Talk of the Devil

The huge long-term consequences of the Catholic Church’s intellectual victory over the Cathars.

Following my breastfeeding anti-Cathar Virgins, more thoughts on dualism. These really are blue-sky speculations, and I’ve no reputable historian like Duby to give me cover.

It’s hard for us to get any handle on the Manichaean mentality. As with reincarnation, modern Westerners just don’t get the point. This may well be down to the sheer completeness of the thirteenth-century Catholic victory over dualism. It never came back in Western Christendom. The Reformation struggles were on quite different ground; even the thoroughly Augustinian Calvin didn’t suffer the pull his master struggled so hard to free himself from. It was a theological paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn’s famous phrase.

I suspect that this was a much bigger deal than we realize. Consider some of the possible effects – in the post-Enlightenment world, now part of the heritage of Jews and secularists.

The control group here is Orthodox Eastern Europe. Orthodoxy didn’t go down the same road, and SFIK for it the world remains essentially a vale of tears that has to be endured, not remedied. The function of the church is to enable souls to escape it into transcendence. Any church involvement in politics is purely defensive, not transformative. (Around 1992, I had the odd experience of witnessing a meeting in Bulgaria between the abbot of the leading Orthodox monastery and the Dominican confessor to the King of Spain.  The Dominican wanted to know what the church’s agenda was in the transition to democracy; the abbot was only interested in getting funding for the liturgy.) And it was in Western, Catholic and post-Catholic Europe that the following happened first.

1. The death of the Devil
The revolution evicted the Devil from any organic role in the creation; he ceased to be the necessary, balancing force of death and destruction that at the same time enables new growth and life, a Tiamat or Kali. He became a purely malignant force of moral evil, as in Dante. Initially this led to an appalled fascination and the paranoid witch craze. But in the long run, he became a spare wheel, doomed eventually to be replaced by a dinky little aerosol puncture kit. You could account for human failings and natural disasters perfectly well without him. Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là, as Laplace said of God. Now he’s vanished.

2. Science
If the world is run by a malignant being, or it’s a struggle between two opposing beings, there’s no reason to think it will be comprehensible. Making the creation wholly God’s means that his plan is rational and may be figured out, as Muslims never doubted. The scientific enterprise, suspended for Christians since the end of antiquity, could and should be restarted. Significantly, Copernicus came from and worked in the Catholic western part of Poland (Thorn and Cracow), not the Orthodox eastern part, which must have been very similar on most other metrics.

3. Democracy
The political implication of dualism is quietism; of monism, engagement. The material here and now matters to God and matters to the Church. Again, the initial results were unpromising: an increase in religious violence, starting with the Crusades and going on to the wars of the Reformation period and the colonial conquests. But the continuous impulse from both Catholic and especially Protestant religion to try to improve things, to identify and carry out God’s presumed plan for creation, did require continuous experiments in social engineering. Some of these, like the Inquisition, were quite horrible; but eventually the Dutch and the English tried tolerance and constitutional government. It really has nothing to do with Athens.

If I’m right here, we owe much of the modern world to the Cathars and their failure. Montségur did not burn in vain.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “Talk of the Devil”

  1. I think this is about 95 percent right. It's completely true that Manicheanism has little mainstream resonance in the West and its offshoots (though some potential countercultural or cult relevance: see A.S. Byatt's _A Whistling Woman_). And I don't doubt that a certain activist attitude towards the world is linked to its failure.

    But I can't go along with the idea that the Dutch and the English "tried tolerance and constitutional government" out of a Western-Christian impulse towards social engineering. In both countries, toleration was driven much more by the State than by (any) Church. In the Netherlands, the authorities performed surveillance to guard against seditious attitudes in all Churches and synagogues *including* the majority Calvinist one. In England, toleration (such as it was: no Catholics or atheists needed apply) was the product of a political calculation by a conquering Dutchman and the local grandees who wanted him to be King. I won't go so far as to follow Jonathan Israel in saying that the establishment of modern constitutional democracy required widespread atheism, which he calls modernity. But I do think it required that states and citizens concentrate on fulfilling desires that would once have been considered sinful (gluttony, pride, and especially avarice) at the expense of the classic Christian attitude towards political life–precisely because that attitude *was* activist. The default Christian strategy for making the world better was to make it, along with whatever other reforms were proposed, more uniformly prone to follow the brand of Christianity practiced in the first person.

  2. This seems plausible. It's worth noting that the dualist/gnostic anti-this-world theology survived in many of the dissenting groups; while it isn't a strong strain of the Reformers, it is still a very strong emphasis in Anabaptist thinking, in Tolstoy, in Quakerism, and so on.

  3. This strikes me as interesting speculation, but loaded with problems.

    The first issue is that the argument goes that various good things flowed from the death of Manicheanism in the West, but we don't answer the question of WHY these ideas finally failed. Surely the Albigensian crusade is not the whole answer; after all, it's not like the late Roman Empire didn't do its bit to try to crush these sorts of heresies.

    The second issue is does this tell us anything about other societies? Was China ever Manichean (not literally of course)? Is the issue literally Manicheanism, or is it rather "paganism" in the sense of belief in (a) multiple deities (b) active in the world? Once you believe in one deity, not active in the world, then presumably you're on track to try to understand and improve the world. But if you believe in one deity, ACTIVE in the world, is this still so? I wonder if the essence here is not the Manichean business but that Protestants, more than Catholics, moved to a god that was (supposedly) not active in the world. And, of course, if you're going to make these arguments, what exactly are you saying? Regardless of what theology might state, lay people, Catholic or Protestant, Hindu or Muslim, seem to believe in god(s) active in the world, and that prayer and veneration will affect health, the weather, politics, wars, and football games. So is the argument that, who cares about the idiot peasants, what matters is the theology of the elite? Is the problem with China (or, for that matter Japan or South East Asia) that they have too many deities? I honestly have no idea how seriously the elites of these societies took their deities, and whether they viewed them as seriously affecting the randomness of life or not.

    The third issue is that a sentence like "Making the creation wholly God’s means that his plan is rational and may be figured out, as Muslims never doubted." is obviously intensely problematic. Yeah, yeah, the Arab world did its part to preserve some classical learning, and to transmit Indian numerals from the subcontinent to the West. But, seriously, even at the height of the Muslim empire there wasn't much original that they ever came up with; simply codification and extension of what they picked up from the Greeks. Consider, eg, the growth of math from the limited world of Euclid to the rich world of Newton. The interesting steps along the way, from solution of the cubic and quartic, to logarithms, to initial investigations of infinite sums, all happen in the west starting with the renaissance. The Muslim world gets a small part of the way (eg some investigations of the cubic) but never runs with it; and lord knows, from Mauritania to Indonesia over the last 800 years pretty much nothing of value with respect to the investigation of "gods rational plan for the universe" has come out of the Muslim world, Abdus Salam excepted. And it's not just a question of political weakness and colonialism and so on — compare the case of the Jews.

  4. Maynard: para 1. See my previous post. Gothic art, universities, and St Francis were intellectually more effective than the crusade (though in crude terms it "worked" by genocide). Overkill? But from Constantine on in the Christianizing Roman Empire, a string of imperial edicts show something akin to panic over Manichaeism. The Gothic world had lots of fun heresies (see The Name of the Rose, or Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium) but not that one.

    Para 3. Muslim science: real progress in astronomy and medicine surely? but I'll agree that generally it just puttered along rather than making breakthroughs. The CW explanation (which satisfies me) is that Muslim science, like Chinese, had an excesively practical bent. For breakthroughs, you need wild and abstract speculation, for which Christians (when they tried) had a comparative advantage from their endless theological disputes. I concede I may be wrong about Islam, if Allah's plan is rational to him but unknowable. A sort of Baghdad-Copenhagen axis of interpretation.

    Andrew: my take on the Dutch Republic is in my piece on the Inquisition (longer version here). Both sides started out trying to create a new Jerusalem unpolluted by the other side. The Dutch Protestants adopted toleration out of practical necessity in the war, then English Puritan intellectuals like Roger Williams and Milton developed a theory. Nobody was an atheist when the theory and practice was being worked out. Constitutional government has a longer and more complicated history; you can bring in Marsiglio of Padua and the Cortes of Aragon if you like. I think you'll find learned divines weighing in at every point up to say 1700. In Islam and Orthodox Europe, a fortiori in the Jewish ghettoes, the clergy basically shut up.

  5. @James: My point is of course stronger regarding toleration than "constitutional government" generally. Of course the conciliarists and others started the latter going nicely during the late Middle Ages. Even there, a lot depends on what one considers the product of Christianity and what was just a political rebellion against the authority of bishops and abbotts. As far as I know Marsiglio (a.k.a. Marsilius) was in official Church circles condemned as a subversive; saying that his thought represented tendencies within mainstream Christianity is rather like saying that Big Bill Haywood represented tendencies within American capitalism.

    As for toleration: fascinating piece regarding the Inquisition. (For other readers: it's not just about the Inquisition but displays James' usual amazing erudition regarding everything. Read and feel inadequate.) But I still think that it's consistent with a story in which toleration triumphed due to secular considerations'–peace and prosperity, to cite the usual formula–coming to compete with the classic Christian ones. It was the experience of religious strife, not of grace, that inspired toleration. I specifically meant to say that the states that led the way towards toleration were *not* led by atheists. They were, however, led by politicians. Outside a couple of American colonies, I've seen no evidence that the most fervent religious defenses of toleration, like Milton's, were ever adopted as official state doctrine. If toleration were driven by distinctly religious motives, it would be hard to explain why many Catholic laypeople and politicians practiced toleration as a policy decades or centuries before Catholic doctrine ever came up with an official statement of toleration in principle. (Vatican II was based, inter alia, on a belated acceptance of John Courtney Murray's codification of American practice, not vice-versa.)

    In all these matters, my analysis is based, I'll admit, on a large dollop of Baylean skepticism: I don't think people's actions follow with any regularity from their principles, and am therefore less interested in who first puts forth the principles than in who first makes them a durable practice. This, as well as the history, is obviously a huge issue that we won't settle here–which is another way of saying that if we do try to settle it, I'm afraid you'll beat me. 😉

  6. Andrew: I'll concede that toleration and democracy were in good part exhausted reactions against the excesses of faith-based (Western Christian) social engineering at swordpoint. Like socialised health care, they turned out to be the one system that worked. The dialectic never got going elsewhere.

    You give 95% to my nice little one-page theory of everything? That's flattery, it must be far less. But it's nice to learn that informed commenters think I'm on to something here.

  7. A very late coda (7 years late). I've read that Muslim science fizzled out around the time that Christian science got started in the late Middle Ages in good part because of the rise of a doctrine of direct divine control of events. If there's a plan, it's unknowable. Why did it rain today? Because Allah willed it. End of story. This defeatism made all science questionable, and rulers ceased to patronize it.

Comments are closed.