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← Where are we in history?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 13 by Cartomancer

Hmm. I don't really like all this talk of "dark ages" in an uncritically Petrarchan mould. It is true that classical civilization ultimately failed and fell apart, but whether the proliferation of christianity and the supremacy of superstition was a cause or a symptom of its decline is still an open question. There were always very strong currents of religious and superstitious thinking in the ancient world, alongside the nascent rationalism.

But that aside, yes, the classical world collapsed and the level of civilization and intellectual proficiency it acquired had to be built up all over again. The two things go hand-in-hand, because a society cannot really achieve intellectual proficiency without the support of a thriving, sophisticated economic infrastructure. The vikings produced no philosophers, their settled Norman descendants did.

The Middle Ages in the West should really be seen for what they were - an age of recovery, rebuilding and increasing societal sophistication. Sure, superstition reigned, as it had in pre-classical Greece, but that was just one more thing that had, once more, to be overcome. We can't go blaming our medieval forebears for not having the mindset of classical Greeks - they were doing the best with what they had, and slowly ratcheting themselves out of ignorance and superstition as the Greeks themselves had in their cultural dark age from the 12th to the 6th centuries BC.

Renaissance humanism did not magically poof into existence ex nihilo. Its social, ethical and intellectual horizons were opened up by centuries of scholastic thought and social change in Europe's growing cities. Interest in Greek literature among the Latins first arose seriously in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, not the fifteenth. The change from medieval to modern modes of thought was gradual and evolutionary, not sudden and all-changing. The rhetoric of Renaissance humanists and their enlightenment successors obscures this fact.

Fri, 24 Sep 2010 16:59:52 UTC | #524380