “Jesus Rocks”; a Jacobin pro-life movement denouncing abortion as racist and a violation of universal human rights; religious leaders from all political persuasions arguing that it’s our Christian duty to accept mass immigration from the Third World; and liturgies espousing the universal brotherhood of man.

Not that Christianity has always been this way. Christian leaders like Clovis or Charles Martel would were warriors and champions of a particular people in a particular time and place. Many great Christian leaders time and time again saved and preserved our forbearers and ancestral lands.

But the Enlightenment seems to have changed Christianity - perhaps irrevocably. I worry about the future. Will Christians today lift a finger to save the West and its children? As Philip Jenkins has noted, the future of Christianity, with its real growth in the Third World, will not only be non-Western, but quite likely anti-Western. Let's hope he's wrong.

Will Christians today lift a finger to save the West and its children?

No one else is even lifting a finger.

The only real hope for restoring what is honorable and great is recovery of a true picture of the nature of man and his destiny. "The Christian philosophy has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."

Do you really want to save your culture? Do you really?

Then you must make it Christian again. For Christianity is true, and cultures endure because they cleave to the truth.

P.S. Sorry if the above comment seems to be a rehash of things I've said previously. It is. I got carried away.


Regarding Sailer's essay, I especially found sadly amusing the bit about the the AP textbook Nation of Nations' celebration of Juan Chanax (of whom I - probably like everyone else - had never heard):

"Who, exactly, is Chanax and why does he appear on six pages when Chamberlain can’t be squeezed in anywhere? It turns out Chanax is an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who works in a supermarket in Houston. This hero’s accomplishment is that he brought in 1,000 other illegal aliens from his home village."

I agree that viewing Christ as a "suffering hero" usually neglects the triumphal aspects of the Cross. I blame this on loss of belief in the Resurrection, since that is the key event of Christianity and the end of Christ's death.

A Latin American I know, a savvy observer who is no devotee of machismo, sees the obsession with traumatic events and weepy victimhood as "an Anglo thing."

John Wayne truly is dead.

As Sailer suggests, the "suffering hero" motif isn't the icon of a confident establishment. I'd credit its origins in part to psychoanalytic schools that prize confession of trauma so that it can be expertly treated and remitted.

There is also the triumph of 19th century immigrant populations over the old WASPs. Since these immigrants' heroes were often only suffering ones, their heroifications displaced others.

The mental dominance of the Holocaust in recent decades is also an issue. Faced with that tragic bloodbath, we are tempted to make heroes of all the victims. There is even a strange obsession in equating past wrongs with the Holocaust, as some Irish try to do with the Famine.

Too, it is hard to discuss slavery without making a virtue of victimhood.

At times it is as if suffering and ostracism, not virtue, experience or tradition, give authority to rule. What's more, they give legitimacy to the reorganization of society to eliminate past injustices. So the heroism of suffering serves political goals, too.

While Americans may have always loved roguish outlaws, lately we especially prefer the pirate over the pirate hunter. So we have Disney's fantasies instead of biopics about Stephen Decatur. Perhaps we have just absorbed the idea that established power is always covertly illegitimate.

But the deification of the victim - God on the Cross - lies at the very heart of Christianity.

The Resurrection was wimpy?

One thing is clear: the modern cult of victimhood is a degenerative state that is unique to Christendom. It's like a Christian heresy, because there is some truth behind the distortion. When non-Christian societies depart from their moorings and "go bad", they don't go bad in the same way.

Would it be mischievous for me to suggest...

Oh no. You would never be intentionally mischievous.

...that this interesting phenomenon represents the ultimate triumph of the Christian aspect of our Western cultural inheritance over both the Greco-Roman and the Germanic aspects?

Is this a variation on your usual trope that real Christians are wimps and pacifists? Let me ask you something: after the Greco-Roman thing bit the dust, who was left standing?

After that Germanic bunch chucked its Christianity (oh, circa 1933), what was left in its place?

Remember Paton's famous quote:

Americans play to win at all times. I wouldn't give a hoot and hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor ever lose a war.

My, how times have changed.

I can only think that these looney history texts were written by people who have no sense of what is important in history except their own.

The Chicken

In regards to telling history, no historian can be unbiased. The best they can hope for is a sort of a ordering of events and people that would be as close to being recognized as true on Judgment Day as possible (which calls for an unflinching honesty). The problem with an over-focus on diversity is that it compounds biases beyond the merely human to the societal. No historian of integrity should ever allow societal biases to influence their telling of history. That is just cowardice masquerading as liberality.

The Chicken

I think the other problem is how do we define a victim. When pre-christian civilisations hailed and celebrated people who died in battle were they doing this because they were victims or heroes, because they sacrificed there life's for the good of society (Heroes), or because there were victims of the enemy. And if so, should Jesus be classified as a hero as well as a victim.

Are martyrs "heroes of suffering" or "heroes of accomplishment"? If the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, then are they not both?

The Chicken

Hey, what did Jesus ever accomplish, anyway? Only, you know, saving the entire world from sin and death, guaranteeing that the devil will be eternally chained in the end, stuff like that. I'm sure Winston Churchill did more.

Resurrection>Valhalla

Hey, what did Jesus ever accomplish, anyway? Only, you know, saving the entire world from sin and death, guaranteeing that the devil will be eternally chained in the end, stuff like that. I'm sure Winston Churchill did more.

I agree with you 100% Lydia, but it's not completely unreasonable to caricature Christianity as pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die if this is all we offer in response to allegations of wimpy-ness. The fact is that Christians defeated and/or converted those he-man Viking, Arab, and Turk invaders and did so in defense of Christendom. It was the Christian worldview that created scientific advances that continued long after the Islamic Golden Age petered out.

That said,we should never fall into the trap of believing that Christianity's worth should be reckoned by how well it grounds us in time, place and people or how many butts we kick It's value is down to the fact that it is the power of God unto salvation.

I suppose part of the point I was making, too, is that "salvation" is going to mean the renewal of the whole creation as well--redemption. Okay, so atheists don't _believe_ that, but they need at least to _understand_ that Jesus' victory means that the whole creation waits for the redemption of the body. It's not just some vague "spiritual" thing but rather, literally, the final victory of the meaning of the universe, including the physical universe. If God did not exist and our sins could not be forgiven, despair would be justified. It's in a sense, all or nothing. Either we have the chance of redemption, in which case there is a _huge_ eschatological victory waiting at the end of the game, a victory over all the bad guys who, if they don't repent, are going to be cast into the lake of fire (St. John particularly gloats over the antichrist ending up there), or else we all go out into the void. And Jesus Christ is the one who makes the difference between the two.

"Yes, but Christ's victimhood was also the ultimate achievement. One of the insights of Christianity is that suffering can be redemptive, meaningful, and spiritually powerful.

The heart of Christian anthropology, if you will, is not victimization as such, but heroic virtue. Not all suffering is virtuous or meritorious; nor is heroic virtue always manifest through suffering. But you're right in that our heroes look different from those of the ancients for that reason.

What I think you are finding with the new "victim" cult is a worldly perspective which views all suffering and hardship as unjust and intolerable - a view not very far removed from paganism, which holds the world's "losers" in contempt. The common thread here is that "victims" are either venerated or vilified without regard to the metaphysical realities beneath the surfac"

Precisely. Christ's victimhood was voluntary and intentional, therefore heroic.

Would it be mischievous for me to suggest that this interesting phenomenon represents the ultimate triumph of the Christian aspect of our Western cultural inheritance over both the Greco-Roman and the Germanic aspects?

Yes, it would be. Jesus was not a hapless victim. He was proactive and willing about it. It was something he did, not something that just happened to him. And it was the greatest achievement in history, requiring superhuman will and determination.

This phenomenon represents the triumph of the Marxist, Post-Modernist parasite that is constantly trying to destroy our Western cultural inheritance.

So far as I can determine, neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor the Germanic tribes ever regarded the victims of history with anything but contempt. They were champions of achievement - especially military achievement. If any of them ever lost any sleep over the sufferings of the losers, I have yet to hear about it.

You've read the Iliad, I assume? I direct your attention to the last book. The mortal victor pities Priam, and the immortal gods, and the poet himself.

"When he said to them, 'I am he,' they drew back and fell to the ground." John 18:6

Phantom Blogger,
I am duly impressed by the insights of your 8:30 comment, simply amazing.

Step2, I always, always take anyone who can use the word "mimetic" keeping a straight face, with a huge grain of salt. And a couple shots of whiskey. And then prepare for the laughter sure to come. In this case, it serendipitously just turns out (but it doesn't always) that the sentence containing "mimetic" is probably the dumbest sentence in the whole piece, based as it is on a projection of toddler-level maturity to the entirety of the population.

Craig - you're quite right. Achilles' fleeting sympathy for Priam is among the most striking passages in the Iliad. My (casually dashed-off) remarks were seriously over-stated, and unfair to the Greeks (at least).

William Luse: it simply doesn't matter who *I* think is or is not a "real Christian."

But it *does* matter that Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury, and that Roger Mahony is Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles...and so on, and so forth.

Steve, it matters to _me_ who you think is a real Christian. Rowan Williams can go pound sand. (About six years ago I found myself sitting next to someone who told me that he had named his son after Rowan Williams. On purpose. I did manage to keep a poker face...well, hopefully.)

Tony, your line about "mimetic" will have me laughing for a day or so. I tried really hard to read Girard in FT, and I thought I was getting it, but then, it slipped out of my fingers.

Tony,
I'm saddened to read that you are prone to the clutches of euphoric spirits. I suggest you find a better excuse than a mere word.

Did I mention the whiskey?

Hi Steve,

I'm going to go off completely half-cocked here: why are MLK, Jr., Rosa Parks, et al, not heroes of accomplishment? I mean, they got a lot of stuff done, no? Yes, they suffered--but so did lots of our founding fathers.

What am I missing?

But the Enlightenment seems to have changed Christianity - perhaps irrevocably.

So is it more likely then that Christianity is the problem, or the anti-Christian Enlightenment? The Enlightenment is, to be sure, a product of Christian civilization. But as Chesterton pointed out, almost the only important factor of our culture that is not likewise a product of Christian civilization is Christianity itself.

Almost by definition, everything either wrong or right with our culture derives from an elaboration of Christianity. If there be something wrong with our culture, it is likely to derive from a perversion of Christianity; if something right, it is likely to derive from a conversion to Christianity proper.

Especially if Christianity is true.

As to suffering versus achievement: phooey on the dichotomy. Every good thing is fully bought and paid for; has to be, if the cosmos is to cohere. The dichotomy Steve is reaching for is not between suffering and achievement, which mutatis mutandis always commensurate, but between courage and timorousness. If when we find ourselves riding tumbrils we sing "A Mighty Fortress is our God," we'll be heroic martyrs. If we weep and whine and beg and plead, we'll be pathetic cowards. Either way, we die; no matter what we do, we'll die, and our worldly achievements fall to dust and ashes. This fact is not hidden from pagans. We'll die, and suffer, and our achievements come to naught. So achievement versus suffering is neither here nor there. What matters is not death or suffering per se, but how we approach the altar of our inevitable immolation: with clean hearts, or with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

If God is not, then ipso facto we are already utterly lost, and wailing and gnashing of teeth, if not quite seemly to a good Viking or Greek, are at least sensible. But if God exists, then ipso facto may we hope for our own participation in his eventual certain and total victory; in which case courageous martyrdom, indeed happy martyrdom, is really the only thing that makes any sense at all.

What Steve is noticing in modern culture then is the logical sequela of a loss of faith that God exists, which naturally leads to a surfeit of bathos.

it simply doesn't matter who *I* think is or is not a "real Christian."

Sure it does, or you wouldn't have asked the question, and a rather (to use Lydia's polite descriptive) "uninteresting" one at that. But this often happens when someone is out for mere mischief.

Bobcat's question, on the other hand, is rather interesting.

Off-topic, but is it fair to say that the Enlightenment is anti-Christian? One of the interesting things about the Enlightenment, to me, is how subjectivistic it was. Descartes didn't think mind could be accommodated by matter; Leibniz, Berkeley, and, I think, Hume, thought that matter didn't exist; Kant thought matter was a mere phenomenon (on his view, matter consisted purely of relations, so it couldn't be a thing-in-itself); and Malebranche thought that no substances had causal power, and so God was necessary. So, of the big eight philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant), I see the seeds for an anti-Christian philosophy in Spinoza and Locke more than any of the rest of them. (Yes, of course, Hume was quite skeptical; but his philosophy is so self-undermining that I don't take it to have been a threat, despite the fact that contemporary philosophers worship at his altar. I don't think there are any doctrinaire Humeans like there are, say, Kantians.)

You have a point, Bobcat. I don't think that the Enlightenment was anti-Christian _on purpose_, any more than Ockham was. Particularly at the upper reaches of philosophy to which you refer. The straightforwardly Christian Enlightenment of Newton, Addison and their ilk, with its enthusiasm for natural theology, is a noble heritage. But Hume was the Peter Singer of his day: iconoclastic, but known only to the chattering classes, really. Think of that Hitchens of the Enlightenment, Voltaire. Voltaire set the popular tone for the whole enterprise. His parody of the sublime Liebniz was so well-known at the time that it is still more famous than its target. And then think of the insufferable LaPlace, in his overweening vainglory. He I suppose was the Dawkins of the day.

I suppose it is simpler just to say that there was a philo-Christian Enlightenment (Kant, Newton, Berkeley), and an anti-Christian Enlightenment (Voltaire, Gibbon, LaPlace). But so far as the wider culture was concerned, the former were just the latest gyre in the endless debates of the scholars in their cloisters. It was the latter that was novel and newsworthy, not because its ideas were new or compelling, but because it was anti-Christian, and even anti-ecclesial, something that had not been tolerated in Europe since the Albigensian Crusade (right?). And what opened up the intellectual room for the moral toleration of anti-Christianity? That subjectivist tendency you have noticed at work in the Enlightenment generally. If Berkeley and Kant, good Christians, assert that all we have is our own ideas, then its my ideas against yours, and I like mine better; so be damned to eccliesiastical authority, scripture, the Magisterium, &c.; and be damned to the King and his taxes, and the Church with her tithes.

It is indeed odd that the atheist heirs of the Enlightenment combine its subjectivism with its eliminative materialism. "There is nothing but my ideas, and my idea is that there is nothing but matter." Funny.

Hey, I'm not a Berkeleyan, but Berkeley said nothing of the kind. He said that we are given access to _God's_ ideas, which is what all that we call the external world is composed of.

Lydia,

I don't know if your comment was directed at me, but what I meant when I said that matter didn't exist is that matter didn't exist if it was conceived as a self-existing substance independent of our minds, which was how Newton, Locke, and others conceived of it. He of course thought tables, chairs, etc., existed, and hence matter, but by existed he meant perceivable.

Kristor,

As much as it saddens me to say it, I think Kant was (unfortunately) not a good Christian, at least doctrinally (he didn't see the reason we should care about the resurrection of the body or the doctrine of the Trinity). That said, he had no reason to be heterodox, and it would have been more consistent for him to assert both a bodily resurrection (as Aaron Bunch has ably shown in a presentation he has given several times on the circuit) and the doctrine of the trinity (as Chris Firestone has shown in his Kant and Theology at the Boundaries of Reason).

I don't know that you're right about the public being influenced by the anti-Christian Enlightenment more than the philo-Christian one. If Jonathan Israel is to be believed--and at the very least, I think his account is quite credible--during the Enlightenment there were three movements: the Counter-Enlightenment (Aristotelian-Thomists), the Enlightenment proper (Cartesians), and the Radical Enlightenment (the Spinozists). Of the three, though, the Cartesians were the biggest, most powerful force. Also, if Rodney Stark is to be believed, the lay public in Europe wasn't particularly Christian throughout the middle ages, and didn't become so until...well, I forgot when he said they became so. If memory serves, the answer is never!

Sorry, Bobcat, no, I was responding to this by Kristor, but should have quoted:

If Berkeley and Kant, good Christians, assert that all we have is our own ideas,

if Rodney Stark is to be believed, the lay public in Europe wasn't particularly Christian throughout the middle ages, and didn't become so until...well, I forgot when he said they became so. If memory serves, the answer is never!

I've always wondered just how thoroughly Christian the basic ordinary Joe was during the height of Christendom. Considering the sorts of superstitious claptrap they put a lot of faith in, and the lack of literacy, and the relatively limited training even for priests, just what in the world DID they actually believe? Is Stark any good?

Lydia, Bobcat: yes, quite, but what I was trying to get at was, not the actual doctrines of Kant or Berkeley or any of those thinkers, not the specific degrees or natures of their heterodoxies, but rather their impact on the popular culture of the day. I should have expressed myself more clearly. Let me take another stab at it.

Shifting back to our era, notice the difference between real science and its popular image, scientism. Science is epistemologically humble, and tentative; scientism is epistemologically vainglorious, and assertive. In our public discourse it is the latter that rules, and that tilts the normally educated person to materialism, skepticism, &c.

OK, back to the days of Berkeley & al. There’s the actual philosophy of Berkeley, and then there’s the popular image and impact thereof. It’s the latter that I was trying to get at. I’m surmising that just about the only thing of Berkeley that made its way out on to the street was, “Bishop Berkeley says all we have is ideas, and there’s no world apart from that.” Or something of the sort.

And the reason I’m thinking (for the very first time) about the role of the popular impressions of such men as Berkeley or Kant upon the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment era is that I was struck by MA Roberts’ statement that “the Enlightenment seems to have changed Christianity – perhaps irrevocably.” It rang true, and I started trying to dig at it. What was it about the Enlightenment that changed Christianity, or rather Christendom? The Enlightenment was the first time since like Porphyry that there were serious and influential anti-Christian philosophers anywhere in Christendom, right? So their advent was a sea change. Thanks to Bobcat, I can guess that it was the subjectivism that he notices was more or less present in one form or another in many of the high philosophers of the day that, by sowing doubt in the minds of ordinary educated folks about the ability of any man to apprehend the very truth, created the moral leeway for their toleration of anti-Christianity – which is to say, anti-Christendomism. For to strike at Christianity was to strike at the roots of the whole pre-Enlightenment civilization. To be against Christianity was to be against the whole culture it had so pervasively informed, root and branches. Do that, and everything is suddenly up for grabs; the world turned upside down. Take away Christianity, and the whole structure of Christendom must eventually rot and crumble.

The customary way to say “anti-Christendomism” is “Liberalism.”

As anti-Christendomism more and more permeated the culture, the rot redounded upon Christianity itself. Thus, liberal Christianity. Which is wimpy, weepy, sappy Christianity, right? The rot enervates and disarms, producing men without chests in every sphere of life. So in Church they have us sing “Imagine” instead of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” They no longer preach about the glorious victory of the martyrs, instead droning on relentlessly about the “broken-ness” in all our personal lives. It’s not Christianity per se that gets stuck in such pathetic whining, but liberal Christianity. It’s the latter that Steve Burton is noticing in this entry.

So maybe there is a connection between the disintegration of mind and world in the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, and the disintegration of Christendom. Not that one led immediately to the other, but that the first made it possible for the people who actually ran the society to tolerate the anti-Christian philosophes, and thereby give their ideas legitimacy in the popular discourse so that they could take root in the minds of ordinary folks. But this is all just a shot in the dark. I don’t have enough history to tell whether it is right, and would welcome correction. The Israel book sounds interesting.

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Stark is indeed very good. It’s been a few years since I read him on the conversion of Europe, but I think he said that it was complete by about 1000. Conversion de jure, that is; the de facto conversion, conversion all the way down, is taking lots longer! [Just like mine!] The Reformation and the persecutions of witches both took place in the last areas to be converted, which were just north of the old limes of Romanitas.

Steve: I think the contrast you draw depends on distortion. Picking up on Bobcat's comment of April 29, 2010 1:43 AM: Those you list as "heroes of suffering" are really ascendant because they are viewed as having accomplished much. We might disagree about just how accomplished some of these heroes are. I think there's a strong case for MLK > the Wright brothers (& I pick them because of your "even the Wright brothers" phrasing), but I guess that's beside the point, since the issue you raise is the basis on which heroes are being replaced, and for that purpose all that's needed is that the likes of MLK are viewed as being very accomplished by those who think them heroes. [With the Wright brothers, much depends on how well one thinks aviation would have taken off without them. Of course, in any case, they are very accomplished.] I don't think the supposed suffering of the new heroes has much direct significance here. It's their willingness to press on in the face of likely suffering that's more admired, for it speaks to their moral and often physical courage -- a virtue also admired by your Greeks, Romans & Germanic tribes, too, if memory serves.

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