Chapter 11: Nineteenth Century Trajectories

In this chapter, Taylor zooms in on the nova effect and traces the development of new forms of unbelief in different countries. He focuses on England, America and France. Much of the ground Taylor covers in this chapter has already been laid out in broad strokes in previous chapters, and his in depth analysis of specific thinkers and the socio-political realities of different countries, is much too detailed for our purposes here. For that reason, I’ll try to give a one thousand foot view of this chapter, drawing out some of the major themes without getting too specific. 

The 1800s began with a growth in Evangelical belief, but by the 1830s, “faith among intellectual and social elites comes once again under pressure.” The standard story for the rise in unbelief is of Darwin’s theory undermining the genesis creation story; While Taylor doesn’t dispute the force of this, he complicates the picture by noting that non literal readings of Genesis and a sense of our “Dark Genesis” were already prevalent. Darwin does help push people towards materialism and reductionism, but this happens alongside other currents pushing people in that direction, especially the “pull of the primacy of the impersonal order.” Various traditional features of Christian orthodoxy—“personal relation to God, particular providences, Devine judgement as a personal decision of God, and… miracles”—are untenable for many. All this alongside the laundry list of critiques we covered in previous chapters pushes and pulls people away from Orthodoxy. At an earlier time, many would have been attracted towards Diesm or materialism, but these are cross pressured as well. Darwin’s horrific picture of survival of the fittest and nature red with tooth and claw wasn’t just a problem for Christian theodicy, it also undermined the benevolent order of Providential Diesm. Alongside this, the sense of spiritual malaise, the flatness of the commercial order, the cold, mechanistic machine picture of the universe—all of this contributed to the cross pressure. So while Christianity was, for many, bankrupt as an option, so was the cold, materialist universe and Providential Diesm. This pushed some to:

“explore this condition of despair, almost to wallow in it, as in different ways do Goethe’s, Werther , Chateubriand’s René and Senancour’s Obermann. Modern melancholy seeks in these works for its definition.” Others respond in an opposite way: “another response is titanic action, defiant, possibly even destructive and immoral; the kind of self affirmation we see in Byron.”

So defiant action or despair, are two of the major responses to the modern condition, but there is also a third way: “the search for a new age of faith, a new positive form of religion. Here is where Carlyle, Arnold, Emerson situate themselves.”

Meanwhile, there are also cross pressures within the modern moral order. The American founding presupposed a framework of Providential Diesm in its founding documents eg. “We hold these truths to be self evident,” rights “endowed by their Creator,” and so on. While this general social imaginary continues to hold sway over the American imagination, the theistic underpinnings have started to fade. The British case represented the Synthesis of various different elements: Patriotism and a British Identity, Protestant Christianity, an ethic of Decency and the ideal of Civilization. In earlier forms of the Synthesis, Protestant Christianity played a key role in promoting hard work, discipline, orderliness and ideals of civility. Altruism was possible because of the grace of God. However, with the development of exclusive humanism and the disciplined buffered self, Christianity was displaced. Because of its universalism and high view of human nature, exclusive humanism becomes more appealing. Exclusive humanism itself comes under fire via the Romantic critique which sees the bourgeois, buffered, disciplined self as closing itself off from inner depths. A tension emerges between the ethic of discipline and “character formation” and the new ideals of “spontaneity and emotional development.” Taylor describes the dynamic at play here:

 “A revolt within a revolt, which kept much of the first phase intact. The father rebels against Victorian faith, largely because it seems so much less humane than humanism, but keeps the ethic and discipline. The daughters then rebel against this, but don’t revise the original judgement of religion. On the contrary, they go further and define humanism in terms, eg., of sexual freedom, which carry them even farther from the established religion.”  

So, the reaction against the moralism of exclusive humanism and the modern moral order leads to a even further immanentizing. The first shift to exclusive humanism shifted the moral goods to the purely human—the immanent—allowing for no higher, transcendent, beyond human flourishing goals. This Romantic shift takes the immanentization further by locating the human goods within—a subjectivized ethic. What leads to human flourishing is no longer so much the order of mutual benefit and what is conducive to general human flourishing, but rather, what leads to individual emotional fulfillment: “The intrinsically valuable is identified with the inner, the mental, with experience and sensibility.” This subjectivized ethic itself comes under fire and leads to further cross pressure. 

Taylor also points to World War 1 as also landing a great blow to the credibility of the Synthesis. It was the ideals of Patriotism, Duty, Justice and Honour, that led people into a war that was seen, absurdly, as a war for Civilization itself. In light of the carnage and horrors of the war, many of these ideals rang hollow to subsequent generations. Various new political positions opened up, Taylor lists four. A redefined original Synthesis which downplays nationalism and is more cynical about excessive pride for ones nation. A “internationalist liberalism” which has a more global perspective. Radical positions on the left and the right such as Fascism or Communism. A general cynicism about the project of Civilization. The second world war did much to undermine the credibility of radical alternatives on the left and right and also restored some confidence in civilization: In the fight against Hitler, this really was a fight for civilization. And yet, there is still a general uncertainty, cynicism and loss of the seemingly naive patriotism and Civilizational pride of the pre-world war generation:

 “We feel wider, less naive, and somewhat patronizing towards our patriotic forebears, but also somewhat envious of their certainties, and perhaps even in some way dependent on them for an anchoring point, since some of their reference points: dedication, sacrifice to protect others, cannot just be sloughed off,  however awkward we feel pronouncing the words.” 

A further key tension that arises in the modern political order is between “horizontal”—egalitarian, democratic—and “vertical”—monarchical or hierarchical—social orders. Taylor points out that the Catholic Church was an important force behind the promotion of the “vertical order,” seeing the new ideals of egalitarianism and democracy as undermining social order and the legitimate respect of authorities: 

“The justification then came to centre on order, and a respect for rightful authorities. But this latter was also seen to include religious, ecclesial authority. Democracy, the handing over of the right to judge to just anyone and everyone, seemed naturally allied with free thought and heresy. If truth were not to be lost in an undying proliferation of unfounded opinion, there must be a single authority which can enforce its rulings. This had been the essence of Bossuet’s argument against the Protestants: once you break with Rome, it’s continuous, unending fission.” 

Of course, this struggle between “vertical” and “horizontal” social structures was not a clear cut one between believers and unbelievers, there was intermingling on both sides. Christians supported democracy, and atheistic versions of “vertical”, hierarchical societies emerged as well. The Nietzschian critique of the modern moral order as being flat, feminized and suppressing the hero and the warrior, inspired other atheistic perspectives. The paradigm example of this being the Nazi regime: “Fascism gives us the paradigm of a counter-ideal of the model order, one which extolled command, leadership, dedication, obedience over individualism, rights and democracy, but which did so out of a cult for greatness, will, action, life.” Despite this cross pressure, Taylor believes that the “modern ideal has triumphed” and that the horizontal forms of moral order are becoming more prevalent over time.  

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