If we mark the beginning of the Middle Ages with Charlemagne appointing himself King of the Franks (768) and mark the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment with Descartes’ philosophy of Cogito, ergo sum (1637) or Isaac Newton’s Mathematica Principia (1687), then the Middle Ages lasted around 900 years—900 years of arbitrary rule by decree and ignorance based in superstition. It was an evil set up, but dangerous to oppose. People died for doing so. It finally became impossible for people of any intelligence to endure. A new approach to life was called for.

The Age of Enlightenment was first a philosophical movement, the aim of which was to eliminate evil and to replace it with good by means of truth. The tool to achieve that end was reason. Isaac Newton made some discoveries that led him to assert that the universe operated under rational natural laws, and that with enough time there was nothing that couldn’t be fully understood. His discoveries became the foundation of the spirit of the Enlightenment philosophers, men like John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and others. Through their work the modern world arose with its emphasis on individual freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of and freedom from religion, political liberty, equality, private property, private enterprise), the republican form of government, democracy, universal education, secularism, cosmopolitanism, a science-based understanding of the natural world, technological progress, etc. They were extraordinarily successful. Royalty has been reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction or a kind of celebrity status, while the churches are little more than social clubs. Many of the Founding Fathers were students of the Enlightenment ideals, and our constitution was based in them. It’s currently hard for us to imagine any other way of life. Most, but not all, of us are convinced that those ideals are absolutely the correct ones. But I believe that the Age of Enlightenment is at its inevitable end and in a state of collapse. In the next post, I’ll explain why I think so and some of what I see happening.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Mark – A couple quibbles. First, though I agree 900 years is about the right span for the Middle Ages, I think you need to move the whole era — both its beginning and end — back a few centuries. For most historians, medieval Europe starts with the collapse of the Roman empire, which you can date roughly from the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. There followed a precipitous and profound shift from an urban-centered society to a predominantly rural one. They had kings and popes, of course, but their authority was in many ways weaker than in later periods. The real centers of secular power were in large feudal estates, while ecclesiastical power was in thousands of monasteries dispersed across the continent. After about 1200, cities began to re-emerge and gain autonomy, allowing a nascent bourgeoisie at least a modicum of democratic control through their guilds and related civic institutions. Also, the end of the Middle Ages was not the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries but the humanism of the Renaissance, which goes back to at least the 14th century — e.g., Petrarch (1304–1374) and many others — and which had even earlier antecedents.

    Second, I think you are painting (tarring?) the Middle Ages with a fairly broad brush that obscures a lot of detail and variation. It’s true that medieval society with its ideology of hierarchical authority and privilege was often cruel, unjust, and brutally oppressive, although it’s worth considering how different that was from other, non-Christian societies of that age or indeed later periods.* And as you say, the Middle Ages also were a time of zealous religious faith and popular superstition. However, none of that precluded rational thought, technological development, or artistic achievement. Among the more important innovations were the clock, invented, ironically, to help monks keep accurate track of the hours for prayer; and the moldboard plow, which enabled cultivation of the heavy but much richer soils of northern Europe. Another (and to me, one of the most important) was the invention of precise musical notation, which freed composers to create some of the most intricate music written before modern times.

    Nor did religious orthodoxy preclude individuals from deep, independent spiritual/mystical contemplation or from experiencing enlightenment, whether purely within the Christian tradition (Hildegard of Bingen, 1098–1179; Francis of Assisi, 1182–1226) or through melding their practice with earlier, rationalist Classical philosophies — e.g., the neo-Platonist Boethius (ca. 480–524) and neo-Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).
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    *For example, however cruel and unjustly exploitative medieval serfdom was, never forget that chattel slavery, perhaps the most brutal and deadly system of servitude in human history, was the product of mercantilism and at its height of global capitalism, and that the concept of race which justified it (as well as a great deal of other evil) was an artifact of the Enlightenment.

    1. Author

      I acknowledge the fact that what I’ve written has been done with a pretty broad brush. I advertise at the start of the whole thing that it will be like that initially. I have two projects that take up 80 percent of my attention, but I’ve also had this current set of ideas percolating, which have been driving me to distraction. I’ve needed to get them out, even if unrefined. I appreciate the fine tuning of the time line. I was aware of some of it, but not the nuances. My main point was more along the lines that there was this long period where the churches and the royals ruled and then people got fed up with it. I’m quite happy to go deeper into the details as I find the time. What I want to do now that I’ve laid out the basic parameters of what I see, is go into those details. Flesh them out. Expand on them. But my time and attention are still slaves to my two other projects. I’ll take all of it up eventually. I want to do it as a back and forth with others. So thank you.

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