Archive Joseph Minich Nota Bene

They Reified it Again!?

In his The New Republic review of Eric Nelson’s compelling The Hebrew Republic, Nathan Perl-Rosenthal contrasts Nelson’s narrative of modernity with that of Jonathan Israel, who prioritizes the secularizing trend of Spinoza’s philosophy through the oft-called “Radical Enlightenment” into the present. He writes:

The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards. The history of Israelite theocracy offered what we might call a “faith-based” route to toleration, which existed alongside the secularizing Spinozist path explored by Jonathan Israel. Republican exclusivism likewise emerged from a profound belief in and engagement with the Bible, not a rejection of it. Indeed, so deeply does Nelson find the Hebrew Republic enracinated in modernity that he wonders, near the end of the book, whether it might be that “God remains our sleeping sovereign after all.” He is not the first to suggest this, but few have been courageous enough to state the case so starkly and also had the evidence to make the claim stick.

But, Perl-Rosenthal cautions:

Nelson’s book nonetheless falls into two of the same historical problems that bedeviled Lilla’s and Israel’s studies. In the technical language of historiography, the earlier books constructed teleological histories of a reified concept of modernity. In plain English, these writers identified modernity with certain concepts or ideas — toleration, for example — and produced narratives that show how those concepts ended up being adopted by the West. This type of argument is widespread in political theory and philosophy, but for historians it raises significant objections.

For one thing, it is not at all self-evident that the values which these scholars identify as fundamental components of Western modernity are in fact so deeply rooted or immutable. Empires ruled by monarchs, after all, were still the dominant force in Europe until the end of the World War I –long after the appearance of “modernity” in the eighteenth century. To this day, right-wing parties in Europe and the United States run against the redistribution of wealth in virtually every election. And religious toleration, in Europe at least, seems to be in the process of contracting rather than expanding. Do these facts mean that the West does not really hold these values, or that we profess them hypocritically? Not at all. But they do suggest that we cannot simply assume that they are foundational elements of Western modernity. They are, instead, always contested and forever in play.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.