Tag Archives: St.Francis of Assisi

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.


A Letter to Donald

Dear Donald

This short letter is my attempt to try to come to try to answer the question who is the real Donald, why does he behave as he does and why are you such a threat to the continued existence of liberal democracy. It is my attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. If you met me you would notice a distinct difference in our manner. I am a man who  values modesty in conversation and behaviour. In short I am one of those Englishmen who overuses the world sorry, so I guess you can see why I find your behaviours so hard to understand. Not only that but I am also a liberal so we are so different in manner and our politics.

Although your personality is one steeped in anger, I think your anger comes from a fear of modernity. The world that you knew as a child, the America of the white heterosexual males is now being challenged, Now instead of the television presenter is less likely to be an Ed Sullivan, than a lesbian woman such as Ellen DeGeneres or a woman of colour such Oprah Winfrey. This is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world to you in which you are not sure of your place in it. Formerly you would have been lauded for being a billionaire and having a much younger and beautiful wife, now many doubt the value of your achievements. This must be confusing to you, their must  be times when it seems that you are adrift in a hostile world. One reaction only is possible for you to this fearful world and that is anger, an anger which is so often caricatured by others as a snarl.

Unlike you I welcome the ‘differenceness’ of modernity, something I first encountered in a trip to Scandinavia in 1966. A difference demonstrated in the design of there housing and the beauty of their cities and towns, a beauty lacking in Britain. Other and later trips to Europe instilled in me an enthusiasm for the different. In 1970 I went to France where I had my first taste of French coffee, it was love at first taste. Until then coffee was instant coffee, either Nescafe or Maxwell House. A harsh tasting drink that you drank to keep you alert and buzzing. This French coffee tasted nice, it had flavour you enjoyed, coffee drinking now became an unalloyed pleasure. Getting to know other cultures and taking from them what I enjoyed has enriched my life.

New York as with London where I taught has become an increasingly cultural melting pot with an increasing diverse ethnic mix of peoples. While the integration of new ethnic groups could present problems of which as a teacher I was well aware. They also brought their cultures with them. Some saw these cultures as alien and a threat to the host society. Yet these cultures embodied a whole new range of cultural experiences that enriched the host culture. One such obvious enrichment was the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill. A diverse open society is a creative society and London at present is the leading cultural centre in Europe. The constant making and remaking of London culture that is the consequence of having to adapt and absorb new cultures is  a source of the creativity that makes London a leading culture centre. However with Brexit the open and welcoming culture of London will be lost as new ethnic groups and their cultures are increasingly excluded from Britain. What is likely to replace it is a cultural resistant to change and closed to new ideas?  In fact many of our new right politicians would welcome this, a London that increasingly resembled one of those dull provincial towns or cities that characterised Britain in the 1950s.

Although you regard Muslims as that most alien of the other, my experience of them is entirely different. I have encountered them as students and friends.   Coming into contact with them made me realise that there was another exciting culture and life to get to know. I have read the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi. No doubt you are familiar with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but what you don’t know is that this greatest of Christian saints regarded Rumi as a spiritual master. This intermingling of European and Islamic culture has been of benefit to both societies throughout the millennia. The classics of Greek philosophy might have been lost if they had not been preserved in the translations of the Arab philosophers. Unlike you when coming into contact with a new culture, my reaction is not to reject it as something alien and foreign; instead I want to explore it, to learn from it. I have a friend who as you do rejects muslim culture as being alien and benighted, yet even he enjoys the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

What is frightening about your anger and that of your fellow believers of the right is that you have the power to turn back those aspects of modernity that you despise?  This is why you want to make abortion illegal. If women no longer have control of their bodies, they will be unable to live independent lives and will be forced back into the box of domesticity. Similarly there are the new Jim Crow laws of the South, which make it difficult for Americans of colour to vote.  These laws reduce the presence in the political arena of people of colour, a change which is ensuring that the white dominance of the South is continuing.  Another alien group is put back into its box, but this time it is the box is one of servitude. Although this turning back is but a temporary measure, history shows that regimes such as yours can successfully hold back the tide of history for many years.

What worries me is your destructive attitude towards those institutions that make civilised life possible. Liberals such as myself think that John Rawls political thinking provided the essential  template for making of a successful political system. He wanted to answer the question to which all liberals want a solution. How do you construct a political system that gives voice and sanction to people of different and often incompatible views in a manner which avoids the worst of the destructive and divisive effects of political conflict? Societies can be torn apart by warring factions as demonstrated so well in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There the two rival factions, the Capulets and the Montague’s constantly threaten the peace of Verona with their constant feuding.

To this problem John Rawls had an interesting answer. His answer was that the constitution makers should indulge in an act of collective forgetting. When devising a constitution they should strive to forget their own beliefs and prejudices and try to exclude them from there thinking. Then they should focus on the building of a belief and bias free constitution. The emphasis should be on functionality not belief. One such example is the American constitution of 1787. The political system they devised was not free from fault, but until recently it had functioned effectively by containing political conflict within a system that delivered effective governance. Now unfortunately the new right that is the Republican party has set out to destroy that system that worked so well for two hundred years. The behaviour that you displayed towards former President Obama is demonstrative of the destructive behaviours of the new right. One of the main voices accusing Obama of being ineligible for office was yours. This nasty ‘birther’ campaign was a child of your making and did nothing other than to bring discredit American politics.

There are two requirements for a good political system. The first is how the winners treat the losers. The winners must accept the reality of the rotation of power, that is that the losers might be the winners next time around. They must accept the threat of the loss of power with good grace. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek to retain power, it is not legitimate when they use means which can only be described as illegitimate. American political history of the recent past has been little more than the attempts by the Republicans to change the political system in such a way as to permanently exclude the Democrats from power. Using the conservative Supreme Court to open elections to undue influence by the rich and powerful business corporations is one. These so called ‘super PAC’s  (political action committees) are free to spend as much money as they want to influence an election. The same court has permitted the gerrymandering of the electoral process to exclude potential Democrat voters in the South. When the winner refuses to acknowledge the right to dissent and opposition, the tenor of politics changes it becomes more shrill and intolerant. Politics is conducted in the language of a Fox News presenter or the ‘shock jock’.

What has been lost from contemporary politics is the civility of manner? In the early twentieth century the members of the various political parties in Britain would be at each others throats in the Chamber, but they were able to distinguish politics from the person. These same men would then meet at various country houses for weekend parties at which there was no trace of animosity. This courtesy no longer exists in contemporary politics and you are the exemplar of the new rude and brutal politics. Without the practice of courtesy politics becomes degraded into being an unpleasant fight in a bear pit. When intolerance towards the other is the practice of each party democratic politics becomes impossible. The ‘give and take’ that made democratic politics possible in the past has ceased to exist. The obstructive behaviour of the Republicans toward President Obama which culminated in the threat to shut down government is an example of the new destructive politics. Similarly the behaviour of the Republicans toward former President Clinton demonstrates most effectively the breakdown of the American political system. Shutting down government for a month by refusing funding and impeaching the President over an affair with an intern was the nadir of American politics. All the worst practices of Republican politics have culminated in you. The destructiveness of your political reign is likely to exceed in destructiveness the damage inflicted on American society by the actions of Senator McCarthy. HIs witch hunts inflicted irreparable damage to the lives of individuals, you threaten to inflict irreparable damage to the fabric of American society.

What I believe disqualifies you from high office in a democratic society is your lack of civility. This is incivility derives in a part from your fear of and anger at modernity, as a relatively  inarticulate man it is second nature to express your anger in abusive language and in uncivil behaviour. It is not the belief in reasoned argument that is practice which enables democracy to thrive. All to often recorded parliamentary debates in England and those in the Senate or Congress fail to demonstrate reason. Civility was one of the factors that influenced the construction of the House of Commons after it was destroyed by German bombs. It was deliberately made too small to accommodate 600 MPs comfortably, it small size was intended to ensure that debates would tend to brevity because of the discomfort of being too long in the Commons. This with the regular emptying of the Chamber for numerous votes would be a tension releasing mechanism, so preventing that build up of tension that would lead to outbreaks of bad temper and behaviour, evidenced in other parliaments. Unfortunately British politics all too often copies the worst of American practice and incivility is now becoming the dominant mode of British politics. By civility I mean the civilised behaviour that makes debate and political dialogue possible, not the abuse and demeaning of one’s opponents which is now the common practice of British politics. When Theresa May came to the US it was not just to make a trade deal but to meet a like minded politician, a man who is the master of incivility. Why I want you to go is not just because you threaten the existence of liberal democracy in the US, but because you give encouragement to those many European politicians that also want an end to liberal democracy. Manners are said to make a man, manners are needed to make a President.