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The Tragedy of Theology

November 9th, 2011 by Jim May · 37 Comments · Uncategorized

“Here is the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction—studying nothing. In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; and so, for most of a millennium, as human beings screamed in agony—decaying from starvation, eaten by leprosy and plague, dying in droves in their twenties—the men of the mind, who could have provided their earthly salvation, abandoned them for otherworldly fantasies.”

— from Dr. Andrew Bernstein’s “The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages” at The Objective Standard.

The Dark and Middle Ages are a gaping maw of a weak spot in the arguments of primitive religionists who seek to usurp the fruit of the secular Enlightenment — in particular, liberty and America — for themselves and their Judeo-Christian beliefs.  For the most part in Internet fora, religious conservatives pushing this line will run like hell (or drop to schoolyard invective) from anyone with even a passing knowledge of Dark Ages history.

The only exceptions I’ve seen invariably revolved around some variant of the idea that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all, but had merely been misrepresented as such by anti-clerical thinkers during the Enlightenment.  If this claim could be solidified, then those fleeing religionists might finally have a card to play.  In light of this demand, it should be no surprise that Rodney Stark’s book is exactly what the doctor of theology ordered: an attempt to give that weak evasion some intellectual traction.

It is telling that the only one so far that is equipped to recognize and call out this fraud, is an Objectivist like Dr. Bernstein.  Thank you Dr. Bernstein for this ammunition; I’ll be putting it into my ideological holster, ready for use when the Dark Ages apologists start deploying Stark.

 

37 Comments so far ↓

  • madmax

    I am curious how people here would respond to this. It is Larry Auster’s critique of anyone who claims that Christianity is not central to the development of the West. I disagree with Auster, but as you will see he does make some interesting arguments. I am no fan of Christianity, but I don’t think that it was 100% evil. It had better elements that allowed the West to develop. We were going to get some religion as the foundation of European culture. It came to be Christianity. It could of been worse (Islam), it could have been better. Anyway, here is Auster’s apologia for the Christian Dark and Middle ages. Its interesting:

    There is no excuse for an intelligent person such as yourelf to have the kind of ignorance of rudimentary facts of history that you display. I cannot supply you with the basic general reading that you should have done by this point in your life, but any mainstream history of Western civilization, including even popular histories written by secularists such as Will Durant and H.G. Wells, will show the central role of the Catholic Church in forming the West. Your view of our civilization as based only on Greco-Roman culture and modern science, and having nothing to do with Christianity and the Church, is pure ignorance parading as superior knowledge.
    I will give you a very brief survey answer, and then let you do some reading on your own.
    The Classical civilization came to an end in the West with the destruction of the Western Roman empire by Germanic tribes in the 5th century and the utter decay of its civilization. The Catholic Church, which had become the official religion of Rome in the 4th century, was the only surviving institution of the Roman world, in a Europe given over to barbarism, violence, and insecurity. Over hundreds of years, the Germanic and Celtic barbaric nations of Europe were slowly Christianized, in the process becoming settled nations under a rule of law. The merging together of Christianity (which carried much of the classical culture with it) with the cultures of the Germanic barbarians represented the beginning of a new civilization, which we now call the West.
    As a result, Western civilization is not a single thing, but an amalgamation of (1) the culture of the destroyed classical world, (2) the Christian religion, and (3) the cultures of the Northern barbarians. This amalgamation took place during the 500 years that you dismiss as the Dark Ages. Yes, they were “dark,” in that civilization had come to an end and Europe was prey to continual barbarian raids that made a safe and settled life impossible. But in this darkness a new culture and civilization was taking shape. Read the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church about how, starting in 597, Roman Catholic bishops were sent by the Pope to Engand and began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and how that common religion made the separate pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the English nation. Or read how the Carolingians (Pippin, Charles Martel, Pippin the Short, and Charlemagne) over generations slowly subdued the barbaric German tribes and Christianized them, helped by Irish and English monks such as Boniface who spent their lives traveling and preaching and converting in the wild forests of Germany. Or read how the Benedictine Order, whose rule was obedience to God, re-civilized vast ruined areas of Europe and created prosperity by combining monastic devotion with productive agriculture. Or read of the great period of Irish Christianity (also during the Dark Ages), when the illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells–creations that are at the absolute summit of our civilization–were made, and also many classical works were preserved from barbarian destruction.
    As a result of this slow Christianizing and civilizing process, and the fact that the Catholics of Europe, led by the Carolingians, were able to drive back the Arab Moslem invaders from France in the early 8th century, subdue the gangster realm of the Avars in Eastern Europe, and rescue the Papacy from the barbarian Lombards, and the fact that other barbarian invasions quieted down, Europe by the 11th century emerged as a dynamic, prosperous civilization again, no longer besieged, and the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300) had begun. That’s what made the first Crusade possible. For the first time, the European Catholics, instead of being attacked by the Moslems, were in a position to try to re-take the once-Christian Eastern lands that had been conquered by the Moslems in the 7th century. The High Middle Ages also brought the Norman architecture and then the Gothic architecture–further summits of civilization that nothing modern can match.
    The High Middle Ages were the product of the Early Middle Ages (the Dark Ages), and in turn served as the foundation of modern Western civilization.
    Again, it was Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, which, over centuries, slowly turned the rough Germanic barbarian warriors of Europe into civilized, peaceful, and law-abiding men, turned barbarian tribes into Christian nations, and made possible the later achievements of the Renaissance and modernity.
    An important principle of this Christian civilization was St. Augustine’s division of the world into the City of God and the City of Man. This in turn was based on Jesus’ all-important statement, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” This articulation of the world into the secular realm and the spiritual realm is a keynote of Western culture and distinguishes it from all other civilizations. It limits the power of the state over the individual, which makes it quite different from the classical civilization, where there was no inherent limit to political power and men belonged to the state. Classical citizenship was very different from modern Western (and Christian) citizenship.
    Our very notion of individualism, of an inviolable individual self, is a product of Judaism and Christianity, in which God is above man and creates man and gives each person a potential value which no human power has the right to violate. This concept did not come from the classical heritage. It came from Judaism and Christianity. John Locke’s notion of natural rights was derived directly from the Bible. Because God created man’s nature, God wants man to live, therefore man has a natural right to that which will make his life possible, namely life, liberty and property.
    Our Constitution, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, is derived from the Christian idea of original sin. Since man is inherently flawed, no man, and no human agency, should have unlimited power.
    I could go on and on showing the formative Christian components of our civilization.
    Yet you, ignorant of and alienated from these and many other principles of Western civilization, see the entire period between 500 and 1500 as merely a pit of darkness. You only know about the Classical and scientific aspects of the West. You have no knowledge of, or affection for, our civilization as a whole. As a result, real Western patriotism–which means not just love of the West but the ability to explain and defend the West–is not possible for you.
    You need to know more. You need to do some basic reading that is not limited to a modern, secular, anti-religious perspective.

  • madmax

    My point in posting this is to encourage Objectivists to be damn sure you get your history right. Too often I have seen historical falsehoods peddled with total ignorance and moral righteousness. Yes, supernaturalism is bullshit and Christian mythology is just that – mythology. But Christianity is more than just mythology. It is philosophy as well. And it does have some better epistemological points. Take for example the fact that the Thomistic god can’t square circles whereas the Islamic god can. That matters. And the Christian West and the Islamic world are proof of that.

    Be careful of your condemnation of the Dark and Middle Ages. Alot of interesting things happened with the fall of Rome. I just read a book that argues that it was the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that were responsible for the economic impoverishment of Europe and not the conquest of the Germanic tribes who for the most part continued Classical culture. Christianity may very well not have been that detrimental to the development of Europe as many Christian hating secularist argue.

    My point again, is to be CAREFUL here. Many Christians know their history and are NOT revisionists. They may be believers but that doesn’t necessarily make their history wrong.

    Bernstein’s article seems like it is well researched and his conclusion about religion is right. But I would like to see a more researched account of the Dark and Middle Ages before I conclude that Christianity did not contribute to the rise of Europe.

    One thing is for certain. Leftist skepticism will be the main cause of the fall of Europe (and America).

  • Neil Parille

    One book I’d recommend is Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers.

    The authors explode a number of myths such as Medievals believed the Earth was flat, the Church opposed anesthesia, Bruno was a martyr for science, etc.

    Check out the atheist blog Amarium Magnum for more info.

    Just the other day I heard an Objectivist repeat the bogus claim that Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd.” He got that BS from Leonard Peikoff, I imagine.

    As Mr. Max says, learn your history and get your sh** in order.

  • Mike

    “I just read a book that argues that it was the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that were responsible for the economic impoverishment of Europe and not the conquest of the Germanic tribes who for the most part continued Classical culture.” Let me guess, an old book from the late 1930s by Henri Pirenne, right? Or some newer book regurgitating the “Pirenne Thesis” in its entirety as a way of glossing over the ill effects of feudal disintegration by foisting it all on those nasty non-Christian Muslims, right? That’s as one-sided and decades out of date as the strawman regurgitations of Voltaire used by Larry Auster and his pestiferous, one-sidedly partisan lot as a foil in trying to restore the deservedly negative reputation the Early Middle Ages has in popular culture. For his time it was a useful book, but its argument is too one-sided.

    In short (very very short): Decline set in during the late Roman Empire (the discussion in A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire is still a good starting point–for example, the decline of cities in late antiquity caused by the centralization of imperial power led to their impoverishment by exorbitant taxation, etc.) and continued over several centuries. Besides Germanic invasions, there was also the devastating series of armed struggle by rival general-emperors that permitted large-scale Germanic invasions in the first place; and more devastating than Muslim invasions were the Viking raids (and to a lesser extent the Hungarian raids) that started very roughly around the same time. Very roughly it would appear that the spread of Islam disrupted Mediterranean trade routes already slammed hard by earlier economic decline, the others what little remained of the internal long-distance trade of Western Europe.

    And note that this is besides such things as the reconquests of Justinian, which devastated the most Romanized areas (especially Italy), and all of this during a time of climatic cooling that heavily impacted agricultural yields. Note too that the Germanic kingdoms continued some aspects of Roman administration but only on a much debased level, as you can see simply by comparing the Germanic law codes with the Roman (for example, my teacher Katherine Drew edited several of the former for publication, and a makeshift body of nonunified customs and rules ungeneralized into general principles they were indeed). By measures of literacy, lawfulness throughout society, number of shipwrecks, coin hordes, inferred population figures, etc., etc., as well as the evidence from more traditional philological tools of textual analysis, the Early Middle Ages were quite dark, not in the sense that the sun didn’t shine (ho ho, though it did get rather colder), but because the collapse of the Roman Empire (which probably could not have been avoided given the structure of the state and economy and the mentalities of the elite, and which the adoption of Christianity as the state religion certainly did not forestall) dragged down ancient learning with it. The most Christianity can claim is that it helped preserve some scraps of this learning for salvage by later generations–and the fact that these later generations of scholars were Christian thinkers is not due to any supposed superiority of Christianity as an intellectual system but because the Christian religious establishment had managed to secure political partnership with the secular rulers before the collapse, a source of political legitimacy that later rulers were only too happy to receive in return for supporting the rule of the Church over the minds and lives of their subjects.

    “Bernstein’s article seems like it is well researched and his conclusion about religion is right. But I would like to see a more researched account of the Dark and Middle Ages before I conclude that Christianity did not contribute to the rise of Europe.”

    Yes, despite the whitewashing BS of Larry Auster and his ilk, Bernstein’s article represents pretty well the standard view of the economic and social position of Europe during the Early Middle Ages among medievalists; his statements are consonant with what modern quantitative research has brought out, and seems fairly observant of the uncertainties in the analyses of such scholars as Angus Maddison. (Indeed, I’ve gone through Maddison’s works pretty closely and think he somewhat overestimates the prosperity of the later Middle Ages, but not grotesquely so, and mostly in comparison with China in the same era.)

    I mean, really, “Be careful of your condemnation of the Dark and Middle Ages. Alot of interesting things happened with the fall of Rome. I just read a book…” Yeah, clearly. Try reading a few dozen more yourself. Start with the Jones, Roger Collins’ Early Modern Europe: 300-1000, Averil Cameron’s The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 395-700 and The Later Roman Empire, Walter Goffart’s Romans and Barbarians: AD 418-584, and any number of other solid, serviceable, and often brilliant works of historical analysis–and for that matter something like Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages to at least get a start on the major figures in medievalist historiography (useful for when Auster and his ilk slander solidly Christian scholars who knew well enough from the evidence that the Middle Ages were far from their earthly paradise).

  • Mike

    Just the other day I heard an Objectivist repeat the bogus claim that Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd.” He got that BS from Leonard Peikoff, I imagine.

    First, what did Tertullian actually say? The usual statement is “I believe because it is absurd” (Credo quia absurdum), which is not the same as but quite comparable to his actual words:

    The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

    Note, however, that what is here translated as “unsound,” ineptus also meant “absurd, senseless” (as well as “tactless, silly, impertinent, unsuitable,” and the like), and this passage is quite often translated with “absurd” instead of “unsound”: For example, at the Catholic site New Advent (go to Ch. 5): “And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

    Second, what did Peikoff actually write? Possibly Parille has a different source in mind, but in The Ominous Parallels Peikoff quoted Tertullian as follows (p. 56): “It is believable, because it is absurd; it is certain, because it is impossible.” If this translation is BS, it’s a form of BS the Catholic Church itself is happy to peddle.

    …get your sh** in order.

    After you, Alphonse.

  • Mike

    Me:
    “the strawman regurgitations of Voltaire used by Larry Auster and his pestiferous, one-sidedly partisan lot…”

    In fact, this should have been aimed at Stark. The passage of Auster’s that Madmax quoted is a far sight better. Some places show interpretations I’d argue against (“It limits the power of the state over the individual, which makes it quite different from the classical civilization, where there was no inherent limit to political power and men belonged to the state,” for example, is not true of all of classical antiquity or of all classical thinkers, but it is true in effect of the period of decline–and note that in political theory after the end of antiquity, freedom in a view compatible with ours, as a part of that which the proper state is to safeguard, was really revived only starting in the Italian city states as a means of challenging the claims of political power by both Pope and Emperor, as by Marsiglio of Padua, whose Defensor pacis was based explicitly on Aristotle’s Politics), but it is in fact quite good on the whole.

  • Michael

    Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers.

    There’s already a lot of junk related to that book. People are referring to it in blogs and promoting it and failing miserably in basic things like causal reasoning.

    Look at this failure of logic:

    http://www.commongroundgroup.net​/2011/09/07/science-religion-and-​myth-3-did-the-medieval-church-su​ppress-scientific-thought/

    As for Tim O’Neill, he frequently takes things out of context in order to create misleading impressions, largely downplaying the repressiveness that took place in the Middle Ages.

  • Michael

    This is how Christian apologists claim that the Dark Ages weren’t so bad: lots of technological developments — some of which didn’t even exist in Ancient Greece — occurred during the Middle Ages. And Christian theocracy dominated the Middle Ages. Therefore, we are to conclude that Christian theocracy doesn’t retard progress.

    When people make that argument, they are making an equivocation. The equivocation is that they are eliding the distinction between the early Middle Ages (800 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) and the late Middle Ages (1200 A.D. – 1400 A.D.).

    The early Middle Ages was dominated by a Christian theocracy heavily influenced by St. Augustine’s Platonism and his emphasis on Original Sin. In the late Middle Ages (starting around 1200), there was a philosophic change; thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard rediscovered Aristotelian practical reason. They bastardized Christian philosophy as the Augustinian/Platonic influence waned and Aristotelian practical side emerged. This is the progression that led to the Renaissance. The progress of the late Middle Ages occurred, not as a consequence of Augustine-influenced Christian theocracy, but in spite of it. But apologists like Rodney Stark erase the distinction between early and late Middle Ages in order to make readers believe that early-Middle-Ages-style Christian theocracy didn’t pose a problem for the late Middle Ages’s progress.

    Tim O’Neill plays up the illiberal attitude of pre-Christian Roman emperors. What’s elided is that the post-Constanine emperors, particularly Theodosius, were still more illiberal.

  • Neil Parille

    http://phoenicia.org/tertullian2.html

    Finally, Tertullian’s argument “I believe it because it is absurd” has been shown to be a misquotation, but more importantly it is an example of a standard Aristotelian argumentative form. Put simply what Tertullian is actually saying is that

    …the more improbable an event, the less likely is anyone to believe, without compelling evidence, that it has occurred; therefore, the very improbability of an alleged event, such as Christ’s resurrection, is evidence in its favour. Thus far from seeking the abolition of reason, Tertullian must be seen as appropriating Aristotelian rational techniques and putting them to apologetic use.

    Indeed, in his Apology he demonstrated his familiarity with at least thirty literary authorities, which he probably had read first hand, rather than by referring to a handbook of quotations

  • Neil

    Mike,

    In his 1986 Religion Versus America, Peikoff says:
    ___

    What if a dogma cannot be clarified? So much the better, answered an earlier Church father, Tertullian. The truly religious man, he said, delights in thwarting his reason; that shows his commitment to faith. Thus, Tertullian’s famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God’s self-sacrifice on the cross: “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe it because it is absurd”).
    ___

  • Inspector

    Madmax,

    Any theory that it was the Muslim invasions that primarily dark-aged Europe wouldn’t stand up to the historical record. In Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, it is clearly shown that the economic devastation had already happened by that time. Which is not to say that such invasions weren’t a contributing factor, but Auster’s critique is clearly missing on a lot of other fronts, which the Mikes have already highlighted.

    But even so, it would be a straw man to say that we claim that Christianity was the sole factor to both the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages. Those were going to happen either way, but the point is that it contributed to both, and prolonging the latter, qua its differences with Aristotelian classicism.

    And the claims to individualism aren’t really disputed, either, as the doctrine of the individual soul is a matter of record. But, again, that’s something which didn’t get traction until the reforms of Aquinas. It wasn’t so much a virtue of Christianity as it was a chink in its armor that allowed Aristotelian Classicism back in.

    Eh, but as you said, it could have been worse. But it should be noted that this is indeed the stance of the “Christianity helped cause and prolonged the dark ages” position, so that’s not really a critique of that position, either.

  • Mike

    Auster:
    Yet you, ignorant of and alienated from these and many other principles of Western civilization, see the entire period between 500 and 1500 as merely a pit of darkness. You only know about the Classical and scientific aspects of the West. You have no knowledge of, or affection for, our civilization as a whole. As a result, real Western patriotism–which means not just love of the West but the ability to explain and defend the West–is not possible for you.

    While I mentioned that I find Auster’s passage quite good on the actual facts of the Middle Ages, this passage gets the gist of what is wrong with his interpretation. Why should we have “affection for our civilization as a whole”? It’s a mixture of good, bad, and ugly, and I’m sure he’d agree that we should reject the ugly and correct the bad in it…it’s just that he would disagree with Objectivists about what is good, bad, and ugly in it. After all, the Enlightenment is part of our civilization as well, but there are many aspects of it (such as the widespread rejection of racism and genetic determinism) for which Auster has no affection; why should we feel guilty for failing a standard he’s either too blind or too dishonest to hold himself to?

    And more deeply, who needs affection for understanding anyway? (Patience, yes; affection, no, otherwise no anti-Communist could critique Marxism and no one who has not undergone psychotherapy could critique Freudianism, to give two modern-day secular religions I have no doubt Auster has no affection for yet assuredly considers himself to understand well enough to reject.) He postures as having a profound understanding of the aspects of the West for which he clearly feels repugnance; why again should he condemn critics for flunking a standard he fails to hold himself to?

    More profoundly, he implicitly views “the West,” a geographical term, as a collective population culturally and racially uniform on some fudnamental level of ideas or institutions or mentalities in contradistinction to those other collectives he finds racially and culturally fundamentally incompatible with “us.” Why should we feel any affection for medieval obscurantism, religious dogma, and the divine right of kings–because the people who believed in them were notionally our ancestors, as opposed to those browner others who believed in different barbaric and repressive superstitions? Yes, strive to understand them on their own terms and in their own historical context, but keep your own judgment about the content of their ideas and don’t try to feel affection for those who don’t deserve it just because they’re earlier members of some supposed racial-geographic collective that contains us.

    And he himself lets the cat out of the bag here: As a result, Western civilization is not a single thing, but an amalgamation of (1) the culture of the destroyed classical world, (2) the Christian religion, and (3) the cultures of the Northern barbarians. Quite true. Precisely. It is not one single homogeneous thing with a consistent or at least coherent set of underlying principles. (That is what makes medieval history fascinating for those who study it, despite so often having no attraction to the life lived by its subjects or the ideas they held.) It’s a mixture of cultures and of basic ideas, of philosophies and religions, and it’s an uncritical adulation of historical accident at best to insist it should be defended as a whole. Western history and culture cannot be fully understood without understanding the mutual interactions of the different cultural and intellectual threads that make it up, and Auster is quite right in upbraiding the fool who treads the unknown (to him) reaches of a thousand-plus years of history. However, “real Western patriotism,” whatever the hell that means (and it’s probably something repugnant to reason and lovable only by racists and religionists), is a misguided goal, if not a false idol for the thinking mind.

  • Mike

    Parille, quoting someone else:

    “Finally, Tertullian’s argument “I believe it because it is absurd” has been shown to be a misquotation, but more importantly it is an example of a standard Aristotelian argumentative form. Put simply what Tertullian is actually saying is that

    …the more improbable an event, the less likely is anyone to believe, without compelling evidence, that it has occurred; therefore, the very improbability of an alleged event, such as Christ’s resurrection, is evidence in its favour. Thus far from seeking the abolition of reason, Tertullian must be seen as appropriating Aristotelian rational techniques and putting them to apologetic use.

    Yes, yes, I’m fully aware of this dodge. So what? It’s the same nonsense as the frequent Christian claim that because there were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, we must believe their testimony accurate on balance–a standard Christian apologists would rightly refuse to accept for the eyewitness testimony reported in the Qur’an, the National Enquirer, and the collected works of Charles Fort. People believe utter nonsense of every sort with striking frequency and doggedness, and the rational response is not to say, “Well, maybe that shaggy spot I thought I saw in the forest was a giant furry primate, despite no other evidence” or “Maybe Christ was resurrected, despite its utter nonsensicality” but rather to ask why someone would believe in Sasquatch as crashed flying saucer pilots (a choice example I remember encountering in a relative’s flying saucer fancier magazine) or that Christ came back from the dead in the face of their utter irrationality. It’s only if you want to believe and are willing to subordinate your reason to this wish regardless of the cost in a solid grasp of reality that that argument has any force at all. So no, Tertullian is not “appropriating” reason in service of faith but short-circuiting it because he really really wants to believe in the Resurrection. If you don’t share his wish, you won’t be convinced by his reasoning–indeed, you’ll see that it’s a classic case of sophistry and special pleading (since Christians are not likewise convinced of the truth supported by eyewitness accounts of Mohammed, the Buddha, or John Smith) clothing a ludicrous fallacy

  • Mike

    Michael:
    “This is how Christian apologists claim that the Dark Ages weren’t so bad: lots of technological developments — some of which didn’t even exist in Ancient Greece — occurred during the Middle Ages. And Christian theocracy dominated the Middle Ages. Therefore, we are to conclude that Christian theocracy doesn’t retard progress.”

    Quite so. There were improvements in agricultural technique and machinery, for example, that greatly increased the standard of living of significant segments of the population beginning about 1000 AD. This had nothing to do with the special features of medieval Christianity and their spread and growth much to do with a return of somewhat settled conditions around 1000 AD. (But keep in mind too that some monastic orders adopted these techniques and prospered thereby. This is an interesting historical fact worth pursuing. It is not a sign that medieval Christianity is peculiarly well suited to technological progress, never mind more general intellectual progress, any more than the survival of the poems of Catullus in one medieval manuscript apparently because of the efforts of an anonymous monk with a taste for erotic poetry means that medieval Christianity was not strongly antisexual in its views.)

    “When people make that argument, they are making an equivocation. The equivocation is that they are eliding the distinction between the early Middle Ages (800 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) and the late Middle Ages (1200 A.D. – 1400 A.D.).”

    Actually, the usual division is more that the Early Middle Ages started somewhat earlier, one common date useful for very broad periodization being 476 AD (the ouster of the last Western Roman Emperor), though perhaps more useful being the end of Justinian’s reign, around 560 AD, or later (one more obscure candidate being 639, the date of death of the last strong Merovingian king in France, Dagobert I). Since it’s a rough periodization I’d just plump for 500 AD and point out the caveats. The Early Middle Ages might best be taken as ending around 1000 AD, when the barbarian incursions finally largely ended, and the High Middle Ages ended with the Black Death of 1348; the medieval period is often dated ending around 1500 AD, with the conquest of Granada in 1492, the rule of Henry VII starting in England in 1485, and similar events symbolizing the rise of strong centralized national states with powerful monarchs as the key criterion for dividing the Middle Ages from Early Modern Europe. So 500-1000, 1000-1350, and 1350-1500 is a nice set of round numbers, though again you have to take into account the Renaissance as starting, depending on your particular weighting of the historical factors involved, in the Italian city-states around 1300 and spreading to northern Europe by 1500.

  • Inspector

    @Mike, post #12: Hear, hear!

  • Mike

    Parille quotes Peikoff thus:

    Thus, Tertullian’s famous answer, when asked about the dogma of God’s self-sacrifice on the cross: “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe it because it is absurd”).

    That’s an unfortunate lapse (and nothing more), but as I’ve mentioned here in other comments it’s not a serious misrepresentation of Tertullian’s views, which imply precisely “Credo quia absurdum” as a basis from which he argues–since his arguments are ludicrously fallacious in the absence of this basis.

    Moreover, it’s a common misquote of Tertullian to be found in many other authors–Kierkegaard was influenced by it, for example. It is so common, in fact, that the Latin form of the misquote, regardless of its textual status, is used as a label for a particular type of religious sophistry (or whatever gentler term Parille might wish to obscure that identification with) and its attendant mentality.

    I’ll end by saying that the preceding takes Parille’s argument on its own terms. Note that Parille himself is utterly hypocritical here, since he is a notorious peddler of misquotes, blatant misinterpretations, and logical and rhetorical fallacies.

  • Michael

    I’d also like to note that Tim O’Neill uses the Argument from Pedantry and employs lawyer’s history whenever he debates historical issues and even as he accuses his opponents of it. He reminds me of the Rothbardians who do cite actual historical facts, but they do so out of context, and they refrain from bringing up the facts that paint a more evenhanded portrait (referring to discussion of Lincoln)

  • Neil

    Mike,

    To the best of my knowledge I’ve never misquoted anyone in my war with Jim Valliant.

    In case you didn’t know, Barbara Branden’s biography has been confirmed by the 2009 bios of Heller and Burns.

    I think there is a reason why Valliant’s piece of sh** is out of print and no longer sold by the ARI.

  • c andrew

    Thanks, Mike for that illumination of history. The downside is that I now have to increase my wish list at amazon.

  • Inspector

    “Note that Parille himself is utterly hypocritical here, since he is a notorious peddler of misquotes, blatant misinterpretations, and logical and rhetorical fallacies.”

    “To the best of my knowledge I’ve never misquoted anyone in my war with Jim Valliant.”

    I couldn’t even make up this level of farce. I think a Simpsons quote is in order here.

    Birchibald T. Barlow: You know, there are three things we are never going to get rid of here in Springfield. One; the bats in the public library. Two; Mrs. McFierly’s compost heap. And three; our six-term mayor. The illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking spendocrat, Diamond Joe Quimby.

    Mayor Quimby: [listening to the radio, while watering his marijuana plants] Hey! I am no longer illiterate.

  • Neil

    Mr. Inspector,

    Do you think Valliant’s book is anything other than a dishonest piece of sh**t?

    Please tell me the people you have interviewed who have contradicted the Brandens’ account.

  • Embedded I

    Stop entertaining Pareille.

    Here you are discussing the greater character of Christianity, its role in Medieval Progress, the particulars that create such character, and he is quibbling over whether Peikoff used a quotation perfectly.

    Larry Auster’s points on there own may have utility to the overall picture, in contrasting Christianity with the Barbarians and Muslims. But, as you know, that contrast drawn across about one thousand five hundred years, is shockingly trivial when beside the exponentially accelerating developments that began with Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas (1200 AD) and the subsequent men of the Enlightenment. In that respect, Auster seems to be an historically correct version of Rodney Stark. But he still drops the context of time, defending the indefensible delays caused by mysticism.

    Consider: If St. Paul had promoted Aristotle in the early 1st century AD, man would have been on the moon in about 500 years… 500 AD is when, in competition with Christianity and Judaism, Mohammed started Islam! Imagine where humanity would be ~1500 years after landing on the moon… that could have been today!

    A good read on aspects of this topic is “A World Lit Only by Fire” by William Manchester. (It is no longer at ARB.)

  • Neil Parille

    Mr. Inspector,

    This is my critique of Valliant’s book:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/9421651/The-Passion-of-James-Valliants-Criticism

    Feel free to point out the mistakes.

    NP

  • Jim May

    Madmax is correct to assert that we Objectivists need to be sure of working from solid historical ground.

    It is worth noting, however that in his Auster quote, Auster is already moving the goalposts. I most certainly do not challenge the “central role” of Christianity in Western history. That’s a straw man, however. What is being challenged, is the idea that Christianity is *essential to what the West is about now*.

    They are saying that the West’s pre-eminence is due to its Judeo-Christian base. Well, that’s an assertion of ideological causality, see, not of history. Auster and his ilk are claiming that the great hockey stick of human progress is due to Christianity.

    Their attempt to rehabilitate the Dark Ages is their concession to the difficulty they are encountering in trying to get away with that claim; so they are trying to work an end-run around it by saying that the hockey-stick isn’t really all that sharp an “L”, but is more curved — i.e. by emphasizing technological progress during the pre-Enlightenment era relative to that which occurred in the aftermath of the secular Enlightenment.

    Tellingly, they rely on the epistemological corruption left its its wake by the Left, to get away with it. There’s no way they would be given *any* attention at all in a culture that hadn’t had its intellectual immune system so badly compromised.

    What I would love to do is to be able to examine the history of ideas in the West alongside someone with the specialized knowledge of history, in order to study the flow of ideas and their causality through it all.

    That would torpedo Auster and his ilk two ways.

    First, it would immediately kill their ability to use historical concretes as a means of argumentative obfuscation. This is because Christian apologists constantly imply ideological causation when they assert that Christianity brought about X,Y,Z in Western culture — but they cannot afford to have I.C. explicitly identified. Ideological causation operates on logic, so claims that X idea leads to Y culture where people engage in Z actions can be made and defended by reference to basic logic; a very common fallacy in both religious and Leftist argumentation is “correlation is causation”. Their victims don’t notice it because they aren’t aware that there is such a thing as ideological causation in the first place.

    The second way is more fundamental: it would destroy their insistence on substituting physical causation (genetics, determinism) for ideological causation (ideas) in explaining the actions of men.

  • Jim May

    The most Christianity can claim is that it helped preserve some scraps of this learning for salvage by later generations

    Yes. I have long held that the relationship of Christian thinkers to the West’s Aristotelian and Greco-Roman heritage is that of an art thief who swipes a priceless work from the museum the day before it is burned down by some thugs. Yes, they deserve credit for what they preserved, and in many case for their appreciation of its value, but not for being the original painter!

  • Inspector

    As another interesting side note to this discussion, Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization talks* a bit about how the whitewashing of the dark ages is perpetrated by multiculturalists who want to paint the barbarians as equally valid to the civilization they sacked and destroyed. So, once again, the left and right corrupt the issue coming and going.

    *in the British-understatement way

  • Neil Parille

    Anyone who thinks there is any merit to Mr. Inspector’s claims about me vis-a-vis Jim Valliant should read my critique of The Passion of James Valliant’s Criticism.

    Just google “scribd parille valliant”

  • Inspector

    I think that one went over his head, folks.

  • Asher

    I recall reading within the past few months about how the Catholic Church unintentionally created the groundwork for European cosmopolitanism by outlawing cousin marriage. High inbreeding coefficients seem to be a serious obstacle to civilizational advancement. I don’t have the modeling skills, but I’m guessing that it would take a few generations of outlawing cousin marriage for the coefficients to come down from Islam-like levels.

  • Zimriel

    Asher: I wonder if you mean hbdchick’s “cousin marriage conundrum addendum”. The ‘chick has posted on this topic extensively since then. It’s an “addendum” to a Steve Sailer article, and Sailer has also posted on that topic.

    It would appear that IQ does get expressed in the genes, and that the Church did have a eugenic effect.

    That alone works to vindicate even an extreme reading of Auster.

  • Alan

    Re Madmax

    “I just read a book….”

    Identify the book, why not?

  • madmax

    Mike and Jim,

    Quality posts. I want Objectivism to be able to answer the Christian apologists effectively without sounding like secular Christian-hating Leftists. I hate when O’ists come across as Leftist in their presentation as is so often the case when the subject of religion and Christianity arises.

    Regarding the book I read. Yes, it was Henri Pirenne’s book. And, yes, I am well aware that it is from the 1930s and it is heavily disputed. My point in raising it was not to argue that that one book serves to prove that Christianity had positive elements. But only to offer one small data point as a way of saying that there is an enormous amount of scholarship on this subject and there are many facts that need to be considered.

    I have read Norman Cantor and some other authors who specialize in the Middle Ages although I am by no means well read in the area. My point was to raise the point, a point that a number of other Objectivists have made such as James Valiant, Lindsay Perigo and Fred Weiss, that Christianity does have positive elements and has made positive contributions to the development of the modern West; although of course with a ton of negative elements as well. Its too broad a subject to summarily dismiss as *just* mystical nonsense. Yes, it is ultimately mysticism and supernaturalism but as Rand said, religion is a primitive form of philosophy. Christianity is a very sophisticated form of primitive philosophy. Just compare Christianity to Islam to see this. Dealing effectively with Christianity and its apologists, of which Auster is one of the better ones, requires sound historical knowledge (which Mike seems like he has). Rational philosophy while crucial is not enough in and of itself. That was my main point.

    I recall reading within the past few months about how the Catholic Church unintentionally created the groundwork for European cosmopolitanism by outlawing cousin marriage. High inbreeding coefficients seem to be a serious obstacle to civilizational advancement.

    Yes, HBD Chick has posted on this alot and the info she provides is interesting. It does seem that inter-cousin marriage is very closely related to the degree of cultural and political individualism that a culture comes to accept. England became the most outbred country in the world and I am sure it is no accident that it was the British that were at the forefront of the Classical Liberal development.

    The Catholic Church did indeed prohibit inter-cousin marriage to the 6th or 7th degree. It did so for a host of reasons largely economic. Even Matt Ridley mentions this in his book ‘The Red Queen’. So it does seem that we have a case of the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, having a positive effect (in an unintended consequences kind of way) for the development of the modern West. Interestingly, by creating a less tribal and clannish society, the Catholic Church was paving the way for its own destruction eventually.

    The effect on limiting inter-cousin marriage on IQ and thus effecting culture is also interesting. This angle on the Christianity vs Islam debate is one that is often overlooked. You had two Monotheistic religions; one of them highly inbred, the other highly outbred. Yes, ideological causation matters. But its not the only factor at play. The reason for the rise of the European people may in fact be their degree of out breeding of which Christianity was the major cause. Who woulda thunk…

  • KFJ

    Modernists who reject their pre-modern inheritance are, IMHO, guilty of the cardinal error of affirming the consequent while denying the ground.

    Modern civilization didn’t come out of nowhere. It had to be built up on a more primitive basis. The medieval synthesis, for all its limitations, was a viable culture that civilized barbarians and fought off Islam … with notably more success, I must say, than the contemporary West is having.

    Look at it this way: the Catholic Church was the swaddling-clothes of the infant West. We’ve outgrown it, but in its time it was a good thing.

  • Jim May

    KFJ: My previous two comments here address your contentions.

    As for Asher, Zimriel, madmax and others who keep insisting on looking for and invoking physical causation for ideological effects, I’m about to address exactly that point in my next post.

  • KFJ

    Jim, if I understand you correctly, you were arguing against the sort of Catholic apologist who wants to take credit for everything good in Western civilization. I know the type well, and have no use for that sort of nonsense.

    My basic contention is that *no* living culture is reducible to *any* set of abstract ideas. The West is Christian, but not Christianity; it is also liberal, but not liberalism.

    For a more subtle and nuanced discussion of Christianity’s historical influence in modernity, I recommend Guido de Ruggiero’s History of European Liberalism. In a nutshell, the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church’s conflict with the modern state, had inadvertent, unintended, unforeseeable, liberating consequences.

  • Inspector

    “Look at it this way: the Catholic Church was the swaddling-clothes of the infant West.”

    I’m going to address this point, not to single you out, but because I think that your statement here is a good representation of the viewpoint that I’d like to address.

    I believe this is a viewpoint which is missing the essence of what happened. Christianity – that is, Christianity in its *original* incarnation – does not represent some origin point for Western Civilization, to be judged on what followed. Especially, I mean, to be judged on the virtues that followed.

    The virtues of Western Civilization that all the authors here would like us to believe can be attributed to Christianity, none of those were values of Christianity in its original incarnation. The only thing that could be said about the original Christianity is that there were chinks in the armor of the juggernaut, which later allowed Classical ideas to seep back into the culture, eventually reforming and transforming that Christianity into something entirely different from what it was. (although not yet completely harmless)

    To say that this medieval juggernaut had a weakness which eventually allowed the culture of reason which it had deliberately crushed to make a rebound is not to say that the original Christianity had a virtue to which we can credit the renaissance. In fact, that’s patently ridiculous!

    To use a topical metaphor, it would be like crediting Goliath for David’s victory and eventual kingdom because he had such a nice, soft head.

  • c andrew

    To use a topical metaphor, it would be like crediting Goliath for David’s victory and eventual kingdom because he had such a nice, soft head.

    Thanks Inspector. That one made my day!