Deism had thrown the spiritual culture of Christendom into confusion. By severing the world from heaven, it set man on a path very much like the descent from a mountaintop.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
This really is a wonderful image. Christian or not, “up” is the direction of progress, perfection, improvement, liberty. “down” is the opposite. Of course, for Christians, there is an additional idea that comes with “up” and “down”: that would be heaven and hell. One need not understand these to mean physical places to be explored by spaceships or deep-mining. It is the imagery that is important, one that we all “understand.”
Further: the descent. How far down can one walk from the mountaintop while still retaining much that is good from the heights? Clean air, fresh water, beautiful trees, etc. How long before one notices that he is surrounded by foul air, stagnant water, and dried and dead shrubs? In other words, even when falling from the heights one retains the memory of the heights for a time because of the very gradual transition.
As far as the Christian West goes, one can trace this to whatever bogeyman one chooses: 1914 and the start of the Great War, the Enlightenment, 1517 (and the corruption that made such an event inevitable), or – as Strickland posits, 1054 and the Great Schism.
My personal choice is the Enlightenment, and my reason is that it was at this time when man purposefully divorced himself from God. The prior events still held to God at the center; the later events were merely inevitable consequences of the divorce. Since the Enlightenment, man’s descent from the mountaintop was certain, and the West has been descending ever since – although for many years even after the beginning of the Enlightenment man held onto the memory of the mountaintop (The Great War is clearly the end of even this memory).
In this chapter of the book, Strickland goes through the thinkers and philosophers we know: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel. They helped build a world with no transcendent connection to the heavens.
German idealism restored this connection. And it did more. By conjuring what Hegel called the World Spirit, it placed the deity in the service of Prometheus. Modern man was freer than ever to build utopia.
With this came the unleashing of individual genius. In Christendom, humility underscored men of genius – God as creator and man as co-creator. Without God…man is creator: reason without God.
Through the celebration of genius, nature, and love, then, the romantics restored a kind of transcendence to Western culture. But just as the heavens seemed to be opening up to them, the earth began to fall away beneath their feet.
Or…when you try to bring heaven down to earth, you bring hell up with it. Strickland then reviews the many brilliant artists and thinkers whose lives either ended tragically or who freely offered tragedy to others. The heavenly gift of genius transformed to producing hell on earth – for themselves and / or for others.
I had one reason to write this post on this chapter. It wasn’t to cover the artists, philosophers and thinkers of the age – their stories and contributions are well-known. It was as a set-up to introduce this passage, from Hugues Lamennais, who died in the mid-nineteenth century:
When the faith that once united a man with God and raised him to God’s level begins to fail, something terrible happens. The soul, impelled by its own gravity, falls incessantly and without end, carrying with it a certain intelligence detached from its principle, and which clutches at all that crosses its path as it falls, now with a sad restlessness, now with a joy resembling the laughter of a madman…
In the shadowy abyss whither he plunges he carries with him his inexorable nature, and from world to world the echoes of the universe repeat the heart-rending pliants of this creature who, having departed from the place that the Almighty organizer in His vast plan has allotted to him, and henceforward incapable of anchoring himself, drifts without rest amidst the whole of creation like a battered vessel tossed hither and thither by the waves on a deserted ocean.
Hence, the meaning crisis.