A quote on modernity

Recently, there was a thread criticizing modernity. I will post this excerpt from The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper in order to disillusion those who romanticize about the Medieval period because it was the high water mark of scholasticism. It talks about how the horrors of the black death and scientific ignorance of that era drove many frantically insane, and how daily life was not very comfortable.

**It is one of the characteristic reactions to the strain of civilization in our own time that the allegedly ‘Christian’ authoritarianism of the Middle Ages has, in certain intellectualist circles, become one of the latest fashions of the day61. This, no doubt, is due not only to the idealization of an indeed more ‘organic’ and ‘integrated’ past, but also to an understandable revulsion against modern agnosticism which has increased this strain beyond measure. **Men believed God to rule the world. This belief limited their responsibility. The new belief that they had to rule it themselves created for many a well nigh intolerable burden of responsibility. All this has to be admitted. But I do not doubt that the Middle Ages were, even from the point of view of Christianity, not better ruled than our Western democracies. For we can read in the Gospels that the founder of Christianity was questioned by a certain ‘doctor of the law’ about a criterion by which to distinguish between a true and a false interpretation of His words. To this He replied by telling the parable of the priest and the Levite who both, seeing a wounded man in great distress,’ passed by on the other side’, while the Samaritan bound up his wounds, and looked after his material needs. **This parable, I think, should be remembered by those ‘Christians’ who long not only for a time when the Church suppressed freedom and conscience, but also for a time in which, under the eye and with the authority of the Church, untold oppression drove the people to despair. **As a moving comment upon the suffering of the people in those days and, at the same time, upon the ‘Christianity’ of the now so fashionable romantic medievalism which wants to bring these days back, a passage may be quoted here from H. Zinsser’s book, Rats, Lice, and History, 62 **in which he speaks about epidemics of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, known as ‘St. John’s dance’, ‘St. Vitus’ dance’, etc. **(I do not wish to invoke Zinsser as an authority on the Middle Ages—there is no need to do so since the facts at issue are hardly controversial. But his comments have the rare and peculiar touch of the practical Samaritan—of a great and humane physician.) ‘These strange seizures, though not unheard of in earlier times, became common during and immediately after the dreadful miseries of the Black Death. For the most part, the dancing manias present none of the characteristics which we associate with epidemic infectious diseases of the nervous system. They seem, rather, like mass hysterias, brought on by terror and despair, in populations oppressed, famished, wretched to a degree almost unimaginable to-day. To the miseries of constant war, political and social disintegration, there was added the dreadful affliction of inescapable, mysterious, and deadly disease. Mankind stood helpless as though trapped in a world of terror and peril against which there was no defence. God and the devil were living conceptions to the men of those days who cowered under the afflictions which they believed imposed by supernatural forces. For those who broke down under the strain there was no road of escape except to the inward refuge of mental derangement which, under the circumstances of the times, took the direction of religious fanaticism.’ Zinsser then goes on to draw some parallels between these events and certain reactions of our time in which, he says, ‘economic and political hysterias are substituted for the religious ones of the earlier times’; and after this, he sums up his characterization of the people who lived in those days of authoritarianism as ‘a terror-stricken and wretched population, which had broken down under the stress of almost incredible hardship and danger’. **Is it necessary to ask which attitude is more Christian, one that longs to return to the ‘unbroken harmony and unity’ of the Middle Ages, or one that wishes to use reason in order to free mankind from pestilence and oppression?
**

inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/WS06/pmo/eng/Popper-OpenSociety.pdf

Bolded mine

Yes, if you read anti-Catholic history, you will get the bleakest view of the Middle Ages possible. There were problems back then, no denying, but there were also good points which we lack today, and which the author didn’t bother to mention.

**

Mankind stood helpless as though trapped in a world of terror and peril against which there was no defence. God and the devil were living conceptions to the men of those days who cowered under the afflictions which they believed imposed by supernatural forces.

**

This is an exaggeration and a lot of “reading into” the history. The author is projecting his own bias.

Compare the Christian age to the pagan era … and then talk about “helplessness”. :confused:

Consider that the common people celebrated over 30 Christian holidays a year … with feasting, music, dance, theater, fairs, games and all sorts of religious and social customs which were a joy. Christmas itself lasted 12 days.

But they were “trapped in a world of terror and peril”?? And they “cowered under afflictions”?

If you research the medieval period in terms of its architecture (Gothic, Romanesque) its music (Bach, Mozart, etc.) its saints (Francis, Ignatius, Dominic, Aquinas) and even its scientists (da Vinci, Bacon) one might get the impression that it was indeed a glorious time. Popper asks us to consider not the luminaries, but the average peasant. I have a few ideas about this, having worked for two years on a farm and ten years as a programmer. My conclusion is that those peasant farmers had a great job. If you look at our age, everyone works inside for 40-60 hours a week to survive. We still have lots of diseases (30% of North Americans are obese and will suffer from a wide range of fatal illnesses), and 2.7 billion humans survive on $2 or less per day.

Even if Popper is right about the material horrors of medieval living, this is not what the “romantics” are focused on. What they long for is the very thing Popper claims was absent; freedom and conscience. Conscience rarely develops when everyone is giving you contradicting moral advice. Medieval Europe was united under one faith so this was not a problem. Similarly freedom is only possible when there is a shared social conscience. If my society enforces policies that are in direct opposition to my faith, that is oppression. It is this type of oppression that us medievalists seek to escape.

I never heard “Christian age” and “pagan era” as periodizations commonly used by historians, perhaps because they are too general. Could you be more specific by providing dates and geographic location so I could do the appropriate comparisons?

If you research the medieval period in terms of its architecture (Gothic, Romanesque) its music (Bach, Mozart, etc.) its saints (Francis, Ignatius, Dominic, Aquinas) and even its scientists (da Vinci, Bacon) one might get the impression that it was indeed a glorious time.

henryckliu.com/page112.html

(A nice refresher course for the architecture (it discusses the proposed, in 2003, World Trade Center Memorial ) that I hope posters and lurkers would enjoy reading; Liu does have a negative view of Christianity, but it is not expressed in the article but elsewhere. The article has a fair and accurate assessment of medieval architecture and can be interpreted positively.)

It was only after Constantine (280-337) founded Constantinople in 330 as his capital in the former Greek colony of Byzantium, putting Christianity under imperial control (caesaropapism) in 323, and the adaptation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius (374-395), that domical churches became acceptable to Christians, first in the east and only gradually in the west. Later, Charlemagne (742-814) and his successors would undertake to promote the Holy Roman Empire, reviving the concrete Roman domical form in masonry as a prototype motif for Romanesque Christian churches, symbolic of a propitious union of religious piety and imperial power.

Gothic construction, most identifiable in popular culture by the flying buttress, is the technological response to the medieval aspiration toward light and height being transformed into ecclesiastical architecture. It is the most unnatural manner of stone construction, a willful defiance of both the natural characteristic of stone and the immutable law of gravity, in the name of spiritual piety.

French Gothic masons, in their religious zeal, carried stone construction beyond its natural limits. Their superhuman efforts culminated in Beauvais Cathedral, constructed between 1225 and 1568, a period of more than three centuries during which, after repeated collapses, the builders pushed the top of its vault to an extreme height of 48 meters, about three and a half times its span in width, to make it the loftiest Gothic stone church anywhere and one of the wonders of the medieval world.

Significant movements in architecture are always based on a vision of the ideal society of their times. Greek architecture seeks to express the balanced order of Athenian democracy. Roman architecture glorifies the majesty of imperial power. Romanesque architecture has grown as a focal point of communal agricultural organization based on a spiritual humility commonly cherished by early Christians and a need for fortified compounds against barbarian invasion in a fallen empire. Gothic architecture derives inspiration from the pious vision of a medieval urban society and the collective civic pride of competing towns.

Yes, if you read anti-Catholic history, you will get the bleakest view of the Middle Ages possible. There were problems back then, no denying, but there were also good points which we lack today, and which the author didn’t bother to mention.

My conclusion is that those peasant farmers had a great job.

I’ll be cynical and ask why don’t you (presumably) envy Mexican and Central American migrant agricultural workers in Californian fields and orchards. Also, perhaps you want to read the wikipedia article on Medieval demography to learn about the living conditions during that period.

The Middle Ages of Europe, perhaps with the exception of the Carolingian period, are not regarded and should not be regarded as a “golden age” because of its lack of material prosperity. Of course, it even has a negative connotations. For instance, why would Friedrich von Hayek title his treatise negatively assessing socialism and Keynesian economic policies The Road to Serfdom?

I would think that these distinctions are implicit in most of Popper’s critique. In any case, I used the quote you posted as a starting point (perhaps wrongly)?
For example, I don’t think he’s talking about Central Africa, the Americas or the Pacific Islands (or the Far East, for that matter) – of course.

He talks about “the Middle Ages”. That term carries all sorts of meaning which might help answer the questions.

As for the distinction between a pagan era and Christian era, we can say that history is not usually broken by sharp divisions in time … but could you compare a time when Europe was mostly pagan to a time when it was mostly Christian?

So, if my response has ambiguities, what about Popper’s critique? I pointed out some of his generalizations already – he makes sweeping claims about the inner attitudes of the people. They were “trapped in a world of terror and peril”. And they “cowered under afflictions”. Where’s the historical evidence for that? He’s claiming that a traditional belief in God caused this condition also.

That is what atheists like Karl Popper tend to do – they bring an anti-God bias to their interpretation of history.

I’m proposing that we shouldn’t exaggerate the issue. Modernity has several evils. The past had evils also. But could we overcome some evils with wisdom from the past that we’ve mostly-lost? Why not? That shouldn’t be a problem for us.

But on to Popper …

Men believed God to rule the world. This belief limited their responsibility.

So, the belief in God limits responsibilty, supposedly. Where is the proof of that? Also, can you give proof that atheism increases responsibliity also?

As a moving comment upon the suffering of the people in those days and, at the same time, upon the ‘Christianity’ of the now so fashionable romantic medievalism which wants to bring these days back,

Of course, it depends on the argument. If you’re saying that people want to “bring back the Middle Ages” – I’d like to see proof of that also.
If you’re saying that “people admire characteristics of the Middle Ages that we should restore” … then that is more precise and subtle. Why make a sweeping argument when nobody is proposing a sweeping-solution?

Why attack the good things of the Middle Ages, when we could benefit from them?

a passage may be quoted here from H. Zinsser’s book, Rats, Lice, and History, 62 in which he speaks about epidemics of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, known as ‘St. John’s dance’, ‘St. Vitus’ dance’, etc.

I think we’re doing pretty well with epidemics of disease in our modern era. :slight_smile:
Again, this is a superficial comparison. Those who “romantically” admire the Middle Ages are seeking values which have been lost – but did not necessarily have to be lost just because we have better medicine now.

Zinsser then goes on to draw some parallels between these events and certain reactions of our time in which, he says, ‘economic and political hysterias are substituted for the religious ones of the earlier times’;

Popper’s point is that religion is basically evil. It was evil in the Middle Ages, and we’re better now because we’re more atheistic. But when we do suffer social-evil, that too is caused by religion.

and after this, he sums up his characterization of the people who lived in those days of authoritarianism as ‘a terror-stricken and wretched population, which had broken down under the stress of almost incredible hardship and danger’.

So, my original question – were conditions better in the pre-Christian Europe (pagan era) or whatever you want to call the time before Christianity was widespread? Or did the Christian Faith improve the welfare and happiness of mankind?

Popper presents the idea that the Christian Faith made things worse.

Is it necessary to ask which attitude is more Christian, one that longs to return to the ‘unbroken harmony and unity’ of the Middle Ages, or one that wishes to use reason in order to free mankind from pestilence and oppression?

This is important to discuss. I find it a bizarre and confused question, but it’s really a major point that Popper wants to communicate.

He asks “which attitude is more Christian”? Does Popper, the atheist, know the difference? Who, precisely said that his characterization is more Christian? Is this his straw man?

What does this mean: “the ‘unbroken harmony and unity’ of the Middle Ages”?
What is he condemning? What alternative does he propose?

to free mankind from pestilence…

Does the Catholic Faith cause pestilence?

… and oppression

Does religion necessitate oppression?

The farm I worked on was attached to a small religious community (maybe 100 people). The community was not wealthy, and our techniques reflected this. We did our ploughing with draft horses, our sowing and weeding with hand tools, and used as little electricity and gas as we could get away with. Strangely enough, our lack of material prosperity actually enhanced the beauty of the work. Here is one small example. Each fall a team of guys would go out for two or three days and toss hay bales into wagons. It was dirty, hot, exhausting work but it was profoundly joyful. On most modern farms haying is now fully automated and has lost most of its charm. I believe this charm was part of medieval peasant life, not in spite of their technological backwardness but because of it. If such *joie de vivre * is to be found among the agricultural workers of California, then I would be envious of them. Have you ever noticed that when you see them on TV they are often smiling and laughing?

So, my original question – were conditions better in the pre-Christian Europe (pagan era) or whatever you want to call the time before Christianity was widespread? Or did the Christian Faith improve the welfare and happiness of mankind?

I am not contending that Christianity itself has a negative impact. But I think that it did not significantly impact the material welfare of mankind in a positive way. For example,* The Fall of the Roman Empire* by Peter Heather states that the Roman society was highly unequal where income from the ownership of land, since it produced agricultural commodities, was the main source of wealth. Only about four percent of the population owned land; many others instead where merely tenant farmers for the estates of the landowners who were often bound to the land. State Christianity/Caesaropapism did not change the economic status quo beneficially.

Popper presents the idea that the Christian Faith made things worse.

The idea that the Christian Faith made things worse is a reasonable supposition since many viewed the Black Death to be the wrath of God inflicted on the population for their sinfulness. Ironically, some of the measures to “combat” the Black Death might have exacerbated its severity.

No one, the Church included, was able to cure or accurately explain the reasons for the plague outbreaks. … Extreme alienation with the Church culminated in either support for different religious groups, such as the flagellants, which from their late 13th century beginnings grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death, and later to a pursuit of pleasure and hedonism. It was a common belief at the time that the plague was due to God’s wrath, caused by the sins of mankind; in response, the flagellants traveled from town to town, whipping themselves in an effort to mimic the sufferings of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Originating in Germany, several miraculous tales emerged from their efforts, such as a child being revived from the dead and a talking cow. These stories further fueled the belief that the flagellants were more effective than church leaders. It may have been that the flagellants’ later involvement in hedonism was an effort to accelerate or absorb God’s wrath, to shorten the time with which others suffered. More likely, the focus of attention and popularity of their cause contributed to a sense that the world itself was ending and that their individual actions were of no consequence.

Unfortunately, the flagellants may have more likely contributed to the actual spreading of the disease, rather than its cure. Presumably, there were towns that the flagellants visited or passed through which were largely unaffected by the plague until that point, only to be infected by fleas carried either by the flagellant’s followers, or the flagellants themselves. This is a common ironic theme in how individuals at the time dealt with the plague—that in nearly all cases, the methods employed to defend against the plague encouraged its spread.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequences_of_the_Black_Death

I merely offered the potential role of the flagellants in spreading the disease as an interesting historical tidbit, not as a substantive argument for the alleged detrimental influence of Christianity, since the unhygienic actions of the flagellants were an unintended consequence. (Again, I am not arguing that Christianity had a negative impact, just that it did not cause any profoundly positive effect on material welfare.) But the wikipedia entry does substantiate Popper’s contention that the crisis of the Black Death evoked confusion, hysteria, and peril because of their lack of scientific knowledge such as modern germ theory, immunology, molecular biology, and biochemistry to provide satisfactory explanations of the plague’s origin and detailed molecular mechanism of its pathogenicity. (I do not know how does *Y. pestis * does this, but I do remember it has a type III secretory system that allows it to inject toxins in a host cell.)

What is he condemning? What alternative does he propose?

Here is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

Popper’s critique of both historicism and holism is balanced, on the positive side, by his affirmation of the ideals of individualism and market economics and his strong defence of the open society—the view, again, that a society is equivalent to the sum of its members, that the actions of the members of society serve to fashion and to shape it, and that the social consequences of intentional actions are very often, and very largely, unintentional. This part of his social philosophy was influenced by the economist Friedrich Hayek, who worked with him at the London School of Economics and who was a life-long friend. Popper advocated what he (rather unfortunately) terms ‘piecemeal social engineering’ as the central mechanism for social planning—for in utilising this mechanism intentional actions are directed to the achievement of one specific goal at a time, which makes it possible to monitor the situation to determine whether adverse unintended effects of intentional actions occur, in order to correct and readjust when this proves necessary. This, of course, parallels precisely the critical testing of theories in scientific investigation. This approach to social planning (which is explicitly based upon the premise that we do not, because we cannot, know what the future will be like) encourages attempts to put right what is problematic in society—generally-acknowledged social ills—rather than attempts to impose some preconceived idea of the ‘good’ upon society as a whole. For this reason, in a genuinely open society piecemeal social engineering goes hand-in-hand for Popper with negative utilitarianism (the attempt to minimise the amount of misery, rather than, as with positive utilitarianism, the attempt to maximise the amount of happiness). The state, he holds, should concern itself with the task of progressively formulating and implementing policies designed to deal with the social problems which actually confront it, with the goal of eliminating human misery and suffering to the highest possible degree. The positive task of increasing social and personal happiness, by contrast, can and should be should be left to individual citizens (who may, of course, act collectively to this end), who, unlike the state, have at least a chance of achieving this goal, but who in a free society are rarely in a position to systematically subvert the rights of others in the pursuit of idealised objectives. Thus in the final analysis for Popper the activity of problem-solving is as definitive of our humanity at the level of social and political organisation as it is at the level of science, and it is this key insight which unifies and integrates the broad spectrum of his thought.

Although he respect some aspects of the market economy, Popper is not a libertarian as he affirms his position that the state’s responsibility is to minimize the misery of its citizens, not to pursue some utopian agenda because that would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. He justifies this approach through an epistemological argument; it is far easier to identify suffering and misery, while defining happiness is rather elusive and subjective. Popper does respect human liberty in the pursuit of happiness, declaring that is solely within the domain of the individual and not subject to the state’s interference because that would be unnecessarily impose a subjective view of happiness on others.

Popper is indeed an interventionist who does believe that the state should indeed play an active role in promoting the welfare of its citizens. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, he gives a favorable analysis to various social democratic programs such as progressive taxation, minimum wage, and work week restrictions. The state govern based on the philosophy of “piecemeal engineering” where the state identifies the immediate problems of its citizens and attempts to solve them individually.

If such joie de vivre is to be found among the agricultural workers of California, then I would be envious of them. Have you ever noticed that when you see them on TV they are often smiling and laughing?

Well, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath negatively portrayed the lifestyle of agricultural laborers in California during the Great Depression.

Ok, that’s a good point, but consider also … you seem to be comparing Roman society at its peak with Christian civilization in its earliest stages. The breakup of Roman empire brought material poverty and warfare. I couldn’t see that Christianity caused the Roman empire to fall either.
More importantly – we shouldn’t forget the other pagan societies – who actually became the victors after Rome fell. The Visigoths, Lombards, Normans, Saxons, Huns, Vandals … etc.
The fact that State Chrisitianity preserved Roman and Ancient culture meant that Europe did not fall to even lower levels of prosperity.
Plus, I think it’s important not to overlook or understate the influence of Christianity on science, education and agriculture – which emerged out of the growth of monasticism.

The idea that the Christian Faith made things worse is a reasonable supposition since many viewed the Black Death to be the wrath of God inflicted on the population for their sinfulness. Ironically, some of the measures to “combat” the Black Death might have exacerbated its severity.

When we say “made things worse”, that means “worse than what civilization would be like after the fall of the Roman empire if Christianity did not exist”.
The idea that sickness was the wrath of God was shared by all of the pagans I mentioned above. So, I can’t see that the Black Death would have been any better for them if there were no Christians around.

I merely offered the potential role of the flagellants in spreading the disease as an interesting historical tidbit, not as a substantive argument for the alleged detrimental influence of Christianity, since the unhygienic actions of the flagellants were an unintended consequence. (Again, I am not arguing that Christianity had a negative impact, just that it did not cause any profoundly positive effect on material welfare.) But the wikipedia entry does substantiate Popper’s contention that the crisis of the Black Death evoked confusion, hysteria, and peril because of their lack of scientific knowledge such as modern germ theory, immunology, molecular biology, and biochemistry to provide satisfactory explanations of the plague’s origin and detailed molecular mechanism of its pathogenicity. (I do not know how does *Y. pestis * does this, but I do remember it has a type III secretory system that allows it to inject toxins in a host cell.)

You raised many good points.
Personally, I don’t think Popper is an unbiased or accurate source.

But good arguments could be made that the Middle Ages were not as much the highpoint of Christian society as it might seem – and I think that’s what you’re arguing.

If so, I would agree with that – but not using Popper’s approach which is a one-sided attack on Christianity itself as I see it.

The Amish don’t seem to mind their simple life. Perhaps what people are looking for IS a simple life. Things do slow down when you move away from technology and the hustle and bustle of city life. Physical activity does produce endorphines.

The Middle Ages were no better or worse than any other age. Much of life and the quality of life depended on weather, war, and wealth. How much power did the Church really have? There were a lot of war lords doing their own thing in spite of church teaching. There were a lot of monasteries that provided social services to the local people. They set up hospitals, schools, and shelters.

I find it hard to believe that Christianity was an oppressive religion in the face of the advancements from the fall of Rome to the present. The more I study history the more I see how little power the Church really had.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.