Here I will argue that Thomas Pfau’s presentation of modernity in Minding the Modern fails to incorporate both the sociopolitical dimensions of modernity’s emergence and its positive aspects. He sees modernity as the home of the “modern subject” of the Western world, or the “quintessentially modern, solitary individual” in his “palpable melancholy,” both “altogether adrift” and without “interpersonal relations.” Stanley Hauerwas captures the sense of the book in his endorsement: “Pfau locates the philosophical developments that contributed to the agony of the modern mind. Moreover, he helps us see why many who exemplify that intellectual stance do not recognize their own despair.” Pfau thus offers a challenge to those whom he sometimes calls the “modern apologists of secular, liberal, Enlightenment society.”
Like many before him, Pfau identifies a theological-philosophical problem at the historical root of modernity. Its “watershed moment,” as he calls it, was in the year of 1277 when the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, effectively condemned the synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelianism and thereby strengthened the shift to nominalism and voluntarism. What follows later is a “deeply problematic change in European modernity.” He sees it as a “progressive conceptual amnesia” which ultimately leads to “impoverished modernity” and the triumph of the atomistic, naturalistic and reductionistic approach over the “Christian-Platonic framework.” William of Ockham plays a key role in the narrative. Yet while the “secular implications of Ockham’s theological arguments would not reveal themselves for some time, a fundamental shift had taken place.” In Pfau’s account, they reveal themselves fully later with Thomas Hobbes and others.
Pfau does not address the transformation of social, political and economic structures in the late middle ages. These issues are, however, important for understanding the emergence and development of the intellectual framework of modernity. The corruption of the Rome-centered ecclesial order in the pre-Reformation era is also an important issue which is not sufficiently addressed. One of the classic examples of this corruption was the church prohibition of the laity’s use of the Bible. This authoritarianism had a significant impact on the emergence of early modern thought. John Wyclif and the Lollards would later directly challenge this by putting the Bible into the hands of the people. With the authoritarianism came a radical intolerance. The brutal execution of Jan Hus, which could have been justified with Thomas Aquinas’s long arguments for executing heretics, is perhaps the most vivid example of the spiritual state of the old order. His execution took on mythological proportions for many in the early sixteenth-century, including Martin Luther.
Luther’s perverse remarks on the Jews, the Anabaptists, the revolting peasants and women should also be mentioned here. In every one of these cases, Luther (in unmistakable contrast to the Catholic Erasmus) provides a striking counter-image of what would become the ideals of modern liberalism. What followed in the centuries after the Reformation is well described in Thomas Hobbes’s famous remarks in On the Citizen. He claimed that while man may be a kind of God and could act in charity and justice, there is also a brutality in humanity according to which “man is a wolf to man” (homo homini lupus) taking up “violence and fraud.” Especially between commonwealths, man may adopt the “predatory nature of beasts.”
With his political philosophy, Hobbes tried to offer solutions to the problems of civil and political disorder, war and violence. Pfau certainly knows about this as much as anyone, but he seems to downplay this practical side of Hobbes’s work. In Pfau’s narrative, Hobbes plays a different role. Like “modern industry” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto, Hobbes is, for Pfau, the full realization of the decline-and-fall of the Western mind. In Minding the Modern, Hobbes gets to play the whipping boy over and over again. That which was started with Ockham is fully realized with Hobbes: “Hobbes effectively denies that individual life may ever coalesce into a meaningful and continuous narrative.”
While Hobbes’s philosophy and political theory certainly warrant criticism (and Pfau does not spare any), the broader importance of Hobbes’s thought lies neither with his understanding of the human will, nor with his Euclidean geometric method. Hobbes deserves at least passing recognition not for these things, but for this: he attempted to respond to the political turmoil of the seventeenth-century in a pragmatic way. Although he was a monarchist, he promoted the idea that the state is basically made up of the people.
In American high schools, every student is supposed to learn about the principle of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” to cite the famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from 1863. This idea was, of course, already enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Apparently they were not convinced of the divine right of kings (Dieu et mon droit). Their grievances against George III were the same grievances brought against every dictator and lawless head of state since: “He has refused his Assent to Laws… He has dissolved Representative Houses… He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…” Over a century before this document, and over two centuries before the Civil War, Hobbes was, in the 1640s and 1650s, laying out theories that would ultimately justify these claims. As he remarked (and then immediately qualified) in On the Citizen: “The people reigns in every state/government (civitas).” One might forget this side of the story when reading Pfau’s unrelenting criticism of Hobbes.
While the emergence of voluntarism was an important development in Western philosophy, the social and political issues of the late middle ages and the early modern period would have to play a central role in any reliable account of the birth of “the modern subject.” This is not to disqualify Pfau’s book. Far from it: Pfau has provided a very insightful presentation of the history of the Western intellectual tradition which deserves careful reading. His exegesis of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is especially praiseworthy.
Pfau draws upon a narrative which might be called the “middle age voluntarism to modern alienation theory.” This has many predecessors in the second half of the twentieth-century, both in North America and in Europe. The geopolitical situation in the 1980s and 1990s is one of the important features of the historical context of many of these narratives in the last 30 years or so.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union (and already before), a variety of intellectual assaults were waged in the Western world against what had become the dominant intellectual paradigm in the West. These assaults on the liberal principles of modern societies are primarily focused on the intellectual background of the USA and the UK. Many of them have constructed lengthy narratives about the emergence of the modern individual. Over the last 30 years in the British and American context, this critical diagnosis of modernity has become more precise; there has been a consolidation of the sources and arguments. Some of the key figures here are Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael J. Buckley, Charles Taylor, Colin E. Gunton, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Michael Allen Gillespie, and more recently David B. Hart, Adrian Pabst and Brad S. Gregory. Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a new contribution to this anti-modern diagnosis of contemporary Western culture and the modern individual.
These themes are not unique to the contemporary English-language discourse: some of the arguments can be found in the French Catholic reform theologians of the early twentieth century. There were also many German-speaking intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s who were developing sweeping narratives that cast a dark light on modernity and thus, both implicitly and explicitly, called into question the rationale and legitimacy of the liberal political order. Pfau claims that his book does not provide one of these narratives (see his chapter “Forgetting by Remembering” in the “Prolegomena”). It does seem to be similar, however, to the classic decline-and-fall narratives. Even the essays at the end of the book about “retrieving the human” are analogous.
While many of these contemporary authors are truly insightful, they tend to emphasize the genetic emergence of the modern individual through a relatively narrow perspective of philosophical theology. They also tend to be pessimistic about contemporary Western society and the near future, and to overlook the positive aspects of modernity. Diagnosing modernity—both its positive and its negative aspect—remains a major challenge. A diligent reader will learn much from Minding the Modern, but he or she will have to bear with the omission of the rest of the story—that is, the social and political history and the positive sides of modernity—in order to gain those good insights that Pfau has provided.