Our Darkling Plain

In his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold famously describes the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith.” And it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Many of us today believe that the ignorant armies began to clash by night only with the advent of the Internet and social media. And it’s true that these technology-enabled media allowed a vast expansion of our darkling plain. Who knew, for instance, that – even on television talk shows, where our expectations are rightly quite low – a celebrity like Whoopi Goldberg wouldn’t know that Nazism killed 6 million Jews on the basis of a racism rooted in then-current “science” of a sort?

But in our time, the plain is even more darkling and the armies more deeply ignorant than the relentless news-cycle churn in pop culture. The late Roger Scruton wrote a book about twenty years ago still very much worth reading, Philosopher on Dover Beach, in which, as in his other late works, his awareness of the size and scope of our current predicament brought him close to Catholicism.

An equally urgent volume, with a seemingly less portentous title, is appearing in paperback this month from the University of Notre Dame Press: Rémi Brague’s Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age.

Brague is less known than he should be in the English-speaking world. Besides having produced a whole shelf of books on various philosophical and theological subjects, he received the 2012 Ratzinger Prize – in only the second year in which it was awarded – a kind of Catholic Nobel Prize funded initially by a large personal donation from the Pope Emeritus himself, in order to recognize scholars whose work demonstrated authentic and meaningful contributions to theology in a spirit similar to Benedict himself.

Curing Mad Truths might, from the title, look like just one more expression of Catholic nostalgia for a bygone age that the secular world has dismissed as the Dark Ages. But Brague has in mind quite specific and sophisticated points of medieval wisdom that need to be recovered, even as he would want to reform or reject other parts of that heritage.

His central insight, however, is – at least to this reader – indisputable, and the very heart of the matter. Despite the many real human achievements in recent decades, our materialistic perspective, which has banished not only God but significant meaning from the universe in which we find ourselves: “We absolutely must be able to tell why the existence of human beings on this earth is a good thing.”

St. Augustine famously says at the opening of Confessions, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” And postmodern hearts are particularly, dangerously restless – precisely because they no longer have God as an absolute reference point. Even nature – for all the emotionalism of contemporary environmentalism – has little to say to us absent the notion of Creation save that without a healthy environment, the human race is doomed. And clearly for some environmentalists, that appears to be not such a bad thing, for earth. To repeat with Brague: “We absolutely must be able to tell why the existence of human beings on this earth is a good thing.”

Brague brings immense erudition to bear on these questions, citing Jewish, Greek, Muslim, and other sources from across the centuries as well as more modern philosophers and theologians. This enables him not only to identify what’s missing from our own age, but to sort out at a deeper level than is usually the case what is vital and not so much so from the past.

At the same time, he has a clever and approachable way of writing and a sharp sense of contemporary culture. To take just one example, he says that when he sees something like the film “Sex in the City,” it reminds him of the Manhattan Project. In other words, like the destructive nuclear forces unleashed by scientists in the crash program that resulted in the atom bomb, the unbridled promiscuity of metrosexuals has done immense harm to family, society, even sexuality itself.

The problem lies not only in our views of sex but in our larger understanding of freedom merely as the right to do whatever we want – even though materialism has no place for freedom:

In the political realm, we are proud of our free institutions, and have a right to be. They warrant the social and political implementation of freedom as liberty. But they are more often than not – and, I feel this in my bones, more and more decisively – understood as systems enabling each individual to give vent to his or her passions, which tends to mean ensuring the freedom to be a slave.

As the current scorched-earth culture war makes ever clearer, real liberty ought to mean our ability to choose to do what is right even as we make room for the fact that all of us are, often enough, wrong: “I wonder whether freedom is, on the one hand, intellectually thinkable without the idea of creation and, on the other hand, livable for average human beings without the idea of forgiveness.”

Recent scholarship has rehabilitated the Middle Ages to a large degree, showing that it was not a time of unmitigated darkness, but of innovation – the creator of the university, hospitals, etc. But we’ve also discovered that medieval people were, like us, a mix of good and bad – a different mix than today’s with some strengths we very much need just now. Which is why Rémi Brague’s careful assessment of what we may learn from them, a cure for certain – not all – modern ills, is very much worth your time.


You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s Change the Model, Change the Virtue

Brad Miner’s I Love Old Things



Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.