Classic Revisited: Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and though Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity (2008) is a little young for “classic” status, it is a learned and original intellectual history of modernity.  Gillespie’s thesis is that the conventional account of modernity as setting itself in opposition to or as rejecting altogether religion and theology is mistaken.  Instead, as he puts it early in the book:

[F]rom the very beginning, modernity sought not to eliminate religion but to support and develop a new view of religion and its place in human life, and did so not out of hostility to religion but in order to sustain certain religious beliefs.  As we shall see, modernity is best understood as an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man, and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself . . . . I will argue further that while this metaphysical/theological core of the modern project was concealed over time by the very sciences that it produced, it was never far from the surface, and it continued to guide our thinking and action, often in ways that we do not perceive or understand.  I will argue that the attempt to read the questions of theology and metaphysics out of modernity has in fact blinded us to the continuing importance of theological issues in modern thought in ways that make it very difficult to come to terms with out current situation.

Gillespie goes about making his case by beginning with the contest between scholasticism and nominalism (the view that what is real is particular and individual, not universal, and so “God [cannot] be understood by human reason but only by biblical revelation or mystical experience”).  The conflict was, as he says above, primarily and originally a late medieval conflict, not one which came into being in the Enlightenment (let alone later).  “The God that Aquinas and Dante described was infinite, but the glory of his works and the certainty of his goodness were manifest everywhere.  The nominalist God, by contrast, was frighteningly omnipotent, utterly beyond human ken, and a continual threat to human well-being.  Moreover, this God could never be captured in words and consequently could be experienced only as a titanic question that evoked awe and dread.  It was this question, I want to suggest, that stands at the beginning of modernity.”  (15)

One feature of the book that was particularly enjoyable for me is Gillespie’s emphasis on the poet Petrarch as the representative both of this struggle and of the turn toward nominalism (in graduate school years ago, Petrarch’s poems about Laura in the Canzoniere were one of my favorite things).  I confess that before reading Gillespie’s book, I had never thought about Petrarch as an important or even a notable figure with respect to these kinds of issues.  Gillespie devotes roughly a chapter and a half to him.  He claims that Petrarch was the first writer to face the nominalist challenge — the view that “there is no divine logos or reason that can serve as the foundation for a political, cosmopolitan, or theological identity.” (45)  Confronted with the political and social chaos of the mid-14th century, Petrarch looked “not to the city, God, or the cosmos for support, but into himself, finding an island of stability and hope not in citizenship but in human individuality.”

I cannot do justice to Gillespie’s superb treatment of Petrarch, but here’s a relatively late summary paragraph in his discussion:

It is difficult today to appreciate the impact Petrarch had on his contemporaries in part because we find it so difficult to appreciate his impact on us.  Petrarch is scarcely remembered in our time.  There are very few humanists or academics who can name even one of his works; and none of his Latin works makes it on to a list of great books.  And yet, without Petrarch, there would be no humanists or academics, no great books, no book culture at all, no humanism, no Renaissance, and no modern world as we have come to understand it.  Why then have we forgotten him?  Several factors contribute to his oblivion: the neglect of Latin literature as literary scholars have increasingly focused on national literatures, changing scholarly tastes and fashions, and the fact that many of his works fall outside of familiar genres.  But the real cause lies deeper.  Petrarch seldom tells us anything that we don’t already know, and as a result he seems superfluous to us.  But this is the measure of his importance, for what he achieved is now so universally taken for granted that we find it difficult to imagine things could have been otherwise.  (69)

One last side note, and please forgive the musical addendum, but Franz Liszt certainly did not forget Petrarch.  Have a listen to his extremely beautiful song cycle, “Les Années de Pèlerinage” (“The Years of Wandering” — which is just what Petrarch did for most of his life), and particularly Year 3 in that cycle (“en Italie”), which contains some wonderful settings of several Petrarchan sonnets.  Number 47 is really spectacular and, maybe, captures a little of what Gillespie is talking about.

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