“We forget the philosopher”

There is something odd in the fact that when we reproduce the Middle Ages it is always some such rough and half-grotesque part of them that we reproduce. I do not wish to compare the Mysteries of Chester with the Mystery of a Hansom-Cab. Both are popular mysteries; but, as is commonly the case, the medieval is the more intellectual. But why is it that we mainly remember the Middle Ages by absurd things? We remember Henry I not by the First Charter, but by the dish of lampreys. We forget that Henry VIII was intellectual, but we remember that he was fat. I do not mean that the miracle plays are merely absurd: they sometimes were. But I mean that we neglect the rest. Few modern people know what a mass of illuminating philosophy, delicate metaphysics, clear and dignified social morality exists in the serious scholastic writers of mediaeval times. But we seem to have grasped somehow that the ruder and more clownish elements in the Middle Ages have a human and poetical interest. We are delighted to know about the ignorance of mediaevalism; we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge. When we talk of something mediaeval, we mean something quaint. We remember that alchemy was mediaeval, or that heraldry was mediaeval. We forget that Parliaments are mediaeval, that all our Universities are mediaeval, that city corporations are mediaeval, that gun-powder and printing are mediaeval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are mediaeval. We remember the Philosopher’s Stone, but we forget the philosopher.

The Illustrated London News, 14 July 1906.

Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 12:56 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Scholasticism is not the sum and substance of the Middle Ages. The western ruins of the Imperium Romanum did not rise again because of the fortitude of Christian minds and ascetic ideals. Rather the opposite.

    The works of Aristotle and his Islamic commentators came to the West via Spain. The great Greek mathematical texts survived and were expanded upon by Islamic scholars. Medicine revived when Galen and Islamic medical texts reached Salerno in the eleventh century.

    Poetry and the concept of Love (l’amour) originated perhaps in India, spread into the Middle East, and finally into southern France via Spain. The cult of the Virgin shows the direction of influence, into the West, not out of it. The culture of the troubadours, of course, was completely obliterated by the medieval church.

    In Cambridge, its first college Peterhouse (1284) came into existence because King Henry II needed educated courtiers. These lay students did not at all fit in with their religious cousins. In other words, Henry needed a civil service, not scholar monks. Not eunuchs of the spirit, not brutal barons, but secular intelligent men. That is the tradition in Cambridge. No doubt a vital reason that Henry VIII did not dissolve the Universities when he did the monastic orders.

    And to vital matters — gun powder was invented by the Chinese and imported to the West. For that matter, Italian pasta is Chinese noodles.

    Could Chesterton have know all this in 1906? Certainly. That he chose to be clever rather than honest marks him a true believer and facile hypocrite.

    When it comes to Xianity, I take my insanity neat . . . from Kierkegaard.


  2. Gee, thanks for that. I’m presuming that your comments are in some way intended to relate to the quotation, but I’m having trouble seeing how.

    Chesterton was well aware that Aristotle, Archimedes, and Galen came to the Europeans via Islamic scholars. He knew that gunpowder came from China. Nothing he says in this excerpt in any way contradicts those historical facts. A land may be lovely not only on account of what sprouts natively from its soil, but also on account of what falls into it from elsewhere and takes root.

    Chesterton’s point is only that the Middle Ages of the popular imagination, in his time as well as in ours, is considerably simpler than the reality, and simpler in a way that tends to flatter ourselves. That seems pretty uncontroversial.

    Thanks for coming by, even if only to vent. I’m going to return now to my Chinese manicotti.

  3. Chesterton, of course, is making the point that our idea of ‘ruins rising again’ is immensely wrong-headed.

    The idea of a comprehensible physical law governing the universe, which has been so prodigiously frutiful in creating our ‘modern’ society, is intimately bound up with Scholasticism and not with Muslim or Chinese technology. Once we reject the lawgiver, rejecting the law is not far behind, and that way lies barbarism…

    Sorry for the series of nigh-non-sequiturs, I should be doing real work and am rushing. 😉

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