The Medieval Mind and the Modernist Error

A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the "Chants royaux" manuscript, 1537. (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)
A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the "Chants royaux" manuscript, 1537. (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) (photo: Public Domain)

I spend much of my of time reading the words and trying understand the thought processes of the medieval mind. Christendom between the years 500 and 1500 was a time and place with a view of the world profoundly different from ours, and within those 1000 years that view itself change profoundly. (The idea of the Renaissance as some great opening of the human mind, which had been shuttered since the fall of Rome, is radically, demonstrably false.) The pre-modern world was imbued with a natural wonder that sang with the presence of God and was the battlefield where invisible hosts of angels and demons fought over each soul. The work of the intellectual was to unfold the majesty and mystery of God's creation in order to understand it, us, and Him more fully.

The great modernist error is that these people were less intelligent than we are today. That is, their minds were simply weaker than ours, or mired in superstition, or shackled by a dictatorial Church.

None of that has any roots in actual history. It's simply the bias of modern man--and the progressive in particular--who believes his forebears were dumber than he. It is, quite simply, a lie, meant either to efface the achievement of Catholic intellectuals, or flatter the vanity of those who came later. It's also an essential component of the progressive delusion, which is that we are always trending upwards towards a moment of social, political, economic, physical, or intellectual perfection. 

Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote, "The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles... Life in itself is not a ladder, it is a see-saw."

In terms of pure intellectual power, the educated classes of the high middle ages were likely more intelligent than those same classes today. They understood a vast range of learning rather than the hyper-specialization of the modern intellectual. Prodigious feats of memory were commonplace rather than extraordinary. Most spoke and read multiple languages. It was a poor Scholastic who had not committed much of the Bible, the Fathers, and Aristotle to memory. With candlelight, parchment, quills, ink, and very few books, they managed astonishing intellectual accomplishments that would shame today's best and brightest, who work in the comfort of giant climate-controlled spaces with millions of pieces of data at their disposals and a vast machine-age apparatus with which to process it all, cushioned by grants, tenure, graduate assistants, and an intellectual bubble comprised of a thick and impenetrable layer of epistemic closure.

What has increased between then and now are facts and technology, not intelligence.

Facts build on facts as learning proceeds, and the accumulation of facts and the diversity of opinions grows over time. That's not the same thing as intelligence, and indeed the great mass of false facts and contradictory opinions creates a distracting noise requiring people to master numerous hyper-specialized points in order to sort chaff from wheat. Science is wielded, by some, as a cudgel which asserts a truth of the moment, based on the best tools of the moment, as incontrovertible and incontestable fact.

There's little place for doubt or humility left when a modern intellectual starts grubbing for grants and headlines by proclaiming a fact, from "gender is a construct" to "religious children are less altruistic than atheist children." Some of our "settled facts" will one day be seen as just as silly as geocentrism. Many who assert these "incontrovertible" facts seem unaware of this, and believe we are trending always upward in terms of knowledge and perfectibility.

The rise of technology goes hand-in-hand with this accumulation of facts, as new machinery increases our ability to gather, process, and compile facts. The machine age begins to change the nature of humanity itself, demanding the need for new and more circumscribed specialties. It brings with it undeniable improvements to life in the areas of comfort, health, and productivity, but those improvements have their own sting in the tail.

We can travel faster and better, but more people die from travel than ever would have before. We can draw energy from an atom that will power a city, or flatten it. The Holocaust is inconceivable apart from technological progress. Men waged war before the machine age, and some of those wars claimed thousands of lives. Today they can and have claimed millions. So let's not be too proud of our achievements.

Our ability to create new wonders speaks to the genius of the human mind, but it's accompanied by our ability to create new horrors, because that human mind frequently is ruled by sin in this fallen world.

Aside from penicillin and similar medical achievements, I'm hard-pressed to think of any progress that hasn't brought its share of new problems into the world, from airline travel to the personal computer. No person living the 14th century could even conceive of 224 souls being killed all at once by their form of transportation, or of their very identity, wealth, and reputation being destroyed by someone using a writing machine that can communicate with millions of other machines instantly. (Socrates thought that radical and dangerous technology called "writing" would make us weak-minded. And he hadn't even encountered Twitter!)

We read about medieval intellectuals solemnly debating the Ptolemaic system, witchcraft, humours, or other things which appear strange and discredited to us today, and assume those men were stupid.

This kind of modernist bias is a huge intellectual failing. If anything, doesn't experience suggest were are growing less, not more, intelligent? A complete illiterate of the pre-modern age would listen to and understand long, theologically detailed sermons and plays with complex linguistic turns. The exercises given to small children in some schools would strain the abilities of many of our college students. Closer to our own time, thousands turned out to hear the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858, which lasted hours and were conducted with elevated rhetorical and complex language. Even my parents' generation did better, coming out of high school with mastery of many fundamental subjects. They knew their civics (71% of modern college students would fail a basic civics test), tended to achieve marvelous feats of memorization (my contemporary students forget things said five minutes earlier), and tend to have breakdowns when exposed to other views.

This leaves open a rather singular possibility: that as the accumulation of data continues to grow, our ability to process that data intelligently will continue to diminish. Faced with a surplus of knowledge (much of it superfluous or downright false), useful information is drowned out. The signal-to-noise ratio of the modern world is much lower than it was at any time in past. 

Our primary assumption in the face of something peculiar or inexplicable is "There must be a scientific explanation." This simply means that an unguided naturalistic mechanism is at the root of all human experience. Modern materialists take this even further into the Great Sea of Crazy by insisting that even realities that obviously are not reducible to pure materialism--love, sacrifice, free will, faith, God, the human soul, consciousness, and so on--are merely mechanistic or nonexistent. That's a level of scientistic fundamentalism so radical it can no longer lay any claim to logic or reason whatsoever.

The medieval mind knew God existed, and thus things made sense. Something inexplicable didn't necessarily make sense because "God did it" (or the devil). There were perfectly rational natural explanations for many mysterious things, from the flowering of plants to human madness to the movement of the stars. They were rational not because they were (or had the potential to be) explained by a mindless mechanistic process, but because they were created by God, and thus reflected the order, love, and power of God's mind.

And when those things broke down--when evil broke through into the world in the form of disease, war, and disaster--that too was understood in the light of God, who created a perfect world, then allowed us the freedom to do with it as we would. We chose sin, and the world fell.

Thus, this medieval man, contemplating the wonders and horrors of his world--which was both more wonderful and, in most cases, less horrible than ours--knew that it all tended towards a purpose, an end. Meaning was inherent in life--in joy or sorrow--not because the world could be pried open to reveal its secrets, but because the world originated at the hand of a perfect and rational Maker. That some think this medieval man a fool for holding such views says volumes about us, and nothing whatsoever about him.

Further Reading: Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (Darren Oldridge) is a fascinating attempt to understand the medieval mind as it encountered the world, without condescending or assuming people were ignorant because they hold views many no longer accept. By trying to understand ideas that now seem outlandish to many, he shines a light on the distinct thought-world of medieval man. (Beware of the Kindle version, which is missing text.)

Update: Some people seem to take away "It would be teh awesomes to live in the Middle Ages!" from this piece, which is just a bizarre misreading that kind of proves my point about modern, distracted man and the decline of the intellect.

I like antibiotics and iPads just fine, thankyouverymuch. The point I'm making is right there in the very first sentence: I'm talking about the thought processes of the medieval mind. The intellectual and psychological landscape of the medieval European mind (of all classes) was radically different than modern man's. It's not a matter or having fewer or more facts or even different belief systems, although that's certainly part of it. It's the idea of viewing the world in a completely different way: as a comprehensible product of a loving God Who has imbued creation with great meaning and drama, and then left it for man to uncover.

It's paradoxically a more narrow way of seeing the life (they did not have the vast distractions and endlessly multiplying meaningless disputes that consume us) and more expansive way of seeing the the universe (man had a place in a knowable cosmos and was tending towards a clear end). The world of a pious Catholic peasant was a mixture of grinding hardship and simple pleasures, but all of it played out in a mental landscape that could be majestic in its beauty and scope thanks to the vision of the Church and the image of the universe she provided. Our inner world is quite narrow and pinched (rather provincial, in fact), compared to theirs. Modern man, wrapped in luxury, is grubbing around in the dirt looking for distractions. Medieval man, often wrapped in misery, was looking at eternity. 

The only way modern intellectuals can bear its loss is to wave that world away as mindless superstition.  I reject that completely. We are surrounded by hosts of saints and angels and demons, all struggling over the salvation of each individual soul. The world is penetrated by miracles that will always defy material explanation. The eternal Word moves the universe in an act of love, and we in turn cooperate with that process, providing a link between each simple act of love and the creation of the world. We are embedded in a great mystery of profound dimensions and if we put aside our bias and our hate and our superiority, we can sometimes see a piece of that mystery, and glimpse the unutterable beauty of the divine. And that's what we lost. 

The Alabama State House, located in Montgomery, Alabama.

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