One of the lamest forms of non-thinking in our public rhetoric is to condemn something as “medieval.” The critic doesn’t mean the rose window at Chartres, or the mystical treatises on divine love by Bernard of Clairvaux, or the elaborate male/female codes of the chivalric tradition. Somehow these don’t count as “medieval.” Only the brutality, common to all ages (alas), seems to qualify – and some special religious benightedness, which is rather hard to find in the historical record, even compared with our own confused age.
The slander about medieval superstition and violence got going in the Renaissance – even though the Renaissance “rediscovery of reason” was a decline from the level of medieval rationality. And anyone who glances at Renaissance politics will see that it’s not exactly a bright light after general darkness.
The medieval slander got another boost from the Reformation and Scientific Revolution. Curiously, St. Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his religious beliefs in the England of 1581 – when the Reformation and science were rising – but somehow we don’t disparage such events as “so Reformation” or “so early modern.”
The biggest imposture on our assumed Western history, however, has to do with the Enlightenment. The real Enlightenment actually took several forms, some helpful – good to remember next time you or someone you’re close to needs an antibiotic – and might have been even more so had they maintained deeper continuity with earlier wisdom. Many Enlightenment figures, even if they became Deists, retained belief in a Supreme Being, the immortality of the soul, judgment after death, and eternal life in heaven or hell (See Rousseau’s Vicar of Savoy). Without that minimum, they thought, human life would be morally adrift.
But the radical Enlightenment – the part that Edmund Burke discerned in the French Revolution as operating “with the metaphysics of an undergraduate and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman” – is with us still and often provides the background music to our lives. We see it in public figures who seem to believe that there are known remedies for all social ills, which have been “blocked” because of the ill will of the privileged or the ignorance of the underprivileged, both of whom it’s okay to ignore and perhaps even to eliminate from the conversation.
Burke added: “It is remarkable, that, in a great arrangement of mankind, not one reference whatsoever is to be found to anything moral or anything politic; nothing that relates to the concerns, the actions, the passions, the interests of men. Hominem non sapiunt.” [“They do not know man.”]
Things haven’t gotten better since he wrote. If you look around at the most characteristic Enlightenment influence on us, it involves things like a belief that people’s “real” interests are economic, and everything else is an illusion, delusion, or worse. Wars have been fought for economic interests, of course, but surprisingly few in recent centuries: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq?
Two truly enlightened Edmunds: Campion (above) and Burke
We currently have a war in Ukraine that our president believes stems from a “nineteenth-century” mentality that, the sophisticates in the international community know, doesn’t even recognize its own self-interest. We understand Vladimir Putin better than he understands himself. The really up-to-date elites know that we should all just stick to economic development and international co-operation – and of course, we know in advance what such co-operation ought to look like – because all legitimate human goals are now understood in advance, a presumption that’s oh-so-Enlightenment.
We have wars between the ancient people of Israel and the Muslim occupants of Gaza and the West Bank, and between different religious factions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, etc. Deplorable – and oh-so-Enlightenment – to think that human beings would actually cling to guns and religion and history this way. Unless, instead of looking at our own views of what should motivate people, we look, with Burke, to “the concerns, the actions, the passions, the interests of men,” – and real existing human beings, not the ones we’d prefer existed and could deal with.
When we look at the latter, it makes perfect sense that people are going to “cling” to religion, families, country – and be willing to defend them, with force if necessary, and even if it doesn’t advance “economic interests” – because most people don’t take their bearings from or place their enthusiasms in abstractions. Human beings aren’t built that way. It’s so very Enlightenment to think they are.
Or rather, that’s one of the Enlightenment’s self-contradictions. Because if you took seriously the effort to reduce man to an animal, those bonds of the pack would make immediate sense. As Vladimir Soloviev once joked, tartly, the modern view is, “We are all descended from apes. Therefore, let us love one another.”
Of course, if you took the Enlightenment reduction of human beings to just a complicated animal, and even further to just a complex set of chemical interactions, you wouldn’t really believe in the existence of any of the things that traditionally made us human. And why would you take seriously that what really just amounts to complex chemical reactions has any authentic rights, freedoms, or goals beyond physical well-being? The technocrats are working that line hard.
It took a while for this oh-so-Enlightenment attitude to work itself into public discourse. There are currents in our culture – postmodern, neo-orthodox, philosophical – that have seen the narrowness and danger of this development. They row against the current, but often add fuel to skepticism rather than restoring a richer sense of truth than an earlier, proud rationalism allowed.
The ancient and medieval thinking that supported our sense of human beings as something special – and rooted in a world that had a special place for such specialness – may have been banished from the public square. And for the moment some may think of it as a liberation. But that’s oh-so-Enlightenment a view, and as the consequences play out, it may not be long now in making us yearn for a far less glaring light.