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← Where are we in history?

hitchens_jnr's Avatar Jump to comment 22 by hitchens_jnr

Comment 13 by Cartomancer -

I know what you're saying: it does seem like Grayling is subscribing to a rather old-fashioned conception of European history. But I don't think he's completely wrong.

I also don't think he's trying to "blame" the people of the Middle Ages for their perceived lack of sophistication. He's simply making an observation - that in terms of both intellectual and material sophistication, there WAS a notable decline after the fall of Rome. Greek philosophers had posited early versions of the theory of evolution and atomic theory, an awareness that the earth was round and orbited the son, a fairly accurate calculation of the earth's circumference, humanity's first ever attempt to systematically categorise animal life (thanks Atistotle!), and a style of medicine based on the detailed observation of symptoms and the prescription of empirically validated cures. Roman engineering advanced to the point where it was capable of supporting a city of more than a million inhabitants, a city that received more fresh water per annum than New York in the 1980s. Maybe this is old fashioned, but I don't think it's too far wrong to observe that a huge amount was lost when classical civilisation ended, and it took us a long while to recover. And the greatest obstacle to that recovery, and to our eventual overtaking of classical thought and material culture, was the Catholic Church.

Sure, we shouldn't neglect the nasty bits of the classical world. E.R Dodds' great book "The Greeks and the Irrational" drove a truck right through the idea that classical Greek culture was founded on reason. But, you know, as a simplified overview Grayling's conception has a lot going for it. You're quite right that the change from medieval to modern was evolutionary and gradual, and ironically that that change would probably have taken a lot longer if it hadn't been for the rediscovery of the ancient, but this view of the middle ages seems perfectly consistent with the general outline that Grayling provides.

Fri, 24 Sep 2010 18:41:31 UTC | #524429