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Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge
Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge
Thomas Pfau
University of Notre Dame Press, 2013
684 pp., $125.00

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Matthew J. Milliner


A Secular Age 2.0

Thomas Pfau and the irreducible mystery of personhood.

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But one of the advantages of Minding the Modern being so long is that it, perhaps inadvertently, overcomes this condemnation. Even if the "gentlemen's knowledge" of Anglicanism is deemed inadequate by Pfau early on, Readers of Minding the Modern will discern that the first hero in the narrative—the first thinker who offers an alternative to the deracinated view of personhood on offer in early modernism—is an Anglican. The Cambridge Platonists, not Roman Catholics or Orthodox thinkers, are the ones most responsible for articulating an alternative to the new arrangement. Faced with a desymbolized universe that had, in time, spawned Thomas Hobbes' reductive account of the human will, Ralph Cudworth insisted—like a good Thomist—that "Created things … when they exist, they are what they are, This or That, Absolutely or Relatively, not by Will or Arbitrary Command, but by the Necessity of their Nature." This strand of Cambridge Platonism was, in turn, inherited by the primary hero of Minding the Modern, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was also an (admittedly adventurous) Anglican.[6] In Pfau's account, it is the sage of Highgate who "reinvests human agency with an intellectual cum spiritual dimension of which the will had been stripped since the advent of Franciscan, voluntarist theology in the early fourteenth century." Far from an academic debate unconnected to practical affairs, Coleridge's recovery of the mystery of personhood was necessary for effectively resisting the reduction of humans to things, namely slavery (Coleridge invented the word "dehumanize" in just this context). Rejecting historicist readings that reduce poetry to context, Pfau reads Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as "a parable for the hubris of modernity, specifically its founding purely volitional act whereby the solitary individual shatters the cosmos by turning it into an inventory of disaggregated objects to be subjected to (inherently skeptical) analysis and experimentation." One can't help but consider the Rime's senselessly slaughtered albatross to be the concept of personhood that modern political accounts of autonomous individual "rights" have been unable to successfully revive.

Still, despite the fact that Protestants (one opium-addicted Anglican in particular) are the unexpected heroes of Pfau's narrative, evangelicals, Puritans, and Free Church radicals are not similarly redeemed. To be sure, "strictly fideist, evangelical models of religion that treat belief in … a transcendent essence as some of kind of definitive, counterfactual certitude and spiritual property" are worthy of condemnation, and betray, by their very conceptual poverty, the marks of modernity. At the same time, there are certainly more than a few Puritans (Jonathan Edwards, for instance) and Lutherans (Johann Georg Hamann, among others) who could be summoned as additional counter-witnesses to the modernist hubris that Pfau condemns. But images, as it happens, may tell this story better than words.

Minding the Modern begins with an extended meditation on Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of a Gentleman in his Study (1528-30). The young man's "forlorn, abstracted, and blank gaze [suggests] disorientation and incipient melancholy." Indeed, he seems "utterly alone in the world—the quintessentially modern, solitary individual confined in his study." The massive tome in the image "intimates that books no longer hold answers, perhaps because the right questions elude him. The unwieldy folio appears more as dead mass than as a repository of learning." Considering that the tome offered in turn by Pfau has the opposite effect, Minding the Modern might be considered an adequate response to Lotto's painting. But Rembrandt's The Mennonite Preacher Anslo and His Wife, from a century later (1641), offers an equally effective refutation of Lotto's modern disaffection. Here the massive folio—in this case the Bible—emits light to the point of rendering the nearby candle superfluous. While the hand of Lotto's gentleman was irresolute and listless, the hand of the preacher Anslo finds its vocation in gesturing to the truth-gushing book. Its message thereby migrates from the luminous pages, flapping like a dove in flight, to enliven the countenance of the preacher's wife. "Nothing more convincingly refutes the once conventional and still not quite vanquished opinion that Protestant piety erected an insurmountable barrier between a corrupt nature and divine grace," wrote Louis Dupré, "than its artistic and poetic achievement of the Baroque."[7] Displaying "an intensity of religious feeling that is anything but forensic," Anslo's wife—her name was Aeltje Schouten—is set to be overcome with some mysterious consolation. Enamored more by the truth than by her husband, she is poised to exit that melancholic, modern condition into which the young man in Lotto's painting is about to descend.

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