Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization, by Samuel Gregg

Over the years, I have engaged with many Christians who despair at the situation in the West today. The ugliness of modern culture, the decline in the numbers of Christians, especially those who are part of the Church, and the erosion of traditional values that arise from it are a legitimate cause of concern - I am certainly not happy about much of what we see in the contemporary culture either - but we do not always agree on how we might change the situation.

A large proportion of these generally conservative, orthodox and pious Christians (and I use these adjectives positively) consider the leading cause of our troubles today to be the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which set in motion all the errors we see in the philosophical conglomerate that governs the pattern of modern living.

It is to these conservative critics of the Enlightenment that Gregg speaks, and he offers an alternative to the conventional narrative of those Catholics who are unreasonably critical of the Enlightenment on the one hand, and have a misplaced romantic nostalgia of the medieval period in the West on the other.

If one were to characterize simply the conservative critique of the Enlightenment which I have in mind, it relates to a false understanding of three fundamental concepts that, they believe, arose in this period, namely, the human person, personal freedom, and the nature of the society that emerges when free people interact. Identifying the American constitution and free-market capitalism as arising from political and economic thought rooted in these errors, and which are therefore part of the problem, they can be almost as critical of the right as they are of the socialism and big government.

In this small volume, Samuel Gregg has written a sober analysis of the streams of thought that have arisen in the last 400 years, and placed them in the context of all Christian thought. Without ever ignoring what has gone wrong in the recent period, Gregg paints a different picture. Written in his characteristically clear and engaging prose, it is concise, but immensely rich in its content. His is a thesis that looks at the historical evidence, at the words of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment writers themselves, and the assessment of them by respected modern commentators, such as Pope Benedict XVI.

It is clear from this that it is as wrong to blame the Enlightenment for all that has gone wrong in the world today, as it is wrong to paint a picture of our medieval past as the only source of what is right. Even critics of the Enlightenment would concede that there is some good, at least, in the development of modern science and modern medicine, and the increased material prosperity that began in the “Age of Reason.” However, fewer of those who occupy the conservative Christian world would say, with Gregg, that Enlightenment thought has enriched orthodox Catholic teaching, and has brought great cultural as well as material benefits that society enjoys today.

Gregg’s thesis is that the philosophical roots of modernity are in the medieval period, and that it is not helpful to consider the period that we call the Enlightenment today to be distinct from this. Instead, it is better looked upon as a development of ideas, some good and some very bad, that for the most part originated in the pre-Enlightenment period.

For Gregg, the source of all that is good in the West is a unique synthesis of faith and reason which arises directly from the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is where faith and reason work together that human freedom, just society, and prosperity occur. As he points out, many modern commentators ignore the fact that most of the Enlightenment thinkers, even if not explicitly Christian, worked within the philosophical and theological paradigm that arose from it. Adam Smith, for example, and many of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as Edmund Burke and the framers of the US constitution, come into this category. While their language is not necessarily that used by someone who has a Catholic scholastic formation, the underlying concepts are often consistent with it.

Building on this, Gregg makes a case for the market economy and the American constitution as absolutely consistent with the Catholic social teaching and the writings of Benedict XVI. These contributors to the modern age might talk of the individual, but they clearly do not understand those individuals as isolated, autonomous beings, but as persons who are by nature in relation with each other and the world around them. Similarly, their concept of human freedom is not limited to the simple idea of a lack of constraint or compulsion, but includes the additional and necessary component of a firm grasp of how to exercise it well. Moreover, they understand that society is not defined simply by the vector sum of individual actions, but also incorporates the effects of a complex network of personal relationships and interactions.

Make no mistake: there were, and still are, problems. Gregg does not gloss over any of these, or hesitate to analyze the catastrophic effect on the world of the thought of figures such as Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche. He also explains the reasons why so much Islamic thought is incompatible with Western society. Anyone who wants to understand why we see growing intolerance and sometimes violent and bloody opposition to freedom today from the left and radical Islam should read this book for this reason alone.

Overall, this book offers cause for hope, and a way forward that does not involve a retreat from modernity. It is unlikely to be an easy road, but at least there is one. If you are pessimistic about the direction of Western Civilization today, then perhaps you might take a look at this book too.

Samuel Gregg is Director of Research of the Acton Institute. You can buy his book here.

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