Ordeal by Water

The subtitles of two new historical works tell the story. There is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. And there is Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World.

Greenblatt tells the story of the 15th Century’s rediscovery and publication of Lucretius’ epic poem of free thought, The Nature of Things, a book that turned on the lamps at the end of a dark time. Murphy’s book is a history of the Medieval Inquisition and its ongoing influence in contemporary political persecutions and oppressions.

The human desires that fueled these profoundly different historical phenomena remain at war today. The authors’ subtitles get it right. The modern world really has been made in large part by these two forces.

The quest for freedom of movement and thought is always contested by the desire for control, order and authority. Those moved by the latter have their own conceptions of freedom, of course. Some inquisitors think freedom is possible only within strict hierarchy and order. They can be terrified by threats to order. Others are simply cynical manipulators who impose order on others so that they can enjoy the freedom of the oppressor.

It’s not hard to see in American history the ongoing struggle between the forces of enlightenment and the forces of inquisition. Still, there is a widely held fantasy that contemporary grand inquisitors are not inquisitors at all. We’re all pro-freedom and democracy, we just have different conceptions of the government’s role in securing them, according to this particularly tall tale.

The fantasy blinds us to the erosion of civil liberties, the loss of personal privacy to both state and commercial interests, the steady growth of the Surveillance State. Hey, contemporary grand inquisitors say with a smile, we want the same things you do. We just differ a bit in the means to the end.

It’s a cruel hoax. Entire populations are tied up and dropped figuratively into the lake like suspected witches of old. To be free, they must sink and drown.

The contest is not between chaos and order. Humans are social animals, and we all need rules of the games. In their night terrors, the inquisitors and their believers see the choice in Manichean terms. Outside their gated visions of order and hierarchy, there be dragons.

We notice the grand inquisitors when they are moved to unsubtle excess: the Salem Witch Hunts, the McCarthy era, etc. But we are too little aware of their more subtle and refined efforts. For instance, there is their manipulation of the market economy to guarantee trickle-up outcomes that imprison the many in poverty. There is Randian, dog-eat-dog, hyper-individualism that spreads fear and suspicion of all others and feeds an unhealthy greed and selfishness.

In his book on the Inquisition, Cullen Murphy makes the point that the forces of persecution always believe themselves possessed of an absolute truth, a truth that justifies any action in its imperative defense. That is precisely what makes it incompatible with democracy, a system designed in recognition of human diversity and the limits of reason.

But that may also be why Inquisition-like acts are not always recognized as such in anything like a timely manner. The reasoning goes something like this: persecution is incompatible with democracy, we live in a democracy, hence, there are no grand inquisitors here.

We proudly consider ourselves children of the Enlightenment. But we are not so quick to recognize that other parent, the Inquisition. Any attempt to disown it, however, only makes it stronger and more dangerous.

That’s why I’m thrilled that Greenblatt and Murphy published their new books nearly simultaneously. It’s a marvelous coincidence, because together they tell a compelling story of just what forces are at work in the making of the modern world.