Posts Tagged ‘the English Enlightenment’


The Secularization of Modern Culture by Christopher Dawson

July 7, 2011


Fall of the Bastille

I have introduced Christopher Dawson earlier on PayingAttentionToTheSky, during a post about Gregory Wolfe’s essay Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World, he was mentioned in passing. Dawson was a marvelous historian, a stunningly good writer whose work gives us a sense of how we got to where we are. These three essays I’m posting now show the growing secularization of western culture and how the Church found herself on the wrong side of history.  


THE WHOLE SITUATION IN WESTERN EUROPE was transformed in the 18th century by the advent of the new scientific and technological culture which was common to both Catholic and Protestant Europe. But this was far from being the only factor that made for the growing secularization of Western culture. We must also study the more general social factors of the process. Obviously we cannot understand the present situation of Christianity in Western Culture unless we have studied the causes that have led to the weakening or occultation of Christian Culture during the last two centuries. And it is not sufficient to do this in the abstract: we must trace the process historically in Protestant and Catholic Europe, and above all in England and France, where the processes of change were parallel to one another, but very widely different in their modes of operation.

The immediate cause of the secularization of European culture was the frustration and discouragement resulting from a century of religious wars, and above all from the inconclusiveness of their end. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the necessity for the co-existence of Catholics and Protestants in Europe became generally recognized, and since men still valued their common culture they were forced to emphasize those elements which were common to Catholics and Protestants, i.e., its secular aspects. This had already been recognized in the United Netherlands since their foundation by William the Silent, and to a somewhat lesser degree in France during the period of the Edict of Nantes (1598-1685), and after 1648 it became the international law of the Empire as between states (though not between individuals).

In England also the experience of the Civil Wars and of the mutual intolerance of the sectarian extremists produced an important movement towards mutual toleration supported by Cromwell himself, though the Restoration brought back a State Church and a regime of conformity. But it is noteworthy that the really successful weapon against Puritan extremism was not the persecution of Church and State, but the ridicule of men of letters like Samuel Butler in his Hudibras and Dryden in his Absalom and Achitophel.

One of the chief factors in the changed climate of opinion was the growth of a lay intelligentsia, and the creation of a class of journalists and professional men of letters in France, England and the Netherlands. On the higher social level this new intelligentsia was represented by the academies, which played a very important part in the development of scientific studies. On the lower level it covered a wide range down to the penniless scribblers who were ridiculed by Pope in the Dunciad.

In France, especially, this class tended to favor free thought and lax morals. They were the “libertines,” the forerunners of the “philosophes” of the following century, and the inheritors of the tradition of Rabelais and Montaigne. Their most distinguished representative was Saint-Evremond, who spent the last forty years of his long life in England (and Holland) and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

These influences were growing beneath the surface throughout the 17th century with thinkers like Gassendi and Hobbes, and writers like Cyrano de Bergerac, Molière, Samuel Butler, and La Fontaine, until in the 18th century they came to the surface and dominated Western culture. This growth of a lay intelligentsia was only one aspect of the rise of the middle classes which was already far advanced in Holland by the 17th century and in England and France by the 18th. The merchant class in Holland and England and the lawyers and officials in France gradually took the place of the nobility as the real leaders of culture.

Unlike the men of letters, the new middle classes were by no means hostile to religion, and they maintained much stricter standards of moral behavior than the old aristocratic classes. But on the other hand, they were apt to be critical of authority and naturally tended to adopt a sectarian type of religion — Puritans and Nonconformists in England, and Huguenots in France. Theirs was among the strongest influences making for the secularization of culture, as so many writers have argued (like Max Weber, Ernest Troeltsch, Tawney, and Groethuysen).

They regarded religion as a private matter which concerned the conscience of the individual only, whereas public life was essentially business life; a sphere in which the profit motive was supreme and a man’s moral and religious duties were best fulfilled by the punctual and industrious performance of his professional activities. As it was the ideal of the nobleman to win honor on the field of battle, so it was the ideal of the bourgeois to win profit in the field of business, and the latter often required as much courage and daring as the former.

We fortunately possess a remarkable type-specimen of the new bourgeois psychology and ethics at the moment when the great transition to secular culture was taking place, namely the life and work of one of the greatest English writers of the Augustan Age — Daniel Defoe (1661-1731). He was a professional author and journalist, who wrote, and wrote well, on every subject of public interest — history, geography, economics, politics, ethics, religion and fiction. In fact his output was so enormous and covers so many different fields, that no one can hope to read it all. Fortunately, however, his most famous and popular work, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in its three parts (most readers confine themselves to the first only) reflects almost every aspect of Defoe’s many-sided genius. It is the epic of Protestant individualism, which is not merely a story of adventure but a moral allegory or parable, which shows how the Nonconformist conscience can survive when it is uprooted from its sociological background and forced to come to terms with the realities of a wider alien world.

For in spite of Defoe’s secular temperament, he is fully aware of the importance of the religious element in culture, and the greater part of the third part of the book is devoted to a discussion of the religious state of the world, the failure of Christianity to become a world-wide religion, and the possibility of a union of Christian states to extend the boundaries of Christendom. Throughout this part of the work, it is the absurdity and evil resulting from the divisions between Christians that are most insisted on, and though he maintains the traditional medieval concept of a union of Christian princes for a crusade against the infidels, he finally admits that such projects are entirely outside the range of practical politics. But strangely enough, the concluding passage of the book in which he arrives at this pessimistic conclusion is the only one that seems to show religious feeling. “For I doubt,” he says, “no zeal for the Christian religion will be found in our days or perhaps in any age of the world, till Heaven beats the drums itself, and the glorious legions from above come down on purpose to propagate the work and to reduce the whole world to the obedience of King Jesus — a thing which some tell is not far off, but of which I heard nothing in all my travels and illuminations, no, not one word.”

This is a strange conclusion to a book which is justly praised as the most realistic story of adventure ever written, and few readers even know that this is Crusoe’s last word! For the third part of Robinson Crusoe is generally dismissed as a piece of hackwork to attract the religious public. But however that may be, it throws a very interesting light on Defoe’s mind, which reflects the whole world of his time — physical, cultural, and religious — with extraordinary fidelity. And in the passage I have just quoted, we see the new world of bourgeois individualism looking back with a pang of nostalgia towards the disappearing shores of the religious world that it had left behind it.

Defoe, in spite of his doubts and hesitations, was still loyal in his own way to the tradition of Christian culture. But already during his lifetime, and increasingly after 1685, a new type of culture was arising which was in conscious revolt against Christianity, and which aimed at the creation of a new rational and philosophical basis for a united Western culture. This was the Enlightenment, which found expression first in the English Deists at the close of the 17th century and secondly in the French philosophers and Encyclopaedists who gave the movement a world-wide diffusion in the second half of the 18th century.

There was moreover one influence which lies behind both of these movements, and was of great historical importance in many different directions. This was the influence of the Protestant refugees who left France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 for Holland, England and Prussia; indeed for every Protestant country. These refugees represented the most active and independent elements in the French bourgeoisie, and they acted as a two-way channel of cultural influence between France and the rest of Europe, especially England. For half a century they were the leading journalists and translators who made English culture, especially the thought of Locke and Newton and Shaftesbury, known in France. The refugees were thoroughly French in mentality, but were the sworn enemies of Louis XIV and of French Catholicism; so that the result of the Revocation was to create a most powerful and well-organized underground movement against Catholicism. The headquarters of this campaign was in Holland, and its chief organ was the free press, edited by brilliant scholars like Bayle and Le Clerc, which reached a European public.

The strength of these writers was their critical spirit. They did not try to defend Protestantism—indeed they no longer believed in it — but to attack at all points the intolerance and credulity of the orthodox — all the orthodox, everywhere and in all ages. In this way the exiled intelligentsia were the forerunners of the French Encyclopaedists. Their greatest writer, in fact, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), was himself an encyclopaedist in the literal sense of the word, and his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Rotterdam 1697, English translation 1730), was the indispensable vade mecum of every rationalist and sceptic from the beginning of the century to the days of Gibbon.

The influence of the Huguenot exiles is perhaps shown most clearly in the case of Gibbon. His thought and learning were nourished not by the English deists, nor the French philosophers, but by the older tradition of critical scholarship that owes its origins to the Protestant exiles in Holland and Switzerland — Bayle and Le Clerc, Basnage and Beausobre and Barbeyrac. It was not long before their influence united with that of the non-Protestant French intelligentsia to form the new culture of the Enlightenment. In this connection it is highly significant that Bayle’s disciple, biographer and editor, the Huguenot Des Maiseaux, was also the disciple, biographer and editor of Saint-Lvremond, the aristocratic free-thinker whose voluntary exile in England had nothing to do with Protestantism.

The effect of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was, however, not confined to the formation of the Huguenot diaspora in Protestant Europe. It also produced profound changes in French culture. Defoe (in the third part of Robinson Crusoe) quotes a French Protestant as saying that the Huguenots who left France had left their religion behind them, and those who stayed had done so by the sacrifice of their principles: so that a new type of Protestant-Catholic had been created, men who practiced a religion that they did not believe and “went to Mass with Protestant hearts.”

They created a center of religious disaffection and resentment in France, and especially among the bourgeoisie which remained in fairly close contact with the Huguenot refugees in Holland and England. Though this disaffected minority were unable to profess or defend their old religion for fear of reprisals, there was nothing to prevent them from criticizing Catholicism on purely rational grounds, and thus their influence combined with that of the secular rationalists to create the atmosphere of criticism, skepticism and hostility to authority which permeated French 18th century culture.

In England the influence of the Deists, which was at its height during the reign of George I, was checked by three factors:

  1. In the first place the strongest force in the English Enlightenment was not consciously anti-religious. The founders of the Royal Society, Wilkins, Newton, Boyle, Wallis, and Wren, were all professing Christians, and some of them pious. For example, Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), the historian of the Royal Society and one of the leading champions of religious toleration, was an Anglican bishop, and Boyle, the author of The Sceptical Chemist, devoted part of his property to the foundation of a lectureship in apologetics which still survives. In fact the Baconian philosophy which inspired the Royal Society in its early days — the idea of an experimental science combined with mathematics and applied to the conquest of nature and the service of man — had its roots in English medieval philosophy and was easily reconcilable with a religious view of the world and the acceptance of revelation.
  2. In the second place the differences between the Deist advocates of a purely rational religion and the Latitudinarian divines of the established Church or the Nonconformists who tended towards Socinianism [Vocab:] and Unitarianism were so small that it is often difficult to detect shades of opinion. Indeed the title of one of the ablest of the Deist works, Christianity as Old as Creation or The Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature by Tindal (1655-1733) is borrowed from one of Bishop Sherlock’s sermons.
  3. In the third place the defenders of orthodoxy proved to be better writers and abler controversialists than their critics. Thus the tables were turned. The English rationalists had no Voltaire, whereas the Christians produced a remarkably able set of apologists and pamphleteers of all shades of opinion from Latitudinarian Whigs like Warburton, through Moderates like Bishops Butler and Berkeley, to High Tories like Swift and Non-jurors like William Law and Charles Leslie. Thus it came about that at the moment when the French Enlightenment was launching its triumphant attack on Christianity, Deism was in a state of decline and English Protestantism was undergoing the remarkable revival associated with the names of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Consequently (and independently of Wesley’s influence), the second half of the 18th century tended to be more religious than the first, and some of the greatest figures in the literary world (such as Dr. Johnson and Cowper) were exceptionally religious men.

Thus the English Enlightenment did not lead to the defeat of Christianity by the forces of rationalism. English opinion rallied from the Deist attack and found a satisfactory compromise in the moderate and tolerant Liberal Protestantism which finds its classical expression in Addison’s Spectator. On the other hand, there is no doubt that this period did see a general secularization of English social and political life. The Revolution of 1688 was followed by the triumph of the middle classes and the enthronement of private property, with the man of property as the foundation of the new social order.

After the death of Queen Anne and the establishment of the Hanoverian dynasty, the crown lost its traditional halo of Divine Right and became an organ of the new secular regime. Even the religious revival of the Wesleyan movement helped to increase the secularization of public life by emphasizing the importance of individual conversion and the private character of religion. But already in the first decades of the century the world so vividly depicted by Defoe, not only in his novels but in his Tour through Great Britain and his Complete English Tradesman, is a wholly secularized world in which individualism and the profit motive rule supreme.

Hence it was that England became regarded on the Continent, especially in France, as a political model for the New Age. The writers of the Enlightenment, headed by Voltaire and Montesquieu, saw England as an embodiment of liberal ideals: political freedom, religious toleration, free trade, and personal independence. In the eyes of the French philosophers, England had shown that these things were not only possible, but were the secret of the phenomenal prosperity and power she had achieved since the Revolution.


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