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The Immaculate Conception: A Quick Survey of Some of the Brains of the Nineteenth Century, Part 1

Friday, November 23, 2012 12:59 AM Comments (26)

The nineteenth century seems to have been a time of special abundance for people with mad schemes for Explaining Everything, or Planning Utopia, or otherwise Knowing It All. In the United States and Europe, there seemed to be no end of philosophers, prophets, and dreamers with New Revelations, Grand Plans, and Big Ideas. New communities sprang up all over the place, eager to create the New Jerusalem on earth. There were Shakers, Zoarites, Rappites, Icarians, and members of utopian groups like the Oneida community, the Amana community, and the Aurora community. By the eve of the Civil War, utopianism had involved at least 100,000 persons in the U.S. (a number far larger in proportion to the population at that time). It was a time in which things like this could appeal to a significant number of people as Cutting Edge Thought:

Based on the doctrines of French reformer Charles Fourier, some 88 communes known as “phalanxes” made for the biggest single total of any U.S. utopian movement during the mid-19th century. Like many visionary leaders, Fourier was something of a fanatic. His dream of the “regeneration of the human body” to occur after 400 years of utopian living included a marvelous versatile tail, which he styled the “harmony arm,” describing it thus: “It extends to the length of 144 vertebrae from the [regenerated human’s] coccyx and is carried on the shoulder, rising to twice its owner’s height, having at its extremity a tiny hand whose fingers are as strong as an eagle’s claws, the index and pinky being lengthened and the middle fingers stubby, with an extremely elongated thumb and retractile talons like a lion’s. When a man endowed with the harmony arm swims, it makes him swift as a fish. He streaks to the ocean floor where in a twinkling he sets out and fastens all manner of nets and traps for seafood. Back on dry land, the same man leaps by means of this marvelous limb into a lofty tree to pick fruit from its topmost branches. The harmony arm also serves as a rudder to steer balloons, and when playing musical instruments it doubles one’s manual dexterity. When making a long distance jump, the harmony arm shoots out in a spiral which at least triples ones’ normal momentum. It also cushions the shock of landing by two-thirds. One spins it into a cone, which slows the body’s fall by forming a parachute. If a mason is working atop a steeple, his harmony arm protects him from falling by wrapping itself round his body while at the same time leaving him the use of both hands as well as the harmony hand.

The harmony arm is also a natural weapon, as redoubtable as it is industrious, placing an unarmed man on an equal footing with the most dangerous beast. (Its superiority if furnished with a sword may be readily imagined!) We might well ask why God did not favor our race with such a useful limb. The answer is simply that terrestrial humanity would destroy itself overnight if provided with this weapon. It may be objected that we will be exempt from such dangers when we pass into the state of Harmony. The observation is correct; it is nonetheless true that we were fated to live through several thousands of years of Discord during which God must needs refuse us the harmony arm. It will be ours only upon passing into the state of Compound Harmony, which is to begin after 16 generations of Simple Harmony—about 400 years hence.( American Folklore and Legend, Jane Polley, ed. (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest Association, 1978), p. 211)

We laugh—today. But that’s only because this particular piece of philosophical looniness died out and became a museum piece for us to marvel at. The problem is that many of the thinkers, prophets, and dreamers of the nineteenth century did not die out. Instead, they worked steadily and diligently to bring about their visions, and to destroy the greatest obstacle to their fulfillment— the revelation of Jesus Christ and the truth about the dignity and origins of the human person.

Who were some of these thinkers, prophets, and dreamers? Space forbids us to discuss them all and we cannot go into great detail. But a cursory survey should at least include the following.

Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte

Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte believed it possible to create a secular utopia based on the worship of man. Feuerbach retained a tenuous connection with Christianity, but redefined it virtually out of existence. The biblical God was to be replaced with a god who affirmed us in our okayness and awakened us to the reality that we humans are the fullness of the Godhead. For Comte, there was a further refinement:

His new God—Humanity—consisted only in those human beings who made a positive contribution to their society. Feuerbach’s new God replaced the fictitious Divinity that caused men to become alienated from the better part of themselves. Comte’s new deity replaced the God of Christianity, which was a necessary historical stepping-stone to the new supreme being—”Le Grand Être”— (“The Great Being,” or Humanity). (Donald DeMarco and Benjamin Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 135–136)

Like so many nineteenth-century thinkers, Comte seemed to see diagrams better than faces. He rejected Christianity because it took the person more seriously than the system or the collective. He regarded Christianity’s incorrigible insistence on the individual person as the image of God as “Christian egoism,” an “egoism” that took its cue from the “absolute egoism” of God.( Ibid., 137) Rather than submitting themselves to the General Will of the collective, Christians sought salvation through a relationship with a God that they believed to transcend humanity. So, like Jesus, Comte insisted they could not serve two masters, except he demanded they serve humanity, not God. To his credit, he retained enough of his humanity to advocate the establishment of his utopia by persuasion and love. But his systemis so out oftouch with reality that it effectively boils down to a very complex way of saying, “I love humanity. It’s just people I can’t stand.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer lacked Feuerbach’s and Comte’s rosy optimism about the coming apotheosis of humanity. He believed not love but will was the fundamental reality behind the universe. For Schopenhauer, life was basically a power struggle in which the “blind will” was all there was. For him . . .

Nature is the result, not of a benevolent, designing deity, but a blind, meaningless dance of physical forces and mindless chance. If we may leap ahead to our own time, he saw Nature as it appears to famed Darwinist Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference.” (Ibid., 31)

Schopenhauer, however, did not regard the universe as merely indifferent. It was out to get us:

We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses. And the road from one to the other too goes, in regard to our well-being and enjoyment of life, steadily downhill: happily dreaming childhood, exultant youth, toil-filled years of manhood, infirm and often wretched old age, the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death—does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more manifest?( Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Classics, 1970), 51–54)

Charles Darwin

It will be noted that Schopenhauer’s philosophy sounds a great deal like Charles Darwin’s in that both insist that man is, to quote one classic definition, “the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind.”( G. G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New York: New American Library Mentor Book, 1953), 179) According to Darwin and his many proponents, man was nothing other than the result of a mindless interaction of matter and energy whereby those traits best adapted to survival were passed on while those species that lacked advantageous traits were killed off by natural selection. No loving Creator was involved, just the random accident of matter and energy.

However, it will also be noted that Schopenhauer died in 1860, the year after Darwin published his Origin of Species. So Schopenhauer is not deriving his atheism from some new scientific discovery disproving the existence of a Creator God. Rather, he demonstrates he was living in an age whose elites were already ripe to hear that nature, not God, was the basic principle of our existence. Darwin simply lent (or seemed to lend) scientific credibility to that fundamentally metaphysical judgment. Darwin, more than any other thinker in the nineteenth century, gave force to the idea that human beings were not creatures made in the image and likeness of God, but were instead simply unusually clever pieces of meat whose brains, heart, and body and soul were as much the result of a series of accidents as the shape of a pig’s nose. In the words of his disciple, Ernst Haeckel, the “modern science of evolution has shown that there never was any such creation, but that the universe is eternal and the law of substance all-ruling.” Accordingly, “the myth of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ is mere fiction, and is at the same stage of superstition as a hundred other myths of other religions.”(Ernst Haeckel, The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biological Philosophy, trans. Joseph McCabe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1905), 63–64) For, according to Haeckel, when Darwin  “shattered the dogma of anthropocentrism” by allegedly showing human beings to be as much a product of chance as every other species on earth, he smashed the “boundless presumption of conceited man [that] has misled him into making himself ‘the image of God,’ claiming an ‘eternal life’ for his ephemeral personality.”(Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper, 1900), 15)

And these are only the beginning.  We will look at some more of the philosophical currents of the 19th Century next time--in order to see what the Immaculate Conception was pitted against.

Filed under mary, mother of the son

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.