Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Counter-Enlightenment and mediaeval thought

I have just come across an interesting doctoral thesis by Tamás Nyirkos of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary entitled (in English) Christianity and Conservatism: Theology of the French Counterrevolution.  Unfortunately, the thesis is written in Hungarian, but a summary in English is online here.

Essentially, Nyirkos questions the extent to which Counter-Enlightenment political thought was derived from mediaeval theology.  He writes:

"[T]here are at least two points on which [Counter-Enlightenment philosophers] seem to agree: the first is the metaphysical assumption that authority by its very definition cannot be divided; the second is the epistemological claim that authority can only be known through tradition, and not by individual reasoning. The problem of authority naturally leads to a theory of sovereignty, which in the final analysis proves to be religious in nature, represented either by the pope, as stated by Maistre, by a sacred king, according to Bonald, or by some common religious moral law as in the case of Chateaubriand. Ballanche’s ideas can be attached either to Bonald’s sacred kingship or Chateaubriand’s historically evolving religious principles, and even Lamennais maintains the primacy of religious authority, only to move it from the papacy to the conscience or rather consensus of the peoples. Even more evident is their common adherence to tradition as the only source of religious and political knowledge, handed down by history as ‘experimental politics’ (Maistre), by language (Bonald), by common moral sentiments (Chateaubriand), by an organic evolution of society (Ballanche), or by a combination of the latter (Lamennais).

As for the middle ages, we can say that neither absolute authority nor history played such an eminent role in medieval theological arguments on the nature of politics as the counterrevolutionaries seem to suppose. The term ‘sovereignty’ itself is of relatively late origin: most of the papalist claims did not go so far as to treat the pope’s fullness of power as actually unlimited, while not even the most extreme secular claims (like those of Marsilius of Padua) tried to go beyond a conciliar theory of ecclesiastical authority.... [T]urning to the question of royal or imperial rulership, we also find various conceptions of priestly kingship, limited government and mixed regimen, or even antecedents of social contract theory and popular sovereignty.

Reconstructing a unique normative tradition in the middle ages in regard of sovereignty seems to be as difficult as defining a general medieval concept of history. What seems to be common in the various forms of theological, philosophical or historiographical approaches is the conviction that time itself does not provide humankind with new principles, only with new factual knowledge, a logical explication of dogmatic and metaphysical truths, or a collection of examples for political conduct. A genuine theology of history, like that of Joachim of Fiore inevitably leads to utopianism if not heresy, which the counterrevolutionaries are seemingly totally unaware of....

The French counterrevolutionaries’ concept of Christianity and conservation cannot be attributed to the middle ages. The origins of their theology go back to the seventeenth century, supported either by certain elements of Cartesian innatism or some sort of philosophy of history, derived mainly from Bossuet.... Their political theory... is a further development of the doctrine of absolute sovereignty first elaborated by Bodin, and put into practice during the reign of Louis XIV.

Mainstream medieval theology has always been ahistorical and universal; its conception of churchly and secular power has always been circumscribed not unlimited as counterrevolutionaries presumed...."