Reading Notes: Carl Becker

The goal of philosophy in the eighteenth century was to dismantle corrupted and corrupting civic and religious institutions and to reshape the individual and society according to objective standards of nature. In place of St Augustine’s defunct city of God, the philosophers would build a heavenly city of their own, presided over not by an enthroned Christ and his saints, but by glorified Reason and the immaculate judgment of enlightened posterity.

In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker (former professor of history at Cornell University, deceased in 1945) argues that although the animating spirit of the period is still, to a degree, felt today, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were actually nearer in their presuppositions and ideals to medieval precursors than to ourselves. I think he’s only half successful in demonstrating this, but the book hardly suffers for it, thanks to the author’s nimble synthesis and pleasant William-Jamesian prose.

The four lectures that make up the book were originally delivered at Yale in the early 1930s. The first and fourth of them haven’t aged so well. Becker’s sense that religion has definitively spent itself as a moral and social force in the West seems premature and weakens the first lecture. In the fourth, his speculations about the future history of the Communist Revolution, and what it may come to mean for future generations when its lessons are generalized across western society, also feels flat.

Becker’s second and third lectures – the best parts of the book – focus on the eighteenth century’s radically revised notions of nature and history. Nature, in the broad sense of the term, encompassing mankind and the material order as a whole, is no longer approached by way of metaphysics. It is no longer things as God intended them to be but as they are not due to sin and the devil. Instead, nature becomes things as they actually are and as they reveal themselves to empirical examination. History, severed from sacred myth and the burden of a transcendent, unified narrative, becomes an object of critical inquiry.

By looking to nature (things as they are) to discover the essential elements of human identity, and by reading history as a long cautionary tale, what aspects of society do not invite revision? The past, for Enlightenment thinkers, becomes a story of mostly Greek curiosity smothered under two thousand years of superstition. Nature, encountered in the unfamiliar cultures of the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific, shows us the arbitrariness of our own institutions and customs. What’s to stop us from turning the whole cart over and starting again? God may not condemn us for our failure, but posterity will honor our success.

There are problems, of course. If there is no God, and if man is inescapably a product of nature, then Christianized western culture is a product of nature too. It could hardly be otherwise. How can we therefore accuse it of deforming man? Whatever is must be according to nature. And then by what measure is any cultural status quo, or any particular innovation, to be judged? Becker teases out these ironies rather effectively. “They denied that miracles ever happened,” he says of the philosophers, “but believed in the perfectibility of the human race.”

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