Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

Pascal and Descartes

In the past few days I have read the works of two important philosophers: Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes. Both lived in France during the 1600s; in fact, they knew each other. Both excelled in science and mathematics as well as philosophy. But Pascal is probably the last writer of the Reformation, while Descartes is definitely the first of the modern philosophers.

Blaise Pascal was part of a movement in France which was called Jansenism. Remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, Jansenists drew their teachings from the Bible and from the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Their enemies (which included the Jesuits) accused them of being Calvinists rather than faithful Catholics. Pascal never completed his most important book, the Pensees (Thoughts or Meditations). It remained in outline form, with many sections fleshed out; because it was written on scraps of paper, even the order of the material is questionable. But it is clear that Pascal was seeking to convince a skeptical reader of the existence and importance of God. In one section, often called “Pascal’s wager,” the philosopher suggests that it is better to believe in God and be wrong—in which case there are no dire consequences—than to refuse to believe in God and be wrong—in which case the consequences are enormous and catastrophic. I suspect the wager, as such, is intended as a joke, since Pascal knew that Christian faith is far more serious than a gamble. Throughout his work, Pascal demonstrates a deep, sincere faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom he distinguishes from the God of the philosophers.

Rene Descartes also wrote Meditations, although his works were finished and published in the form he intended. Descartes begins by suggesting that everything he had learned might be wrong. What he had been taught and what he had perceived with his senses might both be faulty. He resolved to doubt everything; then he would see what truth he could deduce in the midst of his doubt. He pointed out that he must exist, since he was thinking. (“Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am”). But something other than Pascal must exist, since he received input or stimulus from outside of his mind. Both he and those other existing things must have a cause, and Descartes reasoned that the First Cause is God. He then pondered the nature of a God who creates, determining that such a God must be benevolent rather than devious or malicious. From that Descartes concluded that he could trust his senses as well as his reasoning and could use science to study the world around him.

(It should be noted that the movie Matrix pictures the alternate possibility—that people think, but that no benevolent God is responsible for creating the world in which they exist. Therefore, it is possible, even likely, that the world in which they truly exist is entirely unlike the world they perceive.)

Pascal, like most Christians before him, began with God and with revealed knowledge, using philosophy and reason to build a system of thought that included science but left all things in God’s hands. Descartes, like most modern philosophers since his time, began with himself and worked his way to knowledge of God and of the world.

I found no mention of Pascal in Descartes’ book, but Pascal mentions Descartes. He was unimpressed by Descartes’ approach, concerned that the God Descartes would find by starting with himself would not be the true God. This has remained a problem for modern philosophy ever since. In the 1600s, Descartes said, “Question everything.” In the 1800s, Soren Kierkegaard responded, “Why?” J.