Friday, January 16, 2009

Faith, Reason and the Plague

Cipolla, Carlo M. Faith, Reason and the Plague in Seventeenth Century Tuscany. Trans. Muriel Kittel. New York: Norton, 1979.

This little snapshot of how one town lived through an encounter with the plague is quite fascinating, offering a window into the complicated relationship between faith and reason and between Church and state in early modernity.

Cipolla tries to avoid modern stereotypes, admitting that clergy were often among the heroes fighting the plague with the best knowledge available at the time and that those working with what we would recognize today as a more scientific approach, attempting to isolate material causes, were, in fact, as confused and bewildered as anyone.

Nonetheless, he isn't entirely successful in that avoidance, speaking at times as if there were a "party of faith and the Church" and a "party of reason and the state", when, in fact, there was no sharp separation of these things at the time. Looking back at previous ages and reading our own conflicts into them can be misleading. We tend to think of modern scientific reasoning and the modern non-sacral nation-state as if they are simply the way things are--the natural state of man when the shackles of superstition, slavery and tradition are removed. The reality is more complicated. Modern scientific reasoning and the nation-state are, in reality, achievements that, for the most part, grew out of the specific conditions of Christian Europe. To regard the story of their development as primarily one of conflict with Christianity is to miss the point. Certainly new ways of thinking led to conflicts, but (at least in this case) these were conflicts between Christians, within Christianity, rather than conflicts between Christianity and non-Christian science. Scientific reasoning was not something "already there" to be discovered by simply peeling back Christianity, it is something that had to be created--and, to a large extent, it was created within Christianity.

Thus, to me, the interesting question is not so much "How could faith and scienctific reasoning have coexisted in the same individual?" but "How did science develop?" and "Why did it develop in Christian civilization and not elsewhere?" In an age when the clergy made up a large part of the educated class, it is hardly surprising that a priest could be both a man of faith and a man of science--and Cipolla's speculation that this caused Fr. Dragoni inner turmoil seems anachronistic. Certainly there was conflict over whether the plague should be addressed by public religious processions or by strict quarantine, but in backing the quarantine, Fr. Dragoni could have cited not just the (not entirely correct) scientific idea of the time that plague was spread by human-to-human contact, but scriptures: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Mt 4:17).

Whether or not he did so, one can easily imagine that notions like these within Christianity have something to do with the fact that (at least, according to Cipolla, page 1) unlike in the Muslim East, in the Christian West, the belief that the plague was a sign of divine judgment did not lead to passive acceptance of it. If the advocates of "reason" often lost such debates, it wasn't just because of superstition but because they didn't quite have the evidence (or the facts) on their side. Being ignorant of the primary vector (rat fleas), their quarantines were not demonstrably more effective than simple pleas for miraculous deliverance.

But all of this is perhaps less a criticism of Cipolla's work than it is a wish that he had written the book I wanted to read (and maybe that has already written by Fr. Stanley Jaki). Cipolla's speculation and editorializing is actually quite minimal, and other than a couple of statements like these (and a curious inability to understand the appeal of the depictions of Christ's sufferings to the downtrodden--Cipolla dismisses it as "irrational") is interesting and unproblematic. I am truly only quibbling over a couple of scattered statements. His reconstruction of the events in Monte Lupo make for fascinating--and thought-provoking--reading: a fitting follow-up to Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed.

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