Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Scholastics: A Forgotten History II

This essay by Lew Rockwell highlights some of the roots of free market ideology as expounded on by the late Scholastics at the School of Salamanca in the 16th Century. I understand that since most of the founders were anti-papists that many seem to doubt the influence of Roman Catholic thinking on American Creation. Nonetheless, the fact that much of this thought was produced in famous European universities would seem to point to it being in the air when many of the ideas that finally took root in the founding were being formulated. Either way, this essay directly challenges Goldstone's view of what the central characteristics of European history and culture were as quoted in one of my recent posts.

Here is a taste:

"Students of free enterprise usually trace the origins of pro-market thinking to Scottish professor Adam Smith (1723-90). This tendency to see Smith as the fountainhead of economics is reinforced among Americans because his famed book An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nation was published the year of American independence from Britain.
There is much that this view of intellectual history overlooks. The real founders of economic science actually wrote hundreds of years before Smith. They were not economists as such, but moral theologians, trained in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they came to be known collectively as the Late Scholastics. These men, most of whom taught in Spain, were at least as pro-free market as the Scottish tradition came to be much later. Plus, their theoretical foundation was even more solid: they anticipated the theories of value and price of the “marginalists” of late-nineteenth-century Austria.[1]
If Italian city-states began the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal explored the new world in the sixteenth, and emerged as centers of commerce and enterprise. Intellectually, Spanish universities spawned a revival of the great Scholastic project: drawing on ancient and Christian traditions to investigate and expand all the sciences, including economics, on the firm ground of logic and natural law.
Because natural law and reason are universal ideas, the Scholastic project was to search for universal laws that govern the way the world works. And though economics was not considered a separate discipline, these scholars were led to economic reasoning as a way of explaining the world around them. They searched for regularities in the social order and brought Catholic standards of justice to bear on them.
The University of Salamanca was the center of Scholastic learning in sixteenth-century Spain. The first of the moral theologians to research, write, and teach there was Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546). Under his guidance, the university offered an extraordinary 70 professorial chairs. As with other great mentors in history, most of Vitoria's published work comes to us in the form of notes taken by his students.
In Vitoria's work on economics, he argued that the just price is the price that has been arrived at by common agreement among producers and consumers. That is, when a price is set by the interplay of supply and demand, it is a just price. So it is with international trade. Governments should not interfere with the prices and relations established between traders across borders. Vitoria's lectures on Spanish-Indian trade—originally published in 1542 and again in 1917 by the Carnegie Endowment—argued that government intervention with trade violates the Golden Rule."
Maybe the Enlightenment did not drop in out of nowhere to set all the backwards Christians straight as some seem to imply? It also makes me wonder what the world would be like today if the great explorers of the 16th Century would have listened to Las Casas and his predecessors?  Cortes had the chance and dropped out.

37 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Joseph Schumpeter agrees.

If Schumpeter is correct in his History of Economic Analysis, Adam Smith was influenced by Scholasticism more than by mercantilism and physiocracy. We know, for instance, that at Glasgow College economics was studied as part of moral philosophy. The courses in political economy given by Adam Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson, described the subject matter of political economy according to Saint Thomas’ Comments on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Moreover, Scholasticism influenced Adam Smith indirectly via Grotius and Pufendorf, whose works were used as textbooks for courses in moral philosophy."

Ryan J. Carey said...

I'm all for intellectual genealogies, but this thread focusing on the founders Christianity, the constitution, and natural rights has become ... well ... rather a-historical. Politically, I'm with you all in your denunciation of the blatant propaganda of Beck and his acolytes. They make a mockery of causality and determination when they try to reduce all the founders' ideas to Christian principles. And I also agree that a larger Christian worldview was an obvious influence in the creation of the United States. But sometimes I wonder if you all are guilty of the same sins against history as Christian right. These last few posts about Washington, Las Casas, and the Scholastics influence on free market principles seems horribly reductive.

Hanke, who Liggio writes from, was a very important historian, but there have been updates to his Las Casas scholarship. Reading him simply as an early version of a modern day social activist ignores the larger intellectual and political context of his time. Trying to do so to resurrect some positive ground for Christianity seems just weird. OK, so one church man criticized Indian slavery. How many used the bible and the church to justify it? Something is getting lost here.

The same thing happens with these weird posts on the scholastics. It's hard to establish the import of Spanish knowledge on the eve of the enlightenment. The Spanish were notoriously secretive of all things gained from the imperial project. Not to say some stuff didn't get out, but to draw a straight line from the late Scholastics to the Austrian school, as Rockwell does in the post here, is just bad history. Just because an idea happens to resemble something that came later, doesn't mean the previous idea was causality related to the latter idea.

Like I said, I'm all for intellectual genealogies, but that's not what this is. Y'all are cherry-picking your facts. The result is a host of random connections that ignore the myriad other intellectual currents. power politics, and historical contingencies that make history ... well, History.

Yes, the enlightenment didn't drop out of nowhere. But to say it came direct from the scholastics? There are geographies of Enlightenment that we might want to consider. There are circuits of knowledge. But neither are unmediated.

King of Ireland said...

Ryan,

I will respond later. You might want to read my previous post that references Jack Goldstone. These posts are a challenge to how he characterises European History and Culture.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We know, for instance, that at Glasgow College economics was studied as part of moral philosophy. The courses in political economy given by Adam Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson, described the subject matter of political economy according to Saint Thomas’ Comments on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics...

If Francis Hutcheson taught Aquinas, that's more than a mere stretch. The teacher of Founders, John Witherspoon, also employed Hutchison's educational curriculum in America.

http://home.comcast.net/~djmpark/ScottishCulture.html

As for de las Casas, I do rather agree his relevance is sketchy at best. However, according to this note


http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/5913/Abolition-Movement.html#ixzz0poWHbVOJ


Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and, later, Thomas Jefferson made racially derogatory remarks against Africans.

Therefore, we might hold our fire at Christians who did the same. All were guilty.

King of Ireland said...

The point about Las Casas in not to provide a direct link to the founding. It is to dispute Gladstone's portrayal of European culture and history and put the founding into the larger context of European history.

If Ryan were to read the entire first essay from Acton it points out that the arguments that the people who wanted to abuse, plunder, and enslave the Native Americans had no precedent in Christian thought. He further adds that it was from Aristotle that they got their rationale for some men being slaves by nature.

Both essays refer to the Christian sense of justice and the golden rule as the underpinnings of the economic and political thought of this stream of Christianity.

Thus it comes back to imago dei as the sources of ethics and thus germane to the discussion of the founding and why we study it in my post about Brayton and Gladstone. To throw the theological foundations out and attempt to implement the rest of the ideas seems to be the order of the day. Fine but do not pretend the theological underpinnings were never there.

King of Ireland said...

continued from above

This is in my opinion the reason to study all this. It is to attempt to sum of the ideas of one era(that I believe started with the printing press but was influenced by Scholastic thought) of history and begin a new one.(The shift from Toffler's second wave to the third initiated by the internet)

But as we begin the new one we have to decide what ideas to keep and what ideas to throw away. This is impossible if we do not know the entire truth about the ideas.

So, did the founders study the writings of the late scholastics and Las Casas? Probably not. Did these more than likely well known ideas make there way around different European Universities at the time that the ideas that took root in the founding were taking shape? More than likely. If some they are part of intellectual roots of American Creation.

King of Ireland said...

The point of revisiting this era of history is to refute statements like this made by Ed Brayton in the post I linked to about people who imply that the Enlightenment seems to have just popped in to straighten out all the backwards Christians:

"At no point in history prior to the Enlightenment is there a single example of a Christian government that established anything even remotely like a free and democratic society. Christian theology prior to that time supported the divine right of kings and imposed punishments for things like blasphemy that are entirely contrary to the notion of freedom of conscience. The Constitution, by eliminating religious tests for office and forbidding religious establishments, is completely opposed to that entire history.

This is at best misleading and at worse utterly false depending on who you are talking about. Yes some people that believed in inalienable rights stopped at freedom of religion. But there is a record of many that did not. Revisiting the history of the late scholastics shows that thomist theology evolved right along with the rest of Europe on this issue.

Ed also ignores, because he probably does not know about it because it is not taught, that there were many constitutional type of governments in Europe over the centuries. using the word "democratic" is misleading and ignores this history.

All we get is Luther denying the peasant revolt, Calvin buring someone, Divine Right of Kings, and the like. This also ignores later Calvinists like the Whigs that repudiated all of this.

King of Ireland said...

Ryan stated:

"Trying to do so to resurrect some positive ground for Christianity seems just weird. OK, so one church man criticized Indian slavery. How many used the bible and the church to justify it? Something is getting lost here."

It was not just one and his entire argument was that church history had no precedent for the ideas that his opponents were using. They got them from Aristotle.


Ryan stated:

"Not to say some stuff didn't get out, but to draw a straight line from the late Scholastics to the Austrian school, as Rockwell does in the post here, is just bad history"

I used the Rockwell essay to illustrate a point I have been expounding on in a series of posts. The rest is here nor there to me. You have to read the original post to see the main point. I am not even entertaining thoughts about the origins of Austrian Economics here.


Ryan stated:

"Yes, the enlightenment didn't drop out of nowhere. But to say it came direct from the scholastics?"

Again you miss my larger point. I am saying that the enlightenment did not have a monopoly rational ideas.

To be honest, I did not think you should call something 'weird' that you really do not understand. There is a running dialogue here that you ran into the middle of. We are diverse people who often disagree. You seem to lump my posts on the scholastics and Goldstone with Jon's posts on Washington and Beck as if we are both talking about the same thing and actually agree.

It is diffent angles on the same question. Jon comes at this from the angle of personal faith to refute, rightly so, the notion that all the founders were Evangelicals. I come from the angle of trying to gauge the history of the ideas that influence the founding and where they came from.

Two different conversations. Maybe that is why it seems 'weird' to you. Anyway welcome to the blog and I hope to stick around. I have learned a lot here and I can honestly say that the dialogue here has changed my life.

Ryan J. Carey said...

I appreciate the responses. I apologize if it didn't come across that I had read the various links and the rest of the posts. I've been following American Creation for a few weeks now and I did, indeed, read (and was likewise horrified at) the related Brayton and Gladstone pieces.

Brayton seems so hell-bent (if you'll excuse me) on discounting the current religious right's understanding of the relationship between religion and the founding that all his responses seem like knee-jerk reactions denying any place of religion in history. It's ludicrous, I agree.

Gladstone's thoughts also seemed rather narrowly construed.

I appreciate y'all's attempts to bring religion back into the discussion of history. However, from the perspective of an outsider who has been following these latest posts, as well as the running critique of Glenn Beck, et. al., I feel justified in saying that y'all are stooping to their level. Some of the later posts here have the same kind of narrowly-focused, one-example-proves-the-whole kind of synecdoche that needs further evidence.

It seems fetishistic. Instead of counting or unearthing tidbits of comparison, why not a sustained discussion that seriously contextualizes religious thought or investigates the relationship between Christian ideas and political economy.

What's been missed in this most recent battle of the culture wars (sparked by the Texas Textbook committee and Glenn Beck's not coincidental turn toward history), is a more nuanced conversation that doesn't try to prove presence or absence, but rather influence and determination (a la Raymond Williams).

King of Ireland said...

"It seems fetishistic. Instead of counting or unearthing tidbits of comparison, why not a sustained discussion that seriously contextualizes religious thought or investigates the relationship between Christian ideas and political economy."

I think if you go back and look at the archives of the posts here you will see that. Things have gotten a little heated here but it should because the stakes are high. This is the time for all this. It is on everyone's radar screen.

I was, and probably will be again, a History teacher and this is a dream come true. All this talk about history and the Constitution is good. The trouble is that the culture war version is the one that has hit the mainstream.

As far as Brayton goes he is a good guy and I actually agree with him more than not. Goldstone's piece was outstanding in my mind besides my one problem. Which is a big problem but I still think it is the best thing I have seen written on to explain modernity.

Thanks for the comments. If you have time go back and read some of my posts and you will get the full context of where I am coming from.

King of Ireland said...

"What's been missed in this most recent battle of the culture wars (sparked by the Texas Textbook committee and Glenn Beck's not coincidental turn toward history), is a more nuanced conversation that doesn't try to prove presence or absence, but rather influence and determination (a la Raymond Williams)."

I have been trying to shift to this frame of discussion for a while now.

This post is where I am coming from:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/12/socrates-alvin-toffler-and-attempting.html

Tom Van Dyke said...

Agree, Mr. Carey, and look forward to hearing from you again if and when things return to normal around here.

We have an outbreak of culture war around here every few months, and to date, they're the exception and not the rule.

But one never knows what the future might bring...

Chris said...

I don't think it's surprising that, at least in primary and secondary schools, the Schoolmen are "forgotten." They have two things going against them: 1.) They were writing within a fairly narrow context (everything was Christian and Paripatetic, and not necessarily in that order since their Christianity was so distinctly Greek), making their work somewhat esoteric to contemporary readers and 2.) While they were undoubtedly influential among the early moderns, the early moderns either altered their ideas or expressed them in a way that is much easier for non-experts today to make sense of; certainly easier than it is for them to make sense of Scotus or Bonaventure directly.

That said, I wonder who you're directing this sort of thing at. Historians of ideas have never doubted or underplayed the influence of the Scholastics on the early moderns. If intellectual historians of the American founding have, then that says all I need to know about that particular field's rigorousness. And if you're merely after the rabid "secularists" (seriously, how many of these are there? and how many as compared to the number of "Christianists"?), then you're plaints are likely to fall on deaf ears, as they are either well aware of the Christian dominance of western thinking even through the early modern period (seriously, you don't even need the Scholastics to point this out), but find it irrelevant to the larger point, or they are simply blinded by prejudice and beyond reasoning with.

King of Ireland said...

"And if you're merely after the rabid "secularists" (seriously, how many of these are there? and how many as compared to the number of "Christianists"?), then you're plaints are likely to fall on deaf ears, as they are either well aware of the Christian dominance of western thinking even through the early modern period (seriously, you don't even need the Scholastics to point this out), but find it irrelevant to the larger point, or they are simply blinded by prejudice and beyond reasoning with."


My goal is to bring this history back into the light. It is the history of the birth of inalienable rights grounded in equality. There are some scary Scientists out there who cannnot coherently tell you what a human is in their worldview. I look at Rwanda, Nazi Germany, The Balkans and see that dehumanization is the foundation of genocide. We untie ourselves from our Christian sense of justice to our own peril.

Chris said...

KoI, I couldn't disagree more, on so many grounds. One, inaleniable rights grounded in equality predates Christianity, as I am sure you know, and therefore doesn't logically require it.

Two, while Christian does put its own spin on the metaphysical source of equality, this does not mean we can't learn from them (and Seneca, say), and ground it in something else. This is, in fact, what many if not most modern philosophical conceptions of justice have done, producing, some would argue, even better versions of equality and justice.

Next, not only do equality-bases inalienable rights predate Christianity, but so does the claim that separating these sorts of things from god/the gods. Read your Aristophanes. If separating them from Zeus and his ilk, or their Roman counterparts and their ilk, isn't metaphysically problematic, why should we believe that separating them from the Christian God would be?

Finally, your invoking of the Nazis is deceptive. While the Nazis had a complicated relationship with Christianity, they committed their genocide I a Christian country, and used mostly Christians to do it. What's more, the reason the Nazi persecution of the Jews was possible was that there was a Christian-based tradition of treating Jews as subhumans. One could even argue that the main difference between the Holocaust and previous Christian attempts to rid the world, or at least Christendom, of Jews by killing, enslaving, forcedly converting, or otherwise persecuting Jews, lies in its effectiveness. And this genocidal tendency towards Jews was at its pre-Nazi peak, in many areas (e.g., medieval Spain, as the Christians began to rid it of Islam.), in the very Christian era that gave us the Scholastics. If history is any indication, attaching equal rights to Christianity is no guarantee against genocide, and may even make it more likely. One could even argue that the concept of equity gained more traction, and became more effective, historically, when human reason became more of a ground for it, and God less of one.

King of Ireland said...

"KoI, I couldn't disagree more, on so many grounds. One, inaleniable rights grounded in equality predates Christianity, as I am sure you know, and therefore doesn't logically require it. "

I have been back and forth on this one with numerous people. Inalienable rights grounded in equality based on imago dei, which was foundation of the Christian West's case for rights, is an addition to the classical sense of inalienable rights.

It gives every individual inherent worth.

King of Ireland said...

"If history is any indication, attaching equal rights to Christianity is no guarantee against genocide, and may even make it more likely."

This is non sense. Go read my post on Las Casas and you will see that the Christians that promoted the mistreatment of Jews used Aristotle to do it.

Yes, I acknowledge that there are Christian roots in Hitler and always have. I also acknowledge the inquisitions and always have. My question is what if Cortes would have listened at Salamanca? Go read about it.

King of Ireland said...

"Two, while Christian does put its own spin on the metaphysical source of equality, this does not mean we can't learn from them (and Seneca, say), and ground it in something else. This is, in fact, what many if not most modern philosophical conceptions of justice have done, producing, some would argue, even better versions of equality and justice."

Go for it. But do not call it the founding. It is not. I would also like to hear what you think inalienable rights should be grounded in?

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Two, while Christian does put its own spin on the metaphysical source of equality, this does not mean we can't learn from them (and Seneca, say), and ground it in something else. This is, in fact, what many if not most modern philosophical conceptions of justice have done, producing, some would argue, even better versions of equality and justice."

Please do go for it, Chris. I hear this sort of stuff all the time, but it's all hat and no cattle. Perhaps you can be the first to back it up. That would be nice.

Chris said...

KoI, I already agreed with you about the founding, but find it irrelevant. You made a larger point which, for the reasons I gave above and so many more, is indefensible. Also, "if they'd only read the right Christian philosophers, they wouldn't have been so genocidal" is a piss-poor argument for the necessity of Christianity for justice.

Oh, and I meant when Spain was a crusade zone.

TvD, I assume you're well read, and therefore are aware of the Stoics, humanists, modern liberals (from Rawls to Rorty), and at least some contemporary political and ethical philosophy, so I can also assume you asked your question in jest, right?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Chris, since you seem to consider your self-well read, surely you're familiar with Richard Rorty admitting,

"This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by freeloading atheists like myself, who would like to let differences like that between the Kantian and Hegelian remain purely "philosophical."

Rorty goes on for a defense of his "non-foundationalism," which I don't think is tenable, but I admire his honesty. And good humor, with the "freeloading atheists" bit.

So yes, I'm quite familiar with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is irrelevant these days. Its "irrelevance" is really less than a century old, and Western civilization is still running on its fumes. I won't be around to see what happens when "non-foundationalism" is truly tested on its own merits. A priori, I assert you can't build something on nothing, a principle based on no foundation.

The rest, as Jurgen Habermas said in a similar context, is postmodern nonsense.

Full context here:

http://books.google.com/books?id=q4kfQIYyWQkC&pg=PA202&lpg=PA202&dq=rorty+free+loading+atheists&source=bl&ots=e5eYJ-EHjX&sig=gVA7Ir0y3jKfMShG9lwhTJaOVeE&hl=en&ei=CtMJTPCzIYWMNujx2bUE&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

bpabbott said...

Re: "[...] the Judeo-Christian tradition is irrelevant these days [...]"

fwiw, I don't think the Judeo-Christian tradition is irrelevant today. It is irrelevant to me as a personal belief system, but it is clearly very relevant to a significant proportion of our society and will be long time to come

King of Ireland said...

"Also, "if they'd only read the right Christian philosophers, they wouldn't have been so genocidal" is a piss-poor argument for the necessity of Christianity for justice."

That is not what I said. I said that rights based on imago dei is a big part of Western culture that is thrown out could lead to dehumanization and genocide in the end. Science without morals is dangerous.


Do not get me wrong. I understand that most of what I enjoy in this world was because some scientist as why not? But there is a balance.

King of Ireland said...

By the way Chris,

Thanks for being honest that it is not the founding. If others want to go and attempt to create a moral structure sin religion thats fine. But most are not honest about it in that they seek to do it and then pretend like the founders felt the same way.

Chris said...

TvD, did I say anything about Christian thought being irrelevant? I know I said the opposite, but maybe I contradicted myself at some point and don't remember it. I agree with Rorty that contemporary ethics is largely built on Christian thought, just as Christian thought was largely built on pagan Greek thought. But I fail to see how this requires us to stick with imago dei, or any other unique aspect of Christian metaphysics, any more than Scholasticism required sticking with the gods of Olympus.

And dude, you're wearing that Habermas stuff out. At some point you're going to want corroborative testimony.

KoI, as I said before, if intellectual historians of the founding aren't keenly aware of the role of Christianity in shaping the ideas available to the founders, then that field is in serious need of rigor.

On the other hand, I don't know anyone doing ethics these days, or ever, really, who feels the need to claim the founding in order to justify anything ethical.

I don't really see how removing Christian metaphysics from equality and justice will lead to genocide. This is a speculation and, again, one that requires that we ignore the genocides that took place in the name of Christian metaphysics (and they are myriad), or at least excuse them as born of the wrong interpretation.

Also, I am not a positivist or adherent of scientism. I am an at atheist, but not a "new atheist."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Chris, I did corroborate Habermas. With your own witness, Rorty.

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?" --Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

Your answer is clearly no. I'm not so sure.

Joe Winpisinger said...

"This is a speculation and, again, one that requires that we ignore the genocides that took place in the name of Christian metaphysics"

I would argue that those took place because imago dei and love your neighbor as yourself were ignored. Again, read what Las Casas was saying about the ideas that were promoting slavery coming from Aristotle.

I would also have to challenge the contention that the Christians stole everything from the Greeks and just added imago dei. My understanding is that they looked at a lot of the same questions that the Greeks asked but answered many of them in a different way.

Not that I am any expert in this field and I am open to being wrong. I have been involved in this conversation at Dispatches for a while now and would say that the Christian case for rights is clear and that those that seek to say it is the same of the Greek one sin imago dei have the burden of proof.

All I have seen so far is some vaque randomly selected quotes from the Stoics put forth.

If your worldview requires no Christian foundation for ethics then why all the arguments from others that share it that the founders would agree with them?

Joe Winpisinger said...

Chris,

That last comment was King of Ireland. I switched out of my yahoo account.

Chris said...

KoI, while Christianity is much more Greek than most people think, largely because of Paul and Augustine, I don't mean to imply that it is just rehashed Plato and Aristotle. It's more complex than that, as is the relationship between contemporary social, political and ethical thought and Christian thought of the middle and modern ages.

Also, Christian treatment of Jews, during the middle ages in particular, had little to do with Aristotle (and everything to do with the fluid political and ethnic dynamics of Europe, especially in Spain, southern, and eastern Europe (where any tension resulted in peasants and cossacks going after Jews), and with plagues and the need to blame something or someone. And this was during arguably the most fervently religious period in Christian history.

TvD, Rorty is acknowledging an intellectual tradition. Habermas is doing something different. If all you want is that acknowledgment, you will have no problem finding it, as long as you don't confine yourself to reading fundamentalist new atheists.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't confine myself to anything. Discussions like these with persons as yourself are like thumbwrestling in Jell-o, since I don't want to put words in your mouth but don't find you forthcoming.

Which as Rorty [and Wittgenstein, I believe] say is fine, as "philosophy" isn't a set of coherent moral principle[s], which would be dogma, not philosophy. I understand that philosophically, since philosophy is about the questions, not answers.

However, in a political philosophy sense, I can only say I find the modern sensibility an ad hoc set of arbitrary sentiments which cannot be addressed systematically. And since the Judeo-Christian tradition is a largely sitting [dogmatic] duck---as well as one with a listable history of crimes, which you have resorted to with ease---the discussion is not on a level playing field.

I ran across the below essay, which I think both you and Joe should find of interest, as it references both imago Dei and Rorty's non-foundationalism.

I agree alternately with both Nicholas Wolterstorff and his critic Jonathan Kahn.

http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2009/02/22/nicholas-wolterstorffs-fear-of-the-secular/

The comments below it feature Prof. Wolterstorff himself as well as a guest appearance by James Goswick, the [in]famous OFT [Our Founding Truth] of recent discussion. Good and extremely relevant stuff.

Chris said...

TvD, interesting article. I wonder what you feel I haven't been forthcoming about. I will tell you a bit about myself, relevant to these sorts of discussions, in order to possibly remedy any lack of candor on my part, and situate myself in a dialectical space.

I am an atheist, but not a new atheist. I long for a time, not more than a decade ago, when atheism was a "big tent" position, and fundamentalist atheists had not begun to demand complete agreement and declared all else heresy and worse.

My influences, politically and ethically, are writers like Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, James, the Frankfurt school, Rorty, Levinas, etc., and more recently, empirical work in cognitive science. Most on this list would go over as well with Dawkinsians as they would with evangelical Christians.

I don't think religion or the religious should be discriminated against, or removed from the public sphere by force, be it physical, legal or rhetorical. I think religious belief can be rational.

I don't think Christianity is evil or leads necessarily to genocide. I bring its history of intolerance and violence up only to make it clear that there are no historical reasons to believe that Christianity is necessary for justice, as it isn't even remotely sufficient for it. I think the religious are human, and organized religions are human institutions, and will thus be used for and inspire both good and evil.

I do think organized religions are particularly useful for political and social dominance, and that as inherently conservative institutions, they will be slow to remedy inequalities (e.g., patriarchy). But this is something that the religious can work on if they are motivated to do so.

Joe Winpisinger said...

From Tom's link:

"And one can hold that every human being, no matter how impaired, has a worth sufficient for grounding human rights even though one finds oneself at a loss to explain what gives them that worth."

That is my worry. It is one thing to say something has worth. It is another to say why?

Joe/King

Joe Winpisinger said...

"The fact is that in a state with limited resources, the more that is spent on keeping alive the severely impaired, the less there is left for spending on schools and medical research. Tough choices have to be made. Many children, even in the developed world, have terrible upbringing and poor education. Devoting more funds to this would make a massive difference to those children’s lives. Given that a society cannot do everything, it is not entirely obvious that spending perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on keeping alive a single severely impaired person, rather than transforming the life chances of dozens of children, is the right thing to do."

This is the slippery slope I am talking about right here. We had a discussion at Dispatces on day about rights and I heard a lot of things like this.

Joe Winpisinger said...

By the way,

Great discussion guys either of you care if I bump it to the main page with a post highlighting the dialogue?

Joe Winpisinger said...

"Also, Christian treatment of Jews, during the middle ages in particular, had little to do with Aristotle (and everything to do with the fluid political and ethnic dynamics of Europe, especially in Spain, southern, and eastern Europe (where any tension resulted in peasants and cossacks going after Jews), and with plagues and the need to blame something or someone. And this was during arguably the most fervently religious period in Christian history."

It seems that we are talking about two different parts of Spain. Aragonian culture had little or nothing to do with Castille. This is where the Jews were exciled. It is also where most Conquistadore types that wanted to enslave the Aztecs came from. They did get a lot of their justification from Aristotle. Or at least the from what I have read.

As far as Christianity being "greek" I guess it depends on what you mean by that. I go agree that to trace these ideas in severely complicated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Please do, Joe. In fact, I wanted to thank both you and Chris for this discussion. This stuff is where I live, the first things, our primary assumptions, that which we call self-evident. If nothing is self-evident, well, in our modern age, nothing is considered self-evident.

Which is the proper philosophical stance when considering the meaning of life, the universe, essence, existence, life, death, etc. I appreciate that. But for us to have a "humane" world [I don't know what that means, exactly], or "ordered liberty" [we do know what that means, as it was the political philosophy of the Founding], we must agree on at least one thing---whatever that may be---in order to find a fundamental agreement on which to build a society, a republic, a future together.

Mr. Winpisinger astutely brings up a spot from the link provided where the rubber meets the road, the "severely impaired." What to do with them? they are a complete drain on society, on their kin.

This is exactly where "human rights" as a non-foundational concept vs. imago Dei breaks down. What is "human?"

And this is where the happy talk per the modern Thomist---Aquinas---Jacques Maritain, an author of the UN Declaration of human rights runs out of gas. Rorty too.

Yes, we can find a minimal common denominator on "human rights," theist and non-theist alike. However, the greatest good for the greatest number [materialist, utilitarian, mathematical] soon finds itself in conflict with imago Dei [metaphysical, absolutist, since "essence" is irreducible] about even what "human" is.

"Human" is no longer an absolute and uncompromisable value: it becomes a value subject to other considerations.

"Human" rights, then, is an absolute term under a metaphysical system, but not under the other, which rejects metaphysics.

Did I get into the tall weeds there? If so, I see no way around it. Neither could Jefferson

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

That's why we return and again and again to that simple phrase, the phrase that turned human history.

On a personal note, Chris,

Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, James, the Frankfurt school, Rorty, Levinas, etc., and more recently, empirical work in cognitive science...

is such a mixed bag that I can find no internal coherence, so no coherent reply is possible.

But I did take Rorty's caution and made no attempt to put words in your mouth. You'll have to make a coherent case for yourself. All I can say is that a proper understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition can predict the limited number of roads it can go down; the "unassisted" [non-theistic] reason of your mixed bag can lead to an infinity of possibilities.

As a side note but an important one, the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages and through the Spanish inquisition [initiated by King Ferdinand, not the church, mind you] was not so much Aristotle, but was very much still under the Greco-Roman spell of political theory, that religion and state were as one, and must be unified for civil harmony. [Thomas Hobbes, also.]

Socrates got the hemlock for his impiety toward the gods of the City, as a threat to the civil order.

And I realize it might seem like a prejudicial argument---dirty pool---but it occurs to me that the official atheism of the Soviet Union and Mao's China [and resulting suppression of religion] wasn't as much an expression of atheism than an attempt to similarly bring religion under the control of the state, per classical political philosophy and Hobbes as well.

Anyway, Joe and Chris, thx again for the productive discussion. This is why I prefer to inhabit our comments sections rather than the mainpage.

King of Ireland said...

I moved this up to the main page.