The three big stories of modernity

So far there have been three widely influential stories about the rise of modernity: the Emancipatory, the Protestant, and the Neo-Thomist. The Emancipatory account argues that modernity is fundamentally about the use of rediscovered classical learning, especially the Skeptics and Epicureans in their literary and philosophical modes, to liberate European Man from bondage to a power-hungry church and religious superstition. The Protestant account argues that modernity marks the moment when rediscovered biblical languages reconnected people with the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, obscured for many centuries by those same power-hungry priests and by the obscurantist pedantries of Scholastic philosophy. The Neo-Thomist account argues that what the others portray as liberation or deliverance was instead a tragedy, an unwarranted rebellion against a church that, while flawed, had managed to achieve by the high Middle Ages a unity of thought, feeling, and action — manifest in the poetry of Dante, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and the great cathedrals of the era — that gave great aid, comfort, and understanding to generations of people, the high and the low alike.

— Alan Jacobs

The Soul of the Marionette

If the only alternative to Gnosticism is Stoicism—if the intellect of man is forced to choose the wild outward spirit or the stern inward soul—then we have made no philosophical advance since the days of the Roman Empire and the closing of the ancient mind. It is now as it was then: Valentinus stands at one door, smiling, while Seneca, stands at the other door, frowning, and the dim cave of human falsity offers no other exits. For the world, you have to understand, remains a vile and vicious place. The body is little more than some disease, while matter is merely the stuff that ensares the soul.

Or so at least it seems to John Gray—the dark specter who, since the 1980s, has haunted British philosophy with a determination that seems to alternate between grim and gleeful. Somewhere along the line, Gray decided to be the rain cloud that spoils the picnic. The wedding guest who insists on talking about funerals. The neighbor playing “MacCrimmon’s Lament” over and over on the bagpipes while you’re trying to take a nap.

Jospeh Bottum reviews The Soul of the Marionette