In the course of CULTURE AND THE DEATH OF GOD, Terry Eagleton chronicles challenges to the Enlightenment’s enthronement of Reason: first by Idealist philosophers (primarily German) and then by figures linked with Romanticism (primarily poets and artists).
Regarding the Idealists (most famously represented by Hegel and Marx), Eagleton writes:
“Idealist thought was too dewy-eyed* about humanity, in the manner of young, ebullient social movements, to match Christianity’s bleak moral realism. It was too callow to acknowledge how much in human nature stood in need of repair…Theologically speaking, most Idealist thinkers were Pelagians. There was evil, to be sure, but it sprang for the most part from the repression, division or estrangement of powers which were benign in themselves. That these powers might be inherently flawed, even pathologically so, was not a typical tenet of Idealism, though it is to be found among the Romantics. The difference between these two versions of human nature is an aspect of the difference between Marx and Freud. The latter is a devout believer in Original Sin, while the former is not.”
(An aside: Original Sin! Mr. Eagleton's earlier book ON EVIL is one of the best secular explorations of that doctrine I have read.)
“Powers which are still in the ascendant are more likely to idealize human capabilities than those which have passed their prime…They are likely to regard the doctrine of Original Sin as offensively demeaning. Yet that doctrine, at least in its mainstream versions, does not regard men and women as utterly corrupt.1 On the contrary, it holds that they have a capacity for redemption which can never be suppressed, but only if they repent—which is to say, only if they take soberly realistic account of the tenacity of human egoism, the persistence of violence and self-delusion, the arrogance of power, the compulsive recurrence of conflict, the fragility of virtue and the eternal dissatisfaction of desire…By and large, the Idealists do not imagine, any more than did the Enlightenment philosophes, that a radical self-dispossession is a necessary condition of human flourishing. It is one of their less well chronicled blind spots.”
It’s hard to make a revolution of any sort with a pessimistic anthropology and/or a tragic view of history. Early Christianity, while possessing the former, found its motive power in a fervently hopeful eschatology—albeit one that came increasingly to be delayed; and while its anthropology held humans to be just the sorry sorts of creatures that Eagleton describes, that pessimism was offset by the belief that Christians could be born again and could become new creations in and through Jesus. With Jesus as the new Adam and with the New Jerusalem just around the corner, Christian zeal and enthusiasm changed the Western world.
Nothing thus far in modernity has succeeded half so well; but again, history is a long game and, as someone once said, Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet…2
*This may be the first time anyone has suggested, even indirectly, that Karl Marx was “dewy-eyed” about anything.
1 Mr. Eagleton and I will have to part ways on this issue, which is surely much more my loss than his. His claim about “mainstream versions” of Original Sin obviously depends on what is meant by “mainstream”; in his elucidation of the doctrine, he is most closely following Catholic teaching rather than Protestant. In any case, Eagleton’s litany of the manifold and manifest human shortcomings with which we must reckon is, as they say, spot on.
2 Jackson Browne said it, I have quoted it ad nauseam, and one of my faithful readers has taken to mocking me for it. Nevertheless: if the adage fits, use it, and I will continue to do so.