Blaming the Renaissance Is Just Plain Wrong

June 2011By Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited.  By John Carroll. ISI Books. 308 pages. $27.95.

How is it that a work can be generally right in its aims and conclusions, yet howlingly wrong in most of its exposition and particulars?

The Wreck of Western Culture manages to achieve this difficult task. On the surface, it would seem to have everything going for it. Its author, John Carroll, is an intelligent, educated, and erudite man with a degree from Cambridge and a teaching position at La Trobe University in Australia. Unlike many academics these days, Carroll is haunted by the failures of modern society and is willing to condemn modernity as fundamentally mistaken. He is also willing to look for solutions elsewhere: He has for many years led a Scripture study group at La Trobe and, though influenced strongly by Calvinism, is clearly on a personal and somewhat idiosyncratic quest to understand Christ. His thesis in The Wreck of Western Culture is a simple one, and one with which this reviewer has much sympathy: that the root cause of our culture’s myriad problems is humanism, an attempt by man to place himself, rather than God, at the center of things. In all this, Carroll reminds one of a latter-day Malcolm Mug­geridge, a noted social critic who converted to Catholicism late in his life.

That said, The Wreck of Western Culture, instead of being a magisterial jeremiad, is a disappointing train wreck. Were this work one indi­vidual’s private meditations on understanding “what’s wrong with the world,” meant for his own consideration, it would be quite interesting. As a developed thesis meant for open consumption by the public, however, it is an extraordinary mess. While it has many good parts, the book’s overall problem areas — I will focus on three — far outweigh its successes.

The first and most egregious problem in The Wreck of Western Culture is its errors in fact and interpretation. Carroll defines humanism as an anti-religious movement originating in the Renaissance that stressed reason over faith, human development over sanctity, and man over God. Humanism thus defined is Car­roll’s bête noire and is the dog he beats with the stick of 308 pages. The problem is that this definition is simply wrong, as anyone who’s read a decent textbook about the quattro­cento can tell you. Sure, Renaissance-era humanists were entranced by the possibility of human development, at times to the point of hubris, but to depict them as a collection of prome­thean proto-Jacobins is both ignorant and sloppy. In reality, their religious sentiments ranged from “conventionally apathetic” to “deeply passionate.” This fundamental error allows Carroll to set up “humanism” as a straw man, enables him to make an equation that more or less amounts to “hu­manism = anything I don’t like,” and contributes to many, many further errors of fact and interpretation. For example, Car­roll concludes that Martin Lu­ther’s “lifelong battle was against hu­­manism and not the Catholic Church,” which might come as a surprise to anyone who has read anything Luther wrote about indulgences, papal authority, the sacraments, and purgatory. Elsewhere, Carroll refers to “the greatest of all humanist institutions, the university,” seemingly nescient of the facts that universities long predate the Renaissance, and Renaissance humanists by and large loathed universities and were loathed by them in return.

Other baffling statements confront the reader at every turn. Writing on Rembrandt, Carroll notes that his “penitential imagery is problematic, at least in the Western tradition, because it does not follow a day in the field of battle,” which leaves the reader, who may have seen the occasional painting or statue of a penitent Magdalen, wondering what the heck Carroll is talking about.

Or consider his words regarding Protestant thought, which, in his estimation, apart from Luther and Bach, “lacked an active engagement with the demonic, and especially with death.” Can anyone who’s read Oliver Twist, or who is familiar with the obsession with death characteristic of the (Protestant) Victorian age, accept such a statement?

And what does one make of a claim like this: “It was not until the 1930s that the humanist value of ‘culture’ made any headway in the English public schools.” Entire generations of British males, whose education consisted largely of the quintes­sentially humanistic cultural act of being forced to read the likes of Horace and Homer in the original, might take issue with such an assertion.

The book’s problems are not confined to errors in fact. The author also indulges repeatedly in intellectual stereotyping and sloppy reasoning. Consider the following example, in which he examines post-Renaissance developments in parts of Europe, or rather doesn’t examine them: “We can exclude the reactionary barbarism of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, with its barbaric Inquisition, which offered no way forward.” Let’s see, we get “Counter-Reformation,” “Spanish,” “reactionary,” not one but two variations on “barbarity,” and — wait for it, can it be? YES! — “Inquisition” all in one sentence. We’ve hit the stereotype jackpot!

One might not like siglo de oro Spain, but to dismiss an entity which, in under a century, bridged not one but two oceans, created the world’s first trans-oceanic empire, and hosted the likes of Velasquez, El Greco, and Cervantes as “barbaric” and “reactionary” and offering “no way forward” is ridiculous and wrong. One wonders whether contemporary English, Dutch, and Frenchmen regarded Spain as offering “no way forward,” given how quickly they scrambled to get a piece of the action. And in an era when every country in Europe had both an established church and an institutionalized means of torturing criminals and dissidents, do not get me started on why Spain should be singled out for its Inquisition, but Britain and the Germanys should get off criticism-free.

Later on, Carroll makes repeated reference to Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” as though it were an established fact rather than an oversimplification that has been subject to much criticism. Furthermore, what is the reader to make of a claim like the following: “The brilliant Urban VIII had fatefully rejected Luther’s ‘vital spot,’ leaving the Catholic Church to stagnate in medieval doctrine and drab stories orbiting around a sanitized, morally nice Jesus.” Stagnate? The Catholic Church made more converts between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries than all other Protestant bodies combined. Drab? What about the gilded-lily character of Baroque art and letters? Sanitized, morally nice Jesus? Were the Counter-Reformation and its aftereffects somehow different in Carroll’s world than they were in ours? Did he miss the Thirty Years’ War? Further examples are available, but these should suffice. From an established academic and former Cambridge man, errors of fact and gross stereotypes like these are simply inexcusable.

The second major problem in this work concerns its focus. Carroll leans heavily on visual art to prove his thesis and spends the lion’s share of the book examining particular works of art in great depth. Paradoxically, this winds up making The Wreck of Western Culture largely an art-history work, which is not bad in and of itself, except that the end result is heavy on art but light on history.

There is nothing wrong with an author discoursing at length about how particular works of art strike him — indeed, this is a legitimate expression of one of art’s main purposes. But to use works of art to illustrate cultural trends is another matter, and demands that the author have some knowledge of the artist, his intent, and the reception of his work. It is on this level that The Wreck of Western Culture is most bizarrely idiosyncratic, providing more than its share of “what the heck?” moments. For example, Carroll spends much ink detailing the meaning and celebrating the importance of a few religious paintings by Rembrandt, yet overlooks the fact that, no matter how good these particular works may have been, they were minor works of a man whose oeuvre and reputation consisted mostly of portraits, these being the only way he could actually make a living as an artist.

Carroll also expounds at great length about how Velazquez’s Las Mennas is actually a consummate work of subversion, which doubtless would have come as news to its creator and his contemporaries, who considered it more as an exercise of virtuosity in portraiture than anything else. Nicholas Poussin is singled out as the truly great artist of the Baroque era, unjustly shunted aside by Pope Urban VIII in favor of the vastly inferior Bernini, whose “Baroque style represented the denial of metaphysics.” Denial of metaphysics? This would be the same Bernini who sculpted St. Theresa in Ecstasy, right? Not some other Bernini?

Such confusion extends to the few works of literature considered in the work. William Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular, are held up as having a major role in the creation of the corrosive entity of godless humanism. Granted, while the frustrated reader might want to smack the inert and self-obsessed Hamlet and tell him to “man up,” the claim that Shakespeare’s corpus of work is humanistic and godless is difficult to comprehend in the face of the growing body of criticism that, following Clare Asquith’s Shadow­play, demonstrates that Shakes­peare’s work has strongly religious elements in it, if not actively crypto-Catholic ones.

I will be the first to admit that I am not an art scholar, but I did pass along my copy of The Wreck of Western Culture to someone who has taught art history on the collegiate level, as a kind of reality check. I got back an aggrieved, “Where the hell is this guy coming from?” as a response, along with an earful of complaints about interpretations and points of fact on Carroll’s part, so I am confident in my conclusions. This aspect of the book is not only problematic, it is also curiously postmodern, a trend which I suspect Carroll despises and a label he would vehemently reject. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly appropriate insofar as the ultimate authority of the interpretation of these works of art is not, for Carroll, tradition, authority, or fact, but Carroll himself.

As noted above, one is perfectly free to interpret works of art in the way they speak to one personally, but one cannot do so in an academic work. Nor can one cherry pick obscure works of art and claim them to be works of great significance when they aren’t actually significant to anyone but the author. Furthermore, there is also an inherent danger in using works of visual art as examples of sweeping social trends: Given the difficulties of travel centuries ago, one never knows how many people actually saw a particular painting.

Finally, after ambling through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the artistic portion of the book concludes with an examination of the westerns of John Ford! Now, I am as fond of westerns as the next guy, and would not argue with the claim that Ford’s were the apogee of the genre, but to have them considered alongside the likes of Rembrandt, Raphael, and John Calvin is just a little jarring in tone, to say the least.

And it is with mention of Calvin that we come to the third problem in the book. While Carroll has not publicly identified himself with any religion, and is unquestionably a sincere seeker after truth who has been zeroing in on Jesus for some time, the problem is that he is particularly influenced in this quest by Calvin and, to a lesser extent, Martin Luther. The unfortunate effect is the replicating in Carroll’s thought of not just their influence but their shortcomings as well.

Carroll notes, correctly, that in their day Luther and Calvin were highly critical of aspects of humanism, and he highlights Luther’s public criticisms of Erasmus as an example. As a result, he is able to paint both men as heroes and stalwarts against the corrosive trend of “humanism.” This is problematic for a number of reasons. On the one hand, while Luther and Calvin might have complained about humanism, they were utterly dependent on its scholarship, methods, and assumptions. Moreover, if “humanism” as defined in a modern, pejorative way ultimately culminates in displacing God and replacing Him with the imperial self, then Luther and Calvin, who rejected tradition, authority, and community norms for understanding religion in favor of their own individual way of understanding it, were much more responsible for the sins of Carroll’s “humanism” than the likes of Eras­mus (an irony which appears to have been lost on them, but which wasn’t on the part of their critics).

Furthermore, Carroll seems to have adopted worse things from these guys. Like Calvin, he flat out denies the existence of free will (“there is no free will in any important sense of the term”), and like Luther is openly contemptuous of the exercise of reason, particularly in the service of faith. Both of these traits can be particularly well observed in his hortatory conclusion on the penultimate page of the work: “Humanism is dead…. It is time to quit it. Let us bury it with appropriate rites, which means understanding what was good and understanding what went wrong and why. We do not want to fall for its charms a second time. We are peculiarly vulnerable, in that over many generations it has developed in us a sweet tooth for knowledge, an endemic weakness for its own narcotic, the exercise of intellect. Its rallying illusion is bred deeply into us by now — that knowledge will make us better and happier, and that we are free, free to improve ourselves.”

Yeesh! What does one do with an individual who composes such a paragraph? Let’s parse it out, shall we? So, humanism is bad — except when it was good. (Carroll is stuck with the problem throughout his monograph of condemning modernity on the one hand but on the other acknowledging that things like parliamentary democracy, free-market economics, and penicillin are, in fact, good things. His efforts to square this circle are neither very clear nor convincing.) And we’re supposed to reject humanism — but if we have no free will, we can’t actually reject anything. But we’re definitely supposed to reject the exercise of the intellect, and regard it as a narcotic — except that the guy who’s telling us to do this does what for a living? A professor in the department of sociology at La Trobe University, you say? I see. I don’t suppose we might be allowed to wonder if a pattern of thought like this might render an individual incapable of forming a cogent thesis and developing it elegantly with empirically verifiable facts, might we? No? Ah, well.

I so wanted to like this book. Honesty compels me to admit that parts of it are pretty good. Once it gets to the Enlightenment, it does pick up. And when Carroll strays from paintings to consider the works of, say, Marx or Nietzsche, he really is quite handy at giving them the rubbishing they merit. But after this detour into quality partway through the book, at the end the whole thing shoots right off the rails. His treatment of John Ford’s cinema, though jarring in its context, is in and of itself not bad — though it does include the occasional howler, such as his analysis of the film The Searchers, which he concludes has “Calvinist predestination brooding over the drama,” an impressive feat considering John Ford was Catholic.

The final chapter’s brooding me­di­tation on the meaning of the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center takes the reader back into the realm of the daffy, concluding — well, it’s a little hard to tell what exactly Carroll is concluding. That the bombing presages the end of humanism? That it’s not actually the fault of Islamic terrorists but the West itself? Who knows? By this point, the reader is simply glad the work is over.

The Wreck of Western Culture is a fine illustration of the old maxim, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts.” There certainly has been no shortage of “humanist”-type individuals afflicted by promethean hubris trying to glorify themselves, supplant God, and ruin things for the rest of us in the process. But to blame the Renaissance — or the Reformation or the Baroque era or whatever — for them is sloppy, lazy, and just plain wrong. If one must have a chronological era, it’s more appropriate to blame the late Enlightenment, when people actually got to put into practice that noxious cocktail of promethianism, meliorism, and activism that in reality makes up what Carroll means when he uses the word “humanism.” Truly though, this problem isn’t one of time but of human nature, and is as old as Eden (see Gen. 3:5).

The experience of reading The Wreck of Western Culture is akin to listening to your wacky, conspiracy-theorist uncle hold forth about how there’s a secret plan on the part of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations to extend its influence throughout the world. You’ll be treated to a full-on ramble that manages to include a few facts leavened with exaggerations, distortions, mistakes, and all-out whoppers. You nod your head politely throughout, humoring him. And in the end, you think silently, “You know, Unc, you’re right. But for all the wrong reasons. And you sound like a nut in the process. And you make the rest of us look nuts for associating with you.”

British law has an unusual option that American law does not. In addition to the “guilty” and “not guilty” verdicts familiar to Americans, British law allows for a third option, “not proven,” indicating that the prosecution has not made its case well enough for the jury to render a verdict of guilt or innocence. Such is a good summation of The Wreck of Western Culture.

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