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Thoughts of A Certain Bibliophile

Modernity, broadly understood as a “realm of individualism, of representation of subjectivity, of exploration and discovery, of freedom, rights, toleration, liberalism, and the nation state,” is often assumed to be rooted in a growing hostility toward, or at least indifference to, theological ideas. Michael Allen Gillespie, a professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University, uses this book to argue against this point. Rather than a disengagement from theological discourse, he suggests modernity has actually been a completely different set of answers to questions that we would recognize as explicitly theological.


He begins his discussion by going all the way back to medieval Scholasticism, and in particular looking at the rift between Scholastic realism (or universalism) and nominalism. Scholasticism was dominated by realist thought, which said that everything in the world was merely a kind of Platonic simulacra of the only thing that was real – the perfectly rational, divine mind of God. During the early fourteenth century, William of Ockham became one of the most outspoken opponents against realism and for a position known as nominalism. Nominalism rejected the central position of realism, and suggested that such a divine reason which human beings could access and understand didn’t even exist in the first place. (Ockham was not, for clarity’s sake, proposing atheism. He was instead saying that the mind of God was something so distant from the frailties of the human intellect that we will never understand it – i.e., the deus absconditus of Martin Luther.) This got him into a lot of trouble with Pope John XXII, who eventually excommunicated him. The important thing to take away from Gillespie’s discussion of Ockham is that Scholasticism’s marriage of the human and divine intellect is ruptured by nominalism, which “replaced it with a chaos of radically different beings” and focused on a God of extreme will and omnipotence instead of one whose rational mind was reflected in the perfection of nature.


The rest of the book is taken up with how these ideas have been taken up in subsequent thinkers. The first person Gillespie understands as being in conversation with Ockhamite nominalism is Petrarch, Ockham’s contemporary. Petrarch’s idea of the moral life is one, starkly in contrast with Aristotle’s conception of the zoon politikon, pursued mostly in private conflicts drastically with the Roman authors, especially Cicero, whose lives and works he so cherished and revived. His several books, including “Rerum Memorandum” (“Memorable Things”) and “Africa,” an epic poem presenting the parallel lives of Scipio, Caesar, and Hannibal, serve to detail his ideas in these respects.


Next, Gillespie moves on to give a rather conventional account of Renaissance humanism and some of its major figures, including Machiavelli, Salutati, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Erasmus. He argues, very much in line with mainstream historical understanding, that these humanists placed an emphasis (or, as Gillespie phrases it, “ontic priority”) on human reason and cognitive faculties, rather than a divine being, even though almost none of the memorable humanists concluded anything like atheism. 


Much of the rest of the book discusses two pairs of thinkers, and uses each pair to compare and contrast the influences of nominalism and humanism that each offered. The first of these pairs is Luther and Erasmus. Gillespie never assumes too much of the reader, and therefore spends quite a bit of time giving introductory information about each of these. He suggests that both, but especially Luther, were influenced by nominalism and therefore God’s radical separation from man. He sums up the differences and similarities between the two thus: “…modernity proper was born out of and in reaction to this conflict [the debate between Luther and Erasmus], as an effort to find a new approach to the world that was not entangled in the contradictions of humanism and the Reformation. To this end, thinkers such as Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes sought a new beginning that gave priority not to man or to God but to nature, that sought to understand the world not as a product of a Promethean human freedom or of a radically omnipotent divine will but of the mechanical motion of matter. Modernity in this sense was the result of an ontic revolution within metaphysics that accepted the ontological ground that nominalism established but that saw the other realms of being through this new naturalistic lens” (p. 132). Gillespie then goes on to discuss the second pair, Descartes and Hobbes, and their relative understanding of physics, human psychology, and epistemology. He gives a heavily historical account of their thought refracted through personal and biographical experiences. 


Gillespie’s last chapter discusses some more ideas of modernity, including those of Kant (“Sapere aude!”), Hegel, and the German Romantics. One of the most interesting ideas he talks about here is how Heidegger formulated this problem, namely not one as a de-theologizing or secularization, but as God becoming increasing “concealed” or “withdrawn” from public discourse. I’ve always found Heidegger an enigmatic, but fully rigorous thinker and thought that this was an interesting way to resituate an extraordinarily complex historical question.


There are a couple of critical things I have to offer about the book. I find it perhaps not flatly wrong, but at least odd, to suggest that much of the above thought is explicitly answering theological questions. To say that “The Enlightenment was all about theology, because many of its thinkers disavowed theism” seems to be self-consciously defining a movement negatively, instead of taking its real, central concerns to heart. Could one not just as easily write a book called “The Platonic Origins of Modernity,” arguing how all of modernity was a response to the Platonic forms? 


This shouldn’t detract someone from the book, though, especially if they’re interested in a great synthetic treatment of all these thinkers backed up by solid historical and philosophical understanding. I may not have agreed with all of Gillespie’s conclusions, but this book offers up a lot of questions for anyone with a soft spot for intellectual history.