Monday, April 15, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

"THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION – How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society” by Brad S. Gregory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; available from The Book Depository International at $NZ43:38)

            “I know that history at all times draws / strangest consequence from remotest cause” says Thomas Becket in T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. And though the phrase has been quoted often enough to become a cliché, that doesn’t make it a whit less true. Where we arrive at in history is the result of a complex chain of actions and decisions that were meant to drive us in quite a different direction. We are always wrong about where we think we are going in history. Decisions made and actions taken now will have consequences that we cannot remotely foresee. They will make a world quite disconnected from any intentionality.

            Brad S.Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a long, scholarly and very demanding illustration of this thesis. Its 400 large and closely-printed pages of text are followed by nearly 200 pages of end-notes and index. Gregory is a Professor of Early Modern History at Indiana’s Notre Dame University and his book has been published by Harvard University Press. This is not light popularisation, yet its theme is quite simply stated.

            Five hundred years ago, argues Gregory, Protestant Reformers believed they were reviving an authentic Christianity, which was being stifled by a corrupt and superstition-laden Catholic church. They believed their revolution would make Europe more authentically Christian. Instead of making Europe and Western civilization more Christian, however, their efforts inadvertently secularised society and created the conditions for a consumer-driven capitalism in which religion is privatised and marginalised. After an initial period of fiercely partisan zealotry, the Protestant Reformation made the West less Christian.

Notre Dame is a Catholic institution and the odd reference in The Unintended Reformation suggests to me that Gregory is a Catholic. However, this is in no sense a partisan work. When he discusses the Reformation, Gregory includes contemporary Catholic attitudes thereto and sees them as part of the problem. He is not fantasising about “a world we have lost” and his Conclusion is called “Against Nostalgia”, making the obvious point that, however much we may regret a corporate, public and generally-accepted system of belief and morality, it is not coming back any time soon. (And for the record, this book was awarded a scholar’s prize by Indiana’s Wesleyan University – not a noticeably Catholic institution.).

In his introduction Gregory declares:

As a whole this book constitutes an explanation about the makings of modernity as both a multifaceted rejection and a variegated appropriation of different elements of medieval Christianity…. This is neither a study of decline from a lost Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an even brighter future, but rather an analysis of unintended historical consequences that derived from transformative responses to major perceived human problems.” (pg.20)

Each of the book’s six long chapters begins with a reflection on the present and asks how it came about. Each then goes back to intellectual and social conditions in the later Middle Ages and follows their consequences through to the present. At least in part, The Unintended Reformation is a protest against current periodization employed by most historians; and their notion that the modern world can be explained solely with reference to the “Early Modern” world and Enlightenment, while everything before that is relegated to irrelevance. Further, Gregory is concerned to interrogate the pervasive use of “we” by socio-historians when they refer to the present and assume that a secular, non-religious view is now normative and uncontested. In reality, “we”, if used honestly, would have to include a hyperplurality of world-views including many directly related to the religious past.

The opening chapter “Excluding God” sees the origin of a major philosophical problem in the late medieval adoption of Duns Scotus’ conception of God not as being itself (esse) but as a being (ens). “If real”, says Gregory, “a transcendent God is not subject to empirical discovery or proof.” But when Scotus’ conception of God was backed by William of Occam’s univocalism, God was sidelined and became just another aspect of nature – a being greater than other beings, but still a being. 

This would have remained a matter for the academies, with little wider impact. But comes the Reformation and

“…the intractable doctrinal disagreements among Protestants and especially between Catholics and Protestants…. had the unintended effect of sidelining explicitly Christian claims about God in relationship to the natural world. This left only empirical observation and philosophical speculation as supra-confessional means of investigating and theorizing that relationship. With this unplanned marginalization of disputed Christian doctrines, widespread univocal metaphysical assumptions and the nominalist principle of parsimony became unprecedentedly important as the de facto intellectual framework within which such observation and speculation would unfold – and within which modern science would emerge.” (Pg.40)

Gradually God was squeezed out of discourse concerning nature even though, as Gregory observes, there is absolutely no way that the modern natural sciences have in any sense “disproved” God’s existence. Further, the God rejected by “science” is not the Christian God.

Gregory notes that late medieval intellectual life was not static or sterile:
Any picture of medieval Latin Christianity as a homogenous, uniform set of rigidly prescribed, strictly enforced, and closely followed practices is deeply misleading, however much this myth survives as a vestige of nineteenth-century liberal views of the Reformation or of nostalgic romanticism in Catholic notions of the Middle Ages.” (Pg.83)

However, intellectual diversity in the Middle Ages was largely anchored on teleological, Aristotelean-Thomist assumptions and more was shared than was contested in intellectual life. In his second chapter “Relativizing Doctrine”, Gregory argues that this framework was stripped away and teachings became so diverse as to be mutually-exclusive. Protestant reformers attempted to attack a corrupt church by attacking what they saw as an accretion of non-biblical traditions, because in one form or another they believed in the concept of sola scriptura – the concept that a purer Christian doctrine would emerge if the Bible alone were referenced and non-scriptural traditions and canon law jettisoned.  But it was soon evident that scripture, despite a frequent and erroneous claim, was not and is not “self-interpreting”. Among Protestants, cutting loose from tradition and in most cases from church councils meant strong disagreement on essential doctrines. The short-term solutions were various confessional formulations and local enforcement of these using the power of the state. Another solution was to lean on the Holy Ghost as arbiter – God would directly reveal the truth of scripture. So we go down the Pentecostal path, or come to the “inner light” of Quakerism. But none of these resolve the multiple doctrinal differences between Protestants (let alone between Protestants and Catholics); and opportunity is given to the sceptic claim that therefore all confessional truth claims are wrong. This leads ineluctably to the more recent superstition that reason alone with tell us moral and intellectual truths. But this proves to be as much of a chimera as sola scriptura, creating a world in which there is no objective moral or intellectual truth, but only opinion based on personal preference.

Gregory’s argument here is a densely-referenced historical one. But along the way, he demolishes handsomely those who claim that morality is based only on evolutionary urges; and the notion of “freedom” as being disconnected from essential values. More than anything, there is the bankruptcy of unanchored reason:

 “Attempts to salvage modern philosophy by claiming that it is concerned with asking questions rather than either finding or getting closer to finding answers might make some sense – if one just happens to like asking questions in the same way that thirsty people just happen to like seeking water rather than locating a drinking fountain, or indeed having any idea whether they were getting closer to one. Appeals to philosophy as a “quest” or a “journey” toward the truth about morality, meaning, or metaphysics by means of reason presuppose a promising path to follow. Neither the history of modern philosophy nor the state of contemporary philosophy suggests any reason to think that reason alone offers one. The evidence of nearly four hundred years suggests that those who persist nonetheless are as Pollyannaish as those who doggedly continue to maintain the sufficiency and perspicuity of scripture as a basis for Christian truth despite a half-millennium of irreconcilable biblical interpretation, and a lack of any consensual means of deciding among them. The reasonable conclusion is that it is irrational to go on thinking that reason alone might yield truth about human values, priorities, meaning, or purpose.” (Pg.126)

In his third chapter “Controlling the Churches”, Gregory notes that despite co- existing with many different polities, the Catholic Church was never absorbed by or coterminous with a given state. Also the doctrine of ex opere operato taught that the workings of grace and the efficacy of sacraments never relied on the personal holiness of those administering them. But emphasising individual “godliness” in its ministers, and having broken with church traditions, Protestantism could survive only by leaning on the coercive arm of the state. At this point, Gregory distinguishes between “magisterial Protestants” and “radical Protestants”. By “magisterial Protestants”, he means those able to create confessional states with the help of political patrons – Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva, the Church of England etc. By “radical Protestants” he means those who gained no such political support. The doctrinal problems of magisterial Protestants were apparently “solved” only because they had the secular political power to impose a local orthodoxy, and stamp out alternatives.

The very success of confessional regimes, magisterial Protestant as well as Catholic, in suppressing radical Protestants between Munster in 1535 and England in the 1640s kept the number of radical Protestants small and their socio-political influence minimal. Thus the fact of political approval and support, essential to long term success in forging Lutheran or Reformed Protestant confessional identities across a wide swathe of the population, has for centuries been conflated with doctrinally and theologically normative Protestantism in the Reformation era. This is analytically unfortunate, because there is no intrinsic, necessary, or logical connection between enjoying political support and rightly interpreting God’s word…” (Pg.151)

To put it more simply, the “success” of Protestantism was not the victory of a purified doctrine, but of a secular power to enforce highly-contested doctrines. Please note that in this analysis, Gregory says the same was true of Catholic countries as they regrouped and reacted to the Protestant Reformation. Philip II’s Spain was as much a confessional state, with orthodoxy enforced by the royal government, as Elizabeth I’s England was. But Catholic doctrine was not engendered by the state or its appointees, as the doctrine of magisterial Protestant countries was. The essentially Erastian relationship between church and state in magisterial Protestant countries set the pattern for a secular control that would gradually compartmentalise and minimalise the role of religion in life.

This had huge effects on personal morality. Gregory’s fourth chapter
 “Subjectivizing Morality” considers again the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of canon law and attempt to build a purely Bible-based system of morality. But no such unified system developed because there were so many differences among Biblical interpretations. The way was opened for morality to be relativised. After the hugely destructive wars of religion, the solution (pioneered in 17th. Century Holland) was to separate something called “religion” from the rest of life. Once Christianity and worship were compartmentalised as purely private activity, codes of morality became simply matters of personal preference. Self-interest became the dominant morality, with no moral system to unify society or internalise social duties. In detailing the long-term consequences of this, Gregory can become quite satirical, but justifiably so, as in:

“… the widespread default in  Western societies at large is emotivism, an ethics of subjective, feelings-based, personal preference, which only exacerbates the unresolved and irresolvable disagreements. The de facto guideline for the living of human life in the Western world today seems simply ‘whatever makes you happy’ – ‘so long as you’re not hurting anyone else’ – in which the criteria for happiness too, are self-determined, self-reported, and therefore immune to critique, and in which the meaning of ‘hurting anyone else’ is assumed to be self-evident, unproblematical, or both. Because there is no shared framework in which such disagreements might be rationally debated and perhaps overcome, and yet life goes on, moral disagreements are translated socially into political contestation within an emotivist culture – one that is closely related to if not largely identical with the individualistic ‘therapeutic culture’ diagnosed by Philip Rieff.”(Pg.182)

Or again, addressing the foundational incoherence of secular morality:

It is not uncommon to hear people insist on the constructed arbitrariness of moral values and yet denounce certain human actions as wrong because they violate human rights. That such a self-contradictory absurdity seems to be widespread and tends to escape the notice of its protagonists suggests both that it is deeply rooted and that it fulfils an important function. Its latter half depends on…’smuggling’: the importation of unacknowledged premises and convictions from normative religious worldviews that its protagonists have ostensibly discarded, and which are inadmissible on the protagonists’ own terms.” (Pg.225)

In what may be the book’s most pungent chapter, “Manufacturing the Goods Life”, Gregory notes that the medieval world-view condemned avarice and acquisitiveness. And, despite belittling the chosen poverty of monastic orders, so did the early Protestant Reformers:

The bottom line is clear; like radical Protestants, the magisterial reformers, including Calvin, unambiguously condemned avarice, acquisitive individualism, and any separation of economic behaviour from Biblical morality or the common good. Despite their rejection of voluntary poverty as a means to and expression of Christian holiness, their attitudes about the proper human relationships to material things and acquisitiveness are much closer to those of medieval Christianity than to the central assumptions of modern Western capitalism and consumerism…” (Pg.269)

But the individualisation and privatisation of belief in the Reformation led to the idea of personal merit unconnected with the greater social good. Hence, in societies where religion was privatised, the greater pursuit of individual profit became first acceptable, then the norm, as religion’s restraining caveats were also privatised. In chronicling all this, and especially in his analysis of early mercantile Holland, Gregory is not merely restating Max Weber’s famous century-old thesis on the connection between Protestantism and capitalism. Certainly there’s a Weberian tone to his account of Calvinism seeing the individual soul as depraved, seeking signs of God’s favour and “election”, and ultimately finding them in personal wealth. But Gregory is always aware, as Weber wasn’t, that rise of a consumer capitalism was an unintended outcome of the Protestant reformation – not intrinsic to it. For all that, he can trace a direct line from the privatised, individualised morality of the Erastian Protestant state to “shopping therapy” in the mall.

The book’s last chapter “Secularizing Knowledge” essentially restates some of the intellectual themes of the opening chapter– the journey from universities built around a shared Thomist-Aristotelean base to confessional Protestant states first privileging Bible studies in universities and then becoming secularised so that eventually theology was banished from the academies.

Despite the different materials of each chapter, there is a common theme. Privatised Biblical interpretation led to privatised religion, which in turn led to privatised morality, unconnected to corporate belief, Christian tradition or shared values. The disconnected individual became the centre of the universe and therefore the prime value became self-interest (whether spiritual or material). From this grew not only consumer capitalism, but also secular liberalism, which emphasises individual rights, but which, in and of itself, has nothing to say about the corporate good of the community as a whole. None of this was foreseen by Protestant Reformers and certainly none of this was intended, but it was the clearest long-term outcome of their efforts. To claim that Protestantism revivified Christianity, one would have to arbitrarily stop the clock at the relatively early point where reformers were attacking the many, gross and obvious abuses of the Catholic Church. But beyond that early phase, the Protestant Reformation did not work to perpetuate the Christian community.

How do I criticise this as a book? Of course, like all books which argue a case, it is in part a polemic, but it is a well-researched one and the case it makes is a good one. In future, those who disagree strongly with its conclusions will still have to grapple with its argument. In that sense it is bound to be seminal.

I do sometimes regret the author’s style. He can allow sentences to run on too long in too many subordinate clauses. But he can also makes points forcefully and pithily, as I hope the short passages quoted in this over-long notice prove.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE” by Miguel de Unamuno (“DEL SENTIMIENTO TRAGICO DE LA VIDA”) (first published in Spanish 1913; first translated into English by J.E.Crawford Flitch, with Unamuno’s active assistance, in 1921)

            It is odd how some prominent writers and thinkers are better remembered for events in their life than for anything in their written work.

For much of his lifetime, the Basque-born Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was regarded as Spain’s greatest philosopher. I do not speak Spanish and am no expert in Spanish writing and philosophy, so I do not know what Unamuno’s reputation is in Spanish-speaking countries now. But I do know that in English-speaking countries, and thanks to nearly every detailed history of the Spanish Civil War, he is best remembered for the circumstances of his death.

A sceptic, but of an essentially conservative temperament, Unamuno agreed with many of the Right’s criticisms of the Spanish Republic (1931-36) and feared the growing influence of the extreme Left. At first he welcomed the Franco revolt. But he was quickly shocked by the violence and extreme rhetoric employed by Francoists. Aged 72 in 1936, he was rector of the University of Salamanca. When the Nationalist forces took over the city, they expected Unamuno to preside at a victory celebration at the university. Instead, and in the face of angry and armed men, Unamuno gave a famous speech in which he denounced the Francoists’ hostility to Spain’s ethnic minorities (especially Basques) and the brutality of their programme. Only his international reputation saved him from being shot on the spot. He was escorted from the hall under the protection of Franco’s wife and was placed in virtual house arrest, where he died (most sources say “broken hearted”) ten weeks later.

Being remembered for this final show of heroism, Unamuno is regarded as an intellectual martyr in the face of Fascism. Those on the Left who have never looked into the matter might even believe he was some sort of “progressive”. So it will be surprising for some to discover that his most famous single work of philosophy The Tragic Sense of Life (Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida), written before the First World War, when he was in his late forties, is essentially an emotional defence of a conservative concept.

I read its 300-odd pages in a 1961 Collins “Fontana Library” paperback reprint of what is, I believe, the standard English translation (by J.E.Crawford Fitch). I give page references according to this translation.

My own summary of the ideas of The Tragic Sense of Life goes like this:

Man’s deepest awareness is of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. Therefore man’s deepest desire is for immortality, which is essentially a rebellion against the fact of death. This desire for immortality drives the greatest creative faculties in human beings. It is the desire for immortality that fires the imagination, makes people create great works of art and fuels our most intense sensual experiences. Immortality means the survival after death of the individual ego, consciousness and feeling. Unamuno will accept no substitutes for this concept, and waves away such ambivalent notions as pantheism or some sort of absorption into God after death. To defy death is to be most fully alive. To create anything of worth is to protest against death.

Only the existence of God can guarantee immortality. Therefore belief in the existence of God is necessary for a fully creative life. Whether God actually exists or not is beside the point. It is the belief in God’s existence that matters, even if God, in objective fact, is merely a product of the human imagination. Attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God are irrelevant to this creative necessity to believe in God, which is intrinsic to the human species. (God is absolutely essential to the world-view of any atheist.) It is also irrelevant whether God is Saviour or Redeemer. All that matters is the fact of the concept of God as Guarantor of life beyond death.

In Chapter Seven, Unamuno argues that love is the desire to perpetuate. Suffering centres on our finiteness. Pity is love extended to our fellow human beings. We are unconnected to the universe if the universe does not have personality. Therefore consciousness must be at the centre of the universe. This is God.

Thus argues Unamuno.
At once it can be seen that, as a philosophy, Unamuno’s thesis is deeply offensive to both believer and non-believer.

To the non-believer it is merely a clever play with words, and an evasion of the necessity to make a rational decision about whether or not God exists. Unamuno obfuscates. He is an obscurantist who enthrones imagination over reason. If you advocate belief in God, and yet suggest that God may not objectively exist, then you are being intellectually dishonest and living in bad faith. (And, inevitably, in trawling the ‘net I find that some of the most facile and bad-tempered of comments about this book came from Neo-Atheists.)

To the believer, Unamuno reduces metaphysics to mere aesthetics and he is just another symptom of the decay of belief. A God who is only imagined is no basis for ethics, piety and goodness. Unamuno’s philosophy is an invitation to religious formalism bereft of belief, and to that tribe of agnostic idiots who go to church because they like the music and the aesthetic traditions but have no time for the message. (And, inevitably, I find that once upon a time this book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books).

To both believer and non-believer, the existence or non-existence of God is a matter of vital importance and cannot be shuffled aside as a secondary issue. To both believer and non-believer, Unamuno is a successor to the aesthetes, whose religion was organised sensual experience (look up Walter Pater or Marius the Epicurean on the index at right). He is equally a precursor of the mid-20th century atheist Existentialists, who enthroned the ego and asked people to assert themselves by “choosing” in order to render life coherent and to annul the “absurd”, regardless of whether their “choice” pertained to any objective reality. It seems no accident to me that The Tragic Sense of Life (as well as being full of references to now-forgotten early 20th century academic works of theology and philosophy) is peppered with quotations from Pascal and Kierkegaard, the two major Christian thinkers who come closest to an Existential basis for their belief.

It is worth noting that whether or not Unamuno himself believed in God was very much a subject for debate throughout his life. His ambivalence on the matter is seen in passages such as:

To say that God is eternally producing things is fundamentally the same as saying that things are eternally producing God. And the belief in a personal and spiritual God is based on the belief in our own personality and spirituality. Because we feel ourselves to be consciousness, we feel God to be consciousness – that is to say, a person; and because we desire ardently that our consciousness shall live and be independently of the body, we believe that the divine person lives and exists independently of the universe, that his state of consciousness is ad extra.” (Chapter Seven, Pg.155)

To non-Spaniards who think in ethnic stereotypes, it is very easy to interpret Unamuno as a specifically Spanish phenomenon. After all, aren’t Spaniards the people who make a fetish of defying death in their traditional bullfighting? And isn’t the defining Spanish work of literature Don Quixote, about a man whose imagination redefines mundane material reality? Unamuno wrote many commentaries on Don Quixote, references to which abound in The Tragic Sense of Life. We are told that:

“[Don Quixote] was at heart a man of despair…and because he was a man of an heroical despair, the hero of that inward and resigned despair, he stands as the eternal exemplar of every man whose soul is the battleground of reason and immortal desire. Our Lord Don Quixote is the prototype of the vitalist whose faith is based upon uncertainty, and Sancho is the prototype of the rationalist who doubts his own reason.” (Chapter Six, Pg.128)

The book’s “Conclusion” is entitled “Don Quixote in the Contemporary European Tragi-Comedy”.

Imaginative reaction against banal materialism; rationalism (in the true philosophic sense) rather than empiricism; a tendency to walk on the dangerous edge of life and death, and to laud people who live by extremes (hello machismo) - all these things seem, to the uninformed non-Spaniard like myself, very much in the Spanish grain.

So Unamuno’s most comprehensive philosophical statement can be picked apart. Yet here is a paradox that will be known to any real student: even a deeply flawed philosophy can be very nourishing. And, in its many imaginative insights, The Tragic Sense of Life is a very nourishing book.

One of its most attractive features is Unamuno’s awareness that a valid philosophy has to take cognizance of the whole human being, not just of the (important – but limited) faculties of logic and reason. Throughout The Tragic Sense of Life he insists that philosophy springs from the personalities of philosophers; and the human consciousness is the centre of our reality.

Philosophy lies closer to poetry than to science.” (Chapter One Pg.22)

Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often have I seen a cat reason than laugh or weep.” (Chapter One Pgs. 22-23)

Man, by the very fact of being man, of possessing consciousness, is, in comparison with the ass or the crab, a diseased animal. Consciousness is a disease.” (Chapter One Pg.36)

Philosophy is the product of the humanity of each philosopher, and each philosopher is a man of flesh and bone who addresses himself to other men of flesh and bone like himself. And, let him do what he will, he philosophizes not with the reason only, but with the will, with the feelings, with the flesh and with the bones, with the whole soul and the whole body. It is the man that philosophizes.” (Chapter Two Pg.45)

Being aware that he himself, in his philosophizing, is as much emotion and imagination as he is reason and logic, Unamuno at one point introduces a line of argument in the following charming manner:

If in what follows you shall meet with arbitrary apothegms, brusque transitions, inconsecutive statements, veritable somersaults of thought, do not cry out that you have been deceived. We are about to enter – if it be that you wish to accompany me – upon a field of contradiction between feeling and reasoning, and we shall have to avail ourselves of the one as well as of the other.” (Chapter Six, Pg.132)

Because he has this deep sense that a valid philosophy is an address to the whole person, and not just to abstract reasoning, Unamuno anticipates and condemns some of the cant of the twentieth century. In the following two quotations, he could almost be talking about Wittgenstein or other mid- and late-20th century philosophers who reduce philosophy to a sterile word game:

 Language, the substance of thought, is a system of metaphors with a mythic and anthropomorphic base. And to construct a purely rational philosophy it would be necessary to construct it by means of algebraic formulas or to create a new language for it, an inhuman language…. in order to avoid preconceptions.” (Chapter Seven Pg.150)

Clear vision would be only attainable by a pure thinker who used algebra instead of language, and was able to divest himself of his own humanity – that is to say, by an unsubstantial, merely objective being; a no-being, in short. In spite of reason we are compelled to think with life, and in spite of life we are compelled to rationalize thought.” (Chapter Seven Pg.151)

He already knows the intellectual ducking-and-weaving most agnostics indulge in, as they try to avoid the question of the existence or non-existence of an after-life:

 All this talk of a man surviving in his children, or in his works, or in the universal consciousness, is but vague verbiage which satisfies only those who suffer from affective stupidity…” (Chapter One, Pg.35)

Likewise, he knows that an intense hostility to religion is itself a form of religion and has in it the seeds of its own absolutism:

Philosophy and religion are enemies, and because they are enemies they have need of one another. There is no religion without some philosophical basis, no philosophy without roots in religion.” (Chapter Six Pg.122)

It is the old story: so called scientific philosophy, the origin and inspiration of which is fundamentally theological or religious, ending in an atheology or irreligion, which is itself nothing but theology and religion.” (Chapter Ten Pg.233)

The rationalist [in this case the word is not used in the Cartesian sense] acts rationally – that is to say, he does not speak out of his part – so long as he confines himself to denying that reason satisfies our vital hunger for immortality; but, furious at not being able to believe, he soon becomes a prey to the odium anti-theologicum….”(Chapter Five Pg.105)

 Note the greater part of our atheists and you will see that they are atheists from a kind of rage, rage at not being able to believe that there is a God. They are the personal enemies of God. They have invested Nothingness with substance and personality, and their no-God is an Anti-God.” (Chapter Six Pg.129)

In this case he could almost be talking about Hitchens, Dawkins et al, who not only reject God, but devote a lot of energy to being angry with God. (Hitchens called himself not an Atheist but an Anti-theist, which suggests a personal engagement with the not-believed-in.)

Using the word “rationalist” in the loose sense of “one who believes that Reason answers to all human needs”, Unamuno also anticipates a fatal flaw in much 20th century lauding of Reason as the basis for ethics [look up “The Unreason of Pure Reason” on the index at right]. This is the delusion that Reason, in and of itself, can assign value to things. It can’t. Reason always has to lean on axioms, assumptions and presuppositions – in other words, beliefs – before it can even begin to work:
             Just as eunuchs will never know aesthetics as applied to the selection of beautiful women, so neither will pure rationalists ever know ethics, nor will they ever succeed in defining happiness, for happiness is a thing that is lived and felt, not a thing that is reasoned about and defined.” (Chapter Five Pg.110)


            Faith makes us live by showing us that life, although it is dependent upon reason, has its well-spring and source of power elsewhere, in something supernatural and miraculous.” (Chapter Nine Pg.192)

            Reason unalloyed can lead only to scepticism:

The rational isolation ends in dissolving reason itself; it ends in the most absolute scepticism, in the phenomenalism of Hume or in the doctrine of absolute contingencies of Stuart Mill, the most consistent and logical of the positivists. The supreme triumph of reason, the analytical – that is, the destructive and dissolvent – faculty, is to cast doubt upon its own validity.” (Chapter Five pp.113-114)

As you can see, I find it very easy to quote wise things Unamuno said, even if I find his philosophy flawed. That is because I read his book as a species of imaginative literature which in a sense (and as Unamuno himself argues) is what all philosophy is, even that which imagines it is most “objective” and scientific.

I am particularly intrigued by his love-hate relationship with Catholicism. Unamuno affirms the felt and instinctive version of Catholicism as most satisfying our immortal craving, but he accuses the church of substituting rationalism for faith. Thus he is as much the enemy of Aquinas and of Thomism as he is of Voltaire and his heirs.

The institution whose primordial end is to protect the faith in the personal immortality of the soul is Catholicism; but Catholicism has sought to rationalize this faith by converting religion into theology, by offering philosophy, and a philosophy of the thirteenth century, as a basis for vital belief.” (Chapter Three Pg.71)

             Not by the way of reason, but only by the way of love and suffering, do we come to the living God, the human God. Reason rather separates us from Him. We cannot first know Him in order that we may afterwards love Him; we must begin by loving Him, longing for Him, hungering after Him before knowing Him. The knowledge of God proceeds from the love of God, and this knowledge has little of nothing of the rational in it.” (Chapter Eight Pg.170)

            Other, unconnected, reflections of Unamuno appeal to me. “A rabid mania for originality is rife in the modern intellectual world,” he says, very truly, “ and characterizes all individual effort. We would rather err with genius than hit the mark with the crowd.” (Chapter Three Pg.67)

            There is his profound insight that “science destroys the concept of personality by reducing it to a complex in continual flux from moment to moment – that is to say, it destroys the very foundation of the spiritual and emotional life, which ranges itself unyieldingly against reason.” (Chapter Six Pg.117)

            Then there is his Chapter Ten, entitled “Religion, the Mythology of the Beyond and the Apocatastasis”. Logically and correctly, Unamuno lists positivist and rationalist philosophies under the heading of mythology, they too being purely imaginative attempts at explaining central realities.

In running through the various ways an afterlife has been conceived, Unamuno makes this pungent comment:

A beatific vision, a loving contemplation in which the soul is absorbed in God and, as it were, lost in Him, appears either as an annihilation of self or as a prolonged tedium to our natural way of feeling. And hence a certain feeling which we not infrequently observe and which has more than once expressed itself in satires, not altogether free from irreverence or perhaps impiety, with reference to the heaven of eternal glory as a place of eternal boredom. And it is useless to despise feelings such as these, so wholly natural and spontaneous.” (Chapter Ten Pg.225)

Perfectly true. Heaven is seen as a place of boredom. Unamuno’s imaginative counter to this popular feeling is his suggestion that eternity could be the joy of endless discovery and development. As in this whole book, his endeavour is to preserve the uniqueness and vitality of the individual consciousness beyond this life.

            You can use your own imagination to accept or reject this.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


This could easily become grumpy-old-man territory. The Druid complaining that writing damages the memory and all things should be held in the brain. The writers about whom Colette complained in the 1920s, who said that too much (silent) cinema damaged the imaginations of children who watched it. The fears of any new medium, which some old codger is likely to express.

Throw away your Kindles and read real books, you Philistines!

Anyone who expresses such sentiments is likely to be told that he/she is an anachronism and incapable of understanding the fine interplay between expression and modern technology.

Yet at some stage I have to ask the questions.

Do we really need to take all the snapshots we take, or record all the family celebrations we record with our phone-cameras, so that we can paste them on Facebook? Shouldn’t we sometimes let things remain unrecorded, so that they can percolate and grow in our brains? Why not let our minds decide what is a priority in our lives, rather than letting mechanical recording devices chain us to their interpretation of reality?

I think of all those occasions when I have been at 21st birthday parties, or wedding anniversaries, or even wakes for the dead, and have seen a long string of photographs and images expressing every phase of the life of the beloved or the deceased or both.

Believe it or not, the precursor to this line of thought came to me when I was about eleven years old, and travelling on a tour bus through Vienna. In the seat in front of us was a Japanese gentleman who had, glued to his eye, a small cine-camera. (This was in the early 1960s and years before video, let alone more recent technology, had become common currency.) At the front of the bus, the Austrian tour guide would point out some notable feature of his beloved city  – a statue of Mozart or Johann Strauss; the Palace of Justice; the great cathedral with its variously-coloured roof; a gold-toned statue of a Soviet soldier which, at that time, and by a treaty obligation, the Austrians were obliged to leave standing as a memento of their occupation after the Second World War. 

And each time the tour guide spoke, the Japanese gentleman would swing around without once removing his eye from his view-finder, and film whatever had been pointed out.

It occurred to me, even with my primitive eleven-year-old brain, that he had never once looked with his own naked eye at what had been pointed out to him. He had let his camera do the looking. His experience was by proxy (No. I am not suggesting that I had the sophistication to articulate this at the age of eleven, although I felt it.) His only “real” experience of the things he “saw” would be when he played his movie back to his family in Osaka.

So, as we film with our phone-camera and paste what we photograph on Youtube, we are diminishing the power of our brain to discriminate among memories, and allowing technology to become our memory.

Perhaps it would be clearer if I left what I have to say in the form of a poem which I included in my collection The Little Enemy (Steele-Roberts, 2011).

The poem is called Long After It Was Heard No More.

I hope it makes sense to you.

Thank you for not bringing
the camera when I was twelve
feet tall, digging a cavern,
scaling impossible cliffs
meeting that noble and special
one (all of fifteen) before whom
I could abase and win.

Box Brownie, Kodak Instamatic
Polaroid, digital chip all
of them the same would have seen
hard sunlight, a fat and
owlish face with National Health-
type specs before they were
chic, overlong school shorts
to the knees and dark
socks and foolishness.

Thank you for not saving
the moment, for letting it
grow malleable and live
in this obtuse soft grey
organ. For not giving the
objective measurements
that lie like the truth.

“Did we really wear clothes
like that?”
                 No, we never did,
our being set in the present
and not the image’s memory.