Politics & Policy

Not-So-Dark Ages

Recovering a fascinating period.

Different centuries look back at the Middle Ages and see different things, but what they see is always extreme: extremely despicable, perhaps, or extremely admirable, but always extremely something. For a society that is particularly self-satisfied, for example, the Middle Ages are extremely backward and barbaric — something usually illustrated with stale images of chamberpots, the plague, and crusades. For a society that is unsatisfied or frustrated with itself, however, the Middle Ages represent everything that society should become — more tolerant, more interested in dialogue, and so on.

The medieval historian’s thankless task is to combat all this, to direct attention away from ideologies and toward facts. Rémi Brague, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, does exactly that in a new collection of essays titled The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Brague himself explains, “to study medieval philosophy is also to prick a good many balloons and reestablish a number of forgotten verities.”

The largest balloon pricked by Brague is the legend of the Dark Ages — that the medieval world was somehow unthinking, brutish, and unimportant: “The legend of the Middle Ages as a time of shadows and darkness is a legacy from the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment, and carried on by a certain variety of positivism.” In the 14th century, for example, Petrarch promoted a “new literary school that was supposed to have put an end to the obscure.” The word barbarian suddenly regained popularity, and the term was expanded to include “Germanic peoples and even monks and Turks.” According to the French humanist Rabelais, “The time was still dark and smacking of the infidelity of the Goths, who had brought all good literature to destruction.” This trope was picked up again during the Enlightenment by those radicals who were “set on stamping out superstition and crushing ‘fanaticism.’” Thus, Edward Gibbon ends his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by describing his themes as “the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity” and “the triumph of barbarism and religion.” Brague reminds us that the legend still continues today, with the media always ready “to recall that ‘finally we are no longer in the Middle Ages!’ or to decry the resurgence, ‘well into the 21st century,’ of an utterly medieval barbarity.”

Brague is humble about his ability to dispel these myths, and while he admits that “any fast-talking media star can do a thousand times more in one minute to perpetuate falsity than we library rats can do in ten lifetimes to unmask it,” he nonetheless does his “utmost to destroy” these legends — or, as he puts it, these “teeming vermin.” Brague’s weapon of choice in destroying these legends is his close examination of medieval philosophical discourse: He expertly illustrates that, contrary to popular belief, “medieval thought does not escape the phenomena typical of thought in general.” Brague’s main task, then, is to show that “people never stopped thinking, that in fact medieval people did a lot of thinking, and that many highly refined concepts were shaped during those years.”

One place where Brague highlights the sophistication and relevance of medieval thought is in a fascinating chapter about the era’s reflections on the flesh. He finds here a model of subjectivity that can inform and improve our contemporary understanding of the self. Drawing from Hegel and Heidegger, Brague describes for the reader the link between modernity and subjectivity, and he summarizes Heidegger’s account of modern subjectivity thus: “The subject itself is above all an object, the object of certitude. The I must assure itself of its own being before it can become the ‘subject.’ The subject is the I, but only once it has been determined by certitude.” This modern formulation of subjectivity implies “something like a pre-subjective modality of the I,” which, in turn, betrays a certain mind/body dualism — for it is only after an intangible, invisible “certitude” assures the I of its own existence that the I can then become a subject and view the world as an object. In the end, modern thought tends to minimize the role the body plays in forming the self, insisting instead on a subjectivity based on consciousness.

Brague prefers the medieval account, rejecting this modern tendency to ignore the body as an integral part of the self, and he thinks that “the rediscovery of the flesh is perhaps a philosophical task decisive for our own age” — not least because modernity has become “the age without angels.” For medieval thinkers, angels held an important position in the hierarchy of being because they are rational, non-corporeal beings — intermediaries between rational, corporeal human beings and God, who is pure being. Modernity, however, has lost its angels, and this poses an anthropological problem: If humans can be properly defined only when their carnal nature is distinguished from the non-carnal nature of angels, what happens when angels disappear? In effect, man himself becomes an angel. And this is precisely what one finds in the modern approach to subjectivity. Man is defined, not by his rationality and carnality, but by his rationality alone.

Much is lost, however, when our carnal nature is overlooked. For one, carnality gives us our sense of touch — a sense that in medieval thought seemed central to knowledge of self and world. In the Middle Ages, “all knowledge is necessarily based in sense knowledge” and the fundamental sense is touch. Brague notes: “We cannot help but possess [touch]: To lose it would be to lose life.” Moreover, touch is the fundamental sense because “we touch our flesh at the very moment we touch an object.” “We do not see our eye when it sees,” nor do we “hear our eardrums when they hear.” In touch, however, “the I knows itself,” and not “in the same manner as does the modern subject — or at least not if we follow Heidegger’s analysis. The subject does not make sure of itself before knowing things.” Instead, “we awaken to conscious life and we discover ourselves already inhabiting a body we have not created.”

Our carnality, then, can be a source of humility, because it reminds us that we do not create ourselves. In fact, Brague argues that this is precisely the reason modern subjectivity excludes the body: “It symbolizes what consciousness must receive from the outside and cannot construct out of itself.” From this, Brague concludes that medieval authors — far from being irrelevant to current thought — “ought to be considered as partners who are quite deserving of being heard.”

If the sophistication and relevance of medieval thought show that the time period was anything but dark, could it have instead been golden? It was in direct opposition to the legend of the “dark ages” that another legend sprang up, beginning with German Romanticism — the legend that medieval society was organic and without conflict, “harmoniously divided into corporations.” More recently, this vision of a golden age has been updated to suggest that the Middle Ages were a model for the “dialogue among civilizations that we find so praiseworthy today.” Here again, Brague argues that, in sorting out myth from reality, it’s necessary to examine the philosophical thought of the period. 

The answer to whether there is a medieval model for dialogue turns out to be both yes and no. First, Brague is emphatic that, yes, dialogue among cultures took place, and precisely in the realm of philosophy. “In Christian lands, [discussions] occurred between Christians and Jews, with Muslims accepted as participants only exceptionally, as, for instance, in Toledo immediately after the reconquest by Alfonso the Learned. . . . Much earlier in Islamic lands, however — in the ninth and tenth centuries — Christians, Jews, and Muslims had exchanged both arguments and students in Baghdad,” made possible by the common language of Arabic. But to this first yes, Brague quickly adds a sobering no: “Authentic dialogue [between cultures] remains exceptional when it concerns persons who not only belong to different religions, but also represent them.” Dialogue, moreover, generally occurs within “a context of unpleasant polemics, for example, that of the wikkuah that Christians imposed on the Jews.” Brague concludes, “We would do well not to project onto the Middle Ages the dream — admittedly a noble one — of a coexistence without conflicts.”

Throughout The Legend of the Middle Ages, Rémi Brague demonstrates the simple fact that the Middle Ages were neither dark nor golden. He thinks, however, that precisely because of this, the period serves as an example for modern Europe. For the heart of medieval Europe was neither dark nor golden, neither bestial nor angelic. Instead, Europe had at its core a profound sense of humility — a humility that, in Brague’s words, “never hesitated to go elsewhere to seek what it lacked: ‘Authenticity’ was never so important that it won out over a primordial desire for what is true, beautiful, useful, and interesting.”

Humility therefore helped Europe to “accept going elsewhere to draw from the sources” that could enrich not only its own knowledge but also its own culture. Most important, humility led medieval Europeans to the true source for what is “true, beautiful, useful, and interesting” — it led them to God. Contemporary Europe, by cutting itself off from this source of both humility and ennoblement, is in danger of “nodding off, satisfied by material wealth” and of “justifying sleep by [its] cultural wealth.” It is against this complacency and lack of humility that the historian can remind us of our indebtedness to the past and of our dependence on events beyond our control.

Ryan Sayre Patrico is a junior fellow at First Things.

Ryan Sayre PatricoTherese Shaheen was chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the State Department’s office of Taiwan policy, from 2002 to 2004. She is a businesswoman and chairs the USAsia Economic ...

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