Prophecy and Reason: The Dutch Collegiants in the Early Enlightenmentby Andrew Cooper Fix
During the second half of the seventeenth century the entire intellectual framework of educated Europe underwent a radical transformation. A secularized view of humanity and nature was replacing faith in the direct operation of God's will in the temporal world, while a growing confidence in human reason and the Scientific Revolution turned back the epistemological… See more details below
During the second half of the seventeenth century the entire intellectual framework of educated Europe underwent a radical transformation. A secularized view of humanity and nature was replacing faith in the direct operation of God's will in the temporal world, while a growing confidence in human reason and the Scientific Revolution turned back the epistemological skepticism spawned by the Reformation. By focusing on the Dutch Collegiants, a radical Protestant group that flourished in Holland from 1620 to 1690, Andrew Fix explicates the mechanisms at work in this crucial intellectual transition from traditional to modern European worldview. Starting from Rijnsburg, near Leiden, the Collegiants spread over the course of the century to every major Dutch city. At the same time, their thinking evolved from a millenarian spiritualism influenced heavily by the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation to a philosophical rationalism similar to the ideas of Spinoza. Fix has taken on an important topic in the history of ideas: the circumstances under which natural reason came to be accepted as an autonomous source of truth for the individual conscience. He also has fresh and concrete things to say about the relationship between religion and science in early modern European history.
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Prophecy and Reason
The Dutch Collegiants in the Early Enlightenment
By Andrew C. Fix
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE COLLEGIANTS IN THE EARLY ENLIGHTENMENT
I don't claim that I have found the best philosophy, but I do know that I understand the true one. —Benedict Spinoza
The second half of the seventeenth century was a period of turbulent transition in European intellectual life. In the years between 1650 and 1700 an intellectual transformation of fundamental and far-reaching importance changed the very nature of the assumptions and attitudes upon which European thought had been based for centuries, and in so doing changed the intellectual framework with which educated Europeans understood themselves and their world. During these years the traditional providential religious worldview began to be displaced by a new, secular worldview based largely on the foundation of human reason. The result was a broad-ranging transformation not only of ideas but also of perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. This study will examine a specific example of this great intellectual transformation in the thought of a group of radical Dutch religious thinkers called the Collegiants.
The Collegiants were a small group of Protestant thinkers who underwent a profound intellectual transformation between 1620 and 1690. After beginning as a spiritualistic and millenarian religious sect influenced by the ideas of the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation and by Dutch Arminianism, the Collegiants gradually became a rationalistically inclined group of thinkers who passed through a stage of rational religion before arriving at a secularized philosophical rationalism that found its ultimate expression in the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza. By examining each phase of Collegiant intellectual evolution from millenarianism to rationalism, this study will attempt to describe a complex process of intellectual transformation as well as its religious and cultural roots. By making an in-depth analysis of the changing structure of Collegiant thought, this study seeks to illuminate the inner workings and the very mechanisms of a complex process of intellectual change.
During the second half of the seventeenth century the full complement of intellectual equipment with which educated people thought about themselves and their world underwent a radical change. A transformation of such monumental proportions could not take place suddenly or without preparation, of course, nor could it be brought to completion within a limited span of time. The period 1650-1700 witnessed a crucial stage in a long process of evolutionary change in European thought that had its beginnings many years earlier and that continued for years afterward. It was during these years that the outlines, nature, and profound importance of this epochal intellectual transformation first became clearly apparent to many Europeans.
As the terror of the Thirty Years War finally came to an end at midcentury, the violent confessional passions engendered by the age of religious conflict began to die down, and in their place a more tolerant attitude began to develop among the educated classes of Europe. Basic advances in mathematics and scientific method combined with the pioneering theories of Descartes, Galileo, Locke, and Newton to create an intellectual atmosphere in which the powers of human reason were valued ever more highly. It was during this period that the wave of epistemological skepticism spawned by the Reformation began to be turned back by the growing confidence in human reason that was so essential a part of the Scientific Revolution. It was also in these years that faith in special divine providence and the direct operation of God's will in the temporal world began to be replaced by a secularized view that placed the divine presence outside of the immediate sphere of human and natural activity. This great intellectual transition from faith to reason formed the intellectual foundation for the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and prepared the way for the later development of European thought.
In his classic study of intellectual change, La crise de la conscience européenne (1935), Paul Hazard described this transition from faith to reason in the following terms:
Never was there a greater contrast, never a more sudden transition than this! An hierarchical system ensured by authority; life firmly based on dogmatic principle—such were the things held dear by the people of the seventeenth century; but these—controls, authority, dogmas and the like, were the very things that their immediate successors of the eighteenth century held in cordial detestation. The former were upholders of Christianity; the latter were its foes. The former believed in the laws of God; the latter in the laws of nature; the former lived contentedly enough in a world composed of unequal social grades; of the latter the one absorbing dream was equality. It was a revolution.
While Hazard perhaps exaggerated the suddenness of this intellectual transformation, his dramatic prose conveys a sense of the epoch-making importance of the transition of worldviews. He went on to draw attention to the period that he called the early Enlightenment (1680–1715) as the most crucial time of intellectual change, a period of a great "crisis of the European conscience." Other historians have recognized that the birth of the Enlightenment worldview was to be found in the last years of the seventeenth century. Alfred Cobban wrote: "We can legitimately concentrate on the eighteenth century as 'le siècle des lumières' and give the Enlightenment that title, but at the risk of forgetting that practically all of its essential ideas were inherited from the previous century." Ernst Cassirer, in his brilliant study of Enlightenment philosophy, most clearly drew the connection between eighteenth-century thought and its seventeenth-century origins. According to Cassirer, seventeenth-century thought was involved in the construction of rationalist philosophical systems based on deductive logic, while the eighteenth century developed a philosophy based on the empirical methods of the natural sciences, but the central element binding together the thought of both centuries was reason. In Cassirer's view, the power and self-confidence of natural human reason formed the philosophical foundation of Enlightenment thought.
Few transformations of worldview have been as decisive and influential as that which changed the religious worldview of traditional Europe into the rational and secular worldview of modern Europe. Among the educated elite of European society, the distance separating the way in which sixteenth-century people viewed their world from the way in which a person of the nineteenth century viewed the world was very great indeed—much greater, in fact, than the distance separating the educated from the uneducated during the Reformation era. During the sixteenth century the university-trained professional would have had a background in classical studies, a knowledge of Latin and perhaps of Greek, an appreciation for history and the natural sciences, and reading and writing skills that would have set him or her far apart from the average peasant or tradesman raised on folktales and devotional literature. The fundamental ways in which these two otherwise quite different people viewed the world, however, would have been remarkably similar. They were both participants in the providential Christian worldview that had provided the basic framework for European thought since the coming of Christianity a millennium earlier.
The traditional providential Christian worldview was based on the assumption of God's foresight, direction, and care for the temporal world. God was seen as a loving father who nourished his children and provided for them through his active governance of the world. For Christians, life was the working-out of God's purposes. God was believed to be constantly active in the temporal realm, guiding the course of worldly events according to his wishes both indirectly, through the ordinary laws of nature, and directly, through supernatural miracles, revelation, and inspiration. While God's governance of the world through the laws of nature was explained by theologians in the doctrine of general providence, the idea that God directed worldly affairs through miracles or supernatural revelations that suspended, abrogated, or violated the laws of nature was contained in the doctrine of extraordinary or special providence. The Bible showed that God had made the sun stand still and could interrupt the course of nature at will. God could also intervene in nature to produce earthquakes, floods, and other extraordinary natural events, striking accidents or amazing coincidences as signs for humankind. While these events did not actually violate the laws of nature, they were so unusual that they too were considered special or exceptional providences with specific meanings. Ideas like these presupposed a certain linkage between heaven and earth because God was thought to favor the world with his revelations and direction, making the temporal world a realm of divine activity much as was heaven. As late as the mid-seventeenth century, supernatural interventions in daily life were taken for granted. In a world in which it was assumed that God and the devil intervened daily, it was not thought unusual for God to take direct and drastic action to punish sinners or to reward the virtuous.
For humankind, the only path to follow in such a world was that of faith. Faith in God's providence and trust in divine guidance went side by side with belief in the divine truths revealed by God in Scripture. Belief in divine inspiration and faith in divine providence were the intellectual and emotional components of an assent to God's authority that bound peasant and professor alike in the sixteenth century. In his classic study of the religion of Rabelais, Lucien Febvre eloquently described the place of faith in the lives of the people of that century: religion dominated people so completely and so totally that it was like the mantle of the Madonna of mercy, sheltering people of all estates in its maternal folds. This religious belief rested firmly on the fundamental assumption of the presence and operation of God in the world.
Even in the sixteenth century, however, there was some debate among intellectuals over the question of whether God operated above nature or only through it. While few people doubted the miracles and other supernatural events reported in the Bible, some thinkers believed that such miracles no longer took place. Still other intellectuals insisted, however, that supernatural miracles had by no means ceased, and few dared to suggest that divine control of the world was only remote. It was the seventeenth century that was the real turning point for belief in divine providence.
It has long been accepted that the great discoveries of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century played a major role in the gradual displacement of the traditional European religious worldview by an outlook based on reason and secularism. The stress on rational and empirical explanation that was an essential part of the new scientific method greatly weakened belief in witchcraft, miracles, astrology, and many traditional Christian doctrines. At the same time, the attack on Aristotelianism brought about by the physical theories of Galileo and Kepler, the empiricism of Francis Bacon, and the mechanistic cosmology of Descartes encouraged a rejection of the principle of intellectual authority in favor of free and rational inquiry and set off a massive cultural and intellectual transformation. The attempt to understand the physical world in terms of reason was followed closely by a desire to understand humankind's relationship to nature, society, and God in similar rational terms. The demonstrated power of human reason to discover the fundamental natural laws governing the operation of the physical universe awakened in people a great confidence in the ability of reason to provide humankind with knowledge of other vital aspects of human experience as well. In addition, the emerging picture of the regular and mechanistic operation of the physical universe that culminated in the work of Boyle and Newton promoted the conception of a world regulated by natural laws and largely undisturbed by supernatural influences. As R. S. Westfall noted in his book on science and religion in the seventeenth century, the birth of modern science brought the end of the age of faith in European thought.
The mechanical philosophy of the later seventeenth century created much doubt about the doctrine of special providence. As belief in extraordinary providence waned, many intellectuals came to see God's providence as limited to the original act of creation, after which the world operated mechanically, like a great watch wound up and left to run by its maker. Febvre described how the rise of modern science and the accompanying concept of natural law undermined belief in providence:
Armed with the mighty concept of law, [science] gradually strove to reduce the powers of God. In the first place it strove to establish that, if it was strictly possible to admit the original intervention of a primum movens, an initial divine motor, there was in any case no longer room, once the machine was started, for an interventionist God, for his miracles, or even, quite simply, for his Providence.
While belief in special providence declined, belief in general providence continued into the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries. Yet many intellectuals who dropped belief in special providence while continuing to insist on general providence simply refused to face the ultimate implications of their position. The increasing sense of separation between the temporal world and God that gave rise to doubts about special providence would inevitably undermine belief in general providence as well.
As early as the second half of the seventeenth century, the realms of heaten and earth were beginning to move apart in the minds of many people. Some late-seventeenth-century and early-eighteenth-century thinkers vigorously resisted this secularizing trend. The scientists Boyle and Newton firmly believed in general providence and, despite their physical theories, hesitated to reject the miracles of the Bible or the role of providence in everyday life. But while many English Newtonians did not openly reject special providence, neither did they emphasize direct divine intervention in the natural world. They did not believe that extraordinary natural occurrences were necessarily signs from God, because for them providence did not operate in nature by means of dramatic events like comets or earthquakes but rather through the imposition of order and harmony by natural law. Once the growing sense of separation between man and God had introduced the corrosive force of doubt into peoples' belief in direct divine intervention in the temporal world, however, it would not be long before this acid attacked the foundations of belief in indirect divine control of the world as well. Pious intellectuals like the Cambridge Platonists realized this danger clearly enough, and this was one reason for their great fear of the pantheism of Spinoza, which they saw as leading to atheism.
The transformation of European thought during the second half of the seventeenth century was described by the historian of science Herbert Butterfield as "a colossal secularization of thought in every possible realm of ideas at the same time." While Butterfield believed that the rise of a rational and secular outlook during the late seventeenth century was in important measure the result of the Scientific Revolution, he recognized that the birth of modern science was not the only cause of this great intellectual transformation. He pointed to a parallel but largely independent crisis in religious belief, what he called a "decline of Christianity," as a second major cause of the secularization of European thought during the later seventeenth century.
The crisis within European religious thought that played so vital a role in the seventeenth-century transition from faith to reason has been explained by Richard Popkin as the result of a challenge to traditional religious authority produced by the Protestant Reformation. According to Popkin, the influence of the turbulent period of intellectual confusion that resulted from the Reformation's rejection of traditional religious authority was an essential factor in the formation of seventeenth-century rationalism. The philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza were in part a response to the crisis of skepticism that engulfed the intellectual life of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This skeptical crisis was caused, in Popkin's view, by a fateful coincidence of two important events: the rediscovery in the sixteenth century of the works of the Greek Pyrrhonist Sextus Empiricus, preceded by Luther's challenge to the Catholic church, which produced an intellectual dispute over the proper criterion for religious truth.
Excerpted from Prophecy and Reason by Andrew C. Fix. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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