Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The intolerance of the Middle Ages - the future of Romanticism

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Since the advent of the Romantic Movement with Coleridge and Wordsworth, it has been a counter-current of mainstream life to assert the truth of imagination, the validity of fantasy. But modern people, by and large, want to know how imagination is truth: they require an explanation; otherwise they cannot feel that imagination really-is valid.

But this is just part of a much larger problem for modern people; which is that they cannot feel the truth of anything. They suppose that if only they are presented with enough strong-enough evidence, that they will believe with indomitable certainty whatever is thus proven, and that this belief will sustain them through whatever may happen.

Somehow this never happens - and the usual excuse is that the evidence is insufficient, and they are (like any good modern person) simply awaiting more evidence before committing themselves. But the fact is that they never do quite seem to commit themselves. They may fool other people by acting as if they have a core of solid conviction, around which their lives are built - but they do not manage to fool themselves.

The modern consciousness is cut-off from its own thoughts, it words and emotions. And this does seem to be a modern phenomenon - in this respect something seems to have changed. Things were, for instance, different in the European Middle Ages (up until about the fifteenth century)

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Consider the following edited excerpts from pp 53-5 of Romanticism Comes Of Age by Owen Barfield (1944):

In the Middle Ages, words and thoughts began to be identified. Hence the medieval period was above all the age of Logic - it worshipped Logic, in which the word and the thought are kept as close together as possible. 

But if we scrutinize the men of the Middle Ages we shall find something yet more significant. They identified themselves with their thoughts.

It is this which strikes a modern observer as most incomprehensible and alien about the men of that time - for example, their intolerance. 

Identifying the thought with the words, they felt that truth could be wholly embodied in creed and dogma; and, identifying the self with the thought, they were - quite rightly - intolerant. A wrong thought could strike them as far more immoral than a wrong action. 

When confronted with the universal intolerance of the Middle Ages, we can only explain it in one of two ways. Either common sense, kindliness and self-control have miraculously increased among us, and the great men of that time were therefore a kind of foolish children compared with ourselves; or thinking was actually something different from what it is now - not only believed to be different, but actually different. 

Today, everybody is tolerant. We are extraordinarily polite to each other, even on such subjects as religion. Does this universal tolerance arise from the fact that we have at last succeeded in subduing the evil passions that formerly drove men to quarter and burn one another for their opinions? 

Or is it, can it possibly be, that we no longer care very much whether people agree with us or not?

There is no doubt at all about the answer. The fact is that we have ceased to identify ourselves with our thoughts - at any rate with such thoughts as can be expressed in words. We distinguish between thinking and believing. This is indeed one of the most typical modern experiences. 

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This is modern alienation. But the fact that we have ceased to identify ourselves with our thoughts cannot, I think, be solved by re-asserting medieval Logic, and the identity between thoughts, words and reality.

When I say we 'cannot' do this, I mean that it simply does not work. We can, or course - and many people have tried, assert that we are adopting that 'medieval' assumption that truth is wholly embodied in creed and dogma - but for us moderns it is an 'as if'.

The way our minds work means that our selves feel separated from creeds and dogmas. Since this is what we feel, an assertion of identity can only remain an assertion. In a sense we are all solipsists now...

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But not so, because - as the romantics discovered - the imagination enables us to escape from this solipsism. But the escape is limited - limited in time, context, and fullness. The Romantics escaped - but sooner or later - and usually all-too-soon - they returned to their predicament.

Since then, we have got no further. Currently, we have immersive distraction by the mass media, but clearly it is no more effective - probably much less effective - than the Romanticism of the 19th century. Nobody seriously advocates that increased engagement with the mass media is a solution to the fundamental alienation of the modern condition - we know that (even if it were desirable, which it is not) it would be ineffective, we know it would not work.

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So, we are not able to go back, we hate where we are, we must go forward - and seek to understand the imagination in new terms, by new kinds of explanation - and the validity of our explorations will be tested by our feelings.

Our feelings will not be fooled - if any new way of thinking fails to satisfy our innermost soul (currently trapped by its own operation, trapped by its own solipsism) then it will not carry sufficient conviction to be an effective solution.

Our appeal is not to logic (as in the Middle Ages) nor to Evidence (as in the modern age) nor to assertion of the intrinsic validity of the Imagination and Fantasy (as with Romanticism) - it must be an appeal which is not an appeal to anything else; but a kind of validation in-action.

Our consciousness must become such that it is satisfied by its own fundamental operations.

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In philosophical terms this is first-philosophy - i.e metaphysics. To get where we want to go, we need to turn philosophy back upon itself, and examine the fundamental assumptions of modern consciousness.

Metaphysics is perhaps the single most important intellectual activity of our time.

This is neither futile nor paradoxical - because we have separate ground to stand upon - the ground of the imagination. The lesson of more than two centuries is that Romanticism, the power of imagination, is too incomplete and feeble to replace modern consciousness; but it is different enough to analyse modern consciousness from a separate evidential basis - and I think this analysis can point-to the next necessary step.

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The future of consciousness, the cure for alienation, is something we can know - but it is not necessarily something we can, yet, do. Doing comes later, requires different circumstances; indeed doing may not come this side of death.

In a sense we could regard our task as trying to describe Heaven.

Heaven has currently lost its psychological effect, because our descriptions of Heaven typically have all the faults of our current predicament. But if Heaven can be described in a way that uses the Imagination, satisfies feeling, and if Imagination can also be validated as a genuine source of truth... well, then we have achieved our goal.

But knowing where we are going, even if we cannot expect to get there for a considerable while, can be a source of hope and an antidote for despair.

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6 comments:

  1. In traditional Christianity, Heaven is just a way station, a temporary inn for the saved awaiting the Last Judgement. The ultimate goal is a reformed, perfected Earth, a new Eden, which we will inhabit in our perfect, corporeal bodies. In this new Eden, there is no pain, strife or disease, just love and community. The lion literally lies down with the lamb. We have direct contact with God and know His love and love Him.

    Except for the God part, traditional Christianity sees the new Eden as a kind of communism without the Gulags and KGB.

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  2. @sykes - Ha! So you think Christianity is foundational anti-Christianity without the coercive apparatus!

    I would guess you don't know about what Soviet Communism did to Christianity in what was, until 1917, the most devoutly Christian large country in the world? Not many people do know - I certainly didn't until just a few years ago - although Solzhenitsyn documented it.

    http://russiascatacombsaints.blogspot.co.uk/

    Communism (like Leftism in general) is originally and primarily anti-Christian. If you think about it is obvious; but non-Christian Leftists (of the 'secular Right' persuasion) like to pretend otherwise. One of the ways in which Leftism is anti-Christian is to pretend that Christianity is proto-Leftist. Try telling that to the Byzantine empire!

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  3. "A wrong thought could strike them as far more immoral than a wrong action."

    This is the crux of what modern people (including myself) cannot understand. Immorality means knowingly doing something which is wrong -- but how can anyone knowingly believe something which is wrong? If you know something is wrong, don't you by definition not believe it?

    I realize that in the preceding paragraph I might be accused of equivocating, conflating two senses of "wrong" (morally wrong vs. factually wrong) -- but when it comes to beliefs the conflation is justified. When it comes to beliefs, what moral duty could we have but to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false? How could it ever be morally wrong to believe something that is factually right, or vice versa?

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  4. I wonder if the PC left have not in fact reverted to identifying themselves with their thoughts. Their touchiness over 'offence' suggests they identify *totally* with their 'weltanschauung'. Or are they just being ironic?

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  5. @Phil - To me, PC has an utterly different flavour than scholasticism. The Medievals, for instance, believed in static eternal objective laws.

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  6. Bruce Charlton said:
    In philosophical terms this is first-philosophy - i.e metaphysics. To get where we want to go, we need to turn philosophy back upon itself, and examine the fundamental assumptions of modern consciousness. ...

    This is neither futile nor paradoxical - because we have separate ground to stand upon - the ground of the imagination. The lesson of more than two centuries is that Romanticism, the power of imagination, is too incomplete and feeble to replace modern consciousness; but it is different enough to analyse modern consciousness from a separate evidential basis - and I think this analysis can point-to the next necessary step.


    So what are the assumptions of modern consciousness?

    I think that they are based upon what we learn about how the brain(s) operate to create the *self*. In that regard it is tentative, in motion, and subject to change as we learn more. I think it is epiphenomenal, and I think Oliver Sacks has gone a long way to providing a basis for this amongst those who are curious about how the brain and the *self* are related and dependent through his experiences with patients who have suffered from various forms of brain trauma and malady. I think that the instinctive, emotional and logical aspects of thinking are not strongly integrated today - except in the realms of extreme political ideology and religion. We adopt many frames because we live fragmented lives with many identities and masks. Part of this is social because we relate and work with many people who are not a part of our primary cultural and/or religious background. We are actors, and we pick up the role and mask that fits the stage we are performing upon. The other aspect that shapes this is how much of our time is spent in reading, watching film narratives and subjecting ourselves to the voices of others through this. In fiction, characters - well written ones at any rate - become intimate. The thoughts we read become our interior conversation, and their dilemmas engage us in many ways including the stimulation of emotions and instincts. People in the Middle Ages did not have the luxury of the time to read very much, nor the wealth that permitted leisure or a library, and they most certainly did not have film - though there was the stage for those who lived in a large enough urban setting. Most people were too consumed with Red Queen issues, and their social experience was bounded to a small homogeneous community. Hence there was a strong alignment between thought, emotion and instinct. People did not experience life as we do.

    The imagination can certainly enables us to see and experience the world differently, but in this respect it is also part of what you would consider the problem. We imagine a great deal, but what is the content of those imaginations, and do we overload with too many divergent forms of imagination for the cohesion you refer to as that of the Medievals?

    I think that we moderns get caught up on the extremity of imagination as it pertains to creating intense states of emotional and instinctive reaction. We are addicts. It is an expression of Mouse Utopia. We idealize and expect fictional levels of stimulation in our relationships. But our spouses, children, friends and communities are not like that, and then dissatisfaction and alienation sets in. Aging is unacceptable, and yet we all age. Men resent that their wife's body is not what it once was, and that aging is taking away their own youthful vigour. Many become very angry in a world where fictional norms become embedded as expectations, and dissatisfaction is ever present except when high on extreme states.

    The silver lining is that extreme dissatisfaction usually leads to a crisis, and it is from such a crisis that the possibility of changing things up in a deep way becomes possible. Some few may be able to bootstrap themselves through imagining their better self without such a crisis. I would like to think that it is possible, but our addictions are very strong, and strongly reinforced; I am not optimistic.

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