Our Ancestors Weren’t Idiots

I spend much of my of time reading the words and trying understand the thought processes of the medieval mind. Christendom between about the year 1000 and the Reformation was a time and place with a view of the world profoundly different from ours. (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.

Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher at study, wearing the first eyeglasses ever depicted in art. (Tommaso da Modena, 1352)

The great modernist bias is that these people were less intelligent that 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 the modern man–and the progressive in particular–who believes his forebears were dumber than he.

In fact, 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.

What has increased between then and now are facts and technology, not intelligence.

Facts build on facts as learning proceeds, and the accumulation of facts and the diversity of opinions grows over time. That’s not the same thing as intelligence, and indeed the great mass of false facts and contradictory opinions creates a distracting noise requiring people to master numerous hyper-specialized points in order to sort chaff from wheat. Science is wielded, by some, as a cudgel which asserts a truth of the moment, based on the best tools of the moment, as incontrovertible and incontestable fact.

There’s little place for doubt or humility left when a modern intellectual starts grubbing for grants and headlines by proclaiming a fact, from “gender is a construct” to “human actions are making the planet heat to world-destroying levels.” Some of our “settled facts” will one day be seen as just as silly as geocentrism. Many who assert these “incontrovertible” facts seem unaware of this, and believe we are trending always upward in terms of knowledge and perfectibility.

The rise of technology goes hand-in-hand with the accumulation of facts, as new machinery increases our ability to gather, process, and compile facts. The machine age begins to change the nature of humanity itself, demanding the need for new and more circumscribed specialties. It brings with it undeniable improvements to life in the areas of comfort, health, and productivity, but those improvements have their own sting in the tail.

We can travel faster and better, but more people die from travel than ever would have before. We can draw energy from an atom that will power a city, or flatten it. The Holocaust is inconceivable apart from technological progress. Men waged war before the machine age, and some of those wars claimed thousands of lives. Today they can and have claimed millions. So let’s not be too proud of our achievements.

Our ability to create new wonders speaks to the genius of the human mind, but it goes hand-in-hand with our ability to create new horrors, because that human mind frequently is ruled by sin in this fallen world.

Aside from penicillin and similar medical achievements, I’m hard-pressed to think of any progress that hasn’t brought its share of new problems into the world, from airline travel to the personal computer. No person living the 14th century could even conceive of 239 souls being killed by their form of transportation, or of their very identity, wealth, and reputation being destroyed by someone using a writing machine that can communicate with millions of other machines instantly. (Socrates thought that radical and dangerous technology called “writing” would make us weak-minded.)

Abbot Richard of Wallingford with some of his tools.

We read about medieval intellectuals solemnly debating the Ptolemaic system, withchcraft, humours, or other things which appear strange and discredited to us today, and assume those men were stupid.

That’s the modernist bias, and it’s 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.

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.

Our primary assumption in the face of something peculiar or inexplicable is “There must be a scientific explanation.” This simply means that an unguided naturalistic mechanism is at the root of all human experience. Modern materialists take this even further into the Great Sea of Crazy by insisting that even realities that obviously are not reducible to pure materialism–love, sacrifice, free will, faith, God, the human soul, consciousness, and so on–are merely mechanistic or nonexistent. That’s a level of scientistic fundamentalism so radical it can no longer lay any claim to logic or reason whatsoever.

The medieval mind knew God existed, and thus things made sense. Something inexplicable didn’t necessarily make sense because “God did it” (or the devil). There were perfectly rational natural explanations for many mysterious things, from the flowering of plants to human madness to the movement of the stars. They were rational not because they were (or had the potential to be) explained by a mindless mechanistic process, but because they were created by God, and thus reflected the order, love, and power of God’s mind.

And when those things broke down–when evil broke through into the world in the form of disease, war, and disaster–that too was understood in the light of God, who created a perfect world, then allowed us the freedom to do with it as we would. We chose sin, and the world fell.

Thus, this medieval man, contemplating the wonders and horrors of his world–which was both more wonderful and, in most cases, less horrible than ours–knew that it all tended towards a purpose, an end. Meaning was inherent in life–in joy or sorrow–not because the world could be pried open to reveal its secrets, but because the world originated at the hand of a perfect and rational Maker. That some think this medieval man a fool for holding such views says volumes about us, and nothing whatsoever about him.


Note to Readers: My blogging has been and will continue to be erratic. I’m down to typing mostly with one hand, and my arthritis, in the absence of the extremely expensive medicine that I’m having trouble getting (thanks Obamacare!), is making my life unpleasant. There’s just not a lot of me left over right now.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.