In this brief response to Herbert De Vriese’s The Charm of Disenchantment, his attempt to link secularism and modernity is questioned. Criticism is leveled at De Vriese’s use of the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick the Great without reference to the historical context, notably the confessional states that existed between roughly 1650 and 1800 in Europe. De Vriese’s apology for disenchantment and modernity is also questioned in the light of both modern religious and secular responses to modernity as exemplified by the Dalai Lama and Bernard Stiegler.
In setting out to argue why philosophy still has a role to play in the as yet incomplete secularization of society and the concomitant decline of (Christian) religion, De Vriese early on sides with a modern position, namely ‘the enduring philosophical conviction that religion has no place in modern society’ (p. 408).
This way of stating his position makes a number of assumptions, none of which can any longer be described as uncontentious:
- that religion is at odds with modernity, a claim that is at least disproved by the modernity of the USA as the author himself seems to recognize on p. 411;
- that modernity has just one instead of many forms: Not only various Western alter-modern proposals such as those offered by Bernard Stiegler’s hypermodernity (Stiegler 2005) or John Milbank’s ‘Dominican’ modernity (Milbank 2006), but also the abundance of social theory on so-called multiple modernities in non-Western countries (Eisenstadt 2003) disprove the singular meaning of modernity, or its perceived animosity to religion;
– that modernity itself is not itself a quasi-theological concept: A number of authors, including Karl Löwith (Löwith 1949), Ivan Illich (Illich 2005), and Charles Taylor (Taylor 2007) have all written extensively on how modernity in the sense used by De Vriese reworks a number of ‘pre-modern’ theological motives to legitimate itself, such as salvation, human flourishing, theodicy, paradise, etc.
Of course, De Vriese is free to take up this contentious position, but then his position needs to be backed up with more arguments than is the case with his article.
On p. 412 he writes: ‘The claim that religion and modernity are fundamentally incompatible, and that the latter will ultimately win the battle against the former, is explicitly reflected in a centuries-old practice of philosophical critique of religion.’
An important part of the evidence that he advances for this statement concerns the famous correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick the Great of Prussia. But when he cites Frederick’s claims about the ‘edifice of unreason’ (the Catholic Church) (p. 414) he doesn’t refer at all to the political context of the time, namely the extent to which the rising early modern European states were struggling to assert their total authority over all of society, and that the Church was the only remaining institution that could challenge them. In fact, a reading of Frederick’s claims can be made that it suited him, like all the other European sovereigns over confessional states of the period, to paint the Catholic Church as a cesspit of decadence and unreason—which is not to say that the Catholic Church at the time was a paragon of moral and rational behavior.
Similarly, when De Vriese cites Frederick (p. 415) on ‘the deceitful regime of fanatical indoctrination and persecution’, he makes no reference to the extent to which both the churches and the confessional states of the period indulged (and often co-operated) in the disciplining (i.e., ‘fanatical indoctrination’) of their subjects. The selfsame Frederick is of course also famous for being the first ruler to introduce paternalistic, biological metaphors into politics, as Zygmunt Baumann shows with his concept of the ‘gardening state’ (Baumann 1991), which is totalitarian in its paternalistic claims on its subjects. Baumann links this genealogical origin of the ‘gardening state’ with the Nazi regime. It should also be noted that the intolerance ‘of our time’ (p. 415) that Frederick refers to as cited by De Vriese was at least also—if not primarily—the result of brutal interstate competition in Europe in which religion was used by the sovereigns to pursue their politics.
When De Vriese with apparent approval cites Voltaire’s ‘explanation’ for the persistence of religious belief—the ‘weakness of the human race’—he is upholding what Charles Taylor has in A Secular Age analysed as one of the great Enlightenment myths, namely the autonomous individual who has left unreason (and religion) behind and ‘came of age’. As Taylor further shows, this view is as much a myth as any of the ‘truths’ that religions would subscribe to, and once one accepts this myth as an explanatory principle of culture—as the author here seems to do—one is bound, just like any religious believer, to enlighten just as much as to obscure what one sets out to explain. This might be why De Vriese a few paragraphs further (p. 416) ascribes the ‘authoritarian character of [pre-Enlightenment] society’
to religion, rather than to the main historical culprit of the time, the non-democratic European confessional state.
If De Vriese then in the last paragraph of p. 427 asks why the secularization thesis has been so powerful in C19 without any empirical evidence for it in that period, it could at least also be advanced that this might have been due to the role that this thesis played as quasi-theological counterpart to the rising nation-states and their promise of a better future against the background of the massive instability of the collapse of the ancien régime and—something De Vriese barely takes into account when referring to Marx and Nietzsche—the highly disruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution. It might be argued that the success of the secularization thesis, especially in the second half of C19, was due to the vacuum of belief left by the collapse of previous social orders amongst the European elites.
When De Vriese then goes on (p. 419) to argue for the stark choice between postmodern philosophy’s idea of the subjectivity of our knowledge as opposed to objective knowledge of reality as such, and then to argue for a ‘willed’ construction of reality, he upholds the nominalist tradition’s legacy of the complete unknowability of reality. He doesn’t take account of ‘mediating’ epistemologies, such as Gadamerian hermeneutics, Macintyrean narrativity or even Thomist
analogical knowledge. It is rather astounding to find him calling in this context on Charles Taylor’s social imaginaries as evidence, whereas Taylor himself is a prime contemporary exponent of narrative knowledge.
The author’s quote of Xanthippe about nature being stripped of her moral clothing and standing before us ‘as she really is’, doesn’t show an awareness of the destruction of nature since the advent of modern science, the state and the market, or how nature was (sometimes) protected in religious pre-modern societies. This destruction of nature is at least the result of the nominalist assault on Thomism and its conception of nature as part of God’s analogous revelation, leading to the legitimation of nature as ‘dead’ and exploitable from at least C16, as Hans Achterhuis has shown for example in Het rijk van de schaarste (Achterhuis 1988).
It is far from clear on what basis the author accepts the ‘cultural dynamic of disenchantment’ (p. 427). To cite just two counterpositions: First, current wellknown practitioners of the religion that takes reality as a central motive, Buddhism, such as the Dalai Lama, hardly show the necessity of the link between ‘seeing reality as it is’ and ‘disenchantment’. In fact, Buddhists would argue that ‘seeing reality as it is’ reveals reality’s abundant, dynamic, creative character—which is all but disenchanting.
On the other side of the religious spectrum, the atheist Bernard Stiegler has over the past few years made the ‘re-enchantment’ of the world an explicit motive in his plea for ‘hypermodernity’ (Stiegler 2006).
Perhaps something of De Vriese’s own extra-rational theological assumptions is revealed when he sees disenchantment as a need of modern culture on a par with what religious practitioners claim as human beings’ transhistorical religious need. Building the ‘enchantment of disenchantment’ on the basis of what, according to De Vriese himself, is a historical construct—modernity—is not convincing. It would have been more convincing if De Vriese had grasped the nettle, like the religious traditions of which he seems to be so skeptical, and backed his claim of the ‘enchantment of disenchantment’ up with solid transhistorical ontological, anthropological and epistemological claims.
Achterhuis, H. (1988). Het rijk van de schaarste. Van Thomas Hobbes tot Michel Foucault. Utrecht: Ambo/Baarn.
Baumann, Z. (1991). Modernity and ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Eisenstadt, S.N. (2003). Comparative civilizations & multiple modernities (v.1 and 2). Leiden: Brill.
Illich, I. (2005). The rivers north of the future. The testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
Löwith, K. (1949). Meaning in history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Milbank, J. (2006). Theology and social theory: Beyond secular reason. Oxford: Blackwell.
Stiegler, B. (2005). De la misère symbolique. 2. La catastrophè du sensible. Paris: Galilée.
Stiegler, B. (2006). Réenchanter le monde: La valeur esprit contre le populisme industriel. Paris: Flammarion.
Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.