The Franciscan roots of modernity

I am still working my way through Siedentop’s book, and one thing which strikes me is that his account of the creation of the Franciscan Order and their continual theological development provides a really compelling narrative for the incubation of modern liberal thought systems. Siedentop makes the claim of a direct descent, and it something that Milbank has also made in this paper. Both authors note the pattern but go very vague on the significance. Siedentop is more aware of what is going on, but he still doesn’t get it. He still thinks the process was miraculous. Milbank merely notes the intellectual connection and can’t really go further. Both authors effectively place ideas above structure and seem to possess a standard modelling of events. This standard model goes something like picturing intellectual traditions as being akin to a bunch of Greeks debating in the agora with a panel of wise men determining which argument is most rational. This sort of folk political model allows people to consider modern liberalism as a crescendo of increasing rational development reaching its peak with whatever silliness it produces now.

We can see perfectly in the following passage exactly what Siedentop’s problem is:

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The reader may notice that Siedentop considers the actions of the kings as being incidental. The radical notion which he can’t entertain is that this conflict between the high and their immediate underlings (which he repeatedly notes) is the driver of this trend. Not economics trends, not the Black Death, not mystical forces, but the actual political system. The chapter which this passage is taken from is about William of Ockham and his influence on modernity, but Siedentop pauses for barely a moment on the fact that Ockham produced most of his work whilst under the patronage of the HRE emperor:

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Why would the emperor provide refuge to him? Because he was in conflict with the Pope. So Ockham was provided with space and resources to write anti-Papal theology because he was attacking the Pope and advocating for greater secular powers. No rational discourse here.

The narrative provided by Siedentop then provides an interesting question regarding the lost link between the Enlightenment thinkers of modernity and the Franciscan tradition. If we refuse to accept that traditions exist as disembodied entities but are the product of institutions then the Franciscan Order appears to be the institution holding the most extreme individualising theology (Ockham was a Franciscan) but in modernity all of this thought system just appears out of nowhere in the history books and we call it the Enlightenment. It is only with recent translations of Ockham and other works that this connection is being really explored. It gets odder when you note that people also see that lots of Christian thought contains “modern” themes such as consent of the governed.

The alternative thesis to Whig bullcrap is that there is a clear continuation, that the process did not just appear with the Enlightenment, that the Franciscan Order has been an (extra) subversive Catholic institution and that (as T.A.Jackson notes) the “secular” institutions of the nation state just continued the discussion on a secularised basis and acted as if they had placed it on non-theological grounds because it was now the state’s weapon. This is something that MacIntyre has all but claimed with his history of ethics being a secularisation of medieval voluntarism (that is Ockham and company.)

This narrative provides us with a very clear idea of what happened in the western world. The Catholic Church remained in a position of unsecure power for centuries. It kept itself in a paradoxical situation and seems to have move towards centralisation, which was then copied by monarchs. This conflict remained chronic and kept bouncing back and fourth with each side engaging in promotion of individualising theology for the purposes of undermining each other (and the feudal barons.) This came to a head with the 30 Year War and the Reformation and has continued spiraling out of control. There have been many twists and turns but this has fundamentally been the driver of European culture.

This utterly destroys liberal/ whig history.


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