Evelleen Richards and the Making of Darwin’s Theory of Sexual Selection

Tonight Evelleen Richards will be speaking at IASH on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In preparation for the talk, it has been suggested we read her 1983 essay, “Darwin and the Descent of Women.” It is a dated text, as many of her arguments have now become common parlance among Darwin scholars. Nevertheless, it is still relevant today, and thus worth familiarizing ourselves with its details.

Richards begins by pointing out that during the 1970s and 1980s social historians and sociologists were beginning to view scientific knowledge as a “contingent cultural product.” That is, scientific knowledge as socially constructed, as influenced by “non-scientific” content. She is careful to qualify the position, noting that “this is not to assert that science is merely a matter of convention…but rather that scientific knowledge ‘offers an account of the physical world which is mediated through available cultural resources; and these resources are in no way definitive.'” Richards supports this contention by citing work from M. Mulkay, B. Barnes, S. Shapin, R.M. Macleod, and a few others.

Using this new approach—i.e., that scientific knowledge is cultural constructed—Richards applies this method to Darwin’s conclusions on biological and social evolution, particularly his claims about women and sexual selection. Darwin has for too long (remember, this is a paper from the 1980s) been portrayed as an idealized, objective, “great man” of science. He has been “absolved of political and social intent and his theoretical constructs of ideological taint,” she writes.

But Richards wants to go beyond the feminist charge of sexism. Indeed, she aims to place “Darwin’s theoretical constructs and Darwin himself in their larger, social, intellectual and cultural framework.” In short, she wants to argue that Darwin was not merely a sexist or chauvinist, but that he was following an increasingly popular naturalistic explanation of nature—including human nature. Moreover, Darwin also derived his notion of sexual selection from the larger Victorian context, from socially sanctioned assumptions “of the innate inferiority and domesticity of women.” More interestingly, Richards wants to connect Darwin’s views on sexual selection to his relations with Emma Wedgwood, his wife, and their children. “I argue,” Richards writes, “that Darwin’s experience of women and his practical activities of husband and father entered into his concept of sexual selection and his associated interpretations of human evolution.” Finally, Richards wants to show how late-Victorian Darwinism was imposed on women, limiting their claims for social and political equality.

As soon as Darwin published his Origin of Species, he was feeling the pressure to apply his theory of evolution to humanity. According to his notebooks, Darwin had been thinking about human evolution since the 1830s. Indeed, “from the first he was convinced that humanity was part of the evolutionary process.” He delayed publishing his views once the storm over the Origin had subsided.

But that did not prevent others from making a go at it. Charles Lyell offered his own arguments in his 1863 Antiquity of Man. But Darwin was “bitterly disappointed” that Lyell did not “go the whole orang.” Darwin felt more assured by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection. He was so confident in Wallace that he offered to share his notes on “Man” with him. Darwin was shocked when Wallace retracted his “belief in the all-sufficiency of natural in human physical, social, and mental development.” By 1869, Wallace had posited a “higher intelligence” guiding the development of the human race.

Richards suggests that these men, who seem to have lost their nerve, reinforced Darwin’s determination to demonstrate that the “human races were the equivalent of the varieties of plants and animals…and they were subject to the same main agencies of struggle for existence and the struggle for mates.” Human evolution, as with other species, could and should be explained by natural evolutionary processes.

Sexual selection was indeed the key for Darwin. When he published his Descent of Man in 1871, he subtitled it: or Selection in Relation to Sex. Sexual selection had been vital for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his Origin, Darwin distinguished the two. Sexual selection, he wrote

depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the results is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny. But in many cases, victory will depend not on general vigour, but on having special weapons, confined to the male sex.

Perhaps more importantly, Darwin attributed sexual selection to another factor: female choice. This explained, for example, the seemingly useless and even disadvantageous colors of some male birds, or the long horns of the antelope. In other words, these elements made the male more attractive, and hence better at “wooing” the female during courtship.

Richards carefully notes that in his Origin, Darwin views females as mere spectators, entirely submissive to the males, who actively compete with one another. “Female choice” she writes, is still very much “passive.” Darwin’s “androcentric bias,” she adds, is even more pronounced when he considered human evolution. According to Richards, Darwin badgered “naturalists and breeders for corroborative evidence” to support his position. For Darwin, “human evolution and sexual selection had become inextricably linked.”

In his Descent of Man, Darwin divides his argument into three parts. In part one he sought to demonstrate “that there was no fundamental difference between humanity and the higher animals.” At the end of this first section, Darwin introduced his theory of sexual selection to explain racial differences, including “skin colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc.” But sexual selection was also much wider in scope. As Darwin put it

He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body, but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various bodily structures and of certain mental qualities. Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colours and ornamental appendages, have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealously, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, colour or form; and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain.

Sexual selection, in other words, account for the “higher” features of humanity, mental powers—emotional, intellectual, and moral.

In parts two and three of his Descent, Darwin concentrated on demonstrating sexual selection in the animal kingdom, and then extended it to human evolution. The point needs re-emphasizing: Darwin was not concerned with “sex” but with human evolution. Interestingly, Darwin reverses his theory on sexual selection when it came to humanity. While females, however passive, choose in the animal kingdom, it is male selection that predominated among humans. Indeed, in the course of evolution, “man had seized the power of selection from woman.”

In turn, male humans had become “more powerful in body and mind than woman.” Richards argues that Darwin’s understanding of sexual selection led him to the conclusion that the “higher education of women could have no long-term impact on social evolution and was, biologically and socially, a waste of resources.” She claims that Darwin derived some of his ideas on sexual selection from Carl Vogt’s Lectures on Man, which was first published in English in 1864 by the racist Anthropological Society of London. Indeed, Darwin cited Vogt’s morphological arguments on racial and sexual differences, which posited that “mature females, in the formation of her skull, is ‘intermediate between the child and the man’ and that woman’s anatomy generally, was more child-like or ‘primitive’ than man’s.” According to Richards, “it was an extension of Vogt’s woman-as-child-as-primitive argument that provided the sole scientific underpinning of Darwin’s conclusion on the futility of higher education for women.” As it was for Vogt, so it was for Darwin: sexual inequality was the hallmark of an advanced society.

Richards argues, however, that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was supported by little actual empirical evidence, and that most of it depended social stereotypes. “The whole was a triumph of ingenuity in response to theoretical necessity in the face of a dearth of hard evidence,” she writes.

At the same time, this was not just some political ploy by Darwin. His theory of sexual selection was “part of a more general tendency of nineteenth-century thought to treat human mental and social development more scientifically or naturalistically.” Although Richards does not put it in these words, the obvious desire to explain everything naturalistically seems to derive from the abandonment or rejection of theological explanations. In an attempt to fill the void left behind when religious explanations were ousted, Darwin needed to find another way of explaining the course of human evolution. Darwin chose sex. In this new understanding of human evolution and human nature, woman took the backseat, stagnate and trapped in a childlike and primitive state. Man, by contrast, became the higher being, the breeder who selected, shaped, and moulded woman to his fancy. Richards contends that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was part and parcel of Victorian bourgeoisie social and political assumptions about the sexes. But I would argue that it was more than this. As I mentioned above, it was also the attempt to support such assumptions, wittingly or unwittingly, naturalistically.

Richards now turns to how “Darwin, as an individual, came to hold his beliefs on feminine abilities and differences.” In the 1830s Darwin was looking for a “nice soft wife on a sofa.” He found her in Emma. Ironically, as Richards puts it, it was Darwin, who suffered from much ill-health, who often occupied the sofa. Yet Emma was entirely submissive to Darwin. She bore him ten children, wrote letters at his dictation, nursed him, and proofed his writings. She was also, as Richards notes, “deeply religious, and many of [Darwin’s] opinions were painful to her.” But Emma remained undeniably faithful to Darwin.

Darwin did not want an intellectual companion. He actually advised against it. When Emma picked up Lyell’s Elements of Geology, Darwin told her to put it down. For Darwin, “science was an exclusively male preserve, which women entered, if they entered at all, only as spectators.” Richards adds that Darwin “did not expect or want women to converse intelligently about science, but rather to be tolerant of masculine preoccupation with it.” Emma was expected to adhere to the stereotypes of Victorian feminine servitude, domesticity, and piety. And she did.

Richards also notes that although the Wedgwoods and Darwins held unconventional theological and political notions, they were entirely “orthodox” in their views of the role of women. It is, however, not entirely clear what Richards means by “orthodox.” That is, she never defines the term. Does she mean religiously orthodox? socially orthodox?

At any rate, Richards goes on to show how Henreitta, one of Darwin’s daughters, actually proofed and in fact edited his Descent. But it appears that she had no qualms about the section on woman’s intellectual inferiority. Like her mother Emma, her only concern was Darwin “putting God further off.”

Richards then turns to Darwinism and the social context. The nineteenth century, she says, experienced the “secular redefinition of the world.” She stresses—perhaps too much—that evolution was central to this redefinition. But as many scholars have pointed out since her paper was published in 1983, Darwin’s theory of evolution did not come into the “theological world like a plough into an ant hill.”

Richards is correct, however, in connecting evolution to a “secular ideology of progress,” one which was “assimilated to the capitalist requirements of industrial and economic growth, catch-cry of a rapidly advancing liberal and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie.'” Darwin of course was not disinterested in this connection. Indeed, as is now well known, he did not take a neutral position on the topic. He had incorporated contemporaneous social thought in support of his theory. As Richards puts it, “it was an alliance that made for success.”

In the last decades of the century, many turned to evolution rather than religion to corroborate their views on social values. “Social Darwinism” appealed, for example, to the “robber barons” of America, to J.D. Rockefeller and other powerful businessmen. We have even seen something of a rebirth of Social Darwinism recently with the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

In a succinct paragraph, Richards puts it thus:

Darwin, in pushing his case against the divine origin of human mind and conscience, argued for their evolution according to the same processes that had produced all living things. His refusal to concede any but naturalistic explanations of human intelligence and morality, hardened into a biological determinism that rejected all social and cultural causation other than that which could be subsumed under the natural laws of inheritance and thus become innate or fixed.

After the publication of Darwin’s Descent, there was a notable increase in treatises attempting to moralize naturalism. We see this, according to Richards, in the work of Huxley, Romanes, Galton, Lubbock, Spencer, and other popular works. “Those Darwinian theorists,” she writes, “raised insuperable evolutionary barriers against feminine intellectual and social equality.”

As feminism was rising to power in the last decades of the nineteenth century, social Darwinists declared it a direct threat to the bourgeois family. According to Richards, Darwin’s Descent appeared just in time. His “growing authority and prestige were pitted against the claims by women for intellectual and social equality.” There was also a massive upsurge of anthropological and medical studies used to support Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and more generally his views of women and their role in society.

Richards concludes that Darwin’s understanding of human sexual differences was “central to his naturalistic explanation of human evolution.” In this essay and her more recent work, Richards has demonstrated that scientific knowledge is not immune to the context of its reality. While science can transcend borders, it is also provincial. Science is situated knowledge; or, as David N. Livingstone has put it, it has a “place.”


Newcomb and the Religion of Today

Simon Newcomb responded to his theological interlocutors in the 1 January, 1879 issue of the North American Review, in an article entitled “Evolution and Theology: A Rejoinder.” He again defends himself as an impartial observer, entering the “list not as a partisan of either school, but only as an independent thinker desirous of ascertaining the truth.” After carefully reading their replies, he says, all prove to be unsatisfactory. According to Newcomb, their responses “leave nothing to be desired.” For the “scientific philosopher can have nothing to say against them, because, whether he admits them or denies them, it is entirely outside his province to pass judgment upon them.”

The whole debate rests upon “a differentiation made by the human mind in all ages between the processes of Nature and the acts of mind.” According to Newcomb, in the early stages of human thought all natural operations were believed to be those “of a directing mind having an end to gain by them, and were not the result of any law of Nature.” But as knowledge increased, more “careful thinkers” realized that the operations of nature belonged to a class of natural processes. Many of these thinkers were deeply religious, Newcomb admits. These early modern thinkers proposed that nature operated naturally, and only in certain circumstances the Supreme Will acted. Others “less devout or wholly irreligious” believed that as knowledge increased all operations will come to be seen as “purely natural processes.”

In short, what Newcomb offered as a rejoinder to his theological debate partners is a history of science and religion. It was indeed religious thinkers, the “monastic schools,” who ultimately trumpeted the position that “all event were to be explained by natural law.” They applied this to all aspects of the known physical world. But there was one area they refused to entertain: “the adaptation of living beings to the circumstances by which they are surrounded.” In other words, human evolution. In its place arouse “natural theology,” which attempted to show “final causes in Nature.” This theory held supreme sway until recently, however. What Newcomb seems to say is that Darwin’s theory of evolution had destroyed natural theology.

Newcomb’s central question, which he believes his theological interlocutors failed to properly address, is that of evolution. If evolution is true (which he believes no doubt is), “how far must we give up or modify religious doctrine?” Newcomb explains that he sees “no antagonism between the scientific postulate and the abstract doctrine of design in Nature.” But each must not entrench in the other’s domain. “It is one thing to say that there is design in Nature,” Newcomb writes, “but an entirely different thing to say that we know these designs, and are able to explain and predict the course of Nature by means of them.”

But here is the crux of the matter: how do the theologians account for God’s actions in nature? That is, in the natural world and evolutionary scheme that scientists have discovered? “The creation of all living beings and their adaptation to the conditions which surround them are the results of a process which we see going on around us every day, and which depend upon laws as certain and invariable in their action as those of chemical affinity or of gravitation.” If we ask, Whence this power? We might as well ask, Whence gravitation? Nature is a grand whole, “the basis of which is involved in mystery in every direction.” So the question Newcomb asks the theologians: is scientific truth consistent with religious truth? According to Newcomb, theologians have yet to give an answer.

Several months later, Newcomb attempted to give an answer for the theologians in an unsigned article, “The Religion of To-day,” again published in the Review on 1 July, 1879. He begins by declaring that the “intellectual world of to-day is drifting away from the religious belief and dogmatic theology of the past.” In France and Germany, for example, Christianity has “almost entirely disappeared from the intellect.” There is a “wave of skepticism” engulfing England. Thus it is a mistake to assume that this current, or movement of skepticism, will not reach the United States. This is a movement where we are seeing the “slow elimination of all those tenets which have heretofore been considered the essentials of religious belief.”

In this essay Newcomb essentially repeats his message from his earlier “An Advertisement for a New Religion,” but with more graveness or seriousness. The aim of this latest essay is to find the “nature and extent of the movement, considered as modifying the religion of the past, and the character of the new ideas which are now taking form.” The “Church” he says is largely unaware of this move towards general skepticism. It is like a “drifting ship, the passengers of which, seeing no change in the ocean, are unconscious of their change of position.” But the Church is ultimately mistaken. Theologians may believe they have yielded nothing to modern science or modern thought, but this belief is misplaced. The demand for doctrinal preaching has died. “Men have ceased to demand doctrines,” Newcomb explains, “not necessarily because they have ceased to believe in them, but because they have taken the first step toward unbelief by losing their interest in them. Their faith is dragging its anchors without their knowing it.”

One strong indication of growing skepticism is the increasing number of people who reject the doctrine of Hell. Hardly anyone, he says, continues to believe in the literal truth of “the punishment of the wicked.” There is now a tendency to interpret such doctrines as “less literal, and more mystic and poetical.” Such doctrines are thus dying, or “silently modified under the influence of a current of thought peculiar to our time to an extent which it is difficult to define.”

But perhaps the strongest and most striking example of the “readiness of theology to temporize with the irreligious thought of the day, and to explain away doctrines it once held dear, is seen in its attitude toward the now fashionable theory of evolution.” In this sense the Church has conformed to the world. “No other theory,” Newcomb claims, “is so directly opposed to the doctrine which lies at the basis of our orthodox system of theology.” Orthodoxy, says Newcomb,

teaches that man was created in a state of moral perfection; in the especial image of his Maker; not subjected to death; endowed with a conscience showing him the difference between right and wrong. From this state of perfection he fell into what we know he has been in past times by a single act of transgression, and has been again elevated only by the supernatural interference of his Maker.

But according to evolutionary theory,

man was not created at all, in any sense in which the word has ever been understood. Indeed, there never was any personal Adam, the human race being simply the descendants of an improved race of apes. Originally man had no more conscience than his brute progenitors, and right, wrong, or morality applied no more to his acts than to those of the tiger. If he was free from sin, it was only for the same reason that the lower animals are free from it: because no conscience told him the distinction between right and wrong…In on word, the theory pronounces the whole theological doctrine of the origin and fall of man to be a fiction as complete as anything in pagan mythology.

Initially considered subversive, Darwin’s theory of evolution now has—surprisingly— many sympathizers among the orthodox.

However, Newcomb argues that the orthodox cannot remain orthodox and still support evolution. These Christian evolutionists—or “Providential Evolutionists,” as Gregory Elder has called them in his Chronic Vigour (1996)—are essentially misguided. One cannot accept evolutionary theory and yet remain religiously orthodox. The belief that science and religion shall be at one “leads them into the dalliance which is so dangerous.” The two, in short, cannot be reconciled. Orthodoxy must die. This death comes not at the hands of the infidel, however; rather, it will come by the hands of those sincere believers wishing to adapt orthodoxy to modern thought.

With orthodox Christianity and other traditional religions dying, Newcomb believes the way is now clear for a “new religion.” “The great difference between the new religion and that current at the present time in our churches,” he says, “is to be seen not so much in its practical outcome as in the theory on which it is founded.” On the one hand, the old religion says:

I am virtuous, because I was taught in my infancy that the good would be rewarded in heaven and the wicked punished in hell. I have often been sorely tempted, but the thought of the consequences to follow temptation has always deterred me from sin. The feeling that my eternal happiness and my communion with God were involved in my life here below has been my staff and comfort through temptation and adversity.

On the other hand, the new religion (and likely Newcomb’s own personal belief) says:

I have no belief in a personal Deity, in a moral government of the universe, in Christ as more than a philosopher, or in a future state of rewards and punishments. But I was born with a sense of duty to my fellow man. I was imbued in infancy with the view that, as a member of society, it was my duty to subordinate my own happiness to that of others. My sense of right and wrong was thus developed at a very early age, and by the constant endeavor to do what was right my conscience acquired a constantly increasing development, and asserted more and more its power over my actions. I am not virtuous from any hope of reward or fear of punishment, but only because I feel that virtue is my highest duty, both to myself and to humanity. This feeling has developed to such an extent that the good of my fellow men is now my ruling motive, and vice is the object of my most extreme detestation.

This new faith, as we have seen, is another step away from what Draper, White, and the other scientific naturalists preached. It is their views taken to its logical conclusions. But is it atheistic? According to Edward Livingston Youmans, America’s premier science popularizer during the nineteenth century, not necessarily. In his Popular Science Monthly, for example, Youmans defended Newcomb against the charge of atheism in the October 1878 issue. The test question is this: “Is the general doctrine of causes acting in apparently blind obedience to invariable law in itself atheistic?” According to Youmans, “If it is, then the whole progress of our knowledge of Nature has been in this direction.” However, “if the doctrine is not atheistic, then there is nothing atheistic in any phase of the theory of evolution, for this consists solely in accounting for certain processes by natural laws.”

But this is far from orthodox Christianity. According to Newcomb, traditional Christianity is dead. It will be replaced by a new religion, one which “fears no false teaching, sets no limit on the freedom of human thought, and views with perfect calm the subversion of any and every form of doctrinal belief, confident that the ultimate result will tend to the elevation of the human soul and the unceasing progress of spiritual development.” So long as humanity endures, so will this faith in the “Religion of Humanity.”


Newcomb and the Christian Evolutionists

The North American Review, it should be clear, was founded and fostered by an Unitarian spirit. Most of its editors and owners, as we have seen, embraced a liberal theology, and many were Unitarian ministers themselves. Thus it is unsurprising that many of its leading contributors during the late-nineteenth century were men like Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). Like many of the scientific naturalists in England, Newcomb advanced a reconciliation between science and religion only by segregating them into opposite—and thus opposing—camps. But as we saw in his 1878 address to the AAAS, and his subsequent “Advertisement” in the 1 July issue of the Review, Newcomb also went beyond the Huxleys, Tyndalls, and Spencers.

After delivering the AAAS address, Newcomb encountered opposition from a number of theologians. In a forum published in the Review on 1 January, 1879, Newcomb discussed with Noah Porter, Joseph Cook, James Freeman Clarke, and James McCosh the “Law and Design in Nature.” Newcomb begins by noting, as he did in his “Advertisement,” that there exists two conflicting schools of thought when addressing the course of nature. While both sides assume that there exists a uniform plan and method in the universe, they cannot agree what that plan and method are. But whereas the “scientific school” criticizes the fundamental position of the “theological school,” without directly denying its veracity, the theological school refuses to give any credence whatsoever to the scientific school. Newcomb admits that this is not a “fair statement of the position they [the theological school] mean to occupy, but only that it is the manner in which their position presents itself to the other school [my emphasis].”

In presenting the divergent views between the so-called scientific and theological schools, Newcomb repeats the main points from his presidential address at the AAAS. When men study the operations of the world around them, they find a regularity so constant that the only logical conclusion is that the course of nature is determined by law. What seems arbitrary or mystifying, man has historically attributed these operations to supernatural agents, or gods. In turn man anthropomorphized these divine agents, ascribing to them aims and designs. At which point some men then claimed to be able discern these aims and designs in nature. But as knowledge advanced, these arbitrary events were also revealed to be determined by law.

To make his distinction between the schools clearer, Newcomb gives the example of the destruction of a theater by fire. The theological school, he says, will likely claim the fire was the work of a Higher Being, perhaps as punishment for the wicked. Another explanation sometimes offered by the theological school is that the cause is inscrutable, and therefore beyond human investigation. The scientific school, however, will say that “it occurred on one of the many ways by which every one knows that fires may occur, and that the character of the theatre or the intentions of the wicked people had nothing at all to do with the matter.” Newcomb then takes this same reasoning and applies to how one understands the motions of the planets. The scientific school, and especially the astronomer, “assumes that these motions take place in accordance with the law of universal gravitation,” and thus are able to “predict, years of centuries in advance, that the moon’s shadow will pass over certain regions of the earth at certain stated times.”

In his concluding remarks, Newcomb says this same thinking can apply to the debate surrounding evolution, which is at present “raging with most bitterness.” If the theologians can agree that the scientific schools have provided better explanations for the theater fire and the motion of the planets, why not accept their explanations for the genesis of living beings? The postulate of “final causes,” which the theological schools hold so dear, are, in Newcomb’s view, completely irrelevant to explaining natural phenomena.

The first to respond to Newcomb is Porter. He argues that Newcomb has created a “fiction,” that Newcomb’s understanding of the so-called theological school is totally “imaginary.” His conception of the “course of Nature,” moreover, is far too narrow. According to Porter, the course of nature includes “phenomena and facts of spirit as truly as those of matter.” We encounter constant examples of matter and spirit in the course of nature. Subjective thought is manifested in objective action. Indeed the spirit has greater significance, for “phenomena and effects of the physical universe proceed in subservience to ends which concern rational and sentient beings.”

Furthermore, Porter claims that “a universe of law is, ipso facto, a universe of design.” When Newcomb says that both schools assume a uniform plan and method in the universe, this implies, and even at an inductive level, design—“or at the least are best explained by design.”  According to Porter, Newcomb ultimately goes half-way in his explanations. Merely attributing causes and effects to physical phenomena “overlooks the solution that the effect might be caused by physical agencies, and still be designed by God.” In Newcomb’s example of the motion of the planets, Porter says that “the constancy of the operations of Nature and the consequent possibility of foreseeing the minutest consequences are no more inconsistent with the belief in design in the future than an insight into these forces and operations of Nature is inconsistent with such belief at any present moment.” In concluding his response, Porter refers to German Emil Du Bois-Raymond (1818-1896), who had placed strict limits of our knowledge of nature. “After discoursing of what he calls the astronomical knowledge and  foreknowledge of Nature’s forces and laws and events,” Porter writes, Du Bois-Raymond “draws a sharp line between the field of this astronomical knowledge and the agencies and relations in the course of Nature which can never be thus mastered. In respect to some of these questions he is content to say, ignoramus—in respect to others, ignorabimus.”

Cook, in his reply, begins with a story about Kepler found in Joseph Bertrand’s (1822-1900) Les Fondateurs de l’Astronomie moderne (1865).

Kepler relates that one day, when he had long meditated on atoms and their combinations, he was called to dinner by his wife, who laid a salad on the table. “Dost thou think,” said he to her, “that if from the creation plates of tin, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of oil and vinegar, and fragments of hard-boiled eggs were floating in space in all direction and without order, chance could assemble them to-day to form a salad?” “Certainly not so good a one,” replied his fair spouse, “nor so well seasoned as this.”

The point of this anecdote and others like it, Cook explains, is that Newcomb and those who follow his line of thought have failed to distinguish between “the laws of matter and the collocations of matter.” Natural phenomena are conditioned by laws, no doubt. But what accounts for these laws? Newcomb answers the “how?” but does not address the “why?” How and Why are not mutually exclusive, according to Cook. “The combination of millions of forces so as to produce sight is intelligible only on the principle that they have been combined in order to produce sight.” There is a “chasm between the primordial star-dust and the solar system.” This “chasm” can only be bridged “by the teleological as distinct from the mechanical theory of force.”

Clarke responds by carefully scrutinizing Newcomb’s initial propositions. The so-called theological school, he says, “admit the truth of the law of universal causation.” However, Newcomb’s second proposition, that in the action of causes “no regard to consequences is traceable,” Clarke emphatically denies. Final causes and design are in fact observable in nature, he says. Clarke gives the example of evolution itself. “Man is certainly a part of Nature, and those who accept evolution must regard him as the highest development resulting from natural processes.” Furthermore, eliminating God’s interventions in nature does not rule our design. Clarke then cites philosophers (e.g., Leibniz and Descartes) who rejected teleological statements but nevertheless believed in final causes. “The phenomena of the universe,” he concludes, “can not be satisfactorily explained unless by the study both of efficient causes and of final causes.”

The final response comes from McCosh. As president of Princeton University and as one of the leading philosophers of nineteenth-century America, McCosh attempted to bring about reconciliation between Christianity and evolution. But in addressing Newcomb’s arguments, McCosh accused him of succumbing to the “fallacy of interrogation.” According to McCosh, Newcomb “has mixed up no fewer than three questions, which are not the same, with each other, which have no necessary connection, and are not to be satisfied with one reply.” In attempting to make sense of Newcomb’s position, McCosh breaks it down into three propositions:

(1) “The whole course of Nature considered as a succession of phenomena is conditioned solely by causes.”

(2) “In the action of which causes no regard to consequences is either traceable by human investigation or necessary for foresee the phenomena.”

and

(3) “Is the above postulate consistent with sound doctrine?”

McCosh holds that he too believed that in the course of nature “every occurrence is produced by antecedent causes.” The third proposition is marred with vagueness, he says. What is “sound doctrine”? Religious doctrine? Scientific doctrine or the method of induction? Newcomb, McCosh says, does not specify. Thus he declares that “it is sound doctrine in science and in nearly all religions that God is traceable in his works.”

McCosh’s main contention with Newcomb is his second proposition. McCosh agrees that “physical causes do not in themselves have any regard for consequences.” But according to McCosh, “law and design” are not incompatible. For McCosh, “there is design in law.”

In the end McCosh accuses some scientists (rather uncharitably) of “derangement of mental vision produced by their gazing exclusively on some one object.” He further accuses Newcomb of setting the two schools, the theological and the scientific, against each other. “He is a narrow man who in inquiring into Nature can discover only mechanical force—while he overlooks vital and psychical agencies.” At the same time, the “religious man is so far a narrow man who will not allow scientists to discover physical cause.” The “truly enlightened man,” McCosh concludes, will delight in discovering both.


Simon Newcomb and An Advertisement for a New Religion

The North American Review was established in Boston in 1815 by co-founder and first editor William Tudor (1779-1830). The first issue was in fact almost written entirely by Tudor.  Wanting to establish literary independence from Great Britain, Tudor designed the magazine to include strong literary intelligence, book reviews, reports of leading cultural societies, and inaugural addresses from elite universities, particularly from Harvard.

Changes to the structure of the Review came with new editors. Jared Sparks (1789-1866), appointed editor in 1817, introduced travel and history essays to the magazine. His editorship, however, lasted only a single year, as he resigned at the end of 1817 to take a pastorate of the Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

Under his successor, Edward T. Channing (1790-1856), brother of the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the Review discarded news notes, general essays, and poetry. Channing attempted to imitate more and more the literary reviews of England. But like Sparks, Channing’s editorship lasted only a year before he resigned. He was replaced with a young professor of Greek from Harvard, Edward Everett (1794-1865), who was also a popular Unitarian minister. Under his editorship the Review grew in circulation and popularity.

Sparks returned to the Review in 1824, when he purchased the magazine and thus became its chief editor and owner. Under his continued influence the magazine returned mostly to American topics. In 1830 Sparks sold the Review to Alexander H. Everett (1792-1847), brother of Edward Everett. Under his leadership the magazine reached new heights. He included articles and reviews on both American politics and European affairs.

In 1836 the magazine once again changed hands. Everett, immersed in politics during his editorship, sold his holdings in the Review to John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881), yet another Unitarian minister. During his term, Palfrey introduced to the American public the writings of Emerson, Bowen, Holmes, Hawthorne, Whittier, Longfellow, Dana, Poe and others.

The next three decades several new editors came and went, including Francis Bowen, Andrew P. Peabody, James Russell Lowell, Henry Adams, and Charles Allen Thorndike Rice. With Rice (1851-1889) the Review reached a new turning point. When he was appointed editor in 1876, he brought the magazine (now a monthly) into a maelstrom of controversy.

It was during Rice’s editorship, for example, when Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) began writing regularly for the magazine. Newcomb had developed a reputation not unlike that of John Tyndall in Britain. In his 1878 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Newcomb related to his audience that the AAAS was the sister society of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). The connection seems to have been intentional, for Newcomb, like Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address in the BAAS 1874 meeting, addressed the alleged conflict between religion and science. “We hear much at the present time of a supposed conflict between science and religion,” he observed. But according to Newcomb, “it is rather a conflict between two sets of men, who view Nature from opposite and irreconcilable standpoints.”

Simon Newcomb Tombstone

Newcomb wants to address these different points of view. On the one hand, the theologian, he says, is too invested. He cannot weigh arguments on both sides of a debate. “His idea of truth is symbolized in the pure marble statue”: unmovable, fixed, stagnant. The scientific idea of truth, on the other hand, is symbolized by an iron-clad turret, “which cannot be accepted until it has proved its invulnerability.” Truth for the scientist requires testing, even demolition. There are no sacred cows in science. “A countless host of theories have thus been demolished and forgotten with the advance of knowledge,” Newcomb notes. Therefore those which remain “can show us a guarantee of their truthfulness which would not be possible under any other plan of dealing with them.” The scientific man, in short, “recognizes no such attribute as orthodoxy in his doctrines.”

His main concern in this address is to present his views on “the course of Nature.” The doctrine of the uniformity of nature, he says, “is generally acquiesced in by the mature thought of intelligent Christendom, yet objections are frequently made to it, because it seems to run counter to some of our most cherished ideas.” For his part, Newcomb claims to be the peacemaker. “My desire,” he asserts early in his speech, “is to act the part of the peacemaker, rather than that of a combatant.” At the same time, in his discussion of “the course of nature,” Newcomb pitted natural law against the doctrine of Providence. He attributed the great advance of civilization to the “development of the understanding of the course of Nature.”

The great progress which the last three centuries have witness [he says] has been wholly in the field of phenomena…The progress here alluded to has been rendered possible only by entirely rejecting the mode of thinking about Nature which was prevalent in former ages, and into which the untrained mind is almost sure to fall at the present day.

The new understanding of nature, for example, “tells us that the whole course of Nature takes place in accordance with certain laws, capable of expression in mathematical language; that these laws act with more than an iron rigor and without any regard to consequences; that they are deaf to prayer or entreaty; that, if we would succeed, we must study them, and so govern ourselves that their action shall inure to our benefit.”

During the same month that Newcomb delivered his AAAS address, the North American Review published his “An Advertisement for a New Religion,” under the signature of “An Evolutionist.” Most of this article was written with tongue in cheek; however, Newcomb does make a serious proposition. “Among our advanced thinkers,” he begins, “two points are now happily settled beyond the need of further inquiry.” First, that all traditional religions, including Christianity (“in one sense the best and in another the worst of them”) are “waxing old, and must soon die.” Revealed religion has been undermined, so has “natural religion.”

But Newcomb also stressed that these same “advanced thinkers” maintain that humanity has a capacity for religion, that man has “religious instincts.” Indeed, great men have all been “profoundly religious.” Since the old religions are “sick, dying, or dead,” and since man must have a religion, it follows, according to Newcomb, that we must found a “new-born religion.”

This new religion must have certain conditions, however. Dealing strictly with the negative, Newcomb writes that this new religion “cannot have a God living and personal.” The God of the new religion cannot be anthropomorphized or personified. Moreover, this new religion cannot “insist on a personal immortality to the soul.” Another condition for the new religion is that “there must be no terrors drawn from a day of judgement.” These terrors only “frighten children, and men and women weak as children.” Highly-developed men, he says, are beyond them. Furthermore, there can be no “ghostly sanctions or motives derived from a supernatural power, or a world to come.” Finally, what cannot be understood by the senses must be “represented as unknown and unknowable.”

What, then, will be the basis for this new religion? The new religion, Newcomb declares, will have “humanity as its god.” He sees contemporary men of science as the new prophets of the people, and organs such as the Contemporary Review and the Nineteenth Century as the new platforms (pulpits?) of the new religion. But the new religion will take time to fully emerge. It will evolve slowly. Thus Newcomb desired to “advertise” among “our scientific doctors all over the world” to help with the birth of the new religion.

“This new religion must come” and it “must all come by development.” There is an urgency in Newcomb’s words here. Although he understands that this new religion will require time to blossom, he hopes that it will come speedily. Why? “We are at present,” he says, “in a transition state, which is a critical state; we are in danger of being crushed in a collision between two trains, one of which has come upon the other before it has started.” Newcomb in particular sees a problem with the morality of the next generation. “Our sons claim that in prosecuting their rights they are just as much entitled to advance beyond their fathers as their fathers did beyond their sires.” Whereas Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and others saw the continued need of religion for moral reasons, this new generation, according to Newcomb, wants to do away with it altogether. “We honestly tell them to be honest, and obliging, and chaste—always according to our ideas, which are surely liberal enough. But they puzzle us with questions which we have difficulty enough in answering satisfactorily to them in their present unsettled temper.” What Newcomb seems to be saying here is that when religion was undermined, so was morality.

Thus the new religion must come, and come quickly. And when it does come, “it will collect around it a faith and attractive associations; and it will generate an artistic worship full of glow; and the hearts of our young men and women will be drawn toward it, and we shall have a joyous religion, with a free and generous morality, rejecting all asceticism, and attracting by its own charms.”

Over a century later, we are still waiting for this optimistic vision of the future.


Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”


Huxley and Wilberforce at Oxford and Elsewhere

The Oxford Debate 1860In an amusing piece published for the Westminster Review in 1907, David Wilson provides readers with a “fanciful sequel” to the Oxford debate of 1860. Entirely satirical, irreverent, and missed by most scholars who have discussed the topic,  Wilson begins by calling Oxford the “backwaters of the Universe.” These “collection of boarding-schools” are compared to “a stock farm with good fences, where foals and calves are fed and groomed and as far as possible kept out of mischief. From such a place while all goes well there is no news to be expected.” Nevertheless, some “adult visitors” occasionally “disturb the monotony of [its] adolescent existence.” He then goes on to repeat the traditional version of the “famous debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce, taken largely, he admits, from “the ‘Life of Huxley’ and the books.”

But then he turns to his “fanciful sequel,” comparing such stories to women: “they please best when they please by their intrinsic attractions.” I quote the story in full:

When Huxley died, he was agreeably surprised to find himself doing a journey in an electric railway underground, in a carriage better than the best Pullman cars but not unlike them, and just sufficiently filled to be pleasant. The train was incredibly fast, but went without a jolt. Only by feeling for it, so to speak, could he, when standing, discover a gentle wave of motion, which became imperceptible when he subsided into a chair. Before he could talk to any fellow-passenger, the train came to a stop. He got out with the others, and went through a long and spacious passage, bright with shining tiles and electric lamps. It was more like the nave of Westminster Abbey than any tunnel, and, long though it was, he had not ceased admiring it when he came out into what seemed to be an infinitely improved Crystal Palace, expanded into boundlessness. At any rate, the eye could see no bounds.

The light was bluish, but soft, abundant and agreeable. Circular fans were whirling above little round tables, at one of which he took his place and called for ice.

“I fear there must be some mistake,” he said to the smiling waiter, who stood rubbing his hands after fetching the ice-cream, and was asking what he wanted to drink.

“Mistake, sir?” asked the waiter, looking at the plate he had just put down.

“Oh, not in this; this is all right,” said Huxley, sipping, and looking again round the bustling scene, where every man and woman seemed to be cheerful and merrily employed. “What I fear is that some mistake has been made about my destination. The ticket I gave up at the door was for…” He paused.

“Hell, sir?” asked the waiter, briskly.

“Yes.”

“Then that’s all right; and even if it had been different, you could not have been better off anywhere than we are here.”

“But, but,” began Huxley, ” I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but in fact it was commonly reported and believed on earth that this place was,—well,—disagreeably warm.”

“Oh, to be sure, it used to be so, but so many scientific gentlemen have come down of late that we have now all the latest improvements, with additional advantages of our own. Besides, there’s nobody here against his will. You can extinguish yourself as easily as a candle, whenever you like. People stay here far longer than they used to do, and lots of those in the other place envy us now. I assure you that the Celestial Inspector who has just been down to look at our arrangements—they come regularly, you know, to prevent overcrowding and make sure the fires are equable—a mere excuse for an outing, I do believe—was saying to His Highness a few minutes ago—I heard it myself, I was taking him some liquor, as he felt thirsty in the heat of the furnace-rooms—I heard him say—and I don’t think it was politeness, for you know these people up there cannot make polite speeches, they have always to talk straight—so I’m sure he meant what he said, and says he: “I wish I could remain here altogether, you are so snug. The wet clouds on the way are not attractive.” Then His Highness said, “You cannot be afraid of sciatica, surely,” and they both laughed and laughed, and when they were done laughing, “It’s the company,” said the Inspector. “The company here would atone for any climate. It makes me hoarse to think of the eternal Hallelujahs, and these tiresome old women. They are in millions, like the sands of the desert, and every one of them thinks herself The Queen, and wants Jesus all to herself! It is as absurd and as monotonous as a lunatic asylum. Poor Jesus!” Look! There’s the Inspector passing now, sir,—not unlike yourself, if I may venture to say so.”

As everybody else was rising, in honour of His Highness and the Celestial Inspector passing, Huxley rose too, and the Celestial aforesaid happening to look round,—

“I hope to come back and see you another time, Huxley,” cried Wilberforce, for he it was! He waved his hand affectionately and smiled, as if he were alive again for a moment; and then as he looked elsewhere his countenanced gradually changed. Mephistropheles stood grinning sardonically while the sad Celestial turned reluctantly Heavenwards, and floated upwards and away with a look of constrained resignation on his features, an expression of infinite ennui, if that can be called an expression, which seemed to have become suddenly as unchangeable as the streak of the Milky Way.

 


Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.


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