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Thursday
Sep272012

Declinism

There is some truth to Mark Lilla's criticism of those who reconstruct our history as one long process of decline since the 12th century, but it needs to be qualified. There was certainly a consistent development of ideas from the Reformation to the Enlightenment to us. The point is that it was not inevitable, it was not all that happened, and our task is not to go back to a mythical past, because a tradition has to become alive in the present.

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Well, perhaps there is some truth to Lilla's point as an abstract criticism of a certain way of doing history, but it is a point that has absolutely no bearing on the book that he is reviewing. Gregory's book does not in any way make the argument of "one long decline," nor reconstruct history as inevitable, nor suggest that the decline is all that happened, and least of all does it idealize the 12th century or even imply in the most remote way that we should seek a return to the past, mythical or otherwise. On the contrary, it explicitly denies all of those things. Read the book and one will quickly realize that Lilla's glib hack job is utterly unresponsive to the sophisticated and nuanced arguments that Gregory is making -- one important one of which in fact is that there still exists today a tradition that is both continuous with the past and alive in the present, that offers a coherent alternative to many of the pathologies of the contemporary world. The book is a tour de force both in its understanding of the passage from the middle ages to modernity and also in its challenge to the currently conventional methodologies of the discipline of history in general, and it merits being high on any serious person's reading list. It may be noted, too, that Gregory does indirectly but thoroughly reject the arguments of Lilla's "Stillborn God", and that seems to be a very plausible explanation for Lilla's distaste... Here is a very different comment on the book which is less tendentious and ideological and therefore more capable of actually grasping the substance of the arguments that Gregory makes: http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/unintended-reformation

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo Carozza

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