Thursday, 15 March 2012

Medieval Friars as prototypical parasitic intellectuals

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Anyone that reads England's two greatest Medieval poets who have names - Chaucer and Langland (the other great poet is of unknown identity, and gets called The Gawain Poet) - will know that one thing which unites them is a loathing for Friars.

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This initially seems rather bizarre to modern Christians, since St Francis has a very high reputation indeed - as a Christ-like figure (at least among Roman Catholics - some Eastern Orthodox regard him as having been demonically deceived, and at any rate do not name him as a Saint).

St Dominic, founder of the other main branch of Friars, is perhaps less well known and loved, not least for the Dominican's role in the Inquisition (which is itself grossly misunderstood and wildly exaggerated) - nonetheless Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and he is certainly revered.

(Although, again, not in Eastern Orthodoxy - since they would regard Scholastic philosophy as one of the roots of modernity; as do I - although aside from this I would regard Aquinas as - whether or not a Saint - a man of great sanctity and humility, and the greatest of all philosophical synthesisers.)

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But Friars were regarded with much loathing by many people - to such an extent that they (along with Pardoners, Summoners and the like) were a major factor in provoking the extremely damaging anti-religious-order backlash of the Reformation.

Why so loathed?

What I gather is that the main problem was 1. there were too many Friars and 2. their quality was too low, so that the average Friar was a corrupt exploiter.

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The number of monks was capped by the fact that they had to live in monasteries, and if an Abbot created too many monks, then the monasteries would become crowded and disorderly.

Of course monks became corrupted by luxury, and new waves of ascetic monks were continually being created as the preceding orders were seduced by comfort - nonetheless monasticism did not really get 'out of hand'.

But Friars were mendicant, they depended on the general population for their support; so you could have more and more Friars, who relied upon the villagers to feed and house them.

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But the Friars were great intellectuals also - Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam and Roger Bacon being some of the most famous.

Friars came to dominate teaching at the great universities like Paris and Oxford.

This was a deadly combination: un-restricted numbers of eloquent intellectuals, who could out-argue almost anybody on theological grounds, and who could and did wander around the country, officially dedicated to Holy Poverty; yet in reality free agents - out of reach of ecclesiastical discipline, using their rhetorical and logical skills (and supposed religious authority) to win board and lodging and whatever else comforts, luxuries and (ahem) excitements they could plausibly justify.

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Since Friars constituted so many of the intellectuals of their day, the ignorant masses could not out-argue them and were thoroughly exploited by them - much as the present day masses are exploited and propagandised by the unrestricted numbers of intellectuals: teachers, advertisers, government officials, public relations experts, lawyers, charity and NGO organisers, scientist-entrepreneurs, media pundits and journalists...

Modern intellectuals are therefore much like Medieval Friars - posing as mendicants devoted to truth, beauty and virtue - but actually corrupted by selfishness and focused on using their rhetorical skills to win resources (funding, grants), status, comforts, excitement and luxuries.

This will, presumably, continue until some equivalent of the Reformation sweeps-away the intellectual classes, the good along with the bad - just as the high-minded and ascetic Cistercians and Carthusians were swept-away along with the corrupt and parasitic Friars and Summoners and Pardoners...

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