We are not likely ever to err by admiring the past too much. We might overrate a past epoch relatively: relative to other epochs, relative to our own. We might, indeed we almost certainly will, underestimate the evils, and the deficiencies, of a past age. How can we know them all? But by the same token, and more importantly, we can never know, much less render accurately and vividly available to our imaginations, all the good things, the achievements, the splendors, the pleasures, the excellences, and the virtues of a past age, for there was too much in it, in the lived experience, and probably also in the moral efforts, of its participants, for us ever to do imaginative justice to. Precisely because we can never succeed, it is well worth trying. Efforts to admire a past age more, more thoroughly, vividly, and accurately, which of course is not the same as being blind to its faults, are unlikely to go to waste. If such efforts are humble and conscientious, attentive and sympathetic, they will probably bring us closer to the truth, and thereby enrich us, morally and imaginatively. Admiring the past makes us wiser, because every past epoch probably has, though some epochs far more than other, at least some respects in which it is better than our own, and we can, ought to, and often do learn from the best that each past age has to offer.
As an example, modern Western Europe learned much from Ancient Greece. Philhellenism was one of the most persistent themes in the intellectual history of Europe for centuries. When to date it from is hard to say, but an early landmark in Western European philhellenism is the13th-century philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the Christian monk, who made a bold and risky choice to be a disciple of Aristotle, the pagan philosopher. Then the Italian city-states of the Renaissance filled with Greek-schooled humanists and made societies that looked like ancient Greek poles, with commerce and republicanism and sculpture in the classical style. By that time and for centuries afterwards, Greek was part of a gentleman’s education, to the dismay of Thomas Hobbes, the chief philosopher of absolutism, who though the liberties of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in their heyday, set a pernicious and dangerous example for the subjects of the kings and emperors of Europe. So it proved, perhaps, for the American and French revolutionaries looked to the ancients for inspiration and practical lessons, and aspired to a republicanism like Rome’s or a democracy like Athens’. And philhellenism still hadn’t run its course. Educated gentlemen of the 19th century knew ancient Greek, and the great thinkers of the age were as much at home in the classical world as in the world of their contemporaries. Thus, J.S. Mill, the greatest luminary of Victorian liberalism, began studying Greek at the age of three, and was well-versed in the Greek classics by ten, and drew richly on the experiences of the ancients as he crafted his political philosophy. But Friedrich Nietzsche too, than whom no one could be further from the spirit of J.S. Mill, was also a great classical scholar, and he also took inspiration from the Greeks, though from the grim godlike heroes of the Iliad rather than the urbane politicians of democratic Athens. Later the Anglo-Catholic world historian Arnold Toynbee, too, developed his influential historiosophy out of his profound mastery of Greco-Roman classical history.
It seems rather strange and disproportionate that the ruling class of the early 20th century British Empire, whose wealth, power, population, knowledge, geographic reach, moral enlightenment and justice in government far surpassed that of any Ancient Greek republic, should have been learning at the feet of a handful of small city states during a couple of centuries two thousand years before. And probably by that time philhellenism really was a suboptimal use of Europe’s imaginative resources, and needed to be retired, which it duly was. Nowadays, hardly anything is more passé than studying Latin and Greek. Yet it’s hard to deny that Europe profited by its long love affair with the ancient Greeks. One might almost say that Europe learned more from the Greeks than the Greeks ever knew. To put the point less paradoxically though no less vividly, Europe fulfilled many of the dreams and aspirations of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Athens dreamed of egalitarian democracy, and practiced it imperfectly for a little while. Modern America practiced it on a vastly larger scale, more stably and longer, and more thoroughly too, living up to the best principles adumbrated by ancient Athens better than the ancient Athenians ever had. Similarly, Aristotle was the first example in history of a type that has become the modern academic, calm and thorough and objective, single-mindedly accumulating and organizing knowledge in book after book. We have many, many academics in the mold of Aristotle, building up the edifice of knowledge. And so forth.
Yet this philhellenism was not characteristic of the age immediately following the end of the classical Greco-Roman civilization. On the contrary, the great contrast that was uppermost in the minds of the generations following Constantine was between a Christianity grateful for its triumph and its safety, and the wicked old paganism that had persecuted it so often and so ruthlessly for centuries. Christians long feared a return of paganism. After a generation of Christian emperors they had to live through a renewal of persecution under the pagan revivalist emperor Julian the Apostate. Pagans were a strong presence in the public square for a century after the conversion of Constantine. They had persecuted Christians before, and there was little reason to think they wouldn’t do it again, if they had the chance. Long after classical paganism faded as a religion, statutes of Greek gods lingered on in Byzantium, and public officials held offices and enforced laws inherited from the Roman Republic. The great characteristic evils of paganism, superstition and statism, are well symbolized by the demand that the Roman Empire kept making of the Christians which they kept refusing to obey: the demand to burn incense to Caesar, worshiping him as a god. From the earliest generations, Christians cautiously admired and borrowed selectively from pagan philosophers, but nostalgia for and enjoyment of the great panorama of Greco-Roman classical antiquity was too dangerous. It could reawaken old bad habits. Only by the High Middle Ages could Europe love and learn from classical antiquity from a safe distance.
The West since the Protestant Reformation has been in a reaction against the Middle Ages similar to that of Christian Europe in the centuries after Constantine against pagan classical antiquity. And not without reason. The Middle Ages had their faults, like illteracy, serfdom, torture, a little too much war, wicked kings, arrogant nobles, and above all, the Inquisition. We demonize the past, because the past had its demons, and we want to exorcise them thoroughly, and make sure they don’t come back. But just as Christian Europe finally forgave classical antiquity for slavery and the arena, and began to enjoy it from a safe distance, and more than that, to study in its school, so the time has come to forgive the Middle Ages, and begin to appreciate them instead. We need no longer fear baronial wars or the inquisitor’s auto da fe. We can safely indulge in, and we can profit greatly by what I might call, perhaps coining a word, a philo-medievalism as enthusiastic and enduring as the philhellenism of modern Europe. For the Middle Ages were different, for good and ill. We can learn from them, learn more, perhaps, even than they ever knew, as modern Europeans learned from the Greeks.
No sooner do I make this call for philo-medievalism than I realize that it’s already here. If you met a child and wanted to talk about a movie, which one would you pick? Likely “Cinderella,” or “Sleeping Beauty,” or “The Sword and the Stone,” or some other Disney masterpiece. All these have quasi-medieval settings, with castles and kings. If you met a stranger and had to choose one literary work to talk about that he’s likely to have read, what would it be? Very likely, Lord of the Rings, which is also set in a quasi-medieval setting of horses and swords and kings and belief in the supernatural. Written between 1937 and 1949, it has enthralled three generations, and inspired a whole new genre, fantasy, and a host of imitators. Our imaginations seem to yearn for medieval things, and literature panders to that taste.
Fantasy literature, in turn, has been translated into computer games and video games: Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, Baldur’s Gate, etc. And millions of young men have spent countless hours in these imaginary worlds, with their archaic technology, their pre-modern political values and institutions, and their more or less Christian sensibilities, for they are full of wholesome heroism and free of pagan superstition and polygamy and slavery.
The recent movie “Tolkien” portrays a young J.R.R. Tolkien whose budding scholarly career is on the brink of ruin because he has only a passing interest in the ancient Greeks, when he is saved by a philologist specializing in the Germanic languages of peoples who took center stage in history in medieval times. That was a turning point. Soon after that, philhellenism went out of fashion, while fantasy began to thrive. Tolkien’s “Middle-Earth” is not explicitly medieval, and the word “knight” is hardly used in Lord of the Rings, but it has a medieval flavor. It is a pre-modern and magical but not a pagan world, with characters of whom a Christian can approve, with a purity and innocence alien to Greco-Roman antiquity, which feels mystic esteem at kings and mystic thrill at old legends, with a merry and unprogressive peasantry in the form of the hobbits.
Philo-medievalism didn’t begin with Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis. A generation before, there were Henry Adams and G.K. Chesterton. The Middle Ages had a champion of sorts in Walter Scott, but while Scott set his novels in the Middle Ages, and doubtless thrilled many readers with the romance of the Middle Ages in spite of himself, he was cynical and condescending about them. And it was a failure of his imagination that he projected the nationalist preoccupations of his own day back on to medieval times when other forms of identity were more important. It mattered more to Scott that Ivanhoe was a Saxon, not a Norman, more than such things would have mattered to any medieval. Scott’s detail and gritty realism might make a reader feel at home in the Middle Ages, but he was hardly more of a philo-medievalist, than Mark Twain, whose A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court the young C.S. Lewis read for the sake of the medieval and romantic elements in it, blind to the ridicule to which those were subjected. Poets like Tennyson, Coleridge and Keats were more imaginatively in touch with the Middle Ages than Walter Scott. Further back, perhaps the morning star of philo-medievalism was Miguel de Cervantes. More on that later.
Tolkien, I think, was sometimes accused of “escapism,” and himself listed “escape” as one of the purposes of fantasy in his brilliant essay “On Fairy Stories.” He defends the escapism of fantasy literature beautifully, yet not quite convincingly, by taking the metaphor seriously, and saying, more or less, that if fantasy is an escape, reality must be a prison, and if reality is so degraded as to be a prison, isn’t it a good thing if we can escape it through fiction? The same defense might be made of the madness of Don Quixote, by which he escaped an unworthy real world to enjoy a better world where his lofty conscience could feel at home. But the trouble with escapism is that we hope the real world is not a prison, or if it is, will not continue to be a prison. We should wish, not merely to escape it, but to reform it. It seems desirable that fiction and art educate our imaginations, not only in beautiful, impossible things, however they may refresh our spirits, but also in practical ways to live better in this world, and practical means to make this world a better place.
Middle-Earth never existed, but the Middle Ages did. And while some of the charm of Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft and the rest comes from their magic, which is impossible to the world we live in, much of it comes from their medievalism, from horses and swords and the wild and kings and quests and the simple life and the great adventure, and nostalgia for all that, for all those things that the Middle Ages seem to have had more of than we, can become a practical program. Not that we can simply rewind technology. A sword, for example, has simply become much less useful when there are guns. But is it really the sword we yearn for, or is it the swordsman? Do our imaginations pine for a narrow strip of metal with a sharp edge, or is the sword a symbol of all the courage with which it has been wielded by so many heroes for a thousand years? That courage is still possible with different technologies.
If I am right in what I suggested above, the best reason why fantasy literature has hitherto been merely escapist is that we have not yet been at a sufficient distance from the Middle Ages to safely emulate them, without risking a revival of their evils. Only in 1995, for example, did the Catholic Church apologize for the Inquisition. And so people of good will had good reason to keep their philo-medievalism merely escapist, a refuge for the imagination, a source of entertainment and spiritual refreshment, but not an inspiration for practical ethics or politics. When people in 1959 walked out of the movie theater after seeing Walt Disney’s cinematic masterpiece Sleeping Beauty, set in the 14th century, they dutifully went back to being good modern liberals in real life, because the Catholic Church was the ally of wicked dictatorships like that of Francisco Franco in Spain, and the scions of the feudal aristocracy still had more power in England, through the House of Lords, than they probably should have. To exalt the Middle Ages would have encouraged contemporary wrongdoers. But now the Catholic Church is democracy’s best friend, and the House of Lords has been diluted by ennoblements of celebrities to the point where it has little to do with the old feudal nobility. Mere residual medievalism is no longer a threat, so conscientious neo-medievalism may begin.
In other words, we can now stop restraining our love of the Middle Ages lest we revive old bad habits, for we’re not likely to. It’s time, instead, to cultivate a love of the Middle Ages in order to regain old virtues and glories. Of course, we won’t precisely get the Middle Ages back. But we might make societies and cultures that resemble the Middle Ages as much as the city-states of Renaissance Italy resembled the city-states of Ancient Greece.
In the next post, let me take you on a tour of the Age of Chivalry, to bring it home to your imagination why that would be a splendid thing.