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Beguiling family tree of big ideas

21 August 2015

But a shame about the prose, says John Saxbee

Beyond Secular Order: The representation of being and the representation of the people
John Milbank
Wiley-Blackwell £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


JOHN MILBANK adopts a genealogical approach to the history of ideas. He finds that ideas undergirding "secular" modern philosophy are traceable to a period well before the age of Enlightenment, and they tend to evolve from movements in thought which deviated from theological orthodoxy. So modern philosophy has been contaminated by deviant pre-modern theology.

Furthermore, as ideas form actions, so post-Enlightenment political theory and practice — secular order — bear the hallmarks of such deviations. Only by eradicating them can governance rooted in radically orthodox theology become a reality.

Milbank is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham. His celebrated Theology and Social Theory made it into the Church Times top 100 Christian books (26 September 2014), and this new work is its sequel. It will, in its turn, be followed by On Divine Government, to complete an informal trilogy.

The problem, as Milbank sees it, is that many assumptions we take for granted in the modern world are not necessary and beyond question. He focuses on four key strands in modern philosophy to make his point. These are: (1) the univocity rather than analogy of being; (2) knowledge by representation rather than identity; (3) the priority of the possible over the actual; and (4) causality as "concurrence" rather than "influence". Each of these strands is traceable back to deviations from orthodoxy associated with such medieval luminaries as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

Take, for example, the trend in modern philosophy towards "possibilism". To be free is to have the maximum number of possibilities from which to choose, and not to be inhibited by government or anyone else in making our choices. Or is it? Perhaps our freedom, like God’s freedom, is predicated not on possessing limitless possibilities, but on being able to realise the full and actual potential in our character and personalities. "Possibilism" is but one feature of modern philosophical and political theory with roots deeper and more problematic than is usually assumed.

Once it is acknowledged that so-called modernity is based on false theological premises stemming from medieval aberrations, then philosophy and politics can be constructed on more orthodox, largely Thomist foundations. What form such "metaphysical politics" might take in practice is only hinted at in this book, and will be clarified further in its sequel.

Milbank is at pains to emphasise that he is not proposing a straightforward defence of the ancients against the moderns. Rather, he wants to challenge ways in which a very recent modernity is "set against all that has gone before in western human history, and perhaps human history in toto".

Whether modernity deserves more credit for its intellectual and practical achievements than Milbank allows is a moot point. Also, his approach to the history of ideas can at times feel like a family tree constructed more on the basis of likenesses than genealogical heredity. That makes it interesting, creative, suggestive, and beguiling, but may fall short of establishing a case beyond all reasonable doubt.

Milbank is not lauded as one of the leading contemporary theologians for nothing. He is fearless in his cross-examination of modern secularist assumptions about the autonomy of philosophy and its much-heralded liberation from theology’s apron strings.

Nevertheless, how we wish he could communicate his findings in a more accessible way! There are sentences and paragraphs here of such length and complexity that they can surely be intended only for the edification of consenting intellectuals in private. If you are one such, this book is for you. If not, then prepare to be dazzled — but not necessarily illumined.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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