Between Immanence and Rupture. Reformism as a Source of European Culture

The identity of Western civilization—if one may use such a shorthand formula—is closely intertwined with the Reformation. To ask about this 16th-century protest movement is to reach towards the foundations of the spiritual transformations of modern Europe.

Status Quaestionis

Great historical events are usually described by investigating causes and effects. This classroom approach has its limitations, but it would not be easy to entirely abandon it. So when we ask about the power of religious rebellions, about the intellectual and cultural roots of this enormous work, we ask the right question. We are also right when we want to investigate the consequences, that is, the impact of the Reformation on the evolution of modern Western culture.

However, defining the matter in this way betrays itself, reveals an excess of desire, a cognitive appetite exceeding the possibilities of verbal formulation. Asking about everything—almost everything—is futile. And speaking too. On the other hand, looking from a different perspective, voracious, euphoric, hysterical, or even ridiculously optimistic questions put you in a combative mood, open the door to the impossible, exposing what is unseen to normal analytical work, which will never muster a similar impudence, for it is embedded in a methodological modesty and proud of the reliability of its piecemeal perspective.

The easy availability of a handy answer is not the right criterion for the importance of a question. On the contrary, it is the lack of answers which wakes the human mind from its everyday slumber.

So it is difficult to exclude the question about the whole from a rational discourse. Its absence would have been an irreplaceable loss, a stifling of this part of the human mind which wants everything. The mind, as Aristotle wrote in the third book of his Peri psyche, “is in a sense everything.” “What is it all about?” – this is how Alfred N. Whitehead defined the fundamental question of philosophy. The question about everything—impossible, ridiculous—also reveals its other, deadly serious face. Like an archaic deity, it combines lack of seriousness with its excess.

One thing is certain: the easy availability of a handy answer is not the right criterion for the importance of a question. On the contrary, it is the lack of answers which wakes the human mind from its everyday slumber.

Inventing Life

A social project, a comprehensive idea, re-establishing the rules, laws, and duties of life regardless of the tradition to date, and if necessary, against this tradition; social constructivism, dependence on ideas, i.e. a concept for organizing ever y thing and at the same time liberation from natural, conser vative dependencies, invoking notions about an eternal tradition, inviolable laws, sacred habits present since times immemorial – reformism rises against the existing practice, wants to invent a new organization of life according to its own r ules and laws; according to its own notion of what is right.

It is impossible to mention all the historical exemplifications of this idea of a new beginning. The Greek tradition undoubtedly is a point reference for our civilization. The myth of the Platonic state is the most significant in this respect. I say “myth,” for the way it is present (received) in the European awareness, especially this part which experienced a break with tradition, as Hannah Arendt described it, that is, this part which experienced the emergence of the mass society, generating the possibility of a totalitarian state, deviates significantly from the author’s intentions. I will come to that in a moment.

No creator, even the greatest one, acts in a vacuum: he collects and processes the existing tradition. So it was with Plato’s political project, too. When we ask where he got the idea to create a plan of the functioning of the polis from scratch and impose it from above, it will be relatively easy to find the answer. Reformism had been present in the Greek tradition, Plato was a continuator of the reformist constructivism of Athens. The creator of this peculiar practice, significant for Western culture, was Solon (638-558 B.C.), the great Greek poet and Athens’ lawmaker. He created the foundations of
the democratic system. “The revolutionary nature of changes introduced by Solon consisted in a complete negation of the existing divisions,” writes Włodzimierz Lengauer (Starożytna Grecja okresu archaicznego i klasycznego, p. 72). From that moment on, the laws and duties of the citizen do not depend on his belonging to castes or factions, but on his wealth. Solon divided the citizens into four income-based classes, assigning specific powers to each.

The Greek tradition undoubtedly is a point reference for our civilization. The myth of the Platonic state is the most significant in this respect.

This is an ideal example of social constructivism; an enforced division of citizens into groups according to arbitrary rules. The arbitrary and conventional nature of the division means a kind of leap into the abyss of the new. There is no evolutionary maturing, adaptation, renovating things which already exist and are sanctified by tradition; what we get is breaking the existing bonds and establishing entirely new ones. So a similar spirit of “central planning” perceptible in the Platonic project should not be surprising to us.

Solon’s project collapsed repeatedly during numerous political turbulences in the history of Athens. The flourishing of the city under Pericles after the Persian Wars (fifth century) ended in the disaster of the internecine battle with Sparta, that is, the Peloponnesian War towards the end of the century. “It is difficult to overestimate the shock generated in Athens by the lost Peloponnesian War. The consequences of the defeat were catastrophic, Athens entirely lost its position […], it suddenly became a weak, minor state dependent on Sparta.” (Lengauer, op. cit., p. 183) And it was in the face of the disasters, chaos, and instability that Plato started his reflections on the conditions necessary to create a just constitution of the polis.

Solon’s project collapsed repeatedly during numerous political turbulences in the history of Athens. The flourishing of the city under Pericles after the Persian Wars ended in the disaster of the internecine battle with Sparta.

The School

The point of departure for his enquiries is the assumption that there will be no just state without just citizens. And since it is impossible to educate everyone into nobility, selection is necessary, creating an elite which will both defend and administer the state.

The Platonic project is essentially an educational one. It describes the necessary
conditions for selecting and raising a group of administrators who will act justly, for the good of the polis. There is no room here for a detailed description of this concept. Let us just say that in its reformist approach it surpasses Solon’s plan.

The administrators, chosen from among the brightest, are to live in a separate district. In order to act justly, they need to have a deep understanding of what justice is (it is a necessary and sufficient condition), so what is required is a process of education lasting several dozen years, so that these people achieve the ability to capture pure ideas of good, beauty, courage, and so on. The structure of dependence within the group of administrators was conceived in such a way that the members would care more about the good of the whole community rather than their own offspring. This is where the constructivist project has its culmination. Plato envisaged having children in
common by the administrators and he formulated the idea of equal rights for women and men, deciding that there were no strong arguments for inequality. Participation of women in wars requires training, and both sexes train naked. Plato observes that the new custom will bother old people, but children, ignorant of the earlier practice, will see it as normal. Tradition or habit is an arbitrary matter, it can be changed within one generation.

Such an active attitude to tradition, recognizing it as subject to transformation, which also means its de-socialization, is an essential element of reformism. And the secondary socialization of the new social order reveals the usefulness of religious worship meant to support the current model of social relations.

The 16th-Century Revolution

In its days of glory after the Persian Wars, the city of Athens undoubtedly was the largest monument dedicated to Athena. The functioning of the state in the Greek antiquity was inextricably linked with the worship of gods (therapeia ton theon). Therefore, when speaking about reforming the state we are also speaking about religious reform.

The Platonic project is essentially an educational one. It describes the necessary conditions for selecting and raising a group of administrators who will act justly, for the good of the polis.

Likewise, the Reformation was a political movement, which by no means diminished its religious dimension. Religion and politics were not treated as separate domains then. On the contrary. Protest movements within Christianity had generated irreversible political, social, cultural, and civilizational changes. A division of Europe, based on new and—as it later turned out—unquestionable principles, had emerged. A definitive
ideological polycentrism had been established, with all its positive and negative consequences. The former probably include the pluralism of cultural dynamism, and the latter are a series of wars which haunted Europe for many centuries. Described on the example of Athens, the most general features of a project establishing a new type of society may serve as an illustrative (comparative) matrix for describing the essential
components of the Reformation. The Reformation also meant transforming pre-existing intellectual and social trends. It was also a reaction to the status quo. In its intellectual aspect, it fulflled the requirements of the nominalism of William Ockham (1 285-13 47), which was a kind of prophecy predicting the collapse of metaphysical theology – and this is what happened under the Protestant principle of sola fides, sola scriptura. By the way, Mar tin Luther studied philosophy in Er fur t under the representatives
of viae modernae.

The essential feature of all reformist projects, as well as revolutionary ones, is their top-down nature. They are changes introduced by the “enlightened” in order to heal the body political. We are not dealing here with a confluence of grassroots movements. In the history of the Reformation, the comprehensive project was most successfully implemented by John Calvin in Geneva. His decades-long work was a milestone in establishing stable religious institutions serving as an alternative to Catholicism, and it created a model of the Calvinist Church both in its internal aspects (education, theology, electing ecclesiastical authorities), and in its relations with secular power. The Reformation was an intra-ecclesiastical revolution, establishment of a new order of church functioning, custom, religious practice, dogma. It was the courage to demolish the old world and build a new one.

There is also the spiritual aspect of the Reformation, at the same time being the spirit of the epoch. The human being “came to himself,” in one way or another, he decided to write the project of his own life himself. The individual starts to perceive himself as an entity separate from the social whole. The beginning of the process of establishing a strong individual agent, creating himself anew through the power of his own autonomous choices, is also an aftermath of the Reformation.

Ruptures and discontinuities in culture had never reached so far. They had never affected the space which had been a profound taboo, inaccessible to a lay person – the sphere of the sacred.

Likewise, the Reformation was a political movement, which by no means diminished its religious dimension. Religion and politics were not treated as separate domains then.

The Paralysis of Roman Expansionism

The Reformation was an example of reformism, because it established a new type of society, radicalizing political changes. It meant a definitive fiasco of the Catholic project, the collapse of the idea of Christianitas, that is, the unity of the world under the leadership of the papacy. In the ideological sphere, it meant the actual relativization of Christianity as a whole, since the claims of the Catholic system to infallibility, to being the depositary of potentially all possible truths, and thus to virtual ideological monopoly, were ipso facto challenged. The Catholic Counter-Reformation was only a cry of despair, a hopeless defense, an expression of helplessness, with catastrophic consequences in the shape of ideological rigidity, intellectual collapse, proliferation of dogmatism unknown even in the Middle Ages.

The essential feature of all reformist projects, as well as revolutionary ones, is their top-down nature. They are changes introduced by the “enlightened” in order to heal the body political.

The split within the unipolar system raised impassable barriers, was a source of fundamental controversy, generated prejudice, and forced particular countries to choose their own distinct paths of religious, political, and economic development.

It all resulted in a peculiar diversity, tolerated and enforced, in the ideological landscape of modern Europe. Pluralism and impassable differences are a legacy of the Reformation. For good and for bad. Europe has never become an empire like the Chinese, Persian, Greek (after the conquests of Alexander the Great), or Roman one. It remained divided into smaller or larger states, none of which, despite the various attempts (from Napoleon to Hitler), has managed to dominate the rest. The Europeans pursued their imperial ambitions outside Europe. And they themselves tried to learn how to coexist despite differences, painfully and until World War II largely unsuccessfully.

The Reformation was an example of reformism, because it established a new type of society, radicalizing political changes. It meant a definitive fiasco of the Catholic project.

Religious differences generated ideological, cultural ones, which were rather cultivated than eradicated. As a result of the 500 years of the Reformation, Protestant countries became fundamentally Protestant. Permeated with a different type of Christianity than the Catholic one, they created a separate spiritual space. It means that Europe, the European culture, has two distinct faces of essentially Christian origin. Moreover, their “Protestant” face was pluralistic from the very start. This pluralism went so far that anyone who had the necessary inclination, talent, and passion could found his own Church, which was facilitated especially by the conditions in the new world of Northern America and perhaps also by the process of selection of those who wanted to leave the Old Europe or were forced to do it. But the high walls of post-Trident Catholicism, the rigorous, restrictive separation, could not prevent the two worlds from influencing each other. Hence the gradual interpenetration of mentalities, comparisons, attempts at dialogue, exchange, successfully emboldened by the weakening of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, and the growing impact of religious indifferentism.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation was only a cry of despair, a hopeless defense, an expression of helplessness, with catastrophic consequences in the shape of ideological rigidity.

Eschatological Consolation

Protestantism undoubtedly was a shock for the Catholic civilization, for its immanent expansionism. External borders, impassable walls erected in the process of political and social transformations, remain a painful thorn, an undigested insult for the essentially imperial mentality of the Roman Catholic civilization. Attempts at changing this paradigm during the Second Vatican Council have not taken root and may be interpreted more as a tactical maneuver, a pragmatic acknowledgement of the currently insurmountable situation, than a definitive acceptance of the plurality of Christian life, rite, and culture.

Division, understood in Roman Catholicism as evil, requires reparation, meaning the conversion of the rebels; even if this perspective becomes an eschatological horizon, when at the end of time the “whole creation” will return to unity with the Catholic Motherhood. The first among them will be the Jews, whose conversion, according to an interpretation of Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Romans, is to be a visible sign of the coming end. The descendants of the 16th-century reformers should also be there.

Tadeusz Bartoś

is a lecturer at the Aleksander Gieysztor Humanistic Academy in Pułtusk. His books include Metafizyczny pejzaż (Metaphysical Landscape), Koniec prawdy absolutnej (The End of Absolute Truth) and Ścieżki wolności (Paths of Freedom). He studied philosophy and theology at the Dominican College of Philosophy and Theology in Cracow and later at the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Warsaw.

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