Category Archives: History

Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.

The Timely Decline of Britain*

When I started at university I was told by my professors to ignore the writings of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Teilhard de Chardin. The fault with these writers as that tried to impose a false narrative on history. The first two prophesied the decline of the West and in the prosperous 1960’s this seemed obviously false. The latter imposed a Catholic narrative on history. History according to my professors should be the study or recording of historical events, nothing more. Interpreting those events in order to according to some grand schema is to create an incorrect reading of the past – Brexit! (Michael Oakeshott – Experience and its Modes). Perhaps given the mess which is contemporary society, the work of these two historians is deserved of revaluation.

These two historians were not the only writers concerned for the fragility of Western civilisation. In 1920 after the conclusion of the Versailles Peace Treaty, J.M.Keynes wrote the following:

“Very few of us realise with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organisation by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.” John Maynard Keynes, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920,

Oswald Spengler’s schema of decline can be used to demonstrate that the U.K. is in a downward spiral of decline.

Firstly he dismisses the notion of progress, human history he believes is not one of a linear upward trend, but cyclical. In the 1960s with the rapid recovery from the war, the war of 1939-1945 could be dismissed as a blip in history of human progress. Now after the financial crisis of 2008/9 and the climate crisis, the optimism of the 1960s seems misplaced.

These quotations from the Decline of the West seem ominously prescient.

“I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout it’s whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feelings, its own death. Here indeed are colours, lights, movements, that no intellectual eye has yet discovered.

Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and the pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves – but there is no ageing “Mankind.” Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in the deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”

― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

“You are dying. I see in you all the characteristic stigma of decay. I can prove to you that your great wealth and your great poverty, your capitalism and your socialism, your wars and your revolutions, your atheism and your ­pessimism and your cynicism, your immorality, your broken-down marriages, your birth-control, that is bleeding you from the bottom and killing you off at the top in your brains—I can prove to you that those were characteristic marks of the dying ages of ancient States—Alexandria and Greece and neurotic Rome.” ― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Oswald Spengler was criticised for stating the obvious, that at some stage all civilisations go through the cycle of rise and fall. However what he does is that he tells a story worth repeating, and that is that the complacency and optimism of our leaders is not justified. He reminds as that Western Civilisation is not uniquely privileged, it cannot avoid the fate common to all civilisations that of decline and fall. When our politicians fail to heed reality and continue to act as if the prosperity and wealth of the West is a historical given, and that the progress is inevitable they are ignoring the lessons of history. Gordon Brown’s infamous statement that we have ‘abolished boom and bust’, which was shown to be fallacious by the financial crash of 2008/9, is typical of the misplaced optimism of all political leaders. More recent are the over optimistic claims of national regeneration made by Brexit favouring politicians.

Politicians assume our industrial civilisation will go on for ever and that progress is inevitable. What Spengler reminds us is that all civilisations eventually run out of rope. They plough just one furrow, exploit one idea and just as a field that is constantly ploughed becomes exhausted, so does a civilisation. Unavoidable climate change suggests that Western industrial civilisation is reaching its end game.

Spengler was greatly influenced by Nietzsche and the concept of the will to power. For him Western Europe had lost its dynamism. The idea that drove Western civilisation forward was being lost. Benedetto Croce saw liberalism as the great idea that drove Western civilisation forward. Liberalism was the zeitgeist of Hegel’s history. Those regimes that resisted liberalism, the German Empire had fallen, swept aside by the liberal democracies. If liberalism is the great idea of Western civilisation it is certainly dying. Britain as one of the bastions of liberal democracy is failing, and falling to a would be authoritarian populist. Nothing better demonstrates the decline of the liberal idea, than the Liberal Democrat party in coalition with the Conservatives voting for the most illiberal of policy measures. The restriction or denial of justice, through changes to the legal system that either restricted or denied access to the courts for millions.

Today’s political culture has as Spengler predicted lost its dynamism, the will to power has been extinguished. Rather than face today’s harsh realities or speak of future promise, leaders of the major parties wallow in nostalgic myths. On the right they wish for a return to the days of the 1950s, a time of monochrome culture and the false certainties f that time. The left desires a return to a romanticised past, a time when they part of a movement that encompassed that sturdy band of brothers the industrial working classes.

When he declares ‘optimism is cowardice’ , he describes all to accurately the reality of today’s political progress. Politicians always prefer to put an optimistic gloss of policies, but today’s politicians not only put a gloss on there policy, but garnish it with the most outrageous lies. When deception and deceit rather than hard truths are medium of political debate, a country is heading for the precipice as failing to acknowledge unpleasant reality are incapable of taking action to avoid the most catastrophic of futures.

There is one further quote that is of relevance to the decline of the U.K.“Through money, democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect.” Everybody knows that the catastrophic crisis of 2008/9 was caused by the collapse of the financial markets in Western Europe and the USA. What few realise is that the West is threatened by a new financial crisis, one due to the over indebtedness of our business corporations.

Cost benefit analysis has replaced reasoned policy making, every policy is claimed to deliver a cash advantage. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde politicians know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

This is my selective reading of Spengler and it is open to objection. Have I cherry picked stories from the national narrative to prove my point? In my defence I would argue that the evidence of national decline is so overwhelming that it was necessary to be selective.

All my examples are British does my ethnocentric reasoning make my conclusions about Spengler invalid.

If we are in decline is it necessary such a bad thing? Vienna of 1900 was the capital of an empire in decline, yet it had a flourishing artistic culture – Mahler, Klimt.

Britain has been in relative decline since the 1850s, now there is evidence that the decline may be becoming absolute. Increasing numbers are employed in low cost, low productive industries, as the British economy is increasingly unable to provide well paid highly skilled jobs for its people. Also Britain is a trading nation whose prosperity depends on international trade, now we have a government determined for wrong headed reasons to restrict British businesses access to international markets. If decline is absolute how should we respond?

Robert Skidelsky suggested economic history provides the best guide for current economic policy making, so should politicians look to history to provide a guide to policy making. Certainly politicians and journalists seem ignorant of history as demonstrated in The Spectator article that stated that Joe Biden would be a friend to Britain became his ancestors were Irish – Irish emigrants forced to leave Ireland because of the great famine of the 1840s!

When today I read that the government is considering the purchase of an £190 million royal yacht HMY The Duke of Edinburgh, I felt that I now lived in a Ruritanian European offshore island.

There is a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on Oswald Spengler and ‘The Decline of the West’, which I can recommend.

*Timely decline- as the British people have been complicit in the nation’s decline by voting for politicians and policies that hasten that decline.