Which Western Civilization? Whose Modernity?

(This is Neil) As I promised our frequent and much appreciated commenter Liam, I’m posting here on narratives of Western Civilization. (Sorry about the title.) More specifically, I’d like to use a recent article (link is to abstract) by the Anglican theologian Owen C. Thomas to identify two narratives – a secular narrative A and a more “Protestant” narrative B, respectively – that many of my readers will find both familiar, and, I trust, problematic. I realize that this talk of “narratives” might seem recondite. But our identification of the present context of the church usually depends upon some narrative of “how things came to be this way.” Furthermore, whenever we speak of “modernity” or the “modern” world – whether positively or negatively, and with or without great erudition, we usually do have a particular narrative in mind. Thus, like it or not, narratives …  

I should note that we can speak of problematic Catholic declension narratives of Western Civilization, recognizable, perhaps, by the spotlights on nominalism, supposed Protestant individualism, and other such culprits. But, here, following Owen Thomas, we will just speak of narratives A and B. Narrative C might eventually have its day, but not today.

First, then, narrative A. Reverend Thomas encountered this narrative (he calls it “the academy narrative”) while studying with the philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr., at Columbia University in the late 1940s. Narrative A begins in the Golden Age of Athens, between the sixth to fourth centuries, BCE. This is a “Golden Age” because philosophy (Socrates, Aristotle), history (Herodotus, Thucydides), literature (Pindar, the tragedians, Aristophanes), science (Aristotle again), and democracy are all born. But, eventually, there is what the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray termed a “failure of nerve,” namely, the “rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God.” Narrative A follows the judgment of Petrarch that, before 1340, the West experienced a nine hundred year “Dark Age.”

After nine hundred years of night, during the Renaissance, classical antiquity was finally reborn. We see once again, Randall writes, “an increasing interest in human life as it can be lived upon earth … and without necessary reference to any other destiny in the beyond or the hereafter.” Randall goes on to say about the Renaissance, “All this meant, of course, a revolt from the Christian ethic: in place of love, joy in the exercise of man’s God-given powers; in place of faith, it became more and more clear, the fearless quest of the intellect.” The western world finds its nerve again. But this Renaissance is not merely the rebirth of classical antiquity; it is the birth of the modern world. The Renaissance matures in the Enlightenment, which is distinguished by the idea of progress – the main figures in the Enlightenment, Randall says, “hoped for a veritable millennium.” And, if we turn from Randall’s The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (rev. ed., 1940) to Crane Brinton’s Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought (1950), we read, “This eighteenth-century view of life, though modified in the last two centuries, is still at bottom our view of life, especially in the United States.”

Thus, we see the outline of narrative A. Its secularity is clear and unavoidable.

Second, we have narrative B. Owen Thomas learned this narrative from Paul Tillich. Here we begin before the sixth century, BCE, and well east of Greece. We begin with the eighth century Hebrew prophets, who spoke of God above gods, the creator of a world that is “very good” – a world that includes bodies, sexuality, individuality and community. This God called Israel to be a light to the nations, condemned its injustice, and, through Amos, proclaimed, “I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities … [L]et justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream” (5:21, 24). Jesus is the Incarnation of God and intensifies the Hebrew Bible’s critique of injustice and idolatry in his own critique of Pharisaic hypocrisy and legalism.

But, just like narrative A passed into a centuries-long Dark Age, narrative B also has its times of shadows. As Christianity moved into the Hellenistic world, it was reinterpreted in Platonic categories. This Platonic Christianity, it is said, can be seen in Clement, Origen, Augustine, Eastern Orthodox thought and Aquinas, and was only somewhat banished in Protestant thought. The biblical God, according to Owen Thomas’ summary, is here confused with the “divine, nameless, ineffable, impersonal One,” and the world is seen as a “hierarchy of levels of being stretching from the divine down through the spiritual, the psychic, the organic to the inorganic.” Humanity is a microcosm and our highest level is also divine. We are called to recover this divine nature and reunite with the ineffable, impersonal One by escaping through asceticism from the drag of our lower levels. Physicality and community become meaningless, unreal. The fall of Adam becomes the sad story of the defiled body placing the soul in exile – concupiscence ruins contemplation. The influence of Middle Platonism, says, narrative B, is not a good thing at all.

The anti-Platonic proponents of narrative B claim that narrative A’s diagnosis of a “failure of nerve” does not apply to biblical Christianity, only to the Platonic Christianity described in the paragraph above.

Narrative B, then, sees the Renaissance as positive, but essentially Christian. Paul Tillich, in his 1961 lectures on the Renaissance at Harvard University, claimed that the Renaissance was not a recovery of classical antiquity, but neglected Christian doctrines – the medieval and Greek negative attitudes towards reality were replaced with a renewed understanding of creation (especially the imago Dei), incarnation, and the resurrection of the body. Tillich noted that there is no doctrine of creation in Greek thought, not even in Plato’s Demiurge, and no possibility of seeing the world, embodied and finite, as good. (In this context, Owen Thomas mentions the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s oft-quoted remark, made in his 1934 Nature, Man and God, that “Christianity … is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.”)

Furthermore, the proponents of narrative B also see the idea of progress as coming from Christianity. Platonism, they say, sees time as a circle; history is no more than eternal return. On the other hand, the hope of Israel for a Messiah was the hope for something new. And, then, in the medieval period, as Albert T. Mollegen (a longtime professor at Virginia Theological Seminary) writes, “In Joachim [of Fiore] and his followers was born the idea of progress, a radically new idea that, apart from the prophetic religious tradition, had never existed on the face of the earth before.”

Even secularity itself, we read in narrative B, comes from Christianity. Didn’t Christianity, since only God could be seen as holy, oppose idolatry? Wasn’t Polycarp told to look at his fellow Christians and say, “Away with the atheists”?  Narrative B would make us ask about modern science: Wasn’t it biblical religion that taught us to study nature through observation, not some sort of impossible deduction from the divine nature? Didn’t, as Robert Merton taught us, the Puritans support modern science? Here Owen Thomas quotes the exiled Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev:

It is impossible to build railways, invent the telegraph or telephone, while living in fear of the demons. Thus, for man to be able to treat nature like a mechanism, it is necessary for the demonic inspiration of nature and man’s communion with it to have died out in human consciousness. The mechanical conception of the world was to lead to a revolt against Christianity, but it was itself the spiritual result of the Christian act of liberating man from elemental nature and its demons.

And what of democracy? Narrative B locates its development within radical Protestantism. Thus, the historian R.H. Tawney: “The foundation of democracy is the sense of spiritual independence, which serves the individual to stand alone against the powers of this world … and it is probable that democracy owes more to Nonconformity than to any other single movement.” (Here, interestingly, Thomas quotes the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson’s claim that the “first appearance of genuine democracy in the modern world” occurred in England, under the aegis of Calvinism and Anabaptist and independent sects.)

But narrative B is not necessarily optimistic. To be sure, the distinguishing characteristics of modernity have been the fruits of Christian doctrines, but modern men and women do not understand this lineage, because they have taken Platonic Christianity to be authentic Christianity. Thus, they have sought to leave Christianity behind altogether. And, this, narrative B suggests, has and will have disastrous consequences. Here Thomas quotes Dawson again, along with Arnold Toynbee, and Auden’s “For the Time Being,” alongside St Paul’s threat of the “wrath of God” against those who exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling moral man or birds or animals or reptiles.”

Narrative B, especially in its reading of the poisonous effects of Middle Platonism throughout most of Christian history, seems to be a decidedly Protestant narrative. (Thomas finds this narrative persuasive.)

The question for us, here, is whether we see the influences of narrative A and/or narrative B around us today. And, if so, how do we respond to them?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Which Western Civilization? Whose Modernity?

  1. Liam says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. Narrative A, in some form or another, is I think still the more popularly received narrative in our culture.

    2. Narrative B has some issues. One issue is that the word “Protestantism” is itself equivocal: it covers a wide range of contradictory impulses, and there were important impulses that did not revive “neglected Christian doctrines” in the way suggested but if anything moved further away from them. Another issue is what is meant by “genuine democracy” – manifested how and as applied to what, and it should be remembered that Protestantism was perhaps even more fertile ground for modern secular notions of statism as Catholicism was. It should also be remembered that the Medieval western Catholic view of civil government was not only influenced by Augustine in a way Byzantine views were not, they were in practice also influenced by Benedict of Nursia (as well as Germanic and Slavic cultural traditions)- one sees in pre-modern western European governance an emphasis on hierarchy-in-collegiality that – despite the imbalances to and fro during the Investiture Controversy – remained something of an ideal to which the culture sought to return as a golden mean in the way heliotropic flowers follow the sun. In the early modern period, nascent “democratic” impulses fed in part on the residual appeal of that older cultural ideal.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing, as I hoped that you would.

    I agree that among the general population, narrative A is “still the most popularly received narrative in our culture.” I wonder if narrative A’s popularity has simply to do with its inclusion in Western Civilization courses taught in the recent past, or if, additionally, narrative A brings a degree of emotional/spiritual consolation to the secular, perhaps by prescribing tragic resignation.

    As for narrative B, you are right that “Protestantism” is an “equivocal” term, which is why I placed it in scare quotes in my first paragraph. Also, it should be noted that “Protestantism” isn’t merely the binary opposite of “Catholicism.” But I do wonder if narrative B was sustained in the US by a mainline Protestant intellectual culture that is disappearing.

    In terms of historical specifics, you are right that Protestantism could be aligned with statism (e.g., Tudor England) and that we can find examples of collegiality in medieval culture. I think that you are also right to see Anabaptist ideas of “democracy” as quite possibly inspired by monastic ideals. (E.g., Weldon Nisly, among others, has noted that the Schleitheim Articles take the idea that a spiritual leader must be elected by the members of the community from the Rule of St Benedict.)

    So narrative B would have to be complexified. (I think that the main problem with it has to do with the seemingly absolute rejection of Hellenization.)



  3. Liam says:

    And narrative B also would seem to need to account better for the profound influence of an Augustinianism unmediated by Thomism on the development of Protestantism.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Yeah, there are historical problems with narrative B. (In the example that you mention, narrative B would have to separate Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings from his larger body of work.)

    The interesting problem with narrative B and a Catholic narrative C (which I only briefly discussed in the post) is that they aren’t sufficiently ecumenical, but have to define themselves against something – whether Platonism, individualism, whatever.

    Take care,

  5. Liam says:



  6. Dear Neil:

    So good to have you posting with us again. Sorry that I have been so long in responding. If I may be permitted, I would like to restate the cogent questions you asked at the end of your essay:

    The question for us, here, is

    (1) whether we see the influences of narrative A and/or narrative B around us today. And, if so,

    (2) how do we respond to them?

    As regards your first question, I could legitimately answer with a monosyllable only: Yes

    But taking it a bit farther, I believe that we see both the ‘humanist’ narrative (which has been going on at least since the time of Erasmus, and which your informant has labeled ‘Narrative A’), and the ‘protestant’ narrative (which has been going on at least since the time of Calvin, and which has been labeled ‘Narrative B’).

    Of course, the names change as regards who is telling the respective narratives, with Dan Brown and the Neopagans being the most recent of the bunch.

    As regards your second question, I believe the answer is to come up with a more nuanced narrative which actually is true to the FULL historical record. A ‘catholic’ narrative may be necessary to counteract the biases of A and B, but I do not think that it is going to be sufficient.

    Also, if a proposed narrative ‘C’ will find any success, it will have to be connected to a compelling ‘mythos’ or story, such as the Humanists had when they came up with the corker that Western Civilization came to a full stop with the fall of Periclean Athens, and did not return until the various Italian city states of the Renaissance in the 13th century, or the hyper-protestants with their tale that the time of the apostles ended with the deaths of the same, and did not return until Zwingli was burned at the stake.

    Whether such a narrative C will be any more accurate depends on the interplay between story and truth of those telling it.

    I hold out little hope myself of that.

  7. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard,

    Thanks for writing. It’s always good to hear from you. I agree with you that we need to come up with a “nuanced narrative which actually is true to the FULL historical record” and that a “catholic” narrative C is hardly sufficient. (I also must admit that I share your pessimism.)

    But, that said, the question is what we do in the meantime. Western Civilization courses do need to be taught. We have to start somewhere, which will inevitably mean an incomplete narrative C. How do we prevent our narrative from becoming an closed ideology? How do we bring out narrative in dialogue with others? (I do not have any magical answers.)

    Thanks again.


  8. Jim McK says:

    I have been thinking about this post for a while. Something disturbs me, I am not quite sure what. It has to do with identifying civilization by reference to Plato or Hebrew thought.

    Is it simplistic to offer a more sociological approach? Civilization is about building cities. A wonderful piece from about 300 AD describes how Philip of Macedon brought together the near primitive people of Macedon to create a city where people lived and fought together. That gives the context for Alexander, his son, bringing together people in cities across the ‘world’.

    Any “dark age” is about not building, or unbuilding, cities. Maybe they are about the flight from the cities in early monasticism. But that flows into the creation of towns that grow up around monasteries, nurturing interaction in smaller units than cities but with interaction with the decaying cities. That culminates in the recreation of cities with universities at their core, like Paris or London in the 13th century.

    What is important in a city, and a civilization, is not some single source but the mixing of people of different backgrounds. The people of Israel, Egypt and Macedon mixed in Alexandria, those of Persia, Afghanistan and Macedon in their Alexandria (now Khandahar). Different sources come together, but it is not this source or that that makes a civilization, but the coming together. So narratives A & B miss the point, which is that Hebrew and Hellenist cultures together make Western Civilization, along with a lot of other cultures.

    This is a fragment of an idea, fuzzy on some details. Maybe most details. The Roman Empire fits in somewhere. I’m still thinking about it.

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Jim Mck,

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment. I’m sorry for taking so long to respond. I very much agree with your claim about needing to hold together Hebrew and Hellenist cultures and the focus on “different sources” coming together.

    But I wonder if your strong emphasis on cities might come with certain value judgments. (Value judgments are, of course, inevitable, but should be recognized.) Some of these values, I think, are the values of the bourgeoisie – cosmopolitanism, individualism, capitalism, instrumental reason.

    Some of the protestors against the city have been quite terrible (Mao, the Khmer Rough, etc – see Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism, chapter 2).

    But can rural life be so easily dismissed?


  10. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I actually think it is one of the advantages of a sociological narrative — bourgeois prejudices are more noticeable than when they are hidden behind the names of Plato and Moses.

    Have you ever seen Sullivan’s Travels? One of Hollywood’s greatest movies. Joel McCrea sets out to make a relevant film about the conflict of Capital and Labor, but ends up discovering Disney’s slapstick cartoons are more relevant. (circa 1940)

    The discussion of Hebrew and Hellenist, Plato and Moss, Capital and Labor, are important for understanding Civilization. More important is what makes us laugh, with us including those who know little or nothing about Moses, Hellenism, Capitalism or city life as well as those who know a great deal.

    Cities, and civilizations, are about the meeting of people from different backgrounds and bringing them together under a single umbrella. They do not make sense apart from those backgrounds, whether they are earlier cities or rural cultures. They are a context that matters istm.

  11. Neil says:

    Dear Jim McK,

    Thanks for your comment. I have seen Sullivan’s Travels. It is a great film, although I have to admit a little unease at the political subtext (the film was made in 1941, during the Depression). But I do agree with your point about humor – one perhaps made by Woody Allen closer to our time (see Fr Richard Blake’s book on him).

    And I do agree that cities are important insofar as they can foster dialogue. I reread Octogesima Adveniens along with the new encyclical and came across this in Paul VI’s apostolic letter:

    To build up the city, the place where men and their expanded communities exist, to create new modes of neighborliness and relationships, to perceive an original application of social justice and to undertake responsibility for this collective future, which is foreseen as difficult, is a task in which Christians must share. To those who are heaped up in an urban promiscuity which becomes intolerable it is necessary to bring a message of hope. This can be done by brotherhood which is lived and by concrete justice. … In the Bible, the city is in fact often the place of sin and pride-the pride of man who feels secure enough to be able to build his life without God and even to affirm that he is powerful against God. But there is also the example of Jerusalem, the Holy City, the place where God is encountered, the promise of the city which comes from on high.

    Thanks again.


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