Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trump and the Theological Origins of Modernity

On a Sunday afternoon, following a spectacular road trip down the Mississippi to Red Wing and then back up the Wisconsin side, with a slice of cheese on the plate and a Picardy glass of pinot noir beside it, the time has perhaps arrived to consider whether the Trump phenomenon might be properly explained by reference to the nominalist challenge to Scholasticism that arose in the early fourteenth century.

That seems to be the thesis advanced by Michael Allen Gillespie in his recent book, The Theological Origins of Modernity. One cannot read more than a few pages of this crisply written work without screeching to a halt repeatedly at the specious generalizations, the most glaring of which concerns the concept of modernity itself. Does such a thing as modernity exist? If so, in what does it consist?

The simple answer is that modernity does not exist in any palpable way. We are all cave dwellers, slaves, saints, foragers, mystics, warriors, scientists, artists, lovers, bureaucrats, and heals, and the recent history of our nation reflects that complex and contradictory makeup. The more historically minded among us might sometimes propose that we are creatures of reason and self-assertion who have triumphed over the dogma and superstition of the Middle Ages, and such is, in fact, the case. But only to a degree.

The same thing could be said in reverse, of course. Very few people who lived during the Middle Ages knew the slightest thing about the medieval "world view" so amply elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, and they certainly knew nothing at all about the long-running dispute between the "realists" and the "nominalists." They could be very "modern." If you've read a few bawdy stories from the Decameron (1353) or the even more risque French fabliaux upon which Boccaccio's tales are often based, the similarity between the modern era and the Middle Ages becomes more striking still.

And consider the troubadours, who, nine hundred years ago,  were often filled with "modernist" individuality and  self-assertion. In one of his lyrics Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150) writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,

and I no longer have the will to love.

To modern ears verses of this kind may sound naive. In any case, the idea they advance—that preferential amorous love lies at the center of masculine self-worth—is not terribly Christian. Fealty to the local duke or king, certainly; dedication to a life of spiritual exercises and obligations, of course. But on what grounds can personal love be elevated to the highest plane of value? Yet this is what the troubadours espoused repeatedly, and it had the effect of turning life, at least as it appears in the courtly literature of the times, into a series of inspired but also arbitrary, grandiose, and often ridiculous adventures.

The German scholar Erich Auerbach once noted:
When we moderns speak of adventure, we mean something unstable, peripheral, disordered… a something that stands outside the real meaning of existence. All of this is precisely what the word does not mean in the courtly romance. On the contrary, trial through adventure is the real meaning of the knight’s ideal existence.
I look forward to examining Gillespie's analysis of the nominalist challenge to the realist orthodoxy more closely. The arguments bear striking parallels to those we use today to keep the arrogance of scientistic reasoning at bay. But I doubt whether he will hit on the central truth of the matter: the nominalists were right, for the most part. There are many horses in the world, but the thing called "horse" does not actually exist. Another way of putting the same point is that Aristotle's notion of "species," which is still in wide use today, is a fiction—a useful but metaphysically empty fiction. (I have a secret hunch that this is what Gillespie's overriding point will turn out to be. But will I have the patience to ferret it out?)

Matters are complicated by the fact that in a few instances, the realists had the upper ground, and these are the most important ones. Every beautiful thing partakes of "beauty." Every accurate judgment partakes of "truth." Every loving act partakes of that quality. (Ask Bernart!) And speaking more broadly (but also more vaguely), every worthy action of any kind partakes of "god." 

Yet beyond the specific instances, these things—beauty, truth, love, god—do actually exist. We feel them, sense them, strive for them every day.

And that's what Democrats will be voting to preserve and extend on election day. 

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