The Old Barbarism

I have remarked on numerous occasions that we have entered the age of a New Barbarism. Civilization as we know it, with its constraints and its demands that we be aware of and even that we care about others than ourselves is being replaced by a culture that is violent, unrestrained and positively fixated on itself. But I was wrong. In reading John Carroll’s interesting book on Guilt, I came to realize that what I regard as the new barbarism is nothing more than a return of the old barbarism that was prevalent in the medieval period.  After all, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century, while civilization was still in its early stages and people were beginning to be fully aware of others and beginning to develop a lively conscience, moving  past a time when folks ate with their hands, blew their noses on their sleeves, or relieved themselves in the streets; a growing number of books on manners reminded them that

“If you pass a person who is relieving himself you should act as if you had not seen him, as it is impolite to greet him.”

Amusing indeed, but at the same time it gives us a sense of what things were like before we slowly but surely became “civilized.”  In England, for example, between the years 1200 and 1530 we find the following features:

“Conscience was in a primitive state. . . The common man’s imagination was fed with a kaleidoscope of ghosts, signs, specters, apparitions — of angels, devils, shades of the dead, and other countless forms that the Church managed to weave into its philosophy.”

Sound familiar? Has the entertainment industry become our church? What about this: ”

“Medieval culture was visual and tactile. Pictoral expression far surpassed the intellectual or literary. The popular stories were picturesque. . . The prominant role that magic played in the Middle Ages [created problems for the Protestant Church] that removed magic from Christian ritual without countering the belief in magic. . . . medieval man’s experience had the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child life. . . As the visual was preferred over the literary, so the visible and public were preferred to the private.”

As in the entertainment industry once again, or, perhaps, social media? Perhaps this:

“The disposition of medieval man was that of a delinquent. It was violent and impulsive, without capacity for restraint or moderation. Tempestuous uninhibited passion was never far from the surface. . . Affection seems to have been scarce; the dominant emotions of the time were rather those of impotent fear and reflex violence.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. It is too much to see a precise parallel — as some have tried to do with contemporary civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. But the similarities to the medieval period are striking as we cover ourselves with tattoos and piercings, gobble up entertainment, fixate on our hand-held electronic devices, seek violent solutions to complex social problems, purchase personal weapons at an alarming rate, take innumerable pictures of ourselves (and what we are about to eat), crave violent games and movies. The Harry Potter craze seems to echo the comments Carroll makes about the “kaleidoscope of ghosts . . ” that was common in the medieval period. In a word, there are signs that we are in danger of becoming increasingly barbaric as we turn our backs on civil discourse and the virtue of restraint, on the richness and treasure that is (was?) Western Civilization.

Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies showed us a group of English school boys stranded on an island after their plane crashed. Within a few days the thin veneer of civilization wore off and we began to see the savage nature of the animals beneath — with a few exceptions. Law and morality were forgotten and chaos, in the guise of complete freedom, placed the lives of each of those boys at risk. This was fiction, but it was based on sound observation and compelling arguments by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who told us that beyond the pleasure principle there lies a core of festering aggression within each of us. And our history provides us with multiple examples of this undeniable fact, as Carroll points out. During the medieval period the thin veneer of civilization was almost transparent and it took centuries of struggle for humans to begin to act like humans, to care for one another, acquire manners, and to put law above violence, to become “civilized.”

The veneer gradually thickened but today we seem determined to scratch it off as too inhibiting. However, we should be aware of what lives beneath that veneer; we are seeing growing numbers of examples of that inner core of aggression that Freud spoke about. From an uncivilized president and his legions of agitated supporters to the hordes of people buying guns, to the shouting that has replaced civil discourse, to the gradual disappearance of good manners, to the attacks on reason and science, we see all around us signs of that core of “tempestuous, uninhibited” aggression. We must be very careful not to wear off entirely that veneer of civilization since that way lies the old barbarism, a part of ourselves that we always carry with us and which we really don’t want to expose for all to see.

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Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.