Review

Modernity as Derailment

Sixteen years after Andreas Kinneging published his critique of modernity based on classical and Christian understandings of ethics and politics, The Geography of Good and Evil, he has now written his second monumental work, The Invisible Measure: The Archaeology of Good and Evil. In his earlier work, Kinneging reintroduced classical and Christian morality to our own times. Now, in The Invisible Measure, Kinneging delves further, “like an archaeologist,” into the roots of the classical and Christian traditions.

Kinneging argues that we are living in a transitional period, a period of crisis in which the magic of the Enlightenment and Romantic paradigms is waning. Now more than ever would be an opportune time to return to the ancient roots of Athens and Jerusalem. It is no surprise that Kinneging connects Invisible Measure to the legacy of both Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, who in different ways sought to do the same.

Kinneging demonstrates that the essence of the Enlightenment is a near-dogmatic allegiance to the principles of freedom and equality.  The values of the Enlightenment lead to a rejection of authority, which in turn results in egoism and pride, and to a materialism at the expense of spiritual and intellectual desires. Furthermore, he argues that, for modern science, the world order is not normative; good and evil are not engrained in the world. This rejection of objective norms regarding good and evil ultimately leads to nihilism: “If we stay stuck in the Enlightenment, then nihilism will return.”

Likewise, the Romantic paradigm is losing its appeal. Kinneging argues that Romanticism constitutes a reaction to, and necessary correction of, the reductionism of the modern scientific worldview. The essence of Romanticism is a focus on each human being as a unique person whose goal it is to find his unique self. The Romanticist, meanwhile, is preoccupied with himself, with experimenting between different lifestyles, and with his own feelings and emotions. However, since feelings and emotions are fickle, the quest for one’s authentic self never ceases. The result is a lonely and restless existence.

Ultimately, Kinneging considers modernity a derailment. On an individual level, modernity leads to unhappiness. Socially, modernity leads to atomization. On an intellectual level, modernity leads to a rejection of great books, since neither the Enlightenment nor the Romanticist mindset has an appreciation for authority, including an appreciation for the notion that great books may serve as auctoritates, as sources of wisdom especially about the art of living. Furthermore, both the Enlightenment and Romanticist mindsets are nominalist: whereas classical thinking posits that beings have an essence from which principles that allow the being to achieve its full nature follow, modern thinking posits that beings and groups of beings exist only in name and that there are no objective principles ingrained in nature. It is no wonder that, according to Kinneging, the modern person has lost his moral compass and lacks a sense of reality.

Plato, the first philosopher

Subsequently, Kinneging turns to the European tradition consisting of the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Thomas Aquinas. These philosophers have developed a kind of common language that offers an important alternative to the languages of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Of the four philosophers, Kinneging considers Plato to be the greatest by far. In Invisible Measure, he dedicates 160 pages to Plato, surpassing those dedicated to Aristotle (21 pages), Augustine (25), Aquinas (60), and to the explanation and critical review of the Enlightenment (73) and the Romantic era (74).

A 44.5 x 28 x 32 cm marble bust of Plato (ca. 1635-1640), his face turned to the right, with full beard and bald head, sculpted by Orfeo Boselli (1597-1667). Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, on loan from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

 

In a clear, accurate, and helpful manner, Kinneging lays out Plato’s metaphysics and ontology (theory of forms), ethics, political philosophy, and eschatology. The theory of forms is considered foundational for other parts of Plato’s philosophy. Kinneging shows how the theory of forms is Plato’s primary way of addressing conventionalism and the most decisive response to modern nominalism. The theory of forms provides an ontological foundation for good and evil, which have a set nature. This is the doctrine of being or essences, knowable not by the senses but by means of the human intellect. In other words, as Kinneging explains, Plato posits a stable, natural order behind the unstable, material world. The forms exist in themselves; the human mind does not create them, but rather it discovers them.

Kinneging explains that the forms are immanent in the material world; things in the world participate in the forms. The highest form is the form of the Good. The Good is the source of being and provides due measure (Greek: metron) by means of which all beings share in life and being. The principle of due measure is the highest principle; in seeking what is good, human beings seek due measure. In the Platonic view, there is a right measure in everything. As Kinneging shows, for Plato the cosmic order is a measured whole in which human beings participate by keeping due measure. In terms of ethics, due measure translates into the cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and prudence, and justice.

The Christian tradition

Skipping over Kinneging’s shorter treatment of Aristotle, we come to the third part of Invisible Measure, titled “The Genius of Christianity.” Here, Kinneging explains Christianity in terms of two main concepts, sin and love, and uses two main sources, Augustine and Aquinas. The choice of these topics and philosophers is important. The contribution of Invisible Measure is to focus the reader’s attention on sin—a concept too easily forgotten in modernity—and on the philosophical sources of Christianity.

Close-up of a 115.9 x 43.8 x 25.7 cm French statue of St. Augustine, dating from 1450–75, made out of limestone, with paint and gilt, courtesy of the Cloisters/Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 

According to Kinneging, the conception of sin is fundamental to the essence of Christianity. The human soul is inclined towards pride, avarice, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Doing good is not merely a question of correct reasoning; it is first and foremost a correct willing. Christianity views sin as a problem of the heart, not of the mind. In order to reorient the modern reader to the concept of sin, Kinneging changes the order in which Aquinas discusses the virtues and vices. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas starts with the virtues and treats the vices as their counterpart. Kinneging starts out with the vices so as to provide a systematic treatment of these. Here, it is good to keep in mind that Aquinas wrote the Summa as a textbook for theology students in the 13th century—that is, before the advent of modernity—and for an audience for whom man’s sinful nature was self-evident. By contrast, Kinneging’s Invisible Measure is written for the modern reader, for whom the opposite is the case. Invisible Measure is written as a warning to the secular modern reader who has forgotten the concepts of sin and virtue and who, therefore, no longer understands why modernity does not work.

Perhaps surprisingly, Invisible Measure is also written as a warning to the Christian modern reader, who has room for faith, hope, and love, but who may have forgotten that the theological virtues are connected to the cardinal virtues.  A close reading of Augustine—and, in particular, Aquinas—shows that the cardinal and theological virtues cannot do without each other.

In Kinneging’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas, without the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues are unthinkable. The cardinal virtues, one may say, should not be understood as ‘an appendix’ to the theological virtues. Rather, in the Christian tradition as well as the classical tradition, the cardinal virtues are central to the good life. The Christian tradition shows that the cardinal virtues are insufficient to the good life; the good life requires the highest, theological virtues of faith, hope, and love as well. However, as Kinneging makes clear, the theological virtues do not replace the cardinal virtues. There are no shortcuts, we may say; in the classical Christian tradition it is not possible to live a good life with only faith, hope, and love but without the practice of justice, temperance, courage, and so forth.

In this way, Invisible Measure means to show that it is hubris to read and interpret the Bible while skipping over the great classical and Christian philosophers. As such, Invisible Measure provides a necessary correction to modern Christianity through seeking to re-Hellenize the Christian tradition. Kinneging argues that Plato’s philosophy profoundly influenced both Augustine and Aquinas by way of the works of the neo-Platonists Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus. He argues that centuries of scholarship have ignored the Platonic emphasis on intellectual humility in the Christian philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas. This neglect has resulted in a kind of anti-intellectualism in modern Christian traditions, from which exaggerated claims about religious certainty have developed. Such religious certainty has now backfired since modernity is unable to accept faith as a source of knowledge. In modernity, there can be no religious knowledge; today, as Kinneging correctly remarks, Christianity is understood as nothing more than superstition. Against the stark dogmatism of certain Christian interpretations, Kinneging’s reading discloses the Christian tradition as an intellectual, that is, philosophical tradition.

In short, Invisible Measure is a call to become classical Christians again, in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. By highlighting the philosophical sources of Christian theology, Kinneging indirectly deconstructs the modern dichotomy between faith and reason. These sources show that the cardinal virtues are based on rational deliberation. These virtues are part of the same ‘ladder’ that includes the theological virtues and that leads to a good life. The emphasis on the cardinal virtues as constitutive of Christian ethics may have another benefit. It may well be that the secular modern reader is more receptive to virtues that depend on human effort than to the virtues that operate in a theological framework of a Creator who loves His creatures unconditionally. Practicing ethics according to reason is then a step towards the recognition of the higher graces of faith, hope, and love.

Kinneging does not mince words. Invisible Measure is written in a didactic manner with the intention to instruct and persuade. The book is meant to get the reader to read good books again, especially Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Invisible Measure is written in a clear manner by an author who does not get lost in detail, which is no small feat given the ground that is covered. Kinneging’s analysis of Plato’s philosophy knows few equals in scholarship today, and modern readers will profit from Kinneging’s understanding of the Christian tradition and focused treatment of modernity.

Emma Cohen de Lara is an associate professor at Amsterdam University College and a research fellow at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research.

This review appears in the Winter 2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 21: 78-81.

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