Chapter 4

The late medieval spirit

The medieval period, by the way, was by no means the dark ages intellectually. From the beginning, Christian thinkers had been doing serious work not only on the pagan philosophers, showing that Christianity was compatible with what was known from the science of the day, but they had been examining Scripture and showing how it was in fact consistent with itself, in spite of apparently contradictory statements.

At this time, the Pope had also acquired territory, and so now was a secular as well as a religious ruler; and this mixture of secular and religious power, especially with the notion that the religious head was superior to the secular, led to a good deal of confusion. The Popes thought of the heads of state as their vassals, while the heads of state looked at the Pope as having only religious authority; and so as rulers they were only nominally subject to him. But of course in this age appearance was everything, and so they were his subjects if they wanted their own subjects to be theirs.

The meddling of the Popes and of the clergy in general in secular affairs also led to corruption. The monasteries, for instance, were in effect dukedoms in their own right, involved in transactions with the lords and such around them. This was not helped by the fact that sons who were not to inherit land from their fathers were simply packed off to the monastery, whether they wanted to put God first in their lives or not.

Partly because of the Muslim conquest of the Eastern Empire of Rome, the Eastern Christians were really cut off from their Roman counterparts even more than they had been because of Constantine's shift of the center of imperial power there; and a religious dispute between the two halves of the Church festered for centuries and finally led to a definite breakup of Christianity into two independent branches, each of which claimed to be orthodox, accusing the other of heresy.

Learning, of course, was left to the clergy in the Christian middle ages, because the civil authorities had grown up not out of the learned class in Rome, but out of the people who had horses and property and liked to fight; and of course the peasants had no time to learn anything. The monks, however, had not much to do except spend their time contemplating, studying, and even copying and preserving the ancient manuscripts that had been handed down.

It had also been discovered that trial by combat did not work; besides, cases of heresy should not be tried by having people fight each other. Hence, a board of enquiry among the learned (the clergy) was set up to decide cases by trying to dig up the evidence rather than just taking someone's word for it or seeing who won in a fight; and so the Inquisition was born. Once the facts of the matter had been discovered, the case was handed over to the secular authorities for punishment to be meted out. It is interesting that the Inquisition, which has such a bad name, was actually set up to correct an abuse, and was the forerunner of our modern law courts.

The Muslims in Spain gradually began to spread, if not their religion, at least their secular learning and philosophical investigations into the Christian world; and when they did, Aristotle and his empirical paganism with its multiple gods and extolling of pride dropped like a bomb onto Christian thought. Many thinkers, like St. Bonaventure, wanted his books destroyed and consigned once again to oblivion, because they were too convincing, and were subversive of the Christian faith. Christianity, since it dealt with the facts about Jesus and not really the values that Jesus stood for, could not adopt a "two truth" attitude toward things. If something contradicted Christianity, only one of the two was true; and if Christianity was true, then Aristotle had to be false. That was all there was to it.

Fortunately for the advance of thought, there was St. Thomas Aquinas, who saw that that was not all there was to it. He was convinced that Christianity was true, of course; and therefore, if Aristotle was true, then it had to be compatible with Christianity. He therefore interpreted the various texts of Aristotle, and allowed Aristotle to critique himself, so to speak; and showed that if you did that, what he said was only superficially against Christianity, but on a deeper level was not only compatible with it, but illuminated it greatly. His writings were still taught as late as my own philosophical training, they were that magnificent a philosophical system.

What characterized the medieval world, it seems to me, was the basic unity and brotherhood of Christianity (and also of Islam); but there was the secular fragmentation underneath it, which came together into greater unities under the unifying force of Christianity and the Islamic threat. The basic concept was brotherhood, not citizenship, and of the equal dignity of all as having the divine persons dwelling within them, which made for the spiritual unity of all mankind; and at least lip service was paid to the love that was owed everyone by the commands of Jesus. But an individual was loved as "another Christ," because God was within him; and he himself as an individual in his own right was not of much account. Lords still lorded it over their serfs, and parents over their children. It was still thought that a person received his dignity by his being a member of the community: the Christian community first and foremost, and the civil community second, because secular authority also came from God--which was why the Church was thought to be superior to and over, in some sense, the state. It was thought that what was good for mankind was known in its fullness; and the only thing left was for the Church to put it into practice and enjoin it upon the people, while the State kept civil order.

The stopping of the Muslim threat--at least the checking of its further encroachments into Europe--led to a certain equilibrium in this world, in the midst of the territorial wars and so on, the philosophical disputes, and the Theological controversies. Islam was not destroyed, but held at bay, more or less permanently.

But within not many centuries, several things began to disturb the equilibrium.

First was trade. The traders began going to foreign lands and bringing back things that made them quite wealthy--and they began to want the privileges that the nobles had had, and were powerful enough to claim them, low-class though they were. Their success also made them interested in trading in places farther and farther off, and in finding new and more efficient routes of getting there.

The second was the corruption of the clergy. Their encroachments upon secular power led to a secularization of the clergy themselves. It became less and less evident why anyone should declare allegiance to one who was no holier than himself and in fact a ruler of alien territory, whose motives for making apparently ecclesiastical pronouncements were often patently economic or political, having nothing significant to do with the truth of the faith.

Theological disputations among the learned were becoming, not more secular, but increasingly esoteric; and while experts did not actually hold discussions on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, their disputes became much less concerned with living a Christian life, least of all addressing themselves to the issue of the increasingly secularized clergy, especially in the upper levels of the hierarchy.

The result was that those really concerned with Christian living tended to move into a new sort of desert, away from the Theologians and the clergy. "I would rather feel contrition," said Thomas à Kempis, "than know how to define it;" and a kind of personal, mystical approach to Christianity sprang up among those who did not want to politicize their lives. These people also stood up to the religious authorities and began to denounce them for secularizing their religious posts.

Within a very short time of each other, this ferment broke in several directions: The Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and rediscovery of the ancient pagan writings, coupled with a spreading of learning into the laity, and the discovery of the New World with its huge influx of gold. And that shifted the whole way of thinking and interacting into the beginning of what is the modern world, which I suspect I am now seeing the end of.