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14. The Seventeenth-Century Secularization of Western Life

The opening of the seventeenth century had found the Western Christian Wars of Religion in full swing and Western Christian fanaticism still at its height. Before the close of the same century, Religion had been replaced by Technology, applying the findings of Experimental Science, as the paramount interest and pursuit of the leading spirits in the Western Society. When the century closed, this revolutionary change in the Western attitude and êthos was, no doubt, still confined to a minority. Yet it is remarkable that even a minority should have moved so far in so short a time, and, still more, that they should have set the rest of Society moving in their wake. In the course of the quarter of a millennium running from the beginning of the eighteenth century to A.D. 1956, the leaven of secularization and the zest for Technology had spread progressively from one stratum of the Western Society to another till they had permeated the whole mass.

The apotheosis of Technology was not an inevitable consequence of the discrediting of the West’s Christian heritage. This disillusionment did inevitably produce a great moral and intellectual vacuum that was bound to be filled by some new set of ideals and ideas; but the substitute for Christianity in Western hearts and minds need not have been the ideal of increasing Man’s technological mastery over Non—Human Nature by applying to this practical purpose an experimental method of scientific research. Before this new ideal captivated Western imaginations, a now discredited authoritarian Western Christianity already had a rival in the shape of a no less authoritarian ghost of Hellenism. So the vacuum might have been filled simply by installing a pre—Christian Hellenic oracle in the place of a Christian oracle, and thus continuing to live, as before, under a traditional authority’s auspices.

This is what had actually happened in similar circumstances in contemporary China, where, down to this point, the course of History had run parallel to its course in the West. At the eastern, as at the western, extremity of the Old World a broken—down and disintegrating civilization had won a reprieve by incorporating itself into an oecumenical empire. When this empire had broken up and the moribund civilization had gone, with it, into dissolution, its castaway crew had found a new spiritual home in an oecumenical church. And, after this church had served as a chrysalis for hatching out a new civilization, the children of this rising society had eventually turned against a religious institution that had come to seem no longer indispensable. In all these successive changes of fortune, the history of the Mahāyāna in China had anticipated the history of the Christian Church in Western Europe; but in China, when a reaction against the Mahāyāna had declared itself, it had been inspired, on each successive occasion, not by a new ideal, but by a nostalgia for the classical civilization of Eastern Asia that had risen and fallen in the pre—Buddhist age of East Asian history. In the fifth, the ninth, and the seventeenth century of the Christian Era, the revolt against the authority of the Mahāyāna had been led by champions of the rival authority embodied in the pre—Buddhist Confucian philosophy and way of life.

In Early Modern Western Christendom, history did take this Chinese course on the plane of Politics. Here an uncritical belief in the divine right of the Apostle at Rome was simply replaced by an equally uncritical belief in the divine right of parochial states which had been the most disastrous of all the superstitions of the Graeco—Roman Society in its pre—Augustan age. These secular polities, which, in Western Christendom, had commanded only a partial and conditional allegiance so long as they had been subordinated to the Papal Respublica Christiana, were now deified there in the Graeco—Roman fashion. France, Portugal, Venice, and Venezuela were thus invested with the aura of the goddesses Belbina, Sparta, Athens, and Rome. In A.D. 1956 this resuscitated Hellenic worship of parochial states constituted the greater part of the religion of the greater part of the population of the Western World, and was accepted by its adherents on authority, just as blindly as Christianity had been accepted in the West in the Middle Ages.

On the economic, technological, and intellectual planes, on the other hand, the leading spirits in the Western Society had parted company, before the close of the seventeenth century, with the Chinese and also with most of their other contemporaries in rejecting, not merely one previously established authority, but the principle of Authority itself. This was the issue in the Western ‘Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns’, which was fought in the seventeenth century in the same generation that saw the West repudiate its Christian heritage. The question was whether the West should transfer to an authoritarian Hellenism the allegiance that it was withdrawing from an authoritarian Christianity. In the field of Belles Lettres, the battle was inconclusive; but in the fields of Technology, Science, and Philosophy the Moderns were victorious. This victory was a decision, on behalf of Western Man, that, in these fields, the vacuum left in his heart and mind by the discrediting of a traditional Christianity should be filled, not by some alternative authoritarian system, but by an experimental attitude and a technological bent that were latent in the genius of the Western Civilization and, indeed in Human Nature itself.

These proclivities had been repressed in the soul of Western Man by the genius of Christianity so long as this had been in the ascendant in the West, and they were no less alien from the genius of Hellenism. Their outburst in the seventeenth century was a double victory over the two time-honoured authorities that were then competing for Western Man’s allegiance, and the consequent enthronement of Experiment in place of Authority, and of Technology in place of Religion, was a morally as well as intellectually revolutionary act. The antecedents and the consequences of this seventeenth-century apotheosis of Technology are touched upon below in Chapter Seventeen. In the present chapter we may glance at the motives that moved seventeenth-century Western Man thus deliberately to transfer his treasure to Technology from Religion.

The prime motive was a horror at the wickedness and destructiveness of religious fanaticism; and this state of mind in England after the Civil War has been described, in a famous passage, by the Royal Society’s first secretary and first historian.

It was… some space after the end of the Civil Wars at Oxford, in Dr. Wilkins his lodgings, in Wadham College, which was then the place of resort for vertuous and learnèd men, that the first meetings were made, which laid the foundation of all this that follow’d. The University had, at that time, many members of its own who had begun a free way of reasoning, and was also frequented by some gentlemen, of philosophical minds, whom the misfortunes of the Kingdom, and the security and ease of a retirement amongst gown-men, had drawn thither.

Their first purpose was no more then onely the satisfaction of breathing a free air and of conversing in quiet one with another, without being ingag’d in the passions and madness of that dismal age.…

For such a candid and unpassionate company as that was, and for such a gloomy season, what could have been a fitter subject to pitch upon then Natural Philosophy? To have been always tossing about some theological question would have been to have made that their private diversion, the excess of which they themselves dislik’d in the publick; to have been eternally musing on civil business, and the distresses of their country, was too melancholy a reflexion: it was Nature alone which could pleasantly entertain them in that estate. The contemplation of that draws our minds off from past or present misfortunes, and makes them conquerors over things, in the greatest publick unhappiness. While the consideration of men, and humane affairs, may affect us with a thousand various disquiets, that never separates us into mortal factions, that gives us room to differ without animosity, and permits us to raise contrary imaginations upon it without any danger of a civil war.1

A second motive for the seventeenth-century Western spiritual revolution was a recognition of the psychological truth that Western Man would not be able to emancipate himself from a hitherto obsessive interest in militant controversial religion unless he could provide himself with a psychological equivalent of comparable potency, and he turned to Technology to perform this social service for him. The difficulty of driving one nail out without driving another nail in was perceived by Bayle.

We may allow ourselves to deplore the wretched condition of the Human Race. It cannot extricate itself from one evil except by way of another. Cure it of ignorance and you will be exposing it to controversies that are shocking in themselves and that sometimes shake and even overthrow the established political order.2

Some thirty years before this passage was first published, the cultivation of Natural Philosophy had been recommended by Sprat as a promising antidote to the zeal for religious controversy.

Whatever other hurt or good comes by such holy speculative warrs (of which whether the benefit or mischief overweighs, I will not now examine), yet certainly by this means the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded.… The wit of men has been profusely pour’d out on Religion, which needed not its help, and which was onely thereby made more tempestuous, while it might have been more fruitfully spent on some parts of Philosophy which have been hitherto barren and might soon have been made fertil.3

Experimental Philosophy will prevent men’s spending the strength of their thoughts about disputes, by turning them to works.4

In the eyes of Western Man in the later decades of the seventeenth century, to try to create an Earthly Paradise looked like a more practicable objective than to try to bring a Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth. Recent Western experience had shown that the specifications for a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth were a subject of acrimonious and interminable dispute between rival schools of theologians. On the other hand the differences of opinion between practical technicians or between experimental scientists would be likely to remain at a low emotional temperature and would be certain to be cleared up, before long, by the findings of observation, and of reasoning about the results of observation, on which there would be no disagreement.

The doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, both by the pen and the sword, whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not, in that subject, what be truth, as a thing that crosses no man’s ambition, profit, or lust. For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equall to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet, by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.5

The point here made by Hobbes with characteristic cynicism is taken up by Sprat in a no less characteristically constructive spirit, apropos of the nascent Royal Society’s temper and methods of work.

Their principal endeavours have been that they might enjoy the benefits of a mix’d assembly, which are largeness of observation and diversity of judgments, without the mischiefs that usually accompany it, such as confusion, unsteddiness, and the little animosities of divided parties. That they have avoided these dangers for the time past there can be no better proof than their constant practice, wherein they have perpetually preserv’d a singular sobriety of debating, slowness of consenting, and moderation of dissenting.… They would not be much exasperated one against another in their disagreements, because they acknowledg that there may be several methods of Nature in producing the same thing, and all equally good; whereas they that contend for truth by talking do commonly suppose that there is but one way of finding it out. The differences which should chance to happen might soon be compos’d, because they could not be grounded on matters of speculation or opinion, but only of sense; which are never wont to administer so powerful occasions of disturbance and contention as the other.6

[They cultivate a plain style], bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits or scholars.7

Nor is it the least commendation the Royal Society deserves, that, designing a union of mens hands and reasons, it has proceeded so far in uniting their affections. For there we behold an unusual sight to the English nation, that men of disagreeing parties and ways of life have forgotten to hate, and have met in the unanimous advancement of the same works. There the soldier, the tradesman, the merchant, the scholar, the gentleman, the courtier, the divine, the Presbyterian, the Papist, the Independent, and those of Orthodox Judgment, have laid aside their names of distinction and calmly conspir’d in a mutual agreement of labors and desires—a blessing which seems even to have exceeded that evangelical promise that the lion and the lamb shall ly down together; for here they do not onely endure each others presence without violence or fear, but they work and think in company and confer their help to each others inventions.8

On the morrow of the Wars of Religion, the technicians and experimentalists seemed not only amiable by comparison with the theologians but also impotent to do much harm, even if they had been maliciously inclined. In the later decades of the seventeenth century they were mostly people whose hands were remote from the levers of power, both ecclesiastical and political. ‘Displaced persons’ and disfranchised nonconformists were in force among them.9 There was no fear of their seizing power in any of the forms in which power was familiar as yet; and, at this stage, there was no realization of the truth that, by their non-controversial inventions, these apparently harmless technicians were creating power of a new kind which would be used eventually by other hands, if not by theirs, to upset the existing balance.

The technological kind of power had been commended for its innocence by Bacon before the theme was taken up by Sprat.

It will perhaps be as well to distinguish three species and degrees of ambition. First, that of men who are anxious to enlarge their own power in their country, which is a vulgar and degenerate kind; next, that of men who strive to enlarge the power and empire of their country over Mankind, which is more dignified but not less covetous; but, if one were to endeavour to renew and enlarge the power and empire of Mankind in general over the Universe, such ambition (if it may be so termed) is both more sound and more noble than the other two. Now the empire of Man over things is founded on the arts and sciences alone, for Nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.10

Civil reformation seldom is carried on without violence and confusion, whilst inventions are a blessing and a benefit without injuring or afflicting any.11

If… our nation shall lay hold of this opportunity to deserve the applause of Mankind, the force of this example will be irresistibly praevalent in all countries round about us; the state of Christendom will soon obtain a new face; while this halcyon knowledge is breeding, all tempests will cease; the opposition and contentious wranglings of Science, falsely so call’d, will soon vanish away; the peaceable calmness of men’s judgments will have admirable influence on their manners; the sincerity of their understandings will appear in their actions; their opinions will be less violent and dogmatical, but more certain; they will onely be gods one to another, and not wolves.12

14 Annexe: Contemporary Expressions of the Seventeenth-Century West’s Revolt Against the Principle of Authority and of Its Adoption of the Methods of Observation and Experiment

A. The Revolt Against the Principle of Authority

Leonardi da Vinci (vivebat A.D. 1452–1519) was at least 150 years ahead of the common run of his contemporaries in his intellectual outlook, so no apology need be offered for citing him in the company of seventeenth-century writers of ordinary mental stature.

Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to Authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.13

‘Just’ and ‘unjust’ invariably change character in changing climate. Three degrees of elevation of the Pole upsets the whole corpus of Jurisprudence; a meridian decides what is the truth.… A nice kind of justice that can be confined by a river-boundary! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side!14

It is pitiful to see so many Turks, heretics, and infidels following in their fathers’ track, for the sole reason that each has been conditioned to believe that this track is the best. This accident of birth is also what decides everyone’s condition in life, making one man a locksmith, another man a soldier, etcetera.15

The best account that many can give of their belief, is, that they were bred in it; which indeed is no better, then that which we call, the Woman’s Reason. And thousands of them, whom their profession and our charity styles Christians, are driven to their Religion by custom and education, as the Indians are to Baptism; that is, like a drove of Cattle to the water. And, had our Stars determin’d our nativities among the Enemies of the Cross, and theirs under a Christian horoscope, in all likelyhood Antichristianism had not been the object of our aversion, nor Christianity of theirs: But we should have exchang’d the Scene of our belief with that of our abode and breeding.16

There being but one truth, one way to Heaven, what hope is there that mere men would be led into it if they had no rule but the religion of the court, and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors, and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions in Religion, wherein the princes of the World are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straitened; one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the World put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction; and, that which heightens the absurdity and very ill suits the notion of a Deity, men would owe their eternal happiness or misery to the places of their nativity.17

The way of authority necessarily leads individuals to be Mahometans in Turkey, pagans in China, and [, in fact,] everywhere and always [to be adherents] of the national religion.18

There is an almost universal complaint that Philosophy is injurious to Theology. Yet, on the other hand, it is certain that Theology is harmful to Philosophy. Here are two faculties that would find some difficulty in agreeing on the delimitation of the frontier between them, if this question were not well and truly settled, as it is, by the way of authority, which is always in favour of the interests of Religion.19

They [the Greek and Roman gods] have been disposed of, as soon as one makes the assumption that, sooner or later, age kills false doctrines. Please note, though, that this principle would be capable of serving as valid evidence only on condition that one gives some ruling about what is the minimum length of time that is sufficient for discriminating between errors and truths. If a millennium is sufficient, then any opinion that has ten centuries to its credit will be veritable; but, if you do not enact any statute of limitations, then you will get nowhere by arguing that, because a dogma has lasted for four thousand years, it ought therefore to rank as being indubitably true: in reasoning in this way you will be leaving the future out of account: you cannot tell whether the fifth millennium may not be the death of a dogma which has held its own against the previous millennia.20

The way of authority, which Roman Catholics profess to follow, is the high road to scepticism. Anyone who is in earnest in seeking genuinely to make certain that he ought to submit to the authority of the Church will be obliged to verify that this is ordained by Scripture as well. This at once exposes him to [having to take account of] all the points discussed by Mr. Nicolle, and, besides that, he will have to verify whether the doctrine of the Fathers, and that of all other ages of Christian history, is compatible with that submission to the Church’s authority for which he is seeking authorization. He will have to be indefatigable indeed if he does not find himself preferring a complete agnosticism to the prospect of having to embark on such extensive researches as these; and he will be acute indeed if, after having taken all the trouble that this task requires, he does see light at the end of it all.21

One cannot say that it [the Aristotelian school] has not had its reverses and its misfortunes, or that in this seventeenth century, above all, it has not been violently shaken; however, the Catholic theologians on one side and the Protestant theologians on the other have rushed to its aid as fast as firemen, and they have obtained such support from the secular arm against the new philosophers that it does not look as if Aristotelianism were going to lose its dominion for a long time to come.22

It is not surprising that the Aristotelian philosophy, in the form in which it has been taught for some centuries past, should find so many protectors, or that its interests should be thought to be inseparable from those of [Christian] Theology. Aristotelianism accustoms the mind to assent without evidence. This solidarity of interests ought to afford the Aristotelians a guarantee for the immortality of their school, and ought to give the new philosophers cause to scale down their expectations.23

B. The Adoption of the Methods of Observation and Experiment

Experience, which is the interpreter between artful (?) Nature and the Human Species, teaches us what are this Nature’s operations among us mortals. The constraint of necessity makes it impossible for her to work otherwise than Reason, her rudder, teaches her to work.

Wisdom is the daughter of Experience.

Truth is the only daughter of Time.

Experience never misleads; what you are misled by is only your judgments, and these mislead you by anticipating results from experience of a kind that is not produced in your experiments.

Instead of making this instance into a general rule, verify it two or three times over, and watch whether these several verifications do produce similar results.24

All knowledge is to be got the same way that a language is: by industry, use, and observation.25

Such a philosophy they would build, which should first wholly consist of action and intelligence before it be brought into teaching and contemplation.26

If we enquire the reason, why the Mathematicks, and Mechanicle Arts, have so much got the start in growth of other Sciences: We shall find it probably resolv’d into this, as one considerable cause: that their progress hath not been retarded by that reverential aw of former discoveries, which hath been so great an hinderance to Theoretical improvements.27

There is no certainty in the sciences where there is not a possibility of applying one of the mathematical sciences, or in the case of their not being united with the mathematical sciences.28

It cannot be denied that it is rare to find any great religious devotion in people who have once tasted [the enchantment of] the study of mathematics and have made any remarkable progress in this province of Science.29

  • 1.

    Sprat, Tho., The History of the Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London 1667, Martyn), pp. 53 and 55–6.

  • 2.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., iii. 2651 b, s.v. Stancarus.

  • 3.

    Sprat, op. cit., pp. 25–6.

  • 4.

    Ibid., p. 341.

  • 5.

    Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, Part I, chap. 11, first published in A.D. 1651.

  • 6.

    Sprat, op. cit., pp. 91–2.

  • 7.

    Ibid., pp. 111–13.

  • 8.

    Sprat, op. cit., p. 427.

  • 9.

    The evils of religious fanaticism in a seventeenth-century Western Christendom were, naturally, felt the most sharply and detested the most heartily by the people who suffered from them the most severely. These were the religious refugees (especially the Huguenot refugees from France after the revocation in A.D. 1685 of the Edict of Nantes) and the religious minorities which were allowed to remain in their homes at the price of political and social penalization (e.g. the Nonconformists in England after A.D. 1662). The penalty of political disfranchisement forcibly prevented the English Nonconformists from putting any of their treasure into the worship of an idolized parochial state, and so constrained them to put into Economics, Technology, and Science all of their treasure that did not go into their Free Churches. Thus it was no accident that the father of the eighteenth-century Western anti-religious philosophical Enlightenment should have been a seventeenth-century French Huguenot refugee in Holland, Pierre Bayle, or that the pioneers of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in England should have been the eighteenth-century English Nonconformists. This role of ‘displaced persons’ as innovators in the Late Modern Age of Western history (circa A.D. 1675–1875) had a bearing on the Western Civilization’s prospects in the twentieth century, considering how great was the relative, as well as the absolute, number of the ‘displaced persons’ abroad in the World in A.D. 1956.

  • 10.

    Bacon, Francis, Novum Organum, Partis Secundae Summa, Aphorismus cxxix: ‘Non abs re fuerit tria hominum ambitionis genera et quasi gradus distinguere. Primum eorum qui propriam potentiam in patriâ suâ amplificare cupiunt; quod genus vulgare est et degener. Secundum, eorum qui patriae potentiam et imperium inter Humanum Genus amplificare nituntur; illud plus certe habet dignitatis, cupiditatis haud minus. Quod si quis Humani Generis ipsius potentiam et imperium in rerum universitatem instaurare et amplificare conetur, ea proculdubio ambitio (si modo ita vocanda sit) reliquis et sanior est et augustior. Hominis autem imperium in res in solis artibus et scientiis ponitur. Naturae enim non imperatur nisi parendo.’

  • 11.

    Bacon, ibid., ‘Statûs emendatio in civilibus non sine vi et perturbatione plerumque procedit; at inventa beant et beneficium deferunt absque alicuius iniuriâ aut tristitiâ.’

  • 12.

    Sprat, op. cit., pp. 437–8.

  • 13.

    Leonardo da Vinci in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, compiled and edited from the original MSS. by J. P. Richter, 2nd edition (Oxford 1939, University Press, 2 vols.), vol. ii, p. 241, No. 1159: ‘Chi disputa allegādo l’autorità, non adopera lo ingiegno, ma piutosto la memoria.’

  • 14.

    Pascal, Penseés, No. 294 in Léon Brunschvicg’s arrangement.

  • 15.

    Pascal, op. cit., No. 98.

  • 16.

    Glanvill, J., The Vanity of Dogmatising (London 1661, Eversden), pp. 127–8.

  • 17.

    Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration (first published in A.D. 1689).

  • 18.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., iii. 2396 a, s.v. Puccius.

  • 19.

    Ibid., i. 327 a, s.v. Aristote.

  • 20.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., ii. 1671 a, s.v. Launoi.

  • 21.

    Ibid., iii. 2088 a and b, s.v. Nicolle (cp. iii. 2220 a and b, s.v. Pellisson).

  • 22.

    Ibid., i. 321, s.v. Aristote.

  • 23.

    Ibid., i. 326–7, s.v. Aristote.

  • 24.
    Leonardo da Vinci, in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, compiled and edited from the original MSS. by J. P. Richter, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1939, University Press, 2 vols.), vol. ii, p. 240.

    ‘La speriēza, interprete infra l’artifitiosa natura e la umana spetie, ne insegnia ciò che essa natura infra mortali adopera, da neciesità costretta non altrimēti operarsi possa che la ragiō, suo timone, operare le ‘nsegni’ (No 1149).

    ‘La sapiētia è figliola della speriētia’ (No. 1150).

    ‘La verità fu sola figliola del tempo’ (No. 1152).

    ‘La speriēza nō falla mai, ma sol fallano i vostri giuditi, promettendosi di quella efetto tale che ne nostri experimēti causati nō sono’ (No. 1153).

    ‘Innanzi che tu facci di questo caso regola generale, pruovalo 2 o tre volte, e guarda se le pruove fanno simili effetti’ (No. 1153A).

  • 25.

    Sprat, Th., The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London 1667, Martyn), p. 97.

  • 26.

    Ibid., p. 93.

  • 27.

    Glanvill, J., The Vanity of Dogmatising (London 1661, Eversden), pp. 139–40.

  • 28.

    Leonardo da Vinci, in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, compiled and edited from the original MSS. by J. P. Richter, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1939, University Press, 2 vols.), vol. ii, p. 241, No. 1158:‘Nessuna certezza delle sciētie è, dove nō si può applicare una delle sciētie matematiche over che non sono unite con esse matematiche.’

  • 29.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., iii. 2187 a, s.v. Pascal.