|Objectivists still frequently use phrases such as “the Dark Ages” to describe the time between the fall of the Roman empire and that rediscovery of classical Greek culture by Europeans around the 15th century known as the Renaissance. For some reason, Rand and her followers romanticize this renaissance – or rebirth – as a “rebirth of reason” despite the overwhelming scholarly research proving that reason and logic had hit their high mark precisely during those so-called Dark Ages.|
What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to a book by the noted medievalist, Oxford don, and acclaimed author, Clive Staples Lewis, known to most of us simply as C. S. Lewis. It should be pointed out that Lewis (along with J. R. R. Tolkien, and a few others) is considered one of the most important 20th century scholars of the middle ages (read “Inventing the Middle Ages” by Norman F. Cantor). Lewis’s book, “The Discarded Image”, is a study of the medieval mindset formed as it was by the mutual interaction of three intellectual systems: (i) the Ptolemaic model of the universe; (ii) Aristotelian physics, metaphysics, and psychology; and (iii) Christianity.
On closer inspection, the “Dark Ages” were anything but dark.
The Discarded Image (excerpt from the introduction)
The man of the Middle Ages had many ignorances in common with the savages of more modern times, and some of his beliefs would certainly suggest savage parallels to an anthropologist. But it would be very wrong to infer from this that he was at all like the savage. I do not only, chiefly, mean that such a view would depress medieval man beneath his true dignity. That’s as may be; some might prefer the Polynesian. The point is that, whether for better of for worse, he was different. He was in a different predicament and had a different history. Even when he thought or did the same things as savages, he had come to them by a different route. We should be quite on the wrong track if we sought the origin, at least the immediate origin, of even the strangest medieval doctrines in what some even call “prelogical thinking.”
Here is an example. In a twelfth-century English poem called the Brut we read the following: “There dwell in the air many kinds of creatures which shall remain there till doomsday comes. Some of them are good and some do evil.” These beings are mentioned to account for the birth of a child for whom no human father could be detected . . .Now, if we considered this passage in vacuo, we might very well suppose that the poet’s mind was working just like that of a savage, and that his belief in aerial daemons sprang as directly from a tribal culture as coarse grass from uncultivated soil. In reality, we know that he is getting it all from a book, from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain, and that Geoffrey is getting it from the second-century De Deo Socratis of Apuleius, who, in his turn, is reproducing the pneumatology of Plato. …He tells us about the aerial daemons neither because his own poetic imagination invented them, nor because they are the spontaneous reaction of his age and culture to the forces of nature, but because he read about them in a book.
Here is another. In a French poem of the fourteenth century Nature personified appears as a character and has a conversation with another personage called Gracedieu. ‘Grace-of-God’ would, for various reasons, be a misleading translation, so I will call her Supernature. And Nature says to Supernature ‘The circle of the cold moon truly marks the boundary between your realm and mine forever.’ Here again we might well suppose the savage mind at work; what more natural than to locate the houses of the gods at a reasonable distance and choose the Moon for the gate between their world and ours? Yet, almost certainly that is not what is happening. The idea that the orbit of the Moon is a great boundary between two regions of the universe is Aristotelian. It is based on a contrast which naturally forced itself upon one whose studies were so often biological and psychological, but also sometimes astronomical. The part of the world which we inhabit, the Earth, is the scene of generation and decay and therefore of continual change. Such regularities as he would observe in it seemed to him imperfect; terrestrial nature carried things on, he thought, not always but ‘on the whole’ in the same. It was clear from observing the weather that this irregularity extended a good way upwards above the surface of the Earth. But not all the way. Above the variable sky there were the heavenly bodies which seemed to have been perfectly regular in their behaviour ever since the first observations were made and of which none, to his knowledge, had ever been seen to come into existence or to decay. The Moon was obviously the lowest of these. Hence he divided the universe at the Moon; all above that was necessary, regular, and eternal, all below it, contingent, irregular and perishable. And of course, for any Greek, what is necessary and eternal is more divine. This, with a Christian colouring added, fully accounts for the passage we began with.
Both examples – and it would not be difficult to cite more – point to the same truth, and it is a truth basic for any understanding the Middle Ages. Their culture is through and through a bookish culture. Millions, no doubt, were illiterate; the masters, however, were literate, and not only literate but scholarly and even pedantic. The peculiar predicament of medieval man was in fact just this: he was a literate man who had lost a great many of his books and forgotten how to read all his Greek books. He works with the rather chancy selection he has. In that way the Middle Ages were much less like an age which has not yet been civilized than like one which has survived the loss of civilization.
Characteristically, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a spiritual adventurer; he was an organizer, a codifier, a man of system…Three things are typical of him. First, that small minority of his cathedrals in which the design of the architect was actually achieved…I am thinking of a thing like Salisbury. Secondly, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. And thirdly, the Divine Comedy of Dante. In all these alike we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of a passionately logical mind ordering a huge mass of heterogeneous details into unity. They desire unity and proportion, all the classical virtues, just as keenly as the Greeks did. But they have a greater and more varied collection of things to fit in. And they delight to do it. Hence the Comedy which is, I suppose, the supreme achievement: crowded and varied as a railway station on a bank holiday, but patterned and schematized as a battalion on a ceremonial parade.
I described them as a literate people who had lost most of their books. And what survived was, to some extent a chance collection. It contained ancient Hebrew, classical Greek, classical Roman decadent Roman and early Christian elements. It had reached them by various routes. All Plato had disappeared except part of the Timaeus in a Latin version: one of the greatest, but also one of the least typical, of the dialogues. Aristotle’s logic was at first missing, but you had a Latin translation of a very late Greek introduction to it. Astronomy and medicine, and (later) Aristotle, came in Latin translations of Arabic translations of the Greek. That is the typical descent of learning: from Athens to Hellenistic Alexandria, from Alexandria to Baghdad, from Baghdad, via Sicily, to the university of Paris, and thence all over Europe…A scratch collection, a corpus that frequently contradicted itself. But here we touch on a real credulity in the medieval mind. Faced with this self-contradictory corpus, they hardly ever decided that one of the authorities was simply right and the others wrong; never that all were wrong. To be sure, in the last resort it was taken for granted that the Christian writers must be right as against the Pagans. But it was hardly ever allowed to come to the last resort. It was apparently difficult to believe that anything in the books – so costly, fetched from so far, so old, often so lovely to the eye and hand, was just plumb wrong. No; if Seneca and St. Paul disagreed with one another, and both with Cicero, and all these with Boethius, there must be some explanation which would harmonize them. What was not true literally might be true in some other sense…And so on, through every possible subtlety and ramification. It is out of this that the medieval picture of the universe is evolved: a chance collection of materials, an inability to say ‘Bosh’, a temper systematic to the point of morbidity, great mental powers, unwearied patience, and a robust delight in their work. All these factors led them to produce the greatest most complex, specimen of syncretism or harmonization which, perhaps, the world has ever known. They tidied up the universe. To that tidy universe, and above all to its effect on the imagination, I now turn.
Lewis describes this “tidied up” universe in great detail. Here’s a brief summary:
The Earth is motionless resting in the absolute center of the universe. Earth, the realm of change and contingency, measures from the center of the physical Earth, up through the atmosphere (the realm of weather) and ends at the moon, which marks the boundary between “upper” and “lower.” The “lower” was called the “sub-lunary”, the realm in which Aristotelian physics had influence. “Above” the moon’s orbit, the science of astronomy held sway. This division between “physics” and “astronomy” endured until Newton.
The moon, planets, sun, and stars, were not independently moving objects; they were attached to their own individual transparent spheres. The spheres are concentric and rotated, which accounted for planetary movement. Above the moon were Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Above Saturn were all the stars (or, rather, a sphere attached to which were the “fixed” stars). Above the sphere of the stars was a sphere that carried no light but which merely imparted motion to the “lower” concentric spheres. This sphere, required by Aristotle, was the “prime mover” or Primum Mobile. Above the Primum Mobile was a sphere of fire called the Empyrean, which represented the end of the universe and the beginning of the true “Heaven.” So, starting from the periphery and moving in toward the center, the medieval mind divided existence into three meta-realms. The outer realm was “Heaven”, full of the Divine Substance. From the Empyrean downward to the moon was the realm of “Aether” which is the realm of “necessity” and “changelessness”. From the moon down to the Earth is the realm of “Air”, which is the realm of luck, chance, change, birth, death, contingence.
Medieval Christian theology was derived from Aristotelian notions of causality and the Ptolemaic model. According to Aristotle, the infinite is not actual. Hence, we cannot explain the movement of one body by the movement of another and so on forever. No such infinite series could exist. All the movements of the universe must therefore result from a compulsive force exercised by something immovable. Aristotle thought that such an Unmoved Mover could move other things only by being their end, object, or “target” – what Aristotle called their “Final Cause” – not as one billiard ball moves another, but as food moves the hungry man, as the mistress moves her lover, as truth moves the philosophical inquirer. He calls this Unmoved Mover “God” or “Mind.” It moves the Primum Mobile, which in turn sets the lower spheres in motion, by love. “Love” does not mean what we normally mean by the word. God or Mind in Aristotle moves the world by being loved, by being the supremely desirable object. This implies both consciousness and rationality on the part of that which is moved. Accordingly, in every sphere there is a rational creature called an “Intelligence” which is compelled to move by its incessant desire for God. The reason that “love” resulted in rotation was imitation: each Intelligence associated with each sphere desired to imitate God, i.e., to participate in His nature as much as possible. The nearest approach to His eternal immobility, the nearest second-best, is eternal regular movement in the most perfect figure, which for any Greek is the circle.
Hence, the universe is kept going by the continual effort of its different concentric parts (each a little slower and feebler than the one above it) to conform their behavior to God – a model of perfection in comparison to which they always fall short.
The three realms were also inhabited by different gradations of intelligent beings. Beyond the Empyrean was God; between the Empyrean and the sphere of the moon, in the realm of Aether, lived the various orders of Angels; between the sphere of the moon and Earth, in the realm of Air, lived various “aerial daemons” mentioned earlier in the medieval poem. Angels – from a Hebrew word meaning “messenger” – were associated with each planetary sphere; since there were nine planetary spheres, there were nine “orders” of angels arranged in three groups of three classes each: the top hierarchy comprised Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and were concerned exclusively with contemplation of God. The second class comprised the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, and had responsibility for the general order of nature. The third and lowest class deals specifically with human affairs: Principalities (concerned with the destinies of nations), Archangels, and Angels (both concerned with individuals).
The main psychological difference between the medieval man and the modern could be summed up like this: if we look up at the stars on a clear night, a modern has the experience of looking out; out into a space that has no absolute direction. But the medieval felt he was looking in. Here on Earth is “outside”. The moon’s orbit is like a city wall; the clear night sky gave him the chance to ogle the high pomp that his Aristotelianism and his Christianity taught him were occurring inside that wall (that is, above the sphere of the moon and up to the Empyrean). Lewis makes the excellent point that the pomp associated with medieval social events – coronations, etc. – were, to the medieval, attempts to “live naturally”; to imitate his cosmology socially. Unlike Newton, Laplace, etc., as well as many moderns, the medieval did not think the orderly workings of the universe were like a machine. The motions of the universe were, rather, a dance, a festival, a ritual, a symphony, a carnival, or all of these rolled into one.
It is a point in both Aristotelianism and Christian theology that the physical universe just described is the material counterpart to a spiritualized/moral universe that is geometrically inverted from the one we see. Thus, in this spiritualized universe, God-in-His-Empyrean is truly at the center, the nine concentric orders of nature (spheres, planets, angels, etc.) moving outward from there, until we get to planet Earth…which truly is at the periphery. Now we see, too, how the Christian concept of Hell is rooted in the accepted Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology: in the physical realm, if Earth is at the center, then the center-of-the-center – the center of Earth – corresponds in the spiritual/moral inverted model to the very outermost periphery; farthest from God-the-center; the extreme edge; the place at which all being and reality disappear. Hell is thus the last outpost, the place where being is nearest to not-being, asymptotically approaching zero.
Pedagogy, too, was subject to the same sort of minute division and subdivision as other “realms” and areas of study. The middle ages greatly expanded on a teaching system from ancient Greece called “The Seven Liberal Arts.” “Liberal” in this context refers to “liberate”, as “to free,” since the purpose of this education was seen as freeing the mind to pursue its own intellectual destiny, rather than being yoked to a trade in the service of having to make a living. In Greece, each of the liberal arts was symbolized by a tutelary spirit called a Muse. The middle ages expunged the pagan Muses but divided the course of study much more finely. We find in Dante’s work, “Il Convivio” (The Banquet), a short work the great poet wrote on education, that the seven liberal arts are to be divided into a 3-way curriculum (called the “Trivium”) and a 4-way curriculum (called the “Quadrivium”). The Trivium comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the Quadrivium comprised music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The first is dimly retained in some modern textbooks on “Composition”; usually there’s a short (and often incorrect) section on grammar (parts of speech, some principles of syntax); an even shorter section on formal reasoning; and a long section on essay writing (which, in reality, is only one very small part of classical rhetoric, which was more concerned with the Art of Persuasion, i.e., argumentation and debate).
The second course of study, the Quadrivium, may seem like an odd assortment until we understand the original purpose: music, for example, had nothing to do with studying an instrument and playing what we understand to be music. “Music” was more what we might call “music theory”; a study of the different intervals created by arithmetically dividing a vibrating string according to different ratios. Thus, dividing a string in half (1:2) gave the octave when the string was set in motion. Divided in thirds, each section of the vibrating string yields the fifth, etc. The relation of tone to ratio was understood to be an aspect of the Divine Mind (the middles ages were simply following Pythagorus here). The topic of astronomy, also part of the Quadrivium, comprised everything I’ve mentioned above regarding the structure of the universe given Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, and Christian assumptions.
While the Quadrivium taught those arts that allowed one to know, measure, or study the Divine Mind, the Trivium taught those arts that allowed one to know one’s own mind. If we crudely liken the mind to a conveyor belt transporting luggage (representing concrete instances of knowledge), then the Trivium was an almost total obsession with the smooth functioning of the conveyor belt.
Just like the non-existent “war between science and religion” that Objectivists and others are fond of mentioning, the propaganda about the middle ages – even the phrase “Dark Ages” – was started and spread by rationalists in the Enlightenment as part of their Great War against religion. As I pointed out some time ago, even Galileo’s problems with his support of the Copernican model came from the Aristotelians in academia, not from the Church. He was put under house arrest because he openly ridiculed a religious patron of his (who had since become Pope) in a book that he wrote.
You can see that when sympathetically studied, the Middle Ages emerge as something very different from those “Dark Ages” that Objectivists fantasize about.