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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

According to Charles Beard, George Bancroft was the historian who was to blame for the theory that the U.S. was founded as a particularly religious nation.. Bancroft, who studied under Schleiermacher in Germany in the 1820s, wrote a history of the formation of the U.S. Constitution in his dotage, the 1880s, in which he attributed the outline of it to the busybodyiness of the divine mind. Apparently, the divine mind couldn’t resist sticking its nose into the affairs of a bunch of provincial planters and middlemen in the rum tradde. By the 1880s, such an interpretation was congenial to the respectable classes, and they swallowed it down with the alacrity that their ancestors imbibed the aforesaid rum.. Beard, writing in the 1930s, attributed the Constitution to more mundane forces, i.e. economics. Although Beard is not popular at the moment, his hypothesis seems much more sensible, even if not sufficient.

At about the time Bancroft was injecting a mendacious and nauseating piety in the National story, Josiah Royce was starting his career. Royce is probably the most original religious philosopher ever to be hatched in these states. Unlike the man who had been blinded by the perfumed pettifogeries of romantic Protestantism when a mere pup, Royce had to struggle with tougher philosophical currents – pragmatism, Darwinism and the like – which disinclined him to merely, patriotically, dribble. In his clear eyed sense of the intellectual life of the eighteenth century (and the U.S. was nothing if it wasn’t a quintessential product of that century) what stand outs is the loss of the inner life: In this passage, he compares the century of the philosophes to that of Spinoza:

“When I undertake to describe such a time, 1 therefore feel in its spirit a strong contrast to that curious but profound sort of piety which we were describing in the last lecture in the case of Spinoza. Spinoza, indeed, was in respect of his piety a man of marked limitations. His world bad but one sublime feature in it, one element of religious significance, namely, the perfection of the divine substance. But then this one element was enough, from his point of view, to insure an elevated and untroubled repose of faith and love, which justified us in drawing a parallel between his religious consciousness and that of the author of the "Imitation of Christ." This sort of piety almost disappears from the popular philosophy of the early eighteenth century. What the people of that time want is more light and fewer unproved assumptions. As against the earlier seventeenth-century thinkers, who, as you remember, also abhorred the occult, and trusted in reason, the thinkers of this new age are characterized by the fact that on the whole they have a great and increasing suspicion of even that rigid mathematical method of research itself upon which men like Spinoza bad relied. In other words, whereas the men of the middle of the seventeenth century had trusted to reason Alone, the men of the subsequent period began, first hesitatingly, and then more and more seriously, to distrust even human reason itself. After all, can you spin a world, as Spinoza did, out of a few axioms? Can you permanently revere a divine order that is perhaps the mere creature of the assumptions with which your system happened to start ? The men of the new age are not ready to answer " Yes " to such questions. They must reflect, they must peer into reason itself. They must ask, Whence arise these axioms, how come we by our knowledge, of what account are our mathematical demonstrations, and of what, after all, does our limited human nature permit us to be sure ? Once started upon this career, the thought of the time is driven more and more, as we have already said, to the study of human nature, as opposed to the exclusive study of the physical universe. The whole range of human passion, so far as the eighteenth century knew about it, is criticised, but for a good while in a cautious, analytical, cruelly scrutinizing way, as if it were all something suspicious, misleading, superstitious. The coldness of the seventeenth century is still in the air ; but Spinoza's sense of sublimity is gone.”

From the enlightenment point of view, of course, it all looks quite different. It looks like the re-discovery of happiness – and if sublimity is lost in the exchange, good riddance. Actually, though, sublimity, within the bounds of pleasure, wasn’t so much expelled as given a sort of reservation, composed of artfully arranged grottos and Pirenesi perspectives and, among certain chateaux, Sadean orgies. The eighteenth century made possible the respectable society of the nineteenth centiury. The nineteenth century returned the favor by systematically distoriting, censoring, and being shocked at their forebears.

The discovery of happinesss was cast as a“rediscovery”, given the Enlightenment obsession with the (mostly fictitious) pre-suppositions of the ancients. The Enlightenment thinkers needed this legitimating fiction, this alter image against which they could judge Christianity. This is why the figure of the fanatic was so important for the philosophes. Diderot condensces the Enlightenment thematic to its essential elements when he remarks, ‘however difficult it is to discern the limits that separate the empire of faith from that of reason, the philosopher does not confound the objects; without aspiring to the chimeric honor of conciliating them, as a good citizen, he has for them both attachment and respect. From philosophy to impiety, it is as far as from religion to fanaticism. But from fanaticism to barbarism, there is only a step.”

PS -- We have one more post on the figure of the fanatic in Voltaire, and a letter from our correspondent T. For a fascinating discussion of the migration of the vocabulary of enthusiasm to literary criticism in the 18th century, see this essay by Jon Mee. We can't resist excerpting a paragraph:

"Geoffrey Hartman has traced the origins of modern literary criticism in English to a tradition of "civility" designed as a defense against what he calls "enthusiasm, religious or secular, private or collective" (177). Using Addison and Steele's essays for the Spectator as his primary example, he suggests that "literature" came into being at the turn of the eighteenth century as a category defined against the intemperate ranting and preaching of hacks and evangelists. Hartman's primary concern is to defend the literary essay as such against the incursions of latter-day hacks and evangelists among whom, I fear, he would number myself. For what I do in this essay is to treat Hartman's historical claims about the relationship between enthusiasm and literature seriously and examine their significance for a later period as a form of cultural control. By 1735, the Gentleman's Magazine could publish a definition of enthusiasm in terms of "any exorbitant monstrous Appetite of the human Mind" (Grubstreet Journal 203). The secularization with which Irlam is concerned can be witnessed in such definitions, but it is not a transformation that makes the term safe. Rather, the term retains the association with the vulgar passions of the crowd, and the confusions of appetites with profound feeling. Two years later, the same magazine reported a parliamentary speech confirming that "the lowest Class of People [...] have, generally speaking a turn to Enthusiasm, and so strong is the Influence, such is the force of Delusion, that they can work themselves up to a firm Persuasion and thorough belief that any Mischief they are able to do, is not only lawful but laudable" ("An Account" 458). For the Romantic period, whether in its religious or secular forms, enthusiasm remained dangerously intertwined with the idea of the being transported into the amorphous and unstable hyper-sociability of the crowd."

Embedding 'enthusiasm' in class conflict works, to an extent, for England. But it doesn't for France. What's missing in France are the class "go betweens' -- the dissenting ministers. In the place of England's Richard Prices, in France you get Denis Diderots.

And -- on the topic of using religion to legitimate a configuration of state power -- LI suggests that the reader go to the Constitution site and compare such English declarations as that of Charles II renouncing the intention of prosecuting puritans, or the declaration of the Lords Temporal and Spiritual that defended the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England, and the rejection of James II. If you want to know what a real specific religious reference looks like, look at a phrase like "Whereas the late King James the Second, by the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom..."

Jefferson's "nature's God" is, by comparison, a relatively benign gaseous substance, with the same relationship to the Protestant God as Mr. Priestly's recently discovered Oxygen had to Phlogistan.

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