Premodern Authority

I have made much of the differences between the knowledge claims of modernists and postmodernists (see “Modernism and Its Discontents” and “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents” ). On occasion, I have referenced premodernists, and I have examined at some length the knowledge issues that characterized their outlook, but I have shunned a general historical overview of these eras. Even with a strict epistemological focus, there’s just too much to say. The situation becomes more manageable if one concentrates on the justification issues of knowledge claims, and these are my ongoing focus (see “What Counts as Justification?“). My present focus will be the formidable knowledge crisis that forced the greatest thought revolution in our history: the collapse of authority as a consensual warrant for declarations about truth, goodness, and beauty. That collapse set the boundary between premodern and modern, and its nature still moves us today.

Histories of Western civilization typically draw a line at 476, the year of a fatal sack of Rome, and call that the beginning of the Middle Ages. But that marker is a blurry one since Rome had been sacked twice already in the fifth century and since the eastern half of the old empire would continue for another thousand years. The dominance of religious authority in the West after Rome’s fall was fairly monolithic, though fissured by regional or short-lived challenges, the most sustained of which were the competing claims of dynastic rulers. Even when dominant, they ruled “by the grace of God,” so from a justification standpoint, they differed little from religious authorities who also claimed secular rule. Challenges to the warrant of authority did appear, particularly after the 1200’s, but these were either brutally crushed (the infamous trial of Galileo comes to mind) or were themselves transformed into justifications by authority. Aristotle’s deductive method was enshrined as another buttress of Holy Writ by early universities in the thirteenth century, for example. This is both ironic and fascinating to me, for Aristotle’s methods were designed expressly to combat the power of authority in Athens. Surely, he saw the trial and execution of Socrates as a living example of the quick and sordid response of authority when threatened by any alternative mode of justification. Perhaps his admirers among medieval Scholastics were more moved by the dominant authoritarian strain in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which explains Aristotle’s transformation from expert to near-saint in early universities. In any case this consensual acceptance of authority as warrant is the foundation of the premodern era lasting until 1517, the year of the Protestant Reformation.

Let us work backward from the more familiar to the less. The use of the term “modern” has been jealously claimed by intellectual, political, and literary historians. Of course, they use the term to refer to different things. Intellectual historians see the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth century as the beginning of modernism, meaning a focus on human concerns rather than spiritual ones. Political historians mark the year 1776 or 1789 as the beginning of the modern nation state with its transformation from subjects to citizens. To add to the fun, literary historians reference modern literature as that written between World War I and 1970; they like to call works produced more recently postmodern. I find their lines of demarcation more helpful than their explanatory efforts, for the dominant qualities of what they call modern literature are its sense of loss and the consequent sense of angst. What they mourn is central to this issue. What they call postmodern literature views the world through a different lens, that of the virtual circle; the tone is ironic (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). These terms are clearly understood within each academic discipline, but their vagaries of meaning can be confusing to the non-specialist who seeks a clear definition of “modern.” I like the intellectual historian’s view of the term, but in focusing on justification issues, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries  plowed the ground for the real revolution that was the Protestant revolt. The real change was the agonizingly slow shift in the axioms of commitment that allowed societies to employ new warrants for their declarations (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

That it took two centuries for authority as a warrant to dissolve its consensus is unsurprising, for the natural human response to a failure of trust is to seek out another and more reliable authority. The revolution that produced modernism was much more than that. Like the fall of classical civilization that necessitated a complete reliance on it, the fall of authority as reliable warrant resulted from centuries of hammer blows of crises, assaults upon the anvil of trust (see Modernism’s Midwives). Historical change usually involves a kind of mid-stream leap from one mode of thought to another readily available, but the Protestant Revolution provided no substitute for authority as warrant, which explains both its desperation and its longevity. It also puts an exclamation point on authority’s fatal flaw: its inability to reconcile challenge within its own mode of justification. The trust that allows it to function as an arbiter of truth and goodness requires a prior forfeiture of rational and moral agency. If I trust you, I give up my own power to decide. In a single submission, I say that you are more capable of guiding me than I. Should another authority challenge yours, I have to find a way to deal with that explicit challenge to trust, but accomplishing that requires that I reacquire my own power to decide, take back my own agency, and therefore forfeit trust. I cannot navigate challenge to your authority without doing that, and doing it is necessarily destructive to trust and therefore also to authority’s power. But once I have resumed acting on my own agency, I then have to negotiate resubmitting it or retaining it. My trust has already been challenged. I may return it to you, but on what grounds should I decide to do that and how reliant am I likely to be on this resubmitted trust in future issues of challenge? These are the practical issues eight generations of religious authority had to negotiate. And for a good portion of that span, no alternative to trust in authority could be imagined and no axiom of rational or moral commitment laid out to allow new warrants to take hold in the popular mind. This difficulty should help explain why it took the entire seventeenth century to midwife the painful birth of modernism, but we are unlikely to appreciate the difficulty inherent in that effort because the contemporary mind has been thoroughly delivered to different axioms that premodernists could not even imagine. Developing them took far too long and cost far too much.

The reason involves the nature of premodern commitment. Premodernists’ knowledge was decidedly gnostic in its source, even when modernists find it congenial to their own understanding. The essential quality of gnostic knowledge was its revelatory nature. For religious authority, revelation was always the fount of truth and morality, though it had to undergo a transformation to become a public moral arbiter (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).  Truth and goodness claims, though universal and correspondentist, must be transmitted privately to the receptive soul. But that is a problem, for this revelation is necessarily inaccessible to others.  Its essence is ineffable (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). But to the believer, it is not only important but also certain. But that must pose a problem, for one has to translate a non-conceptual, non-categorical, and intensely private bit of truth to others so as to prompt their own commitment. There is only one way to do that. She has to establish authority, appeal to their trust. Her commitment might make that easy or at least possible, as Jesus proved with the apostles. That personal authority is cathartic for those who have not shared in the revelation, and it allows religions to form. An important change must occur once the religion’s founder passes away, for what was personal must now be institutionalized. Certain knowledge without justification is impossible to defend, so now personal authority must be transmuted into dogma, ritual, sacred texts and chosen leaders. That creates institutional authority, a very solid source of public consensus (see “Authority, Trust and Knowledge”). A secondary quality of gnostic knowledge is its indubitability, which follows naturally from the source of the transmission. A third quality magnifies all of authority’s strengths while also opening it to doubt: its dualism. Truth is hidden behind the façade of perceived reality and everyday perception, making the initial revelation the only reliable means of transmission and sacred traditions the only reliable means of interpretation. But that produces what seems to me an insoluble problem, for the institutional powers that safeguard the sacred flame must then reject other species of inner truths whose only flaw is their lack of ancient pedigree but which appeal to precisely the same initial warrant. Now public moral consensus must be protected against erosions of trust to defend the extant hierarchy of divine approval against individual beliefs. This is the epistemological conundrum of institutional religious authority.

It is difficult for us to see beyond the horizon of contemporary axioms of commitment. Because history attempts to be a human science and so must be distorted by those presumptions, historians since the Enlightenment have sought modernist axioms in premodern outlooks [postmodern historians are even now seeking the hidden springs of class, racial, and feminist identity in the flow of past events, seeing only what they choose to see] (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Modernists like to find the golden thread of their own knowledge theory in Hellenic philosophy, and it is true that universal reason was the key to the world of forms for Plato and mathematics the key to truth for Euclid. Still, inextricably bound to these modern values was the obscurantist nature of the ideal and the religious values of the numerologists. I have already mentioned the fate of Aristotle once reclaimed from the Arabic by medieval thinkers. After a flurry of serious review, he was converted into merely another authority, known to all as “the Philosopher.” We like to separate the modern from the primitive, awarding to Democritus the awareness of atoms and to Marcus Aurelius our view of existential courage, but the current forms would have been abhorrent to those we praise as their first adherents. They invariably added the hidden world of their gods and professed their own inadequacy in interpreting truth and goodness without the gods’ assistance or the advice of the gods’ favorites. One merely has to read Aquinas to see the superiority of authority to reason in this most Aristotelian of theologians. “Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith except by authority alone…” He acknowledges the private source of that authority, which by his day justified not only a faith but an entire political and social order, and trusts not only its divine source but a continuing sustenance.  “Inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.” Without that trust, what strength remains?

Even Socrates, that gadfly of Athenian authority and corrupter of youth, could only condemn the warrants of the Greek pantheon of gods on the grounds of contradiction and champion his own reasoning as a kind of divine inspiration, a breathing in of truth from the demi-urge. But that inner voice invariably prompts heresy, new revelations opposing old authorities. I spent a summer one year attempting to understand the connections and distinctions that led from the Zoroastrians (590BCE) to the Cathars in Spain in the 12th century and on to the origins of the Jewish Kabbalah movement in the sixteenth century. I couldn’t do it. Too many variants and too few clear causal links. The thread is there, but it is impossible to unravel from the tangle of variations that mark these movements over generations. It seems—unsurprisingly– God’s word was interpreted differently by each soul. This variance alone necessitated unquestioned authority to arbitrate competing claims by lesser champions. But this demand produced its natural frustration too.  So long as warrants for truth and goodness sprouted in the soil of revelation and then transmuted into authority claiming correspondence truth, they must dispute all other authorities and suppress all private dissenters (see Religion and Truth” and “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“).

But these faults line are recompensed by the powers of public certainty. Revealed truth was reliable truth, at least to the those who trust in it. And its apparent solidity was increased by a peculiarity of religious authority that has been too little appreciated: the emulsion of its truth and goodness claims. When Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets, the incredible tale he told of revelation strained the credulity of his audience, yet the broken shards of those tablets ended in the most sacred sanctuary of the Jewish state. Why these and not some other relic? His audience, observing the shining light of his visage, were moved to accept his truth, but the tablets added their own value: the solid substance of the moral imperatives that truth contained. To accept truth implied accepting that moral imperative which over time became the law of a whole people. This hermeticism warranted truth and public morality by the same trust, which caused the first mature modernist thinker, Descartes, to observe that infidels might find the circularity of that reasoning grounds for rejecting it. It was the project of modernism to attempt to reject it. The evolution of natural science has distilled the emulsion into separate processes: the first is a rational consideration of truth to warrant a subsequent and separate determination of possible goodness that opens to preference (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).    So long as authority remained undisputed, the emulsion of its truth and goodness claims seemed a solid enough support. Its strength was an illusion, though, as legitimate (meaning earning a similar level of trust) challenge to authority inevitably revealed. Historically, these alternatives could be suppressed so long as a higher authority could be appealed to for reassurance. Thus we see the purpose of the exalted titles of kings, emperors, pontiffs, patriarchs, and czars in the high Middle Ages. These hierarchies managed to resolve disputes among lesser authorities repeatedly. The Council of Nicea, the succession of the Carolingian Empire, and the resolution of the Babylonian Captivity are three widely-spaced examples.

This model served admirably until competing voices chipped away at the power of authority in the High Middle Ages and then the Renaissance. Its power and stability was such that it resisted the competing claims of secular feudal lords, nascent bourgeois values, and hostile attacks by those revering other authorities on both eastern and western borders of Christiandom. Its unraveling was caused by the only force that could lever away the trust of the people of Europe: competing religious authority that penetrated commitments of trust and stimulated re-appropriation of rational agency. Initial attacks by Jan Hus in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England were suppressed with some loss of trust in those outlying lands, but in 1517 Martin Luther began what became the final assault on authority as warrant for truth claims. Of course, the inevitable irony was that from his point of view, he was only demanding a return to the original authority from which religion had long since strayed. His ninety-five theses rejected Catholic tradition in favor of Biblical literality. At least, that is what he believed. In actuality, he was advocating an impossible reversal of warrant: from authority to revelation, mirroring his own inspiration in that bell tower in Wittenberg. At least at first, Luther only demanded what believers from Adam to Abraham and from Noah to Paul had received: access to the directive voice of God imparting indubitable truth and goodness to the soul. In his famous response to Catholic officials at the Diet of Worms, he laid out his rejection of authority’s higher claim. “Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. “ With this statement, Luther rejected all appeals to authority as a warrant. His stated appeal is to his own reason, and had he remained true to that warrant, Luther would have staked his claim to be the great prophet of modernity that his rebellion against authority presaged. But that was not to be.  In his copious later writings he explained a quirk in his thinking that invited chaos in. His reasoning– in his view all reasoning– must be rooted in the soil of Biblical authority else it would certainly err, would become for this Augustinian cleric a captive of the City of Man rather than the City of God. He had thought his broadside a plea for a transfer of trust from one authority to another, from Catholic hierarchy to Biblical literality. The next century would demonstrate how wrong that assessment would be.

And it is little wonder, for Luther’s revolt had mucked up the oil and water of justification, appealing both to revelation and reason, the former infallible and the latter, as Luther himself would demonstrate, all too feeble. The combination would prove fatal to the one mode of justification he clearly rejected. Authority in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Roman Pope Leo X would bring the hammer down, but the peculiar power structures of sixteenth century Germany allowed Luther to disseminate his arguments by means of the newly-invented printing press, and soon all of the Holy Roman Emperor’s domains were in flames. Luther’s response was, to say the least, ignoble. The Peasant’s Revolt was inspired by his own recipe for warrant: revelation upon which reason could operate. His admirers saw in the Scriptures God’s sanction for revolt as did petty princes and chartered townspeople. One hundred thousand died in this preview of the greater slaughter to follow. Luther’s response was bewilderment and outrage and “Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” a manifesto insisting that the revolution was not God-inspired and was anything but reasonable. His revelation was not theirs and so any reasoning built upon it could not be reconciled with others built on a different conception of God’s word. Yet isn’t it the nature of God’s word to be universal and correspondentist, “gospel truth” so to speak? The ambiguity of warrants can be traced to the erosion of the axiom of commitment that powered a thousand years of premodern social structure and law. The last word on this miserable era was said by the Holy Roman Emperor whose divine right Luther had challenged. Charles V, the most powerful man of his time, retired to a monastery with a final fling at the priest who had upended his world: “I only wish I had killed the man. ” And so it began.

As an object lesson in the centrality of warrant for truth and goodness claims, the Reformation era is unparalleled. From 1517 – 1688, civil strife, national conflict, dynastic struggle, and international war raged with barely a pause. Historians concentrate on the growth of secular rivals to dynastic and religious rule, but that is just another way of saying that dynastic and religious rule had forfeited the warrant of authority for their truth and goodness claims. What is striking is not the scope of the wars but their ferocity. It was not only nation against nation. It was neighbor against neighbor, each defending not only religious truth but religious authority as the source of all truth. It is literally inconceivable to the modern mind that all truth and goodness claims must be warranted by authority. Indeed, rejection of this notion is the very cause and definition of modernism. Of course, we still see this the sort of thing today: in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s and in the Middle East (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“). By their nature, these clashes are incomprehensible to the modern mind, not to mention the postmodern one. No surprise in that, for these twenty-first century bloodbaths are fought for the same reasons as those long-ago struggles of the Reformation: authority embraced as the highest warrant in conflict. The disputants might save themselves the struggle, for authority challenged is authority destroyed. The Reformation proved that. Their efforts might be better served by seeking other and stronger justifications for their truth and goodness claims, ones that their opponents must consider rather than confront. If insisting on revering authority, in these correspondence issues they have no option but toleration of disagreement, for in rejecting the authority of their rivals, they dispute the reliability of their own, for its means of warrant is identical.

In their ignorance of justification, I think they make two fatal errors. First, they attempt to prop up substitute authority as warrants for the authorities they see fit to challenge. This is analogous to two children arguing in a schoolyard thinking that the one who screams louder must win. As authority is built upon trust, it cannot be forced and the existence of opposing voices either unsettles trust in one’s own grasp of truth or induces further entrenchment, the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears. What cannot occur is one authority forcing acceptance of another, for force is incompatible with the trust necessary to embrace authority. In today’s terms, Shiite and Sunni are unlikely to convince each other by referencing the Qur’an and the events following the Prophet’s death. The flood of religious immigrants to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a tacit recognition of the failure of authority in heterogeneous environments. The second error only magnified the first. Luther’s response at the Diet of Worms brilliantly illustrated the problem of assuming that personal revelation must precede and be immune to logical analysis. In his later writing, he made clear his judgment that reasoning can only extend rather than judge the truth of divine inspiration and “must begin with faith.” “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy faith has,” he wrote. It is ironic that this argument was buttressed by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” indicating that the relation of revelation to reason is one that religionists have yet to settle.  But reason’s power derives from its ability to detect inconsistency, to turn its analytic light upon its own processes and in that painstaking effort, reveal fundamental errors of logic and evidence. Turn its light away from major premises and shine it only on conclusions and you have forfeited its power (see “The Tyranny of Rationality). But for the medieval mind, trained in the ways of authority that lack just this self-correcting feature, the hobbling effect of restraining reason’s power did not seem a problem. Predictably, Luther’s recipe produced an intergenerational disaster as prophet after prophet latched onto divine inspiration prompted by selective Scriptural interpretation and launched new Protestant sects. Second generation horrors magnified the problem as holy text, dogma, and ritual hardened under the authority of later adherents. Europe divided into armed camps of screaming schoolyard bullies. Calvinists challenged Lutherans and in their turn were confronted by Shakers, Quakers, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and on and on. This continued for ten generations. I don’t have to tell you it continues in some places today. In terms of justification, it is sheer insanity.

Only this week I heard a respected regional government official pronounce the Bible as the font of all truth and goodness and as the inerrant guide to governmental action. Another guest mentioned the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution (1784) as refutation, but the first speaker merely referred him to the last sentence of the Mayflower Compact of 1620 (I assume he meant the first sentence, but that is not really the issue)! What happened between 1620 and 1784 is not only the key to explaining history’s first secular state (see “Theocracy and the Commandments” on that score); it is also crucial to the desperate search for justification that made modernism necessary. The Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact fled to America precisely because there could never be peace in Europe so long as different prophets attempted to combine Holy Writ and their own subsequent logical analysis of truth and goodness. While it is clear that this land was settled by devout Christians, the early colonial history on this side of the Atlantic mirrored the enmities shredding the far side of the ocean. By 1784, the framers of the Constitution were in-their-bones convinced of the error of these competing appeals to authority, and indeed their distrust of the British crown was in part stimulated by that conviction, which is the reason they instituted history’s first secular state. And as the Declaration of Independence makes crystal clear, their warrant for this new state would have to be built on some other foundation than either royal or religious authority (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer). Jefferson was so proud of his 1777 Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom that he had his authorship of that demand for religious liberty inscribed on his tombstone. It did not mention his presidency. Whenever I hear the carefully chosen claim that “the United States was founded as a Christian country” or “on Christian principles,” I must agree. Our citizenry were schooled in Christian morality and were deeply religious. That is proved by the first and second Great Awakenings of evangelism that swept the frontiers of the new nation. But we should be perpetually thankful that our founders left the bloody business of revelation and authority in the Old World and were wise enough to build the warrant for their truth and goodness claims on less contested, if less sanctified, grounds. Those grounds built the modern world, whose painful discovery of universal reason and closely examined experience as replacements for authority make the premodern world seem impossibly remote.

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