September 29, 2011

Secularism or how to change the subject

One of the great myths of modernity is that the battle between secularist politics and religion is a battle in which one side roars about evolution and science and the other counters with revelation and faith. To argue this is to frankly misunderstand the nature of both secularism and religion. It is not conclusive but often instructive to look at the origins of discussions. Mark Lilla in his study of the rise of secular politics identifies the important switch as being made, not by those who opposed religion, but by those who wished to ignore it. Lilla's argument is that the seventeenth century thinkers who created modern secular politics- specifically Hobbes and Locke- did so by suggesting that those who discussed the nexus between religion and politics did not offer the wrong answers, they got the questions wrong.

The traditional set of questions about the interrelationship between religion and politics focussed on the divine nature of rule and rules and the roles of church and state within an entity that recognised the authority of God. Calvinists and Lutherans alike wished the realm to be based upon divine law- or as William Sedgewick said for example to create an English or a European Isreal. Hobbes in Leviathan- according to Lilla- said that the problem with this wasn't that it was wrong but that it answered the wrong question. For Hobbes the sixteenth and seventeenth century had shown that polities built upon religion swiftly became polities built upon confessional identity. He argued that the real question for men to understand, if they were to enter politics, was not how religion and politics should relate, but what were the reasons that men believed. He turned the study of the relationship of politics and religion from a question of theory- a question of bringing theology into the world- into a question about anthopology, a question about how religion influenced the world.

Lilla's complication of the secularist narrative is not enough: I reccomend Katznelson et al's recent volume on the subject. However I think it is important because it establishes a feature of secular thinking that is less understood today. Grotius famously argued that his theories were independent of his own religious beliefs. He argued this, and Hobbes argued this, because they believed that conflict over religious belief had rendered European society after the reformation impossible to live within. You may disagree with their point of view- however the historical change caused by their reaction to the English Civil War and Thirty Years War is profound. The profoundity is not caused by either thinker's attack on religion (Hobbes's religion is a fascinating subject) but by the fact that what they were interested in was religion's role in politics. In this sense, they pick up on the interest of Machiavelli centuries earlier who also was interested in asking the question, what does religion do to society, rather than asking the question, what would God ask me to do within politics.

I think Lilla is right to mark this as an important move in the argument. As my citation of Machiavellli suggests- there are antecedents to this train of thinking. But the suggestion that secular politics represents not so much a change of thought as a change of subject is one that I think is interesting and worthy of consideration. Definitely looking at today's politics and seventeenth century politics, the main difference I can see is the refocussing of the subjects that politics talks about. One of the difficulties of working on earlier periods is looking across that chasm- between a politics of economics and society to a politics of confession and godliness.

September 25, 2011

The Glamour Boy

In the 1930s, Conservative MPs would refer to Anthony Eden and his coterie of friends as glamour boys, good looks but not many accomplishments to back them up. Whether you think that's true or not of Eden, its something that Peter Green argues is true of Alcibiades, the Athenian politician. Green doesn't think much of Alcibiades- the great defector of Athenian politics, the designer of the Sicilian expedition- who seduced everyone in Athenian politics, bar Socrates, and never, according to Green, succeeded in any of his projects. Alcibaides is an interesting figure- he is an important character both in the history of Thucydides and in the philosophy of Plato. What I find fascinating about Green's article though is how the glamour of Alcibiades has lingered down the years, warping the analysis of the historians who have studied the politics of the late fifth century BC.

I find this fascinating because I think its something that effects us all as we look at the past. Strong images and attachments form as you read about actors within history. Anyone who honestly confesses to themselves about how they read or understand history will confess to that attraction to a cause or personality within the past. The personal glamour of someone like Cleopatra for example has warped judgements of Egypt in that period- do you know any other Ptolemaic sovereigns? We see Egypt in the first century BC sometimes through the lens of two relationships- rather than seeing it as a declining power but a power nonetheless. The thing is that glamour is also something that arises from histories- Gibbon acknowledged in his own history of the decline and fall of Rome that he found the histories following Tacitus boring and dull. The primary sources form our judgements particularly of early history: one of the effects of television is perhaps that the glamour of a Blair doesn't have to be transmitted to a future historian through the pen of a Plutarch. One wonders how that direct impact of charisma will affect the judgementsw of future historians.