Dr. David Mosley has a wonderful little reflection over at his blog, Letters from the Edge of Elfland. The view of our time concerning the Middle Ages is skewed largely by prejudice and ignorance. There is also, understandably, a great failure of people today to interpret things medieval as the medievals did. This leads to greater misconceptions and general aversion to the Middle Ages. We interpret them through our lens rather than their lens and, hence, make assumptions which simply are not true. This is aggravated by common prejudice that the Middles Ages are the Dark Ages, a prejudice which biases people today against all things medieval. We quite readily believe what we hear about Medieval times if it is negative. As I learn more and more of these misconceptions, I am progressively seeing the beauty of this period. However, as this beauty becomes clearer, a disturbing thought seeps ever deeper into my mind concerning our own period: it is dark. The reflection linked above gives a good example of a misconception concerning Medieval thought and by extension an opportunity to contrast it with today’s thought.
The common narrative concerning our knowledge of the cosmos and man’s place in it is that of man being thrown down from the heights of glory. It is thought that man held himself in the place of honor because he had a geocentric view of the cosmos. Everything was oriented towards him for we were at the center of all things, and it was upon earth alone that life existed, of which man was the pinnacle. Then we found out we weren’t at the center of the universe. Then we found out our sun is not at the center of the universe. As scientific knowledge of the universe grew our place in it became less and less significant. Today it is not at all uncommon to hear that we are insignificant little specks in a vast and infinite universe that cares nothing for us at all. However, this thought is from a materialist perspective. Medievals were not materialists, and it is wrong to interpret them through such a lens.
Medieval man was a religious man. Specifically, he was Christian. This means he affirmed both the material and the spiritual, therefore his conception of life and his perspective of the cosmos affirmed both as well. While it was believed that the earth was at the center of the physical creation, it was also believed that the true center of all creation, physical and spiritual – its ground, source, and sustainer – is God. And while the Medievals knew full well that the physical light of day came from the Sun and the physical light of night came from the moon, they also believed that the true Light and Illuminator of all the cosmos is God. The medievals may have believed that the earth was at the center of the physical universe, but as Dr. Mosley points out this also meant they were furthest from God; they were at the bottom of the order of creation leading up to the heavenly realm. Of all the realms of the cosmos, it was the earth which was darkest and most corruptible. Our location was one of the reasons used to explain why there are such horrible people and wickedness throughout the world. Contrary to the materialist modern view, religious medieval man had a healthy understanding of his place in the cosmos: he wasn’t insignificant; he was called to glory, but was not there yet, could be easily corrupted, and could not of his own means attain that glory. There is an inherent humility in this perspective.
Ironically, it is modern man who is guilty of what they accuse medievals of having done. It is common to hear today that we are insignificant specks in a vast universe. There really isn’t anything special about us. There are most likely more advanced civilizations in the universe and in our own galaxy. It isn’t unusual to hear the hypothesis that we aren’t even the first advanced civilization in our solar system. On the surface, it appears that this thought of man being so very little has soaked into our social consciousness. And, yet, it is also quite common to be presented with a conception of man that is not insignificant at all. We have a manifest destiny to go forth from our planet, to explore, settle, and find other life and civilizations. It is not uncommon in television shows such as Dr. Who and Star Trek for man to be put forth as truly unique and special among all the species of the universe – to see man as rising above the others or beating the odds against a vastly superior alien species, or triumph in defiance of the gods of ancient mythology. (I am very much a fan of these shows, especially Dr. Who). Often times the weakness of man is mixed with this (Star Trek is a great example). In these cases, a seeming weakness is either seen ultimately as a strength or there is the secular hope of man eventually evolving or advancing past the weakness.
Like the medievals, modern man knows he is called to glory, that he is not there yet, and that he is easily corruptible. Unlike the medievals, modern man believes he can get there on his own and that his glory is his own (meaning either for himself particularly or man in common). The key here is that glory is not given nor participated in, but what we make. There is an inherent pride in this perspective. Theocentric medievals are today accused of being anthropocentric and self-referential. That, however, comes with pride, not humility.