How Belief Came to Transcend Religion

9780691174747_0The last sentence of the announcement of this new book from Princeton University Press–The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, by Berkeley historian Ethan Shagan–caught my attention. It confirms an essential, conservative critique of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment didn’t put an end to “belief” as a basis for one’s deepest commitments; it merely changed the objects of belief from traditional Christian concepts to new ones. I’m not sure what Shagan’s position is on all that, but the book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

This landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be.

Shagan shows how religious belief enjoyed a special prestige in medieval Europe, one that set it apart from judgment, opinion, and the evidence of the senses. But with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the question of just what kind of knowledge religious belief was—and how it related to more mundane ways of knowing—was forced into the open. As the warring churches fought over the answer, each claimed belief as their exclusive possession, insisting that their rivals were unbelievers. Shagan challenges the common notion that modern belief was a gift of the Reformation, showing how it was as much a reaction against Luther and Calvin as it was against the Council of Trent. He describes how dissidents on both sides came to regard religious belief as something that needed to be justified by individual judgment, evidence, and argument.

Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

Zaretsky, “Catherine and Diderot”

9780674737907-lgHistorians have often remarked on the affinity between intellectuals and authoritarian rulers during the Enlightenment. Lots of factors explain this affinity, but one stands out in particular: the two groups shared a common enemy in traditional Christianity, which placed restrictions on both of them. Intellectuals hoped that enlightened despots would break the power of the church and promote liberty, and despots relied on intellectuals to provide arguments for the aggrandizement of state power. The alliance was always shallow and rather tenuous, but it could make for amusing episodes. One such episode is discussed in a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment, by Robert Zaretsky. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A dual biography crafted around the famous encounter between the French philosopher who wrote about power and the Russian empress who wielded it with great aplomb.

In October 1773, after a grueling trek from Paris, the aged and ailing Denis Diderot stumbled from a carriage in wintery St. Petersburg. The century’s most subversive thinker, Diderot arrived as the guest of its most ambitious and admired ruler, Empress Catherine of Russia. What followed was unprecedented: more than forty private meetings, stretching over nearly four months, between these two extraordinary figures. Diderot had come from Paris in order to guide—or so he thought—the woman who had become the continent’s last great hope for an enlightened ruler. But as it soon became clear, Catherine had a very different understanding not just of her role but of his as well. Philosophers, she claimed, had the luxury of writing on unfeeling paper. Rulers had the task of writing on human skin, sensitive to the slightest touch.

Diderot and Catherine’s series of meetings, held in her private chambers at the Hermitage, captured the imagination of their contemporaries. While heads of state like Frederick of Prussia feared the consequences of these conversations, intellectuals like Voltaire hoped they would further the goals of the Enlightenment.

In Catherine & Diderot, Robert Zaretsky traces the lives of these two remarkable figures, inviting us to reflect on the fraught relationship between politics and philosophy, and between a man of thought and a woman of action.

Winterer, “American Enlightenments”

f91c0ad896d2f4ffe39f2cfa7861d6ddIn yesterday’s book post, I noted that the American Revolution was more complicated and contingent an event than commonly understood. If one or two battles had gone differently, the Crown might well have prevailed, with all that implies for, among other things, church and state in America. And conventional wisdom errs in assuming that the Revolution was a straightforward project of the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment itself was a unified movement. A book released by Yale University Press last month, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, by Caroline Winterer (Stanford), argues that the Enlightenment had many different, competing, not always consistent streams. The author apparently thinks the Cold War is responsible for our exaggerated sense of the unity of our Revolution and its Enlightened character, which seems doubtful. But the main theme of the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A provocative reassessment of the concept of an American golden age of European-born reason and intellectual curiosity in the years following the Revolutionary War

The accepted myth of the “American Enlightenment” suggests that the rejection of monarchy and establishment of a new republic in the United States in the eighteenth century was the realization of utopian philosophies born in the intellectual salons of Europe and radiating outward to the New World. In this revelatory work, Stanford historian Caroline Winterer argues that a national mythology of a unitary, patriotic era of enlightenment in America was created during the Cold War to act as a shield against the threat of totalitarianism, and that Americans followed many paths toward political, religious, scientific, and artistic enlightenment in the 1700s that were influenced by European models in more complex ways than commonly thought. Winterer’s book strips away our modern inventions of the American national past, exploring which of our ideas and ideals are truly rooted in the eighteenth century and which are inventions and mystifications of more recent times.

Bandoch, “The Politics of Place”

9781580469029_1Here is an interesting-looking new book from the University of Rochester Press: The Politics of Place: Montesquieu, Particularism, and the Pursuit of Liberty, by scholar Joshua Bandoch. One typically thinks of the Enlightenment as a universalist project, meant to apply everywhere in the same way. That is one of the project’s main flaws. This book argues that Montesquieu, at least, saw things differently. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Many Enlightenment thinkers sought to discover the right political order for all times and all places, and scholars often view Montesquieu as working within this project. In this reassessment of Montesquieu’s political thought, Joshua Bandoch finds that Montesquieu broke from this ideal and, by taking into account the variation of societies, offered a more fruitful approach to the study of politics.

Through a careful reading of Montesquieu’s political writings, Bandoch shows that for Montesquieu the politics, economics, and morals of a society must fit a particular place and its people. As long as states commit to pursuing security, liberty, and prosperity, states can — indeed, should — define and advance these goals in their own particular ways. Montesquieu saw that the circumstances of a place — its religion, commerce, laws, institutions, physical environment, and mores — determine the best political order for that place. In this sense, Montesquieu is the great innovator of what Bandoch calls the “politics of place.” This new reading of Montesquieu also provides fresh insights into the American founding, which Montesquieu so heavily influenced. Instead of having discerned the “right” political order, Bandoch argues, the Founders instituted a good political order, of which there are numerous versions.

Reinert, “The Academy of Fisticuffs”

9780674976641-lgIn this space last month, I wrote about a reference I had seen to an 18th Century Italian school called “The Academy of Fists” and suggested Marc might know what this was. I never received a response, and so I’ve had to do the digging on my own. It turns out it was a group of Enlightenment thinkers, including Cesare Beccaria, who sought to establish a new, secular order based in commerce–the Italian version of the doux commerce school. Later this year, Harvard will publish a study of the group, The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy, by Harvard Business School professor Sophus Reinert. The doux commerce theory has drawn a lot of interest from scholars lately and this new book looks like it will be a good read. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

The terms “capitalism” and “socialism” continue to haunt our political and economic imaginations, but we rarely consider their interconnected early history. Even the eighteenth century had its “socialists,” but unlike those of the nineteenth, they paradoxically sought to make the world safe for “capitalists.” The word “socialists” was first used in Northern Italy as a term of contempt for the political economists and legal reformers Pietro Verri and Cesare Beccaria, author of the epochal On Crimes and Punishments. Yet the views and concerns of these first socialists, developed inside a pugnacious intellectual coterie dubbed the Academy of Fisticuffs, differ dramatically from those of the socialists that followed.

Sophus Reinert turns to Milan in the late 1700s to recover the Academy’s ideas and the policies they informed. At the core of their preoccupations lay the often lethal tension among states, markets, and human welfare in an era when the three were becoming increasingly intertwined. What distinguished these thinkers was their articulation of a secular basis for social organization, rooted in commerce, and their insistence that political economy trumped theology as the underpinning for peace and prosperity within and among nations.

Reinert argues that the Italian Enlightenment, no less than the Scottish, was central to the emergence of political economy and the project of creating market societies. By reconstructing ideas in their historical contexts, he addresses motivations and contingencies at the very foundations of modernity.

Stuttard, “Nemesis”

9780674660441-lgWhen the Enlightenment looked for a model city, a place that epitomized the value of reason over superstition, it chose Athens–a counterweight to the city of revelation, Jerusalem, about which the Enlightenment was rather less enthusiastic. But Athens was not, in fact, a paragon of reason. There’s the trial and execution of Socrates, of course. And then there’s the treatment of Socrates’s somewhat lesser known, and entirely less sympathetic, contemporary, Alcibiades. Right before Alcibiades was to lead an expedition against Sicily in the Peloponnesian War, an anonymous group defaced statues of the god Hermes–a serious sacrilege. The suspicion fell on Alcibiades, no doubt because of his disreputable character, and the outrage eventually led to his downfall in Athens, as did the fact that he apparently mocked and revealed religious secrets–the Eleusinian Mysteries. All of which is to say that the Athenians were themselves plenty religious, even superstitious, by Enlightenment standards.

These episodes are no doubt discussed in a new biography of Alcibiades from Harvard University Press, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, by scholar David Stuttard. Here is the description from the Harvard website:

Alcibiades was one of the most dazzling figures of the Golden Age of Athens. A ward of Pericles and a friend of Socrates, he was spectacularly rich, bewitchingly handsome and charismatic, a skilled general, and a ruthless politician. He was also a serial traitor, infamous for his dizzying changes of loyalty in the Peloponnesian War. Nemesis tells the story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer.

David Stuttard recreates ancient Athens at the height of its glory as he follows Alcibiades from childhood to political power. Outraged by Alcibiades’ celebrity lifestyle, his enemies sought every chance to undermine him. Eventually, facing a capital charge of impiety, Alcibiades escaped to the enemy, Sparta. There he traded military intelligence for safety until, suspected of seducing a Spartan queen, he was forced to flee again—this time to Greece’s long-term foes, the Persians. Miraculously, though, he engineered a recall to Athens as Supreme Commander, but—suffering a reversal—he took flight to Thrace, where he lived as a warlord. At last in Anatolia, tracked by his enemies, he died naked and alone in a hail of arrows.

As he follows Alcibiades’ journeys crisscrossing the Mediterranean from mainland Greece to Syracuse, Sardis, and Byzantium, Stuttard weaves together the threads of Alcibiades’ adventures against a backdrop of cultural splendor and international chaos. Navigating often contradictory evidence, Nemesis provides a coherent and spellbinding account of a life that has gripped historians, storytellers, and artists for more than two thousand years.

Bessler, “The Celebrated Marquis”

9781611637861Did you know that Cesare Beccaria’s monumental work, Of Crimes and Punishments, landed on the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books? I didn’t. And that he once was a member of a group called the “Academy of Fists?” (Maybe resident Italophone Marc can explain). I did know that Beccaria’s early-utilitarian views on the purposes of criminal law greatly influenced the American Framers. All these subjects are covered in this new book by University of Baltimore law professor John Bessler, The Celebrated Marquis: An Italian Noble and the Making of the Modern World. The publisher is Carolina Academic Press. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

During the Enlightenment, a now little-known Italian marquis, while in his mid-twenties as a member of a small Milanese salon, the Academy of Fists, wrote a book that was destined to change the world. Published anonymously in 1764 as Dei delitti e delle pene, and quickly translated into French and then into English as On Crimes and Punishments, the runaway bestseller argued against torture, capital punishment, and religious intolerance. Written by Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), an economist and recent law graduate of the University of Pavia, On Crimes and Punishments sought clear and egalitarian laws, better public education, and milder punishments. Translated into all of the major European languages, Beccaria’s book led to the end of the Ancien Régime.

Praised by Voltaire and the French philosophes, Beccaria was toasted in Paris in 1766 for his literary achievement, and his book—though banned by the Inquisition and placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books—was lauded by monarchs and revolutionaries alike. Among its admirers were the French Encyclopédistes; Prussia’s Frederick the Great; Russia’s enlightened czarina, Catherine II; members of the Habsburg dynasty; the English jurist Sir William Blackstone; the utilitarian penal reformer Jeremy Bentham; and American revolutionaries John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. On Crimes and Punishments, decrying tyranny and arbitrariness and advocating for equality of treatment under the law, helped to catalyze the American and French Revolutions. In 1774, on the cusp of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress explicitly hailed Beccaria as “the celebrated marquis.”

Called the “Italian Adam Smith” for his pioneering work as an economist in Milan, Cesare Beccaria—like his Italian mentor, Pietro Verri—wrote about pleasure and pain, economic theory, and maximizing people’s happiness. Once a household name throughout Europe and the Americas, Beccaria taught economics before the appearance of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations but died in obscurity after working for decades as a civil servant in Austria’s Habsburg Empire. As a public councilor, Beccaria pushed for social and economic justice, monetary and legal reform, conservation of natural resources, and even inspired France’s adoption of the metric system. In The Celebrated Marquis, award-winning author John Bessler tells the story of the history of economics and of how Beccaria’s ideas shaped the American Declaration of Independence, constitutions and laws around the globe, and the modern world in which we live.

Strobel and Crisp, “Jonathan Edwards”

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American religious culture is a somewhat odd combination of Evangelical Christianity and the Enlightenment. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that a transcendent order and personal liberty are wholly compatible. This was one of the things that most perplexed Tocqueville, when he visited America in the 1820s. “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.”

Here, from Eerdman’s, is a new book on someone who definitely combined Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, the 18th Century theologian and preacher, Jonathan Edwards: Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, by scholars Kyle C. Strobel (Biola University) and Oliver D. Crisp (Fuller Theological Seminary). Most Americans probably think of Edwards as a fire-and-brimstone, Puritan revivalist of the First Great Awakening. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is a staple of American literature classes, or was, anyway. But he was also a polymath who became, at the end of his life, the president of the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton University. The book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) has long been recognized as one of the preeminent thinkers in the early Enlightenment and a major figure in the history of American Christianity.

In this accessible one-volume text, leading Edwards experts Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel introduce readers to the formi­dable mind of Jonathan Edwards as they survey key theological and philosophical themes in his thought, including his doctrine of the Trinity, his philosophical theology of God and creation, and his understanding of the atonement and salvation.

More than two centuries after his death, theologians and historians alike are finding the larger-than-life Edwards more interesting than ever. Crisp and Strobel’s concise yet comprehensive guide will help students of this influential eighteenth-century revivalist preacher to understand why.

“Markets, Morals, Politics” (Kapossy et al., eds.)

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Last year, while working on a review essay, Markets and Morals: The Limits of Doux Commerce, I was introduced to the work of the late intellectual historian, Istvan Hont. Hont’s work focused, among other things, on the role of commerce in Enlightement thought. For Enlightenment figures like Adam Smith, commerce promised to promote a culture of religious tolerance and political pluralism. The doux commerce thesis they advocated has been important in liberal thought ever since.

Hont’s work was helpful in explaining Enlightenment thought to me, as I’m sure this new collection of essays on his scholarship would have been, had it been out in time! The book, from Harvard University Press, is Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought. The editors are Béla Kapossy (University of Lausanne) and others. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

When Istvan Hont died in 2013, the world lost a giant of intellectual history. A leader of the Cambridge School of Political Thought, Hont argued passionately for a global-historical approach to political ideas. To better understand the development of liberalism, he looked not only to the works of great thinkers but also to their reception and use amid revolution and interstate competition. His innovative program of study culminated in the landmark 2005 book Jealousy of Trade, which explores the birth of economic nationalism and other social effects of expanding eighteenth-century markets. Markets, Morals, Politics brings together a celebrated cast of Hont’s contemporaries to assess his influence, ideas, and methods.

Richard Tuck, John Pocock, John Dunn, Raymond Geuss, Gareth Stedman Jones, Michael Sonenscher, John Robertson, Keith Tribe, Pasquale Pasquino, and Peter N. Miller contribute original essays on themes Hont treated with penetrating insight: the politics of commerce, debt, and luxury; the morality of markets; and economic limits on state power. The authors delve into questions about the relationship between states and markets, politics and economics, through examinations of key Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment figures in context—Hobbes, Rousseau, Spinoza, and many others. The contributors also add depth to Hont’s lifelong, if sometimes veiled, engagement with Marx.

The result is a work of interpretation that does justice to Hont’s influence while developing its own provocative and illuminating arguments. Markets, Morals, Politics will be a valuable companion to readers of Hont and anyone concerned with political economy and the history of ideas.

Rasmussen, “The Infidel and the Professor”

k11092Earlier this year, while doing research for a forthcoming essay on the doux commerce thesis, I came upon Dennis Rasmussen’s excellent introduction to Smith and Rousseau, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society (2008). Rasmussen, an associate professor of political science at Tufts, does a wonderful job showing the often overlooked similarities between those two Enlightenment figures, and he writes in a clear, unaffected style that many academics fail to achieve. So I’m looking forward to his new book from Princeton, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought. The tensions in classical liberalism are becoming more apparent every day; its purported neutrality with respect to Christianity and other revealed religion, especially, seems more and more problematic. It is therefore worthwhile to go back to the beginning, to see whether liberalism has gone off the track in our era or is simply fulfilling its destiny.

Here’s a description of the new book from the Princeton website:

The story of the greatest of all philosophical friendships—and how it influenced modern thought

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of the friendship of these towering Enlightenment thinkers—and how it influenced their world-changing ideas.

The book follows Hume and Smith’s relationship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death in 1776. It describes how they commented on each other’s writings, supported each other’s careers and literary ambitions, and advised each other on personal matters, most notably after Hume’s quarrel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Members of a vibrant intellectual scene in Enlightenment Scotland, Hume and Smith made many of the same friends (and enemies), joined the same clubs, and were interested in many of the same subjects well beyond philosophy and economics—from psychology and history to politics and Britain’s conflict with the American colonies. The book reveals that Smith’s private religious views were considerably closer to Hume’s public ones than is usually believed. It also shows that Hume contributed more to economics—and Smith contributed more to philosophy—than is generally recognized.

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