Sunday 15 December 2013

Eastern versus Western Medievalism; versus post-Medieval Christianity


The interesting thing is that we are accustomed to forget about Eastern Medievalism - not to think of Constantinople/ Byzantium as part of the Medieval era; and I suppose the reason is not just its being geographically cut-off from the West, but more fundamentally that the Eastern Empire actually was not 'medieval'; that is, it was not a 'Middle Age' but was a continuation of the ancient world - because the East had not experienced an intervening Dark Age to separate it from the Christian Roman Empire.


So the proper comparison is not 'Medieval', but between a continuation of Classical Civilization in the East, and a new-born, new-built Christian civilization in the West - the East being focused on the great city of Constantinople, and the West probably best exemplified by France, and especially Paris and its University with figures such as Peter Abelard then Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus etc.

Despite natural patriotism, my heart warms to the East, because the distinct focus of life in the West (according to CS Lewis) was scholastic philosophy - about which I am ambivalent at best; the Crusades - only the first of which was sincere; the cult of courtly love - which I loathe; and the great Cathedrals, which I love unreservedly - but which I suppose were at least matched by the mostly-lost beauties of the Eastern Empire.


What did the Eastern Empire have? The Emperor, as Vice-Gerent of God; and from him the ideal of life as a seamless Christian whole - such that Christianity permeated society in the most complete way ever achieved on a large scale and sustained over centuries.

Of course there was much to dislike too. I feel that the ascetic ideal became perverse in its extremes; there were stupid heresy hunts, silly pseudo-schisms, and vile suppressions; and ultimately - for all its intoxicating qualities, and its great strength to endure and inspire resistance - I sense there was something profoundly demotivating and despairing at the heart of the Eastern Empire.

I get a sense of living always under the shadow of impending doom, rather like the theory of courage of the Northern Pagans with Ragnarok.


Both civilizations shared the typically medieval bipolarity of ascetic, virgin celibacy on the one hand and as the highest ideal; and a sumptuous 'dripping with luxury' aestheticism on the other hand ...ascetic-aesthetic'; light-dark; spartan-excess; fasting and feasting...

This was the Way of Negation: Christianity by means of denial and then lapses, and recreations from that strenuousness.

Psychologically, this is a young man's concept of the world, the unattached and solitary consciousness; a perspective which lacks any serious interest in in the mature man's natural and proper focus on marriage and family - rejecting the Way of Affirmation as Charles Williams dubbed it - rejecting marriage and family as second rate and a compromise: what moderns call a 'sell-out'.


In a nutshell, Medieval life, both East and West, lacked sweetness.

And it lacked sweetness, because sweetness is about (derives-from) faithful and loving monogamous marriage and even more so from Life (specifically Christian Life) conceptualized primarily, or ideally, or in its highest and best form, as family life with children.

As briefly as possible: the essence and ideal of sweetness comes from loved and loving children. 


In this sense the post-medieval world has - in some times and places - out-matched all the ancient times; has a higher, better, more wholesome ideal of Life and in particular of Christian Life. 

And from this perspective, Medieval and Classical life seems - and indeed really was; for all its splendour, courage, intensity - shallow, incomplete, and terribly sad.



dearieme said...

"Medieval and Classical life seems - and indeed really was; for all its splendour, courage, intensity - shallow, incomplete, and terribly sad": that depends on whether what we know about it is at all representative. You'd not expect to find much about family love in monastery archives, after all.

C. said...

How genuinely Christian is this conception of Life, though? If anything, the Gospels discourage marriage.

Christianity is one of the only religions that offer women an ideal apart from wife and motherhood--historically this has been one of its great appeals to women (considering that for most of history, childbirth has been horrific). When modern protestantism lost that, it lost its appeal a huge chunk of the population, which is sad. (not that religion is about popularity, but in terms of people's souls)

Arakawa said...

"I get a sense of living always under the shadow of impending doom, rather like the theory of courage of the Northern Pagans with Ragnarok."

Oddly enough, there is a similar sense I get from one thread of latter-day Orthodoxy as well (the somber thread associated with Seraphim Rose, Ignaty Brianchaninov and the modern-day 'remnant' churches). Taken too far, it states outright that not only can nothing be done to avert imminent catastrophe in the present world, striving to do so is a deadly distraction from the far more important business of personal salvation.

The opposite thread is a quasi-universalist sort of optimism (commonly seen in the modern-day 'world Orthodox' churches, a minority of Church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, and portions of Brothers Karamazov), which draws on a sense that, being created of God, the present fallen world (and therefore its peculiar institutions, such as marriage) is still wonderful in spite of all the efforts of the demons to vandalize it. I am probably more tempted to take this one too far.

When either of these is taken to an extreme, it can be likened to preaching repentance without gratitude, or gratitude without repentance.

Combining these opposite opinions into one, in fact, then approaches to an actually healthy worldview.

Bookslinger said...

@BC, why do you believe that the common men and women of medieval times (or any previous times) didn't take joy in occasional moments of sweetness of hearth and home?

Bruce Charlton said...

@BSl - I don't believe that. Nor did I say it! What I said is that they regarded 'sweetness of hearth and home' as an inferior and compromized state compared with an extremely rigorous, celibate, asceticism - either solitary/ eremetic (Eastern) or Monastic (Western).

@Ara - It is the former type which I most readily empathize with - although I am apparently utterly incapable of it! - and indeed do not actually want to do. But I can (I think) feel what it it would be like (analeptic thought!).

@C - I think Christianity is broad - and I greatly admire the achievements of monasticism, and especially the Eastern tradition. Nonetheless, I think Christianity had become very lop-sided and incomplete before the Reformation - and that to continue and correct misunderstandings about primacy of celibacy and emphasize the importance of marriage and family was what made necessary the Restoration (i.e. Mormonism; which has, I believe, covertly influenced modern US evangelicals who nowadays have a similar M&F style and emphasis).

Samson J. said...

If anything, the Gospels discourage marriage.


AlexT said...

Sorry to say, Bruce, but i have never disagreed with you more. I think your love of the Mormons is turning into a bit of idol worship. St.Paul explicitly states that celibacy is the highest calling and marriage was instituted to keep people from fornication. You may not agree but that is what he said and what the medieval Church taught. As for 'shallow, incomplete, and terribly sad', i really don't know what to say.....that is a stunning statement from someone who really should know better.
I am sorry for my angry tone, but this whole post stunned me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - I believe that the central tenets of Mormonism are true - presumably you do not - naturally our conclusions will differ; but it is not a matter of idol worship!

Believing Mormonism to be essentially correct, then there must be a reason for the church being brought into existence - and I suspect that sorting-out this Christian confusion about marriage and celibacy was one of the reasons (quite a lot of sorting out had already been done by the Reformation - which indeed often abolished monasticism).

So clearly I do not accept that a specific interpretation of a single phrase attributed to St Paul is sufficient to dispose of the question of celibacy! I very much oppose that style of theological reasoning, indeed I think it has very obviously been refuted by centuries of failure and Protestant schism.

(For what it is worth, the Bible-based Christian church I attend - which tends to argue using specific verses, and is in the Paul-focused tradition of Christian doctrine - does NOT interpret this passage as arguing for celibacy as the ideal.)

The question boils down to (celibate) monk versus (paternal) patriarch - who is to be regarded as the exemplar or ideal?

Having wavered around, I would now say the patriarch is a higher ideal - but of course monks have in the past made stunning achievements and provided astonishing examples of holiness.

But these are rare exceptions rather than the rule or norm (exceptions are real and may be extremely valuable - but should not set precedents); and at any rate this Christian possibility seems to have all-but vanished from the face of the earth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - Indeed; Fr Seraphim Rose being a great example.

And I think monasticism has to be ascetic in order to 'work' properly; otherwise it degenerates into something like a theological college.