16th and 17th century Protestantism (that was then, this is now)

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant culture is, despite both popular and popular scholarly persuasion, diametrically opposed to each one of the cardinal positions of the liberal tradition listed above.  Those central features of early modern evangelical culture might be quickly and crudely summarized thus: enslavement of the will, with total repudiation of works as currency in the economy of salvation, and the permanent shadow of despair; a sense of self subject to an impossibly high bar of authenticity, and forever vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy; a fear of dramatic performativity, now described as seductive, irrational, and lethal magic; repudiation of visual images, both material and psychic, as the destructive allurements of idolatry; obsessive focus on the literalist written as the source of salvation; and non-toleration for freedom of religious conscience.

The author, James Simpson, later lists some traits of this earlier [sic] ideology:

  • posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other…
  • produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancient regime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity…
  • generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion,
  • targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies…
  • actively developed surveillance systems;
  • legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time…
  • promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead…
  • legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue…In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached…The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.

That is all from the excellent book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, Belknap Press 2019, again by James Simpson.

In case you don’t know when the Reformation was, it was a long time ago.

I also loved the author’s take on how Shakespeare was in fact, for his time, a deliberate answer to the (what we now would call) Wokeism surrounding him.  Here is one of the best sentences I have read this year:

By the seventeenth century, Shakespeare began to educate audiences out of the revolutionary discipline of sincerity, by inventing partial escape routes from the schismatic and intolerable logic of early modernizing authentic, singular selfhood.

CS should like that sentence!  It is followed by a very good analysis of Measure for Measure and Winter’s Tale.

And I thank GC for carrying this book to me.


Comments for this post are closed