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  • On Catholic Responses to Our Devastated Saeculum
  • Thomas Pfau

Let mu begin with some remarks about the title of our Thomistic Institute symposium, "Intellectual Origins of Secularization and Catholic Intellectual Responses." To engage in speculation about origins, particularly where a phenomenon as complex as secularization is concerned, is bound to entangle us in the condition we are asked to diagnose. Thus, Alasdair MacIntyre has observed how genealogical inquiry, itself a distinctly modern endeavor, tends to "repudiate all the key features of accountability, understood in terms either of Socratic dialectic or of Augustinian confession." Implicitly, that is, a genealogical narrative about origins embraces the project of intellectual emancipation and demystification that drives David Hume's and Immanuel Kant's Enlightenment critiques of reason, and that is subsequently radicalized (and predictably turned against the Enlightenment itself) by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. Hence, MacIntyre notes, "the genealogical stance is dependent for its concepts and its modes of argument, for its theses and its style, upon a set of contrasts between it and that which it aspires to overcome—the extent, that is, to which it is derivative from and even parasitic upon its antagonisms … drawing its necessary sustenance from that which it professes to have discarded."1 Genealogical accounts of secularization and its putative "intellectual origins" are liable to remain beholden to a distinctly modern, secular conception of time that will alternatively take the form of a stridently progressive or an inexorably declensionist narrative.

Not coincidentally, genealogical accounts of either kind first came to [End Page 29] be championed both by major proponents of the secular Enlightenment and by some of its fiercest critics. We think of William Robertson's A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769), David Hume's History of England (1754–1761), Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789), and Immanuel Kant's Conjectural Beginning of Human History and Ideas for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (both in 1783). Concurrently, an equivocal or outright declensionist account of history, understood as a fatal and irreversible lapse from an original state, informs Jean-Jacques Rousseau's essay On the Origin of Language (1749) and his second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), which are unique in this regard and present him as both one of the major progenitors of a secular modernity and one of its sharpest critics. The list of writers engaged in fashioning origin-and-progress or decline-and-fall narratives could be extended almost indefinitely, to include Lord Monboddo (James Burnett), Edmund Burke, Johann Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Georg Hegel, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, Heinrich von Treitschke, Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, and so on. Suffice it to say, to frame our topic in terms of origins and the intellectual genre of a "genealogy" is to be implicated in a historicist conception of time that (for better or worse) bears the imprint of homo faber and to embrace what Charles Taylor has labeled modernity's "immanent frame." Whatever its particular "findings" may turn out to be, genealogical inquiry constitutes an implicitly secular undertaking, and as such, cannot elucidate the meaning of a secularity it already presupposes.2

A second set of questions arises from the invitation that we specifically attend to the intellectual origins of secularity. To be sure, any attempt to understand our present, secular condition will take the form of some intellectual account or argument. We may identify major patterns and topoi that seem palpably secular in kind and contrast them with the robustly theist metaphysics that gradually shaped Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, and [End Page 30] in time the Slavic East between the third and the tenth century. While reconstructing such patterns and motifs is indeed an intellectual activity, it does not follow that the phenomena under investigation will themselves be of an intellectual nature. Arguably the most significant case in point, and the backdrop for this paper, concerns the rise of modern entrepreneurial and financial capitalism in late-seventeenth-century England. What in time came to be known as political economy had...


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