Monday, April 14, 2008
An Age of Darkness
Around 1000 AD, a great civilization lay in ruins. Darkness had filled the earth and wilderness had crept across what once was a thriving culture. The darkness that descended on Europe was not a result of some accident. Neither was it due to an increase in the power of the northern barbarians that had overrun the continent. The dark ages had been unintentionally and unknowingly planned beforehand by the intellectuals in the late Roman Empire, in the same way a new dark age is being planned now. The late Roman and Greek intellectuals, many of whom were Neo-Platonists, cut off the mind from reality and believed abstract concepts were derived from some unknown supernatural source, not from the real world. This philosophy undermined the very spirit of the Greco-Roman civilization and paved the way for Patristics, which laid the intellectual foundation of early Christianity. The Fathers of the Church - including, first of all, Augustine - thought (just like the modern intellectuals) that man was depraved, inferior, guilt-ridden, impotent and irrational. They rejected reason, the only means of survival, and faced the consequence - survival threatened and undermined. The barbarians did not destroy Rome. Intellectually and spiritually, it had been destroyed long before they came. They delivered a coup de grace to a mortally wounded culture, rotting and decomposing alive.
After 1000 AD, the seeds of a new culture were sown. It is hard to grasp now that everything we have now - from spaceships to microchips - is a result of thoughts conceived in a dirty medieval monastic cell. Yet it is true. A ray of light shot through the medieval darkness and the sun of reason ascended over the ruins of antiquity. We owe this to the scholastic debates, during which the Aristotelian-Thomist image of man as a rational, proud, self-confident and powerful being triumphed over the Augustinian concept of man as a depraved, disoriented, thoughtless animal. The Thomists also made the first tentative steps towards the idea of natural law. The smear campaign against the scholastics launched by the humanists has sought to ridicule their tremendous achievements and they have not yet been given their due and recognized as the true founders of the modern civilization. However, neither the Aristotelians nor Thomists were flawless. They still clung to some remnants of Platonism and succumbed to some intrinsicist ideas. Indeed, the very idea of God, which Thomas Aquinas espoused wholeheartedly, is an intrinsicist fallacy.
At the same time, the Byzantine Empire was experiencing a slow death, having never fully recovered the Aristotelian heritage. Initially, it was still relatively thriving materially, frozen in a state similar to the late Roman Empire period through the entire Dark Ages. Meanwhile, the Arabs carved out big chunks of Byzantium's coastline and, enriched by the Hellenic culture they encountered, some of them inherited the Aristotelian ethos (which became the ground for the "Islamic Golden Age" myth). However, these dissidents were soon crushed by the mighty hand of Allah, and the Muslims never rose from their barbarian level. They soon wolfed down the last chunks of the dying Byzantine Empire, in the same way the Germanic tribes gorged the Western Roman Empire in the middle of the first millennium AD.
Meantime, in the West the humanists followed in the scholastics' footsteps but they also shared some intrinsicist leanings and to some extent fell victim to the opposite fallacy, subjectivism. They also built on the Greco-Roman heritage and further emphasized the heroic nature and omnipotence of man. Yet many of them scrapped natural law, advocated absolutism and had explicitly Machiavellian tendencies. It is not surprising that Platonism underwent a short-lived revival in this atmosphere.
The greatest threat to civilization during the Renaissance came from Northern Europe, where the Protestants attempted to "purge" the Christian faith from the rational and civilized elements it had acquired. They revived the Augustinian credo and again postulated the innate depravity and irrationality of man. They also denounced free will and fully embraced the doctrine of determinism. To a certain extent, this doctrine also seeped into Catholicism, giving rise to such Neo-Augustinian theories as Jansenism and Baianism and gaining ground among some "crypto-Calvinist" Dominicans.
Fortunately, the scholastic insights in ethics and politics were further developed during the age of Enlightenment and the era of classical liberalism. The Protestants had to tone down their revival of barbarism and adapt to the new ideas, while the absolutists had to make room for natural law. Now, reason became the fashionable buzzword, as indeed it should be. An era of optimism and self-confidence never known before dawned in the West. The foundation of the United States was the crowning achievement and apogee of this trend.
Nonetheless, the leaders of the Enlightenment failed to fully resolve the fundamental philosophic problems. Their commitment to reason was diluted by remnants of intrinsicism (faith, as well as the belief in a priori ideas) and an emerging subjectivist trend (hardcore empiricism and skepticism). Their political ideas were in a similar mess - despite the rise of laissez-faire and individual rights, many of them espoused some socialist measures in varying degrees. Some of them advocated reason without liberty, which is a contradiction in terms.
The self-confidence and joy of the Enlightenment was countered by two immensely powerful trends eventually responsible for the West's ongoing self-destruction - romanticism and German idealism (launched by Immanuel Kant). The image of man as an impotent automaton and the feelings of despair, guilt and fear were finally revived and thus the period of the late Western civilization (analogous to the late Roman Empire) finally began. Some leaders of the counter-enlightenment came to preach freedom without reason, which is as much a contradiction in terms as its opposite.
The era of classical liberalism (the first half of the 19th century) was one of the last rays of light coming from the scholastic era. It was not perfect either, though. Such staunch advocates of laissez-faire as Frederic Bastiat were rather an exception than the rule during this age. The period was dominated by such people as Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and John Stuart Mill. Bentham was an out-and-out statist and probably doesn't even deserve the name of a liberal attributed to him. James Mill was committed to laissez-faire but prepared to make some concessions to socialism. Moreover, he advocated universal suffrage, which contributed a lot to the demise of liberalism by opening up the tremendous opportunities of legal plunder (income redistribution). This tendency was reinforced and strengthened by John Stuart Mill, who was even more "democratic" and "socialist". Thus, the stage was set for the socialist era, the final phase of the late Western civilization.
Now, the rays of light are dying out and a new darkness is descending. Material wealth and technological progress still linger on (just like in the late Roman Empire) but, spiritually and philosophically, the West is (almost) dead. The new barbarians in their mosques and madrassahs savor the stench of decaying flesh. The scavengers are poised for a swoop on the carrion.
Posted by Reasonsjester at 6:59 AM