Palmeri, “State of Nature, Stages of Society”

In March, the Columbia University Press will release “State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse,” by Frank Palmeri (University of Miami).  The publisher’s description follows:

Frank Palmeri sees the conjectural histories of Rousseau, Hume, Herder, and other Enlightenment philosophers as a template for the development of the 9780231175166social sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Without documents or memorials, these thinkers, he argues, employed conjecture to formulate a naturalistic account of society’s commercial and secular progression.

Palmeri finds evidence of speculative frameworks in the political economy of Malthus, Martineau, Mill, and Marx. He traces the influence of speculative thought in the development of anthropology and ethnography in the 1860s, the foundational sociology of Comte and Spencer, and the sociology of religion pioneered by Weber, Durkheim, and Freud. Conjectural histories reveal a surprising ambivalence toward progress, modernity, and secularization among leading thinkers of the time, an attitude that affected texts as varied as Darwin’s Descent of Man, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, and the novels of Walter Scott, George Eliot, and H.G. Wells. Establishing the critical value of conjectural thinking in the study of modern forms of knowledge, Palmeri concludes his investigation with its return in the work of Foucault and in recent histories on early religion, political organization, and material life.

Lehner, “The Catholic Enlightenment”

This month, Oxford University Press releases “The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement” by Ulrich L. Lehner (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows:

“Whoever needs an act of faith to elucidate an event that can be explained by reason is a fool, and unworthy of reasonable thought.” This line, spoken by the notorious 18th-century libertine Giacomo Casanova, illustrates a deeply entrenched perception of religion, as prevalent today as it was hundreds of years ago. It is the sentiment behind the narrative that Catholic beliefs were incompatible with the Enlightenment ideals. Catholics, many claim, are superstitious and traditional, opposed to democracy and gender equality, and hostile to science. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Casanova himself was a Catholic. In The Catholic Enlightenment, Ulrich L. Lehner points to such figures as representatives of a long-overlooked thread of a reform-minded Catholicism, which engaged Enlightenment ideals with as much fervor and intellectual gravity as anyone. Their story opens new pathways for understanding how faith and modernity can interact in our own time.

Lehner begins two hundred years before the Enlightenment, when the Protestant Reformation destroyed the hegemony Catholicism had enjoyed for centuries. During this time the Catholic Church instituted several reforms, such as better education for pastors, more liberal ideas about the roles of women, and an emphasis on human freedom as a critical feature of theology. These actions formed the foundation of the Enlightenment’s belief in individual freedom. While giants like Spinoza, Locke, and Voltaire became some of the most influential voices of the time, Catholic Enlighteners were right alongside them. They denounced fanaticism, superstition, and prejudice as irreconcilable with the Enlightenment agenda.

In 1789, the French Revolution dealt a devastating blow to their cause, disillusioning many Catholics against the idea of modernization. Popes accumulated ever more power and the Catholic Enlightenment was snuffed out. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that questions of Catholicism’s compatibility with modernity would be broached again.

Ulrich L. Lehner tells, for the first time, the forgotten story of these reform-minded Catholics. As Pope Francis pushes the boundaries of Catholicism even further, and Catholics once again grapple with these questions, this book will prove to be required reading.

Zaretsky, “Boswell’s Enlightenment”

I’ve always thought of James Boswell simply as the biographer of Samuel boswellJohnson. Apparently, he had an interior life himself. A new book from Harvard University Press, Boswell’s Enlightenment, seems interesting as an intellectual history of his attempt to reconcile Christianity and the Enlightenment–an attempt with which many of Boswell’s contemporaries, including some Framers of the American Constitution, were well acquainted. The author, Robert Zaretsky, is a professor at the University of Houston. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Throughout his life, James Boswell struggled to fashion a clear account of himself, but try as he might, he could not reconcile the truths of his era with those of his religious upbringing.Boswell’s Enlightenment examines the conflicting credos of reason and faith, progress and tradition that pulled Boswell, like so many eighteenth-century Europeans, in opposing directions. In the end, the life of the man best known for writing Samuel Johnson’s biography was something of a patchwork affair. As Johnson himself understood: “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.”

Few periods in Boswell’s life better crystallize this internal turmoil than 1763–1765, the years of his Grand Tour and the focus of Robert Zaretsky’s thrilling intellectual adventure. From the moment Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson, to his return to Dover from Calais a year and a half later, the young Scot was intent on not just touring historic and religious sites but also canvassing the views of the greatest thinkers of the age. In his relentless quizzing of Voltaire and Rousseau, Hume and Johnson, Paoli and Wilkes on topics concerning faith, the soul, and death, he was not merely a celebrity-seeker but—for want of a better term—a truth-seeker. Zaretsky reveals a life more complex and compelling than suggested by the label “Johnson’s biographer,” and one that 250 years later registers our own variations of mind.

Bulman, “Anglican Enlightenment”

This April, Cambridge University Press will release “Anglican Enlightenment: Orientalism, Religion and Politics in England and its Empire, 1648–1715” by William Bulman (Lehigh University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Anglican EnlightenmentAn original interpretation of the early European Enlightenment and the religious conflicts that rocked England and its empire under the later Stuarts. In a series of vignettes that move between Europe and North Africa, William Bulman shows that this period witnessed not a struggle for and against new ideas and greater freedoms, but a battle between several novel schemes for civil peace. Bulman considers anew the most apparently conservative force in post-Civil War English history: the conformist leadership of the Church of England. He demonstrates that the Church’s historical scholarship, social science, pastoral care, and political practice amounted not to a culturally backward spectacle of intolerance, but to a campaign for stability drawn from the frontiers of erudition and globalisation. In seeking to sever the link between zeal and chaos, the church and its enemies were thus united in an Enlightenment project, but bitterly divided over what it meant in practice.

Bregoli, “Mediterranean Enlightenment: Livornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform”

Next month, Stanford University Press will publish Mediterranean Enlightenment: 080478650XLivornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform, by Francesca Bregoli (CUNY Queens). The publisher’s description follows.

The Mediterranean port of Livorno was home to one of the most prominent and privileged Jewish enclaves of early modern Europe. Focusing on Livornese Jewry, this book offers an alternative perspective on Jewish acculturation during the eighteenth century, and reassesses common assumptions about the interactions of Jews with outside culture and the impact of state reforms on the corporate Jewish community. Working from a vast array of previously untapped archival and literary sources, Francesca Bregoli combines cultural analysis with a study of institutional developments to investigate Jewish responses to Enlightenment thought and politics, as well as non-Jewish perceptions of Jews, through an exploration of Jewish-Christian cultural exchange, sites of sociability, and reformist policies. Mediterranean Enlightenment shows that Livornese Jewish scholars engaged with Enlightenment ideals and aspired to contribute to society at large without weakening the boundaries of traditional Jewish life. By arguing that the privileged status of Livorno Jewry had conservative rather than liberalizing effects, it also challenges the notion that economic utility facilitates Jewish integration, nuancing received wisdom about processes of emancipation in Europe.

Burson & Lehner, eds., “Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe”

This month the University of Notre Dame Press publishes Enlightenment and Enlightenment and Catholicism in EuropeCatholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, what looks to be an extremely interesting collection of essays on the intellectual history of the Enlightenment edited by Jeffrey D. Burson (Georgia Southern University) and Ulrich N. Lehner (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows.

In recent years, historians have rediscovered the religious dimensions of the Enlightenment. This volume offers a thorough reappraisal of the so-called “Catholic Enlightenment” as a transnational Enlightenment movement. This Catholic Enlightenment was at once ultramontane and conciliarist, sometimes moderate but often surprisingly radical, with participants active throughout Europe in universities, seminaries, salons, and the periodical press.

In Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History, the contributors, primarily European scholars, provide intellectual biographies of twenty Catholic Enlightenment figures across eighteenth-century Europe, many of them little known in English-language scholarship on the Enlightenment and pre-revolutionary eras. These figures represent not only familiar French intellectuals of the Catholic Enlightenment but also Iberian, Italian, English, Polish, and German thinkers. The essays focus on the intellectual and cultural factors influencing the lives and works of their subjects, revealing the often global networks of intellectual sociability and reading that united them both to the Catholic Enlightenment and to eighteenth-century policies and projects. The volume, whose purpose is to advance the understanding of a transnational “Catholic Enlightenment,” will be a reliable reference for historians, theologians, and scholars working in religious studies.

The Parthenon Enigma

Preparing for the Sacrifice?  

“Athenians,” St. Paul begins his famous sermon in the Book of Acts, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That basic fact about ancient Athens–that it was, in classicist Joan Breton Connelly’s words, an “intensely religious” society–mostly escapes us today. Since the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to see Athens as the prototype of rationalism and liberal democracy. That’s why so many civic buildings in America, like the Supreme Court in Washington and Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, take as their model the most famous Athenian structure of all: the Parthenon.

In a provocative new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf), Connelly argues that the Enlightenment view is wrong, or at least crucially incomplete. One cannot understand the Parthenon, she says, without appreciating the central role religion had in Athenian life. Yes, the Parthenon was a political building. But in ancient Athens, politics, like everything else, was an extension of religion. To be an Athenian was to share an imagined identity as a descendant of Erechtheus, a legendary king born of a union (sort of) between the god Hephaistos and Mother Earth. Athenian citizenship, she writes, “was a concept whose sense extended far beyond our notions of politics, positing a mythic ‘deep time’ and a cosmic reality in which the citizen could not locate himself or understand his existence except through religious awareness and devotions.”

The centerpiece of Connelly’s book is a reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze. Since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has held that the frieze commemorates a civic festival known as the Panathenaia. Connelly argues, however, based in part on a recently discovered manuscript of a lost work by the playwright Euripides, that the frieze in fact commemorates the myth of Erechtheus and his daughters, one of whom offers herself as a human sacrifice to save the city. (The word “Parthenon,” it turns out, means “place of the maidens”). This reading of the frieze, she argues, resolves some puzzling aspects of the conventional understanding–for example, other Greek temples, without exception, depict myths, not civic festivals–and better fits what we know of the history, legendary and otherwise, of the Acropolis, the famous hill on which the Parthenon sits.

Unless one is a classicist, it’s going to be very hard to evaluate her claim. Much depends on the correct interpretation of the section of the frieze in the photograph above. Is that Erechtheus on the right, giving his daughter a burial shroud? Connelly certainly provides a lot of detail. But, detail or not, this is a fun and worthwhile book, and its central argument about the overwhelming religiosity of Athens is compelling. Turns out St. Paul was right.

Assmann, “Religio Duplex”

0745668429This February, Polity Press will publish Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion by Jan Assmann (University of Konstanz). The publisher’s description follows.

In this important new book, the distinguished Egyptologist Jan Assmann provides a masterful overview of a crucial theme in the religious history of the West – that of ‘religio duplex’, or dual religion. He begins by returning to the theology of the Ancient Egyptians, who set out to present their culture as divided between the popular and the elite. By examining their beliefs, he argues, we can distinguish the two faces of ancient religions more generally: the outer face (that of the official religion) and the inner face (encompassing the mysterious nature of religious experience).

Assmann explains that the Early Modern period witnessed the birth of the idea of dual religion with, on the one hand, the religion of reason and, on the other, that of revelation. This concept gained new significance in the Enlightenment when the dual structure of religion was transposed onto the individual. This meant that man now owed his allegiance not only to his native religion, but also to a universal ‘religion of mankind’.

In fact, argues Assmann, religion can now only hold a place in our globalized world in this way, as a religion that understands itself as one among many and has learned to see itself through the eyes of the other. This bold and wide-ranging book will be essential reading for historians, theologians and anyone interested in the nature of religion and its role in the shaping of the modern world.


John Gray has an incisive and learned comment on the occasion of the firstLeopardi English translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone–partly a notebook of commentary and partly a diary from this brilliantly melancholy Romantic mind. Much of Gray’s commentary considers Leopardi’s relationship to Enlightenment rationalism, on the hand, and Christianity, on the other. For those with an interest in Leopardi’s political thought, may I also recommend Joshua Foa Dienstag’s superb discussion of Leopardi in his Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit.

Probably Leopardi’s poetry (his “Canti” especially) is the best known of his corpus, but my favorite of his work has always been Le Operette Morali or “Little Moral Tales.” These have been translated into English before, and for some years, I have set myself the project of doing a new translation. Let’s just say it’s in progress.

Here is a translation (Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs) of the opening passages from the first of the Operette Morali, “The Story of the Human Race”:

The story is told that all the men who first peopled the earth were created everywhere at the same time, and all as infants, and were nourished by bees, goats, and doves, as the poets describe in their fable about the nurture of Jove. They say, too, that the earth was much smaller than it is now, and all the land was flat, that the sky was starless, that there was no sea, and that there was much less variety and magnificence in the world than we see there now. But men, nevertheless, delighted in the pleasure they took in regarding and considering the earth and sky with great wonder, thinking them most beautiful, and not only vast but infinite in size, majesty, and loveliness; and they also nourished very joyous hopes, deriving an incredible delight from all their awareness of this life, and became most contented, so that they almost believed in happiness.

Having thus passed their childhood and early youth most sweetly and having reached a riper age, a change came over them. For their hopes, which they had postponed from day to day until then, had not yet been realized, so that they lost faith in them. And they did not feel that they could still be content with what they were then enjoying, without some promise of an increase of happiness, particularly as the appearance of nature and of every part of their daily life–whether because they had become accustomed to them, or because their spirits were no longer so lively as they had once been–no longer seemed as delightful and pleasing to them as in the beginning. They wandered about the earth visiting very distant regions–for they could do so easily, since the land was flat and not divided by seas or any other impediments–and after many years most of them became aware that the earth, even though it was large, had definite boundaries, instead of ones so vast that one could not define them; and that, but for a few very slight differences, all the places in the earth and all its inhabitants were just alike. And their discontent increased so much on this account that, though their youth was scarcely at an end, they were all overcome by a conscious distaste for their own nature. And in their manhood, and still more as their years declined, their satiety was converted into hatred, so that some of them came to be so despairing that they were no longer able to bear the light and the life they had at first loved so much, and thus of their own accord–some in one way, some in another–they brought their life to an end.

It seemed terrible to the gods that living creatures should prefer death to life, and that–without the compulsion of necessity–they should become the instruments of their own destruction….Therefore, Jove, having decided–since it seemed to be necessary–to improve the human condition and to help it to further the pursuit of happiness, reached the conclusion that the chief human complaint was that things were not as beautiful, various, and perfect as they had believed at first, but instead were very restricted, imperfect, and monotonous….

For Jove’s strategy to cure this state of depression and “noia” (ultimately unsuccessful, I’m afraid), get yourself a copy of Le Operette Morali!

Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I

To this point, we have seen that Tocqueville believes that religion is necessary to the well-being of society, and especially to market democracies. Since the religious sentiment is natural to human beings, religion should flourish when it does not lend itself to exploitation by the State. But the natural tendency toward religious belief is weakened or even overcome by a competing passion for wealth. Because American democracy celebrates and encourages the pursuit of wealth, our democracy exerts a ceaseless, grinding pressure that gradually wears down our religion. Thus, American democracy has a built-in disposition to destroy a necessary condition of its own existence. To guard against that, Tocqueville urges American leaders and opinion-makers to surround religion with their protection – without, however, enmeshing it in the State. If they are wise, they will understand that our religion is “the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times.” Democracy in America at 633 (Bevan trans.). “It is vital that all those who are involved in the future of democratic societies unite together and . . . diffuse throughout these societies the taste for the infinite, the appreciation of greatness, and the love of spiritual pleasures.” Id. at 632.

But what, exactly, are the doctrines of the “religion” that Tocqueville considers necessary for the proper functioning of American democracy? Granted, America in the period of his visit was overwhelmingly a Protestant Christian nation, and would surely remain so for the foreseeable future. But Tocqueville does not contend that American democracy depended on the vitality of Protestantism. Instead, in an important chapter entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” he argues that “[t]he belief in a spiritual and immortal principle united for a time with matter is . . . indispensable to man’s greatness.” Id. at 633. That is, he appears at first to argue that a prevalent belief in one religious doctrine — the immortality of the human soul — is the irreducible minimum required for a healthy democracy. He does not, however, mention here any other doctrine that is characteristic of Christianity, Protestant or other, even the existence of God.

Furthermore, when read closely, Tocqueville does not even insist on the belief in immortality, as Christianity has traditionally taught it. Rather, he indicates that the belief which he considers necessary need not extend to “the idea of rewards and punishments” after bodily death, nor even that the “divine principle” that survives death be understood as personal: it would suffice if most citizens believe that that the soul was “absorbed in God or transformed to bring life to some other creature.” Id. Thus, he says that it is better for citizens to believe in transmigration, “believing that their souls will pass into the body of a pig,” than for them to think that “their soul is nothing at all.” Id. Finally, he concludes with an observation that seems intended for his more perceptive readers: “It is doubtful whether Socrates and his school had very definite opinions upon what was to happen in the afterlife.” Id. Instead, “Platonic philosophy” simply teaches the “one belief” that “the soul has nothing in common with the body and would survive it.” Id. The prevalence of that “one belief,” which does not even amount to the idea of personal immortality, is the indispensable prerequisite for a vital democracy.

Tocqueville thus does not teach that Christianity, or any other form of revealed religion, is absolutely indispensable for democracy. Indeed, he does not even say that democracy cannot function well unless belief in natural religion in its entirety is widespread. Rather, at least in this place, he reduces the indispensable minimum to something even less demanding than natural religion as that was generally understood – i.e., to the “one belief” that he associates with Platonic philosophy. All he contends for, in other words, is an extremely thin belief that amounts to little more than the rejection of philosophical materialism, i.e., of the metaphysical position that he associates with the dominance of the drive for physical pleasure and wealth. Nonetheless, some religious, or at least metaphysical, belief must be widely held in order to ensure against political calamity.

In order to understand his thinking fully, we need to start with the idea of “natural religion.” What did Tocqueville think constituted natural religion, and from what sources did he acquire that idea? We will see that a large and important body of French thought underlies the brief and enigmatic remarks cited above from Democracy.

The doctrines of natural religion

In his marvelous account of the origins of Unitarianism in America, Conrad Wright distilled the essence of “natural religion” down to three essentials: “the existence of God, the obligations of piety and benevolence, and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America 140 (1955). The chief points of natural religion were understood to be discoverable by Continue reading

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