Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age: Part II, Chapter 1

We get a brilliant sketch of the development of Western systems of thought from classical antiquity through Scholasticism seen through the lens of the origin of what is bad in the world.

Classical - There is a dualism of Idea or cosmos on one hand and of matter or necessity on the other. The world-forming demiurge attempts to shape matter in accordance with the order of Ideas, but perfect realization is frustrated by the limits of his ability to "persuade" matter into form. The defects of what exists are accounted for by this falling short.

Neoplatonic - posits greater distance between the classical principles of form and matter, and tends towards giving theological values to them. In the particular form given by Plotinus, the world results from the world-soul "falling" and getting trapped in matter; the soul can correct this loss of order by reversing the fall and liberating itself from matter.

Gnostic - radicalizes conflict of good and bad, and posits opposing agents behind them. In the particular form given by Marcion, the world itself is bad, as is the demiurge who creates it. The God who saves souls trapped in the world is not responsible for creating it; salvation in fact consists in the destruction of this world.

Augustinean Christian - Early Christianity is confronted by Gnosticism with the intolerable prospect of an evil world which shows no signs of going away. Augustine salvages the goodness of the creation (and the unity of the creating and redeeming Gods) by assigning responsibility for what is bad in the world to the free will of man, and particularly to the inherited stain from the original misuse of this free will.

Blumenberg makes passing reference to Gnosticism "reoccupying the positions" of Neoplatonism. But doesn't Blumenberg's account fit better with a scheme rooted in substantive historical constants? Is the recurrence of the issue of what is bad in the world a substantive historical constant?

Blumenberg took issue at the end of Part I with critics of the modern world who looked for some wrong turn in the distant past of Western thought to account for supposedly pervasive defects in the present. Yet in finding the origin of Scholasticism's crisis in Augustine's turn, he pursues an line of analysis which at least looks similar in form. What can be said to distinguishes these cases? Is it that the problems Blumenberg diagnoses in late medieval thought were less pervasive than those seen by contemporary critics of modernity? In other words, does his analysis simply lack the same totalistic pretensions?

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