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The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (Vol. 1) (Enlightenment an Interpretation) (v. 1) Paperback – July 17, 1995
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“Extraordinary and brilliant.”
- R. R. Palmer, Journal of Modern History
About the Author
Peter Gay (1923―2015) was the author of more than twenty-five books, including the National Book Award winner The Enlightenment, the best-selling Weimar Culture, and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time.
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This is an amazing book. It probably should not be a readers first introduction to the Enlightenment period, but it can be the reader's second. The book is very erudite and I was constantly looking up words and people or schools of thought on my Kindle, the author does presume the reader is very familiar with the philosophers of the Enlightenment and who they read. I would not have been able to finish this book in book form because of the constant stream of new concepts the author uses, but, on the Kindle (or equivalent device) this book is a delight to read. Wikipedia tells me the book was originally published in 1967 and was revised in the 1990s, but basically as I was reading the book it became apparent almost all of the citations were pre-1967. That gives the modern reader an interesting perspective on how the scholar from the 60s saw the thought of the 1700s.
His primary theme is that the reintroduction of Greek and Latin teaching into the European mind led to the death of christian thought and the creation of Modernity. Spends a lot of pages on the effect of Pyrrhonism (no truth avalabile) and the focus of the philophoses on destroying the christian culture. Makes clear that the christian culture was largely pagan from the start. Augustine's Platonism was built into the catholic world.
Gay notes "Lorenzo de Medici could say in all seriousness that one could not be either a good citizen or a good Christian without being a good Platonist. . . What makes the era of pagan Christianity special is that the dominant form of that agony was a struggle between Christian and classical modes of thought." (257)
Ficino, an Italian priest and friend of Lorenzo, celebrated Plato's birthday and death each year. He wrote claiming divine inspiration for Plato.
Another connection between the Renaissance and the enlightenment is that both the Humanists and the philosophes were "their ties to the rulers of states; they were their servants, correspondents and friends, and on favorable occasions, their critics." (258)
This cultivation of political power eventually led the worship of the state, as seen in twentieth century Germany.
Gay explains that the desire for peace led to the goal of "natural religion" which was mainly drawn from stoicism. Grotius, a devout Christian, wrote in a famous passage;
"natural law is so unalterable that God himself cannot change it." Gay comments, "with these pronouncements, natural law which had occupied a subordinate place in the Christian scheme of things, made its declaration of independence." (300)
"Thus political absolutism and religious toleration are the improbable twins of the modern state system." (298)
Explains that Diderot wanted to be the modern combination of Cicero, Diogenes and Seneca.
One startling facet of this book is the authors willingness to analyze conflicting ideas. After spending a large part of the pages showing the weakening of Christian thought, he presents the devout faith of the early members of the Royal Society.
Of course the most famous is Newton "whom the philosophes unanimously and categoricaly called the greatest man who ever lived - was a passionately religious man; he expressed that passion In his scientific speculations, his profound preoccupation with theology and biblical chronology, and his private correspondence. . .When Voltaire was in England in 1726, the year before Newton's death, he had several conversations with Samuel Clarke, Newton's devoted philosophical friend, and he later recalled that this Philosopher always pronounced the name of God within air of contemplation and extreme respect.''
''I acknowledged the impression this made on me; he told me he had insensibly acquired this habit from Newton. Nor, as Voltaire also knew, was Newton merely a pallid theist. He was a Christian, a Socinian, Voltaire wrote, Who refused to reduce his system to Deism as other Socinians had done." (317)
Gay also explains the Enlightenments debt to christian teaching . . .
"there were scores of theologians and scholars who embodied qualities and advocated ideals echoed in the philosophes' philosophy and who had these qualities and ideals, I must emphasize, not because they were Christian Stoics or Christian skeptics but simply because they were Christians. Much of the decency in 17th century civilization, much of its intelligence and critical acumen, was exercised by Christians for Christian purposes. And it was largely these Christians who created the atmosphere of the late 17th and early 18th century into which the philosophes were born." (325)
Lessing, wrote in 1777 that he believed history was God's way of teaching.
"The old Testament is the primer of humanity, containing one great truth, the unity of God, and hints and anticipations of truths reserved for later years. Then Christ appeared, he better pedagogue, bringing the second dispensation, teaching immortality, original sin, and justification. But this, even at its purest, is not man's goal. When mankind is ready and the time is right, a third dispensation will come forth, the third gospel predicted by mid evil enthusiasts. Is mankind never to reach is highest step of enlightenment and purity? Never?"
Lessing throws out this passionate question only to offer the equally passionate reply:
"It will come, it will surely come. . .it will surely come, the time of a new eternal gospel!" (333)
One chapter is entitled "The Treason of the Clerks". . .
Gay makes the point that the loss of faith was more due to cultural suicide than cultural murder. Diderot, a virulent atheist, wrote about a Christian friend; "He goes to mass without believing in it too much; respects religion and laughs Up his sleeve at the jokes made against it; hopes for resurrection without being too sure about the nature of the soul. In general he is a large heap of contradictory ideas which make his conversation a complete pleasure."
Gay adds; "it was precisely the contradictions which made M de Montamy so charming a companion that also made him an uncertain defender of the faith."
Contradictions destroy belief. Think of the loss of faith in Aristotle at this same time. (341)
Gay uses David Hume as a primary source. Hume "noted in his private correspondence the progress of the tolerant mood which is the brother to religious indifference." Another wrote about the Scottish clergy; "They taught that whoever could please God must resemble him in goodness and benevolence, and those who had it not must affect it by politness and good manners."
Gay adds; "This was not a strenuous faith." (342)
Gay's analysis of the reason for loss Christian faith is interesting.
"The real source of trouble, hard to diagnose and almost impossible to eradicate, was a bland piety, a self satisfied and prosperous reasonableness, the honest conviction that churches must, after all, Move with the times. This - the concessions to modernity, to criticism, science, and philosophy, and to good tone - this was the treason of the clerks." (343)
Considering English belief, Gay writes: "The Englishman's need for peace after a century of upheaval and the revulsion of educated and respectable man against religious enthusiasm coalesced with the growing of authority of naturalism to produce a torpid Church and a tepid religion. The church of England, one good Anglican said, was an admirable "institution because it is fit for the people, subject to the laws, and most suitable to the clergy. For here, without care, without thought, and without trouble, honour and care are enjoyed at once, which is a state that most men wish for."
These were the professional soldiers of Christianity, living without care, without thought, and without trouble -asleep at their posts while Philosophos quietly invaded their domains." (345)
Gay continues, "there was much comfort and little anxiety in sermons purporting to prove that the course of a Christian life was easy, the reward for good conduct was sure and glorious, that God commanded men nothing either unsuitable to our reason or prejudicial to our interest; nay, nothing that is severe and against the grain of our nature, and that, on the contrary, the laws of God are reasonable, that is suited to our nature and advantageous to our interest."(345)
This "definition of religion amounted to a faith singulary devoid of religious content." (346)
Another source of damage to the Christian cause:
"the version of political tolerance that grew up in German states like Prussia did the same damage in a different way. A tolerance based on indifference or on calculation only encouraged indifference or calculation in turn." (348)
France did no better. "The only rational policy the church found it possible to adopt in such an unfavorable climate was to turn modern, and it turned modern with a vengeance. Sermons and educational tracts continued to treat the traditional subjects, but they treated them in a new way, almost as if a Philosophe so were looking over their author's shoulder. The old simple stark faith was being replaced by a gentler version, appropriate to a public informed about scientific discoveries and striving for bourgeois comforts. The very props of religious emotion were weakened in the widespread appeal to reason and reasonableness." (354)
Gay reports on the manuscript by Reimarus that affected Lessing. It asks
'if God was one in three, why could he, Reimarus, never visualize the Trinity in a coherent image? If all who were damned we're damned forever, why did the Christian religion ask members to think of their God as the God of love, and of Jesus Christ as the bringer of salvation?' (61)
These questions reveal the damage non Biblical doctrines did and do to true Christianity. Greek ideas poison bibical understanding.
Provides an extensive explanation of deism and the long term effect. . .
"Their watch maker God who had endowed the world at the beginning of time with ethical laws that every individual can discover for himself through the use of his unaided reason - theirs was a philosophy emotionally appealing and logically persuasive. Girl, who witnessed the deist phase of German thought, rightly suggested that in an atmosphere saturated with Newtonian science and the cult of common sense, deism was a perfectly sensible religion to adopt." (375)