I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
The more I study history, the more I feel a stinging grief, along with a touch of anger, about the great loss that was the Middle Ages. This reaction to my studies is perhaps merely that of a student in the process of learning—perhaps a seasoned historian would nod understandingly and lead me to a more moderate or altogether different view. But right now, this is the view I’ve got.
I think the Middle Ages were a miserable tragedy for Western civilization, a thousand-year setback in cultural progress. Before the Middle Ages, the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome had started wildfires of innovation and intellectual growth. They built buildings of increasing architectural magnificence; they made striding progress in works of art, literature, mathematics, philosophy, politics; they came up with technological advances to make life more convenient and civilized, such as plumbing systems and networks of roads. Life was good. But then…
“During the later Empire, the religious life of many Romans was dominated by participation in mystery religions, cults that centered on a savior who promised some kind of life after death. Their widespread popularity and the later acceptance of Christianity as the official Roman religion have been seen as a reaction to the decadence and materialism that gradually overtook Roman life.” –Prentice Hall, Art Past Art Present, 6th ed., 123-24
Christianity’s grip on the vast Roman Empire lasted for approximately one thousand years, a period known as the Middle Ages or the Medieval period. Christianity successfully stamped out all the former wildfires of cultural growth; and during the Middle Ages, intellectual achievement was limited to the narrow confines of what was approved by the Church. For Christianity was against human wisdom, since it relied on reason-denying faith:
“The Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified…God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…” The Bible, 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23, 27
The “foolish” certainly did confound the “wise” during the Middle Ages, and Christianity had its heyday of unchallenged power over its world—and Western civilization lost a millennium of forward progress.
At last the Renaissance came along and put an end to the Middle Ages, by causing a “rebirth” (which is what the term Renaissance literally means) of interest in the cultural progress made in ancient Greece and Rome. Following on the heels of the Renaissance came the Enlightenment and later the Industrial Revolution, and here we are now in our modern, technologically advanced era.
But I wonder, if the Middle Ages had never happened and Western culture had continued to advance steadily at the rate seen in ancient Greece and Rome, where would we be today? I think we would be even further along, with even better technology, society structures, and ideas.
But we can’t change the past; we can only learn from it. Yet right now I can’t help but grieve for the lost millennium in our history, and I wonder if maybe grieving about the past is one good step towards learning from it.