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Part III: Medieval Synthesis: Modern Fragmentation Chapter 1
The Medieval Synthesis
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- ABOUT 1951 I wrote a short paper relating some scientific discovery to Scripture which was published in an evangelical magazine. Inset within the article was a photograph of a young scientist surrounded by all the proper "paraphernalia" of research � retorts, test-tubes, and so forth, dramatically spotlighted from behind to cast shadows on a side wall. Somebody asked me later whether I was the scientist in the picture. I wasn't � though it might have been. The fact is that the laboratory scene was so dimly lit, and so effectively I may say from a photographic point of view, that the identity of the man at work could have been almost anyone. It is doubtful if he could have done any work in such a dismal light! Still. . . it looked good.
Many people unconsciously reveal by the tenor of their remarks that they are deeply impressed by the idealized picture which they carry in their minds of the atmosphere and techniques of scientific research. But if one tries to suggest that research is not quite as single-minded as they imagine, that scientists have a fair share of pettiness in their human relations, (1) and that all too frequently the most dramatic discovereies are made
- 1. J. Tuzo Wilson wrote, "Scientists have a clearly conceived pecking order, with the most practical scientist at the bottom; and they usually have a poor opinion of research as practiced in other subjects". ("Science Is Everybody's Business," American Scientist, vol.52, 1964, p.266A-76A). In Letters (edited by Henry James, Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1920, vol. II, p.270), William James makes this remark: "When you refer to what you suppose a certain authority in scientists, I am surprised: for of all insufficient authorities as to the total nature of reality, give me the 'scientist'. . . . Their interests are most incomplete, and their professional conceit and bigotry immense. I know of no narrower sect or club, in spite of their excellent authority and their splendid achievement there." Coming from a man with the reputation of William James, this remark can hardly be considered an expression merely of bias or hostility. In his presidential address to the British Association meeting held in Liverpool, England, Sir Edward Appleton quoted Dr. Hartley ("Observation on Man") as having said, "Nothing can easily exceed the vainglory, self-conceit, arrogance, emulation, and envy that are to be found in eminent professors of the Sciences, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and even Divinity itself" (Nature, 5 September, 1953, p.426).
as a result of accident (2) or because the wrong formula was used or because the technician didn't know enough not to attempt the impossible, (3) they seem somehow disappointed.
Yet why should the more realistic picture tend to disappoint one? Why should it really matter whether research is fruitful because genius is at work or because of some accidental discovery? Is it because we find it more satisfying to believe that if something happens which has all the appearances of being purposeful, it was indeed the result of a plan and purpose and not merely the result of accident? This brings me to the first point I would like to make.
We all share, I think, a strong dislike for the idea that significant things happen by chance. Perhaps I should say, we all used to share this dislike -- for the fact is that in recent years there has appeared a new kind of philosophical attitude which expresses itself as a downright abhorrence for the idea that there could be any purpose in the universe at all no matter how much evidence there is of deliberate planning. According to this view, the sum total of all events is one enormous accident. We are invited to adopt a picture of things in terms that have been ably summed up as follows by J. W. N. Sullivan: (4)
The vast extent of the universe both in space and time is, from the human point of view, completely aimless. Those immense lumps of matter in their millions of millions, incessantly pouring out an inconceivably furious energy for
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- 2. As excellent examples of fruitful accident, one may note the circumstances surrounding the accidental discovery of radioactivity on stored photographic plates by Roentgen on 8 November, 1895. A. L. Kroeber refers to the fact that "the shock cure for dementia praecox was discovered through a schizophrenic's being given, by a nurse's error, an overdose of insulin injection for the diabetes that he also had" (see Anthropology, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1948, p.354). A valuable paper entitled "Speculative Research," dealing with this matter of "accident," was presented by Ritchie Calder in Discovery, October, 1960, pp.420-25.
- 3. All too often what are considered by the "experts" as long-established facts not requiring or justifying further investigation turn out to be only half-truths. Ignorance of such half-truths has sometimes allowed the less expert to proceed with an experiment which has proved entirely fruitful---much to the confusion of the experts. W. I. B. Beveridge, after discussing training for scientific work, nevertheless underscores the part played by misconception in successful discovery (See his Art of Scientific Investigation, Heinemann, London, 1950, reviewed in Brit.ish Medical Journal, 27 January, 1951, p.173). And Professor Gluckman has observed that most of the fertile ideas in anthropology "have emanated from armchair students" (Man, Royal Anthropological Institute, March, 1952, Correspondence, Item 71).
- 4. Sullivan, J. W. N., Limitations of Science, Pelican Books, London, 1938, p.33.
millions of millions of years, seem to be completely pointless. For a fleeting moment man has been permitted to stare at this gigantic and meaningless display. Long before the process comes to an end, man will have vanished from the scene, and the rest of the performance will take place in the unthinkable night of the absence of all consciousness.
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- This was written in 1938, and this view has become even more widely accepted in the intervening years. Three prominent contemporary writers come to mind at once in this regard, namely, Bertrand Russell, George Gaylord Simpson, and Julian Huxley, of whom more later.
But this is nevertheless a phenomenon of recent times. If we go back in history to the period of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians, or if we examine the thinking of primitive people of recent times, we cannot even find a word that accords with our concept of "accidents." To them, nothing was or is due to chance. All events, large and small, have been caused deliberately by some agent with a will. Indeed, as Frankfort and others have demonstrated so ably, (5) the "philosophy" of early civilized man led him to look upon himself as a very insignificant and powerless figure playing an uneasy role on a stage dominated by giant personalities who could be bribed or cajoled occasionally but most of the time had to be humbly submitted to. The world of the early Middle East and the world of primitive man was a completely personal one and was, therefore, logically filled with evidences of purpose. The world of the scientist today is completely impersonal, and therefore evidence of purpose must be categorically denied.
To deal with an entirely personal world one uses Magic, but to deal with an entirely impersonal world one uses Science. Somewhere between these two there is a religious view of things. It is helpful, perhaps, to distinguish between Magic, Religion, and Science by saying that the relationship between the individual and his world in Magic is a "me-thou" one, in Religion an "I-Thou" one, and in Science a "me-it" one.
Early man and our "primitive contemporaries," as George Murdock has so aptly called them, lived largely in a world dominated by Magic. In such an atmosphere, one was forced constantly to use one's wits, and much uncertainty was attached to life. Cunning and bluff were useful allies, but the resources of the individual were small. Nevertheless, on the whole, the world was an orderly one and a man could come to terms with it just
- 5. Frankfort, Henri, et al., Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man, University of Chicago Press, 1946, pp.vii and 401.
because it was orderly. And orderly in this context means that behind it were planners and purposers whose thought processes were not altogether unlike our own. If one behaved in each situation in the proper way, the situation itself would turn out at least acceptable, if not favourably. The fact that this view of the world was often very faulty and seems to us, at this distance, to have been disturbingly filled with uncertainties, should not blind us to the further fact that the average man at least knew how to get along in it. pg.4 of 14
There is a rather good illustration of this truth from comparatively recent times. This story, I believe, is essentially true. An old Hopi man, who knew all his tribal law thoroughly and understood perfectly how to co-operate with nature, had a son who, having been educated in the native fashion, subsequently went overseas during World War II and later came back with most of this lore discarded -- but not quite all of it. When interviewed by an anthrologist, the son bravely asserted that he shared none of the superstitious fears of his less worldly-wise father. Indeed, he agreed to be put to the test. Both men were invited to spend one night in a particularly "sacred" place where the spirits of the past, both good and evil, were believed to be very active at certain times.
The old man decided where he would sleep, prepared his bed, went through a little ceremony which created a ring of protection around him against the evil spirits, lay down, and slept like a child. The son, on the other hand, no longer had any confidence in this ritual and could not be bothered to perform it. Yet he could not quite escape the uncertainties of the situation either. After making a valiant effort to quiet the fears which he pretended not to have and which he therefore had no way of dealing with, he finally got up and slipped back into the Hopi village, where he felt secure once again.
The moral of this little story is self-evident, of course; but it is worth underscoring the fact that what may appear to us as a most unsatisfactory view of the world of nature may still have a very reassuring effect upon the man who holds it, if he holds it with complete confidence. It is rather like the traveller in strange territory who has a faulty map but is not actually aware that it is so. If his sense of direction is good so that he never actually has to depend upon the map in a critical situation, the possession of the map, faulty though it is, can provide him with as much peace of mind as a perfectly accurate one. This is an analogy to which we shall return subsequently.
Now all this in one way or another illustrates the fact that the human mind seems normally to be so
constituted as to prefer or demand some kind of world view which makes sense out of life, which sets the events of life, one's own and that of others, within a framework that leaves as little room as possible for pure accident to occur. No matter how great a calamity overcomes a man, he may accept it "philosophically," as we say, if he believes that there is some purpose behind it, some possibility of redress -- here or hereafter -- some benefit to be gained by himself or others as a consequence.
One of the earliest books in the Bible is the story of a man's philosophy. The man was Job -- and the story is too familiar to need repeating in detail. But the moral of the story is worth noting, because it was Job's philosophy of history -- in this case his own personal history -- which made him triumph so wonderfully over what might otherwise have been his total destruction as an individual. He was so sure that there were no accidents, that things didn't just happen by chance, that even the seeming destruction of his very life did not undermine his faith. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him," he cried (Job 13:15) -- and thereby gave witness to his confidence that there was a plan and a purpose in everything and that the Planner and Purposer was a Person who could be trusted absolutely.
It is customary to argue that the Jewish people were essentially practical and not a bit interested in such an abstract idea as a "philosophy of history." Yet this is what the Old Testament really is, and the extent to which these Scriptures are prepared to attribute to the Divine Planner the apparently smallest and most insignificant events -- events involving both the forces of nature and the wills of men -- will surprise anyone who has not taken the time to observe how much it actually has to say on the matter. (6)
Although this philosophy of history was not explicit in the way that ours has been defined and elaborated upon in Western culture, it nevertheless became so with Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, and with the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, both of whom extended it and thus bridged the gap from Old Testament to New Testament times. Thereafter the early Church Fathers sought to incorporate within this emerging Christian world view much of the philosophical thinking of classical antiquity. Origen's De Principus, about A.D. 230, was one of the more definitive attempts, not merely to provide a comprehensive history from the beginning, but to so structure this world view that it would be intellectually satisfying, thus contributing toward the
6. "The Omnipotence of God in the Affairs of Man", Part IV in Time and Eternity.vol. 6, The Doorway Papers Series, Zondervan Publishing Company pg.5 of 14
achievement of a "peace of mind," where the Old Testament had been directed more toward achieving a "peace of heart."
When the city of Rome was being overwhelmed by barbarian hordes under Alaric in A.D. 410 and it seemed to thinking people that civilization was coming to an end, that total chaos would ensue, that all hopes of progress and orderly living were to cease, then Augustine, building upon the writings of his predecessors but illuminating them enormously from his own giant intellect, bequeathed to the world between A.D. 414 and 426 his own contribution, The City of God. (7) Here he endeavored to assure his readers that there is still meaning and purpose in it all, that God is still the great Planner, and that though events in the earthly sphere seem so completely without reason or order or hope, in the spiritual realm God remains in sovereign control and world history is moving exactly as He intends it to.
In his thesis Augustine touched upon every aspect of life thoughtfully and created the basic framework for the thinking of generations to come---even to our day. He was concerned with the relationship between man and God, man and nature, man and sin, God and nature, man and society, and each within the framework both of time and of eternity. And in the Dark Ages, which in Europe deepened during the following centuries while the very survival of Christian civilization itself seemed to hang in the balance, there were still those who in seclusion devoted themselves to the study and preservation of this Christian philosophy. In due time this transmitted wisdom, which often combined profound insight with what today seems such manifest absurdity, was taken by Thomas Aquinas and reconstructed into a most elaborate and logically coherent world view which has since come to be known as the Medieval Synthesis and which became the basis of education and the guide to all intellectual endeavour. (8)
As we look back upon this world view, it is evident that while much in it does not satisfy our more critical minds, there was nevertheless plenty of challenge for the sharpest intellect and many intriguing answers to satisfy those who had problems. To most of the common questions which men ask, there were set answers which, though simple, were really quite assuring. For example, a student being told that idol worship was abhorrent to God, asked why, in that case, God did not destroy idols. The teacher replied that this could not be,
7. Augustine, The City of God, in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Christian Literature Co., Buffalo, N.Y, First Series, vol.II, 1887. pg.6 of 14
8. Aquinas, Thomas: a useful text is Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas by Aton Pegis, Modern Library, New York, 1948, 690 pages.
because some of the objects which men worship played an essential part in the economy of nature---the sun and the moon and the stars, for example. After a moment, the student said, "In that case, why does God not at least destroy those which are not essential?" "Because," replied the teacher, "if God destroyed some of these objects of worship, and not others, it would appear that He was condoning the worship of those which He did not destroy."
Everything was wrapped up in tidy little bundles of reason until nothing was without its proper explanation, its purpose fully "understood". Thus, for example, Hugo St. Victor, chief of the twelfth-century Mystics, said that the spirit was created for God's sake: so that the spirit might be subject to God, the body to the spirit, and the world to the body. (9) Randall has summed up the situation most effectively: (10)
The world was governed throughout by the omnipotent will and omniscient mind of God, Whose sole interests were centred in man, his trial, his fall, his suffering and his glory. Worm of dust as he was, man was yet the central object in the whole universe. About him revolved the heavens and for him were made land and sea and all that dwelt therein. He was the lord of creation, made in the very image of God Himself. For his sake, despite his unworthiness, Almighty God had taken on flesh in Bethlehem and bled upon the Cross that he might be saved from his own folly and pride. And when his destiny was completed, the heavens would be rolled up as a scroll and he would dwell with the Lord forever. Only those who rejected God's freely offered grace and with hardened hearts refused repentance would be cut off from this eternal life. With such a conviction it was inevitable that seekers after the meaning of things should scrutinize every object and event of this, the background of humanity's struggles, to discover its bearing upon the fundamental purpose of things. Everything must possess significance, not in and for itself, but for man's pilgrimage. There must be a reason for every thing, a purpose it served in the divine scheme. That one of God's creatures should exist apart from the course of Providence, that a single stone should fall unknown and unplanned by the maker of Heaven and Earth was an intolerable thought. If no other purpose could be discerned, it was enough that God's creatures existed to make manifest His greatness and lead the soul of man to glorify him. . . .
It was not given to mortal reason to decipher the hieroglyph of the universe in detail: but the important fact is that this was the fundamental air of all wisdom and learning, coloring the whole intellectual life and all but excluding any interest in prediction and control, in natural science as we know it. . . . Indeed, a knowledge of natural history for its own sake would have been regarded as almost blasphemous, taking men's thoughts away from its essential meaning for man.
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- 9. Taylor, H. O., "Medieval Mind" in Book II, Early Middle Ages, Macmillan, London, 1938, p.91.
- 10. Randall, John H., The Making of the Modern Mind, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1940, p.34.
The practical effectiveness of this kind of orderly world view is beautifully illustrated by the story of St. Martin, who took refuge in a cave only to find himself face to face with a poisonous serpent. Whereupon he faced the dangerous creature boldly and said, "If thou hast leave to smite me, I do not say thee nay." (11) What confidence a man may have with such a philosophy as this! And he did live, too. . . .
It appears that much of the content of education had this objective and took this kind of form, leading to the communication of wisdom rather than knowledge. The sum of Medieval wisdom lies, in the words of St. Francis: (12)
Suppose that you have enough subtlety and science to know all things, that you are acquainted with all languages, the course of the stars, and all the rest, what have you to be proud of? A single demon in hell knows more than all the men on earth put together. But there is one thing of which the demon is incapable and which is the glory of man . . . to be faithful to God.
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- Moreover, by very reason of the fact that this world view attached equal importance to supernature (with which one cannot experiment in the ordinary sense) as it did to nature (where experiment is proper), the schools inevitably became occupied with argument and � reinforced by the philosophical bias of Aristotle -- looked upon experimental verification as both unnecessary and undignified. It might be thought that such a limitation would be stultifying. But this was by no means altogether true. For example, long before this, Augustine had observed with profound insight that time began with Creation. (13) This generative idea formed the basis of much disputation about the nature of time and its relationship to eternity.
Inevitably the question arose as to whether in the other world, after death, there could be such a thing as space if there was no such thing as time. When two angels met in this spaceless world, did they have to cross the intervening distance or were they, so to speak, "already there"? And if so, did angels themselves occupy any space whatever? Or, to put the question in a form more familiar to those who have delighted in ridiculing the topics of conversation of Medieval times, "How many angels could one get on the head of a pin"? Stated
- 11. Gregory's "Dialogues" in J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History, Ginn, Boston, 1904, vol.I, p.92.
- 12. St. Francis: quoted in P. Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi, Scribners, New York, 1894, chap.17.
- 13. Augustine, The City of God, book II, chap. 6: "Beyond doubt, the World was not made in Time, but with Time". See also Part I in Time and Eternity,
vol.6 of The Doorway Papers Series, Zondervan Publishing Company.
facetiously like this, the question seems foolish and hardly worthy of the mental energies of students of university caliber. But this is really an appearance only; I suspect that if Einstein had been asked this question in all seriousness, he might have at once perceived that it really is a profound and important one: quite impractical, of course, but history hardly supports the view that questions are unimportant merely because they have no apparently practical value.
In this Medieval Synthesis, every line of thought and study was integrated with one objective ideally in view, which was to clothe the mind of man with a garment of understanding that would enable him to come humbly but with assurance into the presence of God and worship Him knowingly, recognizing the extent of his responsibilities and accepting his position in the economy of things with proper dignity, and -- so they supposed -- having also a full understanding of God's thoughts. I say "ideally," because it has to be admitted that this high aim of education was often replaced by the much lower one of maintaining the status quo.
But in this atmosphere there developed educational institutions which approached most nearly the ideal of a true "uni-versity," a student body engaged in a real totality of studies in which every subject was consciously related to all others, and for which theology supplied the guiding principles. (14) It has been said that theology was the "Queen of Sciences". This is not to confuse theology with science, but only to point up the fact that it was the responsibility of theology to maintain the unity of thought by preserving harmony between the disciplines. By this arrangement there can hardly be any doubt that the intellectual life of the Medieval student was far more satisfying and harmonious -- though often grossly in error in point of fact than that of his modern counterpart. In this, at least, we are less well off. Indeed, in his presidential address before the British Association in 1952, Prof. A. V. Hill observed (15)
Theology was once known as the Queen of the Sciences. If Science as the servant of humanity is to be sure of its direction, the Queen needs to be either re-instated or replaced. . . . The throne is at present vacant.
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- Now, as we have already observed, the test of truth was not experimental verification but harmonious inclusion within the system. This principle had the effect of giving to it what J. Randall called a
- 14. Temple, William, The Church Looks Forward, Macmillan, London, 1944, p.37.
- 15. Hill, A. V., The Listener, BBC, 25 February, 1954, p.331.
"monumental unity". (16) An orderly system of thought appeals to something very deep in human nature and wherever men look for it they tend to find it. When it is not self-evident, then man creates it artificially. As Professor Albert Mead has put it: (17)
It is the innate propensity of active minds to form species, successively to make distinctions, to point out similarities and then to assemble things that are alike into their kind. . . . This mental trait is not a simple one. It is made up of a strong emotional factor, and an inborn urge to put things in order and, alas, to keep them there; of the intellectual faculty of discernment and discrimination which perceives distinctions and similarities; and of constructive imagination which makes it possible to assemble in the mind things which are widely separated in space and time.
It is this urge which works itself out in many forms of art. Thus we structuralize space and time in sculpture and music, put pictures into frames, drama into acts, poetry into verse, prose into chapters, and history into epochs or cycles. In the Middle Ages all men of quality or position shared in the unity of thought which was the Medieval Synthesis and acknowledged its system of morality. Christendom was united in a way in which it never had been before and was not to be again. Between kings and princes and between nations, there were standards of conduct based upon a system of morality which, while it was often honoured more in the breach than in the keeping, was nevertheless admittedly honoured. (18) Jacques Maritain has summed up the situation in this way: (19)
No doubt this . . . failed of its highest ambitions. Nevertheless, in how ever precarious a fashion, but one of which nowadays we can be terribly envious, there was at any rate a Christian order, a Christian temporal community where national quarrels were quarrels within one family and did not break the unity of culture: there was a christian Europe.
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- And if it should be felt that a Roman Catholic writer would be prone to present a prejudiced view, such an accusation can hardly be brought against H. G. Wells himself, who wrote: (20)
- 16. Randall, John H., ref. 10, p.49.
- 17. Mead, Albert H., "The Species Complex in Biology and Education" in Science, ol. 90, 1939, p.241. See also Ernst Cassirer, Essay on Man, Yale University Press, 1944, p.34; and Leslie Paul, The Annihilation of Man, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1945, p.165.
- 18. Sir Alfred Zimmerman sums up the situation in these words: "Men find it hard today to apply moral standards to politics because they are so often not sure of their own moral standard. Fifty years ago---even twenty years ago [this was first published in 1939]---it could be claimed that Europe and the English-speaking world overseas were Christian---not indeed that life in that area came up to Christian standard, but that the existence of such a standard was at least openly recognized. Homage was paid to it, if only with the lips, and there was shame in openly transgressing it" ("Prospects of Civilization," Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs, 1939, p.12).
- 19. Maritain, Jacques, True Humanism, translated by Adamson, Jeffrey Bles, London, 1938, p.141.
- 20. Wells, H. G., Outline of History, Cassells, London (definitive edition), 1923, p.341.
In the beginning of the seventh century Western Europe was a chaos of social and political fragments, with no common idea or hope. . . . But in the dawn of the eleventh century there is everywhere a common belief a linking idea, to which men could devote themselves and by which they could operate together in a universal enterprise. . . . Here for the first time we discover Europe with an idea and a soul!
It is true that there were indeed all kinds of abuses, many of them absolutely appalling. One only has to read Jules Michelet's Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition to see the atrocious indignities which the poor suffered at the hands of the rich. (21) The inhumanity of men to fellow men was in some European countries almost beyond belief, though the church took no notice of it apparently. Nevertheless, there was a strange counter current of dedication to the service of God which seems to have underlain every aspect of human life among oppressed and oppressor alike. Thus J. R Hale, in his contribution to the Time-Life series on the Great Ages of Man, wrote with complete justification: (22)
In the Middle Ages the painter, the philosopher, the writer, had used their talents for a single purpose---to praise God and make His purposes plain. But in the Renaissance each branch of intellectual activity became distant from other branches, and each was justified in terms of its means rather than its ends.
In that world there was an extraordinary unity of purpose, by and large, and it was a unity of spiritual, or perhaps one should say religious zeal, not merely of civic pride. Archbishop Hugo of Rouen, in a letter to Bishop Thierry of Amiens, has left us a record of how the famous cathedral of Chartres was raised. This is what he said: (23)
The inhabitants of Chartres have combined to aid in the construction of their church by transporting the materials. . . . The faithful of our diocese and of neighbouring regions have formed associations for the same object; they admit no one into their Company unless he has been to confession, has renounced enmities and revenges, and has reconciled himself with his enemies. This done, they elect a chief under whose direction they conduct their wagons in silence and humility.
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- That it really did have a profound influence upon the hearts and minds of people seems to be reflected---as Sir Kenneth Clark has pointed out in his BBC series of lectures on civilization -- in the quite exceptional beauty of features that characterized an extraordinary number of statues of the day which adorned the
- 21. Michelet, Jules, Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition, translated by A. R. Allinson, Citadel Press, New York, 1962, 332 pages.
- 22. Hale, J. R., The Renaissance in Great Ages of Man, Time-Life, New York, 1965, p.19.
- 23. Fremantle, Anne, The Age of Faith in Great Ages of Man, Time-Life, 1965, p.125.
cathedral facades and interiors. Clark observed: (24)
I believe that the refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal. I fancy that the faces which look at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of an epoch. . . . The faces on the west portal of Chartres are amongst the most sincere and in a true sense, the most aristocratic that Western Europe ever produced.
How strongly this contrasts with the pictures of violence and aggressiveness and sensuality which meet us now at every turn, in the newspapers, magazines, movie marquees, and TV programs. In his excellent study of Medieval processes of thought, Randall points out that there was a kind of universal attitude of mind by this time which coloured everything from the chance event to the cosmic sweep of "Providence," desiring to find meaning and significance everywhere. And so, as he puts it: (25)
The Middle Ages, in their very eagerness to understand the world about them, saw purposes everywhere, discovered intelligences at work in every event, and found the ultimate reason for the universe in the will of God, which, how ever inscrutable in its details, gave at least the promise of rationality and meaning to things.
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- Such a philosophy led to some remarkable achievements in the matter of human relations: for example, between rich and poor. Because ideally all men had eternal value, all men had equal value and thus special gifts or great wealth were not viewed as evidence of superiority but rather as divinely appointed grounds for the assumption of greater responsibility. Whereas today wealth is not generally viewed in this light but tends rather to be credited to greater personal industry or business acumen than to the will of God, in Medieval times the tacit assumption was made almost universally that privilege and responsibility went together. Of course, there is always a large gap between theory and fact. Yet there is some gain in recognizing an ideal even if we fail to achieve it. (26) In many cases it was achieved, and the phrase noblesse oblige came to have some real significance.
In many parts of the Old World, this Christian concept is still greatly honoured by rich and poor to
- 24. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation: A Personal View, BBC and John Murray, London, 1969, p.56.
- 25. Randall, John H., ref. 10, p.28.
- 26. In illustration of his point, there is the story told of Cardinal Lavigene who, when asked, "What would you do if someone slapped your right cheek?" replied, "I know what I ought to do but I do not know what I would do" (reported by Julien Benda, Betrayal of the Intellectuals, Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, p.110).
such an extent that class distinctions have often persisted harmoniously---to the puzzlement of those in the New World who, equally dedicated to the concept that all men are equal, are not quite so willing to allow that God might wish to distribute wealth unequally for His own good purposes. The Christian belief that all men are equal today tends to make us frown upon class distinctions, because we have failed to round out our Christian philosophy and we allow wealth and privilege to be treated largely as a personal matter. The same Christian belief in Medieval times that viewed all men as equal saw less evil in class distinctions, because wealth and privilege were wedded to responsibility. Again, it must be emphasized that this was only the Christian ideal. The rich often neglected it -- but at least they knew they ought not to do so, and this knowledge had a modifying influence wherever the Church reinforced it. pg.13 of 14
Meanwhile, enough of this world view reached the individual to provide a "map" for him which, faulty though it was, nevertheless did allow him to recognize mentally the spot which marked his own position and about which he could relate himself to the Universe and to God and to his fellowmen in a way which compensated for his unhappy lot, because not only was he not "lost," but he also firmly believed that God had a plan for everything (including himself) and that compensation might be found in the next world.
If an analogy is allowed, we may reflect upon the fact that an unfamiliar pain or discomfort may be a source of much anxiety until we visit the doctor and are told, in a voice which generates confidence, that it is such and such a thing---the term itself being often quite beyond our comprehension. The comfort does not arise from the fact that we understand what the trouble is, but rather from the fact that the doctor understands what the trouble is. It was the general acceptance of the teaching and the world view of the Medieval Scholars which brought whatever peace of mind they had to the common people and delayed their rebellion against their unhappy lot for so long. The Universe around them had an explanation; it was not without purpose. So long as a man believes this, it is surprising how content he can be in the most frightful conditions. And by contrast, of course, the reverse is also true: once a man loses all faith in the meaningfulness of life and the purposefulness of the Universe, he may be utterly dissatisfied though he has every conceivable physical comfort. Although this Medieval world was "dark," men were happier walking in the dark with a small candle to see by, than walking in the light with no eyes at all.
Thomas Aquinas, though he added polish and sophistication to the Synthesis, did not altogether complete it. In his Divine Comedy, Dante added in poetic form the emotional element of which Aquinas was incapable. And in the great Gothic cathedrals the common people played their part in creating a vernacular edition. But as so often happens in history, this monumental creation had no sooner matured than it began to break down. It is an inherent weakness of any such system of thought that the lack of checks which observation and experiment provide causes it inevitably to crystallize into rigidity rather than to grow as a living thing. When the Arabs had penetrated up into Europe, to be stopped finally by Charles Martel in A.D. 732, they had brought with them new ideas which began a ferment of challenge to the old. Where St. Anselm in the eleventh century "believed in order that he might understand," Abelard, following on his heels, began to seek to understand in order that he might believe. (27)
The change taking place was a profound one. Yet in some respects it tended only to encourage the more minute elaboration and more involved justification by rational argument of the world view which had already been firmly embedded. It is the weakness of all such structured systems that when facts no longer support them, the facts are suspected and dogmatism takes the place of truth. Not until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 -- and with its fall the emigration of the learned Greeks who had there preserved the culture which had been destroyed in the West -- did the fatal weaknesses of the Medieval Synthesis become fully apparent. It was the new knowledge which these Greeks carried with them into Europe that finally brought such a challenge to the old intellectual order as to show clearly that it had reached the limits of the mold in which it was cast. That mold was shattered by the new spirit of inquiry, and its destruction left men everywhere toying with the fragments.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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- 27. Anselm quoted by John H. Randall, ref.10, p.93.