You see, my friends, that our self-inflicted foggy maze starts to crumble and we don't need a Baedecker to find our way out. We only have to go on threading over the bruised fragments of commonly believed platitudes. As Nancy Banks-Smith wrote on The Guardian years ago: in my experience, if you have to keep the lavatory door shut by extending your left leg, it's Modern Architecture. And we could paraphrase: if you just can't find your bearings in a mess, it's Common Wisdom.
After having set about the farcical idea of unselfishness, let's attack a further pair of connected platitudes: a) this time is the worst of all past times; b) only a "spiritual" approach can solve the present problems (and so we must convert ourselves to virtue, redress our guilts and correct all past wrongdoings).
The first argument is easily dismissed; the second less so.
Some of our contemporary fellows think they have the answer. They quote a sentence of the odd Rabbi of Galilee, who reportedly said: Blessed the poor in spirit, because they will inherit the earth. This seems to mean that our time is satanic indeed, because the poor are not owning the earth, and in fact many a modern clergy, eager to accomodate political correctness in the gospel, trumpets that the dejected ought to be the world bosses (some of them, the liberation theologians, mail all the world round some post-cards with a picture of Christ-with-the-Rifle = in their somnambulism are they confusing the peaceful Jesus with somebody else? are they inadvertently worshipping the slaughterous zealot BarAbbas?) When I was a boy, instead, the priests of that time had explained to me that the poor in spirit are those wanting [to find God] and they will inherit the earth [because it will be one day entirely populated by Godfearers].
Here, my friends, waiting for your comments, I have ready my own answer to dismiss both arguments: humankind had times at least as bad as these we are in now; and a world of Godfearers is less than a nice world to live in. The theologian-designed "spiritual" society in bloody Europe of fourteenth century turned out to be anything but! Ask my friend Barbara.
Barbara W. Tuchman graduated from Radcliff College and won her first Pulitzer prize in 1962, at the age of 50 (a second Pulitzer was awarded to her in 1971, for her success book Sand against the Wind). She had come to prominence as an historian with The Zimmermann Telegram, published when she was 47. A quite remarkable lady, my friends. During my years in China I had much enjoyed her Notes from China, as well as her The March of Folly.
Now I would suggest that you read her last book, A Distant Mirror (The Calamitous Fourteenth Century) published by Macmillan Papermac.
You will enjoy her gifts of synthesis in those fascinating pages on an epoch of incomparable bloodshed, violence and waste, the decades of Chaucer and Boccaccio, the time of the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death, of the great fame of Dante, of extravagant civilization and bizarre superstitions, of pilgrimage and plague, of enraged revolts.
The main issue of that religion-imbued century was supposed to be eternal salvation of the flock (as the main issue of this present century in this very same Europe seems to be wealth redistribution), and yet economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, decay of manners were the common ingredients of the fourteenth century picture along with plague, wars, taxes, brigandage and bad government. And yet Christian religion was the matrix and law of European medieval life, omnipresent, indeed compulsory. Its insistent principle that the life of the spirit and of the afterworld was superior to the here and now, to material life on earth, remained just that, a principle, behind the theologians' aim to wield despotic authority over men's conscience - as Frederick the Great would write to Voltaire some centuries later. The gap between medieval Christianity ruling principle and everyday life is the great pitfall of the Middle Ages, which gave Edward Gibbon occasion for delicately malicious hints about hypocrisy of ideals as opposed to natural human functioning. Medieval society, while professing belief in renunciation of the life of the senses, did not renounce it in practice, and no part of it less so than the Church itself. Many tried, a few succeeded, but the generality of mankind seems not made for renunciation.
It's exhilarating seeing how people can be simultaneously smart and fool, acute and credulous: many of them feel all right in sinning and then being absolved from their sins. You will be amused reading how in some cases absolution was requested and granted in advance: in that century when for some forty years two popes ruled the flock in competition between them (no doctrinal divergence about dogmas or Filioque, just plain power struggle) = and each of them excommunicated the believers of the other, planning not-so-holy wars of vengeance = mercenary bands of criminals fought for anybody would pay: the funny side of the story is that, nasty as they were, in their credulous sagacity those felons of the Free Companies exacted absolution in advance before being committed to killing the foes of the payer. Do you wonder about John Wyclif's perplexities?
Well, they are called The Dark Ages, and dark they were. Any spark of light would have been unwelcome: not only it was dangerous to toy with primitive astronomical instruments and/or venture into any speculation in odour of originality (then called heresy = at that time ecology was not yet a popular issue, therefore polluting the air by burning christians at the stake was not considered a reprehensible practice); it was simply impossible to find any spark of light left from the past, even an innocent manual as Diophantus' Arithmetica could not be read, since religious bigotry had conveniently destroyed, some centuries before, the Library of Alexandria in the old pagan temple of Serapis. The knowledge of some six-hundred previous years had been burnt to ashes by the faithful mob and the light of that fire signalled the Darkness of the Ages.
(8. To be continued)