Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Moyn, at the Boston Review, and a comment. [Comments were stripped later]

The Renaissance gave the Middle Ages a bad rap, and Siedentop seeks to undo its contempt. “What is characteristic about historical writing in recent centuries?” Siedentop asks. “It is an inclination to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages.” Nostalgically reviving the paganism of the Greco-Roman past, the Renaissance, like the Enlightenment later, disguised how alien in cultural norms and political values antiquity really was. Both the Renaissance and Enlightenment encouraged their heirs to skirt the roots of liberalism in the Christianity that flourished in the Middle Ages.
The authors of this piece and of the book under review defend liberalism mostly through assumption. Individualism, however it came to be, is taken as a good. Why not defend Republicanism? Why not defend a modern variant of the classical Demos, defining the responsibilities of all adult citizens, with freedom as much a burden as a right? But that's too pessimistic for modern defenders of capitalism for whom liberty comes first.

And while pointing to a gap between the ancient and modern, the gap between the Renaissance and the "Enlightenment" is ignored. The latter is a dangerous term, too close to Revelation with its anti-political notion on another world. Enlightened according to whom?

“Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world.” Necessity, not Christianity, is the mother of invention:  "The Tunisian 'success story,' then, is not that all sides wanted democracy, but rather that all sides had no choice but to settle for democracy." People of different beliefs forced to live together, with equal political power. Enlightenment if it exists is the result, never the cause.

Individualism is the product of an idealism that conservatives in the older sense disdained. Modern conservatism is economic liberalism, the perquisites of power without the obligations, while modern social liberalism is self-interest with state mandated concern maintained with all the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages by way of Kafka. In an age of science and technology virtue is unnecessary. Our technocratic Mandarins prefer us mediocre, pliant and predictable. The preferred modern juror is the model citizen. Our rulers ignore the fact they've dumbed themselves down too. Technocrats allow themselves the luxury of self-reporting data, and it shows.

Liberalism may be seen first in Christianity, but that's not a justification for either. The same is true for science as theorized by Descartes, who theorized also that history is bunk. We end with philosophies founded on the assumption that Weber was right rather than the fact that he was a product of his time. Better a secularism out of the ashes of polytheism, with a focus on political wisdom, than a secularism built on the ashes of monotheism and revelation. Absent that I'll take of secularism of words, not numbers, and not "truth": the road to technoratic hell.

We're living in a dark age and are due for a renaissance. Evidence of its beginnings are easy enough to spot if you pay attention. But it's all a mess, and much more of one than our schoolmen acknowledge.

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