Beside the divine garden from which I have been driven away, I will build a New Eden for myself which I will populate with mine own kind. I will station the invisible sentinel Progress at its entrance, and place a flaming sword in his hands. And he will say to God, “Thou shalt not enter here.”
- Jules-Antoine Castagnary, 1858 (anti-clerical French republican politician, journalist and progressive art critic)
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
This is the third book in the planned four-book series by Fr. John Strickland, in which he takes a sweeping review of 2,000 years of Christendom. In this book he will follow the line of how secular humanism displaced Christianity in the West – reorienting the culture from a view toward paradise to one of utopia (think paradise without God). By the time the twentieth century opens, there is nothing of the transcendent left in Western culture.
It is interesting to me that Strickland begins this segment with the Renaissance, and not the Reformation (as one might imagine he would do given that he is tracing Christendom). The reasons will unfold as I go through the book, but I suspect two factors are at play: first, his narrative arc of secular humanism aligns more appropriately with the Renaissance; second, I believe he sees the Reformation as an inevitable consequence of the earlier Great Schism.
Now, I want to make clear: I do not use terms like “narrative arc” disparagingly. Every historian comes to his subject with a viewpoint, otherwise the “facts” of history will be overwhelming. I certainly do the same (albeit, I am no historian).
Which brings me to something I have been thinking about on this topic. Every historian has an origin story: we are at our current point in history because of X that happened Y years ago. For example, one will find well-developed narratives regarding the roots of our current Western predicament that point to:
o The Progressive Era
o The Enlightenment
o The Renaissance
o The Reformation
o The Great Schism
o The coronation of Charlemagne
o The acceptance of Christianity by Constantine
o The birth of Christianity
o The evolution of philosophy from Plato to Aristotle
Take your pick. There is some truth to each of these (well, except for the birth of Christianity one), but none of these contain the entire truth. By saying this, I am not suggesting Strickland sees the entire truth through one lens. Just something to keep in mind when considering any narrative of history.
So…on to the book. Strickland begins with Petrarch, a fourteenth century scholar and credited as one of the earliest humanists, and his climb to the summit of Mount Ventoux in southern France. Petrarch arrived on the scene just as Occam’s nominalism was overtaking the universal truths of Aquinas. Both labeled “scholastic,” but obviously different in terms of metaphysics – and this, not an insignificant difference (and one I will return to, in various forms, often).
The goal of humanism was to restore to man his full potential for life in this world.
It was the preeminence of Aristotelianism as the cause of downgrading the status of the human being in this world. In a universal and unchanging order, Petrarch believed that personal spiritual growth was stifled.
Unfortunately, I am unable to make this connection. Aristotle understood the perfect forms, only that these forms had to be manifest (therefor losing their perfection); as there were perfect forms, however, man could always grow – spiritually or otherwise.
He saw in scholasticism the idea that truth was limited to rational cognition and rote memorization. It seems to me that this might be a fair criticism post-Occam, but it doesn’t ring true for Thomistic thought – at least not to my understanding.
“It is better to will the good,” [Petrarch] famously wrote, “than to know the truth.”
He believed that pagan philosophers like Plato and pagan orators Cicero – more so than Christian theologians like Aquinas – were better sources for restoring Christendom and its imperative for transformation.
But there was more. Western culture became trapped in pessimism about the condition of man. he was not immune to this condition, himself quite influenced by Augustine’s Confessions.
…he was torn in two by despair about his salvation and the desire to experience spiritual transformation in this life.
He wrote an imaginary dialogue between himself and Augustine, in which his “interlocutor” would offer that the only way through this life is a ceaseless meditation on death.
Eastern Christianity had not walked down this path, one of papal supremacy and scholasticism (although, from what I recall of my thoughts to Strickland’s previous book and what I have read thus far in this one, he sees the turning point with nominalism, which is post-Thomistic and contrary in many ways to Thomas).
As understood by the articulation of Gregory Palamas (d. 1359), Eastern Christendom offered hesychasm, claiming that even now, in this world, one can experience the kingdom of heaven. This a consequence of the Incarnation, and the baptism into His body. Through liturgical worship and the sacrament of the Eucharist, one could participate, body and soul, in divinity.
Now, I included the date of the death of Palamas for a reason. Was hesychasm an Eastern invention, something new since the schism – just as the East accuses the West on several points? It seems not, taken from Ancient Faith Radio:
All St. Gregory did was to express the age-old teaching of the Church within the framework of the contemporary controversy over the nature of Hesychast methods of prayer.
Gregory articulated the practice in some detail, in defense against an attack by the southern Italian monk Barlaam. Returning to Ancient Faith Radio to further explain this concept (and forgive the long cite):
Now the distinction between the essence and the energies of God - which Roman Catholics like to call "Palamism" but actually runs throughout the history of Orthodox thought - is nothing more than linguistic convention for affirming that God is both transcendent, and immanent. …when the saints experience the glory of God, they are experiencing nothing less than God Himself, though He still remains utterly hidden and unapproachable in His innermost nature.
God’s glory, indeed His grace, are not created intermediaries, but God, Himself. When man partakes of this grace, he is quite literally deified, but never, ever, neither in this life, nor the age to come, does man become transformed into the nature of God. God is both participable (if that is a word) according to His activities or energies, but wholly transcendent by nature. Man, in turn, becomes deified by grace, yet remains forever a creature. This is what St. Basil meant when he said that man was a creature with orders to become God.
Substitute the word “Jesus” for “God,” and I suspect most Christians would nod in agreement with that last sentence.
As an aside, one can find several sources online examining the possibility of reconciling what the West calls “Palamism” and traditional Thomism. Here is a two-hour video on this possibility at Pints With Aquinas, albeit the conversation is between two Catholics.
Returning to Strickland, Barlaam was humiliated in his confrontation with Gregory, so much so that he converted (I don’t like that word when one is speaking of a properly baptized believer) to Roman Catholicism. He then became acquainted with Petrarch, who he would tutor for a short time. Two important points came out of this relationship:
The first was that because of His transcendence, God is fundamentally unknowable by man. …The second…was that without the ability to know God in this world, man’s experience of transformation could only be secular, that is “of this age.”
Again, and I know I am being repetitive, this dispute is after the time when scholastic thought moved past Aquinas and into nominalism. Does this make a difference? It strikes me that it must, but, perhaps, I will also watch the aforementioned two-hour video as it considers Aquinas and not something that came later to the West. Then again, the distinction does conform, at least to some level, the Augustinian view of the two cities.
And for this reason, the letter documenting Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux marks the birth of secular humanism. Its Augustinian conviction that the world is separated from the spiritual life of man departed fundamentally from the anthropology and cosmology of traditional Christianity.
No longer a sanctified world, one that offered a glimpse of paradise, the West would look to a secular transformation of this world. And this, Strickland offers, ushers in the age of utopia.