A younger, bushey-browed Charles Taylor stands holding a pinhow many angels are dancing on it? A cartoon depiction of this scene accompanied the review of Taylor’s Sources of the Self by Bernard Williams in the New York Review of Books. It is both cheeky and telling. In the review Williams makes clear his appreciation for Taylor’s learning, and for the scope of his narrative, but, in keeping with his usual style, Williams isn’t buying it (see: the “Feuerbach principle”). I don’t really want to comment on Williams’ review of Taylor so much as the image which accompanied it.

Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years reminded me that the notion of an ivory-towered, impractical, and airy-brained university professor who was  more interested in counting how many angels could fit on the head of a pin than in anything practical in this world was little more than a rhetorical barb Renaissance humanists projected onto their rivals, scholastics. Scholastics and humanists competed with one another over the prestige and power of education. Ultimately these two rival approaches to learning were rooted in the different views they articulated for the best means by which to pursue, uncover, and implement “the truth.” The humanists appealed to the practical uses of eloquence and rhetoric (among other things), modeled on the ancient Greeks and Romans, whereas the scholastics, according to the humanists, were interested only in arid disputation and book learning with no practical payoff.

There is a sense in which NYRB cartoon I mentioned makes Williams the humanist and Taylor the scholastic, although Williams himself would probably reject such a simple contrast. Yet framing major debates about the contemporary world and its relationship to the past remains in some important cases as simplistic and telling as a caricature. In Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, for instance, we are treated to what is in effect a Renaissance view of the middle ages and Europe’s emergence from it. To me Greenblatt never really connects how the discovery of Lucretius’ De rerum natura “made the world modern” other than to simply state that later thinkers such as David Hume were Epicureans of a sort. This stands in contrast to the careful, patient, detailed scholarship of historians such as John Robertson, who shows, in The Case for the Enlightenment, how the connection of Epicureanism with neo-Augustinianism prepared the intellectual background for Hume’s moral, social, and political thought. But Greenblatt seems mostly content to repackage a nineteenth-century tale about Renaissance humanism’s place in the progressive story of modernity and celebrate Lucretius’ role in that myth.

There remains, then, a somewhat surprising tendency to reiterate well-worn triumphal stories told about the past. Martin Jay has been critical of Charles Taylor for this reason, among others (see History and Theory, 2009). Jay sees A Secular Age as a grand narrative which is at base an anti-modern Catholic apology (i.e. it’s all downhill after Scotus and Ockham). While it is certainly true that Taylor can sometimes fall victim to what I like to call “thumbnail” historya discursive technique in shorthand quite different from Greenblatt’s in its Hegelian complexityTaylor’s work is a far cry from the The Swerve‘s comparatively simplistic assertion that the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem made our world modern.

As the humanist-scholastic rivalry and Keith Jenkins remind us (see Re-thinking History), historical narratives are never simply true revelations about the past; they are discourses about the past written for specific audiences. Who, then, does Greenblatt write for? And who Taylor? And what do the audiences for whom they write tell us about the way in which they inscribe their stories? Paul Ricoeur famously held that symbols give rise to thought. If pictorial and discursive caricatures are symbols of a certain kind, what, in the case of Taylor and Greenblatt, are they telling us?