The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion
By Marcel Gauchet. Tranlated by Oscar Burge, with an introduction by Charles Taylor
Princeton University Press. 228 pp. $29.95
Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World is breathtaking in its ambition, offering nothing short of a new theory of the birth of modernity out of the spirit of Christianity. Ranging across religious history, anthropology, political philosophy, sociology, and economics, the author, editor of the prestigious intellectual journal Le Débat, challenges the narrowness of much recent philosophy and places religion at the center of the human condition, where it rightfully belongs.
When the book first appeared in France a little over a decade ago, it set off a fierce debate over the nature of democratic modernity and firmly established Gauchet’s reputation as one of the preeminent political thinkers of his generation. We should welcome its translation in Princeton University Press’ New French Thought series. Yet as dazzling as Gauchet’s book can be-I would compare it in scope and importance to Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Pierre Manent’s The City of Man, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self-the author’s understanding of modernity, his view of Christianity, and even his grasp of the problems besetting our troubled Western societies raise more questions than they answer.
Gauchet’s argument, not easy to follow through the dense thicket of his prose, is that at the foundation of society, Western political and economic institutions, and our self-understanding lies religion. Religion, on Gauchet’s view, forms a “counter-subjectivity,” an “other” that always exists in relation to human subjectivity. What he means is that religion and freedom-the latter understood by Gauchet as man’s power to innovate, to free himself from the weight of history, and give himself, à la Rousseau, his own moral law-oppose one another. Political history tells the long story of religion’s withdrawal and the coming into existence of a “disenchanted” world where man, exercising his liberty, is the measure of all things.
The most fully realized forms of religion, Gauchet holds, are not the richly developed monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, but the “primeval” religions that existed prior to the five millennia of Western history. In these pre-political societies, lost in the mists of time, man experienced radical dispossession: the past determined the laws regulating every aspect of life. More, the sacred founding of the world was beyond human control, or even human questioning. While ritual could reenact the founding, reminding everyone of its inescapability, no one could assume its authority. All were equal before it. But though man had no access to the foundation of the human world, he nevertheless lived in a state of “enchantment,” where no clear line divided the mundane from the realm where occult forces were at play. In these ancient, magical, egalitarian societies, the gods rumbled through nature, present alongside man in an all-encompassing order. For countless ages, the rhythm of life beat slowly, as if the entire universe slumbered.
“The deepest enigma of human history” is at work in these time-lost societies, Gauchet believes, for man’s freedom means that he is capable of transcending his circumstances, and of altering the earth, his social relations, even his most profound beliefs, according to his will. Strange, then, that primeval religion froze this power into place for tens of thousands of years; perhaps it answered some deep need of human nature. Only with the emergence of the state in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, 3,000 years before the birth of Christ-relatively recently when we consider the span of human history-was the rhythm broken, and did we find ourselves “plunged . . . into another religious world, one capable of existing without religion-our own.”
What did the state introduce? Structurally, it opened space for human action, since power, after all, exists for man to use. And use it he soon did-to conquer his fellow men. Politics entered the world, disrupting the equality that held under primeval religion; rulers arose who, justifying their elevation from run-of-the-mill mortals, linked themselves to the gods. As politics and religion became entwined, the sacred law was no longer completely beyond human reach. Gauchet describes the major world religions, including prophetic Judaism, as growing out of this initial existential fracture.
The world religions of the “Axial Age” (the term is the German philosopher Karl Jasper’s) brought with them a three-fold “dynamics of transcendence.” First, the sacred, previously dispersed throughout nature, drew together as an omnipotent God, acting in the world but increasingly transcendent from it. Second, God’s transcendence led man to abandon magical explanations for the phenomena that surrounded him. Third, the idea of human universality spread with the extension of political empire-the new God was to be God of all men. The dynamics of transcendence result in a fascinating paradox, Gauchet suggests: the more powerful God becomes, the “more man is free.” With monotheism, man began to reason for himself, to question the divine law, to embrace his freedom. The historical process of disenchantment had been unleashed.
Christianity forges a profoundly different relationship between the human and the divine, forming, in Gauchet’s striking phrase, the “religion for departing from religion.” At the end of the Christian era, Gauchet writes, we find ourselves at the heart of modernity, entering a post-religious age of human autonomy, democracy, science, and capitalism, with the effective truth of Christianity revealed as secularism. How does Christianity bring about the disenchantment of the world? Typically, whether we trace the onset of modernity to Machiavelli (as does Leo Strauss) or to Descartes (as does the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce), it is seen, at least in its main path, as a divorce from Christianity. Was not the Catholic Church, in the eyes of the great Enlightenment thinkers, the sworn enemy of reason, human freedom, and the entire panoply of positive goods we too readily associate with the modern world, and with the modern world alone?
But for Gauchet modernity grew within Christianity, the result of the latter’s inner logic working itself out historically. Christianity and modernity, far from opposing one another, are historically inseparable-indeed, viewed from Gauchet’s elevated perch, they are one and the same phenomenon. Voltaire’s Ecrasez l’infame becomes, in Gauchet’s story, the cry of a confused Christian.
Though related claims have been made by Feuerbach in the nineteenth century, and more recently, by figures as diverse as Karl Löwith and Harvey Cox, Gauchet’s analysis is original in its reliance on political anthropology and sociology, where his predecessors wrote in a more philosophical or theological idiom. Moreover, and Gauchet emphasizes this point repeatedly, the disenchantment of the world is not progress, as it would be in Feuerbach, say, but merely a movement toward one pole of the human world, that of human autonomy-no more rational as a solution to the problem of being in the world than the pole of dispossession it leaves behind.
I can offer here only the most cursory summary of those elements within Christianity that lead, in Gauchet’s telling, to its undoing. Christ’s incarnation-that God was willing to sacrifice his only Son for this world of dust and ashes-gave greater dignity to this world than it had ever received from any other source (a point made, in a very different register, by Michael Novak). Christ’s appearance in history meant that no political leader could presume to incarnate the divine, creating the conceptual space needed for political liberty. The Son of Man, a simple carpenter, occupied the bottom of the social hierarchy, not its pinnacle, sowing the seed of human equality that transfigures our societies still. The Christian emphasis on conscience destabilized faith by opening everything to social and individual questioning, making way for philosophical liberalism. The complete transcendence of the Christian God forced men to take responsibility for themselves where God’s voice seemed silent, leading to a world of “terrestrial integrity” from which all magic finally fled-the seed of modern science. And so on. Christianity grows a forest of fully autonomous men, men with no need for God. Eventually, Gauchet argues, these Christian ideas, outgrowing their religious “superstructure” (Gauchet uses the Marxist concept of base and superstructure but inverts its meaning), burst it asunder, creating democratic, individualist, and all-too-human societies.
Gauchet traces this history through the ancien régime, the political and religious conflicts surrounding the rise of the Absolutist State, and the revolutionary upheavals of the democratic era. While here his narrative is too abstractly theoretical when it cries out for detail, Gauchet has elsewhere provided more finely grained studies, yet untranslated, exploring the birth of the asylum, the antinomies of political representation in the French Revolution, and the emergence of modern psychiatry in order to put flesh on his theoretical skeleton.
The book’s final section, “Figures of the Human Subject,” depicts post-religious modern man. Some may still believe in God, and even be profoundly religious, Gauchet muses, but this is increasingly a privatized faith, as each seeks out what religion can do for him-hence the abundance of New Age spiritualities. According to Gauchet’s definition, a religious believer in a democratic society like the United States, who can choose what to believe from among traditional and nontraditional beliefs, already inhabits a post-religious landscape. The relationship to the past that constituted the core of primitive religion finds itself reversed in the modern world; deaf to the call of his predecessors, man now organizes his political, cultural, and economic institutions solely with the future in view. The law of the human world is no longer repetition, but creation, hence the vertiginous agitation of our immensely productive capitalist societies, making today what is obsolete tomorrow.
But the Enlightenment project of human autonomy proves illusory, Gauchet admits. Instead of obeying the other outside of us, as in the era of religion, we rediscover it within, in the unconscious, rendering our own identity opaque. Instead of our desires, wants, and principled beliefs finding perfect representation in the democratic general will, what we discover in our political and economic life is something outside of and distinct from what we sought. Conflict characterizes our democratic politics, and must characterize them lest we succumb to the totalitarian temptation. Our societies explode with individualist demands that only the state answers, so (pace libertarians) the more we loosen our morals, the more the state expands. Following the great French liberal Benjamin Constant, Gauchet sees modern man as torn, perpetually dissatisfied, and ironic, and he argues that wisdom lies in recognizing that no perfect solution to the human problem exists. Gauchet’s reading of our modern souls often cuts close to the bone. Autonomy is not what the defenders of the Enlightenment hoped it would be.
Gauchet’s “political history of religion” thus culminates in a disenchanted liberalism, aware of its failings but convinced that no other viable prospect exists for moderns. We can find much to admire in Gauchet’s book. An atheist, he is surprisingly aware that the Western experience cannot be understood without taking Christianity seriously, and he treats it with more respect than do many progressive Christians today. A democrat, he understands that democracy owes much to Christianity, though I don’t think he gets the complex story of their tension-filled historical relations exactly right. A modern liberal, he feels the emptiness of modern liberalism far more acutely than, say, John Rawls or Richard Rorty. With all of this, one can have sympathy. But finally his ambition fails.
It fails, I think, for two reasons, one historical, the other a problem of human agency and the Christian possibility, though the first reason relates to the second. Gauchet’s interpretation of modernity doesn’t do justice either to the founders of modernity or to those Christians who resisted it. By describing the modern world as the inexorable working out of certain ideas, reflected in Christian institutions and beliefs but not fully conscious to moderns or Christians, Gauchet undersells the radical project of modernity. We see this project in Machiavelli’s brazen contempt for Christianity in the Discourses on Livy and Hobbes’ effort to construct an artificial political authority based on the individual, free from the demands of nature or grace, in Leviathan. These men, and others who followed them, were not simply dancing to the orders of a structural conductor, a sort of Christian social subconscious existing offstage; they were keenly aware of what they were doing. The modern world was at least in part thought before it became a reality. Gauchet’s anthropological reading of Western history, in other words, refuses to take human agency seriously, a fact manifest in the absence in this book of direct engagement with any of the Western tradition’s great thinkers. Gauchet seems to stand outside history, outside the world.
Given this refusal, Gauchet, for all the reflection he devotes to Christianity, never considers that Christianity might be true, and that Christians might believe rationally because Jesus Christ revealed the meaning of human history two millennia ago. As Charles Taylor notes in his critical, though admiring, introduction, Gauchet’s anthropological reading of religion thus risks reading like “Hamlet without the Prince.” The Christian emphasis on conscience, for example, certainly appears in a very different light if Christ indeed brought the truth: the truth calls to man’s freedom, but without truth, his freedom is incomplete. In fact, it is no freedom at all.
As a result, Gauchet’s interpretation of democratic modernity, despite its philosophical boldness, neglects another possibility: that there might be an answer to our current discontents on the far side of modernity, and one that involves not post-religious man but a post-secular world. A post-secular world would not be a return to some enchanted, primordial dispossession, but it may well be a world after liberalism.
Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal and the author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political (Rowman & Littlefield).