Epistemic status: uncertain, potentially confused.
Medieval Europe’s political life was extremely fractured. The old continent was ruled by a variety of often feuding kings, emperors, lords and princes. Yet, political and cultural life still had a certain level of cohesiveness thanks to unifying force of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Church provided medieval Europe with a common rule of law by setting, for example, rules for marriage and the inheritance of property. This allowed the Church to eventually gain possession of between a quarter and third of all lands in most European countries.
In the late eleventh century, the church also gained the power to appoint bishops, after what would become known as the investiture controversy, a power struggle lasting a few decades between popes and Holy Roman Emperors. Thus, the Church managed to establish itself as an important power broker, commanding loyalties and exercising sovereignty in a manner that transcended borders and traditional allegiances.
The investiture controversy is illustrative of Christianity’s awkward relationship with politics, and the tensions that have existed between secular rulers and religious authorities, ever since Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. Due to its origins as a minority sect under Roman rule, Christianity offers little guidance in the crafting of a just Christian political order. Unlike in Islam, there is no example for the Christian ruler to follow.
And yet, unexpectedly thrust into the position of dominant religion in Europe, religious and secular rulers had to wrestle with the question of how to apply Christian doctrines to political life. After all, how could a religion purporting to have knowledge of the will of the creator of the Cosmos – the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth – not have anything authoritative to say on the matter of politics?
Thus, Christian political-theology has been characterized by the tension between the “City of Man,” the temporal realm of nature, suffering, sin, and political necessities, and what Saint Augustine called the “City of God,” the eternal realm of salvation, grace and divine justice.
Europe’s precarious religious unity was shattered with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517. He challenged the authority of the pope, and a number of doctrines of an increasingly corrupt Catholic Church, most famously the selling of indulgences.
The printing press allowed Luther’s ideas to spread almost unrestricted across Europe, starting the bloody European wars of religion. The historian and political scientist Mark Lilla describes: “doctrinal differences fuelled political ambitions and vice versa, in a deadly, vicious cycle that lasted a century and a half. Christians addled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury they had once reserved for Muslims, Jews and heretics. It was madness.” At the height of the conflicts, parts of Germany lost over half of its population.
The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 finally marked the end of the conflicts, and is often credited with being the origin of the international order of independent sovereign states we have today. The conflicts ravaged much of Europe, and yet no agreement on the true religion seemed in sight, and so the signatories of the treaty agreed to the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, “whose realm, their religion." Each ruler was given authority over religion in their territory, and was not to interfere in the religious affairs of neighbouring countries.
The Peace of Westphalia however did not mean the end of political-theology. Religious minorities would still be persecuted across Europe, and political authority thought to be deriving from God. The credit for the intellectual work that began the release of Europe from the grip of political-theology goes to Thomas Hobbes.
In his treatise Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes undertook a devastating critique of Christian political-theology, and laid the ground-work that allowed later thinkers to conceive of politics as wholly separate from religion. Lilla explains: “Hobbes showed the way out by doing something ingenious: he changed the subject.”
Rather than focusing on the many doctrinal controversies that had caused all the bloodshed, and trying to figure out how God, man and the world were related, he instead focused only on man and his religious nature. For Hobbes, most human striving can be boiled down to a desire for power, whether it be in the form of riches, knowledge or honour. Humans have “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” For this reason, mankind in its natural condition is in a state of “war of all against all.”
In addition to this, the human mind is unreliable, ignorant, biased by fears and passions, and incapable of understanding anything about God. According to Hobbes, people turn towards those who claim to have special insight into God’s will because of their ignorance and fear. They fear this terrifying, omnipotent agency, able to both make dreams come true, and, in its wrath, make one endure horrifying torture. And therefore people claim to have knowledge of God only for the sake of power.
But, if Hobbes is right about the limitations of the human mind, no one can have special knowledge of this omnipotent being, including those who claim to speak in its name. This undermined the traditional Christian conception of man, as sinful, and yet able to make sense of and speak intelligibly of God. Hobbes thus put anyone claiming power on the basis of revelation on the defensive. Those asserting special knowledge of the divine would have to justify how one could rely on their claims, given the biased and error-prone human mind.
And so, what is the solution for Hobbes? If believers cannot agree on the nature and will of God, if they’re too fallible, and God is too unknowable, then humans need a person, the Leviathan, to act as one. This sovereign would have full authority over all political and religious questions, and declare obedience to himself as sole prerequisite for salvation. Rather than basing politics on a covenant with God, humans needed a social contract with an all powerful human “sovereign” responsible for upholding the peace.
For Hobbes, the impossibility to agree on the will of God, the remote intersubjective Leviathan that had ruled European Christendom until Luther, or on its legitimate representative on Earth, meant that people needed an actual human God to take its place. As Lilla puts it, Hobbes “placed an ‘earthly God’ on God’s own throne.” In Leviathan, Hobbes thus advocated for a “Kingdom of God by Nature,” not in heaven, but on earth, taking the form of a civil commonwealth.
Hobbes was followed by a number of liberal critics, such as Baruch Spinoza, David Hume and, most influential, John Locke who would build on Hobbes’ ideas conceiving of politics as separate from revelation, and solely focused on the common good. These critics would distinguish themselves from their extremely controversial intellectual forefather by developing a theory of politics in which Hobbes’ all powerful tyrant was impossible.
Locke and subsequent thinkers would present a more optimistic theory of human nature and devise a political order of consensual government, in which power would be limited, widely shared and bound by a rule of law and certain inalienable rights.
Hobbes’ Leviathan, rather than taking the form of an all powerful individual, turned into an elaborate system of checks and balances. These ideas found their first and most important application in the founding of the United States, the first modern liberal constitutional republic. As James Madison writes in the Federalist papers, to prevent tyranny “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Locke and subsequent thinkers also differed from Hobbes in how they viewed the place of religion.
Rather than arguing that we merge politics and religion, by having a single head of both state and of a common civil religion, they went the other direction. Both Hobbes and his liberal critics agreed that the aim was to prevent further bloodshed over religious differences, and in Lilla’s words, to “reorient [man] away from metaphysical questions he could not hope to answer and toward more mundane pursuits.”
Hobbes thought that achieving this meant vanquishing and replacing the “Kingdom of Darkness” represented by organized religion. Locke however believed that the Church could be liberalized, and so, rather than undermining the Church and religious doctrines, he argued that Christianity properly understood was compatible with religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and a strict separation of church and state. By creating a system of limited government separated from religion, with no right to impose a conception of truth or morality on individuals, Locke sought to stifle the religionists’ political ambitions.
In a world in which freedom, private property and life are protected and in which everyone is able to pursue their enlightened self-interest and their own private conception of the truth and the good, religious questions became a private matter. Lilla explains, “[Locke] and his followers simply wagered that as a tolerant liberal order made life on earth more appealing, thoughts about the afterlife would be delegated to Sunday services [and] people would simply lose the habit of engaging in eschatological disputes.”
Thus, unlike previous generations, assuming that life was, in Hume’s words, “a passage to something farther; a porch, which leads to a greater, and vastly different building,” citizens in this new liberal order would stop fighting over religious differences, reject any self-sacrifice driven by the religious promise of a radically better existence, and learn to peacefully coexist.
A New Picture of the Cosmos
Alongside these thinkers, building the intellectual foundations of the Western, secular, liberal conception of politics, Christianity and religious authorities also lost influence with the fall of Christian cosmology and the rise of the natural sciences.
Progressively, phenomena previously attributed to a supernatural omnipotent agency were shown to follow orderly, blind mathematical laws, leaving little space for divine providence. For Christian thinkers attempting to reconcile Christianity with the emerging natural sciences, God became the prime mover, the architect or the clockmaker. A creator that had made the world in the language of mathematics, and then stepped back, to only occasionally intervene in human affairs.
In contrast to the many protracted apologies of the Abrahamic God, justifying his existence in a Universe that revealed itself to be increasingly comprehensible without any appeal to the supernatural, stood Baruch Spinoza’s more radical monist proposition. Spinoza rejected any theistic conception of God.
For Spinoza, God is “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator.” God was ‘being itself,’ infinite and necessary. He saw the universe and everything as being a part of a single “infinite substance,” which seems to play a similar role as “Mathematics” in Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis. He explains, “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.” Thus, for Spinoza, the “intellectual love of God” was synonymous with understanding of nature. As we understand nature more and more, we become increasingly closer to God.
Of course, Spinoza's attempted reconciliation of his naturalistic world-view, and religious language has had its discontents. Both Isaac Newton and the biologist and anti-theist Richard Dawkins would probably agree to call Spinoza an atheist, at least according to the way the word is used by most today. Newton, because such a God of “blind metaphysical necessity,” “without dominion, providence, and final causes” deserved no adoration, and Dawkins, because the adoption of such Spinozist language by scientists obscures the fact that science is incompatible with the claims made by supernaturalists.
No truly emotionally satisfying reconciliation was possible. While Christian medieval cosmology waned, the newly materializing, rudimentary, incomplete, naturalistic description of the cosmos appeared too lacking to take its place.
Lilla argues: “there would be no new Christian “world-picture” to replace the medieval conception of God, man, and world after the scientific revolution. ... It is not true … that we now take bearings from a new picture of the cosmos that emerged from the new sciences. We have never lived in a Copernican, or Newtonian, or Darwinian, or Einsteinian world. The fact that we can draw such a list proves the point: we have lost the “world,” If by world we mean the natural “whole” that Greeks and Christians once thought linked God and man. Instead, modern man lives with an ever-changing string of hypotheses about the cosmos and must resign himself to the fact that whatever picture he finds adequate today will probably be found inadequate tomorrow.” The new dispassionate study of the universe seemed too immaterial, tentative, and disconnected from people’s lives to truly displace the religious ‘world picture.’
Thus, the rise of the natural sciences also meant the disappearance of a motivating cosmology. People ceased to be preoccupied with the question of how their actions fit in with the transcendent whole of which they were apart. Reacting to Einstein’s disavowal of any kind of personal God, in favour of the “God of Spinoza” and a “cosmic religion” derived from the wonder at our scientific understanding of the universe, the reverend Fulton Sheen mockingly asked if anyone would ever lay down his life for the Milky Way. The study of the cosmos seemed to have become nothing more than the contemplation of our newly revealed, unmooring, cosmic insignificance.
Alongside a disenchanted view of the world, came also a new conception of human nature. Locke’s support for strong property rights was followed by Adam Smith’s defence of humans as narrowly self-interested economic agents. Indeed, he explained, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, individuals acting in their own selfish interest often also unwittingly contributed to the common interest. As Smith famously put it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
The question of how to lead a life primarily guided by moral considerations took a back seat. People could continue turning towards Christianity for moral guidance, but in this new secular order in the making, people’s moral impulse appeared increasingly superfluous, if not at odds with, a functioning society. A world of bounded, narrowly self-interested economic agents turned out to give rise to a much more peaceful and pleasant society than one populated with unbounded spiritual and moral entrepreneurs.
The legacy of Hobbes, Locke and the scientific revolution was a society in which questions of politics, science and religion became intellectually compartmentalized. Questions relating to religious truths, and alongside them, first principles questions about morality, metaphysics and the destiny of humankind were deemed too unknowable or too dangerous and were pushed out of politics and into the realm of private belief. A Great Separation took place between religion and politics. The trauma of more than a century of bloodshed had caused a learned helplessness around certain profound first principles questions. Taking some ideas too seriously had become a recipe for calamity.
At the same time, the new scientific understanding of a cold, uncaring cosmos offered little direction in terms of how to conduct human affairs, modern liberal politics became unambitious, focused on the here and now, tasked with little more than keeping the peace and facilitating commerce. And meanwhile, the Church progressively ceased to claim having any special insights into the workings of the universe. Science and religion were increasingly seen by many, as Stephen Jay Gould put it, as two “non-overlapping magisteria.”
The Continental Tradition
The Anglo-American liberal tradition of intellectual separation promoted by Locke and his followers was later accompanied by a different liberal tradition in continental Europe, attempting to reconcile religion with secular modernity. In this project, the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proved extremely influential. In his Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, Rousseau presents an impassionate defence of man’s moral and religious nature. Humans are driven by curiosity and guided by a moral lumiere interieure (inner light), and so religion is inevitable in human societies. Rousseau’s Vicar ends his monologue thusly:
“Adopt only those of my sentiments which you believe are true, and reject all the others; and whatever religion you may ultimately embrace, remember that its real duties are independent of human institutions - that no religion upon earth can dispense with the sacred obligations of morality - that an upright heart is the temple of the Divinity - and that, in every country and in every sect, to love God above all things, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the substance and summary of the law - the end and aim of religious duty.”
Rousseau thus argued for a post-Christian moral, deistic religiosity, which would be neutral on most doctrinal questions. Rousseau influenced a new tradition of political thought that, like Hobbes, rejected the intellectual compartmentalization promoted by the Anglo-American liberal tradition, and saw religion, morality and politics as inevitably intertwined.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant continued this line of thought, rejecting religious revelation, while arguing that a Christianity reformed by reason could be a positive moral and political actor. Thus, according to Kant, because of people’s religious nature, they need to form an “ethical community,” a “church invisible” in the pursuit of the “highest good.” As Lilla explains, Kant “translat[ed] Christian concepts of sin and eschatology into modern terms of moral inclination and historical progress.”
One of Kant’s most enduring contributions to Western thought came in the 1784 essay An Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View. He proposed that human history, and the development of human societies, could have an intelligible directionality and an end point, driven by aspirations for freedom and by human competitiveness. He writes: “The highest purpose of Nature, which is the development of all the capacities which can be achieved by mankind, is attainable only in society, and more specifically in the society with the greatest freedom. … [A] perfectly just civic constitution, is the highest problem Nature assigns to the human race.”
The German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel would be the one to take Kant’s ideas one step further. In Hegel’s conception, protestant Christianity represented the “absolute religion” and the last great slave ideology. Christianity’s conception of all men created equal, with inherent dignity, and capable of moral choice made it the culmination of the historical process and allowed for the development of liberal societies based on human freedom and equality.
The problem with Christianity however, according to Hegel, was that it taught the slave to accept their lack of freedom by teaching that the realization of human freedom and equality could only happen in a heaven beyond, thereby leading slaves to accept their unfreedom. Christians thus ended up imprisoned by their idea of God. Hegel by contrast argued that the kingdom of God existed on earth. God lives through the Christian community, and his Kingdom is being realized in the here and now.
Thus, the last step in human ideological evolution was the realization that God did not create man, man created God, and thus man possessed the creative power previously ascribed to God. For Hegel, this historical evolution was also reflected in the evolution of the phenomenology of the human mind, which, in the end, reaches the state of “absolute knowing” and realizes that it is utterly alone in the Universe, and thereby can start seeing itself as its own liberator.
He therefore saw the French Revolution, and the subsequent exportation of its ideals of human equality by Napoleon across Europe, as the culmination of humanity’s Universal History.
By rejecting the divine rights of kings, and the old feudal order, the French revolution had finally taken the Christian ideal of human equality before God and implemented it in its secular political institutions. Thus, for Hegel, the “state is the march of God on Earth,” by which he meant that humanity was making God a reality on Earth through the apparatus of the modern state. The modern rational nation state had become the primary locus of agency and driver of History, and the expression of the highest good. Henceforth, debates about individual moral responsibility would progressively be replaced with political debates about the responsibilities of the state.
For Hegel, his philosophy constituted, in a sense, a theodicy. Humans could become reconciled with the world and the evils of the historical process “through the awareness of the true end-goal of the world” for it would reveal that “evil had not prevailed in any ultimate sense.” And by sanctifying modern bourgeois life, Hegel suggested that this end-goal was at hand. In his own way, just as Locke before him, Hegel managed to elide the treacherous question of humanity’s teleology. Locke maintained that it was too difficult a question, and so managed to push it out of politics. Hegel argued that the answer had already been produced.
Lilla sums up Hegel’s philosophy as “collaps[ing] God into man and what man creates in history (deus sive homo)” just as Spinoza had “collaps[ed] God into nature (deus sive natura).”
Hegel’s theodicy left many dissatisfied. For Christians, modern bourgeois life fell well short of the Christian heaven that was promised, notwithstanding Hegel’s efforts to couch his philosophy in language maintaining some symbolic continuity with Christianity.
The most ambitious and influential disciple and critic however turned out to be Karl Marx, whose ideas would go on to demonstrate that secular ideas could be just as dangerous as religious ones.
Marx acknowledged that “the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, ha[d] created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” And yet, while mechanization and the industrial revolution seemed to bring about an age of relative abundance, it appeared that for a big share of the population – the proletariat – circumstances weren’t actually improving.
In Marx’ historical materialist philosophy, the owners of capital had simply replaced the old feudal masters, leaving the lower classes behind, no freer than before. Meanwhile, the new modes of production lead to the alienation of the workers from their work, leaving them as cogs in a machine they did not understand. And orchestrating this new state of affairs was money, an “alien mediator,” a distorting, commodifying, and dehumanizing “entity outside man and above man,” the “bond of all bonds.” He thus thought that the true destiny of humankind was a communist utopia, and that Hegel’s bourgeois paradise was only transitional.
Marx’s ideas hit a nerve, and would go on to inspire countless political movements and revolutions. However, finding better stewards of capital than the ‘bourgeoisie’ turned out to be much harder than Marx could have imagined. Over the century following Marx’ death, attempts to devise a radically different system that would put the productive capacities and capital of an economy in more legitimate, just, competent or beneficent hands than in a capitalistic social democracy seemed to have lead to dictatorship, economic ruin and, in many cases, the death of millions.
And for what? Wasn’t Hegel right after all? For all its apparent flaws, wasn’t capitalism, alongside an appropriate democratic welfare state, delivering on its promises, and making the bourgeois way of life accessible to an ever-increasing number of people?
Thus, in his famous 1989 article The End of History?, Francis Fukuyama, building on the ideas of Hegel and the Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, argues that the Western liberal democracy with a market economy represented “the final form of human government” and of social organization. We have reached the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union represented the defeat of the only credible alternative. Marx, influenced by Hegel, had put forward a different historicist picture, which failed. History, driven by the forces of science and technology on the one hand, and of “the struggle for recognition” on the other, was coming to a close.
For Fukuyama, we are thus heading towards a world in which the “willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” All the fundamental, first principles, high-stakes questions have been answered.
This was not to say that events would stop happening, or that much of the world has still to attain this post-Historical state. Only that no credible alternative existed, and that sooner or later, assuming everything goes right, all countries would end up looking like modern Western liberal democracies. The only future still worth looking forward to is one in which the whole world has attained a life similar to that in the richest and freest countries today. No credible vision of a radically different and better future remained. Nothing that could legitimately challenge this modest bourgeois utopia that much of humanity had managed to attain. Fukuyama thus set forth the implicit assumptions at the heart of the post-Cold War liberal political, and economic world order.
In his 1992 book The End of History, he explains: “History was not a blind concatenation of events, but a meaningful whole in which human ideas concerning the nature of a just political and social order developed and played themselves out. And if we are now at a point where we cannot imagine a world substantially different from our own, in which there is no apparent or obvious way in which the future will represent a fundamental improvement over our current order, then we must also take into consideration the possibility that History itself might be at an end.”
Following in the footsteps of Hegel and Kojève, Fukuyama presents us with a secular, liberal eschatological vision in which “the End” has already arrived, even while not yet evenly distributed. Classical liberalism was triumphant over the Marxist eschatological vision of a Communist utopia, as well as the religious eschatological visions of the monotheistic religions. Humanity has fulfilled its destiny.