Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part Two

In the last post Caputo talked about the difference between wisdom and reason.  He noted the ancient view that wisdom required truth to encompass the good, the true, and beautiful.  Truth was more than a fact or piece of information isolated from context or any other consideration.  This same view was then incorporated into the Christian narrative with God being the very ground of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Up until the Enlightenment, it is safe to say this view held sway and it provided the perspective from which an educated person in the west viewed the world.  And then it all changed. Caputo:
“Modernity, however, changed everything.  In modernity, as Kant said, humanity finally grew up, reached its maturity and, as we have just seen, was old enough to get its driver’s license.  Modernity means the era ushered in by the twin births of modern civil liberties and modern science, which promoted free enquiry, and also by the Protestant Revolution, which promoted the idea of personal responsibility.”
And again, Caputo goes on to say that there are many positive aspects that came from this shift.  We can’t throw the baby out with the Enlightenment water, no matter how dirty the water becomes upon further inspection.  The Enlightenment was a reaction.  It arose due to a specific historical context of certain events.  It was a pendulum swing away from the other side— the far side where the abuses of Church and King had reached a sort of critical mass.  As he notes, “so far so good.”  However:
“But the light of truth now means the light of reason, not the light of God.  A lot of work done previously by God is now being done by reason.  In its new and less prestigious job description, the true ceased to form, along with the good and the beautiful, an encompassing horizon or element of life (the love of which constituted wisdom) as it was for Augustine and the ancients, and became the property of assertions or propositions.”  
And, of course, this shift is what led to the “dis-enchantment” of the world.  Whereas as before truth was a rich tapestry of interlocking aspects—including the poetic and symbolic—it now became a wooden and one dimensional literalism.  Whereas truth had been vouchsafed within the language of the sage, the philosopher, the priest, the artist, and the poet, it was now enclosed within the language of the mathematicians (and eventually mirrored in the accountants, bureaucrats, economists, and scientists).  Where it once had soared upon the wings of eagles, it now fell to earth and was no more than a mere “fact” or piece of information (or “natural” law—whether judicial or economic) told in a context-less vacuum (supposed anyway) of dead, cold, and sterile propositions.  The significance and depth of this shift can hardly be exaggerated.
Caputo also notes the huge impact the Protestant Reformation had upon creating the modern world.  Part of the Enlightenment ethos was our wanting to know for ourselves and not having to rely upon whatever the Church or King told us.  The Reformation played a huge part here in its emphasis upon each individual reading the Bible for themselves (cutting out the middle man—the priest) and not relying upon only what the established authorities were telling them.
“It brought with it a host of changes, not least of which were respect for individual conscience and the promotion of universal literacy.  Luther’s Biblicism meant people had to learn to read books and the Bible had to be translated into languages that people actually spoke.  That in turn promoted the growth of a literate middle class in the countries that embraced Protestantism, which were primed for the subsequent growth of industry and commercial life, while Catholic countries put themselves at a disadvantage…”
Whether Protestants like it or not, the Reformation is as responsible for the modern western world (modernity) as is the Enlightenment.  The two are really the opposite sides of the same coin.  While they may oppose each other on the surface, they share the same sensibilities and many of the same philosophical foundations—it is a family squabble really.  It is one reason secular fundamentalists (the new atheists) share much in common with religious fundamentalists—a good example being their shared support of the correspondence-theory of truth and that “truth” can only mean empirically-scientifically accurate.  This can be seen so clearly in an apologetics book (and many, many others just as similar) used for years by evangelicals entitled, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.”  Of course, the postmodern has called all this into question and revealed the underlying philosophical unity shared by modernists, whether of the secular or religious stripe.
There is no doubt that both the Enlightenment and the Reformation brought a certain type of “freedom” into the cultural spirit and some of this was needed because of the abuses of the authorities at that time (King and Church).  However, like with most things, there was a cost.
“But all this freedom came at a cost—the cost of truth and wisdom.  Reason broke loose from wisdom and, in classical terms, reason ultimately became foolish while truth lost its reach and range and allure.  Reason acquired a life of its own, quite out of proportion with everything else…But what difference, we might ask, does it make if we sign off on things on the basis of rationality rather than of wisdom or truth?  The short answer is that once rationality takes over, a profound inversion takes place: truth ceases to be a claim made upon us, and becomes a claim we make on behalf of our assertions.  That is, the much-vaunted “autonomous individual’ of modernity makes its first appearance, as the author of true assertions, while truth ceases to be the sun, an all-encompassing horizon in which we live, something that inspires love and desire.  In modernity, the faculty of reason began to function like a high court before which everything else had to appear in order to be judged rational or real as opposed to irrational or illusory or even mad.  Reason judges whether claims are true of not, in which all things bask, modernity puts forth the beam of reason that inquisitive human beings shine on things.” 

As an aside, here is something most of the secular fundamentalists have never understood.  Many of them rail and moan against the capitalistic spirit (economics is the one place they seem to think there should be an “ought” rather than just an “is”) that has taken hold in the west, especially here in the U.S.  Well guess what geniuses, that “autonomous individual” created by both the Enlightenment and the Reformation (which is the meta-physical foundation for so much of the anti-government-anti-community spirit) is simply the person who eventually shows up in economic terms too.  Yes, you can thank yourself for that person.  Nice job.  Now, unless you care to change some of your ideology, you should really just shut up when it comes to moaning (or cheer leading for) about the 1%.  Why?—because you are part of the problem.  Try looking in the mirror for a change.
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2 Responses to Caputo: Chapter One—Modernity and the Eclipse of Truth—Part Two

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “A lot of work done previously by God is now being done by reason.”

    This is a laugh. Who was actually doing this “work”? God, the invisible and unknowable, or “his” representatives here on earth who to a person have no idea what they are talking about, except when they clothe their own desires (for power, for sex, for morality, for immorality.. as the case may be) in the robes of their heavenly sponsor? It is such a sham and disgrace.

    The whole premise of this post is false to the core- that where was some kind of “there” there before reason and organized critical thinking (with the hermeneutic of theory-experiment-theory…) came along to properly characterize the intutitive, unconscious, imaginative productions that are religion.

    “Whereas as before truth was a rich tapestry of interlocking aspects…”

    Another laugh. Rich? Yes- like Alice in Wonderland. Truth? No relationship whatsoever. All the assertions in the world can't make it so. Wings of eagles indeed! It is an appropriate expression for the falsity that people take to be truth.

    In all seriousness, there is no shortage of wisdom on today's world. Modernity does not bar wisdom, or imagination, or whatever other values you may have here. It only bars the false substitution of fantasy for reality. Reality is complicated and amazing enough without littering it with second comings, virgin births, holy ghosts, and the other tawdry “miracles” and supernatural apparatus.

    Lastly, on the issue of economics, your point about individualism being tied to Protestantism is fair enough. Catholicism takes a more corporate approach (its congeniality with fascism was notorious). But that hardly exhausts the entire gamut of models for human existence or ideologies of political economics. We can come up with a humanist, reality-based form of economics that takes our natural socialbility, empathy, and sense of fairness into account without resorting to imaginary beings for corporate sponsorship, as it were.


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