Most of my life, I’ve learned about the history of our culture in a particular way. It seems that this way of learning history is pretty common, at least across the West. We learn about the modern world as if it one day just switched on.
The apple hits Newton’s head – the light bulb flicks on in the cartoon – and bam! There’s science and democracy.
|There's much more to the medieval peasants than our
Not quite how it really went down, though.
The people we think of as exclusively modern grew up in the world that today we call medieval. Popularly, this is the Dark Ages. A time of alchemy instead of chemistry, the Church instead of the state. An uncivilized time.
I sometimes think that our education system makes the medieval West into barbarians to encourage youth to accept uncritically dogmas about our institutions, knowledge traditions, and authorities. But you can’t just critique the mainstream you were spoon fed without a critical eye about where you’ll go.
That way lies lizard people and the camp-style politics that made left wing democrats love Bashar Assad. So let’s not go there.
But let’s take seriously that medieval Europe is continuous with our own time. In fact, we can understand the real transitions of from medieval to modernity better when we take medieval European culture on its own terms.
Antonio Negri does that, and finds remarkable things in medieval society, whose disappearance was one of the qualitative transitions that created modernity.
Peter Kropotkin found such a remarkable thing in the cultures and governance styles of the free towns of Germany. These were crushed by national armies as kings unified territory into large, bureaucratically managed, centralized states.
Negri finds something philosophical. An end of the reliance on a transcendent, eternal, absolute like God as a source of morality and meaning in existence. That’s a weird thing to say was part of the essence of the medieval period. We typically think of medieval Europe as dominated by the Catholic Church and Christianity.
Definitely, those institutions dominated the large-scale politics of the continent. You can make a solid case that the Crusades were the major political event of the medieval period.* But there was an undercurrent of critical thought inside the Church from the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages.
* And the plagues that decimated Europe’s populations were the major biopolitical events of the era. Too soon?
Negri points to the work of Duns Scotus. Scotus was a monk who lived in the 800s and wrote ridiculously complicated books. Well, they weren’t that bad.
They were just in a professional environment that required a lot of complex technical language that made the ideas very inaccessible to someone who wasn’t already steeped in the culture and discourse of the institution.**
** This sounds familiar to me for some reason . . .
And Scotus developed a very radical idea. He wrote that a being’s identity depends only on its own nature. For me to be a human didn’t rely on my own existence instantiating some universal that pre-exists and exists on a higher plane than my existence.
I don’t need an idea of the human in the eternal or in the mind of God*** to be a human. I define what the human is by my own existence, contributing to the real material history of humanity.
*** Same thing. Well, maybe more . . . Same thing? Depends on your own allegiances.
My existence doesn’t just instantiate some universal. My existence really adds something to the world. Same with everything else. Everything adds to the totality of the universe’s actualities and possibilities and potentialities.
It turned the traditional way of understanding the role of humanity and God in the universe on its head. And it’s a very democratic idea. To be continued. . . .