previous chapter
4 The Secularization of Society in the Seventeenth Century
next chapter


The Secularization of Society in the Seventeenth Century

This essay was my response to an invitation from the Organization Committee for the Thirteenth International Congress of Historical Sciences held in Moscow in the summer of 1970. The invitation gave me an opportunity to think about the meaning of secularization within a society that remained still, for the most part, profoundly Christian. The paper also required some extension of my range as a historian, both topically and chronologically.

The paper was published with others prepared for the congress; I have added, however, notes omitted from its original printed version.

The subject of this report may, on first inspection, have an excessively familiar look. Secularization, like the rise of the middle class with which it is often associated,[1] has served for generations to describe a process perceived as crucial to the emergence of the modern world. It has not, however, occupied a very prominent or general place in studies dealing with the seventeenth century; hence this paper may be an opportunity to take a fresh look at a number of problems, among them the place assigned to the seventeenth century in recent historical thought. On this point I will observe in general that the seventeenth century has not managed to assume any very specific or commonly accepted identity as a European phenomenon, and the habit of asking questions or even of making pronouncements about it usually depends more on the apparently irresistible fascinations of the decimal system than on any strong sense of the coherence of these hundred years. The earlier part of the century is usually perceived (depending on the purposes of the historian) as an appendix to the age of the Renaissance or as the concluding phase


of a longer period of religious conflict, the latter part (though perhaps with greater difficulty) as the prelude to the Enlightenment or, with a special eye to the civilization of France, as a unique moment by itself.[2] The century as a whole has largely defied broad generalization, and in a historiographical sense it remains an underdeveloped borderland between two overdeveloped areas.[3]

The conception of secularization itself also presents problems. Like other abstractions employed in historical discourse, it has tended, with little perception of what might be at stake, to grow in implication and, in the process, to become increasingly elusive.[4] Thus it is now regularly employed to signify a process of dissociation (as though there were no essential difference) from control by the clergy as a social group, from control by the church as an institution or moral force, or from religious influence altogether; and it is likely to be used interchangeably with laicization, worldliness , and irreligion . Some of our difficulties with the term may come from a tendency to lump all these matters together and to attribute to the whole, somewhat heterogeneous, bundle a species of teleological authority; it thus functions not merely as a description of particular developments, which can be fairly precise, but also as explanation, which is often less so. In this way secularization and the secular spirit that gives birth to it have been made to seem inexorable and irreversible forces shaping modern culture and society. The absence of any obvious antonym for secularization may be suggestive in this connection.

When our professional vocabulary is debased, the wisest course might well be to change it. But past experience along this line is not encouraging, and in any case I think that, pruned of its excrescences, the conception of secularization may still prove useful for our general understanding both of European development and of the place of the seventeenth century within larger patterns of change. I should like, therefore, to try to restore its value by offering an example, from the seventeenth century itself, of what I take to be a secular society and therefore of proper use of this language: the Republic of Venice.[5]

Venice has the special advantage for this purpose that for some months during 1606 and 1607 she was under an interdict imposed by the pope. Since the purpose of an interdict is to compel secular authority to bow to the will of the church, this event precipitated what might be described as a crisis of secular values, and the Venetian interdict set off a broad discussion that reveals what was involved in the process of secularization as it was perceived in the seventeenth century itself. Venice may conveniently serve, therefore, both as a touchstone for identifying other


manifestations of secularization and as a starting point for tracing its career in the seventeenth century.

Rome had many grievances against Venice. She was immediately provoked by the Venetian habit of submitting criminal clergy to the judgment of secular courts and by Venetian laws limiting bequests by laymen to the church and regulating the construction of church buildings. Thus secularization has as its first and most limited meaning the imposition of lay control over matters previously regarded as belonging to the church. But these complaints were primarily pretexts for dealing with more general offenses of which, in the view of Rome, they were only symptoms. The Curia was profoundly antagonized by the persistent refusal of Venice to participate in crusades against the infidel, by her insistence on maintaining diplomatic and commercial relations with the non-Catholic and even the non-Christian world, by her exclusion of clergy and clerically oriented families from the councils of her government, by the moral and philosophic license of the Venetian printing industry, by the refusal of Venetian authorities to impose a rigid theological orthodoxy at Padua.

And here we may begin to discern a larger meaning in the process of secularization: Venice evidently represented for the papacy an insistence in principle on the autonomy of various realms of human concern, and particularly of politics, economic life, and culture. This, for contemporaries, was the crux of the matter: whether it was permissible to conduct the various affairs of this world in accordance with principles derived only from the human ends they served, or, on the contrary, whether they must be controlled by and made to serve larger spiritual ends. If the latter were true, Venice would be expected to obey the pope; but in fact the Venetian leaders insisted that they had no superior in temporal things. Thus secularization threatened the traditional vision of society both as a structural unity under a single head and as a functional unity in which all activity must be subordinated to ultimate goals.

But even more than this was at stake. Beyond the repudiation of traditional relationships, priorities, and goals in society was the repudiation of a vision of the universe and its structure, and thus of a traditional mode of organizing the human understanding. Secularization rested on a deep conviction that eternal truths are inaccessible to the human intellect, and that only the limited insights afforded by experience in this world are relevant to the earthly career of the human race. Thus the secularization of society also pointed to the radical subversion of any comprehensive vision of cosmic and metaphysical order, of the perception of all reality as a single system governed by common principles,


in which human society finds its duly appointed place and its ultimate meaning. For Rome the secular claims of Venice made of her, from this standpoint, a rebel against the divinely constituted order of reality in general. The secularization of society was part of a larger process, and it cannot be fully assessed without some attention to Galileo's demand for an autonomous science and the vigorous controversies of the seventeenth century about the possibility and the validity of metaphysics.

The champions of Rome in the bitter war of words that accompanied the interdict understood very clearly that all these lofty issues were at stake, but the spokesmen for Venice seem to have understood it as well. When the pope first made known his grievances to the Venetian ambassador in Rome, the latter did not hesitate to defend the actions of his Republic by appealing explicitly to reason of state; and his government insisted repeatedly that since the matters over which the pope professed outrage were merely political, they did not properly concern him at all. In Venice it was obvious that reason of state had no basis in Eternal Reason, and therefore that it was unnecessary for the laws of any state to conform to a universal principle of law. The Venetians did not deign, therefore, to reply to papal invocations of a universal order. It seemed clear enough that the only order that mattered was the immediate and very secular order of the Venetian state. Thoroughly at home in the practical world of affairs, the Venetians found abstract and systematic argument utterly unpersuasive, and calculated indeed to destroy such order as human beings can attain in this world.

But although the Venetian position reveals the intimate connection between secularization in society and hostility to certain kinds of thought, it also makes quite evident that the question of secularization is by no means the same as the religious question, the question of the existence and intensity of piety. The problem was not with the degree of piety but rather with its kind. For although Rome, committed to religious formulations inextricably bound to universal principles of order and unwilling to recognize the validity of an alternative type of religion, felt some compulsion to represent the position of Venice as impious, in fact the interdict coincided with a renewal of Christian devotion among the patricians of Venice; and her leaders insisted, with a fervor that cannot be dismissed as cynical, on their attachment to the Christian faith. Their commitment, however, was to a version of Christianity that rested on a profound conviction of the inadequacy of the human mind to grasp final truth and thus to discern the orderly unity of the universe, a problem which was regarded as in any case irrelevant to the spiritual condition of human beings. Venetian piety was a matter of faith and


will rather than of intellectual appropriation. This type of Christianity not only acknowledged that man lives, to quote a great seventeenth-century writer, "in divided and distinguished worlds,"[6] but implied that there could be no alternative. And thus, by accepting the incongruity between earthly and heavenly things and at the same time prepared to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, this type of piety was consistent with a high degree of secularization. It obviously did not exclude the need to express Christian virtue in the world, but it perceived this not so much systematically, based on the application of general principles, as practically and almost incidentally, through the particular acts of sanctified individuals. It should also be observed that this type of piety had flourished with special vigor since the fourteenth century and was to be found among both Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is especially important to recognize the distinction between secularization and the decline of piety in approaching the seventeenth century, a peculiarly devout age, if those who see in it the advancement of secularization and those who emphasize its piety are not to appear utterly at cross-purposes.[7] Indeed the importance of the distinction is increasing with the tendency of recent scholarship to emphasize the religious sincerity and even the religious inspiration of many of those seventeenth-century figures who have long been considered major champions of a new, secularized view of man and the universe: of Sarpi and Galileo, of Descartes, Locke, Bayle, and Newton, perhaps even of Bacon and Hobbes.[8] Although such revisionism may owe a good deal to some obscure zeitgeist of our own, it is at any rate more plausible to interpret these figures in terms of the general preoccupations of their age than as eccentric "forerunners" of the future. And this perception can lead, in turn, to a clearer understanding of secularization itself.

The case of Venice should also remind us of one further point: that secularization did not begin with the seventeenth century; in fact it was well advanced when the century opened. The position represented by Venice was rooted in the values and attitudes of the Renaissance in Italy; Rome identified it with Machiavellianism. And the major steps in the practical secularization of Europe had for the most part been taken earlier: the replacement of clergy by laymen in governmental agencies, the transfer of jurisdictional authority of various kinds from ecclesiastical to secular courts,[9] the seizure of ecclesiastical lands in Protestant areas. Hospital administration in France[10] and philanthropy in England[11] largely passed from clerical to lay administration during the sixteenth century in a development based on the conviction that these matters


had more to do with public order in this world than, as an opportunity for good works, with the salvation of souls in the next. Education too had for some time tended to be withdrawn from clerical direction for comparable reasons.[12] And, in a parallel development, the sixteenth century began a movement away from Roman law, with its universalistic overtones, toward reliance on particular bodies of local law.[13]

Thus much that seems most secular in the life of the seventeenth century must be seen as a continuation or consolidation of an impulse already long at work. This is notably true of the peace of Westphalia and the eclipse of the Empire, full acceptance of balance of power as the most likely guarantor of political survival, and the full laicization of the European diplomatic corps.[14] It is also true of mercantilism, peculiarly secular in its rejection of universal good in favor of particular benefits;[15] the antecedents of seventeenth-century mercantilism can be discerned at least as early as the fifteenth century in France, and navigation acts were already an important instrument of royal policy in early sixteenth-century England. The real problem for the historian of the seventeenth century is whether this impetus from the past was sustained.

On this question, in spite of the fact that the Venetian interdict ended in a defeat for the papacy, which never again dared to challenge the secular world in so overt a way, the evidence is ambiguous, and even on a practical level rather different from what might be expected from a secularizing movement of such obvious vigor. What had previously seemed a general movement no longer appears so comprehensive, and it becomes necessary to make both chronological and geographical distinctions.[16] Venice herself was compelled to readmit the Society of Jesus, which she had expelled as a source of danger to her secular values, and in 1684 she was persuaded to join the great crusade organized by Pope Innocent XI to expel the infidel from Europe, although this enterprise promised little benefit to herself.[17] If the policies of Richelieu rigorously distinguished the interests of the faith from those of the French state,[18] those of Louis XIV, in the closing years of his reign, are less clear; his revocation of the Edict of Nantes challenged the secularity of politics accepted, at least practically, by Henry IV; and his later wars took on some of the enthusiasm and savagery that had characterized the religious conflicts of the previous century.[19] The synods of Dort, not only in 1619 but again in 1686, were much concerned with the religious obligations of rulers, especially in the Netherlands;[20] and even in England the religious profession of the ruler was increasingly a focus of concern. There was no general retreat from the secular constructions of an earlier time, but one has an impression of the deceleration and occasional fal-


tering of the secularizing process as a practical matter, perhaps especially after the middle of the century.

Secularization is as much a matter of the values attached to human activity as of the concrete forms of activity itself, and it is easier to trace what was occurring in the thought of the seventeenth century than in its institutions, which, being more inert, better preserved the character they had taken on in the previous period. And what must be recognized in the thought of the seventeenth century is a persistent tension between the pragmatic attitudes represented by secular Venice, based on an extremely modest estimate of the generalizing intellect, and the systematic impulse represented by Rome. Both types of intellectual orientation may be found at any time during the century, and few groups or individuals did not in some measure participate in both and feel the common tensions of the age; neither secularism nor its opposite can often be encountered in a pure form. One can discern, nevertheless, a gradual shift in the balance between these antithetical positions during the course of the century; and it seems likely that by 1700 a smaller proportion of Europeans organized their perceptions of life, society, and the world like Venetians at the time of the interdict than had been the case a century earlier. The seventeenth century saw a decline in the secularizing mentality that is related, in a manner probably more profound than that of either cause or effect, to the weakening of secularization in society.

It is true that in important ways secular attitudes intensified during the earlier seventeenth century, allied with and encouraged by the ascendancy of a skeptical and fideistic piety that rejected the possibility of authentic systems of abstract thought. It remained both common and respectable to insist on the gulf between faith and reason, and in this period the sense of the ultimate helplessness and irrationality of the human race reached a kind of climax.[21] Much of the intellectual leadership of Western Europe now shared a deep antipathy to system building and attacked metaphysics with a holy zeal.[22] Galileo's insistence that theology is queen of the sciences only through the special dignity of its subject and not through any right to govern what occurs in the other sciences, and that religion teaches "how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes,"[23] reflects an attitude that he shared with Bacon, Gassendi, Mersenne, and Pascal.[24] But the principle applied equally to matters other than natural philosophy; it pointed to the autonomy of all aspects of human experience insofar as they are objects of human thought. The secularization of science, with its substitution of efficient for final causes and of a mechanical for an organic and animistic model of physical reality, was symptomatic of a more general development.


It is notably evident during the earlier seventeenth century in attitudes to man and society. A sense of the spiritual incommensurability of heaven and earth could produce a sharper conviction, of course, as among some Jansenists, of the need to impose spiritual direction on the secular world, and the effect of earlier seventeenth-century pessimism was not unambiguously secular.[25] But it was more likely to result in a belief that the corrupt world should be ignored because it is both unintelligible and irredeemable, a view in which other Jansenists[26] were joined by some of the new partisans of both Epicureanism[27] and Stoicism,[28] or, among minds more engaged with the life around them, a conviction that although the civitas terrena had nothing in common with the civitas dei , it nevertheless operates according to identifiable principles of its own. Thus, as with the influential Charron, just because behavior could not manifest eternal wisdom, ethics might be treated as a secular science;[29] and for the same reason some French libertines developed a hedonistic conception of art.[30] The principle also had implications for the writing of history; with Paolo Sarpi, precisely because the true church is an utterly spiritual body existing beyond the world of time, the career of the institutional church could be described in completely secular terms.[31]

The same sense of the separateness and thus the independence of the secular is also in evidence in much of the political thought of this period, and the persistent attacks on the "Machiavellianism" of the age are a tribute to its continuing vitality in theory as well as practice. While Francis Bacon praised Machiavelli for describing "what men do, and not what they ought to do,"[32] an influential Frenchman (possibly Père Joseph himself) began a general treatise on European politics by remarking that "the best advice one can give in matters of state is based on special knowledge of the state itself."[33] Such attitudes were dominant in the circle of Richelieu, whose successes seemed to certify to the validity of the secular principles identified by Machiavelli and his followers.[34] But the secular principles underlying human society were also being elaborated in other quarters: by those who idealized non-Christian polities, that of the Turks or the Chinese, for example,[35] and possibly even through the naturalistic contract theory promoted (though for quite other than secular motives) by Jesuit theorists.[36]

Even the divine-right theory of this period, which was employed to bolster the position not only of kings but of all governments, as its application to the Venetian and Dutch republics reveals, seems to me to have been equivocal in respect to secularization. On the one hand it supplied a religious base to governments and spiritual sanctions to rulers.


But it served also as a justification for the compartmentalization of life in the kind of language that had now become most persuasive, and thus it protected the autonomy of politics. In addition, by accepting the actual fragmentation of the political world, divine-right theory confirmed one of the aspects of secularization that was most abhorrent to its foes. Divine right thus suggests the general ambiguity of the seventeenth century.

And indeed, even as the secularizing currents flowing out of the past were rushing more and more frantically, they were being compressed into an increasingly narrow channel. A reaction, whose sources may also be traced back through the sixteenth century to the age of the Renaissance, was gathering force. It found general expression in the recovery everywhere of the systematizing mentality, which rested on a positive estimate of man's intellect very different from the view that underlay the secularizing movement, and which insisted on relating all aspects of human experience to a central core of universal and therefore abstract truth. Thus it renewed not only a sense of the priority of eternal values, but above all a confidence in their general applicability to the secular world; and in this way it pointed to the destruction of the autonomy which, in the seventeenth century, was at the heart of the secularizing process.

This tendency is apparent everywhere: in the massive renewal of scholastic theology in Counter-Reformation Catholicism, but also (and perhaps even earlier) in the Protestant world, in a movement that justifies our speaking of a Protestant Counter-Reformation.[37] The recovery of metaphysics made philosophy almost as interchangeable with theology among Protestants as among Catholics; Aristotle became as important in the universities of Germany and England as in those of Spain or France; and some Protestants went as far as the authorities in Rome in reviving the spiritualized cosmology of the Ptolemaic universe, which could not be challenged without attacking Christianity itself.[38] Seventeenth-century Calvinism was meanwhile experiencing a parallel transformation. Though less hospitable to Aristotle than Lutheranism, it found in the logic of Ramus grounds of its own for a more optimistic view of the human intellect, its theology became increasingly speculative and systematic, it discovered that the medieval schoolmen were more respectable than it had supposed, and it began to take a growing interest in identifying general laws of nature.[39]

The most influential expression of this resurgence of the systematizing mentality was, of course, the method of Descartes. It is doubtless important for some purposes to distinguish between retrospective and innovative system building. But here their differences are less important


than what they have in common: the conviction that an intellectual construction can be something more than the product of a particular culture, and that it is possible for human beings to attain certain knowledge. Both pre- and post-Cartesian rationalism represented the impulse toward the systematic integration of all experience. Both therefore tended in principle to reject the autonomy of the secular. The significance of Descarte's own dualism may still be debatable, but his followers found the Cartesian method useful rather for establishing relationships than for preserving distinctions; in the hands of a Malebranche, Cartesianism seemed as suitable as Aristotelianism to reconstitute a philosophy of universal order on Christian principles.[40]

In a climate characterized by an increasing penchant for system building, the autonomy of the secular came under increasing attack. This is obvious enough in the theory and practice of Counter-Reformers in Rome; we have already noticed the offensive against Venice. Bellarmine had laid down, as a general principle, that "all order consists in this, that some should command and others should be subjugated";[41] and there was no doubt among the authorities of the Counter-Reformation what this meant in practice and to what purposes the obedience of mankind should be directed. For Bellarmine the temporal and spiritual powers were still "united so that they compose one body," a body in which "spirit rules and moderates, and sometimes restrains, sometimes stimulates as it judges expedient for its own ends."[42] The enunciation of correct principles was also accompanied by a general offensive against a secularized politics, to which the label "false reason of state" was regularly applied, following Botero.[43]

The significance of the seventeenth century may be seen in the fact that such conceptions were probably more popular and more widely diffused as it ended than when it began.[44] Instead of assuming the autonomy of politics like Machiavelli, the men of the later seventeenth century, for example that weather vane of opinion Pufendorf, or the influential Seckendorf, were preoccupied with (to cite one of Pufendorf 's own titles) "the relation of the Christian religion to civil life."[45] In France earlier concern to recover for use the specific and practical mos gallicus gave way to the efforts of jurists like Jean Domat, who sought to derive the laws of the state from the eternal principles supremely represented by Christian morality.[46] And while Massillon and others celebrated the revocation of the Edict of Nantes as a decisive blow against "false reason of state,"[47] a generation of reformers began to attack mercantilism as a violation of the universal concern for mankind taught by the Christian faith.[48] Meanwhile the quality, and perhaps also the quan-


tity, of historical composition, that most secular activity of the previous century, declined, under pressure for the subordination of historiography to religion or to a political science or an ethics based on universal principles. Even the most notable histories of the seventeenth century, for example Clarendon's History of the Rebellion , gave to providential explanation an importance that Sarpi would have found remarkable.[49] And the moral doctrines central to seventeenth-century classicism were acceptable largely on the ground that their universal validity gave them a unique capacity for the expression and support of Christian morality.[50] As in other matters, the fact that truths could be derived from sources other than the Scriptures or the authoritative teaching of the church did not imply that a secularizing process was at work. It pointed not to a larger area of autonomy for the secular world but to the systematic coherence of all aspects of experience.

These considerations may also suggest that the contribution of natural law theorists to the political speculation of the seventeenth century was, like divine-right theory, equivocal from the standpoint of secularization. Like the proponents of divine right, the advocates of natural law recognized the sovereignty of particular states,[51] and they combined the idea of natural law with an individualistic contract theory that seemed to deny any ultimate source of political authority. But theories of natural law also expressed a very different impulse. If they were intended to serve a practical purpose, it was above all to restrain an excessively secular politics rather than as a positive contribution to the process of secularization. Thus Grotius can hardly be considered a "secularizer" because he argued from reason rather than from revelation. Scholars familiar with Scholastic thought find it difficult to detect much difference between Grotius and Thomas Aquinas on this point;[52] and although it might be argued that Thomas, too, was in some sense a secularizer, it seems more useful here to compare Grotius with Machiavelli. In this perspective it should be apparent that Grotius represented precisely the tendency in political discussion that Machiavelli most abhorred: Grotius was finally concerned not with how men act but rather with how they should act. He aimed to substitute a prescriptive and deductive politics based on universal principles for a descriptive and inductive politics based on experience a politics of abstract intelligence and generalized morality for a politics of will and power. The effect was to fit politics once again into a general system of values consistent with, if not actually derived from, the revealed will of God. The tendency of some scholars to minimize the importance of God for Grotius himself may express more about their anticipation of what lay ahead than about their understanding of


what was central for Grotius, and the importance of God as the ultimate source of law and morality may have been greater among later natural law theorists such as Pufendorf.[53]

At the same time I do not wish to leave the impression that the seventeenth century saw a complete retreat from the insistence on the separateness of realms basic to secularization. The satires of Molière in France,[54] the comedies of manners in later seventeenth-century England, and the hedonistic ethics of a few worldly aristocrats in both countries[55] suggest that the old impulses were still alive. And several major thinkers—Hobbes, Locke, and Bayle—reveal that the conviction of human inadequacy to grasp ultimate truths could still nourish a vigorous and ultimately influential vision of man and society. It is no accident, I think, that these men came out of a tradition that had been peculiarly emphatic about the distance between this world and the world beyond.

Neither Hobbes nor Locke, at any rate, was altogether immune from the systematic contagion of the age. Both sought to establish as much coherence as the human mind could manage, and the similarities between Hobbes and Descartes are obvious; of the two, Hobbes may indeed have been the more purely deductive.[56] But both Hobbes and Locke, in the end, seem to have staunchly resisted that philosophical conjunction of realms characteristic, for example, of the natural law theorists on the Continent and of the century in general; neither equated man's access to the workings of nature with God's;[57] and Bayle's sense of the limits of human understanding went much farther. This position led to a vision of political order that is reminiscent once again of the position of Venice at the beginning of the century: politics became again a practical affair, not an earthly projection of cosmic order but a construction by men on the basis only of as much as they could understand of themselves and their position in a purely natural universe. And it was devised not for the expression of eternal principles theoretically convenient for humankind, but to serve immediate and thoroughly practical human needs.[58]

Hobbes, Locke, and Bayle also had this in common: that to varying degrees all three were immediately regarded as dangerous.[59] They were dangerous because they undermined the systematic rationality of the universe that other men of the century were desperately seeking to reconstruct. To understand this more general concern, which the occasional truly secular thinker of the seventeenth century apparently threatened, we must doubtless go back to the material conditions of the age: to the prolonged depression of the century, to its social dislocation, its wars and revolutions. But by the end of the century the grimmest part of the


general crisis was over, and men could increasingly relax. This is perhaps why Hobbes and above all Bayle and Locke, the transmitters of an attitude toward human existence more common in the previous age than in their own century, would seem more and more like the voices of the future.

previous chapter
4 The Secularization of Society in the Seventeenth Century
next chapter