Premodern Authority

I have made much of the differences between modernists and postmodernists in terms of their knowledge claims (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.

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 version 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 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.

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 terminology, for the dominant qualities of what they call modern literature are its sense of loss and the consequent sense of angst. What they call postmodern literature views the world through a different lens, that of the virtual circle; the tone is ironic (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). 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. 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 reliance on it, the fall of authority as reliable warrant resulted from centuries of hammer blows of scandal and challenge upon the anvil of trust (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority” and “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. This also explain why it took the entire seventeenth century to midwife the painful birth of modernism.

Premoderns’ knowledge was decidedly gnostic at its source, even when they formulated theories that their descendents found congenial to modernism. The essential quality of gnostic knowledge was its revelatory nature. Truth and goodness claims, though universal and correspondentist, were transmitted privately to the receptive soul. But that is a problem, for this revelation is inaccessible to others. Its essence is ineffable. Certain knowledge without justification is impossible to defend. A secondary quality of gnostic knowledge is its dualism: truth is hidden behind the façade of perceived reality, making revelation the only reliable means of transmission. The third, its indubitability, follows naturally from its means of transmission.

Modernists like to find the golden thread of their own knowledge theory in Hellenic philosophy, and it is true that 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.

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. 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. I felt like a forensic anthropologist in the 1950’s. 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 (please see “Religion and Truth and “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”).

But it is also true that the premodern model for acquiring knowledge demonstrates the advantage of certainty. Revealed truth was reliable truth, at least to the recipient who revered it. But this blessing carried its inevitable curse. While the prophet lived, he could rely on the personal trust of his followers (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). After his death that trust had to be transmuted into institutional authority of dogma or holy texts, with all the risks inherent in this weak mode of justification. So long as the authority remained undisputed, it seemed a solid enough support for truth and goodness claims. 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. 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? 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 reason and closely examined experience as replacements for authority make the premodern world seem impossibly remote.


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