Antiquity 1: The End of the Middle Ages

I cleverly avoided studying “Western Civ” in both high school and college.  A pity, because, although I had studied it in grade school — and thought a grade-school course was enough — it wasn’t.  It would have behooved me to have a go at either Exeter or Harvard, where I would have gotten a world-class exposure.

Instead I’m coming back to it late(r) in life, now in my sixties, and having to play catch-up.  The downside of doing so is that I may not have enough time.  The upside is that I’m a better steward of my time and more in touch with my purposes.

My purpose is 1) to get a hold on how “the modern era” (the era of science, humanism, liberal democracy) arose out of the seemingly unpromising Middle Ages and 2) to figure out and savor exactly what was stunning about what they thought back in antiquity.

(I’m aware that “the Middle Ages” is a catch-all term for 1000 years of history — from, say, the Fall of Rome to 1500 — of wildly varying character.  That topic is also grist for the mill: you see why I’m worried about time?)

So, I’ve read “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, and I’m in the midst of “Rubicon”, by Tom Holland and “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox”, by Stephen Jay Gould (posthumous).

Gould makes the case that the transition from “the Middle Ages” to “the Scientific Revolution” was not a simple struggle between science and dogma but rather a two-step process (at least!), consisting of:

  1. Humanism in revolt against Dogma: in this phase the humanists looked to “Antiquity” (Greece and Rome) for new wisdom that had been forgotten/suppressed by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom.  Both Greenblatt and Gould make the case that there was both forgetting and suppressing.
  2. Science in revolt against Humanism: Humanism, the reverence from the Ancient, became a dogma in its own right, and science-oriented thinkers in Europe (and, in time, America) touted the virtue of direct observation over reverence for the past.

Greenblatt provides lots of supporting detail which seems to support this point of view.  He is, however, after a different quarry: he wants to emphasize:

  1. What a near thing it was that we ever recovered Lucretius’ Epicurean masterpiece “On the Nature of Things”
  2. How vile the Christianity of the 1500’s was
  3. What had to happen in order for the science-based order to come into being.

These to me represent a more complicated point of view than I’ve been accustomed to, but for historians I’m sure it’s a glib oversimplification.  At any rate, that’s what some reviewers said per the Wikipedia article on Greenblatt’s book.  I’ll take it as my working theory for the time being.

So: 1) there is Truth beyond The Church and 2) Seek Truth from skeptical theories about Nature.

I want to read Lucretius now, of course, but first I want to find out more about Rome (and then probably about Greece).

3 thoughts on “Antiquity 1: The End of the Middle Ages”

  1. The answers and explanations seem far simpler (to me) than the (summaries of the) books would suggest.

    Knowledge (reading/writing/study) was the province of an enlightened few who had the slave labor (monks, monarchs) to keep the word alive. So, the Church was not the evil keeper of status quo because it was the Church, but because it was just the status quo. Same for monarchs.

    The printing press completely disrupted the status quo, democratizing knowledge like never before. Arguably, a disruption that was only rivaled by the origins of writing prior, and by the internet posterior.

    Ubiquitous reading/writing gave voice to thoughts already in existence, and provided a substrate for viral spread of these thoughts and thence organization by groups of people around them. It gave extended the reach of a powerful mercantile class than before.

    People are people, whether 2500 years ago, 1500 years ago or today. The only thing that changed was a radical shift in the possession of knowledge due to a technical advance.

    The Simpleton

    1. How did monarchs and the church use their monopoly? In the former case the monarchs were scarcely literate themselves — or so I’m inferring from a couple of books here — and used writing mainly for keeping accounts of stuff like taxes. The Church used knowledge to enforce its point of view. I had the same reaction to the accounts of Church censorship in these books that I had when the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues just before (just after?) 9/11. So neither of these agents was some kind of neutral “status quo”.

      Absolutely agree that disruptive technology of printing changed the playing field.

  2. Interesting stuff. So much to learn. Hope we can take it with us. Sad to think that we would have to start at ground zero if we get to reincarnate.

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