IDEAS and MEN                                                                                            By: Crane Brinton

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T HE WORLD IS NOT THE CONFUSED AND RATHER MESSYPLACE IT SEEMS TO BE IN OUR FIRST CRUDE, COMMON SENSE REFLECTIONS, On the other hand, the world is not the world of Christian tradition, with its immanent, interfering God and his unpredictable new miracles, with its absurd other-worldliness, with all its irrational clutter of medieval ways. Nor is it the Neoplatonic world of the innocent and youthful Renaissance lovers of life and their disillusioned successors. The world is really a vast number of material particles spinning, combining, forming fascinating patterns of such complexity that we are fooled into all sorts of false common-sense and pre-Cartesian philosophic notions. Yet the particles do in fact obey one set of rules, perform their complicated rondo to one tune, and work harmoniously as worked the geometer’s mind of René Descartes. The clue to unraveling the obscurities and confusions of our experience is then mathematics. We should think out all our problems as we think out mathematical problems, being careful of our definitions, taking each step carefully and reasonably, seeking above all for clarity and consistency, but never embroiling ourselves in scholastic complexities, never arguing for the sake of arguing. Descartes is not the worshiper of induction Bacon was, and he has the full rationalist contempt for the raw facts our sense impressions pick up.

As a polymath, he interested himself in many fields, and has for instance a small place in the history of physiology, for he did some study in the working of the nervous system. But here as usual he is the philosopher, not the patient laboratory investigator. He was really looking for the seat of the soul (which he thought was uniquely human, not possessed by other vertebrates). He thought he found the seat of the soul in the pineal body, now considered to be a remnant of a once important sense organ in ancestral forms.

Descartes thought it important to find a place for the soul in the body because his system had involved him in a technical problem of great importance in the future history of formal philosophy. We shall not here do more than call the reader’s attention to this problem. He can follow it down through Locke, Berkeley, and Kant right into the nineteenth, and even the twentieth, century. It is not, however, a problem that moved the world, however much it moved philosophers, and is, indeed, a good example of how the historian of philosophy and the historian of ideas at work in the crowd must employ different methods and focus on different topics.

Very briefly, then, Descartes was driven from his initial cogitoergo sum —I think, therefore I am—to a psychology and a theory of knowledge in which clear thought is contrasted with a muddy sense world somehow outside thought and yet, if we’re not all quite mad, in some relation to thought. The soul guides our thinking— perhaps Descartes meant does our thinking—and in some way, probably through the nervous system, tells the body what to do. Other animals Descartes definitely thought were mere machines, responding through something close to what we call conditioned reflexes, to environmental stimuli; but men were not quite machines in this sense. Men ran themselves through their souls, souls that shared the rationality of universal laws, mathematics, and God.

From Descartes on many philosophers tried to remedy this dualism of soul and body, spirit and matter, thinking and perceiving. The matter came closest to popular levels in the next century, as may be seen from Boswell’s Life of Johnson An English philosopher, George Berkeley, had solved the problem by deciding that “matter” does not exist, that, in a Latin aphorism much like Descartes’s own, esse est percipi — to be is to be perceived—and that all reality is an idea in the mind of God. Sam Johnson’s common sense was outraged by the proposition that matter does not exist, and according to Boswell he kicked a hitching post on the street-side and announced firmly, “Thus, sir, do I confute him.”

But the more absurd reaches of the dilemma come out in the problem of solipsism, which is a problem that could hardly arise except in the Cartesian sequence. My thought processes tell mc all I know; these processes depend for information on the sense impressions recorded on the nerve-ends and transmitted to my brain; but I never really touch what lies beyond those nerve ends, those telegraph wires that come into my brain; perhaps all these messages are fakes—perhaps I am the only person in the universe and all the rest is an illusion; I think, therefore I am—but nothing else need be. This is, of course, a position on the lunatic fringe of philosophy, but the whole problem raised by Cartesian dualism is really insoluble, and there exist philosophers today who would class it almost with Zeno’s paradox as no more than an intellectual puzzle.

It must not be thought that Descartes is the sole philosophical rationalist of these centuries, though he is probably the best example of one. Hobbes, whom we have met as the philosopher of the Leviathan state, was in many ways as complete a rationalist as Descartes. Many historians and philosophers have thought it profitable to contrast with rationalism what they call empiricism. Such a classification actually accepts the terminology and point of view of the Cartesian dualism. The rationalists are those who emphasize the mental, rational, or “ideal” side of the polarity of soul and body; the empiricists are those who emphasize the material, bodily, sensation side of the polarity. Both sides, however, both empirical and rationalist philosophers, from Bacon through Descartes and Hobbes to Locke himself, held that the universe made sense because it was reasonable, because it had the kind of underlying pattern we see best in the great mathematical and scientific advances of these two centuries. In other words, one philosopher’s spirit did the same kind of work another philosopher’s matter did. Of course, there are many and great differences in the world-views of such men as Hobbes and Locke, and many philosophical problems on which they do not agree. Still, rationalism and empiricism in the early modern centuries do have one very significant thing in common: They hold that the world makes sense—mathematical sense, at bottom.

In fact rationalism with the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza then reached quite as far into the intense inane as ever Plato did. Baruch Spinoza, of a Portuguese Jewish family settled in Holland, lives up completely to popular notions of the disinterested philosopher. He refused to succeed in a world wliich to sensitive souls measures success so crudely and vulgarly . In a century that groosly rewarded men like Descartes with very great public attention, Spinoza turned away and earned his living grinding lenses in Amsterdam—a job at which he was very expert. He was banished from the synagogue for his unorthodox ideas. He lived the simplest of lives and wrote, in the fashion of his times, most subtly devised metaphysics. We cannot here attempt a real analysis of this philosopher’s philosopher. His best known work , perhaps, is an ethics, Mathematically Demonstrated , in which he uses the outward forms of mathematical demonstration to arrive at God and perfect goodness. Spinoza is sometimes given the label of “pantheist,” but the label is a cold and unfeeling one for so very ardent a seeker after a God at once perfect and remote, and yet not quite beyond our imperfect human understanding. Reason leads him to mystic surrender, to the “intellectual love of God”:

                    And this intellectual love of the mind toward God

                    is the very love of God with which God loves himself,

                    not in so far as he is infinite but in so far as he can be

                    expressed by the essence of the human mind, considered

                    under the form of eternity; that is, the intellectual love

                    of the mind toward God is a part of the infinite love with

                    which God loves himself. From this we clearly comprehend

                    in what our salvation, or blessedness, or freedom, consists;

                     to Wit, in an unchangeable and eternal love toward God,

                    that is, in the love of God toward men. This love or 

                    blessedness is in the sacred Scriptures called glory.

It is a shame to dismiss Spinoza thus curtly; he is worth the attention of anyone who wants to penetrate into a temperament intellectuals have always admired, the sweet, unworldly rebel capable of amazing firmness in matters of the mind. For us, however, it must be enough to note that Spinoza in the great century of scientific advance, and working with the concepts of mathematics, arrived at as “other- worldly” a philosophy as ever any medieval thinker did. Many, many roads lead to the no-place of the mystic.


The political ideas of the early rationalists are for the most part of the kind we have discussed in the last chapter. Hobbes, notably, rejected theories like that of the divine right of kings, for the rationalist has to deny the divine in the traditional Christian sense. But he still believed that there was a system of right political relations that could be discovered by thinking about certain given propositions concerning human behavior—such as the proposition that all men want security first and the proposition that in a state of nature they do not have security. From this, according to Hobbes, it follows “rationally” that men will get together and make a contract to create a sovereign quite as absolute as any divine one, but the creation of men in nature. Thinkers like Hobbes, Harrington, and Bodin were humanists influenced by the rationalist current of their times, all working in a traditional frame of reference. They prepared the way for the politics of the Enlightenment, the political attitudes we Americans inherit firsthand, but they did not quite reach the full optimism of the eighteenth-century philosophers.

What is new and original in the political thought of these centuries is the work of Machiavelli. Now Machiavelli shares with all those we have called rationalist a complete dismissal of the idea that there is anything supernatural, that there is any kind of God who intervenes in the day-to-day affairs of men. Machiavelli simply pays no attention to the medieval notion that God is behind the moral order. He sets out with Renaissance curiosity to find out how men actually behave. We shall see that he also has really pretty firm notions of how men ought to behave. But there is certainly a basis for Francis Bacon’s praise of him: We owe a lot to Machiavelli, said Bacon, for telling us what men do instead of what they ought to do.

In other words, some part at least of Machiavelli’s work seems to be of the kind the natural scientist does; it is based on observation, on the collection of the facts, as the starting point of all thinking on the subject. Some of his thinking is based on patriotism, on an Italian’s hatred for the foreign powers who dominated Italy. He is by no means a modern anti-intellectual. Like Bacon, he carries with him much of the Middle Ages. But, again as with Bacon, and notably in some pages of The Prince, he is trying to analyze his data and put them together without concern for morals or metaphysics. Machiavelli’s famous—and to many still infamous—little book The Prince was published in 1532, five years after its author’s death. With the Commentary on Livy, it gives a fair cross-section of Machiavelli’s

mind and method. In The Prince Machiavelli sets out to describe the ways in which an individual ruler (prince) can most readily retain and strengthen his position as ruler. He does not attempt to ascertain what the good or the best prince will do, nor what is the justification for obedience, nor indeed what are the rights and wrongs of politics. He sets himself a technical problem: given certain conditions, what other conditions will maintain, strengthen, or weaken the original

conditions. But let him say it:

          We now have left to consider what should be the manners and atti-

          tudes of a prince toward his subjects and his friends. As I know that

          many have written on this subject I feel that I may be held presump-

          tuous in what I have to say, if in my comments I do not follow the

          lines laid down by others. Since, however, it has been my intention

          to write something which may be of use to the understanding reader,

          it has seemed wiser to me to follow the real truth of the matter rather

          than what we imagine it to be. For imagination has created many

          principalities and republics that have never been seen or known to have

          any real existence, for how we live is so different from how we ought

          to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is

          done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.

          A man striving in every way to be good will meet his ruin among the

          great number who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince, if

          he wishes to remain in power, to learn how not to be good and to use

          his knowledge or refrain from using it as he may need. . . . Further,

          he should have no concern about incurring the infamy of such vices

          without which the preservation of his state would be difficult. For, if

          the matter be well considered, it will he seen that some habits which

          appear virtuous, if adopted would signify ruin, and others that

          seem vices lead to security and the well-bcing of the prince.

Machiavelli then goes on to test in concrete problems the validity of this general thesis. Should a prince be generous or mean? Should he be thought to be generous or mean? Is cruelty or clemency the wiser course? Machiavelli answers, as a physician or indeed in low ordinary matters anyone of common sense would answer, that it all depends on the other elements in the situation, on the other variables in a human situation too involved to be put into any mathematical equation. But again let us sample Machiavelli:

          Here the question arises; whether it is better to be loved than

          feared or feared than loved. The answer is that it would be desirable

          to be both but, since that is difficult, it is much safer to be feared than

          to be loved, if one must choose. For on men in general this observa-

          tion may be made: they are ungrateful, fickle, and deceitful, eager to

          avoid dangers, and avid for gain, and while you are useful to them

          they are all with you, offering you their blood, their property, their

          lives, and their sons so long as danger is remote, as we noted above,

          but when it approaches they turn on you. Any prince, trusting only in

          their words and having no other preparations made, will fall to his

          ruin, for friendships that are bought at a price and not by greatness and

          nobility of soul are paid for indeed, but they are not owned and can-

          not be called upon in time of need. Men have less hesitation in offend-

          ing a man who is loved than one who is feared, for love is held by a

          bond of obligation which, as men are wicked, is broken whenever per-

          sonal advantage suggests it, but fear is accompanied by the dread of

          punishment which never relaxes.

          Yet a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, if he

          does not thereby merit love, at least he may escape odium, for being

          feared and not hated may well go together. And indeed the prince may

          attain this end if he but respect the property and the women of his sub-

          jects and citizens. And if it should become necessary to seek the death

          ot someone, he should find a proper justification and a public cause, and

          above all he should keep his hands off another’s property, for men for-

          get more readily the death of their father than the loss of their patri-

          money. Besides, pretexts for seizing property are never lacking, and

          when a prince begins to live by means of rapine he will always find some

          excuse for plundering others, and conversely pretexts for execution are

          rarer and are more quickly exhausted.

These passages may seem true o r false, or a mixture of both, to reader of the mid-twentieth century; but they will not seem new. The psychologists have got us used to the notion that men’s bad actions should be studied as well as condemned, or even studied rather than condemned. But all this was very new when Machiavelli committed it to print. Though men in the Middle Ages conducted themselves no better than in Machiavelli’s description of the constants of human nature, the people who wrote books did not do much more than note the existence of such behavior. Chiefly, they preached against it, they were most indignant at its immorality, and, most important of all, they held it to be unnatural behavior for human beings, even though they could hardly help admitting that it existed.

Machiavelli is thcn original, at least in the context of Western Christian culture, in his realistic political analysis. He is in some senses trying to do what the natural scientists were just beginning to do—observe phenomena carefully and arrange these observations into laws (uniformities, generalizations) that would enable successful prediction of the future phenomena in the given context. But he did not succeed in his field as well as the scientists did in theirs. We may here note three ways in which Machiavelli fails to apply the scientific method to the study of politics (it has not yet been wholly successfully applied, and there are those who do not think it can be at all profitably applied, to the study of politics).

First, even in the brief quotations given, you will have noted an excessively low or pessimistic view of human nature. Men in general, he says, are ungrateful, fickle, and deceitful . Scientifically speaking, it is probably impossible to make any real sensible generalization of this sort about human beings; on one view of science, a problem of this sort is meaningless. Most of us do, however, make some sort of judgment, in the balance, about our fellow creatures seen as a whole. But all the way from a trusting love of one’s fellows to a passionate contempt for them there are variant attitudes which, though often wise and useful to individuals who take these attitudes, are most certainly not to be classified as scientific judgments. Machiavelli’s attitude is far out toward extreme cynicism. It was probably inspired partly as a reaction against the pious commonplaces of Christianity, which, if it accepts the doctrine of original sin, is not in fact cynical about human beings, is indeed much concerned with their possible salvation. Machiavelli seems to want to shock, to seem to be a wise and wicked fellow. He may, of course, be an inverted idealist, a man who is cynical just because he wants so much perfection. There are grave psychological problems here, difficult to solve in the study of living men, almost impossible with figures of the past . Machiavelli does indeed seem the balked intellectual; he is clearly taking a position not that of the vulgar, the average, the conventional intellectual of his day.

Second , Machiavelli’s detachment is greatly limited by his warm Italian patriotism. The Prince is not in intent an academic or scientific treatise on the art of governing. It is a treatise on the art of governing in Italy in the Cinquecento; and it is a treatise in which the duty—quite as much as the benefits—of uniting Italy and expelling the foreigner are urged upon the prince. Machiavelli’s last chapter in The Prince is an ardent paean to Italy, and helped redeem Machiavelli’s reputation with later generations who found Italian nationalism a noble cause. We need here no more than note that this too is a distortion in Machiavelli’s effort to see things as they really were. He wants things so different, he wants Italians so different, that he cannot quite attain detachment.

Finally, thirdly, though Machiavelli had had a certain experience of interna- tional relations and of other government business on an appointive or bureaucratic level, he wrote these most famous works of his in something like academic retirement. Just as he leaned over backward in an effort not to write piously about unreal human beings (as say John of Salisbury must have seemed to him to write) so he leaned over backward in his effort to be no academic intellectual but a man of the world . This last is a disastrous pose, a distortion of the worst sort. Machiavelli tries too hard to be worldly; he has shocked quite unscrupulous but conventional people for several centuries. His very reputation for wickedness—or for counseling wickedness—in itself is proof of his failure. Scientific knowledge does not contain the corrosive acids of Machiavelli’s wit.

Yet Machiavelli is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers of the effort to study the behavior of men in society as the scientist studies the behavior of gases or of all insects. This effort may be doomed in advance to failure; in another few centuries the “social science” of today may seem one of the blind alleys men have followed. But at present, committed as we are to their pursuit, we must be grateful to the great Machiavelli. Much of what he said had indeed been said before, much of it in Greek political thought; Aristotle, for example, had observed some of the ways men behaved in political life and had noted them down. There is a whole literature of aphorisms and short essays on human nature, on the quirks and foibles and little and big follies of men. But most of this adds up to common sense or to a sort of equivalent folk-wisdom. It is like the weather-wisdom of the old inhabitant. Science must always attempt to systematize and measure and put into somewhat formidable terms—in the long run most useful—what folk-wisdom puts in hunches. The first meteorologists may be less reliable than the weather-wise old salt. They may seem rather crude and brash and impractical. But in the long run the systematic

science wins out.

Machiavelli is the scientist in his initial and very self-conscious stage. He is going to get at what really lies behind all these fine words men write about politics and ethics. He is not going to be content with a few random reflections on these matters. He will study systematically certain problems, not to find what is right, but just to find what is. He does not wholly succeed in keeping an even temper, in being as detached as he should be. Above all, he fails in general though there are signs that he sees the factor concerned—to realize that men’s ethical ideas and ideals, even though they do not stand in a simple causal relation to men’s deeds, stand in some relation to men deeds. In other words, Machiavelli makes the mistake still repeated by some of our deliberately hard-boiled writers on politics and morals; he writes off men’s professions of good just because they do not wholly live up to them.

Francis Bacon, too, belongs in his own right to the list of those who have attempted to study human behavior as the scientist studies anatomy or physiology. Notably in the first book of his Instauratio Magna he outlines a subject that has much concerned social and political psychologists in our own time—the systematic study of the way in which the human mind is influenced in its workings by nonlogical, nonexperimental factors. Again, men have known since our culture began that the “human understanding I s no dry light,” as Bacon put it. We have long known that the wish is father to the thought, that men entertain prejudices, that our very language is full of ambiguities and double meanings, so that even if the will to be precise and objective is there the way is still hard. But Bacon’s analysis of these difficulties under the name of “idols” is still suggestive, still one of the best svs-

tematic attempts to classify our rationalizations.

He finds four classes of idols which beset men’s minds, the Idols of the Tribe, of the Cave , of the Market-place , and of the Theater. By Idols of the Tribe he means the errors that have their origin in human nature itself, in our sense apparatus and in our minds . The statement “man is the measure of all things” means in fact that even in science our standards tend to vary subjectively. By Idols of the Cave Bacon means something close to the ordinary meaning of prejudice, the errors molded and produced by our own personality, the little cave we have all hollowed for ourselves in this harsh world. By the Idols of the Marketplace he means what we should call the distortions of propaganda and advertising, the mutual excitation men work upon one another in crowds or in almost any kind of social intercourse, the errors of men gathered together . By Idols of the Theater Bacon means the errors men accumulate when they try to work out systematic interpretations of the universe—these are the errors of philosophers and most intellectuals, the errors of system-building in which it is easy to hold that Bacon himself erred. But let him define this last Idol:

          Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds

          from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of

          demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater; because in my judg-

          ment all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing

          worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is

          it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and

          philosophies, that I speak: for many more plays of the same kind may

          yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that

          errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for thc most

          part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but

          also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credu-

          lity, and negligence have come to be received.

It goes without saying that the attempt to apply to the study of human relations methods similar in some respects to those of the natural sciences bore no such fruits as did the application of these methods to the natural sciences . Even today, there is no unanimity about the social sciences—though it is definitely fashionable to contrast them unfavorably with the “real” sciences.

Just as Cartesian rationalism or Baconian empiricism did in fact aim at achieving a cosmology, a certainty about all possible relations in the universe, so most of those who broke with medieval notions of political thought were themselves working up a system of politics that seemed to them somehow outside the imperfections of politics as practiced. ‘We shall see in the next chapter that the political and moral thinking of early modern times had by the eighteenth century turned definitely into rationalist channels. But the result was not so much a science of politics as another political ideology, or rather a group of ideologies. All this is not said in complaint. unless men change their nature radically, political ideologies and metaphysical systems seem essential to human spiritual needs. We are still living in the system of ideas about the Big Questions that was prepared in the early modern centuries and came to fruition in the eighteenth century.



Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries the modern culture of Western society was formed. By the eighteenth century educated men and women, and we may believe many of the uneducated, had come to hold certain beliefs about themselves, about the universe, about what was worth doing on earth, about what could be done on earth, beliefs that their ancestors of the Middle Ages had not held. They lived in a world that seemed to them new, since their ideas about it were new. They were not, of course, totally new; most of Western society was Christian in 1700, as it had been in 1400. It is a central thesis of this book that much of what the men and women of the eighteenth and later centuries believed was incompatible with some very important parts of traditional Christian belief; or less ponderously, that the Enlightenment radically altered Christian belief. Still it is clear that a very great deal of Christianity has remained—and not merely the formal organization of the churches.

Yet one very simple and unambiguous change is there for all to see. In the thirteenth century there was but one organized ecclesiastical body in the West, the Roman Catholic Church; in the eighteenth there were already several hundred sects in the whole of Western society. Even in such countries as France where on the surface the Catholic Church was still supreme, there were several hundred thousand Protestants and an unknown number of deists, atheists, and skeptics, all pretty open about their beliefs or lack of belief, and very few exposed to any serious danger of the medieval punishment of their kind. Voltaire’s pamphlets against the executions of Calas and de Ia Barre by persecuting Catholics must not mislead us; theirs were the rare case, at least in the West. The working unity of Christianity had been broken, and already by 1700 there was a body of writings that defended the notion that religious differences ought to be tolerated, that Church and State are rightfully separable, that the individual should make up his own mind in matters of religious belief. Indeed, the way was clear for such eighteenth-century ideas as the notion that there is some truth in all religions —even in non-Christian religions.

To Americans today such notions are so common that it is difficult to realize how very new they are, how sharply contrasted with what men and women of only a few centuries ago assumed with equal confidence to be true. They are notions that imply a new criterion of truth—metaphysical and theological truth—rather than the abandonment of the search for this sort of truth. In the Middle Ages these truths were held to be revealed, and perfect in their revelation; men might lose sight of them, might even as heirs of Adam’s sin go against them; but no one could be right, no one could know the truth, and he against them. In the light of these medieval notions, the burning of heretics was understandable. They were rotten fruit, and if left alone they might corrupt the sound fruit; moreover, they were damned, and to cut them off from actual living was doing them no real harm—they had done that to themselves already. In short, if you know you are right, anyone who differs from you must be wrong. People should be right, and not wrong. You cannot let wrong notions spread without doing very great harm.

Now although the rationalizations or justifications of religious toleration are only beginning to spread and develop in the early eighteenth century, the main lines of defense are clear. Though they vary in detail, they add up to one of three propositions: that there is a new truth, deeper than that of traditional Christianity, which will if tolerated ultimately supplant or thoroughly modify it; that truth is not revealed perfect and complete to men, but must be discovered progressively by trial and error, by investigation, by human effort; or to the proposition, little held in these early days, that there is no such thing as truth or certainty in such matters, that all truth is “relative,” that neither revelation nor thinking and studying will arrive at absolutes. But all these propositions agree in rejecting at least something in the Christian heritage from the Middle Ages; they all claim to lead to something new and something better.

The change in fundamentals is neatly pointed up at the turn of the seventeenth into the eighteenth century by an apparently insignificant debate among men of letters in France and in England, a debate usually called by its French name la qtterelle des anciens et des modernes—the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. One of the memorials of its English phase is Swift’s amusing Battle of the Books.

Briefly, one side maintained that the Greeks and the Romans had achieved a culture in general and in detail unsurpassahle; they were the giants who staked out the fields of human culture and set examples we can but imitate from afar. Classical culture was to these people a kind of lay or humanist Eden; it was blasphemy to suppose that the like could ever again appear on earth. The other side maintained that, although the achievements of the Greeks and Romans were very great indeed, they were, so to speak, records that modern Europeans had the chance to break; modern culture could he as good, or better, in every field; there was no use in holding the men of old to he inevitably our superiors, for we could benefit by their works, we could stand on their shoulders and reach all the higher. The position of the moderns in this quarrel is one of the first forms of the very important doctrine of progress so familiar to all Americans today, the idea that novelty is neither a delusion nor a falling off, but the natural working out of some kind of universal plan. We do not know how this basic, revolutionary change in out-look came about. We do know that it was a very complex and relatively slow process, in which we can discern three main intellectual constituents.

First came a great series of changes in the practices and ideals of Christianity under the name of Protestantism. The Protestant movement had its full share of human heroism and human weakness, of struggle and accident and strange ends. Its whole narrative history, over which in a book of this sort we have to pass wholly, is a fascinating record. But for the intellectual historian it is probable that the chief importance of Protestantism is as a dissolvent—the strongest at work in these years—of medieval authority. The Protestant movement broke through the formal unity Western Christendom had preserved for a millennium and a half, and set up a dozen major and hundreds of minor groups or sects in the position of claiming full religious authority in their fields. Protestantism, by the fact that it split into sects and subjects, prepared the way for religious skepticism. For to a mind at all inclined to doubt, or addicted to logic, the spectacle of a great number of contradictory and antithetical beliefs—each claiming monopoly of truth—could be taken as evidence that there existed no truth to be monopolized. More positively, Protestantism, especially in its Anglican and Lutheran forms, worked as a buttress to strengthen the patriotic sentiments of members of the new territorial national states. God was still—to put it otherwise would have been to leave Christianity wholly behind—a God of all the human race; but in a sense he played favorites, treated the English or the Prussians or the Danes as his preferred children. In the practice and administration of day-to-day religious life these new national churches had no share in an international and cosmopolitan life of the kind the old medieval church had possessed. Calvinis t Protestantism in particular encouraged among its faithful a paradoxical mixture of other-worldly longing for union with God, a longing that stands out in all Puritan living, and a very this-worldly respect for the man who worked hard and prospered materially. But the first Protestants made no new universe; they believed in original sin, in the inspiration of the Bible, in an authority not, to be sure, invested in the pope of Rome, but still an authority above the trial-and-error processes of ordinary living. The Protestants believed in an immanent God not at all like the laws of mathematics. They believed in hell-fire and, for the elect, in heavenly bliss.

Humanism, the second force making for change, was much more than the application of some vague Protestant or libertarian spirit to the secular life. It had in common with Protestantism a corrosive effect on what was left of medieval standards. It questioned the authority of immediate custom and of established scholastic philosophy. It was an active rebellion of artists and scholars. Some of its artists mastered their media magnificently (with the help of methods worked out by generations who had been trained in medieval methods) and produced very great art. Many of them were adventurous, free-living, romantic, and exciting people who helped set our modern standards of the artist and writer as necessarily unconventional, impractical, selfish, but rather winning. Its virtà was in no clear sense a very Christian ideal, hut rather the ideal of an athletic youth. Humanism, like Calvinism, had its own deep-seated paradox. The humanists rebelled against clerical authority and the weight of tradition; they seem at least in their practice to hold the modern notion that men make their standards, make their truth, and do not merely discover it. Yet as a group they fell into a most pious attitude of respect for the masters of antiquity, whom they set up as authorities quite as absolute as any the Middle Ages worshiped . They had little awareness of the coming spread of ideas and aspirations to the masses; they were a privileged group of educated men, rather inclined to aristocratic and monarchical ideals, in no sense democrats. They did not think the world could be a very much better place, except perhaps for themselves.

Rationalism, the third force, was also an agent of destruction, less obvious and less powerful in the early years of the modern age than Protestantism or humanism, in the long run more important and more powerful. The rationalist threw overboard far more of traditional Catholic Christianity than did the Protestant or the humanist. He not merely banished the supernatural from his universe; he was prepared to place man himself wholly within the framework of nature or the “material universe.” He thought indeed that man had to guide himself by standards of right and wrong. The rationalists of the earlier centuries of our modern era thought these standards were fixed and certain, and that men found rather than made them. But where the medieval Christian found these standards in custom, in authority, in what had been so time out of mind, the rationalist sought to find them beneath appearances, custom, and apparent diversities, and to find them by a patient investigation in which the rational mind found the mathematical reality behind the vulgarly varied and colored appearance. Rationalism has none of the obvious paradoxes of Protestantism and humanism—unless, indeed, you are so far a real skeptic as to hold that it is a paradox to try to think any kind of orderly system into human experience of this world. Rationalism even in these years owed much of its slowly growing prestige to the achievements of natural science. Finally, when with Newton science succeeded in attaining to a marvelously complete scheme of the universe, one that could be tested mathematically and that worked in the sense that it enabled successful prediction, the stage was set for the new rationalist world-view, for a cosmology as different from that of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas as theirs was from that of a Greek of the fifth-century B.C.


IDEAS and MEN - -by: Crane Brinton


Copyright @ June, 1950. (Pgs. 351-368)

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