To the Heart of Modernity
Yale Univ. Press. 397p $25 (paperback)
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Or, in Woody Allen’s more memorable paraphrase: History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listens the first time round.
In great history writing, the author immerses us in a world vastly different from our own, while somehow demonstrating that its struggles, mistakes and insights are also ours. In this, the second volume in his three-volume masterpiece on the development of modern culture, Louis Dupré succeeds at both tasks. The Enlightenment so comes to life in the hands of this Catholic phenomenologist and former professor of religious studies at Yale that one perceives its psyche, and its weaknesses, as palpably one’s own. Neither the science nor the spirituality of today look quite the same afterward.
The Rev. David Tracy, writing in Dupré’s Festschrift, Christian Spirituality and the Culture of Modernity, notes that Louis Dupré has been one of the most trustworthy educators in our parlous times because he possess[es] a singular ability to rethink the contemporary dilemma both intellectually and spiritually through his focus on the linked issues of transcendence and the self. Dupré’s Passage to Modernity is widely credited with having transformed the standard conception of the early modern period, linking it far more profoundly with the medieval period than modern thinkers, so proud of their emergence into this brave new world, had been willing to acknowledge. If modernity is not bereft of tradition, if the intellectual and the aesthetic are intertwined, and if rationality always incorporates elements of the non- or supra-rational, then the modern cannot have given way to the postmodern in the facile fashion that many claim.
Spanning the entire period from the end of the Thirty Years’ War to the French Revolution (1648-1789), with rich excursions into adjacent periods, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture uncovers the heart of modernity. Among the many stereotypes that fall to Dupré’s masterful treatment of the period, perhaps the most noticeable is the traditional division into Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism. The actual history observed no such neat distinctions: the French philosophes were deeply influenced by Locke; Berkeley’s idealism drew on Malbranche’s occasionalism (the connections with the other British Empiricists being only secondary); Shaftsbury’s theory of the moral sentiments deeply affected Rousseau; the influence of the Cambridge Platonists is far more extensive than often acknowledged; and so forth.
The volume seduces the reader into progressively deeper levels of engagement with the topic. One begins, of course, wishing to understand the historical foundations of contemporary culture. Immersed in the historical narratives, one gradually realizes that the author is weaving the threads into a broader design, in which four themes predominate.
Reason. Kant, we are told, rightly described the Enlightenment as a release from [man’s] self-incurred tutelage...an emancipation of mankind through an unconditional acceptance of the authority of reason. After 100 years of religiously motivated wars, Enlightenment meant the accelerated expansion of the power and sphere of reason across the intellectual disciplines and the arts.
The self. Yet this age, it turns out, was not so much an age of reason as an age of self-consciousness. Philosophy rested on anthropology. The modern thinkers reversed the Greek conception, where reason meant the ordering principle inherent in reality, instead submitt[ing] all reality to the structures of the mind. Now nature is forced to answer the subject’s question, as a witness is forced to respond to the judge’s inquiry. Hence this knowledge of the self differed from the one to which the Oracle of Delphi had summoned Socrates, namely, to understand his place in the whole of reality. For the moderns, the self defines that reality, rather than being defined by it.
Forms of the religious quest. Though one thinks of the Enlightenment as an anti-religious age, that stereotype does not survive Dupré’s scholarship. Not only were the dominant rational voices of the age challenged by the Counter-Enlightenment. Even thinkers we associate with atheism and agnosticism expressed in other writings a deep and explicit religious motivation, sometimes to preserve the ethical content of religion, at other times to discover a broader, more compelling religious vision of the whole of reality.
The suppression of otherness. Perhaps the most problematic side of the Enlightenment, the one that contemporary critics have pounded with their heaviest artillery, is the absence of genuine otherness. In morality, in philosophy, in its study of other cultures, other religions and other epochs, the Enlightenment invariably subsumed the other under itself. In such a project, Dupré notes, quoting Michel Foucault, Man’s other must become the same in himself.
Enlightenment thinkers appear in these pages with their usual blemishes and shortcomings. They are locked in the pursuit of perfect order beyond what the messiness of reality allows. Their universal and time-insensitive categories fail to grasp the individual in his or her ever-changing and not-so-rational quotidian existence. Their failure to grasp the other as otherled finally to the ethical rebellion that Emmanuel Levinas has so masterfully described.
And yet Dupré also writes with a lightly Hegelian touch. Civilization requires a culture to become aware of itself, and the Enlightenment was our culture’s emergence into self-consciousness. Thus wherever self-awareness triumphs, wherever we proclaim Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own reason!’ there is Aufklärung. No foreign project from a bygone era, the Enlightenment is alive and well within us.
Finally, one realizes, Dupré is writing not merely a history but rather an essay on the nature of the (modern, Western) human. Our practice of science, our attempts to reason about morality and social structures, our literature and arts, the continuing struggle for emancipation of oppressed minority groups, and the individual’s ever-new quest to come to self-consciousness about himself or herself and her worldall of these are part of the ongoing legacy of the Enlightenment. As this volume traces the gradual shift of the Enlightenment phase toward the Romantic phase, one realizes that the romantic dimension of feeling and affect was never absent from the great works of this period. By the end, Dupré has subtly brought the reader to the same conclusion to which the first volume pointed. Modernity cannot be defined as freedom from religion, since the religious quest permeates the foundations of modernity. Nor can the quest for rationality and emancipation be separated from the inner world of spirit and feeling, since these continue to permeate the entire Enlightenment period.
In a flash one intuits what must be the thesis of Dupré’s entire trilogy on the intellectual foundations of modern culture. When the final volume, on Romanticism, appears, we will see that Western man/woman is the product of a threefold quest: the quest of reason, the quest of will and feeling, and the religious quest. Though each aspect of the Western self dominated a particular period of our history, none exists in pristine isolation from the other. When this masterpiece on the foundational themes of modernity stands complete before us, then, we will not only know our history better than we did before. It will be ourselves that have gradually come into focus, perhaps for the first time.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “To the Heart of Modernity,” in the November 14, 2005, issue.