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Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought

Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought

by Julie E. Cooper

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Secularism is usually thought to contain the project of self-deification, in which humans attack God’s authority in order to take his place, freed from all constraints. Julie E. Cooper overturns this conception through an incisive analysis of the early modern justifications for secular politics. While she agrees that secularism is a means of empowerment, she


Secularism is usually thought to contain the project of self-deification, in which humans attack God’s authority in order to take his place, freed from all constraints. Julie E. Cooper overturns this conception through an incisive analysis of the early modern justifications for secular politics. While she agrees that secularism is a means of empowerment, she argues that we have misunderstood the sources of secular empowerment and the kinds of strength to which it aspires.

Contemporary understandings of secularism, Cooper contends, have been shaped by a limited understanding of it as a shift from vulnerability to power. But the works of the foundational thinkers of secularism tell a different story. Analyzing the writings of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau at the moment of secularity’s inception, she shows that all three understood that acknowledging one’s limitations was a condition of successful self-rule. And while all three invited humans to collectively build and sustain a political world, their invitations did not amount to self-deification. Cooper establishes that secular politics as originally conceived does not require a choice between power and vulnerability. Rather, it challenges us—today as then—to reconcile them both as essential components of our humanity.

Editorial Reviews

Samantha L. Frost
“Cooper has undertaken an impressive survey of the historical and contemporary literatures to elucidate and explain the limitations posed by the mistaken presumption that self-aggrandizement is a corollary of secularization. An erudite and truly excellent study, Secular Powers is positioned to make an extremely important contribution to contemporary arguments about the fortunes and possibly the future of secularism in political life.”
Hasana Sharp
“With Secular Powers, Cooper traces an alternative account of secularism, showing that the very feature critics single out for abuse—the relocation of divine sovereignty in the human individual—is in fact a central concern of early secularists, who predicated human empowerment upon the cultivation of a ‘modest disposition.’ Drawing on both little-studied works from the period and a broad range of current scholarship, Cooper makes a highly original contribution to an important interdisciplinary dialogue in the history of ideas.”
“Cooper challenges the standard view that modern political secularism displaces God as the ultimate authority in favor of putting humans in that place. Secularism does not inevitably lead to self-deification, but is compatible with humanity. She argues that each of the three major theorists of the early period, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizes that humans have to recognize their finitude or limitations and that, paradoxically, this finitude is the source of human empowerment. . . .Recommended.”
Steven B. Smith
“In this beautifully written book, Cooper makes the case for modesty as the queen of the virtues. By focusing on Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau, she shows how their philosophies rest less on the idea of the sovereign individual and the deification of human powers than on the embrace of ‘finitude’ and an awareness of our limitations. At a time when recent events have forced us to reckon yet again with the dangers of the unintended consequences of our actions, this modest case for modesty could not be more timely.”
“Do we need God to be humble? If so, then it seems that secular humility is impossible, as any move towards denying God could imply deifying humanity. Cooper’s challenging and illuminating Secular Powers provides close readings from key works of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau to fashion a genealogical narrative of humility within a secular context.”
Political Studies Review
“[Secular Powers] will be of great interest in those dealing with the nature and development of early modern political thought. . . . Cooper’s book, with its focus on the secular critique of pride initialised by Thomas Hobbes and continued by such thinkers as Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, hopes to offer an alternative way to understanding the development of that thought.”
Perspectives on Politics
“Cooper’s Secular Powers wrestles with an enduring idea from which the West seems not to be able to escape, and by which the self-understanding of the modern West, in particular, has been hobbled: Augustine’s antinomy between the ‘City of God’ and the ‘City of Man,’ between Christian humility oriented by the sovereignty of God, on the one hand, and secular agency that purportedly cannot but lose its way, on the other. . . . The question Cooper asks seems especially timely, . . . [and] Secular Powers is written with obvious care, not just with a view to scholarly adequacy but also about the current historical moment.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Humility in Modern Political Thought



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08129-8


Toward a Revised History of Modesty and Humility

In this chapter, I lay historical and theoretical groundwork for the book's central argument—namely, that revisiting the history of modesty and humility requires us to think anew about secularity's meaning and prospects. In the following pages, I rehearse a traditional story about humility's alleged demise, and a traditional story about secularization—and I show how these stories have historically reinforced each other. I relate these stories here because they are the narratives that the book as a whole contests. Moreover, I juxtapose these stories to demonstrate their shared reliance on a canonical account of humility's meaning, provenance, and history. If, as I demonstrate in subsequent chapters, the canonical account fails to capture the complex history of modern contests over modesty, humility, and self-love, then the narratives for which it has been adduced as evidence lose their authoritative veneer.

The canonical understanding of humility, within seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century moral discourse, was the Augustinian account. For early modern Augustinians, humility (and, to a lesser extent, modesty) is a virtue because fallen human beings lack the ability to be moral without grace. In Augustinian paeans to humility, we find encapsulated an entire theology of human dependence. When moralists endorse humility, and when philosophers expound its definition, they meditate upon human finitude. In this period, discourses surrounding humility provide a privileged occasion for engaging crucial questions about human power: How far does it extend? By what is power limited? What is the ethical disposition consistent with these constraints? For early modern Augustinians, humility is the virtue that acknowledges the necessary relationship between human finitude and human dependence.

The Augustinian approach to humility was influential enough that, in the eighteenth century, many critics of superstition accepted it whole cloth, only to invert its valuation. Philosophers, like David Hume, who sought to redeem human power from theological slander declared humility pernicious—or, at the very least, obsolete. Given these critics' vociferousness, it is not altogether surprising that contemporary scholars generally find it inconceivable that humility played a role in the constitution of the modern subject.

I recapitulate the story of humility's alleged refutation at the hands of Hume et al. to make a theoretical point: secularization stories rely on a set of uninterrogated assumptions—about humility and pride, Christianity and paganism, autonomy and dependence—inherited from Augustinian polemic. The (by now standard) story of humility's modern demise supports—indeed, is occasionally adduced as evidence for—one of the most influential narratives of secularization, namely, the narrative that makes the stereotypical sovereign subject the protagonist of modernity. With their Augustinian forbears, proponents of this narrative imagine that doing away with God is only conceivable if one exudes confidence, verging on pride, in human moral capacities. Arguments for humility play no role in the development of a secular worldview, these scholars assume, because they associate secularity with claims to absolute self-sufficiency.

Thus, the chapter highlights implicit resonances between secularization stories and stories of humility's modern demise, and explicit borrowings from the latter by the former. It is my wager that, given the resonance between these stories, if the narrative about humility proves inadequate, then secularization stories lose their cachet as authoritative accounts of the sources of modern subjectivity.

Yet I do not evoke these resonances solely to prepare a challenge to the equation of secularization with self-deification. I also trace this history to remind readers that it is difficult to dislodge Augustinian assumptions about humility. To defend secular agency against Augustinian aspersions without reproducing Augustinian terms, we need to appreciate historical and theoretical factors that have made Augustinian assumptions so resilient. A term like "humility" has a history, a history that places constraints on the uses to which it can credibly be put. Given the connotations that words like "modesty" and "humility" have traditionally borne, and the kinds of projects for which they have traditionally been recruited, it is tricky (but by no means impossible) to extract them from an Augustinian frame. Thus, reconstructing the history of modesty and humility helps to explain why standard secularization stories retain intuitive plausibility even if, on closer inspection, they cannot capture the full range of secular empowerment projects.

Modesty and Humility in Early Modern Thought

The fathers of the Primitive Church, are frequent in observing upon the ancientes both of Greece and Rome, that many of them did excell in most of the morall vertues for which they were much rewarded with temporall blessings by the open hand of almightie God; but that the vertue of humilitie, was soe farre from being possessed and practised by any of them, as that they had not soe much as any apprehention, nor did they frame any conceite at all thereof, and therefore hath not this vertue, any name at all in either of those ancient, and learned tongues.

In early modern philosophy and theology, discourses surrounding humility (and, to a lesser extent, modesty) were important vehicles for illustrating human finitude and articulating its moral, political, and theological implications. In this period, the exercise of defining humility was often part of a larger project to generate an exhaustive catalog of the passions and the virtues. Seventeenth-century philosophers classed modesty and humility as passions, or emotional responses to the individual's felt lack of power. Located at the intersection of the somatic, the affective, and the cognitive, passions "represent things as good or evil for us, and are therefore seen as objects of inclination or aversion." Although passion is essential to human flourishing, seventeenth-century philosophers argued, it tends to lead us astray, inspiring powerful, but self-destructive, impulses. The taxonomy of the passions—an integral part of early modern philosophical treatises—is not merely a classificatory exercise, then. It also has a strong ethical dimension (even for critics of traditional moralism, such as Spinoza). Thus, in early modern philosophical discourse, modesty and humility were not only classed as passions—they were almost unanimously hailed as moral virtues. For Augustinians, humility was a signature of Christian ethics, the virtue that unites correct self-assessment with reverence toward God. Nicolas Malebranche offers a graphic illustration, in Meditations Concerning Humility and Repentance, of the pessimistic assessment of human capability that underlies Augustinian ethics of humility:

We have seen in the fore-going Consideration that Man, in himself, is a meer Nothing, that he is made up of Weakness, Infirmity, and Darkness, that he receives Life, Sense and Motion, continually from God, that he owes to him his whole Being and all his Faculties. And therefore he is certainly under the highest Obligations of Love and Gratitude to God, since he depends so absolutely upon him, as he is a Creature: But if we consider him as the Son of a sinful Father, and as a Sinner himself, we shall find so great a multiplicity of essential and indispensible Duties which he owes to God and at the same time so great a want of Power, and so much unworthiness to perform them, that so far is he from being able to do his Duty, that even his performances would be rejected, if Christ our Mediator had not merited Grace for him by his Death.

To cultivate the virtue of humility, Malebranche counsels, Christians must take the full measure of their weakness, and, having owned their "want of power," they must affirm dependence on God. Debates about humility's meaning and provenance prove significant for my purposes, then, because they are a site at which Christians have traditionally asserted a reciprocal relationship between human finitude and divine sovereignty.

I invoke Malebranche not only to establish that humility was a key concept for early modern articulations of finitude (and, as such, should interest contemporary scholars of secularity). I also highlight the persistent association, in this period, of humility with a particular understanding of finitude—namely, an Augustinian theology of reliance on divine grace. This association appears most vividly in the topos that provides this section's epigraph—the topos that, glossing I Corinthians 8:1 ("Knowledge puVeth up, but charity edifieth"), opposes Christian humility to pagan pride. From Augustine onward, claims that humility is the exclusive province of revealed religion have punctuated polemics against secular philosophy. In City of God, Augustine famously condemns pride, or "the fundamental disorder that orders all things to self," as "'the start of every kind of sin.'" Although Augustine allows that pagans can act for the common good, he denies their actions the status of genuine virtue. Indeed, Augustine dismisses pagan virtue "as an instance of superbia, pride, ordering all things to self." If pagans arrogantly believe that virtue is within human power, Christian virtue, by contrast, acknowledges human dependence, forsaking the aspiration to self-sufficiency. Augustine's polemic offers readers a stark and binary alternative: either one affirms dependence on God, or one asserts a radical (and, from Augustine's perspective, delusional) self-sufficiency. As Augustine establishes the terms of the debate, humility provides the litmus test separating Christianity from paganism. "The name of the virtue that totally opposes all normal or classical moral schemes is humility."

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many thinkers adopted Augustine's Christian humility / pagan pride antithesis as the authoritative framework for understanding humility. Following Augustine, Cartesian rationalists, Quietist mystics, philosophical lexicographers, and professed opponents of superstition all consider humility the signature Christian virtue. To take one example: Arnold Geulincx, a Dutch Cartesian who extols humility as "the most exalted of the Cardinal Virtues," contends that, bereft of revelation, pagan philosophers could not appreciate the virtues of humility. "Christians alone here are wise in some respects by virtue of their Religion." Their diligence and ingenuity notwithstanding, pagans "went so utterly astray" in their pursuit of self-knowledge because "self-love seduced them all." In a similar vein, Jacques Abbadie, a French Cartesian, qualifies praise for Stoic morality with censure of pagan pride. Although the most sublime of ancient philosophies, Stoicism was not blameless: "It could Elevate Man, but failed to Humble him." Revealed morality, by contrast, strikes the proper balance between human dignity and human depravity:

It raises him in such a manner as not to puff him up with Pride, and humbles him so as to make him lose nothing of his proper Dignity: It divests him of his Pride, by communicating to him real Glory, and raises his Excellency in forming his Humility by this Divine Commerce of our souls with GOD, which Religion acquainted us with.

François Fénelon, the Quietist theologian and proponent of pure (or disinterested) love, also invokes this commonplace, recoiling from the suggestion that pagan philosophers endorsed something akin to humility. As Fénelon concedes, Plato instructs readers to love the good for its own sake, and imputes virtue to those capable of disinterest. Yet Fénelon dismisses pagan encomiums to disinterest as masks for inveterate pride—for "any love without grace, and apart from God, can never be anything but a disguised form of self-love [amour-propre]. There is nothing but the infinitely perfect Being who can, as object through his infinite perfection, and as cause through his infinite power, raise us outside of ourselves, and make us prefer that which is not ourselves to our very own being."

That this topos proved compelling to Cartesians and Quietists alike attests its power and versatility. Cartesians and Quietists are located at opposite poles on the spectrum of Christian conceptions of agency—the former impute a modicum of moral capacity to humans; the latter deny it altogether. For Cartesians like Geulincx and Abbadie, encomiums to humility reflect the conviction that grace must supplement human effort. By contrast, a mystic like Fénelon reserves humility for those who adopt a stance of sheer passivity: "The truly humble man does nothing, and opposes nothing." Moreover, Cartesians and Quietists offer divergent accounts of the ethical conduct that humility requires. Geulincx's humility is not an ascetic virtue: "Humility does not require anyone positively to despise himself, to defame himself, scourge himself, or treat himself badly in some way or other. That is in itself not Humility, but the height of insanity, for Reason in itself demands no such thing." By contrast, Fénelon implores Christ for help in practicing self-mortification. "O abject and humble Savior, give me the knowledge of true Christians and the taste for self-contempt; and let me learn the lesson incomprehensible to the human spirit, which is to die to myself through mortification, through true humility!" While Cartesians and Quietists debate the extent of moral capacity and the demands of moral conduct, they nevertheless concur regarding humility's provenance—and, by extension, its relationship to power. A form of right self-knowledge, humility involves the recognition—which escapes unaided reason—that humans need divine assistance. For Cartesians and Quietists alike, the transcendent God provides the only counter to human self-aggrandizement.

Admittedly, the commonplace that opposed Judeo-Christian humility to pagan pride was not the only construction of humility circulating in this period. On the evidence of early modern philosophical dictionaries, one strand within the philosophical community defined humility without express reference to God or revelation. In the Lexicon Philosophicum (1662), Micraelius defines humility as acknowledgment of limitation, without invoking God as the standard with reference to which humans are judged wanting. "Humility is that whereby, having contemplated our weakness, we keep ourselves far from arrogance within the bounds of duty." In a similar vein, the Lexicon Philosophicum (1675) of P. Godartis defines humility as acknowledgment of worthlessness. "Humility is the virtue whereby someone is not puffed up because of his own distinction. Or the virtue inclining toward acknowledging one's worthlessness, and declaring it outwardly, with frankness." The assumption that humans are worthless, and that morality requires one to confess as much, could easily reflect Christian convictions. On this view, the "worthlessness" that Godartis instructs us to acknowledge would be synonymous with "unworthiness in the sight of God," whose acknowledgment John Milton requires, in On Christian Doctrine. Although Godartis declines to specify the commitments, theological or otherwise, that inform his definition, the entry on humility in Chauvin's Lexicon Rationale (1692) provides evidence to suggest that contemporary readers would likely interpret "worthlessness" through a Christian lens. In Lexicon Rationale, Chauvin opens with a nontheistic definition, noting the conventional association of humility with modesty and moderation. "Humility is commonly believed to relate to modesty, and for this reason to temperance, as a potential part of it; and it is said to restrain the motions of hope and audacity, or to restrain the spirit that is puffing itself up, lest we promise ourselves more than is right." Unlike Micraelius and Godartis, however, Chauvin derives proper self-estimation from a reverent disposition toward God. "Reverence for God is the beginning and root of humility." Chauvin synthesizes definitions that gloss humility as a disposition toward the self with definitions that make humility a function of the self 's disposition toward God. For Chauvin, Micraelius / Godartis and Geulincx (whose arguments he paraphrases without attribution) do not represent two competing schools of thought regarding humility. Rather, they constitute a single, theistic tradition—indeed, the only possible tradition. The ease with which Chauvin co-opts nontheistic definitions of humility attests the prestige of the topos that credits scripture with revealing humility's possibility and value.

Excerpted from SECULAR POWERS by JULIE E. COOPER. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Julie E. Cooper is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

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