The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Friday, March 30, 2012  

"I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means" Part Infinity

I really like Julian Sanchez--atheist libertarian though he be. But this sort of thing, though not surprising, bears witness to the unusual fact that even devastatingly smart people are not expected to know anything about their culture between Aristotle and Hobbes:

Santorum thinks it should be perfectly sufficient to say: “It should be illegal because the Bible condemns it,” and he’s irritated that even believers mostly feel obligated to focus on religiously neutral “public reasons” that could be accepted by people who don’t acknowledge the authority of (that reading of) the Christian Bible. He’s not empirically wrong about this (and a good thing!), he just has a repugnant, medieval vision of how things ought to be.

His larger argument in this post is interesting and worthwhile, but I'm not going to discuss that. What interests me is the casual use of "medieval" as a term of abuse. Like the word "puritanical," this usage is a strong indicator that the person using it is wholly ignorant of its historical meaning.

And what's interesting about Sanchez's usage here is the perfection of its inaptness. First, medieval law was not identical with Biblical law--not remotely. Murder, adultery, theft, and rape were all illegal, of course. But as you may know, the Old Testament's first bit is a code of law (there is only a fleeting and unenforceable semblance of this legislative function in the New). It commands and prohibits many things, and medieval Europeans had little trouble ignoring most of it. Those laws that were least tractable to "public reason" were, even in theology, deemed "ceremonial" and set aside, even prohibited. There was also a "civil law" which was more or less ignored, leaving only a residue of "moral law" that was binding. The humane economic strictures of the Torah were largely ignored, and a host of other laws, without any Biblical warrant, were added (blasphemy is punishable by death in the Torah, while heresy is not a concept at all; blasphemy was tolerated for the most part in medieval Europe, while heresy was usually a capital crime). Medieval law often had more capital offenses than the Bible did (and this was true until quite recently, historically speaking). The facts of civil life in the Middle Ages that strike us as most unusual and burdensome were typically laid down by a prince or a pope, not by a text.

So on one hand, Sanchez is being unfair to the Bible by identifying its strict (or putatively strict) interpretation with a "repugnant medieval vision." It's a commonplace, but totally wrong, that the old days were drenched in Bible-thumping literalism.

On the other hand, Sanchez is also totally wrong to imply that there was no expectation of "public reason" behind this repugnant medieval vision. While the phrase "public reason" itself would be anachronistic if applied to Europe in 1300, even a fairly casual student of the era would have come across the phrase fides quaerens intellectum, or "faith seeking understanding." If I remember correctly, it was coined by St. Anselm, the 11th-century precursor of the scholastic revolution, to refer to the program of understanding the philosophical ground of theological truths. And even this was only part and parcel of a long history of seeking "necessary reasons" for doctrine and creating various harmonies of Scripture with philosophy. Maimonides tells his pupil that he does not wish him to come to the truth by accident--that is, simply by taking the Bible's word for it.

That's not to say that there weren't anti-intellectual reactions to all of this, some of them quite fierce; clericalism and corruption were very real, and fanaticism was a constant element and a sporadic threat. None of these people was a pragmatist, but then again, neither was Aristotle or Adam Smith. What I find interesting, though, is the way in which we allow ourselves to hive off whole centuries of human activity and characterize them as an undifferentiated mass of stupidity and terror.* We might attempt a balanced assessment of the Renaissance or of the Age of Enlightenment, but "medieval" we may use as a simple byword, something akin to a slur that expresses nothing more than our own contempt and self-regard. Smart people should exercise a little discipline and stop using it.

* And this is problematic even without considering the late medieval/early modern period, in which we want to claim voices like Erasmus and Donne and Shakespeare for the Modern against the Medieval. In reality even these morning stars of modernity need to be understood against the background of their medieval inheritance rather than their modern influence.

NB: Just to be clear, no one is obligated in my view to share my admiration of these people and their age (tempered though it be, believe me). My point isn't that it's bad that Julian Sanchez doesn't like Anselm, it's that it's bad that someone as brilliant as Julian Sanchez apparently needs no working knowledge of the era in which Anselm lived, and beyond that, feels (along with so many others) free to weaponize that ignorance.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:40 PM
I am tempted to call this great post pedantic just so you can explain to me how I'm misusing that word.
Goodness, far be it from me to propagate crude popular caricatures of the medieval period—but I think perhaps you read too much into a passing adjective. I meant only to refer to the general idea that temporal authority is divinely ordained, which nuances notwithstanding, I think it's fair to say enjoyed wider currency in the 14th century than it does in contemporary liberal democracies.
I guess what I take away from this (aside from the fact that people should read the medievals, which is spot on -- big up to the mystics!) is that calling Santorum's problematic hopes for government 'medieval' gives them a legitimacy that they don't deserve. The 'catholicism' he and the Bishops are pushing isn't ye olde time religion at all. They're making this crap up as they go along.

I'm closer to Ben than to Sanchez on the God question and, as a Christian Democrat, I'm pretty invested in the idea that Santorum and his ilk represent a largely un-Christian departure from any kind of legitimate or traditional understanding of the faith. I might be wrong, but I get the sense that Ben wrote this post because smart people calling dumb "christian" ideas "medieval" undermines this project of ours.

That's the kind of thing I expect from the atheists that annoy me, a la Sam Harris. Like Ben, I expect better from Sanchez and others who seek a deeper level of political and social reflection.
Post a Comment