Archive for April, 2011

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Dark Ages” and the Medieval Mind

[This is the third installment of my mini-history—more to come]

In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill tries to tell us what was lost as the barbarian hordes overwhelmed Roman civilization by describing the life, works and thought patterns of Augustine of Hippo, “the last great man of Roman antiquity” (p. 65) and the only theologian of the ancient Western (Latin) Church “worth speaking of” (p. 63).  Augustine reconciled early Christianity with Plato and his Latin interpreters, the Neo-Platonists.  His classical education, brilliant mind and commitment to seeking the Truth led Augustine to create a Christian theology based on Reason applied to inspired scripture and existing knowledge of the real world.  Though much of the classical literature that formed Augustine’s mind was effectively lost to Western Europe, his books and sermons continued to form and guide the Medieval Mind of the Catholic bishops who tended the barely glowing embers of Classical philosophy, Christian morality, and Roman law and order through the Dark Ages.  While the mass of medieval humanity lived in illiterate fear and fantasy, the few educated Church leaders had faith in the power of reason and the possibility of progress—thanks almost entirely to Augustine’s synthesis of Jewish Christianity and Greek philosophy and the enormous influence of his powerful writing and personality. 

Reason and Progress

Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason has richly expanded the perspective on medieval Europe that I’ve gained from Thomas Cahill’s books.  Stark’s subtitle sums his thesis – How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.  Stark maintains that Christianity, particularly Western or Latin Christianity, has had all along certain features that other religions did not and that provided a fertile seedbed for the development of Western Europe’s world-dominating culture and economy. He comes at his subject from an economic conservative’s viewpoint, but Cahill is clearly a social-justice liberal and finds in the Mysteries of the Middle Ages precursors of Euro-American feminism, science, and art in the medieval cults of Catholic Europe.  Both historians are using their deep knowledge of the Middle Ages to overturn the popular notion that Christianity has always been an indomitable foe of human reason and progress.  In fact, Western Christianity became the Authority that arched all authority for so many centuries because it fostered reason and progress.  In doing so, however, it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction as the ultimate authority, but that comes later. 

Here are key distinctive features cited by Stark, with which Cahill would likely concur:

Celebration of Reason – “as the means to gain greater insight into divine intentions” (p. 7), because God is a rational being.  Augustine “held that reason is indispensable to faith.” (p. 7).

Belief in Progress – the “application of reason can yield an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will” (p. 9).  Because its creator is a rational being, the universe “necessarily has a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting increased human comprehension” (p. 12).

Focus on the Individual – given the doctrine of free will and emphasis on personal salvation, the Christian focus is on the individual self, with “the opportunity to choose, and the responsibility to choose well” (p. 25).

Theoretical Equality of Rights – all selves are equal in the eyes of God.  “If we are unique beings, all to be judged by our actions freely taken, what is the duty of Christians with regard to one another’s freedom to act?” (p. 26).  Christian theology undermines the legitimacy of slavery and other differentiation of fundamental rights of different types of human being. 

Better Off than in Roman Times

Stark explicitly asserts that the average medieval person was better off in almost all ways than his or her counterpart in the glory days of the Roman Empire, and Cahill obliquely agrees.  However, neither Stark nor Cahill is asking us to believe that medieval life was comfortable or civilized—to the contrary, life was distressingly nasty, brutish, and short (to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes).  Nor do they expect us to believe that medieval leaders, despite the overarching Authority of the Church, lived up to the ideals of Christian morality.  In fact, the leaders, even of the Church, very often were irrational, hostile to the dignity of the individual person, and determined to thwart progress—to put it mildly!  But there was a difference from the post-Modern world we live in—the culture did not cynically accept the real and laugh at the ideal.  Humans were not expected to be perfect, in fact quite the opposite, so it was no great surprise when evil stalked the land.  But humans were expected to aspire toward the holy ideal, to seek divine grace in that aspiration and to experience the love and mercy of Christ when they fell short.  Forgiveness was ever available, if sincerely sought, but it was never “okay” to be “only human.”   

Because of these distinctive features of Christianity, says Stark, “rapid intellectual and material progress began as soon as Europeans escaped from the stultifying grip of Roman repression and mistaken Greek idealism” (p. 32).  This startling contention seems to hold up as Stark presents detailed evidence that “the so-called Dark Ages saw an extraordinary outburst of innovation in both technology and culture.  Some of this involved original inventions, some of it came from Asia.  But what was most remarkable about the Dark Ages was the way in which the full capacities of new technologies were rapidly recognized and widely adopted, as would be expected of a culture dominated by faith in progress—recall Augustine’s celebrations of ‘exuberant invention.’  Nor was innovation limited to technology; there was remarkable progress in areas of high culture—such as literature, art, and music—as well.  Moreover, new technologies inspired new organizational and administrative forms, culminating in the birth of capitalism within the great monastic estates.  This, in turn, prompted a complete theological reappraisal of the moral implications of commerce—the leading theologians rejected prior doctrinal objections to profits and interest, thereby legitimating the primary elements of capitalism” (p. 37).  

The Medieval Mind

Stark’s assertions of cause (Latin Christianity) and effect (innovation and progress) may be conjecture from coincidence, but the facts seem to support Stark’s and Cahill’s separate theses that the Medieval Mind, dominated though it was by ancient Roman Catholic Christianity, was already moving rapidly in the direction of the Modern Mind, even before the year 1200.  In fact, medieval theology offered carefully reasoned justifications for this movement. 

Thomas Cahill claims that Augustine of Hippo “was among the last of classically educated men” (How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 42), but in his Confessions published in 401, Augustine also became “the first human being to say ‘I’—and to mean what we mean today” (p. 39).  His self-revelation was totally unprecedented in classical literature; “with Augustine human consciousness takes a quantum leap forward—and becomes self-consciousness … as modern as … a character in Camus or Beckett.  He is the father not only of autobiography but of the modern novel.  He is also a distinguished forebear of the modern science of psychology” (p. 41).  Heady claims!  You’ll have to read Cahill for yourself to understand and accept his logic, but no one disputes the profound legacy and impact of St. Augustine on Western Christianity.  Given his foreshadowing of the Modern Mind at work, along with his influence on medieval and early modern Western Christianity, it should not be a great surprise that the Medieval Christian Mind bore the seeds that developed into the Modern Mind. 

Eight centuries later, at the University of Paris, there was finally a man whose intellectual stature and huge influence on Latin Christianity, and therefore the future of Western Europe, would match and even surpass that of St. Augustine—he was Thomas Aquinas.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


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