We did not discard most of the image of reality from the Middle Ages. The lovely whole image was smashed like stained glass under the hammer of zealots, but later people recovered fragments and used them to create the world in which we live…
C.S. Lewis wrote a book of profound scholarship, The Discarded Image, describing how people in the Middle Ages viewed reality. The book is valuable if only in showing that there was no “dark age” during this time. More disturbing, Lewis proves that even the most settled ideas can be overturned or discarded by humans. Lewis’ metaphor of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, the discarded image, is valuable, but I prefer a different one: the shattered image.
We did not discard most of the image of reality from the Middle Ages. The lovely whole image was smashed like stained glass under the hammer of zealots, but later people recovered fragments and used them to create the world in which we live. We did not discard thirteenth century ideas—Western people use them today—but nobody has the whole.
We live with pieces of a shattered image: a worldview that worked, but was destroyed. Ideas from that philosophy were embraced by different people who used them to build beautiful art, great scientific advances, and new institutions that have enriched humankind. The difference is that the ideas are embedded in disparate views of reality that do not agree with each other.
We are all thirteenth century people in part, but without the wholeness of a coherent view of reality.
If you are a scientist, you owe your career to developments in the thirteenth century that made the scientific revolution nearly inevitable. Sadly, many scientists now assert a philosophical materialism that would have made the scientific advances of long ago unlikely.
If you believe there are standards of morality that are more than what the government says is legal, then the thirteenth century gave you a firm basis for that argument. Yet proponents of this international law too often act as if these universal standards come from the subjective perspective of an elite.
Most of the good things of our times are products of an industrial revolution that gave the rest of us what only kings could afford while also creating new goods and services that the richest man in the world could not have purchased before this change. The thirteenth century made this inevitable, but many industrialists forget the communitarianism that enabled their existence and could head off the discontent that leads to revolution.
There was a moment when Athens and Jerusalem made peace in the West and the possibility of head and heart living in harmony was realized: the thirteenth century. Sadly, most churches in the West do not even realize that this is a possibility, instead making the false choice between reason and revelation.
What Happened and Who Did It
The thirteenth century did not begin on New Years 1201 from nothing. For centuries, men and women laid foundations for the flowering that would come. In 1301, the good that was done did not die immediately (and the problems that would shatter the image came to some places later than others, if they came at all). People like Bernard of Clairvaux were men who made the thirteenth century, and a figure like G.K. Chesterton could still linger there through his capacious imagination as late the twentieth.
It is good, however, to point to a few key names (out of many) to make the point that scientific, industrial, and international revolutions were made probable by a period that most of us have forgotten.
The “Renaissance” is more recent, and had self-esteem enough to claim to be a rebirth of culture; but for all the splendor of its art, the Renaissance was the wayward child of the thirteenth century. In many ways, it was a regression in ideas, worshiping ancient learning and ignoring the more recent scholarship of the Middle Ages. (Bacon is always good, but Roger Bacon was fundamental while Francis Bacon is witty, but derivative.)
Bernard and Francis: Forerunners of Love
The Middle Ages were the great age of love and of the hope that love inspires. By today’s standards, things were tough for the overwhelming majority of the population, but there was hope for tomorrow here and in the world to come.
Nobody was afraid of love as a motive, friendships were celebrated as much as marriage, and theology was awash in images of beauty. Look at cathedrals and imagine them new: splendid, first-rate artistic triumphs open to every person in the area. They are products of an entire community and triumphs of desire. A cathedral of the High Middle Ages is a unified whole, but has room for eccentric parts and personal touches built in over the decades it took to complete such masterpieces.
A great thinker and churchman like Bernard of Clairvaux picked up on clues in Plato and the Bible and produced a theology of love. God was the center because God was goodness, truth, and beauty. He was worthy of worship and our worship included thought. Holy men like Francis were motivated by the love of God and the love of the church to reform abuses. They were harsh on popes, prelates, and people, yet they were fundamentally moved by love.
Correction from a lover is different than from a tyrant. As philosophy developed all over Europe, the love of God pushed and prodded it toward a care for the community, the church, and individuals. It is no accident that Thomas Aquinas wrote beautiful worship as well as careful philosophy.
Roger Bacon, A Philosophy of Science that Made the Scientific Revolution Certain
Many cultures contributed to the rise of science and the necessary mathematics from ancient history. However, after a certain point each culture, including most Christian societies, would stagnate. Math, the language of science, would fade in importance, or the society would lose interest in experiments (such as those of Aristotle). Dogmatism would quash free exchange of ideas before critical ideas could be formulated.
Thank God that during the Christian Middle Ages there was no great central political power. If inside the church, as most people were, there was more often a tolerance of odd ideas if they were couched respectfully. The combination of Platonism—with a high respect for mathematics—and the Christian incarnation motivated and sustained investigation of the natural world. By the thirteenth century, men like Roger Bacon and his teacher Robert Grosseteste were moving towards scientific methods that would multiply learning.
Every intellectual is tempted to live in a world of ideas, disconnected from the natural world or politics. Grosseteste never lost interest in the abstract, the natural, and the political. Later, his student Roger Bacon warned against ignoring uncomfortable facts or being hasty to dismiss them.
All over Europe, men like these two were investigating, arguing with each other, working in international centers of learning, and developing new ways of thinking.
Thomas Aquinas: A Possible Synthesis
The greatest Western thinker of the thirteenth century, and one of the most original minds in human history, was Thomas Aquinas. This Christian and philosopher took up the ideas of Islam, Ancient Greece, and Christianity and weighed them, afraid of nothing. He considered, he debated, he synthesized, and when he was done Thomas had produced massive works of scholarship that made sense of everything known at the time. He might not be the best commentary on Aristotle if you wish to know what the historical Aristotle thought, but Thomas is often more interesting than the historical Aristotle!
Thomas showed that no idea, no philosophy, regardless of source, need be feared. All could be digested and slowly, carefully, reconciled with other truths. Nothing good, beautiful, or true was lost to Thomas. He made it all part of his system, one so powerful that since his death his ideas have never ceased to be developed. Modern forms of this thought may be much refined, but still are recognizably Thomist. In philosophy, his ideas remain a powerful option to consider on any important question.
Thomas cannot be the last word for any Orthodox Christian, but he does point to a splendid possibility by his very existence. Thomas is so in love with Truth that he is unafraid of examining any idea to find his Beloved!
Dante: The University
Imagine a poet who knew the best science of his day, was an expert in theology, was a faithful Christian and a critic of abuses in the church. He existed: While creating modern Italian with his sublime poetry, Dante also personified the birth of the Western university. He was interested in everything, and this reflected the expansive interests of the schools rising around great thinkers in places like Italy and France. Born in the middle of the thirteenth century, he died in the fourteenth and his death as good as anything marks the end of this time of hope and possibility.
If you think the Renaissance was a “rebirth,” of art and culture, read Dante. The Renaissance finally got around to painting what Dante had done in literature earlier.
Louis IX: The Saint as King
Like any ruler, Louis is hard for a modern person to love, even one who lives in his namesake Saint Louis! Political wisdom keeps moving forward and we are able to judge Saint Louis, because we had first benefited from Saint Louis.
Still, this knight of the High Middle Ages had the three hallmarks of a great Christian king. He loved the poor and was charitable. He handed out just rulings by the standard of his time, showing no favor to the rich or his friends. If you like the presumption of innocence in a trial, thank King Saint Louis who made it so. He also loved knowledge, learning, and art. This was a King who sponsored world-class architecture, cultivated the other arts, and had Thomas Aquinas come to dinner.
He would die trying to check the threat he saw in expansionist Islam by taking the fight to previously Christian lands, such as Egypt, that still had significant Christian populations. If he failed to conquer any such lands, France remained free to follow her destiny. Who knows what the result would have been if Louis and others had not fought? The greater effort required by Islamic powers to crush the Crusader states Louis had strengthened was not spent on Europe. Christians still must wish that the money spent on fortifications in Palestine had gone to another Holy Chapel, or illuminated Bible, since the splendor of what is left to us of what Saint Louis did do is awesome.
Louis strengthened France, but also acted as a peaceful arbiter in Europe. Regions had their own rule, but Saint Louis acted as a model for what might be. The Church and rulers like Saint Louis went far toward establishing the idea that there was an international law, just not local power.
What Went Wrong: The Black Death
The plague came and one out of every three or (God help us!) as many as two out of every three people died. The death toll was highest in urban areas. One suspects it was highest among the good religious people who stayed to comfort the dying and less severe in the corrupt who fled. People react badly under severe pressure, which the Black Death surely was. There was a rise in all the worst features of the Middle Ages. Jewish people had always been at risk in a Christian commonwealth, and now they were blamed for the deaths, and the evils done grew greater. In addition to old problems never resolved, people in fear of death turned to superstition, folk magic, and the occult. Church restrictions against vile practices were overwhelmed in a world where death was common. The world grew macabre.
In the end, death did bring a rise in wages for those who survived, but the harms had been done. The more relaxed, sunny Greco-Roman-Christian fusion of the thirteenth century died in the black plague.
Cut Off From The East and The Crusades
If the internal shock was not bad enough, the thirteenth century had continued the defensive wars against the expansion of Islam. The Christian majority of Palestine and the embattled Eastern Roman Empire had called for help in the eleventh century, but by the time of good King Louis, the religious estrangement between East and West had been worsened by political and military quarrels. The Crusaders set up their own petty Kingdoms and the Eastern Christian populations were no better off under their rule. Soon, the Crusaders were a greater threat to the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire than Islam.
This was fatal to both sides: Eastern Christians did not need a new foe, and Western Christians lost an opportunity to jump-start positive cultural development. Imagine the infusion of texts, Greek language, and new ideas that could have come from the Eastern Roman Empire if both Christian groups had united. If Christian areas of the Middle East had been given to the Eastern Roman Empire, they might have formed a sustained buffer between Christian areas and the Islamic world. There might be entire regions of Palestine, Syria, and modern Turkey that would have maintained Christian majorities as Lebanon did well into the twentieth century. As it was, the Crusades put off the reckoning with Islam, but left the Christian Roman buffer weaker. It would not be long in historic terms until Muslims would be battering the gates of Vienna.
Ossified by Success Just When Technology Sped Up Discussions
Sometimes success brings failure if we set up a shrine and worship old goods. After the failures and problems of the fourteenth century, too often intellectual activity in establishment circles ossified. If the West had always been too quick to declare dogmas, now it became too dogmatic. Who can blame them? However, intellectual activity that the good ideas set in motion kept going. Scientific advances (like gunpowder) that Roger Bacon and his kind had pioneered in Europe kept coming, and the changes kept accelerating. The invention of the printing press enabled ideas that once spread at the speed of a copyist to multiply as fast as they could be cranked out. Old mechanisms of dialog were overwhelmed. The Western Church had been able to absorb and adapt to the critical and visionary message of Saint Francis, but it lacked the time and the intellectual dexterity to listen to Luther, who was not good at listening in any case!
Obviously, the old unity had always had internal intellectual problems. Just being cut off from the Eastern church meant that the thirteenth century could not see the entirety of Christendom. The Western cathedrals were glorious, but they soon would be old technology. The philosophy of science had been fundamental, but science still had to be developed. Too much reverence for the Greek and Roman past had to be purged if progress was to continue. The community lacked good methods of dealing with dissent (though so did the rest of the world).
What might have been if the Crusaders had been less narrow-minded? What if the intellectual liveliness had not vanished in the dance of death that marked too much of the fourteenth century?
We cannot know, but if we marvel at what the thirteenth century and the centuries just prior to the thirteenth century did, what ground was tilled, and what ideas made advance probable despite the brutal problems, we can only dream.
The old unities had died in the fourteenth century, and the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries simply buried what was left. The unified vision was lost, but none of the good ideas were. The philosophy of science kept developing, and the rise in wages and the “discovery” of the Western hemisphere brought new economic opportunities. If the whole had not turned out as splendidly as Louis IX might have imagined when the stained glass was newly formed in the great cathedrals of Europe, even the fragments were enough to fire the imagination. This modern world has so much more than existed in Louis’s imagination, but less than might have existed in the capacious brain of Thomas Aquinas.
The temptation is to grumble. That does no good. Worse are the ideologies, from reactionary forms of religion to Utopian socialism, that have attempted to restore the shattered vision without any of the authenticity, humility, or genius. That day is gone and much is no longer possible for us: yet we have new powers and greater hopes. Christians, lay and clerical, can now talk and have our ideas transmitted at the speed of the Internet. Tyranny is harder. Good ideas cannot be shut down so easily, old ideas are out there to be read in Project Gutenberg and so are not forgotten, but must compete with new ideas. We do not have to forget the past, but we are not apt to worship it either. There is hope. Modern methods, ancient ideas, Eastern and Western Orthodox thought might once again be made whole, though perhaps now in a mosaic. Let us pick up the pieces of the shattered image, made more beautiful with age, and in our young century we may form a pattern that is whole.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (January 2018).
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