Tag Archives: Catholicism

The fallacious misunderstanding of the medieval world and why it matters

The medieval world has been characterised as the Dark Ages, a misconception that remains current today. One example that comes to mind is the television presenter and historian who on describing the fall of Constantinople, said that the siege was of little concern to the monks of St.Sophia who would be spending their time debating such unworldly issues as to how many angels could dance on a pin head. What the presenter did not realise was that he was repeating the black propaganda used by the Protestants to discredit there Catholicism. In fact if he had read William of Ockham, he would have discovered that the thinking of medieval theologians was both pragmatic and sophisticated. In fact David Hume cited William as one of key thinkers that influenced his philosophy. His essay the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ echoes William’s scepticism about the limitations of human reason. Although separated by five hundred years and starting from different intellectual standpoints, there conclusions are remarkably similar. Seb Falk a historian decided to turn this thinking on its head by writing a book about medieval science, that he called ‘The Light Ages’.

Seb Falk’s contention is that despite its mischaracterisation, this time was a period of remarkable scientific and mathematical advance. Sun dials he states that despite their rudimentary construction could be sophisticated means of measuring time. He gives as evidence of this sophistication the astrolabe. A flat disc that when used with a sighting device for checking the position of the stars or sun could determine the viewer’s latitude and longitude. They knew that there location could affect their astronomical reading, as position of the stars the sky would change according to their latitude. John Westryk a monk from St.Albans knew that when he was relocated to Tynemouth could still use an astrolabe made for use at the southern location of St.Albans, because the small variation in latitude would only effect a minimal change in the position of the stars.

Despite their wrongful belief that earth was at the centre of seven concentric circles of heaven, each one being ever closer to God, they were remarkably accurate in their charting of the night sky.

Sailors in the open sea would use the cross staff or astrolabe to find their position. By the fourteenth century sailors were using compasses and charts marked with rhumb lines. The latter were lines leading to various ports. Despite what appears to be the rudimentary nature of their navigational aids, they were capable of accurately navigating the seas. British and other fishermen by the end of this period were beginning to use this technology to find the fisheries located off Newfoundland. Manuscripts suggest that St.Brendan (an Irish monk) of the early medieval period may have been the first European to discover America.

What Seb Falk establishes is remarkable scientific understanding and practice existed within the learned clerical class.

This class also displayed a remarkable openness to non Christian thinking. The Arab philosopher Avicenna was significant, it was through familiarity with his writings that medieval theologians became familiar with the works of Aristotle. It was through the writings of these theologians that Aristotle was reintroduced into the Christian world. Such was the sophistication of their philosophical reasoning, that later philosophers made use of their findings. In fact the use of Avicenna in their writings was controversial, it was the two path controversy. Christians believed that truth could only be found through faith, now Avicenna was saying that truth could be found through philosophy. In fact he believed that only the philosopher could truly know the truths of God. Theologians would accuse their rivals of being adherents of the two truth theory, which was anathema to the church. This and other contentious issues ensured that medieval universities were lively and stimulating centres of learning. Often earning the censure if the church authorities, as happened to the university of Paris.

There is the intriguing story concerning St.Francis of Assisi. He took time out from his reforming work to travel to Spain. Idries Shah believes that he was hoping find the master, a man he made many references to. Shah thinks the master was Rumi the great muslim thinker and poet. Speculation perhaps, but the medieval church was more open to new ideas that is usually thought.

Medieval universities could be lively places of intellectual discovery, but there was a dark side to the medieval university. William of Ockham a particularly controversial thinker was accused of heresy by the master Oxford university, and had to flee to the continent.

I am aware that in describing medieval England as a time of enlightenment and intellectual advance, is painting as partial a picture as that of the Victorians who described it as the dark ages. How should we judge or characterise this period? By its monsters and the crimes they committed or by its best and most enlightened and their achievements? If the former it should be noted that the twentieth century regarded as a time of progress and advance, was a time when there were men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot who committed far worse crimes than there medieval predecessors.

At my last school my colleague taught the ‘Wars of the Roses’, as it was he said, an interesting period of history. Perhaps if we view education as a making a positive contribution to the students development, we should not glorify a group of arrogant, brutal men, who gloried in the butchery of their rivals.

I have always thought we neglect teaching what is best from the past. Once Erasmus’s’ ‘Adages’ was regarded as essential reading for statesman. Now a book only read by the intellectually curious. I value from that book the essay entitled ‘War is sweet only to those who have never tried it’. I think this should be required reading for any aspirant politician on a PPE course.

When we reflect on the achievements of the medieval period, does it not undermine the theory of human history as a constantly upward progressive movement? There are a group of Anglican theologians who think the high Middle Ages represent the peak of human civilisation. These radical orthodox theologians have among their adherents, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.


Why our times desperately need the economics of optimism

Economics can be categorised and divided in a number of ways, but one the most fundamental divisions in economics is between that of the economics of optimism and that pessimism. Quite simply the first tells you how to do things and the second why should not attempt to do things. The former is the economics of change, the latter is the economics of no change. Usually the first is associated with left of centre politics and the latter with right of centre politics. Possibly the best example of the latter is the current policy of austerity practised by the Conservative government. They can say no too many desirable things such as more spending of health care on the grounds that there is no extra money to finance such spending. In the words of the Prime Minister Mrs May,  there is no ‘money tree’. They prioritise sound finance over other social goods. In contrast the social democrats or socialists would ask the question, how can we raise more money to finance increased spending on health.

Usually the economics of pessimism holds sway in economics, so I will explain that first. One of the earliest exponents of this school was the clergyman Thomas Malthus. The originator of the theory of diminishing returns. He stated quite simply that there was a finite quantity of productive resources and if the population increased indefinitely the same quantity of wealth would be divided between more and more people and so each successive generation would have less than the previous. There was he believed a  saviour which prevented the mass impoverishment of all, a natural system of checks and balances that kept the population numbers in check. These were disease, famine and war.

Today’s economists of pessimism believe that there is a similar limit on to the good things in life and for the sake of the well being of society the poor must be denied a fair share of these good thins. There is just not enough to go around.  Far better that wealth is restricted to the deserving few, the wealth creators, without whom we would all go hungry. These are the billionaires that the popular right wing novelist  Ayn Rand lauds in her books. Wealth is the just reward for their zeal and enterprise. She does not deny that the masses deserve some share of the  wealth. However all they are entitled to are the ‘crumbs’ that fall from the rich man’s table. What these economists call the trickle down theory.

In the simple story told by Ayn Rand, if the super rich were prevented from enjoying their obscene wealth, they would cease in their work of wealth creation. In one of her books she describes how the billionaires disappear from society and go into hiding. Without their enterprise societies collapse and thousands of the poor starve to death. Only when the billionaires cease their strike do things return to normal and the surviving poor are now able to benefit from that minimal income that the generous billionaires think they deserve.

There is interestingly another strand to this economics of pessimism, traditional Catholicism of the Catholic ultras. This although a Christian philosophy of life and economics, is in practical terms is little different from that of Ayn Rand. Mankind they believe is corrupted by original sin and human society is but a corruption construction made by sinful man. Any attempt to reform or improve this damned and corrupt society is doomed to failure. Only God has the power and knowledge to create the good society, or heaven on earth. Any attempts to redistribute are income doomed to failure by the very nature of this dysfunctional society. They are likely to have the unintended consequence of making things worse for all as increased taxes to will add to the costs of production so making businesses inefficient so reducing output making all poorer.  All that is permissible is individual acts of kindness or charity. In a corrupted society inequality is inevitable, as are the vast inequalities of wealth and income. Changing or improving a society of people damned with original sin is impossible and should not be attempted.

Although the economics of pessimism has usually been the dominant mode of economics, there was a brief period during the 1950s and 60s, when the reverse is true. Usually this philosophy is associated with J.M.Keynes, but there were others such as Michael Polanyi. Briefly economic practice was directed to making and preserving the good society or the welfare state. Economic policy making was intended to  five combat what William Beveridge defined as the “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Perhaps for the first time in its history the economy was directed in a manner which benefited the majority of people rather than the lucky minority.

Then when the economic crisis of the 1970s hit the Western economies it was easy for the economists of pessimism, to demonstrate that the crisis was caused by the profligate spending urged on governments by the economists of optimism.   Since then the pessimists have prevailed.

Now when faced with a crisis in Western economies, economies that fail to generate sufficient employment and income to meet the needs of their people, government policy can be summed up as either ‘can’t do’ or ‘won’t do’. As the governments have shown little interest in the welfare of their peoples, populist movements have developed. Movements that threaten governments with their ideology of economic pessimism. European right wing populist movements with the exception of the British, are threatening to intervene in the economy to protect and maximise the welfare of the people. If governments persist with their policies of ‘can’t and won’t do’, they will be replaced by those that can. What the populists of both the right and the left espouse is an economics of optimism or more simply the economics of ‘can do’. While some doubts must be expressed about the politics of the populists, what they do believe is that governments need an activist economic strategy. If the National Rally of Marie Le Pen ever attain power they will find that they need to intervene in business to protect the welfare of the people of France. Employment protection measures will be re-introduced, employers will find it impossible to pay less than a living  wage. Taxes will be increased on business to finance health and social care. Policies that are normally associated with the left. Societies may become less free and more intolerant but people will accept that if it means a better standard of living. What is forgotten is that the popularity of Hitler in Germany came improving the material well being of the German people. In return they tolerated the cruelties and barbarism of the Nazis.