Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Past Is A Different Country

Via hbd*chick is this essay by the anthropologist Peter North How The Pacification of Europe Came To An End. What I wish for you to notice is not North's opinions or conclusion - though those are fun to interact with, but the evidence that people in the past did not think like us.  In every few centuries the game changes.  We read quotes and small sections of authors from the past and cram those ideas into our current categories.  It is not so.

Neither the Enlightenment nor its critics, neither the Catholics nor the Protestants, neither the secularisers nor the traditionalists strongly match up with categories of American belief today.  There are enormous exceptions and defections.  Prior to that, the beliefs of the Medieval thinkers only partially overlapped those who came before.

Some changes are brand new, others are a recapture or recasting of an older idea. It was a point of particular importance for CS Lewis that modern readers have this drummed into their heads.  Our lefts and rights, our blues and reds, our "spiritual" people and skeptics are not having the same arguments people had even fifty years ago, let alone 500. We pretend we understand, but we are largely making this up.


Texan99 said...

I got a little lost at the end, when he talks about a "move towards a truncated kind of Christianity … towards 'Jesusism.'" That seems an odd criticism of an approach to Christianity, but makes more sense if the author's idea is that Christianity makes for poor social policy, so that the closer Christianity stays to its Founder the worse off society is.

I think the point is that until the 12th Century, the Church's influence overwhelmed most thinking about capital punishment, with the result that the state rarely intervened in the private settlement of disputes begun by murder. (But I'm fuzzy about how Biblical teaching gets you there.) Then, during the Enlightenment, people began to see capital punishment as a legitimate way to protect society and enforce the social contract, as in Rousseau's formulation: "it is in order that we may not fall victims to an assassin that we consent to die if we ourselves turn assassins," or Aquinas's "Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body."

Next, with the advent of widespread reading and publication of the Bible, people realized that the Enlightenment was a sort of crust on biblical teaching that couldn't be found in the original text, and started a back-to-scripture fundamentalist movement? And that meant a return to the Church's pre-Enlightenment habit of standing back and letting families duke it out when a murder started a feud? Is that how you read it?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is something like what I read. In learning to read, and discovering there was much that was not in the text, they threw out not only the Enlightenment crust - which I gather the author thinks is mostly okay - but also the Medieval, which he thinks a loss.

I liked his refocusing on the 12th C as the age where the thinking really changed most radically, rather than the modern habit of looking to the Renaissance or Enlightenment for that. But after reading Barzun, I see that the whole enterprise includes repetition, circling back to primitivism in different forms. It seemed oversimplified.

Of course, he wasn't attempting more than an outline and commentary, so that's not quite fair of me.

Texan99 said...

The comments on that thread were awfully interesting, and from a lot of different perspectives.