Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why the “Dark Ages” Rocked - Medieval Philosophy: Practical Common Sense (3/3)

Medieval Philosophy: Practical Common Sense

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Middle Ages is the philosophy. As GK Chesterton tells the story, human beings have historically vacillated between having two sorts of appetite: an emotional or mystical, and a rational or philosophical. There are appetites of body and of mind. Most of the time, these have been satisfied quite separately, and in each age, one or the other of them was preferred. In most ancient peoples, the pagan priests existed side-by-side with the philosophers; their domains did not intersect.

Zeus had sex with whomever he had sex with, and demanded what sacrifices he demanded; those details were not rational because Zeus was not rational. And the philosophers were generally satisfied with thinking; their domain required neither mystery nor ritual. And average Greeks could engage in philosophy and worship of Zeus without conflict. The Greeks tended to value the mind over the body. And the Romans the body over the mind. The early Christians swung back to the spiritual things being most important (though not so much as the Gnostics or Manicheans). More recently, we’ve swung from the Enlightenment telling us that thinking was central, to Romanticism telling us that feeling was central, to Modernism telling us that thinking was central, finally to Post-Modernism telling us that feeling was central.

But what about the Middle Ages? According to writer and philosopher GK Chesterton (and more recently, Peter Kreft), the Middle Ages were the one time in human history where these two extremes of the human experience finally kissed. In the central thinker of that great age, Thomas Aquinas, mystery and logic both found an important place. The spirit did not dominate the body; neither did the body dominate the spirit. In fact, Chesterton asserts that Thomism (the philosophy of Aquinas) is the philosophy of common sense (and is unique amongst Philosophers in this). This is a claim that I need to investigate, as if he is such a philosopher, I think I will join him. For I think common sense entirely too rare a thing in the world, and especially the educated world. And, by all accounts, having someone like Thomas Aquinas on my side is a good thing indeed.

The Middle Ages was an era of the waking up of the mind. The people of that time, if they were as arrogant as the people who followed them, might have called it the Enlightenment. But they were much more concerned with enjoying the Light itself than with telling stories about how much more light they had than the pitiful people before them who lived in the “Dark Ages.”

So in conclusion, I think I’m becoming a Medieval. I would that thought were as free now as it was then. I wish we had the passions of the quiet friars, the patience of the monks, the discipline of the students, the courage of the knights. In short, I wish we could become as awesome as they were.

Like you’ve rid yourselves of silly childish notions of the jolly old elf, I hope this essay has helped you rid yourself of silly grown-upish notions of the Dark Ages. I’ll end with a quotation from the book I started this essay with, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company”:
So they lived, these men, in their own lusty, cheery fashion--rude and rough, but honest, kindly and true. Let us thank God if we have outgrown their vices. Let us pray to God that we may ever hold their virtues.

No comments:

Post a Comment