Revenge of the Mediterranean Man

The most insightful essay on North and South — I mean Northern and Southern Europe — I have to date read. The Platonic idea mentioned here, of music being more central to the nation than her laws, is one I touched on glancingly in my latest book THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA.

An excerpt:

It is not my intention to write a brief for the superiority of the northern system. Were it up to me, I would preserve the economic liberties that have made the northern nations more prosperous than any others that history records. But man does not live by bread alone, and it seems to me that the northern peoples made a mistake when, on the threshold of modernity, they allowed a number of the Mediterranean qualities their culture had adopted to decay.

During the thousand years that elapsed between the deposition of Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the West, and the posting of Luther’s 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, many of the cities and towns of northern Europe emulated non-compulsory, local forms of civic order originally developed by the Mediterranean peoples. Under this town-square arrangement, individuals were free to develop their own talents yet were always in touch with the common life of those around them. (The basic argument is set forth in Thucydides’s version of Pericles’s funeral oration.) The result was the market-square (or agora) culture that the achievements of Athens, Florence, and Venice, of Salamanca and Kraków, of Bruges, Dijon, Prague, and a thousand lesser centers have made familiar to the whole world. Both the material prosperity and the artistic splendors that these cities attained or inspired are still evident to those who visit their historic centers. It is more difficult for visitors to grasp the pastoral and charitable care that once flourished in these cities, a solicitude that led Dante to liken Florence to a “fair sheepfold.”

The great expansion of the modern age overwhelmed these older forms of order: Men came to live, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “irregularly massed.” New kinds of suffering arose amid a general plenty, the misery Dickens and Hugo and Ruskin wrote about in their books. But instead of drawing on the West’s older philosophy of mercy and adapting it to an altered climate, the sages of the north devised a wholly new remedial system.

Unlike the pastoral culture it was intended to replace, the new therapeutic machinery was to be compulsory rather than voluntary, national rather than local, secular rather than spiritual, rigidly bureaucratic rather than idiosyncratically flexible. The old pastoral culture was a product not merely of the religious sensibility of the old Europeans but of their aesthetic finesse: They used art and especially music to create desirable patterns of order in everyday life. (Art and music, the Greeks believed, are more effective than laws in the building of cities — an insight that we in our rage for rule-making have forgotten.) The old pastoral culture of the West appealed to the imagination, for it was saturated with myth and deeply indebted to the poets. The new redemptive machinery, by contrast, was sterile and unimaginative: It said nothing to the soul. Such was the viper the northern sages nourished in their bosoms. They called it socialism.

My comment: I am mildly amused at how indirectly Mr Beran approached a forbidden topic. What is the period between Romulus Augustus and Luther? It is Christendom.

It the period when the Catholic Church was the sole matriarch of the nourishing spirit of the West. It is remembered now as the ‘Dark Ages’ — an appellation bestowed rather selfservingly by Protestant historians of the even more selfservingly called Enlightenment.

In a more honest world, these would be called the Benightenment, as the age when the lamp of faith began to splutter and die, and the Age of Light, when material progress began, science was invented, and logic and reason had a heyday and an honor neither the superstitious pagans of the earlier eras nor the postrational pagans of the postchristian era could afford it.

Lest I be accused of nostalgia, I forcefully confess that I prefer the Space Age to any other, and regard the blessings of the liberties in the United States to be more than a recovery of the ancient liberties known in the medieval agora by the free man, indeed, to be a clear advance upon them. But I do not regard the forces at large in the modern world like the city-trampling beasts of a Tokyo monster movie to be the ones responsible for those blessings and benefits: secularism, nationalism, socialism, and all the ideologies men in a church-hating world turn to as idols, to fill their hunger for the divine things.

More is owed to the medieval schoolmen, the patient scholars who preserved the learning of the Greeks, and codified the system of formal logic still in use this day — have you never wondered why the term ‘ad hominem’ was in Latin? — for the progress of science and the progress of man than is owed to any of the ages devoted to romanticism, sentiment, and irrationality, particularly that sentiment of envy which disguises itself as Christian charity for the poor called socialism.

Let me restrict myself merely to inventions and progress of the Middle Ages itself, saying nothing of the much greater flowering of those ideas and disciplines the Medievals planted and tended, and I will compare it to the only other world system which rivals the Christian worldview, namely, socialism.

Behold: I point at the writings of Aquinas. Name for me the socialist philosopher as rigorous and logical? I point at the Gothic Cathedral. Name for me the socialist school of architecture as noble and inventive. I point at diatonic music, and the invention of a system to write it. I point at the invention of perspective in drawing. Name the socialist who made progress in the arts and fine arts, rather than destroyed it. I point at the stirrup, the mill-wheel, the wheel-barrow. Name the socialist who has contributed to the progress of science or the material prosperity of man.

On the other hand, I will also point at Lysenko, at the so called scientific racism and eugenics movements of the last century, and at the shameful global warming hoax perpetrated by the asses now in the chairs of once-great scientists and once-famed seats of learning whose legacy they sell for that mess of pottage called political correctness. Socialism engenders regress not progress, because the honesty and objectivity needed for science is not present in the socialist worldview. Name any hindrance or opposition to scientific learning which sprang out of the universities or churches of the Middle Ages? Quote me the Papal Bull condemning the empirical method, or scientific research? Name the scientist a Christian institution or mob ever killed for the sake of opposing science, and I will point in return at Lavoisier, martyred by the French Revolution.

The only other vivid world view which struggles to win the minds and imaginations of man as the correct and complete view, in this day and age, is Mohammedanism. A list of the scientific, judicial, political and artistic contributions to progress will be even shorter than those made by the socialists, who can at least claim the space flight of Yuri Gagarin and and the music of Prokofiev, and those contributions will be by and large restricted to the earlier eras, when the Roman lands just conquered by the forces of Mahound still retained the Christian traditions of scholarship.


  1. Comment by mhssu:

    Lovely comment as usual, Mr Wright. Let me only say that I am delighted to see someone else call it “The Benightenment,” as I have been doing for years.

  2. Comment by robertjwizard:

    It is remembered now as the ‘Dark Ages’ — an appellation bestowed rather selfservingly by Protestant historians of the even more selfservingly called Enlightenment.

    I believe the term was coined by Petrarch.

    I think the term is useful if applied to a rather more limited period that marks the reign of chaos, and aftermath, that was the endless barbarian invasions. Roughly 5th -10th.

    I also seem to remember a reference to a dark age of papacy somewhere in or near this period from some scholar whose name escapes me. Although I think the translation would have been closer to age of obscurity than dark. I ramble.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      ‘Middle Ages’ was Petrarch’s term. Online Etymology Dictionary gives 1739 as the earliest date for ‘Dark Ages’, but does not provide a citation. My ancient OED (Compact Edition) has a citation for ‘dark Ages’ (n.b. first word not capitalized) from 1730. Either way, the name was definitely coined during what is miscalled the Enlightenment.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        Arg, I only touch my compact in an emergency, damned thing is murder on the eyes.

        I’m going to look a little deeper. I am pretty sure it was Flavio Biondo who conceived of a middle age. Petrarch, as far as I can gather, referred to the same general frame of time as dark. But I do believe I misspoke by saying Petrarch “coined” the term however.

        Don’t worry, I’ll wave a white flag if I’m wrong! It only caught my eye because I remembered the association of Petrarch with “dark” mnemonically.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          OTOH, Joachim of Fiora referred to his own age as the “middle” age between the Age of the Father and the coming Age of the Spirit. It was mixed up with all sorts of “New” Age woo-woo. “Peter is going; John is coming! An age of fathers gives way to an age of brothers.” That sort of thing.

        • Comment by robertjwizard:

          But I do believe I misspoke by saying Petrarch “coined” the term however.

          If the term was coined by some protestant historian, he merely finished what was obvious, and outright asserted, in many writers. The notion of man having emerged from a long dark night was not an invention of the Enlightenment, but of the Renaissance, and earlier.

          It may be that the term came from the Enlightenment, but the concept belongs much earlier. I marvel at the gestation period for naming a concept that is practically calling out to be named by so many people.

  3. Comment by The OFloinn:

    An age is called dark only in the light of other days — or in delight in other days. So those whose art and architecture was based on slavish imitation of the Greco-Roman models of a dead civilization may have made great art but they will not have made original art. Their one originality – perspective, discovered by a Renaissance engineer – built on techniques developed previously by late medievals. Because they delighted in Corinthian columns and the like, they held the Gothic cathedral to be ugly and monstrous, by which they meant it did not resemble the Parthenon. They smashed the colorful stained glass of their ancestors and replaced it with “rational” clear glass wherever they could.

    By their own lights, the medievals could see just fine; even in the truly dark days of the Volkerwanderungen when there came Frankish and Lombard and Saxon rulers who knew not Aristotle or Plutarch and read no Greek. Pepin le Bref, a Frank, asked the Pope for Greek texts and men capable of reading them, and received them. But as fast as the men of that age wrote things down, saracens, vikings, and magyars would burn things up. Fragments survive the shipwrecks of time: the educational treatise of the countess Dhuoda, an epic poem in honor of Kaiser Otto by the abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim. It is astonishing how much was written by women of that age when compared to all of antiquity.

    Our own age will be a dark age for the same reason. In another 500 years, who will be running Windows or reading blu-ray? The media will have decayed without leaving even the dim footprint of a palimpsest or cuneiform brick and the scholars of 2500 (should there be any) will stare in dumb amaze at floppy discs, knowing that they no doubt once held writing. An age is dark when too little of its writing survives to illuminate it.

    No one need destroy it. Books will no more be burned than they were in the passing of late antiquity. Mice, mold, and accident will do nicely; and the choice of the copyist. If Strabo has written a nice up-to-date Geographica, why bother recopying Eratosthenes outdated old geography? And so today we know nothing of Eratosthenes Geographica except that Strabo thought it sucked rocks. Modern copyists, charged with migrating files onto new media will be faced with similar dilemmas. Time is finite; so is budget. Do I copy this old floppy or that one?

    Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity. (W.W. Norton, 1989)
    Huizinga, Johan. The Autumn of the Middle Ages, tran. Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Univ. of Chicago, 1996)
    Lukacs, John. The Passing of the Modern Age. (Harper & Row, 1970))

    Jackson, Maggie. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. (Prometheus Books, 2008)
    Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. (Vintage Books, 2005)
    Stavrianoa, L. S. The Promise of the Coming Dark Age. (W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd, 1976)
    Vacca, Roberto. The Coming Dark Age. (Doubleday, 1973)

  4. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    Thank you for another enlightening article…

    Two typos (I think):
    – Socialism engenders regress, no[t] progress…
    – …the forces of Mahound still ret[ ]ained the Christian traditions of scholarship.

  5. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Very nice, both your comments and Mr. Beran’s article (which I read as well at NRO). Sometimes, in my disgust at the baleful offspring or results of Protestantism (not of most Protestants as PERSONS), I call the so called “Reformation” the “Deformation.”

    And, I noticed as well the minimal referring by name by Mr. Beran of the CATHOLIC Church as the faith most people held in Europe between the deposition of Romulus Augustus and Luther’s posting of his 95 theses.

    “The dark age of the Papacy” was mentioned by “robertjwizard.” I’m no longer sure myself where I first came across that phrase, but it refers to the era of anarchy in Rome and Italy from the assassination of Pope John VIII in 882 to the advent of the Hildebrandine reform (circa AD 1050). The period was marked by warring factions and clans in Rome fighting each other to install their preferred candidates as pope. This anarchy was directly responsible for the right to elect the pope being restricted to the college of cardinals.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  6. Comment by KFJ:

    Well, let’s not forget Latin America, where the blessings of Catholic social thought and practice are so vividly on display, and the spawn of which are pouring over into our own country … surely not because of any deficiencies on their part, or failures in their own countries, but only to fill, ever so generously, the spiritual void of Protestantism, capitalism, and republicanism, with all their oh-so-colorful and picturesque vibrancy, exuberance, prosperity, civic-mindedness, and general cultivation.

    Cheer up, John, and welcome your co-religionists, our new Hispanic overlords! [cue “La Cucaracha”]

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I will offer the same answer as Evelyn Waugh:

      Once, when he had behaved with particular rudeness to a young French intellectual at a dinner party in Paris at the home of Nancy Mitford, Miss Mitford, angry at his social brutality, asked him how he could behave so meanly and yet consider himself a believing and practicing Catholic.

      “You have no idea,” Waugh returned, “how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

      South America before the Catholics came was a land of human sacrifice. Compare the socialists of Red China, the gulags and mass infanticide and the reduction of human life to a termite mound of slaves, with the socialists of Spain, who exist in a milder strain. Compare the fascists of Italy with the fascists of Germany. In each case, the humanizing influence was Catholicism.

      As a man who is suffering from an acute spiritual vacuum, Mr Jahn, I daresay you should not be mocking the thing needed to fill it.

      • Comment by Boggy Man:

        Hispanic overlords… wow. I had no idea the permanent underclass politically exploited by republicrats were to be our future rulers. How did the Raj handle this with Fu Manchu century before last?

  7. Comment by bruce99999999:

    Try Poul Anderson’s ‘Of PIGS and MEN’. People Inhabiting Germanic Settlements GOOD: Mediterranean Ethnic Neighbours BAD. Covers the same ground, but Anderson wrote better and wasn’t po-faced about this wide-ranging, free-swinging stuff.

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      Hi, bruce!

      I’ve actually read that amusing, mock serious essay by Poul Anderson. And have it in one of the books in my collection of Anderson’s works. “Of PIGS and MEN” was also meant as a satire on the kind of nonsense we in politically correct twaddle.

      Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

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