The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages”

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Candlemas (BL Additional 49598, f. 34v) from A Clerk of Oxford BlogA Candlemas Miracle: ‘a light to lighten the English’ 

 

“We are delighted to know about the ignorance of medievalism,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News in 1906, but “we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge.” Our ignorance is perhaps best betrayed by the continuance of the term “the dark ages” in our imaginations when we consider the time period spanning from the fall of the Rome (about 410 A.D.) to the start of the Renaissance (1485 A.D.). The image of darkness persists despite the fact that “this derogatory opinion … has now been almost totally abandoned by professional historians in favor of the neutral view that takes ‘Middle Ages’ simply as the name of a period in Western history, during which distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made,” writes historian David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science. Every age has its myths, even our modern one, and none is more entrenched than the belief that this period, which saw a flourishing of Christianity in the West, was one of oppression and ignorance, in which blind faith supplanted reason in all areas of life. It is as if the Renaissance arose out of the medieval vacuum, creating itself from nothing, a cosmic singularity, unleashing Reason from the vise-grip of autocratic bishops and malicious monks. A more accurate picture is what is sought here. Who were these medieval believers and what lessons might modern Christians living in a post-Christian culture learn from them with regards to preserving and perpetuating the faith in a rapidly changing society? Looking specifically at England, I contend that we have much to learn, from the stabilizing force of the monastery, with its community structured around the Divine commission to love God and neighbor, to the ways in which medieval Christians respected, protected, and preserved the past. In the end, a more accurate picture should emerge out of the darkness that shrouds the time. Perhaps then we will be recalled to the reality that we are indebted to the medievals for many of our modern institutions: “that Parliaments are medieval, that all our Universities are medieval, that city corporations are medieval, that gunpowder and printing are medieval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are medieval.”

Wisdom from the early Medieval Christians of England:

Ethics: The Rule of St Benedict and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Scholarship: Medieval Synthesis and  Modern Fragmentation

Conclusion: Unity and Humility

Enemy-Occupied Territory

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Why must we strive to enact spiritual discipline in our personal lives as Christians? Because at the present time, whether we realize it or not, we are in a battle. When we became Christians, we entered into an ancient war, waged from before we can remember. Add to this the reality that we don’t get to fight the way our opponent fights. Ours is not the easier task to destroy. The marching orders are to build up and pass on, not by force, but through loving God and neighbor.

And, if we are not advancing, we are in retreat, for our enemy never rests.

C.S. Lewis said it best in his book, Mere Christianity:

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’

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Part Three on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972

Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory.  Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded.  In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave.  The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality.  The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention.  The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.”[1]  Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful.  The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations.  Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.”[2]  Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.

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Part Two on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

 

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Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC

The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.”[1]  Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides.  Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.”[2] Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day.  This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.

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Part One on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”[1]

 “Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …”[2] Thus begins the world’s seminal Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic.  It is a literary journey through the human soul; a dramatic dialectic in the search for morality.  The process will involve constructing a “city with words” in an attempt to create a concrete representation of the elusive human psyche.  The hope is that such a projection, writ large, of the inner workings of man will enable Socrates and his young students to find true morality and observe its effects on the one who seeks it above all else. The question: Is morality “intrinsically rewarding” regardless of extrinsic benefits?[3]  Inevitably, part of the discussion moves to education, namely, how one ensures the production of a moral soul.  What will nourish and protect the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good?  What will guard him against all the various temptations he will encounter along the way?  This leads the discussion to poetry, something that C.S. Lewis saw as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.”[4]  At first glance, Plato seems to suggest that the arts are inherently dangerous and should be avoided.  Yet, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the very medium he chooses to denounce them is itself artistic, an attempt to make the invisible soul incarnate.  Indeed, Plato’s narrator Socrates will compare the construction of this mythical city to the work of the artist.  What, then, is Plato’s assessment of the role of the arts in society, and can we find any truth to guide us in our consumption and production of art in our modern world?  Republic is what translator Allan Bloom observed as an “invitation to the philosophic quest.”[5]  Let us take Plato up on his invitation and determine if he is correct in his assessment of the role of the arts in the soul and in society.

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Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

View of Acropolis & Parthenon from stone

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”[1]

During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before.[2] With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison.  History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.   In this view there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]   The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever,” all the while the Supreme God remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.[4] The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.” [5] Salvation could only be found in escape.

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The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

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Nocturne by Whistler

“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another way in which Christianity changed the world for the better.  Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality.  The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate.  We are deluding ourselves, in fact.

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.”[1]  Not so for the pagans.  They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.”  For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.[2]  In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]  The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. [4]  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”[5]

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