Lecture One: Religion since Cicero
Professor Jeffrey Stout covered a lot of ground in his first lecture. This initial post consists of a longer summary than will appear in future posts. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Nathaniel Gray Sutanto will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s first Gifford Lecture. Gray is currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Earlier this evening Professor Jeffrey Stout gave his opening lecture to a packed audience. At the turn of the twentieth century William James gave his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (published as Varieties of Religious Experience) and Stout related the theme of his own lectures to one of James’ lectures on the sick soul where James emphasizes cries of help as being at the core of the “religious problem.” Stout’s lectures aim to concentrate “on cries for help in the face of tyranny and oppression,” which have been, and continue to be, closely tied to various understandings of religion and embodied in various religious individuals and communities. More explicitly than many previous Gifford Lectures, Stout tied the content of his lectures to the abolitionist commitments of Lord Gifford himself.
Stout went on to further relate his lectures to the hope of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lord Gifford. They both recognized the inseparable and inevitable relation between religion and political action. The effects of religion in society can be good or bad depending on whether religion instills virtue or vice. As Stout stated, “Religion is good when it embodies the highest ideals we know. It goes bad when infected by injustice.” For example, the complicity of modern Christians in the slave-trade ought to be a cause for shame. Involvement in such injustices “bind religion to vice.” The hoped-for remedy of Emerson and Gifford “is not to secularize politics but to rectify religious attitudes and practices.” As Stout went on to say, “when religion abides by justice and liberty, rather than bowing to arbitrary power, it lifts each of us and promotes the common good.” He listed numerous examples of religiously motivated political activists who shared this hope:
William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Abraham Lincoln; David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass; Margaret Fuller, José Martí, and John Muir; Mary Wollstonecraft, Lucretia Mott, and Jane Addams; Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thomas Merton, and William R. Johnson.
A common narrative posits a “Great Separation” between religion and politics in modern society. There have been various disputes regarding the nature and value of this separation. Stout, however, questions the adequacy of this narrative. As he said, “The disputes assume that a Great Separation in fact took place, that we know what it was, and that it set the terms in which politics was conducted where and while it lasted.” He then introduced the main question of his lectures, “How would our understanding of religion and politics have to change if the religious voices in egalitarian freedom movements were given their due?”
Stout stated that in these lectures he would provide a “historical, philosophical, and somewhat personal” answer. His interest in the relationship between religion and politics began as a teenager, through his participation “in the civil rights and anti-war movements.” The writers that he initially gravitated toward were Baldwin, King, Gandhi, and Emerson and they, all modern opponents of tyranny and oppression, had much to say about the distinction between “ethical, virtuous, or true religion” and “unethical, vicious, or false religion.” He struggled to reconcile the Great Separation narrative prevalent in much modern discourse in philosophy, political theory, and religious studies with the integration of religion and political action that these figures presented.
This is where the title of the first lecture, “Religion since Cicero,” begins to come into the picture. Modern understandings of the nature of religion and its relation to politics can be best illuminated by attending to the history of discourse on religion stemming back to ancient Rome.
Religion has been understood in many ways and its value has been affirmed and denied. Stout mentioned that “Religion-talk can be as confusing as it is contentious. It requires philosophical clarification.” In these lectures Stout sets out to facilitate this clarification.
The first step in doing so is to recognize that “there is no such thing as the modern conception of religion to analyze, endorse, or vilify.” As he said, “Locke, Hume, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Emerson, Nietzsche, Pope Leo XIII, and Gandhi did not all have the same thing in mind when they spoke of religion.” Instead of talking about the modern notion of religion Stout proposes to “speak instead of the modern discourse of religion, meaning by this the many modern uses of a single vocabulary rooted in ancient Rome.”
Stout then moved on to talk about religion as a “dual character concept” and about the history of pre-modern discourse stemming from ancient Rome. Religion as a dual character concept refers to the neutral and value-laden descriptions of religion. On the one hand, “the Latin term religio is used” in a neutral manner “to discuss a wide range of topics” having to do with various religious practices, dispositions, and beliefs as they relate to political life. On the other hand, the term religio is used in a value-laden manner when religion (a moral virtue) is contrasted with superstition (a moral vice). These are two different ways of referring to the same phenomenon, where the value-laden manner makes a further distinction concerning how religion is being embodied and enacted. One could be a “true” practitioner of religion in the neutral sense but fail to be a “true” practitioner of religion in the value-laden sense if one is engaging in superstition; such a practitioner is thought to lack a certain exhibition of excellence in his or her religious practice. In his lecture Stout uses the English term “scientist” to illustrate this dual character. As Stout mentioned, “Many Roman writers alternate between neutral and value-laden ways of referring to acts, attitudes, dispositions, practices, obligations, roles, and institutions that are related in some way to divine worship and devotion.”
Cicero, according to Stout, conceived of religion “as an excellence conducive to the common good” and he closely “associated religion with the moral virtues justice and piety.” Cicero distinguishes religion as favorable to liberty from superstition as conducive to tyranny and oppression. Livy also closely associated the decline of virtuous religion with the rise of political vice. Although Seneca did not think that true religion could be tied to public worship, contrary to Cicero and Livy, he too still held to a positive notion of “true religion.” As Stout is sure to note, however, “not all evaluative uses of religio in ancient Rome were positive.” One of the most famous accounts of an inherently negative understanding of religion is found in Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, where religion is taken to be essentially oppressive and, therefore, ought to be overcome or left behind rather than properly cultivated.
Christians after Constantine did adopt these positive understandings of religion. Augustine, for example, speaks of the Christian religion as a moral virtue contrasted with various forms of Greek and Roman paganism, which were seen to be superstitious vice. Stout makes the significant claim that “the European Middle Ages were never as Christian, however, as Christian monarchs and prelates wished.” There were always dissidents and practitioners of other religions present who “resisted assimilation into what Christendom called true religion.” The medieval Church’s role in classifying such people as superstitious helped maintain religious unity, which was thought to be integral to the common good of society and necessary “to maintain and extend its hegemony.” According to Stout, “erasure of pre-modern difference is a disturbingly common plot device in books on religion and modern politics” and he went on to state that his “reason for not telling a story about the modern loss of an earlier religious harmony is that there was no such harmony to be lost.”
Stout then moved on to take a good portion of time discussing Thomas Aquinas’ positive conception of the virtue of religion. He does not introduce Aquinas’ thought to undermine previous statements about the prevalence of pre-modern difference in the European Middle Ages, nor to present Aquinas “as the hegemonic medieval view, but rather to use it as a baseline of comparison when discussing modern writers in this and later lectures.” Aquinas, according to Stout, uses the term religion in a dual character sense. Positive references to religion “have formative and expressive functions in a life of Christian virtue,” which furthermore provide “the soul fitting interior and outward means of expressing honor, veneration, reverence, and devotion to God.” Stout draws attention to the fact that Aquinas is indebted to “Cicero’s schema of cardinal moral virtues” (courage, temperance, practical wisdom, and justice), where religion and piety are taken to be “potential parts of justice.” Justice is most directly concerned with various forms of right relationships, where each “receives his or her due.” Many relationships concerning justice are reciprocal affairs (he uses an example of borrowing an axe from a neighbor to illustrate a symmetrical relationship, relationships among equals) but not all relationships are ones of “simple reciprocity.” Religion and piety are instances of justice in asymmetrical relationships of dependence (such as child’s relationship to parents or a creature’s relationship to the Creator). As Stout Further explains, “these virtues are concerned with what we owe to the sources of our existence and progress through life.” This positive sense of religion for Aquinas is both inherently good and inherently embedded in political life. Aquinas, like those before him, also differentiated the virtue of religion from the vice of superstition, where superstition is a “semblance” of the virtue of true religion. Superstition as the false semblance of religion can occur either through worshiping “what is unworthy” or by worshipping “God in an undue manner.” In other words superstition can occur within the neutral description of religion either by relating to the wrong object or in relating to the right object in the wrong way. In Aquinas’ account, however, true religion necessarily involves both a virtuous object and a virtuous mode of relating to the object, so true religion and superstition are incompatible by definition. As Stout mentioned, superstition “has the same relation to true religion that counterfeit money has to legal tender, or that climate change denial has to true science.”
Having addressed Aquinas’ account Stout then moved on to talk about modern uses of religion-talk. He stated that a diverse group of modern (non-Thomist) writers all took true religion to be virtuous. Piety and justice were again united and distinguished from superstition. As he stated, “Most of them explicitly described it as a virtue of properly acknowledged dependence and remarked on the ethical and political significance of its formative and expressive functions.” Like the ancient context, however, Stout acknowledges that not all modern conceptions of religion are positive. As he noted,
Baron d’Holbach, Robert Owen, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Freud, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Gloria Steinem, and Bill Maher have largely used the term pejoratively, in accordance with the Lucretian precedent
Many moderns do hold to the belief that religion is essentially oppressive.
Machiavelli, despite earlier interests in Lucretius, ends up landing closer to Livy. One reason being that “he wanted to use the contrast between true religion and its semblances in explanations of good and bad outcomes.” For Machiavelli, according to Stout, religion cultivates and maintains “good men,” and its religious practices ought to remain free of corruption (such as illegitimate appeals to oracles or scriptures in order to enhance one’s power in political affairs) lest the republic become corrupt as well. As Stout states, according to Machiavelli “moral corruption, often in the form of avarice, is a greater threat to the commonwealth than false belief.”
Stout goes on to discuss various “republican admirers” of Machiavelli such as Baruch Spinoza, James Harrington, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other modern republicans who likewise emphasize the political importance of true religion. Stout contends that “republicanism is largely missing from most overviews of religion and modern thought,” one effect of this absence being the “false impression, now widespread among academics, that there is something worth calling the modern conception of religion, according to which religion is essentially or ideally a private matter to be screened out of public life to the extent possible.”
Stout then moved on to engage David Hume. Hume granted that true religion is inherently good, but was skeptical of its widespread existence and of established religion’s ability to instill this virtue; the reception of true religion is, for Hume, only available to true philosophers. Hume adds another dimension to the corrupt forms of religion when he speaks of enthusiasm alongside superstition, which he also “viewed Parisian atheism” to be beholden to. At this point Stout referenced the work of Thomas Ahnert to draw our attention to the largely religious dimensions embedded within and around the Scottish Enlightenment. In doing so he draws out two concerns of the movement. First, it was centrally interested in “setting right the morally formative function of religion.” Second, it was largely suspicious “of speculation’s tendency to distract a thinker from the demands of living well.” Stout ends this section of his lecture asking, “If the Enlightenment era didn’t achieve a Great Separation of religion from politics, what account should we be giving?”
Stout begins to end this first lecture by looking to the ideal of ethical religion. He returns to Emerson and Gifford and speaks of their refusal to view enthusiasm to be inherently vicious, as Hume did. In contrast, Emerson and Gifford hold that enthusiasm has been a central component in virtually every conceivable beneficial movement in human history. The Gifford Lectures may be devoted to natural theology “in the widest sense of that term,” and the lecturers might be encouraged “to treat their subject as a strictly natural science,” but Stout concludes that based on Lord Gifford’s committed abolitionist stance he could not have intended this to “mean value-free inquiry.”
He closes out his first lecture with reference to Harriet Martineau, who encouraged Emerson to join the abolitionist movement, who in turn influenced Lord Gifford. For Martineau, religion is inherently moral and it is an inevitable part of human existence. The task is “to distinguish its corrupt from its true forms” and the only way to go about doing that is to “assess its fruits” by taking the time to discern what the current moment demands of us.