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The Role of Providence in the Social Order
An Essay in Intellectual History
By Jacob Viner
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1972 The American Philosophical Society
All rights reserved.
The Cosmic Order in the Service of Man
I am presenting these lectures to you as merely an exercise in the history of ideas. The particular set of ideas which I will examine relates to the role of providence in the social order as seen, primarily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by intellectuals in general, and by theologians, philosophers of various species, and economists in particular. Some of these ideas no doubt had a substantial influence on the course of history in these centuries, but as to this I venture no claims. It has been said of the ideas of political philosophers and economists that almost on their own they have ruled the world. Perhaps so. In any case, I have a professional vested interest in believing it to be so. But most of the thinkers I will be dealing with in these lectures would have regarded as impious the idea that the ideas of men, even of men as important as themselves, ruled the world as a final cause. They would have insisted, instead, that it was providence that ruled the world. For the moment, I will defer paying my respects to the role of providence and look only at secondary causes.
There is a theory, which is a quasi-religion for some men and is regarded by perhaps a majority of modern intellectuals as having a large measure of validity, which holds that it is the material circumstances in which men live, and especially the social structure and economic institutions of society which govern the behavior of men, and via practice, shape their thought, including even their thoughts about providence. Karl Marx, in 1843, applied this thesis to religion in his most dogmatic manner: "religious misery is, on one hand, the expression of actual misery, and, on the other, a protest against actual misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the kindliness of a heartless world, the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the people's opium."
A rival theory is that it is the great men who determine the course of history, the men of action in the material world, the great thinkers in the world of ideas. It is, I suppose, the responsibility of social historians to decide between the competing theories as to the causes and consequences of the ideas which men hold. In any case, as I am not a social historian, I do not accept it as an immediate responsibility of mine, and I will endeavor to remain strictly within the narrow and modest sphere of the history of ideas. This, as I understand it, accepts no responsibilities except those imposed by the standards of scholarly objectivity, whose essence can be summarized in two precepts: first, be as neutral as you can in reporting other men's ideas, yielding neither to favorable nor to unfavorable bias, nor to unmotivated carelessness; second, bear in mind that this, even an approach to accuracy in reporting, is an arduous and difficult art, calling for unintermitting self-discipline.
Objectivity is not an all-purpose virtue. One can, I suppose, pay a higher price for it in surrendered values than it is worth in some circumstances. As it operates in the history of ideas it can result in a lifeless, bloodless, anaemic academic discipline, one which isolates ideas from human minds and passions and treats them as a species of intellectual atoms, as particles of thought which emerged from nothingness and will return to it, causeless and devoid of consequences. It may have no function except that of providing the historian with a vacation from true history of man's thought or providing him with a vocation which furnishes him with subsistence and occasional fun, but leaves him free from the need of making moral or religious or political or economic judgments as part of his professional task. It would be libelous to assert that this is a fair account of how in fact most historians of ideas operate. With minor qualifications, however, I confess that it comes reasonably close to how I have tried to operate when I have practiced the art of Ideengeschichte. In the past I have for the most part been otherwise engaged, in trying to generate ideas of my own, or to improve the morals of others, or either to help rescue contemporary society from the sad cultural predicament I am told it is in, or to protect society from its would-be rescuers, or to solve technical economic problems. The only assistance I was then conscious of deriving from such knowledge as I had of the history of ideas was a lesson it taught me with a very close approach to certainty. Outside the quite extensive area where tautology rightly rules, certainty is beyond the reach of man, but for effectiveness in the life of action the false assurance that one has attained certainty is easy to achieve and is a great help and a great comfort.
It is possible however, to make more of the history of ideas than the mechanical compilation of annals or chronicles of autonomous ideas, all free, equal, and of no visible interest except to those perhaps mythical scholars, the old-fashioned antiquarians. In relation to the outside world, including the spheres of thought which use as raw material particular ideas, there are many kinds of ideas and, with effort, the kinds can in practice be distinguished more or less precisely from each other. Depending upon time and place, also, the same idea may be performing in different roles. Given the appropriate knowledge, the observer may be able in any particular set of circumstances to identify the role which is dominant for a particular idea, and thus relate the idea to the thought, the doctrines, the passions and hopes, the material circumstances, of mankind in that time and place. The idea may be operating functionally, that is, it may be influencing the behavior of those who are possessed of or by it, and thus may have practical consequences. The idea may find use only as a part of traditional rote, not related logically to its intellectual context, and now playing only a ceremonial role as a residue of the functional thought of a distant past. The idea may have an aesthetic role, as decoration or ornamentation for an argument or thesis, or as raw material for the poet or dramatist. The idea may be an implement of play, the tennis-ball, so to speak, of an intellectual game which can have strict rules designed to provide standards of skill for players and spectators. Finally, the idea, though dead and functionless, may be an object of innocent curiosity, like uncommon pebbles or ancient artifacts which offer scope for the acquisition of connoisseurship. It is on the basis of some blend of these roles that I accept the history of ideas as a legitimate avocation for myself, but I hope that my audience, with its wider range of skills and interests, and no doubt its more profound convictions, will find in these lectures more solid justification for listening to them than I have the presumption to claim on their behalf.
Providence, as an intelligent being, external to nature but governing nature, is an idea common to most religions. The term, or its equivalent in various languages, is often used also to signify the pattern in which that supernatural being conducts his operations. I will use it in both senses.
In the Christian tradition, especially perhaps in the period I am in these lectures specially concerned with, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a distinction is made on the one hand between "general providence," or God operating through secondary causes, or through the "laws of nature," and on the other hand, "particular" or "peculiar" or "special" or "extraordinary" providence, or God operating directly, either in a special manipulation of the laws of nature, or without reference to the laws of nature, or in direct suppression of them. Somewhere within the range of "particular providence," but not as a rule regarded as embracing its whole range, come "miracles." "Secondary causes" signify the operation of the laws of nature. "Final causes" signify the operations of providence, whether direct, without the mediation of the laws of nature, or indirect, with the mediation of these laws. All causation is thus immediately or ultimately final, except where there is recognized to be a field of operations for the devil, for demons, for false gods, and for witches, sorcerers, evil spirits, and magicians, all these last regarded as agents of the devil.
My particular concern in these lectures is with ideas concerning the role of providence in the temporal social order of mankind. Expressly or by implication in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, as also in the religious thought of ancient Greece and Rome, there is a special relationship between providence and this earth, and between providence and the human inhabitants of this earth, or of a portion of them, a chosen people, or the portion of mankind which a special revelation has reached, or the faithful among the latter. A good deal of early theological doctrine, Christian and non-Christian, however, was not expressly anthropocentric, or not exclusively so, and was concerned with the relations of providence to the universe as a whole, to this earth as a whole, and to all of its organic life. It was in this area where, by virtue of new observations and discoveries, apparent discrepancies between Biblical texts and observed or reasonably inferrable facts first became important. The first stages of providential doctrine, therefore, gave extensive attention to the relations of providence to the cosmic order, to the physical order. Social thought was primitive and scanty, and while Christianity continued to be a minority and a persecuted cult, without a share in government, it concentrated its thought about humanity on the relations of the indivdual to God and on the City of God which was in prospect, rather than on the problems of communal life in the earthly cities of sinful men.
The general framework of providentialist doctrine thus was set initially largely in terms of the relation of God to the physical order of the cosmos he had created, and on the path to immortal life he had established for mankind. Admiration of the beauties, the regularities, and the magnificence of the cosmic order was primarily a religious act, an act of veneration of God's majesty, and not, as it later sometimes became, an expression of gratitude for temporal benefits which mankind in general derived from the cosmic order.
In the state of knowledge of nature of the early Christians, the account of the cosmic order derivable from Genesis did not conflict with what their naked and untrained eyes could perceive, and presumably left most of them untroubled by doubts as to the reliability of that account. St. Augustine, however, warned the Christians of his time not to make themselves laughable to sophisticated Greeks by presenting their naive notions about matters of fact relating to natural science as resting on the sacred writings when to the Greeks such notions were in direct conflict with propositions which they regarded as demonstrably true on the basis of reason and experience. St. Augustine's primary concern was apparently not to improve the understanding of nature by rank-and-file Christians. Nor is it at all clear that he was conceding that Genesis, properly interpreted, could not be reconciled with the latest findings of Greek science. He did, however, make it reasonably clear that he believed that Genesis was not to be read literally as a reliable treatise on scientific matters. Christians, he said, should be prudent, restrained, and if possible well-informed in using the Scriptures for exposition of matters on which scientific testimony was relevant and available; if they acted otherwise, it would impair their efficacy as expounders of the Christian faith to the unconverted. I have failed to find that this advice of St. Augustine had any direct influence on later theologians or ecclesiastics. In any case, it seems to be the fact that it was those branches of the Christian faith which departed most widely from the Augustinian tradition who were most receptive to innovations in science and went furthest in accommodating their theology to the findings of scientists.
The early Christians were largely recruited from among the poorer classes. There was little occasion for them to be grateful to a kind providence which showered them with temporal blessings. In any case, it was not worldly ease and prosperity which they were taught to expect from Christianity, but hope for happiness in a future life. The doctrines of the Fall of Man and of the Flood, and of their adverse consequences for the material state of mankind on this earth and even for the physical state of the earth itself, called for a pessimistic and not an optimistic view of the relations of the physical cosmos to man's temporal welfare. What has been called the "Christian optimism" of early Christianity was in any normal sense of the term "optimism" only such with respect to the prospects for an idyllic afterlife, and even these prospects were often held to be dim for many, perhaps for most, of the believers. The new optimism of the seventeenth century and later, which was to have an important impact on social thought, was in part a turning away from the Augustinian tradition in Christianity and from the doctrine of original sin. It was in part even a turning away, in the guise of "deism," from revealed religion.
In the Old Testament there are occasional references to the benefits man derives from the firmament, the "heavens"; they provide mankind with rain, with the succession of the seasons, with the alteration of cold and warmth, and with favorable winds. St. Paul (Romans, 1.20) cited the understanding that man gets of the nature of God from what is visible of the universe that he created, and St. Augustine later relied heavily on this text to justify inferences as to the nature of God from what we know of the universe he created. The appeal to the order that reigns throughout the universe as evidence of design and therefore of the existence of the gods had been made in Greece, at least as early as the seventh century B.C. as an argument against the doctrine that the universe was the product of chance.
The use of the argument from design for demonstrating the existence of God does not appear to have become widespread until the seventeenth century. It, of course, constituted the Via Quinta of the famous effort of St. Thomas Aquinas to prove the existence of God philosophically; that is, without appeal to revelation. Until, however, there existed widespread skepticism or doubt about the authority of the Scriptures, there was not much occasion for seeking support for belief in God's existence from philosophy or science or human reason.
The first of the great threats to the credibility of the Biblical account of the origin and mode of operation of the physical universe emanating from scientific discovery was, of course, the Copernican revolution in astronomy in the sixteenth century. The establishment of the theory that the earth rotated daily on its axis and that the planets, including the earth, revolved in orbits around the sun, seemed to some to constitute a major rejection of the geocentric interpretation of the universe which the Scriptures expounded; the heliocentric doctrine threatened the authority of a theology based on a historical account of miraculous events occurring in a small corner of a small planet in an infinite universe. Development of the argument from design as a support of belief in the existence of an all-powerful supernatural being became for the first time since the establishment of the Christian faith an urgent necessity for those believers who were acquainted with the progress of scientific thought.
The Copernican shock to traditional theology was of course only the first of a continuing series. Geological discoveries which tended to cast doubt on the credibility of the world, and still more of the universe, being created in six days and on the age of the world being limited to something under 6,000 years; the beginnings of scrutiny of the inner harmony and the historical authenticity of the Biblical texts in the form in which they had been handed down; much later, the appearance of evolutionary theories and the gradual accumulation of scientific evidence which seemed to support them, all of these were additional landmarks of the growth of speculation and evidence threatening the authority of Scriptures with respect to the physical nature of the universe, and even casting a measure of doubt on its over-all authority. Except for express evolutionary doctrine, whose day was still to come, it was the formidable task of the orthodox theology of the seventeenth century to meet these various challenges to its validity.
Excerpted from The Role of Providence in the Social Order by Jacob Viner. Copyright © 1972 The American Philosophical Society. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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