Monday, September 13, 2010

Man’s Desire for Autonomy and the Irrelevancy of God


"Encyclopedia—"the circle of teachings"—may be taken as the emblem of the 18C. Like the Renaissance, the age was confident that the new knowledge, the fullness of knowledge, was in its grasp and was a means of EMANCIPATION. Confidence came from the visible progress in scientific thought. Science was the application of reason to all questions, no matter what tradition might have handed down. Everything will ultimately be known and "encircled." The goal of exploring nature and mind and broadcasting results was to make Man everywhere of one mind, rational, and humane. Language, nation, mores, and religion and its universal morals and with French as the international medium of the educated, it would be a world peopled with—or at least managed by—philosophes.
Before its realization a good many things had to be got out of the way, the principal one being Christianity—not its ethics of love and brotherhood, but its supernatural history, theology, and church. The Bible must be shown to be a set of fables invented by ignorance or designing people. This was not exactly the purpose of Father Richard Simon, an Oratorian monk of the preceding century, who wrote a Critical History of the Old Testament disputing Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch. But he led the way in what is known as the higher criticism of Scripture, the ANALYSIS of its meaning and truth, and not just of the purity of the text. About the same time in Holland, the excommunicated Jew Spinoza, a quiet thinker, went much farther in his interpretation. He had elaborated a philosophy deeply marked by natural science, which was incompatible with a literal belief in the Bible. For Spinoza, God was in all things and all things were alive with His power. Though impersonal and impassive, He deserved man's "intellectual love." This faith was part of an ethics and metaphysics that Spinoza demonstrated geometrically, by more than a hundred propositions deduced in strict order from a few definitions and axioms. The Bible, when closely read, appeared to be a compilation by anonymous scribes and full of contradictions. The moral teachings were admirable, the historical parts uncertain, and the stories allegorical.
Spinoza was highly regarded by the handful of 17C philosophers and scientists whom he corresponded with. He published little; he lived very modestly as an artisan and declined a chair at Heidelberg. But from a distance he seemed just another freethinker and atheist, thought not harmful. Like Simon he had no immediate following. So far, the higher criticism was underground preparation. But shortly a work appeared that exploded the mine and breached the fortress. Its author was Pierre Bayle, also a refugee in Holland. He produced a massive dictionary labeled "historical and critical." By comparing, juxtaposing, questioning, and describing ironically the familiar parts of the Christian revelation, he left the reader skeptical as himself—or outraged by the blasphemy.
To avoid censorship Bayle wrote short entries that merely defined the subject: the doctrine was in the appended notes, long and in small print, that encouraged the censor to skip. The Century of Light was thus inaugurated, but also divided. When we regard the philosophes and their Encyclopedie as triumphing easily, we are influenced by the now prevailing assent to their views, which helped to make our secular world. But the opposition they met was not crushed; it revived in the 19C and is increasingly vehement today. Its target, the "Enlightenment," is not reason or light but the 18C idea and use of it.
Bayle's Dictionary was a work that would attract mainly intellectuals. One is not surprised that Jefferson owned it in five folio volumes. But it took Voltaire to carry its message to the ordinary educated reader, the well-to-do bourgeois, the men and women in high society, and the mixed group in the salons. His message was simple: the Book of Genesis is not wrong on one point: God did create the universe, but nobody knows how, and He set it going according to rules—the laws of science—with which He has no reason to interfere. This is Deism, the religion of reasonable men. Therefore drop the ritual, the prayers and candles—and the fears. At the same time open your eyes to the imposture practiced on you by the church for its sole beneficiaries, the priests and monks, bishops, and popes…
…"Religion as such is not attacked; it is redefined into simplicity. One may well be overawed by the Great Architect and His handiwork—and there an end. All peoples have this same feeling about the Creator, for Man, like Nature, is fundamentally the same the world over. Good morals are untouched; they too are universal. With this underlying unity about ultimate things, there should be no causes for conflict, no religious wars, no crusades, heretics, conversions, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, and massacres." Jacques Barzun – From Dawn to Decadence, page 359-361

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