The Theological Origins of Modernity

By Michael Allen Gillespie | Go to book overview

1 The Nominalist Revolution and
the Origin of Modernity

THE THEOLOGICAL CRISIS OF LATE MEDIEVAL THOUGHT

While the modern world became conscious of itself in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it would be as much a mistake to believe that modernity began at that time as it would be to believe that human life begins when one first becomes self-conscious. Modernity did not spring forth full-grown from the head of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, or Hobbes but arose over a long period of time and as a result of the efforts of many different people in a variety of contexts. As we discussed above, it is one of the chief characteristics of modernity to conceive of itself as radically new and unprecedented. This is the consequence of a peculiarly modern understanding of human capacities and of the way in which human being unfolds in time. However, there are good reasons to doubt that this modern self-understanding is correct. As Oedipus tragically discovered, no one is “fortune's child”; everyone and everything has an origin and is shaped in decisive ways by that origin. To begin to understand the nature of the modern world, it is thus crucial that we examine its early, “preconscious” development in the three hundred years between the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of modernity.

The origins of the medieval world can be traced to the synthesis of Christianity and pagan philosophy in the Hellenistic world of late antiquity. This began in Alexandria in the first and second centuries. Here various strains of Christian thought, eastern religious beliefs, Neoplatonism, and a variety of other ancient philosophical views were amalgamated in different and at times conflicting ways, reflecting the intellectual and spiritual ferment of the times. This process of amalgamation was clarified and institutionalized when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. The various conflicting strains of Christianity were fused into a formalized doctrine in the series of councils

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The Theological Origins of Modernity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction - The Concept of the Modernity 1
  • 1: The Nominalist Revolution and the Origin of Modernity 19
  • 2: Petrarch and the Invention of Individuality 44
  • 3: Humanism and the Apotheosis of Man 69
  • 4: Luther and the Storm of Faith 101
  • 5: The Contradictions of Premodernity 129
  • 6: Descartes' Path to Truth 170
  • 7: Hobbes' Fearful Wisdom 207
  • 8: The Contradictions of Enlightenment and the Crisis of Modernity 256
  • Epilogue 289
  • Notes 295
  • Index 363
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