Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

Anyway, desire for meaning and adventure (in a world always seeming to be spinning out of control) make escapist retreat into the thought-world of the Medieval Period especially attractive. Moreover, familiar archetypes from that era (though of questionable authenticity) offer greater legibility and certainty over today’s relativism. I had thought that certainty in the 21st century, given our cultural inheritance, requires basic adherence to accuracy, and accordingly, that the best tools for ascertaining truth win out over mere assertion. This was a mistake. What postmodern thought instead demonstrates is that truth is whatever wild interpretation one has the ability to promulgate, whether by arch argumentation or by force. Rejecting the Enlightenment, its rationality, and its methods, then, opens the door to power plays that foist flatly nonsensical doctrines on those (like me) who thought evidence would easily overcome loose asseveration. To wit, intersectional struggles and distortions, such as “patriarchal math” and denial of male/female biology, have spawned well beyond their cradle in academe and infected the workplace and politics.

In light of these bizarre developments, I now have a better sense why the infamous exchange between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the grounding of truth in evidence (Harris) or efficacy (Peterson) went so badly for Harris (see my earlier blog post on this subject). Harris was flummoxed by Peterson’s bald assertions, just as I am by woke agitators seeking to install craziness in public debate over a variety of issues. (Isn’t it ironic that as a conservative thinker who has risen repeatedly in defense of the West and its Enlightenment traditions, Peterson has handed the radical left basic tools they employ to undermine authority?) See, I was educated and trained to perceive and understand reality a certain way, not that I’ve always followed that training with 100% fidelity. I can think for myself, after all. However, students since roughly 1985 (especially those outside the hard sciences) are not receiving that same education. Instead, they often specialize in so-called grievance studies, which, like the Medieval mind, don’t hew closely to truth, logic, or evidence. It’s not simply a matter of generational conflict, though it tends to break that way. Older teachers, administrators, and politicians (i.e., careerists who ought to know better) have set sail with prevailing winds, namely, identitarian ideologies now tearing apart American society. Here’s a Paul Chefurka quote (reused from this blog post) that observes a similar change of sea or intellectual reorientation:

Growing up, I was taught that the world worked in a particular way: that governments were of the people, for the people; that humans were conscious, rational creatures; that policy was guided by sound science; that human beings learned from their mistakes; that the future would be better than the past.

Now … I discover that absolutely none of it is true. Governments are of the rich, for the rich; human beings are largely unconscious and most of our decisions spring from emotion rather than reason; policy is guided by greed for wealth and lust for power; most people want today to be about the same as yesterday, mistakes and all; and the future looks not just dim but bleak. [emphasis in original]

I’ll hand it to the radicals; they grokked something many of us feared was true hoped was not true, that in human affairs, it’s really all about power (a/k/a the rule of force a/k/a Petersonian truth). They recognized that the old regime (septuagenarians and octogenarians) so far refuses to relinquish power or share wealth diverted into their own coffers. They further recognized that their prospects are indeed bleak in an environment stripped of most of its resources already and in ecological free fall. They echo previous fin de siècle ideologies (French and American Revolutions at the end of the 18th century, or Maurrasism and Sorelianism centered around the end of the 19th century). Our own struggle is another example of end-of-century social and political exhaustion (see also chiliasm and Zoroastrianism). Whether the new, would-be regime is demanding defunding of the police, intimidating others into displays of support for BLM, tearing down statues, occupying buildings, or creating autonomous zones, they’re flexing their power like fascists of yore (e.g., Jacobins and Girondins, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks). No one knows how the future will manifest if one of several competing groups gains the upper hand, and activists have only vague inklings of actual programs to enact beyond some sort of RightThink about the aggrieved. But first, a rapid descent into barbarism is the historic model.

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