Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 1

The basis of modernity is its rationalist ontology, which in a secular society is held by believer and skeptic alike. To call our age secular is not merely to say that unbelief has become an option, or even the default. Rather, even our forms of belief have become secular. In a coming series of posts, I will examine the rise of the rationalist – or “disenchanted” – ontology from the high middle ages through the Reformation. 

Today’s post will look at Charles’ Taylor’s account of the worldview we’ve left behind and largely forgotten. (Interestingly, J.R.R. Tolkien managed to enter imaginatively into this worldview, and it would be a profitable study to work out the implicit ontology of his work and compare it with Taylor’s account. A task for another time, I’m afraid.)

Charles Taylor’s Account of The Enchanted World

In the opening pages of his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor (b. 1931) states that the defining characteristic the secular age in which we find ourselves—modernity—is a sense of “disenchantment.”[1] This is actually a double observation, an explanation about a point in history that is itself fraught with history. Taylor himself realizes this, explaining that “our use of this word bespeaks our sense that [the world] was once enchanted.”[2] We know this, moreover, because it is an understanding that we are trained into as we grow up—it is a hidden part of our education process. We are told not to indulge in “magical” thinking, or in “myth”; we are told that visionaries are “ahead of their time”; we are told that to be “medieval” is akin to being “barbaric.” In Taylor’s terms, these subtle cues are part of the “disciplines of disenchantment,” at once making it clear that we come from an intellectually dangerous past and that we must work to maintain the achievements of secularity: “our past is sedimented in our present.”[3]

In what did this “enchanted” past consist? At the most obvious level, a cosmos inhabited by spirits and other extra-human agents, both benevolent and malevolent: demons, angels, spirits of forest and wilderness, as well as the cult of the saints.[4] These extra-human agents were not simply conceived of as disembodied minds, as some may hold in our post-Cartesian age, but “were often linked to centres [sic] where their relics resided.”[5] These relics, as well as other powerful objects (e.g. candles blessed at Candlemas), were “loci of spiritual power; which is why they had to be treated with care, and if abused could wreak terrible damage.”[6] And what must be stressed is that in the enchanted world, these sorts of objects and locales have power and meaning ex opere operato: their power in no way proceeds from meaning imbued to them in a person’s mind. The object/agent distinction, in other words, is a modern achievement.

Further, while extra-human agents can at first be easily understood on the analogy of human intention (many modern Christians believe quite strongly in disembodied angels, demons and spirits of loved ones), not all cosmic forces in the enchanted world can function on this kind of intelligible analogy:  “There is a whole gamut of them, which progressively depart from the personal, until we need a quite different model; that of cosmic realities which nevertheless incorporate certain meanings; and hence can affect us.”[7] For instance, moderns may feel depressed and be assured that their depression is a result of a chemical imbalance, or a repressed memory. They do not, except in poetic terms, tend to identify with their depression (in any case, the wisdom of our age urges them not to). But a medieval European will not be helped by learning from his physician “that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows he’s in the grips of the real thing.”[8]

In the same way that bile is identified with melancholia in a sense that eludes cause and effect, a graveyard is identified with sacred ground, a saint’s bones with both healing- and moral power, the calendar year with sacred history, and the social order with sacred order.[9] Most importantly, all of this functioned at the level of naïve belief. It was held by common people and the elite alike. Not only was modern secularism not held to, its concepts were not even within the lexicon, so to speak, of either the intellectuals or “common people” of the age. The alternative to this enchanted, sacramental world had to be constructed, and precisely because of the identification of the way things are and their participation in a divine order, this was a difficult alternative to achieve, and it took root among the philosophers long before its influence was felt more broadly.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Taylor, 32.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., emphasis original.

[9] Ibid., 61. 

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