I probably will not find time to write anything particularly polished on the Crypto-Calvinist hypothesis in the next year. But this seems like an auspicious time to summarize my current thinking on the topic.
1. For clarity: to my mind the interesting historical question is about, roughly, the ideological origins of progressivism in the period 1400-1900. That progressivism has similarities to various sects of Christianity and differs from what would otherwise be called a religion mainly in that it claims to be secular, I grant. The Darwinian observation that progressivism is an example of a religion adapting to a legal environment which forbade the establishment of an official religion, I grant. I take these two theses to be the core of Moldbug’s original argument about “crypto-calvinism”; however, the thesis that some flavor of Christianity mutated into progressivism raises obvious questions about whether Christianity (or some denomination of it) is intrinsically vulnerable to becoming progressivism, or whether it primes faithful Christians in a way that leaves them defenseless against progressivism. (It also raises questions about which of the harmful elements of progressivism are present in its most recent theistic ancestor.)
2. The Christian sects/tendencies that progressivism has the most similarities with are Arminianism and Socianism. Both Arminianism and Socianism originate in the work of Desiderius Erasmus.
3. Erasmus was most active before the Reformation. He was always a proponent of little-r reform of the Church (he was also, if I recall correctly, a conciliarist), but he was ultimately loyal to the pope. His attacks on Luther became increasingly fanatical. — Erasmus’ doctrine of grace was unremarkable for Roman theology. Like the scholastic Thomists and, after them, the Jesuits (defending the doctrine of Molina), Erasmus de-emphasized grace in order to carve out a larger role for human free will in salvation than is strictly compatible with St. Paul’s epistles.
Erasmus’ approach to scriptural exegesis was unique, but in keeping with the general Roman dogma that the apostolic Church and its traditions govern which texts are to be considered divinely inspired (as opposed to the Protestant doctrine that Holy Scripture governs the Church). He combined this Roman attitude towards the supremacy of the Curia with a cavalier attitude towards what sort of leeway the Church might have, if it chose to redefine the canon. (E.g. I believe in one letter he refers to St. Paul’s epistles as “impostures”; I do not know whether this was connected to his theological views.) Erasmus was at one point the Church’s highest authority on the textual relationship between the Greek and the Vulgate.
4. As the Counter-Reformation swung into full gear, the works of Erasmus were placed on the Index and (Roman Catholic) Erasmians were forced to conceal their opinions. Erasmus was still widely read. (Why was Giordano Bruno originally forced to flee his Neapolitan monastery? Because he had been caught with a copy of Erasmus.) — As a result, when Erasmus’s theological opinions eventually resurface, they are typically associated his disciples rather than with his own name. E.g. Arminius revives the Erasmian doctrine of grace (“Arminianism”); Sozzini revives the Erasmian approach to exegesis (culminating in “Socianism”).
5. Good places for unpopular views are cities (anonymity in the crowd) and wilderness (anonymity in isolation). These were the places Erasmians fled; but Calvinism tended to do well in the same places. You may be familiar with HBD-sphere arguments to the effect that Calvinism is most attractive to clannish, rural populations; but it is also possible that Calvinism did well wherever its evangelists could easily evade the civil authorities. In the case of the Erasmian theologians, the numbers are so small, and their movements sufficiently easy to track, that we can be quite sure that they developed communities in Transylvania (Socianism) and the Low Countries (Arminianism) because they were fleeing persecution elsewhere.
6. Neither Protestantism in general nor Calvinism in particular had any affinity for, or felt any affection towards, Erasmus. Calvin had Socians burnt in Geneva, and Arminians expelled; the Dutch Church soundly rejected Arminianism and erupted in periodic waves of violence against Arminians (called “Remonstrants” in reference to the Remonstrance of Dort). The Anglican Church had Arminians in the episcopacy (Laud, for example, and possibly Bramhall), and it was in English “Puritanism” that Calvinism became most closely identified with opposition to Arminianism.
7. However, because the Socians and Arminians were located in the same countries as the orthodox Protestant denominations they came to share Protestant attitudes towards the papacy, and towards the Roman Inquisition in particular. (This was part of a general trend towards patriotic anti-papism in the Protestant countries.)
8. While the United Provinces did ultimately move to a more tolerant stance on Arminianism, the real about-face came in England. After the difficulties of the Civil War, Charles II had “learned his lesson”, and enforced a strict episcopal and liturgical policy. Unfortunately, he also had sympathies towards Catholics (and in particular towards his younger brother, the heir apparent), and began enforcing a general policy of toleration for the population at large while enforcing a hollow kind of conformity in the official clergy. To make matters worse, he (and his brother) shamelessly lied about the pro-Roman motive of the policy; the difficulty was that all the loyal aristocrats and writers (the strongest partisans of “throne and altar”) believed the lies, sometimes engaging in vitriolic pamphlet wars with the devout Protestants who called the bona fides of the Stuarts into question.
When the truth came out, Britain had the worst of both worlds: extremely high levels of official toleration and an ecclesiastical establishment which had been made to look ridiculous. This is the period when Socianism started to make inroads among the British elite and various other sects (notably, the Quakers) began to multiply.
9. Note, however, that deism and atheism began to spread rapidly in French society as well, without any intermediate turn to Socianism or other heterodoxies. By its violent repression not only of the Huguenots but also of the Jansenists (who had continued to defend the Augustinian position inside the Roman Church after Trent), a persecution often pressed forward by the silliest, most unedifying means imaginable, the French state rooted out sincere faith from the kingdom. The Gallican clergy was identified wholly with time-serving conformists; Christian ethics were identified with Jesuit casuistry; perfect obedience to the external forms of religion was paired with private blasphemy. —— For whatever reason, the French heresy did not bother pretending to be Christian at all, or to claim even a specious scriptural basis. The most parsimonious explanation of this: the French authorities tended to investigate offbeat religious opinions, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, as possible threats to public order, but were indifferent to discreet private atheism. But the general pattern of French atheist and anticlerical literature makes it seem possible that flat atheism was the path of least resistance for the French intellectuals. Rome insisted that Scripture and liturgy depended on its authority, the French increasingly considered their own clergy to be venal hypocrites; what could be more natural than for them to declare that if their priests were mendacious, they had no reason to take the Bible seriously?
I cannot resist quoting Paul Hazard here: Le dix-huitième siècle ne s’est pas contenté d’une Réforme ; ce qu’il a voulu abattre, c’est la Croix ; ce qu’il a voulu effacer, c’est l’idée d’une communication de Dieu à l’homme, d’une Révélation ; ce qu’il a voulu détruire, c’est une conception religieuse de la vie.
This is above all a diagnosis of the French situation. When Hume, invited to one of d’Holbach’s Parisian dinner parties, dismissed atheism with the comment that he had never met an atheist, he was informed that fifteen of the Frenchmen he was dining with were atheist, and the other three had not yet made up their minds.
10. Crypto-calvinism is, ostensibly, Christian ethical principles minus Christ. Did the philosophes have progressive principles? In a sense. What is most notable about the philosophes is their petty resentment of the great. Having no opportunity to practice statesmanship, deliberate, or pass judgement, they flooded France with pamphlets pretending to teach, advise, and judge their betters. They believed hierarchies and traditions existed solely due to inertia and self-seeking. Difference in status did not correspond to difference in talent, or at least not to difference in any valuable talent; the exception was in the literary world, where the work of superior minds (they thought) could not be kept hidden by machinations of the powerful. Need I add that this belief was tied to the assumption that natural talent was scattered more-or-less haphazardly, and that it could at any rate be brought forth in arbitrary quantities by proper education? In addition to this unshakeable petit bourgeois faith in the powers of education and professional training, they had a waspish attitude towards war and worship, the traditional pastimes of the aristocracy.
But these skeptics and atheists did not necessarily share any fixed dogma on whether the modern world could surpass the ancient; whether pleasure was preferable to temperance; whether man is wolf or lamb. All of the concrete content of modern progressive beliefs was absent at this point. The philosophes were pragmatists, above all. The extreme forms the mild prejudices of the French atheists foreshadowed were already present in one English sect, the Quakers; and the philosophes knew of the Quakers and purported to admire them, but were entirely out of sympathy with the fervent pietism of actual, flesh-and-blood Quakers.
10. However the French situation arose, England and France sank into an unhappy feedback loop; ever-more heterodox Socian and Arminian ideas could be openly published and systematically discussed in England, and would then be pushed in France by (implicitly) non-Christian, anticlerical propagandists.
- At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Jesuits were in general still adherents of Tycho Brahe’s modified geocentric model of the solar system; not exactly stiff competition for the philosophes.
- In reading the légitimiste paeans to the superior quality of the post-Revolutionary Gallican clergy, bear in mind the implicit condemnation.
- When an author has become so popular that the royal censor hides the proofs under his own roof, it is too late for a crackdown.
11. Unitarians are symbolically significant to Moldbug (and to others) because of their temporary control of Harvard (America’s synecdoche-in-chief) and their disproportionate representation in the Brahmin caste. The problem: like the Quakers (who are in every way a better “fit” for the progressive prototype), they were always very scarce on the ground, and dwindled to nothing once immigrants poured in. Thus there was never any critical mass of Unitarians who could elect to “secularize” themselves in the way Moldbug’s adaptive theory seems to demand. Both the mass appeal of progressive movements and their most prominent propagandists can be traced to other demographics.
Nonetheless, there is something interesting about the way the first American Unitarian ministers took the logic of Pelagianism to its extreme point. They reduced religion to ethics; they reduced ethics to praiseworthiness, conditioned on personal potential (i.e., capacity to choose rightly); and they tied both this ethical duty and their evangelical duties as Christians to the continual conversion of more and more souls to true religion, i.e. to moral behavior, i.e. to the promotion moral behavior in others. It is very curious; it certainly sets off my antennae. But there are no grounds to attribute the subsequent triumph of progressivism to these Unitarians; nor is there anything about the emergence of progressive ideology that necessitates Unitarian influence (rather than some other left-leaning tendency).
One possibility is that the development of Arminian/Pelagian tendencies in British Socianism and Unitarianism was shared at least in potentia by other Pelagian strains in Christianity (let’s call them “para-Unitarians”). A particularly virulent strain struck Boston, and the patient never recovered; but other denominations infected with a less acute strain of the same virus gradually developed chronic symptoms.
12. There are many alternatives to para-Unitarians, however, as the original disseminators of progressive memes. In your grandfather’s day, a reactionary would invariably blame the Freemasons; in TCY the Masonic movement seems as extinct as the Flintstones, but it has all the traits the “Cryptocalvinist Hypothesis” claims to be looking for. The sect spread rapidly; a large part of the reason for its rapid spread was its claim to be non-religious in nature (forging cross-denominational social ties, escaping close scrutiny for religious orthodoxy); it undermined clerical authorities in ways that enhanced the influence of secular fraternities at the expense of the Church; despite its quasi-secular basis it has (well-documented, closely studied) roots in Christian mystical and hermetic traditions. Really, the only reason not to blame the Masons is because the only thing more old-fashioned than weekly meetings at the lodge is paranoid fantasies about what goes on at those meetings.
Jews are also a good candidate, of course. They would have to function more as a catalyst than anything else, since they don’t really proselytize (depending on how you classify socialism, psychoanalysis, and the singularity, to be sure), but the basic model would be: (1) jew emerges from ghetto; (2) jew goes shopping for new worldview which will be considered high-status in the gentile world, or otherwise useful; (3) jew acquires position in gentile world from which his new worldview infects others. This story is a good complement to “progressive Christianity” and “Masonry” as well, because he may want a doctrine that seems plausible for a religiously-indifferent jew to hold; he may also want an amphibian doctrine that he can pass off as a form of Rabbinical Judaism at Passover, but as wholly goyisch in the company of Fellow Europeans.
13. I still stand by a point I have made previously, namely that the attempt by minority sects (Methodists and Presbyterians in nineteenth-century England, Roman Catholics in America) to demand public impartiality between the minority and the majority can produce many of the tenets of progressivism de novo, but I have nothing useful to add to that hypothesis at this time.
[14. In the discussions that followed this post, a consensus emerged that ancient Stoicism (some of whose doctrines were incidentally transmitted in the writings of the fathers of the Church, particularly those of the Alexandrian School; others of which were revived by Renaissance classicism) is actually a surprisingly good fit not just for the general outlines of progressivism, but some of its unique quirks as well. The Stoicism-progressivism parallel could be developed into either a hypothesis about memetic transmission (direct, or indirectly through Christianity), or about conceptual attractors, or about the sociological correlates of ideology (e.g., the parallels between elite ideology in the Greco-Roman imperial systems and Anglo-American elite ideology). Such an explanation would not, however, fit neatly into any inquiry that uses Church history (specifically, the history of the various Christian churches since the Reformation) to evaluate “the Puritan hypothesis” empirically — unless one accepted some controversial theory like that of Dilthey, who assigned to Renaissance Neo-Stoicism an important role in determining the subsequent direction of modern Christianity.]
Review for people who are forgetful and/or scroll directly to the bottom:
The tendencies in Christian religion which have the most affinity for progressivism are, pace Moldbug, not Calvinist or “Puritan” in origin. They are not even “Protestant” in any strict sense. They multiplied in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century England for incidental reasons; but France became infested with outright atheism in the same period, and the French apostasy fits the progressive profile better than the English heterodoxies. Anglo-American sects that show an unusually strong, and unusually early, resemblance to progressivism are difficult to connect to the ideological and political successes of progressivism. Such sects (e.g., Quakers and Unitarians) may display in exaggerated form a process of degeneration which other sects went through more gradually (and thus, more sustainably); the latter sects would then be in a position to act as prototypes of progressivism. The Freemasons fit the description of “precursor to crypto-calvinism” quite closely as well.
I don’t know if this brings me any closer to understanding the decline of our civilization or the nature of its greatest enemies, but I am now fairly confident that there is no latent progressivism lurking in the heart of Christianity. (The only systematic connection between theology and progressive tendencies I’ve discovered arises out of Pelagianism. Justification by faith is a fairly unique doctrine and this respect Pelagianism is merely reversion to the natural fantasies of the heathen world.)