Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Some thoughts on the Saeculum I (of a projected III)

I. Groundwork

The following reflections have been percolating for some time - in one form or another, I have expressed them sometimes more, and sometimes less thematically, over the course of the years. This most recent occurrence has been occasioned by two unconnected things: a statement Fr. Zuhlsdorf made to the effect that politics ought to foreshadow the City of God (for the post in which it occurs, click here), and a recent observation in one of the combox threads over at the Papist, in which a university professor reminds us all of the dangers of using terms before having an adequate grasp of their meanings (an alarming number of people are pathologically committed to this imprudence, although the vast majority of them have not been diagnosed with the Vizzini complex).

The term I have heard bandied about is "secularism" in its various permutations, and I would like to clarify the meaning of the term, before those tempted or prone to use the term indiscriminately actually succeed in rendering it practically useless for the purposes of critical discourse.


"Secularism" and its permutations are derived from the Latin, saeculum, i 2n. It is etymologically linked to cycle, derived in its turn from the Greek kyklos. It's first appearance as a unit of measurement was in Etruscan civilization. It is often mistakenly taken as a quantitative measurement of time.

Its standardization as a 110-year period of time during the reign of Augustus, however, was a late and rather confusing innovation.

Even after acquiring its standardized periodization, saeculum continued to be what it always had been: a qualitative measurement of a given people's historical progress.

Theological-political development

In the Western intellectual tradition, the very Roman Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo, appropriated the term, saeculum in his master work, the De civitate Dei contra paganos, which is known more briefly as the De civitate Dei or the City of God.

The most important aspect of Augustine's treatment of the saeculum in that work is his expansion of the term beyond a single people or civilizational project, i.e. Rome, and application to the present state or condition of the world, coupled with his differentiation of the saceulum senescens, literally the "age growing old," meaning, "the last age of the world, which is passing." It is the first and fundamental step in the development of a philosophy of history (here you will not be surprised to learn I am heavily indebted to Eric Voegelin) , in which human action in history has implications in and for the eternity that permeates time, and is intelligible as such, while history itself does not hold the key to its own meaningfulness - history itself is to be read in light of the eternity that is beyond it.

Within the unfolding of this history, the Church emerges as the carrier of eternity in time; her authority is spiritual and her membership extends through all time from the creation of the world and into eternity. She is not of this world, though she is in the world that is passing. Political society, which is proper to the world, nevertheless contributes genuinely to good order and serves the purposes of the spread of the Church, while not strictly depending upon the Church for its authority.

It shall, I hope, be fairly easy now to identify the distint spiritual and temporal spheres out of which the idea of the separation of Church and State rose, beginning in the late middle ages. The idea of a distinct sphere, over which the civil authority had no competence, marks the beginning of the process of differentiation that would continue for centuries, and continues in the present.

In this sense, therefore, the great Bishop and Doctor is the first secularist. A good book for non-experts (good for experts, too, in fact, though they should already have read it) is R.A. Markus' Saeculum: history and society in the theology of St. Augustine.

Modern and Contemporary Confusion

In order to bring the problematic nature of the present confused use of the term in all its permutations fully into view, I would need to revisit the whole intellectual history of the past 1600 years, at least.

Suffice it to say that the modern period has been characterized by two great currents of thought. One holds that human history is intelligible on its own terms, i.e. that it contains within itself its principle of intelligibility (Eric Voegelin calls it an eidos of history). The other denies the basic intelligibility of the world, reducing history to a merely contingent succession of events.

They are only apparently antagonistic, for their deepest roots tap a common source of (mal)nourishment: the desire to escape the eschatological tension of existence.

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