Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881) review essay, “Signs of the Times,” first appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1829. Rather than reviewing the books listed—namely, William Alexander MacKinnon’s On the Rise, Progress, and Present State of Public Opinion (1829), Edward Iriving’s The Last Days: A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times (1829), and the anonymous Anticipation; or, an Hundred Years Hence (1829)—Carlyle takes the opportunity to deliver some rather interesting cultural commentary.
He begins by criticizing the contemporary histrionics of “danger” and “crisis.” It is obvious, he says, that the present faces a crisis. This crisis has called forth a plethora of vaticinations, both from the religious and irreligious. “The one announce” he writes, “that the last of the seals is to be opened, positively, in the year 1860; and the other assure us, that ‘the greatest happiness principle’ is to make a heaven of earth, in a still shorter time” (441). But rather than getting into a frenzy, Carlyle calls for a calmer, more serious inspection and reading of “the signs of our own time.”
In brief, Carlyle characterized his age not as a “Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age” (442).
It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils (ibid).
Thanks to industry and technology, mankind is better fed, clothed, lodged, and accommodated than in any time in history. At the same time, the Mechanical Age has dramatically altered social systems. The rise of the periodical press is partly one consequence of the Mechanical Age. We have machines for education. We also have religious machines. Indeed “every little sect among us, Unitarians, Utilitarians, Anabaptists, Phrenologists, must each have its periodical, its monthly or quarterly magazine—hanging out, like its windmill, into the popularis aura, to grind meal for the society” (443).
Society then, as now, revolved around new technologies. Another consequence of the Mechanical Age is the building of institutions and societies. “No Queen Christina,” Carlyle observes, “needs to send for her Descartes; no King Frederick for his Voltaire.” We now have recourse to Royal and Imperial Societies and Institutions, Bible Societies, Religious Tract Societies, and, soon after Carlyle published this essay, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Men are [now] grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand” (444). Our whole manner of existence has fundamentally and dramatically changed.
The Mechanical philosophy, as Carlyle understood it, has altered the state of science. Metaphysical and Moral Sciences are now in disrepute. Instead, “the science of the age,” he says, “is physical, chemical, physiological, and, in all shapes, mechanical” (445).
Mechanical principles have become so pervasive that they have also affected politics. Society is now seen as a machine and “mere political arrangements” have also been mechanized. “It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economical conditions, as regulated by public laws” (448). This “body-politic” has now become an idol of worship.
But while the domain of Mechanism was once considered embracing, it is by no means the most important. Carlyle makes a distinction between man’s dynamical and mechanical nature. In the dynamical springs the mystery of love, fear, wonder, enthusiasm, poetry, religion, “all which” he says, “have a truly vital and infinite character” (449). In this sense, according to Carlyle, our mechanical side can never led us to happiness. Moreover, both “Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited, unexpected gift—often even a fatal one” (ibid.).
Because both grow spontaneously, it is dangerous to institutionalize either science or art. Christianity, for example, the “crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole modern culture,” has increasingly declined and decayed under the burden of institutionalization (450). Was it by institutions and establishments, Carlyle asks, that Christianity first arose and spread among men?
Not so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. [Rather] It arose in the mystic deeps of man’s soul; and was spread abroad by the ‘preaching of the ‘word,’ by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and as sun or star will ever shine, through the whole dark destinies of man (ibid).
This tacit, anti-Catholic rhetoric is made even clearer when Carlyle maintains that “the Reformation had an invisible, mystic, and ideal aim: the result was indeed to be embodied in external things; but its spirit, its worth, was internal, invisible, infinite” (ibid).
Although man has both a mechanical and a dynamical nature, he is undoubtedly “not a creature and product of Mechanism.” Rather, he is “its creator and producer.” This observation should be obvious, but Carlyle claims that many in the Mechanical Age have forgotten this all-important distinction. However, we must not deny the dynamical nor the mechanical aspects of human nature. Indeed, both, says Carlyle, need to be cultivated.
Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious (452).
It is this, unbalanced understanding of the dynamical and mechanical that characterizes the Mechanical Age. The truth, writes Carlyle, is that “men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible” (ibid). God, in short, has become the machine.
With the mechanization of God, religion has dramatically changed. Indeed, it has been lost.
Religion in most countries, more or less in every country, is no longer what it was, and should be, — a thousand-voiced psalm from the heart of Man to his invisible Father, the fountain of all Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and revealed in every revelation of these; but for the most part, a wise prudential feeling grounded on mere calculation; a matter, as all others now are, of Expediency and Utility; whereby some smaller quantum of earthly enjoyment may be exchanged for a far larger quantum of celestial enjoyment. Thus Religion too is Profit, a working for wages; not Reverence, but vulgar Hope or Fear (455).
With religion, literature and morality have also lost its way, says Carlyle. Poetry has lost its beauty. It has been replaced with brute strength. Self-denial, the parent of all virtue, has given way to instant self-gratification. “Virtue is Pleasure, is Profit; no celestial, but an earthly thing” (456). In the end, “we worship and follow after Power”; we shun truth and seek ambition, honor, and popularity (457).
In a powerful conclusion, Carlyle writes:
Thus, while civil liberty is more and more secured to us, our moral liberty is all but lost. Practically considered, our creed is Fatalism; and, free in hand and foot, we are shackled in heart and soul with far straiter than feudal chains. Truly may we say, with the Philosopher, “the deep meaning of the Laws of Mechanism lies heavy on us”; and in the closet, in the Marketplace, in the temple, by the social hearth, encumbers the whole movements of our mind, and over our noblest faculties is spreading a nightmare sleep (ibid.)
But Carlyle remains optimistic. Technology is not the problem. It is how we use it. Indeed, it is still possible to recover the wisdom of our forefathers. Although “the time is sick and out of joint,” these two hostile influences in man, the dynamical and the mechanical, the old and the new, have always existed. What we need is balance and “constant intercommunion.” What we need is another “majestic reformation,” another “majestic Luther.” But in order to reform a nation, we must, says Carlyle, begin with ourselves (459).
In the April, 1824 issue of the British Critic—a popular quarterly journal, founded in 1793 by conservative and High Churchmen, and supported by the Anglican orthodox group known as “Hackney Phalanx”—there is an anonymous and blistering review of Granville Penn’s A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (1822) and A Supplement to the Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies: relating chiefly to the Geological Indications of the Phenomena of the Cave at Kirkdale (1823). Penn, fluent in several languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French, was known as a “scriptural geologist” and early biblical literalist. In the Critic review, the introductory comments are worth quoting at length:
We have always doubted the expediency of connecting the speculations of science with the truths of revealed religion; and the work now before us has fully justified all our scruples on this head. It is sufficient to observe, as the ground of our opinion, that the Holy Scriptures were not meant to convey to mankind a system of philosophy [i.e., "science"]; and that consequently every attempt to derive from them a species of knowledge which they profess not to contain, will not only be attended with complete failure, but will also, in most instances, call forth the scorn of the sceptic and the regret of the sincere believer. The book of Genesis ought never to be resorted to as a manual either of astronomy or of geology. The objects contemplated by its Inspired Author were much more sacred and important; and accordingly through he was skilled in all the learning of the Egyptians, he uniformly abstained from obtruding upon the attention of those whom he wished to instruct in heavenly things, the crude notions of priests or magicians, however ingenious or however popular.
My italics. This was a High Church periodical. In the second edition of A Comparative Estimate (1825), Penn responded specifically to this “distempered flagellant”: “This ardent critic,” he wrote, “should have lived at least three centuries ago, when reviews ad excommunicationem might have acquired some measure of power. In the fervid zeal with which he appears to copy the proceedings of the Pontifical College of 1622, he thus fulminates his Inquisitorial sentence against this Work.” Penn is of course referring to the trail of Galileo. In other words, Penn is portraying himself as a new Galileo.
This episode in the history of science reveals, to my mind, two things. First, the use of the Bible as a “science text-book” was contested, not only by liberal theologians, but also by conservative ones, even High Churchmen. Modern Young-Earth creationists may have had some precedent in nineteenth-century scriptural geological tradition, but clearly it was contested terrain. Second, writers such as Penn reveal a fear that science was being taken away from the clerical-scientist. Here the professionalization of science becomes clear. What is most interesting, however, is the imagery of Galileo. It seems that both sides, the literalists and the new geological, professional elite, used the Galileo myth against what each side perceived as a struggle against bigotry.
The last few days I have been exploring anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Hugh McLeod, in his Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914 (2000), in his chapter on “Identity,” observed that a general feature of nineteenth-century Protestantism was marked by a pervasive anti-Catholicism. A number of other scholars have also noted a pronounced anti-Catholicism in the Victorian era. An older, but still useful, study of this tradition is E.R. Norman’s Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (1968). In more recent times, historian of religion John Wolffe’s The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (1991), Hartmut Lehmann’s “Anti-Catholic and Anti-Protestant Propaganda in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America and Europe” (1991), and D.G. Paz’s Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain (1993) offer additional insight. More recently, Marjule Anne Drury’s 2001 review article, “Anti-Catholicism in Germany, Britain, and the United States,” in Church History (2001), provides a helpful bibliography of the transnational character of anti-Catholic discourse then raging in the nineteenth century. Finally, in a series of fascinating articles in the 2013 issue of European Studies, demonstrate how “anti-Catholicism was a transnational cultural phenomenon, and similarly negative accusations and stereotypes regarding Catholicism existed in a number of countries.” In their introduction to the issue, Yvonne Maria Werner and Jonas Harvard provide a brief outline of the origins of anti-Catholicism in early modern Europe, beginning with the principle cuius region, eius religions of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. According to Werner and Harvard, “anti-Catholicism as well as anti-Protestantism was…part of the legal and cultural system of the time, and in several countries it was bound up closely with questions of monarchical succession.” By the nineteenth century, with religion increasingly becoming a “private matter,” anti-Catholicism began “shifting to target the Catholic Church and the papacy on matters of national integrity, progress and modernity.” Or, as John Wolffe puts it in his article in the issue, in England “much of the animus that had earlier been directed against the Roman Catholic Church was now focused on ritualist clergymen in the Church of England, who were seen as advancing Popery by subverting the Protestantism of the establishment from within.”
Opposition to “popery” was of course not a new feature of life in nineteenth-century Europe. Fear of Catholicism extends as far back as Protestantism itself. A number of historical events in the nineteenth century, however, increased the intensity of anti-Catholic sentiment. The passing of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act; the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement in the 1830s, led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Bouverie Pusey; Newman’s Tract XC in 1841 and later his conversion to Catholicism in 1845; the “no Popery” movement of 1850-51; Irish immigration; the notorious pastoral letter, “Flaminian Gate,” from Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Nicholas Wisemen; and a lecture entitled “The Decline of Protestantism, by John Hughes, Catholic Archbishop of New York, all played a role in increasing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics.
Anti-Catholicism was undoubtedly a significant feature of the Victorian period. It was manifested in sermons, petitions, tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. But as other recent scholarship has demonstrated, it was decisively through fiction that anti-Catholicism was largely disseminated. Susan Griffin’s Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2004) and Diana Peschier’s Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholicism Discourses (2005) persuasively argue that the Victorian novel dramatized the supposed evils of Catholicism. As Griffin argues, the Protestant obsession with Rome was “distilled to provide Victorians with a set of political, cultural, and literary tropes through which they defined themselves as Protestant and therefore normative.” From Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Bronte, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry James, Frances Trollope, and Charles Kingsley, Victorian fiction provided plots, characters, and imagery for an anti-Catholic imagination.
I came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:
People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.
What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”
A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.
I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).
In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.
In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”
But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:
British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.
To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”
To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.
Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”
Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”
But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:
Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.
The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.
I was reminded today of a remarkable chapter in James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controveries (1979). Moore argues that the “military metaphor perverts historical understanding with violence and inhumanity, by teaching one to think of polarity where there was confusing plurality, to see monolithic solidarity where there was division and uncertainty, to expect hostility where there was conciliation and concord.”
I was searching “freethought” on the Internet Archive when the first hit that came up was Samuel P. Putnam’s 400 Years of Freethought, published by the “The Truth Seeker Company” in 1894. The book begins with a proem on “Freethought—Past, Present, and Future.” For the “past,” the proem begins with Bruno, “looking forth with eyes of fire,” who was “martyred” for revealing “Science’ fearless path.” The proem transitions to the “present” with Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), the “great agnostic” of the United States, before finally concluding with the “child” of the “future,” the “tiny prophet of untraveled years.”
The first chapter remarks that “through darkness and struggle; through bloody war; through torture and terror, through superstition, ignorance, and tyranny, Freethought has steadily pushed onward, with true Promethean fire, with the torch of reason, with undaunted face, with unreceding step, until now it leads the world with victorious colors.” Riveting stuff.
After delineating what, exactly, Freethought is, Putnam in the following chapter highlights the “three voyages” of Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan. It is not long before Putnam claims that Columbus “gave almost undeniable proof that the earth was not flat, as it was declared to be by the standard theology of the church.” Although himself not a freethinker, Columbus, according to Putnam, “was certainly a heretic in action.”
All this is familiar territory. Indeed, Putnam references John William Draper several times, and likely borrowed themes and ideas from some of Andrew Dickson White’s periodical publications. What is interesting about Putnam is that he was a seminary student in Chicago in the 1860s, preached as a Congregational minister, converted to Unitarianism 1870s, and then renounced Christianity shortly thereafter. In 1887 he established the Journal of Freethought and became the author of numerous books attacking Christianity and religion in general. He was not simply anti-Catholic. In chapter five of 400 Years of Freethought he proclaimed that the Reformation marked “an epoch in human progress.” But quickly qualifies: “it soon reached its culmination and ceased to be of any benefit.”
What happened to Samuel Putnam? I do not know enough about him to make any definitive claims, but surely he was part of the “warfare’s toll on historical interpretation.”
Nineteenth-century Victorian scientific naturalists had a particular conception of scientific and social progress. In his “The Progress of Science 1837-1887″ (1887), Thomas Henry Huxley argued that a “revolution” had taken place, both politically and socially, in the modern world. In brief, scientific progress came with the adoption of a naturalistic approach to studying nature. Any other approach would count as an obstacle both to scientific and social progress. Similar sentiments were shared by John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and other scientific naturalists.
Of course the idea of progress was held by other Victorians as well. “We are on the side of progress,” wrote British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. “From the great advances which European society has made, during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.” “History,” he continued, “is full of the signs of this natural progress of society.” From Macaulay, Arnold, Mill, Morley, and Kingsley, to Huxley and Co., the idea of progress became dogma for Victorian intellectuals.
But where did this idea of progress come from, and why was it so pervasive? From the 1920s onward, several historians have offered strikingly different (and sometimes opposing) answers. J.B. Bury, for example, explained in his The Idea of Progress (1920) that progress was the “animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” But in saying this, Bury also disputed, and dismissed, the connection between the idea of progress and the Christian doctrine of providence. Indeed, the idea of progress presupposed its rejection: “it was not till men felt independence of Providence,” he writes, “that they could organize a theory of Progress…So long as the doctrine of Progress was…in the ascendent, a doctrine of Progress could not arise.” According to Bury, the origin of the idea of progress is found among eighteenth-century philosophes. To make his point, Bury also portrayed the philosophes as characteristically anti-Christian or anti-religious.
However, other historians saw the idea of progress in terms of the secularization of biblical eschatology. Ernest Lee Tuveson, for instance, argued in his Millennium and Utopia (1949) that “gradually the role of Providence was transferred to ‘natural laws’…Providence was disguised rather than eliminated.” A new kind of Providence emerged, one based on the confidence of the historical process: “This confidence…resulted in part from the transformation of a religious idea—the great millennial expectation…The New Jerusalem in a utopia of mechanistic philosophers; the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers and of the nineteenth-century optimists retained many features of the New Jerusalem.” Others would follow and expand Tuveson’s analysis, including Carl L. Becker, Nicolas Berdyaev, Carl Schmitt, Jacob Taubes, Karl Löwith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Voegelin, among others. It was becoming increasingly clear that the modern idea of progress rested on biblical presuppositions, particularly a secularized eschatological myth of salvation.
A great debate followed after the publication of Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1976). Blumenberg’s book was essentially a reply to Löwith’s Meaning in History (1949). Löwith had argued that modern categories of reason and progress, and modern philosophies of history are secularized vestiges of Judeo-Christian eschatology. In other words, the modern idea of progress only appears to be rational or scientific. Under the surface, it is supported by an eschatological hope and expectation. Löwith traces these religious elements backward, from Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet and Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine and Orosius, all the way to the “biblical” view of history. According to Löwith, “philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and…ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.” Whether religious or irreligious, all narratives of progress are overtly or covertly “eschatological from Isaiah to Marx, form Augustine to Hegel, from Joachim to Schelling.”
Opposition to Löwith’s thesis came most forcefully from Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg, the idea of progress was no vestige of biblical eschatology. Rather, it was a radical break from it, a Neuzeit. Christian eschatology and modern progressivism, says Blumenberg, do not share any identifiable ideas, nor does the modern idea of progress contain any authentic, original content found in Christianity. In brief, they are diametrically different: “it is…a manifest difference,” he writes, “that an eschatology speaks of an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it, while the idea of progress extrapolates from a structure present in every moment to a future that is immanent in history.” More explicitly, Blumenberg contends that the idea of progress “hopes for the greater security of man in the world,” the here and now, while “eschatology” is “more nearly an aggregate of terror and dread.” Blumenberg concludes that “the dependence of the idea of progress on Christian eschatology” is nil, and therefore “block any transposition of the one into the other.”
So, where does the modern idea of progress come from? Blumenberg offers an alternative genealogy, found in late-medieval theological nominalism, human self-assertion, and astronomy. The nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) pushed knowledge of God beyond the boundaries of human intelligibility or comprehension. Once God essentially “disappeared,” humanity had to assert itself:
deprived by God’s hiddenness of metaphysical guarantees for the world, man constructs for himself a counterworld of elementary rationality and manipulability…Because theology meant to defend God’s absolute interest, it allowed and caused man’s interest in himself and his concern for himself to become absolute.
Representative of this new position, says Blumenberg, is the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From Blumenberg’s view, Bacon turned away from understanding God to understanding man and nature. With Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, we reach man’s full self-assertion. And herein lies Blumenberg’s central argument: this modern self-assertion of reason provided the means for “possible progress” rather than the “necessary progress” of the eschatological view.
But according to a host of scholars, Blumenberg’s critique of Löwith ultimately fails. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, found it unconvincing, if not perplexing. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that “the modern age came into being out of a world in which Christianity was dominant, and therefore its relationship, and particularly that of its early stages, to Christianity is not merely a matter of historical interest.” Pannenberg goes on to observe that key to Blumenberg’s argument depended on the theme of theodicy. Christianity attempted to answer the question of the problem of evil. But according to Blumenberg, Christian theologians failed to provide a satisfactory answer. This, in Pannenberg’s assessment, is where Blumenberg derives his “conception that the modern age originated in opposition to theological absolutism.” In short, the idea of progress takes on “the vanished role of theodicy.”
But according to Pannenberg, Christian theodicy is not that simple. “Christianity came to terms in a decisive way with the evil and wickedness in the world,” Pannenberg argues, “not by removing responsibility for the world from the creator, but by belief in the reconciliation of the world by the God who took upon himself the burden of its guilt and misery and so set men free from it.” In this sense, Pannenberg finds it strange that Blumenberg neglects to mention this central Christian theme. What is more, the “rise of the modern age cannot be understood in the abstract terms of the history of ideas.” Pannenberg points to the Protestant Reformation and the “historical catastrophes which came about in its train,” that it was essential to the emancipation of the modern age. Here, too, Pannenberg is astonished that Blumenberg has ignored the role of the “Reformation in the rise and the self-understanding of the modern age.”
In his own response to Blumenberg, Löwith argued that the modern idea of progress and Christian eschatology are essentially common in “that both live by hope insofar as they conceive of history as proceeding toward final fulfillment which lies in the future.” In short, Blumenberg’s “possible progress” ultimately collapses back into “necessary progress.”
Many historians of science in recent years have argued that early modern science was a religious activity. With some minor modification, Blumenberg’s thesis of modern man’s self-assertion of reason was not a revolutionary turn away from God, but rather the attempt to find better proofs of God’s existence, in the natural world. Self-assertion, in other words, was a religious conception as well. It was a dialogue with God within a new medium, that of science.