Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. By Louis Dupre.
Yale University Press. 320 pp. $32.50
Professor Dupre has written a challenging and stimulating book, a work that is serious in the best sense of the word both because of what he investigates and the commendable fervor he brings to his investigation. (I have never read a book dealing with intellectual history that features so many exclamation points.) He does not always make a compelling case, nor is what he’s “getting at” always perfectly clear, but he deserves gratitude for the steady provocation to think that he offers his readers.
Dupre sets for himself the ambitious task of understanding the origins, nature, and direction of modernity. To start at the “wrong end,” he shows that modernity is in many ways alive and well today notwithstanding the severe and hostile criticisms of it by the cluster of movements called postmodernism. I find this part of Dupre’s argument completely convincing, if only because the impact on human life of science and technology has not declined noticeably because of the efforts of Derrida, Foucault, and company, or even of Nietzsche and Heidegger, thinkers of incomparably greater stature. Nietzsche, in decisive ways the first and greatest of postmodernists, understood perfectly well that history, especially the history of thought, is a seamless web, which in part explains why he never ceased to wrestle with what he called “the problem of Socrates.” Those who teach the history of philosophy will find ample ammunition from Dupre to help them show their students and others that the twentieth century did not in a deep way supersede what had gone before, that the problems articulated by Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and perhaps Freud are the same problems we confront as our century lurches to a close.
Dupre also suggests that our understanding of the beginnings of modernity needs correction. For a long time it has been customary to fix the origins at around 1500. In so doing one can refer to the Protestant Reformation, to the discovery of America, to incipient developments in the natural sciences. That the date is far from arbitrary even if one concentrates more strictly on philosophy can be shown by a simple reference to Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived from 1469 to 1527 and who was credited for his originality by no less a philosophical authority than Spinoza.
Dupre mentions Machiavelli, of course, but seems to pay more at-tention to earlier and lesser-known figures like William of Ockham (1290- 1349/50) and even Bonaventure (1221-74). He has written what almost amounts to an alternative history of Western thought, providing as he does intriguing information about figures one feels one should know but really doesn’t: Cusanus, Ficino, Jansenius, and many more.
In this part of the book too, the author is more often than not persuasive. His erudition is invariably impressive, especially because he is never guilty of merely showing off, and also because he is at home in various bodies of knowledge, including art and alchemy. Yet one is sometimes puzzled by the story Dupre tells, because one is not entirely clear as to its purpose. The historian of ideas deals with issues over which men’s blood has been shed-but who would want to die over the question of the periodization of history? Is he reclaiming late medieval thought because it has been unjustly neglected and we can still learn from it? Is he undermining the self-proclaimed radicalism of late modernity and attacking our hubris by proving that much that is considered modern has been around for a long, long time? Is he showing that Christianity, or certain strands of it, which is usually thought of as being buffeted or even destroyed by the various credos of modernity, is itself modern in decisive respects so that Jonathan Swift had good reason for casting St. Thomas as a modern in The Battle of the Books ? One suspects that one or more of these considerations might weigh heavily with Dupre, but one is not always certain what he’s “getting at,” especially because one is almost always confident that he is far from being a victim of mere antiquarianism.
The author’s main concern, however, is neither with the end nor the beginning of modernity, but with its essence or nature. It is an endeavor that needs no more justification than any exercise in self- understanding, and an endeavor he executes with admirable acumen. And it is on the success of this endeavor that he deserves to be judged.
Dupre understands modernity in terms of the breakdown of what he calls, rather too forbiddingly, the breakdown of an “ontological synthesis” and the constant attempt to cope with the resulting fragmentation. At the risk of doing some injustice to the author’s sense of “nuance and scruple” one can say that to premodern humanity the world seemed a much more orderly and benign place. A providential God presided over a teleological nature. In such a world man occupied a central, though not necessarily the highest, place. His soul was at least potentially attuned to the inferior body it ruled and the superior forces that ruled it in turn. Order and excellence were somehow sustained in a universe that was a cosmos rather than a chaos.
Dupre skillfully traces the unraveling of the synthesis he describes, emphasizing the fateful development of religious thought ushered in by a nominalism that distanced, if it did not altogether remove, God from His creation. Nominalist thought can be said to have fallen on the fertile ground of Italian humanism. In the latter’s extoling of human creativity it might be taken as yet another chapter of the human excess with which the Bible familiarizes us in the story of the Tower of Babel. In this connection, one does well to remember that in the Bible the verb “to create” is reserved for the activity of God. Human beings are makers and not creators, just as they are described as singers rather than poets.
Human beings thus oriented cannot rest comfortably with the idea of an organic, purposive nature that assigns them a dignified but limited place. A world of limits comes to be considered an affront to humanity. The task then is for human beings to turn themselves into the “lords and masters” of nature. Bacon writes of the conquest of nature “for the relief of man’s estate.” Thomas Hobbes, whose radicalism Dupre fully appreciates, in his most celebrated sentence writes of life in the state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Nature ceases to be understood as either divine or demonic; rather it is an object, providing what Locke calls “the almost worthless material” for human progress. All this looks forward to the dreams (or delusions) of both Hegel and Marx of a total humanization of nature.
In a world characterized by the absence of transcendent natural standards, a world in which God is so silent that belief begins to wither, the human yearning for meaning becomes ever more difficult to satisfy. Instead of a soul that discovers meaning, human beings are gradually understood to possess a self with the task of creating meaning. “Self, self, self,” old Chuzzlewit mutters in Dickens’ novel. He is thinking of garden-variety selfishness, but a hundred years later he might have bemoaned the emphasis on modern self- esteem rather than traditional virtue.
So modernity accelerates. It celebrates many triumphs in speech and deed, but by most accounts it heads into a spiritual desert that is labelled “the death of God” by Nietzsche. (Dupre’s more restrained language makes repeated use of the term “fragmentation.”) Humanity seems to have lost its moorings and bearings; many things can be said of modern man, but not that he is either happy or good.
Modernity’s self-awareness of its fractured state not only serves to heighten its pain, but leads to various and repeated attempts to replace fragmentation with a new synthesis. The author is sympathetic to these endeavors but quite rightly judges them to be, however valiant, unsuccessful.
Dupre, in this respect, deals sensitively with the Renaissance, the early humanists, the Reformation, the Jansenists, but most admiringly with the Baroque. Their partial successes and their ultimate failures do not deter him from looking and hoping for a new synthesis, though near the end of his narrative he does write of “the definitive withdrawal of the transcendent dimension from Western culture.” One wishes he had told us more of what he means by “culture,” obviously a concept central to his concern. Does he mean a kind of atmosphere that absolutely prohibits the thinking of some things or is it merely an impediment to most of the people most of the time? It is probably true that during an age of belief, almost everybody believes, but it is equally true that as long ago as biblical times it could be, and was, said that “the fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.’”
Dupre’s idea of an efficacious synthesis is one that is in essential respects a religious one. In his commendable faith, or at least faith in faith, he may have underestimated the tenacity of atheism throughout human history. It is true, of course, as Edmund Burke saw, that with the French Revolution atheists became more enterprising, bold, and public, but they were always around, and especially among the classes generating ideas. After all, the Athenians were not entirely wrong in suspecting Socrates’ professions of piety.
Some historians of ideas have doubtlessly erred in finding atheists lurking everywhere; Dupre can fairly be charged with the opposite tendency of spotting believers wherever he looks. Thus, he finds that Francis Bacon’s attitude was “religiously inspired” and that the epilogue of Montaigne’s “Apology” should “not be read as an expression of religious skepticism.” He tries to rescue Erasmus’ piety from the historical tarnishing of his reputation in this respect, he thinks of Rabelais as a believer, and he puts credence in a recent study that refers to Machiavelli’s regular church attendance (as though that would prove very much). It may be safer to trust Pascal, who had no qualms about calling both Montaigne and Descartes atheists.
I have one more nit to pick. Dupre may underestimate the fragility of the synthesis whose breakup he chronicles. He understands very well that every synthesis contains tensions and he appreciates the extent to which those tensions can invigorate the lives of human beings who experience them. At times, however, one must wonder whether such antitheses as faith and reason or Athens and Jerusalem can really be synthesized. Very often what looks at first sight like a synthesis turns out to conceal the dominance of one or another element.
These are minor cavils. The author’s analysis, as well as the spirit in which he executes it, deserves applause. Critical of modernity, Dupre nevertheless sees the futility as well as danger of any attempted reactionary retreat from it. Nor does he think “the modern program” is obsolete, preferring to think of it as “unfinished.” And he writes in the manner of a man who prefers discussion to argument, a rare and welcome phenomenon.
Werner J. Dannhauser is Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University.