choosing sides 300x232 Picking Sides with Michael Allen Gillespie

Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress LC-H234- A-8048.

Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity confounds an easy scoring of history.

I am reading Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity. It is one of those books where the more I read, the more embarrassed I am about what I thought I used to know.

I spend a lot of my free time trying to answer the question, “How did we get into this mess?” And by “this mess” I’m referring to culture and the trajectory of the West. I want to know who to blame for all this. I have formed mental lists of responsible parties, along with quick shorthands describing what they did, when they did it, and their contributions to the general screwup.

For many years, William of Ockham (1285-1347) and his philosophy of nominalism has been one of my prime suspects, thanks to the work of Richard Weaver. My shorthand for Ockham and Duns Scotus went like this: “They threw out Aristotle’s universals and said things are just what people call them and nothing more. Eventually, Ockham’s philosophical descendants tossed out the human soul because ‘soul’ was just another one of those universal forms.” This shorthand always served me well when I was in need of a quick answer. But no more, thanks to Gillespie.

The problem with my shorthand is that it makes William of Ockham and Duns Scotus sound like a couple of 20th-century college professors or Richard Rorty enthusiasts who traveled back in time to make a mess of things.

As Michael Allen Gillespie explains, Ockham was reacting to the Scholastics whom Ockham said had put philosophy above Scripture. Meanwhile, the Scholastics charged the Nominalists of making God the creator of evil.  I sympathize with both groups, and I’m not sure which heresy I would have gone to bat for at the time.

Regardless, it wasn’t until Francis Bacon came along in the 1500s that Nominalism started sounding anything remotely like my modern shorthand, but even Bacon wouldn’t know what to make of the world that now professes not to know the difference between a man and a woman.

I can’t help but read history identifying the good guys and the bad guys, and picking who is on my team. But it’s a vulgar mistake to mix men who worked from a common sense tradition in with moderns on both the left and the right who reject tradition outright. I like how Georges Sorel described his mission: to demolish “this superstructure of conventional lies and to destroy the prestige still accorded to the ‘metaphysics’ of the men who vulgarize the vulgarization of the eighteenth century.”

At this point in the game, we’re vulgarizing the vulgarization of the vulgarization of the eighteenth century.

(I still don’t want Ockham on my team though.)