Professor N.T. Wright of St. Andrews University has delivered a series of lectures at the University of Aberdeen's King's College Conference Centre. These are the 2018 Gifford Lectures:
The Gifford Lectures are an annual series of lectures which were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford (died 1887). They were established to "promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God." A Gifford lectures appointment is one of the most prestigious honors in Scottish academia.
Natural theology…is a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature. This distinguishes it from revealed theology, which is based on scripture and/or religious experiences, and also from transcendental theology, which is based on a priori reasoning.
The educator and historian Jacques Barzun described the Gifford Lectures as virtuoso performances and "the highest honor in a philosopher's career."
Wright’s first lecture in his series, entitled “The Fallen Shrine: Lisbon 1755 and the Triumph of Epicureanism,” offers his introduction – including a broad sweep of what he intends to cover throughout his eight-part series. The entire series is entitled “Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology and New Creation.” As with all of my work based on videos, I will do my best to capture the statements.
You want my advice? If your time is limited, watch the lecture; don’t read this post. This is a long post (2500 words), the length only reflecting my view of the value of many of the statements made by Wright in this hour-long lecture.
In this lecture, he examines the period of the Enlightenment and the rebirth of Epicureanism – including its path through and with Deism. He examines this event through both the French and American Revolutions, through the emergence of reason-without-God as a god.
He offers an important caveat regarding a study of history and philosophy: he does not assume that once an insight is offered, it is universally embraced – in other words, events such as “the Enlightenment” aren’t events at all; those who we now label as early Enlightenment thinkers didn’t think of themselves this way at the time and weren’t viewed this way by their peers. They were just thinkers.
The Lisbon Earthquake
Wright offers Joseph Addison’s “The Spacious Firmament on High,” written in 1712:
What though, in solemn Silence, all
Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?
What tho’ nor real Voice nor Sound
Amid their radiant Orbs be found?
In Reason’s Ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious Voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
The Hand that made us is Divine.
Wright offers that this is natural theology at its best: the natural world sings of its creator, and human reason (also from the creator) can hear that song. “Such ideas were widespread.” The Christianity of the early eighteenth century was a post-millennial Christianity – man was making a steady progress toward perfection on earth, with Christ returning after this golden age of 1000 years.
Then came the earthquake of Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755. Along with subsequent fires and tsunamis, this 8.5 – 9.0 magnitude quake virtually destroyed Lisbon, and the death toll is estimated at up to 100,000.
The earthquake had struck on an important religious holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic country.
The event was widely discussed and dwelt upon by European Enlightenment philosophers… The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment.
Returning to Wright: “The fallen shrine of Lisbon symbolizes the collapse of optimistic natural theology.”
This Time it’s Different
But earthquakes and the like had been known to Jews and Christians long before this; yet, the reaction this time was much different. Wright explores why this might be so: “perhaps [earthquakes, etc.] only became a problem when Christianity took a Deist form….”
People, in other words, already had socio-political reasons for wanting traditional Christianity to be untrue, and now they had epistemological tools to help. The Lisbon earthquake then was seized upon by those who – for whatever reason – wanted to reject Europe’s Catholicism and Protestantism alike.
There were Voltaire’s sarcastic comments about God and Lisbon, ‘will you now say that this terrible event will merely illustrate the iron laws that chain the will of God.’
These comments expressed what many others were thinking, and when the dust had settled the Deism which Butler had opposed had been replaced with a similar and sharper worldview – a revival of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism.
Christianity, Deism, and Epicureanism
While people would – and still do – confuse Deism with Christianity, no such confusion was possible with Epicureanism.
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention.
Epicureanism does not deny the existence of the gods, rather it denies their involvement in the world. According to Epicureanism, the gods do not interfere with human lives or the rest of the universe in any way.
Returning to Wright, “After 1755, Epicureanism had come to stay.” Whatever the gods are or aren’t, whatever they do or not do, “religion is a human invention designed to keep the masses docile.” All we have is atoms moving randomly, bumping into each other and producing…whatever they will produce.
That’s all there is to life. And when we die, we die. So there is, in both senses, nothing to be afraid of. From Epicurus himself, through Lucretius’s poem, and to Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and many more since. Epicurus was the great enlightener of antiquity, a view echoed by Karl Marx.
Modern life is constructed on these foundations.
Deism was widespread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries throughout Britain and elsewhere, and offered an easy transition to full-on Epicureanism.
What is the connection? They share the view of the gulf between God, or the gods, and the world we live in. The Deists believe in a Supreme Being, a watchmaker who made the machine and keeps it well-oiled and ticking.
For the Epicurean, the God, or gods, had nothing to do with making the world and have nothing to do with its maintenance – nor is the world a well-oiled rational machine, since it makes itself and all in it by atoms randomly bumping into each other.
Hence, there is no problem of evil in Epicureanism – the world is what it is; the gods therefore don’t care about how we behave, and we won’t be judged. Prayer, devotion, and holiness will have no effect on the Epicurean god(s); the lack of an afterlife combined with no view on evil results in…evil, appropriate for today’s nobility.
Epicureanism and the Enlightenment
The term “Enlightenment” was first coined by the English in the nineteenth century, often in mocking those “shallow continental intellectuals.” Yet, the roots of the Enlightenment must be traced to that same little island, beginning in the sixteenth century: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume.
By the early nineteenth century, William Blake was shaking his fist, not only at the movement’s French leaders (“mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”), but also at their underlying Epicureanism.
There is a book being published tomorrow by Steven Pinker called The Enlightenment is Succeeding, or words to that effect. This mythology lives on.
I might add: succeeding at what? This Enlightenment did not immediately overwhelm all western thought, and there were other great thinkers who continued their work outside of this theology. “But there was a tide coming.”
Atheism is the end of the Epicurean road. And they supposed it based on [air quotes in video] “science.” Superstition has reigned, but now came the light. A new world, free from interference, free from fear of divine condemnation. Now that we found how the world works, we will do things our own way.
Wright cites a poem by William Ernest Henley, Invictus, with its most well-known line: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Twenty years later, the University of St. Andrews awarded Henley a Doctor of Divinity. Let that sink in, and ask: where was liberty lost?
A Future Without God
Wright presents “Five Straws in a Strong Wind”; signals pointing toward the future without God. First, the Revolutions in America and France: “Both France and America, in their very different ways, wanted to get God off of the public stage.”
In France, the Goddess of Reason found a home at the Notre Dame Cathedral (this “Goddess” was the brainchild of Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, a leader of the Revolution and chief architect of the Reign of Terror; he was later beheaded); getting rid of princes and getting rid of God were two radical ways of saying the same thing. Robespierre attempted to mediate, with a form of Deism; he was soon after beheaded. “Epicureanism, and not Deism, was the new orthodoxy.”
Wright cites Thomas Jefferson, “I too am an Epicurian,” (with full context here). Most of the founding fathers were Deists, although “consistency in theology was not their strongest suit.” The Deistic separation of God and the world was to be mirrored in the strict separation of church and state.
Thomas Jefferson, for his part, quoted Virgil, “Novus ordo seclorum - a New order of the ages.
This, appearing on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 and on the back of the one-dollar bill since 1935. Consider the events of 1935 and place these in the context of an Enlightenment continuum. Perhaps just one more revolution.
Second, the rise of pre-Darwinian evolutionism.
Note the ‘ism.’ This isn’t just a theory about biology; this is a worldview in which evolution necessarily took place without divine guidance. Some people have called this naturalism, but that is inadequate. It is Epicureanism.
That which was being studied and that which was being invented would do its own thing without God’s interference. “Put the question of God on one side, and science will flourish.”
Third, there was the “radical economic theory of Adam Smith,” with The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776:
Arguing of the existence of an invisible hand – motivated by self-interest – that would guide the flow of money without intervention to bring about social improvement. …The clock would work by itself.
Fourth, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Arguing, inter alia, that an other-worldly and squabbling Christianity had helped to sow the seeds of imperial decline.
Fifth, and “right in the middle of all this,” there came what is to be called “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”:
Hermann Samuel Reimarus believed, as a Deist, in a good and wise deity who had to be discovered by unaided reason, since the Old-Testament was misleading nonsense, and the New Testament was a self-serving fabrication. Jesus was, in fact, a failed would-be revolutionary, who died a failure and whose body was hidden by his followers.
Summing it up:
Heaven and earth remain opaque to one another. All these things go together: politics without God, science without God, economics without God, history without God, and, finally, Jesus without God. Their godfather, if that isn’t exactly the wrong term, was David Hume. By 1800 the shrine had fallen, and a brave, new, independent world had been born.
Nicolas de Condorcet said what many had been thinking: “the human race had been set free at last from its shackles and was now advancing with a firm and true step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness.
Progress Without God
This new world embodied the idea of progress – and the technological and industrial progress cannot be denied. But how could this “inevitable” progress exist with Epicureanism; after all, the atoms will collide however they like.
Wright further offers Hegel and ultimately Karl Marx. Progress would happen and would happen automatically. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was widely assumed in Britain and Germany at least, that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Wright isn’t so sure:
The idea that science and technology are making the world better is ambiguous: industrial pollution, atom bombs, gas chambers, tell a different story. But the ideology of progress ignores these counter-examples.
It is worth considering the risks of technology to humanity without God. Actually, it is considered daily, but the “solution” offered is government regulation, government negotiation, government treaties.
By the end of the nineteenth century, we find the following combination of philosophical and cultural beliefs: Epicureanism, with God out of the picture; second, the scientific theories about evolution give credence, however unjustifiably, to a belief in progress – whether through steady advance or revolution: Hegel or Marx; this coincided with, third, actual political movements – and this toxic combination is with us still.
And beginning with the twentieth century, the West committed suicide – a suicide induced by events transpiring even four centuries earlier.
Wright offers several who have sounded the warning alarms – some of whom, it seems to me, were also fruit from the same Godless tree: Rousseau, Dickens, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno. “Postmodernism itself directly challenges this narrative of progress.”
In other words, this “toxic combination” brought forth its own Hegelian dialectic – as if the debate can be had without God as part of the discussion. Many of these challengers may have been right to challenge; however, without re-introducing what was missing, their challenges were, perhaps, no better than that which was being challenged. Nietzsche, I would say, certainly understood the ramifications of God being dead.
Our Situation Today
Wright offers that the conversation today is at best confused. While many enjoy the fruits of modern western technology (“I prefer a modern dentist to a pre-modern or post-modern dentist”), this should not suggest that western culture is also equally desirable.
No wonder we are in such a tangle, with multi-culturalism and post-modernism identity politics. Our philosophical basis gives us neither a clear understanding of what’s happened nor the tools to cope. These are the puzzles we face after the fall of the shrines.
Christian leaders are not helping. When faced with the challenge of steering through this Epicurean world, instead of turning to the Bible, they turn to Plato – not noticing that in doing so the Bible is unwillingly and inappropriately being dragged along behind.
Wright sees two implications in this: first, Western Christianity has largely abandoned the biblical hope of new creation and bodily resurrection. Second, holding a Platonic spirituality within an Epicurean metaphysic is an open invitation to Gnosticism.
There are one or two points with which I might disagree with Wright; there are perhaps a half-dozen points that make me uncomfortable – albeit far less so than I would have been had I listened to this perhaps five years ago; there are a dozen or more points that shed light on what was lost via the Enlightenment.
There are many parts of the Enlightenment that I embrace. The question is: what was lost? Herein, Wright makes clear his view of that which was lost – the Christian God. The more I consider this issue of moving toward liberty, the more I conclude that such views are correct.