The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century.
by Owen Chadwick.
Cambridge University Press. 286 pp. $18.95.
At the height of his campaign against Christianity, Voltaire took to concluding his letters with the motto, “Ecrasez l’infâme,” often abbreviated as “Ecr. linf.” Sometimes this salutation stood in place of a signature, which led one censor to observe (so it is reported) that “M. Ecrlinf doesn’t write badly.” Historians debate whether the infamy to be destroyed was Christianity in particular or religion in general. But there is little doubt that much of the passion of the Enlightenment was directed against the one or the other—and against both, to the extent to which they were identified with each other.
After the strenuous efforts of the Enlightenment—and of the French Revolution too, which did what it could to destroy the Catholic Church—it is extraordinary to find religion remaining a paramount issue throughout the 19th century and even into the 20th. Generation after generation confronted the same questions and fought the same battles. Great men came and went—Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud. Scientists and philosophers, secularists and laicists, agnostics and atheists entered the lists. The sentence of death was pronounced again and again: man was de-alienated, nature was de-teleologized, God was declared dead. But somehow man resisted deification and God refused to become mortal. A latter-day atheist, witnessing the recent upsurge of religiosity—of faiths old and new, Western and Eastern, traditional and syncretistic—can only take refuge in another mot of Voltaire: “If God did not exist, man would have to invent him.”
It is this fascinating history that is the subject of Owen Chadwick’s book, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century. The title does the book a grave injustice. A carping critic could tear it to bits—“secularization,” as if that abstraction could describe the complicated and often contradictory forces at work; “the European mind,” as if there were any single “mind” characteristic of any one group in any one country, let alone Europe as a whole; even the “nineteenth century,” as if the story could be contained within that artificial convention of chronology. What is interesting about the book is precisely the extent to which it defies the simplicities of its title. Chadwick, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, is best known for his two-volume work, The Victorian Church. That was a solid and comprehensive work of scholarship-definitive, one might say, if that word can still be used in an age of unremitting “revisionism.” But the present book is something else, not especially systematic (the quantitative historian would have little patience with it), still less comprehensive, but suggestive, imaginative, and provocative.
Among the other flaws of the title is the implication that “secularization,” such as it is, is simply a product of “mind.” In fact, the first half of the book is devoted to “the social problem,” the social conditions that encouraged, and in some instances deterred, the process of secularization. Indeed, the term “secularization” is intended to shift the focus from the intellectual to the social, from the concept of “enlightenment” favored by the traditional intellectual historian to that of “secularization” as sociologists understand it. What Chadwick is interested in, like Durkheim and Weber—and St. Simon and Comte before them—is the relation between society and religion. Like them he begins with the axiom, “religion is a social phenomenon,” an intrinsic part of the values, beliefs. institutions, and practices that determine the character of a society. In this sense, secularization in the 19th century was a product of liberalism and industrialism, of the free marketplace which provided a free market for opinions as much as for goods, of a popular press which inevitably magnified the profane rather than the sacred. of anticlericalism and laicism which derived more from a political struggle with the Catholic Church than from any ideology or theology, and above all of the industrialism and urbanism that were the dominant features of what we now call a “modernizing” society.
There is no doubt of the general secularist tendency of the age. The villager coming into the town was deprived of his community, of his intimate association with place, people, nature—all those relationships that fostered a sense of providence. In the town, he lived an anonymous, mechanical, unnatural life, drawing water from a tap instead of a spring, inhabiting one of a row of identical houses, tending a machine as if he were himself a machine, and having little awareness of those aspects of nature that, in the country, suggested an omnipresent and omnipotent God. The correlation between urbanism and secularism, Chadwick assures us, is statistically demonstrable: the larger the town, the smaller the percentage of churchgoers.
But Chadwick also reminds us of other statistics and correlations that complicate the picture. The second quarter of the century witnessed not only a rapid movement of population from country to town but also, in many countries, a revival of religion. Moreover the country dwellers were not uniformly more religious than townsmen; indeed, flourishing secularist groups existed in very small villages. Some statistics suggest a correlation between the new towns, rather than towns as such, and the decline of religion; others point to specific occupations rather than the size of the community. Some of the decline of church attendance among the urban working classes may be attributed to the paucity of churches in the towns rather than a diminution of religious sentiment. And among the upper classes religion was often the motive for secularization itself: practicing and believing Christians deliberately supported, even initiated, movements for the repeal of blasphemy laws, religious oaths, and the like, in the hope that by making the state more secular, society would become more Christian—more moral, more just, and more genuinely, inwardly pious. The relations of liberals and Catholics were similarly paradoxical. Precisely at a time when liberals, in violation of their own principles, were seeking to curb the freedom of the Catholic Church (because they took it to be a threat to the liberal secular state), the Church started to invoke liberal principles in its own defense—thus itself contributing to the process of secularization.
Chadwick quotes Talcott Parsons who said of Durkheim that he came close to inverting the axiom, “Religion is a social phenomenon,” to make it read, “Society is a religious phenomenon.” Chadwick himself seems to lean to the second proposition. His discussion of liberalism includes an analysis of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty which focuses upon its central tenet:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.
“No right,” Chadwick asks, “to exercise power to moral ends? Is not the state based upon the moral health of its citizens?” No, answers On Liberty, except for children and societies in a state of “nonage,” the state has no such right or power. Chadwick believes this to be the essential message and import of On Liberty: in asserting freedom as the only end and responsibility of the state, in making the individual sovereign and his conscience the supreme authority, On Liberty served as the “first modern exposition of a theory of the secular state.” His own attitude to this theory is equally clear: “No society could put into practice all the principles of this great essay and remain a society.” “No man is an island,” he reminds us; “man is a moral being because he is a social being.”
Chadwick takes Mill’s essay seriously. He analyzes it seriously, responds to it seriously, and above all recognizes the serious social consequences of the theory it embodies. He takes it, in fact, as the testament of modern liberalism. In doing so, however, he departs from his avowed intention of examining his subject sociologically rather than intellectually, as a process of “secularization” rather than “enlightenment.” One begins to suspect (from his discussion of Marx as well as Mill) that he is animated less by a preference for the sociological approach than by a distaste for the concept of “enlightenment.” And his distaste for that concept comes less from its roots in intellectual history, with the implicit premise of the primacy of ideas, than from its blatant bias—the assumption that it is more “enlightened” to be irreligious than religious, that the struggle between irreligion and religion was a battle between the forces of light and of darkness. By shifting the argument to the social realm, by making secularization a consequence of the way men lived rather than of the way they thought—or by making the way they thought a consequence of the way they lived—Chadwick rescues the intellect itself from any necessary disposition to irreligion. Intellect, mind, reason, the progress of thought, truth itself, are not necessarily inherently antithetical to religion. This is no conscious part of his strategy, or at least it does not appear thus in his book. But it is the effect of his argument.
The “mind” in the title may not, after all, be as much a misnomer as it seems. The fact is that much of Chadwick’s book—of the first part on “The Social Problem” as well as the second on “The Intellectual Problem”—is concerned with mind. And he treats mind not as the “reflection” or “superstructure” of society, but as a force in itself, not always a decisive or determining force but a relevant, potent, and always interesting one. It is revealing, for example, that although Chadwick places his discussion of both Mill and Marx in the first part of his book, he subjects them to the kind of intellectual analysis appropriate to intellectual phenomena. If Marx himself sought, like Feuerbach before him, to “stand Hegel on his head,” to de-alienate man by de-idealizing and de-spiritualizing him, and, going beyond Feuerbach, by thoroughly socializing and materializing him, all this was preeminently an intellectual enterprise. Marx’s intention, to be sure, was social; it was nothing less than to bring about a social revolution of the most radical kind, a revolution that would transform all social relations and ultimately human nature itself. To accomplish this he had to eradicate religion as totally as Voltaire had to eradicate Christianity, although for quite different reasons. But whatever his purposes, Marx belongs to intellectual history as much as Voltaire—an intellectual history that had, like all such history, profoundly important social consequences even when it was most profoundly, as Chadwick recognizes, “anti-intellectual.”
“In a word, I hate all the gods”—in the preface to his dissertation Marx quoted those celebrated words of Prometheus. Thirty years later a Marxist journal edited by Bebel and Liebknecht was still fighting the same battle: “With the last Christian the last slave shall be free.” But the enemy was never merely Christianity. It was religion that was the “opium of the people,” and, for Marx, it was Judaism that was even more odious than Christianity, Judaism representing the essence of capitalism as well as of religion. If Marx spoke less of religion in his later works than in his earlier ones, it was not because he was any less opposed to religion. The “criticism of religion” remained the “premise of all criticism”—that is, of all criticism of society—but that premise, he was confident, had already been amply demonstrated: what was necessary was to work out its social implications and to apply it in practice.
Chadwick grants that the “old Marxism” was atheistic. But he raises the possibility that the “new Marxism” of later generations was compatible with religion, that it could, and did. engage in a genuine “dialogue with religious men,” and that therefore atheism was “no necessary part of a Communist theory of society.” In this sense, Chadwick suggests, Marxism is not “necessarily,” “essentially” atheistic; it is only “accidentally” so, only by virtue of the accident that Marx and Engels happened, in their “private views,” to be so. The suggestion sounds faintly ingenuous coming from so sophisticated a historian, and it is all the more strange because it depends on an uncharacteristic vagueness and confusion of categories: “Marxism” (“old” and “new”), “socialism,” “the working-class movement,” and “the workingman” are used almost interchangeably. Chadwick quotes Trotsky to the effect that the true revolutionary must annihilate in himself every barrier to revolutionary activity, whether that barrier lies in religion, morality, or legality. “Therefore,” Trotsky announced, “we regard atheism, which is part of materialism, as an indispensable constituent of the revolutionary education of a terrorist.” Chadwick hastens to add: “No one must attribute this attitude to the ordinary workingman of the 19th century.” But surely no one does, for the simple reason that no one takes the ordinary workingman to be a Trotskyist, terriorist, revolutionary, Marxist—or even a socialist.
If Chadwick plays down the drama of Marxist atheism by introducing such undramatic and un-Marxist elements as the “ordinary workingman,” he also makes too little of the dramatic tension within Marxism itself, the peculiar dialectic by which its atheism became something very like a religion. When one speaks of the religious quality of Marxism, one need not mean it in the trivial sense in which any ideology may evoke a passion and fanaticism commonly associated with a religious creed. What is meant is the striking extent to which Marxism reproduces the Christian schema of sin and salvation, alienation and redemption, apocalypse and eschatology, messianism and utopianism, the repudiation of false gods and the worship of the one true god (the “man-god,” as Dostoevsky described it). Chadwick is perfectly aware of this reading of Marxism, but he has little patience with it. Atheism is atheism, he insists, in good, English, no-nonsense fashion. If he partially absolves Marxism—or the “new Marxism”—of the charge of atheism, it is because he thinks he has empirical reason for doing so (in the history of secular societies, working-class movements, and social-democratic parties). The kinds of metaphysical affinities that impress others do not much impress him. He does not, perhaps, take sufficiently to heart the advice of Renan (which he himself quotes), that you should never believe a German when he tells you he is an atheist.
It may be that the only German of the century who can legitimately lay claim to the title of atheist, who can be believed when he calls himself that, is Nietzsche. But except for a few passing references, Nietzsche is conspicuously absent from this account. One waits in vain for the appearance of the most exciting thinker of the century, one who is absolutely central to the theme of this book, especially to the chapters on “History and the Secular” and “The Moral Nature of Man.” The protagonists of the first of these chapters are Kingsley, Michelet, Taine, and Renan; of the second, Comte, Ferdinand Brunetière, and Eugene de Vogüé. One does not begrudge them a part in this story—but surely not at the expense of Nietzsche. Again, it is perhaps Chadwick’s “English-ness” that accounts for this curious lacuna at the heart of his book. He can cross the channel to visit with the French, and some notably second-rate Frenchmen among them. But he is uncomfortable with the apocalyptic, intransigent mind of Nietzsche, which was utterly subversive of the “priestly system of valuations” and which professed a “transvaluation of all values” so revolutionary as to make all other revolutions, including that of Marx, seem bland and innocuous.
If the book lacks this dramatic element, it contains something which is almost as valuable—a personal tone and frame of reference that give it an authenticity all too rare in books of this kind. The personal tone is easily accounted for by the fact that it originated in a series of lectures, the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1973-74. Like many Englishmen, Chadwick is elegant, witty, urbane. But unlike others, he does not use these qualities as substitutes for mind and thought; on the contrary, they are always at the service of his ideas, giving them point and precision. And when he speaks in the first person, citing a personal opinion or experience, he never does so intrusively or assertively. At one point, for example, he recalls the most miserable day of his life, a day spent at the scene of a fire at which over fifty people lost their lives. Returning home, with the vivid sight of scorched flesh, corpses. anguished relatives still before his eyes, he picked up the Bible and read—“reluctantly,” as he says—the lesson for the day. which happened to be uncannily appropriate and which had the effect of a kind of illumination. The episode appears in the concluding chapter, “On a Sense of Providence,” and perfectly illustrates the coexistence, throughout the century, of secularization and religious faith, the decline of a sense of providence among large groups of people, and at the same time the persistence of belief among those who “knew what they knew.” Perhaps it is because Chadwick knows what he knows that he can respond so sensitively to both aspects of the Zeitgeist.