In tracing the roots of the moral and cultural decline of the West, I came across this passage in The Short Oxford History of Europe: The Seventeenth Century:
“The confessional churches of the first part of the seventeenth century, moreover, underpinned the pessimism of the Shakespearian vision with the bleakness of their doctrine of salvation. Theologians in both camps accepted without demur the limited view of human nature which had dominated Christendom since the time of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Man was an irreparably fallen creature ultimately only redeemed in God’s eyes through the saving power of Christ on the cross. Their differences turned around whether or not men played any part in their own salvation through the performance of good works. Neither side believed that performing good works was easy, given the rottenness of the human condition. On the contrary, both agreed that without specific divine grace performing an action pleasing to God was impossible. Only a handful of Jesuit theologians who took their lead from the Spaniard, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), believed that such grace was man’s for the asking. Indeed, according to the wing of the seventeenth century Catholic Church which identified with the opinions of Cornelius Jansen bishop of Ypres (1585-1638), the bestowal of divine grace was arbitrary. Catholic theologians then were often as austere and anti-humanist as their Protestant counterparts. All Christian confessions stressed that life was a vale of tears, the much deserved punishment of God for human disobedience.
Augustine’s negative view of mankind was also used to justify the fact that the majority of Europeans were daily subject to “the proud man’s contumely” and “the insolence of office” as much as the cruel indifference of nature. As frail fallen vessels in an age where the state’s arm was still relatively short, seventeenth century Christians had to be imprisoned within the confines of a gendered, hierarchical and deferential society to ensure that the divine moral order was passably upheld. Make men too comfortable and they would have too great an opportunity to sin. Punish too leniently and they would sin with impunity. Put men in a state of nature or equality and they would tear themselves apart. An Augustinian view of human nature also sustained the penchant of seventeenth century theologians and lawyers for divine-right absolute monarchy.”
This is very important.
From St. Augustine’s time in the 4th and 5th centuries down to the 17th century in Western Europe, a period which lasted over a thousand years, there was a powerful religious consensus in the West about human nature. Human beings were naturally wicked and corrupted by Original Sin.
Luther and Calvin DID NOT challenge this dominant Augustinian worldview in the Reformation. On the contrary, they reaffirmed it. Protestants and Catholics emphasized different aspects of Augustine’s thought. It was Augustine who had vanquished in the Western Christian tradition the doctrine known as Pelagianism which held that moral perfection is possible in this life.
As we saw in the previous post, Augustine had condemned paganism in City of God for failing to teach a doctrine of right living. Traditionally speaking, Western Christianity did not have this problem. For over a thousand years, the Catholic Church provided the structure, authority and content of our cultural and moral lives. It provided answers to any number of questions that are left unanswered today.
While there was always a separation between church and state, the Western Church was coterminus with society. There was no individual choice in the matter. Everyone was a Christian and there were civil courts and church courts that enforced its hegemonic moral authority. Even after the Reformation, Western Europe was divided into official state churches with almost no religious tolerance.
The key turning point came in the seventeenth century:
“As the previous section made clear, the philosophical and theological assumptions underpinning the dominant mindset of the seventeenth century were not a recent creation. Augustinian values had held the Church in thrall since the fifth century, while their integration with Aristotelian philosophy as principally the work of scholar-priests of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. However, in any study of this broader Augustinian moment, the seventeenth century must occupy a privileged position as it was the first time in over a thousand years that this traditional worldview was seriously challenged. Throughout the century a small but growing minority of educated Europeans refused to accept the Augustinian analysis of the human condition, if only in part, and developed an unusual, and to Augustinian contemporaries unhealthy, interest in both the material manifestations of the human spirit (past and present) and the abundant and complex variety of the natural world. Augustinians saw the world as a snare and the enjoyment of its fruits (artificial or natural) as vanity. In contrast, this growing minority had an obsessive and insatiable aesthetic and intellectual interest in their environment: they sought more and more information about its treasures, and, where possible, appropriated, collected and examined its wonders themselves. In their hands, the private cabinet ceased to be a space for personal devotion and became a theatre or museum of nature sometimes intentionally modeled on Noah’s Ark.”
If I had to describe it, I would say that the whole tone and long term effect of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume to Kant had the effect of undermining and marginalizing this Augustinian consensus in Western Europe’s intellectual elite which slowly, but surely vanquished metaphysics while embracing a radically skeptical epistemology. This is the common thread that runs through Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant who put nearly everything that had previously been taken for granted from reality itself to the self to the soul to the existence of God into doubt.
In particular, the Netherlands and England led the charge, although the revival of materialism and skepticism in Western thought was a European phenomena. Amsterdam and London became the first large modern cities. The Dutch and the English were trading nations which accelerated these trends there which lagged behind in Germany, Scandinavia and Southern Europe. The Jews were emancipated and granted liberty of conscience in the Netherlands and England before it happened elsewhere.
In seventeenth century England, the church courts and state censorship which had previously regulated English culture broke down in the chaos of the English Civil War. After the Restoration, Anglicanism was restored as the established church in England and non-conformists and Catholics were excluded from office by the Test Acts. James II’s attempt to impose French-style Catholicism on England was overthrown by King William III in the Glorious Revolution.
King William III united Britain and the Netherlands under a single modernizing monarch. It was from this point forward that “liberty” moved into the center of English life. Censorship was relaxed and the “free press” dates from this period. Religious tolerance was proclaimed. The church courts were no longer able to regulate and enforce morals. Augustinianism went into retreat and was replaced by Whiggery with its Pelagian doctrines of individual rights, religious freedom and human progress.
Culturally speaking, the view from Mount Olympus of Europe from around 1700 down to the present is the decline and demise of Christianity. This has been coupled with cultural decomposition and nihilism as “liberty” and “equality” and “human rights” have been taken to ever greater extremes. Christianity isn’t just gradually marginalized. It takes on a very different tone.
After 1700, the substance and tone of Christianity changes due to the rise of evangelicalism, the decline of Augustinianism, the impact of the Enlightenment and the influence of Romanticism. Gone are the firebrands of the 16th century like Luther, Calvin and Knox. In Britain, they are gradually replaced by mewling sentimentalists like Wilbur Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect.
I’m writing more about Britain here simply because I am so much more familiar with its history than other European countries, but what happened there was going on all over Europe. Basically, the decline of Augustinianism in Western Europe in the seventeenth century opened up the intellectual vacuum into which liberalism moved and has dominated down to the present day.