Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > definition and current debates > SECULARITY. We have to clarify the word and fight for the concept

SECULARITY. We have to clarify the word and fight for the concept

Monday 3 February 2014, by siawi3

By David van Dusen
On 25 January 2014


The terms ‘secularization’ and ‘secularity’ are not secular in origin. They derive from Latin, but not from ancient oratory and verse,[1] and not from the late-antique code of Roman civil law known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis.[2] It is medieval canon law—ecclesiastical law—that first innovates on the Latin descriptor, saecularis, to give us saecularizatio and saecularitas.

Saecularizatio is a processual term, and signifies the act of laicizing a person in Roman Catholic holy orders.[3] Saecularizatio is a procedure that returns a Catholic cleric or monastic to the saeculum, “the world,”[4] in an irreversible sense which is highly suggestive. For saecularizatio is expressly distinguished in the Codex Iuris Canonici—i.e., in canon law—from the term exclaustratio, with exclaustratio signifying a “temporary” release from the cloister. That is to say, having recourse to exclaustratio, a monk or a nun can live extra claustra—“beyond the walls” of the cloister—for a certain period of time. On the contrary, our term saecularizatio signifies a “perpetual” release from the walls, solemn vows, and jurisdiction of the Church.[5]

In view of this canon law distinction, we could say that the question of secularization in post-Enlightenment politics is this: Have the “liberal democracies” indeed undergone saecularizatio—or rather, exclaustratio? Have the “liberal democracies” definitively, or reversibly, exited the jurisdiction of clerical law-courts and laws? Have they instituted a lasting, or a buckling, limit to the pretensions of popes and archbishops, patriarchs and imams? Or said differently: What is the status of post-Enlightenment secularity?

This question leads us from the processual canon-law term, saecularizatio, to the nominal form, saecularitas, whence ‘secularity’. Saecularitas is not a canon-law procedure, but a medieval descriptor—often derisory—for a “secular state.” (Saecularitas is simply glossed, in one lexicon, as état séculier.)[6] And here, in keeping with the lexical rudiment of the term in saeculum, “world-age,” we could say that this state of being or living—i.e., a “secular state”—is one that is rigorously and confessedly oriented to this world-age, and to this world.

This is all straightforward, of course. And yet—this world? The specificity is indicative. For within this world, there are various types who profess to represent some other world than the one we inhabit. And what are we to make of the notion of other worlds?

There is a perfectly secular—i.e., a speculative yet this-worldly—sense to the notion of “other worlds.” It was already articulated in the 5th century bc by the atomist, Leucippus, who held that “worlds come to be when bodies collide in the void and become entangled.”[7] Within a century of the Greeks’ forging a new term for what we call “the world”—namely, kosmos—there were Greeks who posited a plurality of “worlds”: kosmoi. Leucippus’ protégé, Democritus, and later, Epicurus and Lucretius also defend this thesis. Thus, Epicurus writes that “worlds (kosmoi) are infinite in number,” and then proceeds to refer to this world as merely “one world” (henos kosmou).[8]

The Greek atomists’ speculative infinity of “worlds” has a wildly complex history in post-antique philosophy, but has nothing to do with the “other world” that purports to give a sense to our medieval term, saecularitas. Some indication of this is given by the fact that Giordano Bruno was burned alive in 1600 ad, at the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, for advocating the doctrine of “innumerable worlds” in his 1584 dialogue, De l’Infinito Universo et Mondi.[9] It was of course Catholic prelates who murdered Bruno, and this was not his only heresy, but my question is this: In the name of which “other world” did they condemn a man in this world for espousing a variant of Leucippus’ highly sophisticated, atomistic speculation?

In the 5th century ad—so, a thousand years after Leucippus flourished, and roughly a thousand years before Bruno lived and died—the Numidian bishop Augustine makes an interesting remark in the last book of his City of God against the Pagans. (And we should note that Augustine’s episcopal city, Hippo-regius, was located in what is now Algeria, where “apostates” are still butchered with some regularity.) Augustine writes this: “If I wish to speak the truth”—and note this well, “if I wish to speak the truth” (si verum velim dicere)—“I do not know what eternal life will be like, for I have seen nothing of it by means of the bodily senses (per sensus corporis vidi).”[10]

Augustine’s candor in this sentence is commendable, and he likely owes it to Cicero, who anticipates this line from The City of God in his work On the Nature of the Gods, a dialogue that Augustine knew well. In book I of the dialogue, Cicero asks an Epicurean—not a Christian—this question: “Have you seen (vidisti) any other world but this one?” He then continues: “No, you will reply. Then why do you venture to assert the existence of … countless other worlds?”[11] Regardless of the Epicurean’s retort here, Epicurus’ boys—who held their philosopher to be a prophet, and something like a god—never brutalized cities in the name of his “countless other worlds.”

And regardless of Augustine’s sources in our City of God passage, a logical conclusion of his statement—a conclusion that he, to his discredit, refused to make—is obvious: It is madness to condemn a man in this world by appealing to a “world” of which, very precisely, nothing is known. And it is that sort of “other world”—a necessarily unknown one—which fixes the sense of our medieval term, saecularitas. The “this world” that is implicit in the medieval word saecularitas is the only world of which—per Augustine, a doctor ecclesiae—we have any acquaintance.

Now, not all who crow about “other worlds” display Augustine’s negative-theological rigor at the close of The City of God. Augustine himself agitated for a brutal imperial crack-down on Christian schismatics in Numidia, and failed to condemn Christian terrorism in Egypt—the destruction of Serapis’ temple in 391; the grisly murder of Hypatia in 415, by Cyril of Alexandria’s thugs; and so on. But given the visibility of political Islam, I suggest that we turn from the Catholic bishop to the figure of al-Ghazali, a 12th-century Sunni jurist whom the 14th-century chronicler, al-Safadi, calls “the Proof of Islam and Ornament of the Faith.”[12]

In a section of his Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, Ghazali fantasizes that “there shall one day emerge from Hell a black creature, which shall snatch up infidels as a bird pecks at grain, and grasp them and pitch them into hell.”[13] Ghazali seems quite sure of himself. There is no hint of a skeptical—i.e., philosophical—modesty regarding the particulars of his vision. And less nightmarishly, but no less immodestly, Ghazali reports that

a man once asked Mohammed, “O emissary of god! Shall the people of Heaven enjoy carnal relations?” and he replied, “Every man therein shall be given in a single day the capacity of seventy of you.” … And again, said the emissary of god … “A single man in Heaven shall wed five hundred houris, four thousand virgins, and eight thousand deflowered women, and shall embrace each one of them for a period equal to his lifetime in the world.”[14]

This last phrase is important: “a period equal to his lifetime in the world.”

Saecularitas, here, would signify a state of life or society which is concerned with a “lifetime in the world”—i.e., in this world—and ideally, with the political rights of “virgins” and “deflowered women.” And at the same time, saecularitas would signify a state of life or society which dismisses the prospect of a husband’s, a judge’s, or a head of state’s post-mortem delectation of “five hundred houris.”

And with this, we finally arrive at a concept of ‘secularity’. The “this world” of secularity admits of speculative, but legally null and void, “other worlds,” and has done since Leucippus in the 5th century bc; but the “this world” of secularity is a world which is not swayed by—much less governed by—the phantasmatic “other worlds” of prelates or soi-disant “emissaries.” The secular “world” is legally sheltered against, and cut off from, a swarm of infinite “other worlds” about which, again, nothing is known.

The word ‘secularity’ identifies a state for which the only legal “world” is the one that citizens live in as long as they are living a “lifetime in the world.” A ‘secular’ state only recognizes the legal existence of that “world” in which civil law has observable force. Regardless of what is “bound in heaven,” the legal ontology of a ‘secular’ state is formally, expressly, and unyieldingly restricted to the world in which citizens are arraigned and tried, fined and imprisoned—or still, as in Saudi Arabia, crucified.[15] The eschatological “worlds” to which priests sentence imams, and vice versa; the eschatological “worlds” in which Hitchcock’s Birds cast infidels into the pit; or indeed—as in many ancient cults—the hieratic “worlds” in which prostitutes reign in the place of deities: all such “worlds” are legally null and void.

This is the basic concept of secularity. As the Roman wits put it: “If the god is offended let him plead his case in the courts.” Until the divine tribunal arrives in this world—blazing like the sun and turning the moon to blood, or what have you—there is no tribunal in the world that can legitimately appeal to the gods, or the gods’ putative laws, in the process of judging and sentencing world-citizens. Secularity is de jure disinterested in, unimpressed by, and insulated from the “countless other worlds” that are clamored for—and killed for—by this world’s god-lovers. Secularity permits devotees to love and reverence gods and prophesy post-mortem dooms (and delights) in this world; but secularity rules the question of what the gods love or hate to be a juridically immaterial question in “this world,” and in “this life.”

Obviously, the gods’ will is not yet a politically or geopolitically immaterial question. Agitators for blasphemy laws are still at it, and at the highest levels,[16] though blasphemy is per definitionem an offense against entities whose existence cannot be forensically established, making blasphemy a forensically indemonstrable crime. It is necessarily, categorically illegitimate to impose penalties for a crime that has not been forensically demonstrated; the crime of blasphemy can never be forensically demonstrated; and as a result, any prohibition or prosecution of blasphemy is necessarily, categorically illegitimate. It is criminal to criminalize blasphemy, yet this crime—like most—has its shameless, well-placed advocates.

This delineation of “the world” in legal ontology represents a hard-fought, fundamental and philosophical advance in post-Enlightenment jurisprudence that certain heads of state, diplomats and legal philosophers are unwilling to countenance. These distinctions are minimal, but far-reaching and sharp—and should be fought for. For if the “liberal democracies” will not defend the permanence and inviolability of post-Enlightenment secularity, there will be hell to pay—by which I mean a real hell, a secular hell. A hell of this world. Incidentally, it is this hell that the secular opposition in Cairo, despite the gutless posturing of our new Secretary of State during a recent visit to the city,* is valiantly protesting. May the opposition prevail.

* This piece was originally written for & submitted to the New York Times in early March 2013, before the ouster of Morsi & his Islamist government. The Times declined to publish. It is based on some remarks I gave at the Radical Secularization conference hosted by the Centrum Pieter Gillis, Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium, 20–22 September 2012.

[1] Æ. Forcellini, Lexicon Totius Latinitatis, comp. J. Facciolati and Æ. Forcellini, Patavium: Typis Seminarii apud Joannem Manfrè, 1771, IV:9–10, s.v. sæcularis, sæculum.

[2] Cf. G. Marramao, ‘Säkularisierung’, in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. J. Ritter and K. Gründer, Basel: Schwab, 1992, vol. 8, pp. 1133–1161.

[3] A. Blaise, Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi, Turnholt: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontifici, 1975, 812, s.v. saecularizatio: ‘action de séculariser un religieux’.

[4] Blaise, Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi, 812, s.v. saeculum: ‘le monde’; J.F. Niemeyer, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus. Lexique Latin Médiéval, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967, II:951, s.v. saeculum: ‘le monde qui prend fin … la vie présente, les choses temporelles … le monde terrestre, le siècle, les hommes’.

[5] Cf. Codex Iuris Canonici, ed. P. Gasparri, Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1918, can. 638: ‘Indultum manendi extra claustra, sive temporarium, idest indultum exclaustrationis, sive perpetuum, idest indultum saecularizationis, sola Sedes Apostolica in religionibus iuris pontificii dare potest’; Blaise, Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi, 354, s.v. exclaustratio: ‘permission de demeurer pour un temps hors du cloître … différent de saecularizatio, permission d’y demeurer définitivement’.

[6] Blaise, Lexicon Latinitatis Medii Aevi, 812, s.v. saecularitas: ‘i. état séculier, qualité de séculier … (péjor.) vie qui ressemble à celle des laïcs … ii. condition de laïc.’

Niemeyer, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, II:951, s.v. saecularitas: ‘mondanité, caractère séculier’. Niemeyer cites several medieval sentences to give a sense of usage: ‘[Ecclesia sanctimonialium] per saecularitatem multum delapsa’; ‘Jam pene ad saecularitatem redacti’; ‘Monasterium pervenit in magna secularitate’.

[7] D.W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy. The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, I:540–541.

[8] Graham, Texts of Early Greek Philosophy, I:544–545.

[9] Cit. W.G.L. Randles, The Unmaking of the Medieval Christian Cosmos, 1500–1700. From Solid Heavens to Boundless Æther, Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999, 109: ‘Why should not that infinite which is implicit in the utterly simple and individual Prime Origin rather become explicit in his own infinite and boundless image able to contain innumerable worlds, than become explicit within such narrow bounds [sc. in one, finite world]?’

[10] Augustinus, De Civitate Dei. Libri XIXII, ed. B. Dombart and A. Kalb, Turnholt: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii, 1955, 856: ‘… si uerum uelim dicere, nescio. Non enim hoc umquam per sensus corporis uidi.’

[11] Cicero, De Natura Deorum. Academica, with tr. by H. Rackham, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951, 94–95.

[12] Cit. Al-Ghazālī, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. Kitāb dhikr al-mawt wa-mā ba ‘dahu. Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Ihyā al-dīn, tr. and annot. T.J. Winter. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1989, xv. And for ‘jurist’: al-Safadī refers to Ghazālī—in the same cited passage—as ‘the Shāfi’ite jurist’.

[13] Al-Ghazālī, ‘The Scales’, in The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, 195.

[14] Al-Ghazālī, ‘The Large-Eyed Houris and the Pages’, in The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, 245.