Monday, September 23, 2019

Evening Note for Monday, September 23

Thought for the Evening: Providential Men

In discussing the steps of his conversion from Transcendentalism to Catholicism, Orestes Brownson highlights a number of notable arguments, but one that seems to have had a particularly significant (although not immediate) influence came from reflecting on the concept of providential men, which he derived from Pierre Leroux. Leroux had been a socialist, a Saint-Simonian, very active in the movement, although his tendency toward high-flown rhetoric and reconceptualization of political and economic principles in metaphysical terms seems to have baffled many of his fellow Saint-Simonians. A significant aspect of Leroux’s work was the attempt to rethink a large-scale view of the world in a way that could seriously replace that of Catholics, but his doing this had the byproduct of teaching Brownson a great many more Catholic ideas than he had ever learned before picking up Leroux. In the version of the idea of ‘providential men’ that Brownson derived from Leroux, human beings are perfectible not as individuals but only with other human beings. Human understanding is always understanding of something other than itself, including other human beings, so human progress is always really the united progress of the whole human community. An important part of this solidary progress is that, from time to time, there arise outstanding individuals who stand out from the rest through their talents, and who by their talents have an unusual ability to organize and articulate what others have done, and inspire others to do better than they have done before. These are the providential men. An example is that of a talented artist (from "Church of the Future" [1842]):

Every genuine artist is a being in whom love predominates; love carries him up to the very principle of things, and makes all things beautiful and lovely to his rapt soul; and speaking from the deep love up-welling from the bottom of his own heart, he can quicken love in the race and inspire humanity to a more zealous and acceptable worship.

Saint-Simon himself was characterized as being this sort of person (cf. "Leroux on Humanity" [1842]). Progress thus is achieved cooperatively but is driven by inspirers and founders and innovators, people who serve to catch some greater truth, some greater goodness, some greater beauty than has previously been achieved, and so make it possible for others to achieve the same. Nor is it simply a matter of talent; in them love of some truth or goodness or beauty reaches a new peak of intensity, and this love spreads light on those who can recognize it.

I’ve noticed in looking at discussions by historians on this point that historians often conflate ‘providential men’ with the ‘Great Men’ approach to history. But they are, in the form we find in Leroux and Brownson, completely opposed. Precisely their point is that history does not progress by ‘Great Men’ but by the inspired mass of humanity; providential men are the points at which this inspiration, general among the human race, happens to reach a more intensive pitch than it usually does, and they achieve their result because this inspiration spreads out from them in a sort of uplifting contagion. Such messengers were many and varied, but were so integral to the unified progress of the human race that one could hardly think of the latter without also thinking of them: he gives as examples in various places Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus, John, Paul, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Virgil, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Augustine, Bernard, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Leibniz, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, Saint-Simon, Alexander, Caesar, Alfred, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Washington, and George Fox.

It is precisely that led Brownson to go beyond what he came to see as the limitations of New England Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists, he reflected, were right in their view that everyone has some sort of access to divine inspiration, and their critics wrong whenever they rejected this; but in fact the critics of the Transcendentalists, worried about the individualist and leveling tendency of Transcendentalism, often stumbled on an even more important truth: "the special inspiration of individual messengers, as the providential agents of the progress of the race" ("Reform and Conservatism" [1842]). Nor were the Transcendentalists the only ones to err in this way; the besetting sin of modern philosophy, due in part to the influence of Bacon and Descartes, was in its pretense that single individuals could, by themselves, have access to all that was necessary for understanding the highest things or developing a complete view of the world (cf. "The Philosophy of History" [1843]). In reality, human progress is cooperative, involving a division of labor, and it depends crucially on the fact that in that division of labor we occasionally find people who in their own distinctive way or along a particular line suddenly shine more brightly in whatever contribution to the whole they might be making and thereby give the rest of us a little extra light to see. "The mass is not carried forward without individuals, who rise above the general average" ("Oration on the Scholar’s Mission" [1843]).

Further, we all recognize this, at least from time to time. It is a nearly universal view that there are specially inspiring individuals, heroes, sages, saints, prophets, founders of civilizations, to whom we are indebted. We are inspired by them and we celebrate them; at times we may even struggle with their legacy, but in such a way that we are greater, and not less, for having done so. The consensus gentium recognizes the existence of providential men, of some kind, as integral to human progress. And even if you were skeptical, the notion seems to indicate something that is possible. All it requires is that there be people who are anomalously great, who can from this anomalous greatness inspire others to greater things than they could have achieved by themselves.

Brownson doesn’t think you can get a direct inference from providential men to a divine Providence that raises them up, or, at least not a certain one. But he did come to think that the possibility and (according to common consent) actuality of providential men made very improbable two particular approaches to human progress, and made another very probable. Human progress as it had generally been characterized, Brownson thought, had often been accounted for through a theory of natural and orderly developments (sometimes as a necessary and natural unfolding of divine providence), but the existence of providential men means that it really happens by swift and often unpredictable little splashes-and-ripples that individually may or may not look like much but cumulatively constitute what we think of as progress. On the other hand, the view of progress that had usually been opposed to the natural development view was of God as an external agent engaging in various external interventions. In contrast, the theory of providential men suggested something like a divine providence that worked as an internal agent rather than an external one, and that was both an integral part of the progress but nonetheless free rather than as deterministic. The theory of providential men thus served for Brownson not as a direct route to a more orthodox Christianity but as an impediment-removal: it did not run into the problems that Brownson had often associated with Christian views of providence as making the divine contribution either deterministic or arbitrary, and thus removed what had to that point been the major obstacles to his acceptance of it, especially as Brownson reflected more on the particular significance of Jesus as a providential man.

We find some anticipation of this line of thought in certain Stoic thinkers; it's not very far from how Stoics thought of Socrates and the like. A good example of this is from Cicero's De natura deorum; in Book II, he has the character Balbus, a Stoic, lay out an argument for the claim that the gods exercise providential care that appeals to something like the concept of providential men. Wisdom, Balbus says (2:79), passes from the gods to men; we recognize wisdom, virtue, and the like as divine, which is why their Roman ancestors built temples to Virtue and the like, but then it makes sense to say that we get these things from the gods, and this is part of the providence of the gods by which they rule the universe. Later in his discourse, he argues that this does not merely mean that the gods look out for human beings in general; you can narrow it down all the way to individuals, as we see in the great founders of cities and heroes of Greece and Rome. "We must surely believe that none of them became such heroes without divine aid....Our conclusion is that no great man ever existed without a measure of divine inspiration." (p. 107)

Here we have a number of features closely connecting to the idea of providential men; what is not clearly here is the solidary notion of progress that we find in Leroux and Brownson. But such a notion of progress would be at least consistent with standard Stoic views.

In Book III, Cicero has Cotta, the Academic skeptic, argue against Balbus's arguments, and this includes the parts with which we are concerned. Cotta essentially runs an argument from evil against the notion that these great exemplars of wisdom, virtue, and the like should be seen as evidence for providence. In particular, he has to employ it against two of the assumptions on which Balbus's argument depends:

(1) That reason itself. as a general matter, is good;
(2) That our raising temples to Wisdom, Virtue, and the like means that we regard them as divine.

Reason itself can't be good because if it were good, no evil would follow from it; but we see in cases like Medea that people use reason to do evil things. And by the same token, from this it follows that if the gods were providentially caring for the world, they would not have given us reason, so that we would not do wicked things with it. Only right reason is good, and if we assume it comes from the gods, the gods have only bestowed it on a few people, not on everyone, as providential gods would have. His argument against (2) is a bit more perplexing, since he argues that nobody regards wisdom, virtue, or the like as divine or from the gods, because we regard these as entirely ours, which is why we expect to be praised for them. Nobody ever thanks the gods for the fact that they are a good person. OK, but what about the temples? Cotta says we make the temples, but are making them to things we see in ourselves. I'm not sure what his answer would be to the question of why our ancestors would deliberately make religious shrines to nondivine features of themselves.

Cotta's argument is interesting, though, because I think it does identify assumptions behind a 'providential men' theory of human progress, as well as its Stoic cousin. That theory also requires that we recognize reason itself (taking 'reason' in a broad sense as the faculties of a rational being as such) as good. What Balbus's response to the argument that the gods only bestow right reason to benefit a few would be is unknown, although it would make sense, again on general Stoic principles, to deny that this is in fact true, but Brownson would certainly deny this. The solidary nature of human progress means that we all benefit from the wisdom, virtue, etc. of others. Brownson doesn't strictly require (2) in the form Balbus is using, although he would certainly also reject the spirit of Cotta's argument against it, and he does argue that these thinks make the most sense when seen as gifts of God, both in general (The Convert, or Leaves from My Experience [1857], Chapter XV):

Now, as I held that the divine, though distinguishable in reality from the human, could flow into us only through the human, I saw that, by a providential elevation of individuals by the Creator to an extraordinary or supernatural communion with himself, they would live a divine life, and we by communion with them would also be elevated, and live a higher and more advanced life. Thus the elevation and progress of the race would be provided for in accordance with the law of life, by the aid of these individuals providentially elevated, and called by Leroux, "Providential Men."

And also as part of their practical influence on human progress ("Reform and Conservatism"):

It is because there is a God, a great and good God, who never deserts his child, humanity, but is always near and able to succor, that we look forward to a higher moral and social state; and have the courage and the strength, though single-handed and alone, to demand progress, and to labor for it.

And, of course, whatever may have been the practice among the Romans, people since have very often identified God as the source of wisdom and virtue.


Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Walsh, tr., Oxford UP (New York: 2008).

Various Links of Interest

* I'm pretty sure I've linked to this before, but ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World is very interesting: if you want to know roughly how long it would take to get from one part of the Roman Empire to another, it's the go-to source.

* Thony Christie on the role of celestial influence in the complex structure of medieval knowledge.

* Harvey, Smithson, et al., A thirteenth-century theory of speech, looks at the theory of Robert Grosseteste

* Chad Orzel discusses the Many Worlds Interpretation.

* Quote Investigator on the saying, "Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence"

* James Chastek on the Euthyphro Dilemma

* Ed Feser, Three Questions for Catholic Opponents of Capital Punishment

* Martin Wolf, Why rigged capitalism is damaging liberal democracy

* Brooke Jarvis, Who Speaks for Crazy Horse?, discusses the Crazy Horse Monument. I went to part of high school in nearby Custer, South Dakota. It's a truly impressive thing, although it's always been controversial for any number of reasons. It is not a national monument of any sort -- Ziolkowski was adamant against being beholden to the government about it -- nor is it affiliated with or sponsored by any Indian tribe. It's a private monument on private land, just remarkable for the ambition and the skill that has gone into it.

* TrueSciPhi Radio streams nonstop philosophy podcasts.

Currently Reading

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars
Frank Turner, John Henry Newman
Jules Verne, The Castaways of the Flag
Gertrud Lenzer, ed. Auguste Comte and Positivism: Essential Writings

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