I spend much of my of time reading the words and trying understand the thought processes of the medieval mind. Christendom between the years 500 and 1500 was a time and place with a view of the world profoundly different from ours, and within those 1000 years that view itself change profoundly. (The idea of the Renaissance as some great opening of the human mind, which had been shuttered since the fall of Rome, is radically, demonstrably false.) The pre-modern world was imbued with a natural wonder that sang with the presence of God and was the battlefield where invisible hosts of angels and demons fought over each soul. The work of the intellectual was to unfold the majesty and mystery of God’s creation in order to understand it, us, and Him more fully.
The great modernist error is that these people were less intelligent than we are today. That is, their minds were simply weaker than ours, or mired in superstition, or shackled by a dictatorial Church.
None of that has any roots in actual history. It’s simply the bias of modern man–and the progressive in particular–who believes his forebears were dumber than he. It is, quite simply, a lie, meant either to efface the achievement of Catholic intellectuals, or flatter the vanity of those who came later. It’s also an essential component of the progressive delusion, which is that we are always trending upwards towards a moment of social, political, economic, physical, or intellectual perfection.
Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote, “The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles… Life in itself is not a ladder, it is a see-saw.”
In terms of pure intellectual power, the educated classes of the high middle ages were likely more intelligent than those same classes today. They understood a vast range of learning rather than the hyper-specialization of the modern intellectual. Prodigious feats of memory were commonplace rather than extraordinary. Most spoke and read multiple languages. It was a poor Scholastic who had not committed much of the Bible, the Fathers, and Aristotle to memory. With candlelight, parchment, quills, ink, and very few books, they managed astonishing intellectual accomplishments that would shame today’s best and brightest, who work in the comfort of giant climate-controlled spaces with millions of pieces of data at their disposals and a vast machine-age apparatus with which to process it all, cushioned by grants, tenure, graduate assistants, and an intellectual bubble comprised of a thick and impenetrable layer of epistemic closure.
What has increased between then and now are facts and technology, not intelligence.
We read about medieval intellectuals solemnly debating the Ptolemaic system, witchcraft, humours, or other things which appear strange and discredited to us today, and assume those men were stupid.
This kind of modernist bias is a huge intellectual failing. If anything, doesn’t experience suggest were are growing less, not more, intelligent? A complete illiterate of the pre-modern age would listen to and understand long, theologically detailed sermons and plays with complex linguistic turns. The exercises given to small children in some schools would strain the abilities of many of our college students. Closer to our own time, thousands turned out to hear the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858, which lasted hours and were conducted with elevated rhetorical and complex language. Even my parents’ generation did better, coming out of high school with mastery of many fundamental subjects. They knew their civics (71% of modern college students would fail a basic civics test), tended to achieve marvelous feats of memorization (my contemporary students forget things said five minutes earlier), and tend to have breakdowns when exposed to other views.
This leaves open a rather singular possibility: that as the accumulation of data continues to grow, our ability to process that data intelligently will continue to diminish.
There’s much more, do read the whole thing.
Crossposted at Brutally Honest.