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EARLY MODERN AGE/ The harmony once possible between religion and politics (2)

October Tue 13, 2009

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2. Ethics and politics

 

All through the long phase of early modernity, at least down to the crisis in European consciousness which developed with the eighteenth-century rupture and after the sudden collapse of many of the foundations of the ancien régime, the fertile union between the legacy of the Christian tradition and the system of community life continued to affect the whole of Europe, often from resolutely hegemonic positions. Naturally it was a tradition reformulated according to the new confessional schemes which emerged from the grievous breakups of the sixteenth century. Much of the artistic and literary production of the subsequent age, the history of music, the ferments in scientific research which revolutionized the image of the cosmos and opened up completely new horizons to knowledge would be inexplicable outside the incessant dialogue with the legacy of a faith which may have been distorted and betrayed but was always placed at the center of the stage.

 

Metaphysics long continued to be draw on Aristotle and the reinterpretation of his works by the medieval Scholastics. And even in Protestant countries (as Lewalter has clarified) they profoundly influenced the systematic thinking and the teachings of philosophers, which were the culminating phase of the training in the humanities, as a preliminary to the practice of the professions and fulfillment of the most elevated roles in society. The birth of a second Christian Scholasticism, the heir to Aquinas and the mediaeval universitas studiorum, was another substantial fruit of this modernity, still widely practising and almost completely orthodox. The divorces and betrayals were the tragic outcome of a history of conflicts; but it did not immediately become predominant when European mass Christianity began to develop into its modern guise, but at a much later date. There developed a distinctly independent philosophical reason, engaged in a dialectic with theological knowledge founded on divine revelation. (Benedict XVI spoke positively of this in his speech to the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in September 2008.) The Jesuits’ Ratio studiorum, the “Christian Enlightenment”, growing from the roots of two religious Reformations, united with the development of a more advanced organization of political and social life (to borrow another powerful suggestion of the present pontiff’s): these were all impressive signals of a tendency that saw the men and institutions of the Church to the fore in the process of transformation, not in the rearguard and not confined to mounting the barricades of contestation.

 

To clarify this concept, we can return to the illuminating language of images. Think of another famous portrait, this time not of an isolated individual but of a group, which brings us directly into contact with the chambers of power, where the destinies of humanity in the early modern age were shaped. The protagonist this time is Charles V, the Habsburg king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, the energetic dominator of the European political scene in the first half of the sixteenth century. In a great painting by Titian, today preserved in the Prado, the sovereign of the monarquía universal of the Catholic faith is represented with the members of his immediate family (Ill. 2): his deceased wife Isabella of Portugal, his son Philip II, his successor on the Spanish throne, his sister Maria, Queen of Hungary, and the infanta Joanna. But none of them wears the signs of regal power. Instead they are clad in the long white garments of penitence. They are barefooted, their hands clasped in prayer. The imperial crown is placed at the feet of the supreme sovereign. All are represented in adoration of the Trinity, which rises above them, set in the paradisiacal heavens. A cloud of angels surrounds the imperial family, exhorting them to prostrate themselves in devotion, at the fore of a crowd of the blessed, prophets and Old Testament figures, who throw themselves forward with hands raised in the desire to touch the manifestation of the divine mystery, which radiates the luminous splendor of eternal and invincible Glory. Prominent in the first row is the figure of Maria. In one corner we can make out an image that has been identified as the face of Titian himself, next to another portrait which some people have interpreted as representing one of the outstanding men of letters in sixteenth-century Italy, Pietro Aretino.

 

Sterile formalism? Pure hypocritical flattery by one accustomed to use the symbols of faith to extol the mighty of the earth and an effective instrumentum regni? The sense of Titian’s Triumph of the Trinity seems, rather, of quite a different kind. With all the emphasis of commemorative art, it declares that even the highest power in the world could only be conceived as a service subordinated to a higher reality, which dictated the final ideal end of the whole life of the human community. Here emerges a constant which has been seriously underestimated in the policies of the European States at the beginning of the modern world. It is reflected above all in the mirror of the legal theories and the ethical schemes in which the men who were to wield power were educated and on which their concrete action based its legitimacy. The political thought of the ancien régime was not completely crushed under the aegis of Machiavelli and Hobbes. On the contrary, it was expressed everywhere, above all on the Catholic side, in the resolute language of anti-Machiavellianism. The model it embodied was that of the prince: a “politician”, true, but also, inseparably, “Christian” (Ribadeneyra, Saavedra Fajardo, Contzen, etc.).

 

Politics was not autonomous and ab-soluta (as claimed by the champions of the monopolist absolutism of the secularized state, which arose as a myth centuries later, but one that failed to correspond to the authentic history of the cultural facts). Politics, which at that time was far from being reduced to power managed by the state, was itself subject to the ties of moral virtue, ultimately bearing an Aristotelian stamp. From medieval Thomism on, this was the only sane way one could imagine engaging in the search for the “common good.” Besides, it is significant that the first builders of the political theory of the raison d'État (or “national interest”), which only later slid towards the unilateral and unbalanced exaltation of its primacy as a guiding principle, were not implacable enemies of the worldly power of the Church, like Paolo Sarpi. Even earlier, and more effectively than Sarpi, they were devoutly religious figures such as Botero and the Jesuit champions of moral philosophy, a strand of thought which was later absorbed by Bossuet in the France of the “Catholic king” Louis XIV and which Muratori eventually developed, with even more modern accents, at the opening of the Enlightenment century.

 

(Trans. by Richard Sadleir)

 

To be continued.



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