The Middle Ages was an era of international culture with an international language. It was an era in which only specialists had the education to keep abreast of the latest developments in their fields. It was an era when credulous masses could be made to believe in literally anything of which they were told enough times. It was an era which devised means of war and murder cruel beyond the imaginings of the most psychopathic Roman, and an era which ended with a scale of death so massive that the end times were thought nigh by most observers. It was an era when religion held so powerfully in the minds of human beings that humans disregarded their poverty and squalor as a mere test for the joys to come. It was an era when images supplanted words and those images were controlled by an elite who understood words. This elite absolved the commoners of any and all sins. It was an era so nihilistic that it was full of optimism.
The medieval world is like our world, but it is not our world yet again. Yet we come ever closer to the Middle Ages, and it may still become our world. In recent generations, we’ve evolved to the point of devolution. We’ve evolved so much that we are yet again beginners in this world. We have realities more proven than ever in history, and those realities have given us a whole new set of uncertainties and a beginning of consciousness at a level undreamt even a lifetime ago.
Like all transitional periods, it resembles adolescence. When life deals with us reliably, we experience transitional emotions - joy and sadness intermingle constantly on the emotional spectrum, and all the grey hues of maturity make themselves manifest. But when life itself is transitional, it is our emotions which are completely reliable - reliably manic; with all the bright colors of primary emotions making themselves known in a succession which completely obliterates the emotion we felt just a moment ago. The only hues which mix in adolescence are those of fear and fascination - the call of the new for which we feel both intense longing and fear no less. When life is in transition, we are again like pubescents newly awakening to the largeness of the world - unable to process anything we see except in the most primal terms, making do with reductive explanations, and experiencing emotion with an immediacy which maturity disavows. We disregard the familiar and search for a new self, we come to believe that which we could never believe before, and we become new people.
The Renaissance era of human history did not end with the Baroque. It ended alongside Old Europe, and all the Renaissance ideals of Western Man as the source of cultivation and human progress ended when Gdansk, Calais, Dunkirk, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hanover, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Wroclaw, Warsaw, Freiburg, Wuppertal, Milan, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kobe, Tokyo, Kiev, Minsk, and Leningrad went up in smoke one and all, and became unrecognizable from the cities they’d once been. With them died all the three great ideals of the Renaissance - humanism, rationalism, and empiricism. And just as the greater part of the civilized world seems ready to embrace the Renaissance, the new limits of human knowledge disprove all three. No longer can Man be seen as the center of the world when the technology upon which he’s dependent makes him a mere drone in its hive. No longer can reason alone conquer human beastliness after an age when philosophy and science themselves were used as the justification to kill other human beings. And no longer can sensory experience become reality’s ultimate arbiter in an age when existence can only be understood when we accept that the vast majority of the universe consists of phenomena we neither understand nor see.
We know too much to believe in the Renaissance anymore. We have become so self-conscious that we are no longer conscious, so self-critical that we are no longer critical, so knowledgeable that we are completely ignorant. No longer is universal knowledge a legitimate or feasible goal in an era when the world’s confirmable knowledge grows by the second. Electronics let us absorb more information, give us more information about more people, create whole new artforms and branches of scientific inquiry, and do all of that at levels that seem to grow exponentially by the year. Will this rate of intellectual growth continue for another decade? Another century? Another millenium?
The Middle Ages was an era which believed in the truth of every lie: every angel and demon, every saint and witch, every legend, every rumor. We do not believe in the truth of every lie, and yet there are theories of infinite multiverses which would have us believe that even if our universe makes such events impossible, there exists an infinity of other universes in which such events not only possible, but inevitable. Furthermore, even if we do not believe in the truth of every lie, we believe in the lie of every truth. The Middle Ages saw realities where there were none, we see unrealities where there is reality. With philosophies of language cognition and deconstruction, we parse apart the meanings of our very words to show that they can never mean what we think they mean. And lest you think all these theories never have no basis in reality, think of everyday professions. What do insurance companies do but posit and evaluate the likelihood of every possible occurrence? What do lawyers do but parse our language to show that the things people say and write may mean something different from what we think they do?
The Middle Ages believed in God. We have yet to know whether God is truly an invention of the past, and that answer will probably not be revealed in the lifetime of anyone yet born. But what we do know is that Atheist belief attained more public fealty in recent years than at any time in human history, and only science could make that possible. In the Middle Ages, God was the axle upon which humanity placed a wheel of comprehension; and all the possibilities, all the multiversed realities of medieval existence were contained within the simple explanation that Lord God made it all. In our world, the most educated believe that science can yet explain all the universe’s phenomena. It certainly has a better chance of explaining such phenomena than religion, but I’m hardly the first to suggest that perhaps one day, centuries and millennia in the future, science will reveal itself as merely another mythology in the attempt of humans to understand the reality in which we live. But like all mythologies, its hold on imaginations which believe in it (like mine) is fundamentally unbreakable. For the first time in over 500 years, life is a true mystery and all things are possible. It's been half a millennium since those who know the most seem to know the least. What will the reinstatement of spiritual awe to the summit of human thought bring out in us?