10 October, 2008

Constitutions and Distempers

In 1681, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet—tutor to the Dauphin and unofficial head of the French Catholic Church, stuck with playing advocatus diaboli to theological hotshots like Jean Claude and Leibniz—published his Discourse on Universal History, a triumphalist account of ancient and mediaeval Christian history, largely forgotten in the eighteenth century, but resurrected in the nineteenth as a masterpiece of literature for French collégiens to copy out and learn by heart. In Discourse 2.11, Bossuet deals with idolatry:
God knew man's mind and knew that it was not through reason that one could destroy an error which reason had not established. There are errors into which we fall when we reason, for man often gets tangled up because of his reasoning: but idolatry had come in by the opposite extreme, by stifling all reasoning, and by granting predominance to the senses, which sought to clothe everything with the qualities that strike the senses. Thus the Deity had become visible and vulgar.
Religious errors, says Bossuet, occur when we no longer listen to Reason, and devote ourselves instead to sensory experience, which is full of confusion. The true Christian distinguishes what he sees from what he knows: he realises that God cannot be grasped by the senses, but only by thought.


Bossuet was on the losing end of history; he and his ilk would soon concede Ohio and spend the next century on the back foot. This concession is popularly known as the 'Enlightenment'. One faction who stood to make big gains in Ohio were the Deists, and among them the English Whig, John Trenchard, whose Natural History of Superstition appeared in 1709, lambasting popery and enthusiasms. Having offered a litany of superstitions, Trenchard proposes his own account of religious error:
It must necessarily happen when the Organs of Sence (which are the Avenues and Doors to let in external Objects) are shut and locked up by Sleep, Distempers, or strong Prejudices, that the imaginations produced from inward Causes must reign without any Rival, for the Images within us striking strongly upon, and affecting the Brain, Spirits, or Organ, where the imaginative Faculty resides, and all Objects from without, being wholly, or in a great measure shut out and excluded, so as to give no information or assistance, we must unavoidably submit to an evidence which meets with no contradiction, and take things to be as they appear.
The problem for Trenchard is not sense experience but our own minds: where Bossuet saw corruption seeping in from outside, Trenchard sees the outside world as a necessary check to our fantasies.

Bossuet lived in the France of Descartes—Trenchard in the England of Locke. Descartes's Discourse on Method had spoken of man's lumière naturelle, given us by God to follow reason and distinguish truth from error. For Trenchard this is merely an 'Ignis Fatuus of the Mind, which the Visionaries in all Ages have called the Inward Light, and leads all that have followed it into Pools and Ditches'. Descartes is really no better than a mystic: his daimonion or 'voice of God' has become a secular lumière, but it is still claimed to be a divine gift. Of course it can provide no criterion of truth and falsehood, for it has no ground in experience, and thus is subject to the humoral imbalances of the body—'Complexions, Constitutions and Distempers'.


Anonymous said...


Interesting. Add thirty years and you have Hume and Vico taking the empiricist side of the argument, but expanding it beyond empirical science to the human sciences: "custom" and "human institutions" respectively.

Though an anti-Cartesian, Vico saw an important role for myth that would have mortified Trenchard -- he was perhaps more of a superstitionist (though a skeptical one) than Hume. He also, of course, saw the hand of God in the formation of human institutions, while Hume certainly did not.


Conrad H. Roth said...

James, thank you for your lonely comment. Hume is clearly in the Trenchard camp, though he doesn't put so much weight on humoral and psychological disorder; see, most obviously, section 3 of his Natural History of Religion, on the origin of polytheism: "Wise men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature... On the other hand, if, leaving the works of nature, we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism". The clash between Cleanthes and Demea in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion resembles Trenchard vs. Bossuet somewhat.

Vico is always very difficult to fit into history, but he is a good Neapolitan Catholic, and his New Science might be seen as a much more intellectually sophisticated and ambitious project in the Bossuet line of universal history, the first of its kind to break out of the mediaeval mould, and gesture towards Herder and Hegel.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, I've been thinking about this post quite a bit, because it's not always clear to me if reason is a concept where Locke and Descartes are at cross purposes.

They both seem to view it as a capacity to determine truth, and although I will grant that the rationalist/empiricist divide revolves somewhat around whether or not one can trust the "outside" world, I don't know if Descartes belief in reason really boils down to a form of mysticism.

I was also shocked by the overt politics in your post, well, at least overt for you - welcome to the dark side!

Conrad H. Roth said...

"it's not always clear to me if reason is a concept where Locke and Descartes are at cross purposes"

As far as I understand, the categorical opposition between Locke (and empiricists) and Descartes (and rationalists) was invented by Kantian historiographers keen to prove that their master synthesised the two traditions. Locke and Descartes clearly have plenty in common: for instance, D's first rule in Discourse 2 is to reject any ideas which are not 'clair et distinct', while Locke, Essay 3.10, writes: "the first and most palpable abuse [of language] is, the using of Words, without clear and distinct Ideas".

I didn't say I thought Descartes's lumière was inherently mystical; though I do find it an intriguing possibility, especially as Trenchard is able to suggest it. The Cartesian clair et distinct is reduced to private revelation, not accessible to others except by the power of authority.

As to your last point: the election is no longer just about politics, which is why it is so fascinating. I have more to say on this topic anon.

Peony said...

That is what I was afraid of.... I was so sure too that when you said "Ohio" you meant some ancient city in Macedonia.

Don't do it, Conrad. Put your luscious purple toga back on because of course the election is no longer about politics-- just like reality TV is not about reality...

In fact, your fellow countrywoman of Pompeii fame said just about the only non-annoying thing that has been said about these elections anon or otherwise-- go figure. the dark side, indeed.