The Imaginarium of Dr. Grotius

“Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life,” a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. “It’s still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that.”

This quote comes from a profile in The New Yorker on Rod Dreher (author of the much reviewed The Benedict Option).  Dreher admits that one of the problems of his book is that the terms and categories we have for the debate have already been set.  We still have all the values of “late-modern capitalism” attached to our religious thinking.  We may debate what color to paint the living room but rarely consider how the design of the house, or its foundation, may influence us.

The same holds true in every society.  The ancients regarded the Romans as a very religious people, but religious in what sense, exactly?  “Real” religious belief often lies deep beneath its outward manifestation.  In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli includes some revealing anecdotes:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances; resorting to them in their consular comitia; in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so saying, caused them to be thrown into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness. And, in truth, the sole object of this system of taking the auspices was to insure the army joining battle with that confidence of success which constantly leads to victory; a device followed not by the Romans only, but by foreign nations as well; of which I shall give an example in the following Chapter.

It seems that “success,” or possibly, “Rome,” is what the Romans really fundamentally worshipped.  Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but clearly, strict fidelity to the auguries or deviation from them was not their central concern.

Modern Social Imaginaries, by Charles Taylor, tackles some of these issues.  His title reminds one of Benedict’s Anderson’s groundbreaking Imagined Communities, and Taylor acknowledges this in his introduction.  Anderson laid bare how the concept of nation, which we take for granted as solid reality, had its roots in a kind of social mental experiment.  Villages and towns have a concrete reality.  We know the people and our direct interaction with them forms the glue of our communities.  But nations are more abstract, as no natural reason often exists for why borders should be in one place and not another.  Creating a nation requires imagination, a mythology, a mental construct, to hold the national “community” together.  This goes far beyond social theories or ideas.

Taylor builds on this idea and seeks to examine the key underpinnings of modern western civilization, to show us the nose on our face.  He writes,

This essay seeks to shed light on both the original and contemporary issues about modernity by defining the self-understandings that have been constitutive of it. Western modernity in this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities are understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved. This approach is not the same as one that might focus on the ideas as against the institutions of modernity. The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.

Taylor argues that our primary imaginary has us envision society as a means for exchanging goods and services for the mutual benefit of individuals.  This leads in turn to the development of market economies and notions of rights.  But at root, we build upon the idea of the individual.  I think Taylor might agree with Allan Bloom, who commented that the real America religion is our quest for the authentic self, and we let neither tradition, or even nature, stand in the way of our search.

Our modern imaginaries form a stark contrast to pre-modern societies, which tended to be ordered in one of two ways:

  • By a “law of the people” that has existed from time immemorial*, or
  • By a hierarchy in society that mirrors nature.  Disorders in nature have their mirror in the individual, or perhaps we might conceive it the other way round–disorders in our souls and bodies have their response in nature.**

The “telos” of pre-modern societies involved living into something that existed before you.  They have an “end” beyond the society itself.  These frameworks exist not as a direct prescription but more so a guide to understanding reality.  Hence the “Mappa Mundi” (ca. 1300) tries not to accurately depict the physical world, but rather help one understand their place in the grand scheme of things.  It “maps” your life by telling you that you will die and face judgment, that Jerusalem is the center of the Earth, and so on.

The medievals obviously knew that the world did not actually look like this, but for them that was hardly the point.

The wars of religion in the 16th century lead to new ways of imagining the world. The Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius gets credit in the eyes of most for orienting society in a new direction.  Though he wrote voluminously on many subjects, we can tie his thought together on the ideas of the individual and consent.  So, for example, the sea should be free for all, so that each individual nation may carve out their own destiny upon it.  Taylor argues that Grotius made such a case not as a radical, but a conservative.  He wanted to preserve the existing order and felt that ideas of freedom and consent were the best way to do this.

Obviously he was wrong.  But this, says Taylor, is often the way of things.  An acorn contains a whole oak, though no one would ever guess.  Our own revolution worked this way.  Within even just a few years, our founders lost control of the direction of things, and some see the Constitution as their attempt to salvage what they could before things got too far out of hand.

Our new imaginings put us on entirely different course.  In ye olden days order is self-realizing.  When evil happens time will go out of joint, for example, as in Hamlet.  Though many may flaunt established cosmic order, in time the cosmos has its way with you.  Order will come back again.  The modern imagining has no such apparatus.  It is entirely contingent, for we start with individuals and not what lies beyond them.

John Locke built on Grotius and went far beyond him.  For centuries, Christians saw sin as the result of death.  That is, our fear of death, whether subconscious or no, leads us to selfish acts of self-preservation.  This takes innocuous forms (I will have the last cookie), and more sinister, but the root is the same–our fear of self-dissolution. But Locke saw blessings in our desire for self-preservation–he saw it as part of our God-given nature.  We begin then, as individuals with a good desire of self-enhancement.  This means we meet on an amoral plane of complementarity, not an established hierarchy.  And from there, many other dominoes begin to fall.

Though Locke and others of his day had a secular foundation to their thought, some of the old way of understanding remained.  We still needed discipline to form our unformed selves.  But the balance of power shifted.  Before, nature came intact as a witness to us.  Locke believed, however, that just our labor shapes ourselves, so too our labor shapes nature.  Nature is ours form–it is our duty to form it–rather than nature forming us.  Now we see the oak embedded in Locke’s acorn–we believe that we are already formed.  As comedian Jon Stewart noted, whatever we do these days we deem special because we did it.^  Those of us who wish to challenge LGBT “agenda,” for example, don’t have the language or framework to do so effectively.  These days, our geodes must be acknowledged!

As we enter into adolescence we become more aware of the world, but our biggest problem at that age usually involves not being able to think of any world besides our own.  History helps with this, and Taylor forces us to ask, “What is normal, after all?”

In The Benedict Option Dreher asserts that Christians have lost the culture wars, and that we need to strategically withdraw.  Taylor’s book brings to mind the adage of Sun Tzu, that perhaps the battle was over before it began.  Modern imaginings are inherently secular.  Christians could never “win” a war fought entirely on their opponents terms.  But Taylor also gets us to rethink what is normal.  Dreher himself admits that he lives much like anyone else, and has yet to actually take his own advice.  He visited, however, a quasi-monastic community that lives out some of his vision.  Dreher commented,

It makes me think, Who are the abnormal ones here? These people, who live in such close rhythm with their own lives and the life of the church, or people like me, who live like I do?” He paused. “It was a sign to me of what could be.”


*Taylor rightly points out that this idea is not inherently conservative.  Those that rebelled against Charles I did so in the name of their ancient rights and privileges, and perhaps the same could be said about the Magna Carta.

**As one commentator put it, “My students start discussing Petrarch tomorrow in class, and it is easy to misread him as asserting that man is a microcosm of the universe, when in fact it is the universe that is a microcosm of man (or better put, a microcosm of Man).”

^Stewart continued . . . (I paraphrase), “You have to understand.  I grew up as a Jewish kid in New Jersey.  The one thing I heard more than anything else growing up was, “Jonny, get this through your head . . . you’re not special.”