NUOVO, Victor. John Locke: the Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso.
Nuovo describes Christian virtuosity as arising in response to a seventeenth-century "crisis of atheism," a crisis created by the newfound prominence of "Democritean naturalism and its Epicurean successor." He places Locke in a tradition of Christian virtuosi whose "prototype" was Francis Bacon and whose "archetype" was Locke's friend and mentor, Robert Boyle. Boyle coined the term in an unfinished work, The Christian Virtuoso, which Nuovo argues Locke read in manuscript in 1681. Like Locke and Boyle, many of the virtuosi were members of the Royal Society and sought to advance naturalistic inquiry rooted in Democritean atomism, while showing that science to be compatible with Christianity. Doing so was a tricky business, and Nuovo describes the virtuosi as haunted by the shadow of atheism, which they "could not escape, for it was their very own."
Nuovo traces the impetus for Locke's magnum opus, the Essay concerning Human Understanding, to a meeting of virtuosi on a winter night in 1671. The friends were brooding over the question of how to preserve "the principles of morality and revealed religion" in the face of the crisis of atheism in which they were embroiled. Nuovo conjectures that their conversation may have been rendered particularly acute by the publication of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise in 1670, for Spinoza "reduced the whole of reality to a single substance, which he called God but equated with nature," and described revelation as "as an all-too human invention devised for reasons of political expedience." In his Essay, Locke responded to the problem this overweening naturalism presented by reconceiving the structure of human knowledge itself, and thereby creating a new logic to rival that of Aristotle. Nuovo argues that Locke's investigations led him to conclude that "Morality is the proper Science, and Business of Mankind in General" and to "deny the possibility of a science of nature." The self-aware "philosopher of nature," Locke held, should regard himself as "pilgrim," whose basic concerns are religious and moral, and whose scientific inquiries reflect only "a modest curiosity" about this passing world, along with a charitable interest in the advantages human beings might derive from understanding nature's causal mechanisms.
Although Locke elevated morality to the status of mankind's proper science and business, he never produced a systematic treatment of ethics. Nuovo argues, however, that he did in fact possess such a moral theory, which he developed by following in the tradition of "the great hedonist moralists, in particular Epicurus." Reconstructing this moral theory mostly from the Essay and Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education, Nuovo describes it as "a scheme of pagan ethics" with "Christian and biblical interjections" inserted here and there.
Nuovo concludes his account of Locke's work with a reading of The Reasonableness of Christianity and the Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, which he argues should "count as major works of Biblical theology." Locke's project in these works was to enlarge "the scope of reason" to include "authenticating and interpreting revelation." In the Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke found in the gospels "a moral truth suited for all sorts and conditions of men, surpassing in its cogency and efficacy all the discoveries of philosophy." In the Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, Locke argued for the coherence of Paul's teaching beneath his "exuberance and abundant expression." In both, Locke defended the rationality of Christianity, and even argued that it is distinguished precisely by the "reasonableness and plainness" of its doctrines.
Nuovo judges that a "Christian philosopher in search of promising options" should find Locke's synthesis of reason and faith "congenial" and "useful in promoting intellectual piety." For his own part, however, Nuovo argues that the Christian virtuoso's great project of marrying Christian supernaturalism and atomistic materialism was of "strained plausibility," and indeed that "divorce" between these two elements was "inevitable." Given that judgment, Christian philosophers who take Nuovo's scholarship seriously might understandably look for options more promising than one Nuovo himself ultimately judges a failure. It is possible to find one such option in the thought of Locke's near-contemporary, Blaise Pascal, who was even more virtuosic than Locke in natural science, and yet also developed a Christian apologetics, compatible with modern physics, with an uncanny and enduring evangelical power few would claim on Locke's behalf. Be that as it may, Nuovo's book is highly erudite scholarship and deserves the attention not only of Locke scholars but of all those interested in the relationship between Christianity and modern empirical rationalism.--Benjamin Storey, Furman University
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|Publication:||The Review of Metaphysics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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