- North/South: The Great European Divide by Ricardo J. Quinones
Some of the Western world's most momentous social and cultural transformations in the modern era can be traced back to the sixteenth century, specifically to the Protestant Reformation. This is the guiding insight behind Ricardo Quinones's erudite, yet accessible, study – that the Reformation was ground zero for "the most decisive and far-reaching event of the second half of the second millennium," the "division of European society and culture along a North/South axis." The book's thesis is summed up in the purportedly "simple fact" that "those countries which embraced" the Reformation's ideas and ideals "emerged victorious in the great divide that confronted continental Europe, while those which rejected or diminished these propositions committed themselves to a decline in intellectual drive and to an unwelcomed but inevitable stagnation." [End Page 174]
For Quinones, the central idea set forth by the Reformation was not that of a Weberian "'Protestant ethic' based upon Calvinist predestination" and rooted in a "doctrine of 'works'" that enabled northern Protestant nations to profit socially and economically over their southern Catholic counterparts. Instead, Quinones's "history of ideas" focuses on the religious and intellectual ferment around the concept of Christian liberty, epitomized in Martin Luther's teaching that it is only through Christ's sacrifice that "man knows himself to be free, free from the ceremonies and works that have been imposed on the Church and which do not contribute towards salvation." The idea of Christian liberty – first debated by Luther and Erasmus, and subsequently thrashed out in more secular contexts by such agonistic pairs as Machiavelli and Shakespeare, and Voltaire and Rousseau – is the "blockbuster concept" that "provided the intellectual firepower" behind the geopolitical dominance of northern Europe over Catholic states in the South.
Why should the idea of Christian liberty have appealed more to northern Protestants than southern Catholics and work more to the former's than the latter's benefit? Quinones frames his response over the course of a detailed examination of three other "lead ideas" or "formative principles" related to religious freedom: skepticism, tolerance, and time. Of these, skepticism has arguably been the most consequential. As a "daemonic" figure driven by his "inner persuasions," Luther "could not tolerate scepticism" or "a life lived in doubt." Yet his "realization that by himself there is no salvation" and his "scepticism about humanity's capacity to triumph over sin by means of personal resolutions" paradoxically instilled in him the certainty that salvation depended not on blind obedience to the Church but, rather, "on the freedom brought by Christ's sacrifice."
Implicit in the idea of religious freedom was "a tendency to go beyond theological matters, extending to political and civil liberties and a more basic freedom, that of thought." In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this progression towards secularism helped to initiate the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment in northern Europe. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, skepticism's dark side came to the fore in the guise of nihilism and relativism. In his closing chapter, Quinones acknowledges the "imposing unanticipated development [that] occurred when the very genius of protestantism seemed to turn against itself." But was this development unanticipated or even unprecedented? A page later, Quinones cites (without attribution) John Donne's mournful, yet accusatory, line about the "new philosophy that calls all in doubt" – a reference to Protestantism and the Reformation as the forces that, long before the twentieth century's oppressive ideologies, brought about Donne's brother's death and compelled the Catholic poet to take Anglican orders.
And why stop at the twentieth century? Despite Quinones's thesis that "the entry into political life of religious freedom" was a generally positive development in which (with John Milton and John Stuart Mill) Christian liberty evolved into secular "civic liberties" and "liberty of thought," has [End Page 175] the twenty-first century not seen a regressive subversion of Christian liberty? Has Protestantism as well as Catholicism all too often worked against freedom, as in the southern...