Passage to Modernity: A review.

Note: This review was written some years ago and I no longer agree with all of my conclusions.

In his book Passage to Modernity, Louis Dupré seeks to investigate the effects of the break up between both “the transcendent constituent and it’s cosmic human counterpart” (p.3), and the person and cosmos, it is this break that caused the failure of the ontotheological synthesis. Dupré sees this change as having a very real and permanent effect on the realities of the (modern) world since “History…excludes any reversal of the present” (p.6). This has led philosophers to a dynamic sense of Being, where Being is slowly revealed to us through the passage of history, making truth a movement; never fully present but ever changing. “Where there is truth, there is permanent, though not necessarily static, meaning” (p.8). Dupré’s goal in searching the past is to find permanent meaning (p.9). Dupré does a good job highlighting what was lost because of the rejection of the medieval synthesis but it seems to me however, that in order to even start having this conversation Dupré has to make some huge presuppositions. Dupré picks these thing because of his own cultural, religious and pragmatic reasons. He mourns the loss of the synthesis not because it was true but since it worked (at one time) to bring about a sense of meaning. However, it would be a logical fallacy to assume because something helped bring meaning to people that it had truth to it, or even because something is true it necessarily brings meaning.

Dupré starts his search with a look at the greek philosophers’ notion of physis, as the “source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself” (p.17) which becomes part of the all encompassing kosmos made up of physis, ethos, nomos, and logos. Gradually form became the centre of Greek thought and the very essence of being. Form is spiritual in nature and separate from the physical appearance. For the Greek thinkers nature is saturated with logos (mind) making the kosmos intelligible. This Reason is not in the human mind but intrinsic to the Real itself - it is this impoverishment of the logos within the developing human subject and not in nature itself that deprived humanity of meaning.

The divine nature of the kosmos creates a problem for Christians however. In the Christian tradition, the world, rather emanating from God, is created ex nihilo and is therefore both separate from God and not divine. Christians make changes to the Greek thought in order to incorporate it into Christian thinking.

For Christians, the image of God in man had been distorted by sin, the two Christian answers to the problem of sin were the West’s idea of healing and East’s idea of deification (union with God). Eventually, love and devotion for the individual of Christ, as advanced by Francis of Assisi succeeded in overthrowing the ontological priority of the universal with the help of such thinkers such as Bonaventure and Ockham. Dupré thinks that this is a rejection of a synthesis, but what if modernity is only a rejection of Greek side of the coin? In adopting Greek thought, Christianity has also suffered from its rejection. It seems to me that at some point Dupré must feel that early Christians got it (somewhat) right, but with the acceptance of Greek thought into the Christian worldview and the subsequent division of Creator and creation there is already the start of the modification (read: rejection) of Greek thought and the movement of God away from the world. Therefore it seems plausible that the very “acceptance” of Greek thought was the beginning of its rejection.

Dupré then argues that men such as Galileo and Bacon removed God from the physical universe by insisting that the universe is self-sufficient and governed, not by God but by mathematical laws, which for some became more real than the physical universe. For Bacon the forms become the fixed laws of nature. As technological progress increases the conception of the world as a machine dominates. The physical universe therefore looses all teleological purpose. Dupré’s argument makes sense in the landscape of the history of thought, it seems evident that such conceptions of reality would create a dualism in nature and the supernatural, and would create the problems highlighted. The problem is though, as stated in his introduction, he wants to find meaning in truth and I am forced to ask “why is this Christianity true and not another one?” His conception of truth, it seems to me, is completely pragmatic: it brought about meaning. Does truth always bring about meaning? More importantly, does falsehood deprive life of meaning? To both I would argue an emphatic no!

In the second section Dupré argues that God/nature slowly became the object, while the human self became the subject. Augustine recognized the self but did not make the Christian person an atomic entity since he realized that it participated in the mystical body of Christ. However, the distancing of humans from nature gradually became more evident in art and poetry as language became the interpretive model for nature. Words lost their sacramental value because of theories advanced by people such as Ockham who argued that words externally refer to things but do not participate in them. With nature now submitted to human purposes, along with the dualist break, this meant that the subject shifted from God to self, and the self as the thinking subject must define the world and God. This second section is the best section of Dupré’s book, the movement of humans to subjective beings is well laid out and argued, and seems to be a strong reason for a lose of meaning, since meaning now had to be found in the individual.

Next the Greek idea of freedom (as rational necessity) breaks down and God’s will is placed above rational thought, “God’s sovereign power is not intrinsically bound by any necessity other than that of it’s absolute freedom” (p.123). Laws once came from God, who is the Law-giver, but once the self became the subject man became the law-giver and the will of man, not rationality, became the moral standard. When politics comes into view it is what is best for the state that is considered, not Christian virtue.

Next Dupré argues that the idea of progress was generated by the thought that the past was not infinitely repeatable but irreducibly different. This change led to an awareness that humanity is capable of shaping its own destiny. With the rapid advancement in the sciences the concept of progress began to take shape and gave way to unlimited potential, the future took the priority over the past and present and insisted on the realization of present anticipation. These shifts along with the subjective self forced the question, “How do I know what is?” This led to the ontological dismissal of history. History became unjustified and unexplained. I think Dupré is right to see history as losing it’s role as a teacher and as a giver of meaning. This lose has been exemplified in modern culture by a disdain for the old, and it is even seen in Christian circles as downgrading of the Old Testament or Church Fathers.

In the last section Dupré describes the breakdown of the Medieval synthesis and the attempts to restore the synthesis. Dupré sees this as an attack on the Aristotelian philosophy by the nominalists. He highlights Scotus and Ockham and the separation and distortion of potentia absoluta from potentia ordinata. By the 16th century pure nature was considered a concrete independent reality, giving rise to both philosophical and natural theology. Dupré then highlights attempts from two natural theologians to bridge the divide that the nominalists created: Bruno, whose religious naturalism borderlines (or encroaches) on pantheism and Cusanus who argued that a finite being’s identity comes only from union with the absolute making God’s immanence secure cosmic unity. Both attempts fail.

Attempted reunions are considered in 3 movements in chapter 8. The reformation looks at the often misunderstood Luther and Calvin; humanist religion focuses on Valla who attempted to use Epicureanism to his advantage and Erasmus, who attempted to use scripture as divine drama and saw Christianity as something to be lived. The “philosophy of Christ” for Erasmus, is the restoration of the human nature through transformation by grace; and the Jansenist attempt considers Catholics attempts at reconciliation.

In the end, Dupré has written a great roadmap to how the western world found itself where it is today. And to be sure, there are many things worth lamenting over (such as the loss of meaning and the person as a subject) and saving from those bygone eras. Additionally, it’s hugely important to know where the human race has been. However, it does not seem obvious to me that the medieval synthesis was necessarily ‘true’, or that Dupré’s search of the philosophical past will end in finding scraps of permanent meaning (meaning for him perhaps). Dupré’s final page of his conclusion is one of the best pages in the book: we should be critical of modernity, yet we should also be holding on to the good things that modernity brings, lest the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, thus, repeating the mistakes of the past.