Here I will argue that Thomas Pfau’s presentation of modernity in Minding the Modern fails to incorporate both the sociopolitical dimensions of modernity’s emergence and its positive aspects. He sees modernity as the home of the “modern subject” of the Western world, or the “quintessentially modern, solitary individual” in his “palpable melancholy,” both “altogether adrift” and without “interpersonal relations.” Stanley Hauerwas captures the sense of the book in his endorsement: “Pfau locates the philosophical developments that contributed to the agony of the modern mind. Moreover, he helps us see why many who exemplify that intellectual stance do not recognize their own despair.” Pfau thus offers a challenge to those whom he sometimes calls the “modern apologists of secular, liberal, Enlightenment society.”
Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.
The central contrast in Thomas Pfau’s rich and rewarding book, Minding the Modern, is between two radically opposed views of human agency. The first is the “classical view of human agency” that was first formulated by Plato and Aristotle and which was given a particularly powerful expression in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to this view, to do something is to deliberately act on some conception of the good; the telos of agency is reached only by our conscious participation in the permanent and rational order of things. The second and opposing view of human agency, which Pfau describes as the modern or naturalistic view, goes back to William of Ockham but was given its most influential articulation by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. According to this view, human action is just behavior that is caused by a desire and accompanied by some thought about how to realize that desire in the world.
In June 2009, I was interviewing a Fijian Methodist minister on the island of Matuku when the subject of curses came up. I had asked him about mana and sau, terms associated with spiritual power, which are often paired in indigenous Fijian discourse. Mana is anthropologically famous as a term Robert Codrington credited to Melanesians; Marshall Sahlins theorized for Polynesians; and Claude Lévi-Strauss characterized as a “floating signifier,” a sign “susceptible of receiving any meaning at all.” Sau, in Fijian, is often associated with a punitive spiritual force linked to chiefs. If you disobey the chief and you get sick, that’s sau.
When I asked the minister at Matuku about mana and sau, he responded in part by explaining the latter term as follows: “Here’s an example. You say something, [then] it happens. It’s like this, if I should curse you. You will go out today, even if you haven’t heard what I said, you will meet with misfortune. You’ll go and get hurt, eh?…That’s one translation of sau.”
Imagine that you’ve been invited to play a game of cards with Thomas Pfau and his cards are called Justice, Reason, Beauty, Humanism, Purpose, and Value, while yours are called Interest, Materialism, Naturalism, Historicism, Value-Neutrality, attributes of a World without Grace and without Narrative. Who wins? But why should you let Pfau have all those cards, especially with names like Justice, Reason, and Beauty, or the names he adds later—“free choice, conscience, person, teleology…judgment…and, for that matter, art”; and why are you stuck with Interest and Materialism? This is a little bit what it’s like to read Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern. In the space I have, I will argue that Pfau has stacked the deck.
In an 1850 pamphlet, “The Law-Abiding Conscience and the Higher Law Conscience,” the Reverend Samuel T. Spear observed, “Every professed martyr virtually appeals to posterity and to God, to review his case, and settle the question whether he was a martyr or a fool.” Spear was a preacher with a sense of humor, but he was also a critic of his culture, thinking about law and religion in antebellum America. In that weird society, with its secularizing institutions and its fantastic carnivals of spiritual awakening, professions of martyrdom had become so common, so conventionalized, that Spear could analyze them as a genre. He saw martyrdom as a style of protest directed toward the legal system (especially toward the fugitive slave codes), animated by a double faith in God and in something called posterity. The self-styled martyrs appealed from the courts of law not only to the Almighty but also to a future public—one that their words would help to summon into being. The martyrs’ claims to justice would be decided by a divine authority and a spectral community.
Thomas Pfau has created a brand new narrative, not a scholarly book. In the best Christian traditio renovanda (renewing tradition), Pfau’s narrative is an ambitious project to delve into the most loathsome and putrid foundations of modernity and its development. At the same time, Minding the Modern reconstructs an ideal alternative world-to-come based on solid Thomistic solutions. The “road not taken” by the West, which is dooming its own present and its future, appears at its best.
Pfau never portrays modernity as being specifically loathsome and putrid. Instead, he describes modernity as a “catastrophe,” a “shipwreck,” “discontinuous,” “dystopic,” “a failure to remember,” “traumatic,” etc. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Pfau is neither supportive of, nor sympathetic to, modernity. His narrative is not intended to provide a neutral, objective, and academic understanding of modernity, but rather a demolishing and biased critique of it; yet another one from a decidedly Catholic perspective.
The book of Job is a book about curses. That is what is at stake in the accuser’s wager with God: “stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11); “stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (2:5). Job’s wife, the only surviving reminder of his previous wealth and prestige, advises him to “Curse God and die” (2:9), and though he refuses to do that, he does proceed to “[curse] the day of his birth” (3:1). Throughout the lengthy dialogues that make up the rest of the book, it seems fair to say that his friends—initially sympathetic but gradually outraged—view his accusations against God as tantamount to cursing him, as a form of blasphemy.
Most people associate prayer with moral good: benevolence, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. Yet in some cases, people deliberately pray against others in forms of what I call “aggressive prayer” that aim to harm or remove another party. These cases raise interesting questions about the shadow side of prayer. Attention to aggressive prayer and to the unspoken, negative aspects of positive prayer reveals interesting insights into how we might more fully understand prayer as a part of lived religion.
Take a blatant and public example of aggressive prayer. In January of 2012, the speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, Mike O’Neal, forwarded an email message urging his Republican colleagues to “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8.” That scripture reads, “May his days be few; may another take his office.” This is hardly a prayer offered for Obama’s flourishing, and the next line is even more malicious: “May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”