Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What was the Enlightenment? How is it still an influence today?

The Enlightenment was a secular reaction to the religious controversies of the Reformation and Counterreformation, primarily to the authoritarian Puritanical morality of the Calvinists, but also to the traditional authority of the Catholic Church.[i] During this time, a substantial shift took place in philosophy, beginning with Descartes, a Catholic layman, who perhaps unwittingly introduced the notion of the turn to the subject in philosophical inquiry,[ii] as opposed to the traditional focus on the object in classical and medieval philosophy. This “turn to the subject” cast doubt upon the “external ‘objective’ world of the sense” and instead focused on “our own introspective knowledge of our thoughts,”[iii] summed up neatly in Descartes’ famous dictum, “Cogito, ergo sum.”

In reaction against Descartes’ idealism, the British empiricists swung to a materialist extreme.[iv] These two views, rationalist or idealist on one side and materialist on the other, responded dialogically into a more and more skeptical philosophical spirit until finally with Hume, we see even the notion of causality being called into question. What all of this skeptical philosophizing ultimately led to was a distrust of traditional institutions and morality, leading to a suspicion or outright rejection of external norms as the basis for morality.[v] As Ashley notes, this movement turned instead to modern science and technology as the solution to human problems, rejecting revelation from God as being of any use.[vi] While Renaissance humanism respected the accomplishments of religion, secular humanism essentially attempted to (and in some locales, did) supplant religious morality with a new order.[vii] However, because science is essentially value free, a new source had to be found to supply a system of values and morality. Ultimately, the source came to rest in the human “genius.”[viii]

What all of these strands do is to come together with a heightened sense of the individual as the source of authority or at least the “captain” of his own destiny. While I think Ashley paints with too broad a brush in his descriptions of conservatism and progressivism, he points out that each tends to emphasize certain aspects of libertarian thought to the detriment of Catholic teaching. On one extreme, there is a disregard for social solidarity in the economic sphere—the legitimate regulation of market practices. On the other extreme is the disregard of social solidarity in the “personal” moral sphere, the area of sexual morality and personal responsibility.[ix] I would also argue that each side demonstrates an extreme interpretation of the volunteerist morality of the late scholastic and Reformation eras, with each extreme responding in polar opposition—one holding rigidly to the letter of law while neglecting the spirit; the other, rejecting the letter while claiming to seek or express the spirit (often well outside of the clear moral norms of Catholic tradition). A truly Catholic approach, to me, seeks to hold letter and spirit in balance or in tension.

i. Bendict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 126.
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Philosophy for Theologians—Lesson 3: The Intellectual Ambiguities of Contemporary Culture,” International Catholic University, 28 February 2010, .
iii. Ibid.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ashley, 128.
vi. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8a—Lesson Fifteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
vii. Ibid.
viii. Ibid.
ix. Ibid.
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