Dan Savage, famous sex columnist, featured a letter from a medievalist that echoed many of my complaints about lax medieval discourse. The letter is in response to Savage calling a conservative religion “medieval.” This anonymous medievalist explains why it’s wrong, then writes:
The reason why this matters (beyond medievalists just being like OMG no one gets us) is that the common response in the West to religious radicalism is to urge enlightenment, and to believe that enlightenment is a progressive narrative that is ever more inclusive. But these religions are responses to enlightenment, in fact often to The Enlightenment. As such, they become more comprehensible. The Enlightenment narrative comes with a bunch of other stuff, including concepts of mass culture and population. (Michel Foucault does a great job of talking about these developments, and modern sexuality, including homosexual and heterosexual identity, as well—and I’m stealing and watering down his thought here.) Its narrative depends upon centralized control: it gave us the modern army, the modern prison, the mental asylum, genocide, and totalitarianism as well as modern science and democracy. Again, I’m not saying that I’d prefer to live in the 12th century (I wouldn’t), but that’s because I can imagine myself as part of that center. Educated, well-off Westerners generally assume that they are part of the center, that they can affect the government and contribute to the progress of enlightenment. This means that their identity is invested in the social form of modernity.
So that’s all pretty great, especially as the anonymous medievalist signs off, “And sorry for such a long letter, but it allowed me to put off my grading for a while.”
Yesterday I also read a long essay from John Gray in The Guardian about the problems with Steven Pinker’s “the world is getting more peaceful” rhetoric. It’s a wide-ranging piece with lots of arguments, but one is again about the Enlightenment and the way we construct it as a sole source of positive results. Here are two key paragraphs.
Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Lockedenied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker. More generally, there is no mention of the powerful illiberal current in Enlightenment thinking, expressed in the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks, which advocated and practised methodical violence as a means of improving society.
Like many others today, Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas. Discussing the “Hemoclysm” – the tide of 20th-century mass murder in which he includes the Holocaust – Pinker writes: “There was a common denominator of counter-Enlightenment utopianism behind the ideologies of nazism and communism.” You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.
These arguments matter to me. I’ve frequently written about the way that loose appellations of “medieval” impose a chronological alterity between the thing we dislike and ourselves (most recently here, in a review of Bruce Holsinger’s latest historical novel).
I am similarly frustrated with loose praise for modernity, given that the genocides of the 20th century are at least as much a factor of the modern age as are the advances. I wrote, in response to a piece on the Jewish victims of the First Crusade:
And so this is the problem with Jacoby’s closer. She says that ISIS shows us what the world might look like had there never been the great leaps forward by white folks in the West, ignorant of the catastrophic violence those leaps brought to the west itself, the world, and indeed the very Jews she mourns in her essay.
The 21st century is a different world. A more connected world. A world with weapons and technologies unfathomable to our ancestors. But the belief that we are more advanced, and thus relegate people who are nasty to other eras, is something we say only to comfort ourselves. It’s a lie.
Anyway, kudos to the anonymous Savage Medievalist for making the argument.