Forum on Literature and the Arts

2017 Series: Belief

Too often dismissed, bracketed, or explained away, the concept of religious belief seems to resist serious enquiry. Yet writers of the later Middle Ages produced stunning analyses of belief that distinguished it from mere opinion, and from other kinds of understanding. In this series, we will turn a close eye toward the nature and psychology of belief, asking what thoughts and feelings it might enable, provoke, or shut down; its relationship to spiritual practice and ecclesiastical censure; and the role of faith in the production of scientific knowledge, literature, and histories of modernity.

‘The History of the Person: Scholasticism and Human Rights’

Dr Clare Monagle (Macquarie University)

Human rights history has taken a surprisingly scholastic turn in recent years. The new human rights history has begun to take heed of the highly influential role played by neo-thomist thinkers, such as Jacques Maritain, in the making of the Declaration of 1948. Human rights history had been understood, too often, as a story of secularism’s inexorable rise. The new human rights historians, however, have performed contextualizing histories of the post-war period to argue that the events of 1948 signaled, instead, a victory of the theology of personalism. Personalism was a third-way theology designed to broker the abyss between liberal capitalism and communism, and was constructed via thomistic theology by a number of leading Catholic intellectuals, among them Maritain.

In my paper, I will do two things. Firstly, I will read Maritain’s medievalism, making sense of his intellectual and spiritual commitment to Aquinas, and mapping that onto his advocacy of human rights. Secondly, I will read how the field of human rights history deals with this incursion of the theological. In so doing, I will advocate for a theologically inflected intellectual history of modernity. My case study, that of Maritain’s medievalism, reveals the necessity of tracking the uses of the Middle Ages in the making of our political modernity, as well as offering the opportunity to unpack the ideas that all too often go unspoken. Intellectual histories of modernity have not tended to the theological, paying much closer attention to explicitly secular genealogies within western thought. Normative accounts of the history of ideas privilege the early modern as the place of origin. The incorporation of scholastic theology into the history of human rights troubles this account, and destabilises the medieval/modern divide.

Clare Monagle is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Macquarie University, and an Australian Research Council Early Career Fellow. Her primary expertise is in the history of scholastic theology. In 2013 she published Orthodoxy and Controversy in Twelfth-Century Religious Discourse: Peter Lombard’s Sentences and the development of Theology, with Brepols. She has recently published a short guide to scholastic theology, titled The Scholastic Project, with Medieval Institute Publications. She is also broadly interested in political medievalism in the contemporary era. She has published articles on the medievalism of Carl Schmitt and Hedley Bull. She published, in 2015, with Louise D’Arcens, an article in Meanjin concerned with Tony Abbott and medievalism, titled ‘Mad Monks and the order of the Tin Ear’.

Image: ‘God as Geometer’. Frontispiece of Bible Moralisée. Illumination on parchment, c. 1220-1230, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.


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