In our previous articles, we began to explore what Charles Taylor calls the “bulwarks of belief.” These are the aspects of psychology and society that made belief nearly irresistible for most Europeans around the year 1500. Taylor postulates these bulwarks thus: that purpose and design were evident in nature and history; that God was implicated in the very existence of society; and that the world was “enchanted” by spirits and spiritual forces. In the last article, I tried to refine this “enchanted world” concept by talking about the difference between the “universe” idea and the “cosmos” idea. I’ve been faithful to Taylor in maintaining the distinction between the enchanted world and the cosmos, but really it seems like he intends them to be part and parcel of the same thing. We inhabit a universe, which may or may not have been created by God, but premodern Europeans inhabited a cosmos, in which God was an active participant. I began a discussion of how the universe differs from the cosmos, by describing how time in the universe is flattened and homogenized, while it’s much more heterogeneous in the cosmos. We saw how secular time, i.e., our everyday experience of time, has pushed the other kinds of time—the great time, anti-time, and eternity—to the margins of modern consciousness.
A similar development has occurred with respect to space. According to Taylor, space has become, for us, just this one thing: three dimensions void of content. Its normal state is emptiness, until something intrudes on it, fills it up. Space is, in that sense, like a container, and, like time, it’s basically uniform. There aren’t special kinds of space where the laws of physics don’t apply, or are kept fundamentally distinct from others. There are places you can’t go, of course, but that’s not because there’s any spiritual or other nonhuman power attached to them. You’re just forbidden access by secular means for secular reasons.
This is different from the premodern conception in at least two ways. The first is that the notion of space as emptiness presumes that a vacuum is a genuine possibility, that there can be real emptiness. But this has been denied in natural philosophy and physics until quite recently, and it’s not even clear that it’s true today. For Aristotle and Descartes, “nature abhors a vacuum” was not just an expression attaching to observation, but a law of reason. Aristotle had argued that there could not be a vacuum because the speed of an object is proportional to the force applied to it, and inversely proportional to the viscosity of the medium through which it travels. This isn’t exactly obvious at first, but with a little digging we can get at his meaning. Recall that inverse proportionality means that when one constant rises, the other falls; hence if velocity is inversely proportional to viscosity, then as viscosity rises, momentum falls, and as momentum rises, viscosity falls. Now, if viscosity attains its absolute smallest value, zero, then momentum would have to attain its absolute maximum value, infinity. And that’s just what would happen if there were no medium, since viscosity arises from the medium, so where there is no medium there is no viscosity. Viscosity would have a value of zero, hence momentum a value of infinity. A vacuum, if formed, would be instantly filled. So, according to Aristotle, it’s not just that nature doesn’t like vacuums in a metaphorical sense—they’re literally impossible.
It wasn’t until the experiments of Otto von Guericke and Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century that vacuums were shown to exist, although the demonstration may not have been as conclusive as was once thought. (For a discussion of the controversy over vacuums between Boyle and Hobbes, please see my earlier article on Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump.) In any case, the void filled up again when physicists posited the existence of the “cosmic aether” to explain the motion of light waves through space (light had been observed to have wave properties, and you can’t have a wave without a medium for it to travel through, the reasoning went), and even though the aether idea was abandoned after the Michelson-Morley experiment in the late nineteenth century, the void filled right back up again with the discovery of quantum mechanics. Now, we are told, particles pop in and out of existence routinely, seemingly for no reason, so it seems once again that the vacuum is off the table.
At any rate, the modern conception of space as basically flat and empty void is not the only way to look at things. It’s part of the universe idea (and its offshoots) that emerged over the last five centuries in Europe. A second way in which the modern idea is different is that premodern Europeans tended to think in terms of “fields of influence,” where we tend to think in terms of uniform causality. The basic idea was that when one encounters people, events, and objects with certain resonances—say, a saint with God (hence the expression, “godly”) or a weapon with violence (hence “the blade itself incites to deeds of violence,” as Homer says)—that resonance is not understood in the modern way, as an interpretation of inert "stuff," but as really existing in the person, event, or object itself, emanating out of it and influencing surrounding events. To be at a holy shrine is not to be at a place one considers holy, at a place to which one imputes the quality or interpretation of holiness, it is to be in the presence of holiness simpliciter. Likewise with other resonances. One is not afraid of the haunted swamp because one supposes that evil spirits dwell there, the swamp emanates haunting-ness. The haunting-ness itself is the evil spirit, and it’s apprehended directly and intuitively. One just does have this experience of an evil spirit, and only later does it become a matter of critical scrutiny. It’s a much more phenomenological approach to things. The qualities that impinge on our psyches aren’t things we project on a world of inert stuff, they’re resonances that we absorb from out there, on this view.
This is not entirely absent in modernity. Radioactivity, for instance, is a field of influence that causes particles to decay, where otherwise they would not. Magnetism is a field of influence that causes metals to move in a way that they otherwise would not. What is different is that their influence is understood in terms of uniform causality, where fields of influence are understood in terms of variable… well… influence. Still, as we saw with different kinds of space, this notion of fields of influence has receded to the margins in the universe idea. More about this in a moment.
There’s one more important difference along the heterogeneous-cosmos/homogeneous-universe axis for us to explore, and this has to do with how people relate to the transcendent. The heterogeneity of the cosmos idea was not only a matter of time and space, but the construction of society as well. In the medieval world, society was divided into basically three orders: those who fight (i.e., the knights and nobles), those who pray (i.e., the priests and monks), and those who work (i.e., the merchants and peasants.) People were not subject to uniform expectations under this system. For a knight to be a good person was primarily to be a good knight. Their duties would have been prescribed for them at birth, and their relation to people within the other orders always somewhat different. They had their own life path prescribed for them, their own part of the community to which they most intimately belonged. In a similar way, not everyone was expected to approach God in the same way. The community had special representatives whose job it was to bear the primary responsibility, not just on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of the community, with respect to their obligations to God. Hence it was a high calling to take up the religious life, but it was not equally incumbent on everyone, just as it was not to fight wars (the job of the knights) or to take in the harvest (the job of the peasants), etc.
Of course, we have differentiation today. It is not equally incumbent on everyone to know how to fix a car or argue a legal case or perform surgery. There are specialists whose job it is to master a fairly narrow set of skills. But this is, for us moderns, a matter of belonging to a profession rather than a caste. You’re not born into it, you’re not obligated to stay where you started, and you’re not fundamentally defined by it either. To the philosopher, you’re just a person, no matter what your occupation. To the lawyer, you’re just a citizen. To the doctor, you’re just your body. And this is true in the religious context as well, where (often) you’re just another person seeking an encounter with God. So, again, we can see a flattening or a homogenization involved in modernity. Where, for premodernity, there was a communal as well as an individual encounter with God, and where the heterogeneity within the community was integral to that encounter, for modernity there are, at bottom, individuals. Differentiation within the community is still there, but it’s pushed to the margins.
All this heterogeneity that the premodern European inhabits and experiences leads to a very different mental space, a different conception of self. According to Taylor, where modern consciousness is characterized by a “buffered self” (that is, one with a more detached take on things—more on this in the future), premodern consciousness is characterized by a porous self. The porous self does not make sharp distinctions between the internal and the external, the subjective and the objective, interpretation and fact. It does not have the sense of the buffered self, that the mind exists in a kind of material container, from within and through which it has an encounter with a world "out there." Rather, mind is intrinsic to being just as such—not simply one’s own mind, but mind generally. Existence is saturated by mind. Just as the foreboding presence in the swamp is not caused by, but is, the evil spirit, so the Passover feast does not commemorate, but recreates, brings into the present, the flight of the Jews from Egypt. So, too, one does not simply take up the profession of being, but becomes, assumes the new identity of, a knight or a nun. All of this heterogeneity in time, space, and self is suffused, underwritten, and woven together by meaning, purpose, mind. The result is that there is an immediacy, below the level of discursive reason, to the furniture of this premodern mentality. Sharp distinctions—between me and you, here and there, past and present—are all blurred. The intuitive and immediate receptivity of the self to this world suffused by mind and purpose is what Taylor is trying to get at when he talks about the porous self.
Now I think we’re in a better position to understand how the “enchanted world” functions as a bulwark of belief. When a “spirit” is understood as an object, a disincorporated thing that haunts that forest over there, or that animates a body, that’s a very modern kind of understanding. When we project it into the past, we naturally come away thinking that our ancestors must not have been very bright. The truth is far stranger, and more interesting. A spirit wasn’t an object at all, but a sensation, an experience, closer to what we mean when we talk about “school spirit,” or “the spirit of the times,” or “getting into the spirit of things.” But where for us this is just a metaphor—we don’t really think there’s some kind of entity involved, we’re just talking about how we collectively feel—for premodern Europeans that feeling was not confined to the container of the body or of the mind, it had a real and independent existence, perceived rather than created by the mind that experienced it.
The reason that this enchanted world functions as a bulwark to belief, according to Taylor, is that it makes it very important to find means of navigating these fields of influence. It would be terrifying to face all of this alone and unaided. One needs means of control. This is where the power of ascetics, mystics, and saints to work miracles becomes plausible. These fields of influence, these spirits, which are potentially such a grave threat to you and to your community, don’t just have their own existence and power. They’re all subordinated ultimately to God. Hence people who acquire favor with God acquire power over these fields of influence. One acquires this favor by doing the things God commands. But God is so demanding that this is by no means easy to do. It’s the work of a full-time specialist—of a monk, nun, or other holy person. That person can then turn around and use the influence they’ve acquired with God to distribute benefits to the community.
Under these conditions, disbelieving in God becomes massively counterintuitive. The reason is that all those fields of influence, those spirits, are still there. They’re still a given part of experience, incapable of being wished away through an exercise in theoretical reason. These spirits are intimidating enough even with holy people and God to appeal to, but without God, and hence without the efficacy of the holy people, there would be no defense. Disbelieving in God would be to abjure one of the few means of exercising effective control over the spirits and fields of influence that populate one’s world. Disbelief is very difficult for the porous self.
Further, if weal and woe alike are attributable to fields of influence, and if they affect the community as a whole, then activities that manipulate such fields are matters of public concern. Participation is not simply a matter of private conviction or preference. Because the well-being of the entire community is at stake, enormous pressure would be brought to bear on anyone who, through action or inaction, undercut the efficacy of the measures taken to manipulate them. Because Christianity insists that right action is in itself insufficient to please God, but that right belief—orthodoxy—is also essential, it follows that beliefs about God cannot be left to private preference. God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, not just in the next life but in this one; hence both belief and practice must be brought into line in order to secure God’s blessings, and with them the well-being of the community. This is why it becomes important and natural to have bishops, priests, nuns, friars, and other people not simply officiate at ceremonies but to teach and maintain orthodox belief. Dissent becomes both difficult and dangerous. Heretics aren’t simply offensive, they’re threatening to the material no less than to the spiritual well-being of the community. According to Taylor, a society organized on such principles argues strongly for the existence of God.
So, what changed? Where did all these spirits run off to? Well, for plenty of people they’re still there. People who read philosophy blogs are, after all, a distinct minority in even the most modern, prosperous, highly educated societies, and there’s no reason to think that they’re all skeptics. Nevertheless, it seems hard to deny that some sort of retreat has taken place. And, in fact, it’s part of Taylor’s argument that even the staunchest sort of belief, in the modern world, is quite different then that found in premodern times. In the next article, we’ll begin to explore Taylor’s historical account of the transition, from near-universal belief to widespread doubt, enchantment to disenchantment, cosmos to universe. It began, Taylor argues, with the Protestant Reformation.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: