Seventeenth, the greatest of centuries, and exploratory vs. critical ages

When did each of the major civilizations achieve it’s peak greatness?  For the Muslim world, I’d say the Abbasid Caliphate, for India the Gupta Empire, for China the Song Dynasty, for the West the seventeenth century.  It’s the obvious choice:  Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Racine, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton.  In terms of intellectual and cultural output, what century before or since could match it?

Two other notable things.  First, the West achieved its greatest peak as a collection of separate sovereign monarchies, often “absolutist” (the age of Richelieu and Louis XIV).  Whatever the Habsburgs may want to believe, Warring States periods are the rule for us, not an anomaly.  Empire is not our characteristic form.

Second, the story one often hears, that the West advanced as “religion” retreated, is clearly untrue.  the 1600s were not only peak Western creativity, but also peak Christian zeal.  The 17th century enjoyed the fruits of the 16th century reforms, both Protestant and Tridentine, giving a better catechized laity and a better trained and disciplined clergy than ever seen during the “Age of Faith”.  It was a heroic missionary age, with Matteo Ricci in the Chinese imperial court, the Japanese martyrs, the Jesuit Reductions.  H. Daniel-Rops in his multivolume history of the Church calls this, the century of Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, Fenelon, and Bossuet, “the age of spiritual grandeur”.  It was also the time of the West’s most terrible religious war.  When peace came to Europe, it owed nothing to secularism or religious indifference/tolerance, whose partisans were still about a century in the future, but to the eminently realistic Westphalian system of clear dominance of one sect in each state.

Should we then speak of two 17th centuries, a religious and philosophical?  There is no historical justification for doing so, since the great minds of this age were often deeply involved in the religious currents of their time (e.g. Pascal’s pro-Jansenist polemics, Newton’s fascination with Biblical prophesy).

Even clearer is the contrast with the 17th and 18th centuries.  Religion declined under the assault of the Enlightenment, but scientific progress also markedly slowed.  We don’t notice this only because the philosophes have successfully taken credit for the accomplishments of the previous generation.  (Self-promotion was their one area of undoubted genius.)  Now, one could say that whatever followed Newton’s Principia was bound to seem like a slow-down, but the relative scientific and literary slowdown of the 18th century is notable compared to both the 17th and 19th centuries.  Both the 17th and 18th centuries evince a restlessness of the Western mind, but the 17th century was an age of exploration, while the 18th century was an age of criticism.

The exploratory spirit rests on the belief that there is an identifiable body of knowledge, often newly recognized, that mankind does not yet possess but that it is now in a position to acquire.  Galileo’s quantitative study of constant acceleration puts him in an analogous position to the 17th century as Columbus was to the 16th.  We’ve always known that heavy bodies fall, but thinking about exactly how things move, position as a function of time, opens up all sorts of new questions.

Critical thinking is quite different from the exploratory spirit.  The critical thinker presumes to already have settled knowledge on all the major issues, to be in a position from which to attack and discredit whatever he takes to be the unjust established order.  (Critical thinking always has a predetermined enemy and a pre-determined outcome.)  For men like d’Holbach, Helvetius, Diderot, or Voltaire, all the problems of mankind were quite simple:  just exterminate Christianity, especially Catholicism, and everyone will be happy, free, and rational.  The French Enlightenment accomplished nothing nothing notable because as far as it was concerned there were no outstanding questions.

The philosophes got to try out their ideas, and the rule of Reason brought Terror in Paris, genocide in the Vendee, and war throughout Europe.  By the early 19th century, the critical spirit that had been suffocating Europe, having so spectacularly discredited itself, began to subside, and the West had its second great exploratory epoch.  We might perhaps start this around 1800 with Dalton’s atomic theory and the 1801 Concordat and end it in the mid-1960s.  To this period belong the great discoveries of electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, the evolution of species, quantum mechanics, and genetics, as well as most of the English, French, and Russian novels most people know of as classics.  Even the critics had a sort of exploratory spirit, as with the (bogus) claims of Marx and Freud to have uncovered new sciences.  Again, it was a time of terrible wars, and again it was a time of great Christian vitality.  Constant secularist attacks make this period no one’s idea of a Christian golden age, but the clergy were even more impressive than before, the age yielded a crop of saints and martyrs to match the Patristic Age, and there was another great effort of worldwide evangelization by Protestants as well as Catholics.  Then began another critical age with the “spirit of Vatican II” Christian implosion, and there have been no really great works of art or scientific breakthroughs since.

All I have noted above is a correlation:  the historical facts show that Western creativity is positively correlated with Christian vitality, not negatively correlated, as many have carelessly asserted in spite of the clear evidence.  I have not argued that Christianity deserves all or most of the credit for these great ages of creativity.  The 17th century was a thoroughly Christian affair, but the achievements of the 19th–early 20th century were shared by Christians, Jews, and atheists in comparable measure.  And, of course, Christianity had already been the religion of a civilization for a millennium before this spectacular burst of creativity.  (This is not to deny that Christendom from Theodosius to Copernicus was more culturally impressive than often acknowledged, nor that the 17th century built on its accomplishments in many ways.)  Nor have I given an argument that Christianity is therefore a good thing.  From the same evidence, Western creativity is also positively correlated with major wars.

It is possible that the two phenomena of exploration vs. criticism and religious zeal vs. skepticism are correlated because they share a common cause.  Indeed this seems probable to me.  The smug self-confidence of the new atheist is not the sort of attitude that leads to great breakthroughs.  We have none of the great ambitions of past ages.  The most impressive thing we can imagine doing is tearing down our own inheritance.

22 Responses

  1. The age of exploration was in many ways a continuation of the Crusades: a push to get around behind the impenetrable wall of the Islamic Middle East. It is not an accident that it was led by the Portuguese and Spanish.

  2. Inspired post, very thought-provoking.

  3. Are critical thinkers mistaking the pursuit of wisdom for Wisdom itself?

    Isn’t it a supreme arrogance to deem oneself all-knowing on the basis of received knowledge?

    How much longer are we going to freewheel on our intellectual capital?

  4. I forgot to mention in my first post, but Mr Charlton has co-written an excellent book that delves into some of the causes for civilisational decline, notably increases in the incidence of viable mutational degradation as a consequence of reduced child mortality.

  5. “Now, one could say that whatever followed Newton’s Principia was bound to seem like a slow-down…”

    Indeed, but I would respectfully suggest that the 18th century was by no means devoid of solid achievements.

    Euler and Lagrange did for dynamics what Descartes had done for geometry by reducing every problem of dynamics to one of algebra.

    The century saw real progress in applied mechanics with the development of the steam engine by Newcomen and James Watt marking the birth of the industrial Revolution

    Laplace greatly advanced celestial mechanics and, in observational astronomy, we have Bradley’s discovery of the aberration of light (the first physical proof of the Earth’s motion) and nutation and William Herschel’s work on double stars and his observation of Uranus.

    There were significant advances in chemistry with Black, Cavendish, Priestly and Lavoisier.

    All in all, a respectable record.

  6. How could the century which saw the further fragmentation of Western Christendom rightfully be considered the pinnacle of Western civilization?

  7. Bonald,

    Have you read Doctor Walsh’s argument in favor of the Thirteenth century?

  8. > How could the century which saw the further fragmentation of Western Christendom rightfully be considered the pinnacle of Western civilization?

    Well, unity is one good, but there are others.

  9. But did the 17th century really see “the further fragmentation of Western Christendom”?

    The religious map of Europe was pretty much the same in 1700 as it had been in 1600. In France, the Wars of Religion had ended with a narrow Catholic victory in 1598. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 in a stalemate.

    It is true that, in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, more and more people came to see the religious divisions of Europe as permanent and irreconcilable and there was a consequent growth in scepticism: if there was no consensus among the learned and neither party could persuade the other, how was the plain man to choose between them? They could not all be right, but they could all be wrong.

    Indeed, the division of Catholic and Protestant states remained pretty much the same until the First World War.

  10. Dr Walsh makes an impressive case for the 13th century, but never really addresses the obvious fact that there was a clear and decisive break with the Medieval past during and after the Renaissance.

    In art and architecture, in literature, in mathematics, philosophy and jurisprudence, Europe reverted to its Classical roots and pretty well ignored the intervening millennium.

    An appreciation of the Middle Ages only began with the Romantic Movement and, like the Orientalism of the period, it was precisely its strange and alien character that formed the attraction, as it did in the revived interest in Norse mythology, the Prose Edda and the Icelandic sagas.

  11. I just cannot see the century that gave us Bacon, Hobbes and Locke as the high point for Christendom. I agree with Strauss that the rise of those thinkers represent a major deviation towards decline from the anicents and medievals. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were major political reversals too that set the stage for the 18th century revolutions. This is not to mention other figures who contributed to the development of liberalism- Selden, Milton, Harrington, Sidney, Grotius, Pufendorf and Spinoza ect mostly from Protestant countries. To be sure many of these thinkers were highly original and reading their work one would seem to view them as Christians since most of their writings are replete with Biblical references, but the traditonalist is hard pressed to say that a figure like Hobbes was actually a Christian. Hobbes was probably the boldest and most original and most consequential thinker of the 17th century.

    Figures like Pascal and Bousset were no doubt brilliant but their thought seems too individualist in many respects. Being unmoored from scholasticism was unfortunate and I think it ultimately led to those thinker’s philosophies not having enough vitality.

  12. “In terms of intellectual and cultural output, what century before or since could match it?”

    … Every century since? As long as all you care about is “output.”

    “Warring States periods are the rule for us, not an anomaly. Empire is not our characteristic form.”

    So, “the natural state of a civilization is to be at war with itself.” Why do you have an imperial coronation in your header?

    “the 1600s were not only peak Western creativity, but also peak Christian zeal.”

    Not sure how you’re able to retroactively quantify zeal. You’d think if people were zealous they wouldn’t allow heresy to take root.

    “a better catechized laity and a better trained and disciplined clergy than ever seen during the ‘Age of Faith’.”

    Catechization != Faith

    Your intellectual (in the worst sense of the word) bias is showing.

  13. Pascal was more than “brilliant.”

    His work on projective geometry, including Pascal’s theorem, was one of the things that prompted the development of analytical geometry by his friends, Descartes and Fermat.

    Pascal’s Triangle and Pascal’s Identity were important early contributions to number theory.

    His work on Probability contributed to the discovery of the Calculus by Newton and Leibnitz.

    In Physics, his work on hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, including his proof of the possibility of the vacuum (in defiance of the Neo-Scholastics of his age), his measurement of the weight of the air and his invention of the hydraulic press, makes him one of the leading scientists of his age

    His contribution to philosophy was to direct attention away from “causal” explanations to the discovery of functional relations between variables (distance, mass, time)

  14. It’s important, I think, to note that the 17th being the greatest century (a position I’m not sure I actually agree with, but nevertheless) does not preclude it being a century filled with grievous evils, laced with the seeds of future corruption, etc. All eras of human history are such. We are fallen.

    This also is why I don’t think the objection MPS makes contra Walsh is a particularly compelling one. Indeed, wouldn’t we expect a fall off from the pinnacle of human accomplishment given that even this pinnacle fails to attain our true homeland and thus brings about attendant disappointment? (indeed the 14th-15th centuries seem to follow the “critical” paradigm that Bonald has laid out pretty well). And this is to say nothing of the horrific plague that killed more than 1/3rd of Europe’s population in the interim. I’d also argue strongly against the notion that the Renaissance marked a clear and decisive break with the Middle Ages. Frankly, I’ve always found the Renaissance to be grossly overrated as a metahistorical event.

  15. Aristokles Contra Mundum

    My point about the 13th century (and the Middle Ages in general) was not to depreciate its achievements. Rather, my point is the degree to which it has shaped the future of western civilisation. That is where the 16th century wins out.

    To take a simple example, one can trace the organic development of Gothic architecture, through Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular and then we have a sudden break; something new (and also very ancient) comes in with Palladian. It is worth reflecting that Palladio was born in 1508, the year of Henry VII’s death, whose chapel in Westminster Abbey, in the Perpendicular style, is one of the finest achievements of Gothic. It was only three centuries later that we see the Gothic Revival, with Pugin and Barry.

    The break is equally marked in painting and sculpture.

    In literature, Spencer’s Faerie Queene was published in 1590; Milton was born in 1608 and what a world separates them.

  16. > I’ve always found the Renaissance to be grossly overrated as a metahistorical event.

    Agreed. It’s just part of the Middle Ages made to seem different by focusing on a few features of Northern Italy. Nobody thinks of the Hundred Years War as anything but “medieval”.

    The real break is the 18th century.

  17. > I just cannot see the century that gave us Bacon, Hobbes and Locke as the high point for Christendom.

    It’s a good point. I omitted mention of Hobbes, Locke, and Cromwell to make my case cleaner. We see the influence of their perverse ideas take hold in the 18th century. I still think it took a critical age environment for these ideas to work their true poison. Consider that Duns Scotus and Suarez had earlier played with the idea of a social contract model of the state, and it had little effect. The ground wasn’t yet ready.

  18. Pascal was more than “brilliant.”

    I didn’t mean to underrate him, but most of the accomplishments you mention relate to mathematics and other practical sciences. I had more in Pascal’s theology which has not had anywhere near the same impact even less his political theory.

    I think Bonald is sympathetic to certain features of Jansenism but I am curious of what he thinks about its connection to the French revolutionaries as alleged by De Maistre?

    Consider that Duns Scotus and Suarez had earlier played with the idea of a social contract model of the state, and it had little effect. The ground wasn’t yet ready.

    An argument could be made that end of the 17th century saw the establishment of the first liberal polity in post-1688 England. Perhaps if in some alternative reality the Stuarts had won the constutional struggles with Parliament and were some how able to reintergrate England into the Church or at least into the West perhaps then the 17th century could have been considered a highpoint.

  19. “[M]ost of the accomplishments you mention relate to mathematics and other practical sciences.”

    Indeed and they played a far from insignificant role in the progress of Western Civilisation, which in the ensuing centuries came to be defined and distinguished from the rest of the world by its scientific, mathematical and technological achievements

  20. for China the Song Dynasty

    I find this comment fascinating, why the Song Dynasty? I’m hardly an expert on China but I thought it was widely recognized that China’s golden age came during the Tang Dynasty. Also highly relevant IMO, Christianity was introduced to China at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty and flourished for 200 years thereafter. But by the time of the Song Dynasty Christianity had long since been persecuted into oblivion, and I don’t think it ever made a meaningful come back there until the Yuan Dynasty in the Thirteenth Century (which might be another mark in favor of Doctor Walsh’s favorite century).

  21. I came out of my undergraduate Chinese history class with the impression of this as a particularly strong period for arts and invention, although not China’s geographic/military peak.

  22. […] culture progressed as the social power of religion (or, at least, intolerant religion) waned.  But the historical record is clear:  the age from Copernicus to Newton was also an age of unprecedented Christian zeal–of […]

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