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The Road to Modernity


Western Civilization is chiefly the product of a dynamic mixture of two elementsthe Judaeo-Christian religious tradition and the tradition of rational investigation and artistic creativity coming down from the Greeks.


WESTERN CIVILIZATION is chiefly the product of a dynamic mixture of two elements the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition and the tradition of rational investigation and artistic creativity coming down from the Greeks. Most developments of the past 2500 years can be seen as offshoots of one or the other.

The two are, obviously, not mutually exclusive. Although the Jews, out of principle, did not produce religious art, they did build a splendid temple, and the Old Testament contains writing that is recognized as artistically powerful even by nonbelievers.

But the Hebrews were not very interested in art as such and probably did not care whether the Scripture was artistically powerful. Their intellectual inquiry was in the Scripture itself. They had little that could be called philosophy or science, and, unlike the Babylonians and the Egyptians, did not deeply pursue the study of mathematics.

The Greeks believed in the supernatural. If anything, their problem was too many gods. Their polytheism, in conjunction with a strong sense that an inexorable fate ruled the universe, produced a rather weak concept of divinity. Greek mythology presented a picture of the gods which was not very edifying (they often acted churlishly and even immorally) and ultimately not very convincing.

The Old Testament is the story of a people who lived continually in the presence of an all-powerful, all-wise, all-just, all-loving God. There are certain humanist themes in the Jewish Scriptures (What is man that Thou art mindful of him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels and hast clothed him with glory and honor [Ps 8:4-5]), but on the whole the Israelites were exhorted to depend utterly on God. When they relied on themselves they went astray. Among the Greeks, by contrast, the religious sense got weaker and weaker. Of necessity, unable ultimately to rely on their gods, the Greeks pursued wisdom through their own resources. They virtually invented philosophy and science and perfected mathematics, medicine, drama, poetry, sculpture, architecture, and the study of history.

The Greeks were preeminently a humanistic people in that they took immense pride in humanity and its achievements. They enjoyed the interplay of philosophical dialogue, pondered the conundrums of human existence as portrayed on the stage, delved into the secrets of nature, and celebrated all glories of humanity. (The famous Greek nude statues were intended to display the perfection both of the human form as well as the artist's skill.)

Few Greeks ever got to the point of denying the existence of the supernatural completely. Indeed the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle tried to deepen religious understanding and make it commensurate with their growing intellectual sophistication. However, Plato's god an infinite being called the One was not identifiable with any traditional Greek deity, and Aristotle's Prime Mover was even less so. However satisfying these concepts may have been philosophically, their acceptance did away with Greek religion on the practical level. Plato and Aristotle were secularists in that they did not recognize a distinctively religious dimension to existence. Whatever religious obligations there might be were discharged simply by living in accord with philosophical truths, that is, by living in an enlightened, secular way.

Greek humanism, a trust in human capability and a celebration of human achievement, was a unique and powerful contribution to Western civilization. Few, if any, other cultures of the world developed quite the same perspective. To this day, for example, some of the great Eastern civilizations, notably India's, officially espouse a view of reality in which human existence counts for very little in the great expanse of eternity and man's life is ruled by inexorable forces over which he has no control.

Until nearly the time of Christ, the culture of the Hebrews and the culture of the Greeks had almost no contact with one other. It would have been reasonable to assume that they were basically incompatible, two widely divergent and ultimately contradictory approaches to life. They were, however, integrated by an entirely new movement Christianity.

At first, the early Christians were wholly children of the Hebrew tradition. There was even debate in the early church over whether gentile converts had to be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary laws. Before long, however, it became apparent not only that Christianity had to evangelize the gentiles (Go forth and make disciples of all nations [Mt 28:19]), but that non-Jews would be a more fertile ground for conversion than the Hebrews themselves.

The earliest Christian attempts to reach out to the Greek world (Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire) were probably motivated by the desire to make the gospel intelligible to the gentile mind. Thus already in John's Gospel the Son of God is called the Word, the Greek philosophical concept Logos. Before the end of the second century, Christianity had begun to produce teachers, like Justin the Martyr, who were at home in Greek philosophy.

However, one of the greatest of the early theologians, Tertullian, asked the famous rhetorical question, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The implied answer was Nothing. Tertullian urged the position, revived periodically, that since Christian revelation contains all truth necessary to salvation, there is no need to dabble in pagan wisdom.

But Tertullian eventually left the church to join a rather obscure heretical sect. In time his position became a minority one. There have been, in every age, a majority of simple, believing Christians who have looked to divine revelation for authoritative guidance and have felt no need to pursue philosophical inquiries. The tradition of the scholarly believer, the man of faith who is also steeped in secular learning, became established quite early, though, and has persisted in most denominations until the present day. The greatest intellect of the period around 400 A.D. was Augustine of Hippo. He was equally learned in Christian doctrine and the writings of the pagan sages and was able to use the latter to deepen understanding of the former.

More was involved than rational inquiry alone, however. As it became clear that the second coming of Christ was not imminent and as Christians ceased to be persecuted but were given official recognition by the Roman Empire, they had to consider how to live in the world. Gradually they decided to take upon themselves worldly responsibilities as civil magistrates, merchants, lords of the land, craftsmen, teachers, etc. While never losing sight of their heavenly goal, they were not to neglect the earth. They were to strive to realize the teachings of Christ as far as possible in their daily lives. Hence the paradox of monasteries, supposedly peopled by men who had fled the world, being the centers of civilization during the Dark Ages. These were the places where secular as well as religious learning was taught and techniques of improved agriculture were developed.

Although the term was not often used, this amounted to a Christian humanism, the best of the Greek world (filtered through the Romans) placed in the service of religious faith. Augustine held that men were simultaneously citizens of two cities, that of God and that of man.

In the later centuries, Rome had become more overtly secular, more skeptical, and sometimes more mocking of religion than the Greeks had been. Although probably a majority of the inhabitants of the Empire continued to believe in the supernatural (new cults from the East were popular even in Rome), the first through the fifth centuries A.D. were a time of considerable cynicism, confusion, anxiety, and agnosticism. Christianity was responsible for a major spiritual rebirth, and virtually the entire Western world became monotheistic, mostly Christian, with a small minority of Jews and eventually Moslems. For over a thousand years after A.D. 500 there was almost no atheism or serious religious skepticism in the West.

This is not to say that all problems ceased. It proved easier in theory than in practice to state the proper relationship between the things of God and the things of the world in politics, in economics, in family matters, etc. There are no finally definitive answers in any of those areas. Christians in each period of history have had to wrestle with living in the world without being of it.

The Catholic Church, which was virtually synonomous with Western Christianity until after 1500, had little trouble adapting all kinds of pagan creations to the uses of the faith buildings, literary forms, legal and political structures, even much of the calendar (the celebration of the birth of Christ coincides with the traditional celebration of the Winter solstice, for example). But, intellectually there were serious problems. After 1100, the philosophy of Aristotle was gradually rediscovered, after having been lost to Europe during the Dark Ages. Aristotle seemed to present a fully developed, self-contained, invulnerable system which rationally explained the whole universe. There seemed to be no need for faith.

In the twelfth century, the enigmatic monk-philosopher Peter Abelard seemed to make logic into an absolute, so that whatever could not be proved or explained logically was deemed false. A few at least nominally Christian philosophers were willing to swallow Aristotle whole, either implicitly denying faith or sealing it in a watertight compartment.

However, the theologian Thomas Aquinas attempted a synthesis of Aristotle and Christian revelation. This synthesis was widely accepted in his own day and influential even to the present. Whatever might be thought of particular aspects of it, the attempt itself can be regarded as perhaps the most comprehensive effort ever made to forge a Christian humanism. Aquinas taught that, since God created the universe, what the universe reveals to human inquiry must be in harmony with divine revelation. Furthermore, since the human mind is made in the image of God, it is a reliable guide to truth. The ultimate truths of God are above human understanding, but there can be no real conflict between reason and revelation. A Christian can simultaneously be a man of faith and develop his human powers to the fullest. Ultimately the two will harmonize with and complement one another.

Aquinas' synthesis did not satisfy everyone. It began to come apart in the fourteenth century, mainly under the criticisms of philosophers like William of Ockham, who thought Aquinas had conceded too much to reason. In their view the human intellect is at best a rather feeble lantern. Most of them regarded the truths of faith as far more reliable than anything man can discover on his own. Ostensibly, therefore, these philosophers (generally grouped under the category of Nominalists) were protecting faith. Unwittingly they revealed a dilemma which has always confronted Christian humanists. If the believer denigrates human achievement and human wisdom, he runs the risk of making faith seem irrelevant to life. Human powers are then allowed to develop independently of religion and will finally be in opposition to it. But, if the possibilities of human nature are accepted too easily, the radical nature of faith is in danger of being overlooked and the believer can slip into an easy worldliness. In a sense, and largely unintentionally, the Nominalists issued a declaration of the independence of philosophy from faith. Although the full implications of this would take several centuries to become apparent, they prepared the way for a purely secular intellectual life.

If Nominalism represented a denial of Christian humanism, in the same centuries (roughly 1350-1550) a new kind of humanism was emerging, intimately connected with the phase of Western cultural history called the Renaissance. Renaissance Humanism has often been misunderstood. Countless textbooks describe it as marking a turning away from the God-centered universe of the Middle Ages toward a man-centered universe. Supposedly, people in the previous thousand years had lived for eternity but now began living for this world. Thus, so the popular argument runs, the Renaissance marked the beginning of modern secularism.

The historical reality was a great deal more complex. For one thing, there were practically no atheists in the Renaissance and hardly any people who were even skeptical of religion. The great majority of known Renaissance Humanists were believing Christians, mainly Catholics. Some of them were extremely devout. For example, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in some ways a very worldly individual and author of a famous manifesto of Humanism, Oration on the Dignity of Man, seriously considered becoming a monk just prior to his untimely death. Authors like Francesco Petrarch made strenuous efforts to synthesize their Christianity and their Humanism. Even Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote the racy and quite profane Decameron, retracted those of his writings which had been a source of scandal.

Already during the Renaissance confusion over the meaning of the word humanist had set in. The only wholly satisfactory way of defining a Renaissance Humanist is in the narrowest sense of the word. He was somebody with a professional interest in the humanities poetry, oratory, history, painting, sculpture, architecture, music as distinct from philosophy, which Humanists regarded as too abstract and scientific to do justice to the complexities of human existence. They did not exclude theology from their interests. Instead they sought to develop a theology independent of Aristotelian philosophy.

But there were barely submerged snags in the Humanist program. Their love of literature and the arts carried them back to the Greeks and the Romans, whose achievements in those areas seemed more impressive and profound than anything that had been produced since. There was a strange contradiction here. The Humanists were professed and believing Christians who were forced into the position of saying that civilization, from a human standpoint, had started going downhill at the time of the triumph of Christianity.

They admired the architecture of Greek temples extravagantly, and applied the term Gothic to medieval Christian cathedrals to express their belief that such structures were primitive and barbaric. Some Humanists confessed that they found the Greek of the New Testament inferior to that of Homer, the Latin of Augustine less delightful than that of Cicero. Nor was it style alone that drew them back to the pagan past. They also found in Cicero a noble, balanced, ripely wise view of ethics. Some of them found it easier to identify with the teachings of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius than with the monk Thomas a' Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ eschewed classical values both in style and content. For perhaps the majority of Humanists, especially in Italy where the Renaissance reached its fullest flowering, a sincere, conscious, explicit Christian faith was never successfully reconciled with an admiration for the ancient pagans. In a sense, they were Christians intellectually, pagans emotionally and imaginatively.

Today the Renaissance is celebrated more for its art than its thought. There is no doubt that through its art an even more frankly humanistic approach to life was expressed. From the days of the Roman Empire until the fourteenth century, lifelike portraits of people were almost unknown. Suddenly they became common. The great artistic and architectural skills of the Middle Ages had mostly gone into the construction and decoration of churches. While religious art still flourished in the Renaissance, the same skills were increasingly used in honoring great families or important cities. Some of the most outstanding Renaissance architecture was in palaces and town halls. For the first time since antiquity the nude human body was once again celebrated in all its perfection, as a kind of metaphor about human nature itself.

The Italian city of Florence was the birthplace and chief nursery of the Renaissance. The Florentines came to manifest quite secular attitudes towards life. They approved moneymaking as essential to leading the good life, took unabashed delight in creature comforts, encouraged the development of every kind of human talent for its own sake, and held up honor, fame, power, and prestige as worthy goals. The most extreme statement of this was Niccolo Machiavelli's amoral political treatise, The Prince, which shocked many people but was only an extension of attitudes already widespread in Renaissance Italy.

Yet the Florentines, as other Italians of the time, were also pious. Near the end of their Renaissance, the friar Girolamo Savanarola preached what amounted to a fire-and-brimstone revival in the city and persuaded sophisticated Florentines to throw their worldly vanities, including valuable paintings and books, into a huge bonfire. The same apparent contradictions were found at the papal court in Rome. The highly sophisticated popes of the Renaissance were great patrons of the arts and of learning. Although they might have been expected to suppress pagan tendencies among the Humanists, by the late fifteenth century the popes themselves were being drawn in the same direction. Savanarola was burnt at the stake on orders of the notorious Pope Alexander VI. Alexander's openly immoral life reflected the easy worldliness in high church circles. This had developed to some extent from an attitude which worshipped beauty divorced from morality and was more under the imaginative sway of the ancient pagans than of Scripture. Yet Alexander too was a believer and even, in his way, somewhat devout.

It cannot, therefore, be argued that the Renaissance ushered in the modern age of secularism in the West. Certainly, that was far from the Humanists' intentions. They would have been shocked if it had been suggested that they were weakening religious faith. In a sense, the Renaissance raised premature questions which it could not itself answer. The most important of these was how believing and practicing Christians could allow full sway to their natural human impulses. Up until then, with an almost unanimous voice, Christianity had taught an ethic of self-control, self-denial, and deliberate efforts to transcend the merely human. The Humanists did not deny this ethic openly, but they lived as though it were not always true. They did not think much about the consequences of their way of life.

Young men from Northern Europe repaired to Italy with great frequency during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Some of these Northerners were shocked at the rather profane lives and opinions of the Italian Humanists. Some of them were also troubled by the Italians' apparent failure to reconcile their Christianity and their Humanism. They went home determined to remedy that failure.

The greatest of the Northern Humanists was Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was a humanist in the strict sense of the word, a scholar of languages and literature. He also shared the Italian Humanists' distaste for abstract philosophy, and hence found himself alienated from the prevailing theology of the Catholic Church, which made use of Aristotle as filtered through Aquinas.

Erasmus was practically the inventor of what came to be called Christian Humanism, which at a minimum meant the application of scholarly tools to the study not of pagan but of Christian texts, especially the Bible. Erasmus' aim was to kindle a stronger piety by leading Christians to a deeper and more authentic understanding of their faith.

Paradoxically, this Christian Humanism probably led to the weakening of a specifically Catholic faith, since Erasmus' emphasis on the study of the Bible tended to produce a personal, somewhat individualistic faith that was not always in harmony with church teaching. Overall, Erasmus found in the Scripture a simple, basically ethical kind of Christianity. While he did not deny the major teachings and practices of the Catholic Church, he called many of them into question and seemed to suggest that the great and elaborate structure of the church was really unnecessary. Later he ruefully noted that people were saying that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.

Yet Erasmus remained a Catholic, albeit a rather marginal one, until his death. He opposed the Protestant Reformation on several grounds, especially because it shattered the unity of the church. The other great Northern Humanist, Erasmus' good friend Thomas More, became a vigorous apologist for Catholic orthodoxy and died rather than deny the Pope's authority in England. More has always had great appeal, in part because he seemed to exemplify humanist attitudes. He was a married layman, active in politics, a social critic, a great wit, an accomplished stylist, a man who seems to have enjoyed life. Yet he had seriously thought of becoming a monk, became completely disillusioned with politics, and had a strong and lively sense of the transiency of all worldly things and the need to live for eternity.

The Renaissance, at least in the South, had largely passed its peak by the time of the Protestant Reformation. In any case, it can be said with accuracy that the Reformation effectively pushed the Renaissance off the stage of history, and postponed indefinitely the consideration of the questions which the Renaissance had raised.

Martin Luther had little acquaintance with Renaissance Humanism and even less sympathy for it. Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, and John Calvin had been Humanists, but Humanism did not appreciably influence their development of theology or piety. In a sense it could be argued that the Reformation was anti-humanistic, in that the doctrines of the sinfulness of man and salvation through faith alone effectively prevented any reliance on human powers Erasmus had an acrimonious debate with Luther over human free will, Erasmus defending and Luther vigorously denying it. The more radical Reformers were also anti-humanistic in that they excluded the arts from worship almost entirely, although Luther made a major exception for music. Whereas Catholic theology had generally developed some kind of synthesis with pagan philosophy, the Reformers eschewed all such connections, in favor of the pure Word of God.

In another sense, however, Protestantism can be said to have encouraged Humanism by its denial of monasticism. Henceforth, the only Christian vocation would be the vocation to live in the world. Marriage and family came to be both normative and ideal. Worldly occupations took on a new, religious significance. It has even been argued that, by a rather complex route, Calvinism justified modern capitalism and the pursuit of wealth. If the typical Catholic figure of the Middle Ages had been the robed monk in his cell, the typical Protestant figure of early modern times was the black-suited businessman in a Rembrandt painting, sitting on the board of some civic organization.

In the sixteenth century almost all passion intellectual, moral, personal, even political was drawn into religious conflict. Whether one was Catholic or Protestant mattered crucially, because eternal salvation and fidelity to Christ were at stake. Even as they contended sometimes violently, Catholics and Protestants still agreed on the fundamentals of faith the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture (however interpreted), miracles, the Ten Commandments, etc. Whatever cautious secular voices had been raised during the Renaissance were all but drowned out during the Reformation. Unbelief seemed almost unthinkable. What mattered was the kind of belief one espoused. An observer of the Western scene in 1550 might reasonably have concluded that all trends towards secularization had been permanently ended. The West was so deeply and passionately religious that its entire future would be shaped by the competing faiths.

Yet this religious passion which burned so brightly could be viewed like the flaring up of a fire just before it starts to go out. The roots of secularization in the West had been spreading for some time, and certain developments of the Reformation period were, unrecognized at the time, helping them to push shoots above the ground.



Hitchcock, James. The Road to Modernity. In What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 19-31.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

The Author

James Hitchcock, historian, author, and lecturer, writes frequently on current events in the Church and in the world. Dr. Hitchcock, a St. Louis native, is professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University (1966-2013). His latest book is History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (2012, Ignatius). Other books include The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life volume one and two, published by Princeton University Press, and Recovery of the Sacred (1974, 1995), his classic work on liturgy available here. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1982 James Hitchcock
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