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SECULAR POWERS:

HUMILITY IN MODERN POLITICAL THOUGHT

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By Julie E. Cooper

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The Montréal Review, May 2015

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“In this beautifully written book, Cooper makes the case for modesty as the queen of the virtues. By focusing on Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau, she shows how their philosophies rest less on the idea of the sovereign individual and the deification of human powers than on the embrace of ‘finitude’ and an awareness of our limitations. At a time when recent events have forced us to reckon yet again with the dangers of the unintended consequences of our actions, this modest case for modesty could not be more timely.”

--Steven B. Smith, Yale University

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What does it mean to be secular? At one time, secularization was thought to be an inevitable consequence of modernization. With the shift from traditional communities to complex, differentiated societies, scholars predicted, religion would wither away. Liberated from the bonds of superstition, we would finally assume our rightful stature as rational, autonomous, sovereign individuals. Of course, such predictions have proved false. It is now commonplace to assert that history has refuted secularization theory. Indeed, the political salience of religion appears to have increased in recent years. The very developments that have debunked the secularization thesis have inspired a flurry of scholarship on secularism and secularity, as the relationship between religion and politics becomes newly urgent, and newly questionable. Scholars have offered revisionist histories of secularization; they have uncovered modernity’s (unwitting or disavowed) theological origins; they have exposed secularism as prop for Western imperialism; and they have argued that secularist political arrangements must be abandoned or refashioned.

One of the most interesting facets of this new scholarship is the recognition that the “secular” does not only name an institutional recipe for the containment of religious conflict. “Secularity” also names a distinctive way of being in the world – you could even say a novel spiritual orientation. The view of humans as self-authorizing political agents presupposes distinctive notions of what religion is, what it means to be an individual, and how far human reason and power extend.

My book joins this conversation about what it means to be secular – about how, starting in the seventeenth century, we came to see ourselves as capable of building and sustaining political community without divine assistance. Although I agree that secularity must be understood as a novel spiritual orientation, I disagree with the most familiar and influential accounts of what this orientation looks like. Thus, in Secular Powers, I set out to craft an alternative – that is, more modest – portrait of the secular individual’s stature, as well as the ethical sources of his or her political agency. The starting point for my research was a persistent perplexity: Why do we continue to insist that secularity is animated by a certain kind of pride? Although we have challenged many cherished assumptions about secularization, scholars still depict the secular individual as a stereotypical sovereign subject – an individual bent on mastery and blind to limitation. To declare independence from God for political purposes, it is assumed, the philosophical architects of secularity must have placed supreme confidence in human power. Indeed, a storied tradition equates secularization with human self-deification – with the usurpation of properties (mastery, independence, control, invulnerability) once reserved for God.

Against this tradition, I demonstrate that many of secularity’s philosophical architects put the virtues of modesty and humility (properly defined) at the center of their visions for secular individuality. In some of the canonical texts of secular political theory, the modest are held up as exemplary individuals. What does this (at first glance) surprising appreciation for modesty tell us about secularity as a spiritual orientation? The secular turn rests on a generous estimate of human capability – but it also involves a new reckoning with human limitation. Once we realize that secular philosophers consider acknowledgment of human finitude an ethical and political imperative, we can understand secular politics as a project powered by appreciation of our capabilities and limits – not, as Augustinians and their modern heirs have argued, as a bid for self-aggrandizement.     

To challenge stereotypical portraits of the secular individual, I excavate a tradition that I call the secular critique of pride. In this tradition – whose representatives include Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the critique of pride is not an atavism, a relic of traditional piety. Rather, puncturing delusions of grandeur is an integral part of projects to justify secular authority. Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau understand that fantasies of omnipotence deplete human power. If humans want to rule themselves, they must come to terms with their limitations. Indeed, the tradition’s central insight is that coming to terms with finitude is a condition for the deft exercise of human power. Secular critics of pride chasten human pretension not to discredit, but to enhance, human power.

Why has the modesty of secular political projects been so hard to see? For one thing, inherited assumptions are tenacious. In Augustinian traditions, to assert human sufficiency is to forsake God – indeed, to usurp divine prerogative. Given the cultural influence and prestige of these traditions, it is not altogether surprising that scholars have interpreted secular projects as expressions of something akin to pride. But scholars of secularity have also overlooked the investment in modesty and humility because they tend to work on a grand scale. To expose the lust for mastery that supposedly animates secular modernity, scholars have often felt the need to craft sweeping master narratives. The canonical treatments of secularization and secularity are massive tomes that cover wide swaths of Western history. In this book, I proceed in the opposite direction, zooming in on a specific historical period (the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) and a specific constellation of passions (modesty, humility, pride, and self-love). My wager is that, by focusing on the minutiae that grand narratives overlook, we can arrive at a richer, more nuanced understanding of what it means to be secular. Indeed, one of my hopes, in this book, is to shift the study of secularity away from grand narratives, toward detailed, micro-analysis.     

I also chose to focus on the minutiae of modesty and humility in an effort to change the way that political theorists talk about religion. For most contemporary political theorists, the burning questions surrounding religion and politics are toleration and the separation of church and state. Toleration is the most pressing issue, on this view, because religion becomes salient for politics with the emergence of sectarian diversity. For most political theorists, the theologico-political “problem” is an instance of the more general challenge of pluralism: How can we sustain democratic community given the fact of (religious) difference? That the difference in question is religious is almost incidental.

The accommodation of religious diversity is undoubtedly a challenging and urgent project. Yet I have always felt that, when political theorists talk about religion and politics in this way, they aren’t actually talking about religion (or, about anything that the religiously observant would recognize as religion). God has dropped out of the picture, at which point religion becomes a fungible marker of difference, the functional equivalent of race, class, or gender. I set out to write a book about religion and politics that actually grapples with the political challenges posed by God (or by God’s absence). Focusing on modesty and humility was one way to get at what makes religion distinctive – namely, orientation to the sacred. When we debate what it means to be secular, and whether secular is how we want to be, we are engaged in an ongoing negotiation of the boundaries of divine and human jurisdiction. In a culture whose formative texts ascribe sovereignty to God, justifying human self-government is always a challenge. In other words, the divine/human nexus remains an inescapable question for modern politics. At a moment when the legitimacy of independent human agency is under renewed attack, it behooves political theorists to find ways of talking about what makes religion singular, and the singular challenges that religion poses for politics. In Secular Powers, I aim to make a modest contribution to this shared, ongoing project.

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Julie E. Cooper is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.

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