Before & after

Gentle reader may have had the same experience of history as I did, in my inadequate education during the late middle of the last century. I was raised to split the experience between “major” and “minor” — between the history or histories of the West, and that or those of the East and elsewhere. These latter were a miscellany; rather like a collection of local histories. But there were no histories of Africa, except touching highlights of European conquest. Altogether it was a mess, enhanced by my own stupidity and the limitations of my teachers.

There were, nevertheless, persons in the world who were adequately trained as historians, I was told; and I imagined that their education had been better synthesized.

For those in the majority who studied the West, there were three synthetic divisions. One could be immersed in Ancient, Mediaeval, or Modern studies. There were some boundary disputes, about where the Mediaeval age begins and ends, but for common reference the age itself was apparently fixed.

The fixation was a product of what we call The Enlightenment (and I like to call The Endarkening), and particularly its more recent, “Romantic” stages that were fleshed out in the 19th Century.  Curiously, Oriental was professionally detached from Modern during this era, in a fine technocratic manner, mostly by the discoveries of European intellectual explorers (who in turn trained the natives in European ways). They wandered away from the Western history plot, and eventually right out of our classical historical picture.

Of course there were surviving strains of native historical work in South and especially East Asia, but I don’t want to make a diagram at this point. It would be too complicated. Let us simply return to the West, and consider it on Western terms, by which the Western is at the back, and front, of Universal History.

My question is, what was the pre-Enlightenment view? And this is fairly easily answered. It was Christian in its nature. There were two, not three, periods in our history: the Ancient and the Modern. There could be only two. In the Battles of the Books, fought in libraries through the 17th and 18th Centuries, this was commonly understood. Saint Augustine, the indisputable Christian, belonged in the Modern world. Cicero, indisputably not, belonged in the Ancient. (Virgil, mischievously, stuck his foot across.)

The implicit division is between “B.C.” and “A.D.” The division is marked, beyond the genius of man to question, by the appearance of Christ in this world. And so the modern age begins gradually. A succession of characters are more or less in the Modern world; some, like Virgil, cross over and back.

By 529 A.D., the very year when the Platonic Academy closed in Athens, and Monte Cassino was founded by Benedict of Nursia, the transition is largely complete, throughout the East and West of the West, or what we might call, “Christendom.” Since, we in this West (including Jews and immigrants) have all been Moderns — for better or worse.

The Middle Ages were invented with the best of intentions, as most unfortunate things were. Which is also to say, with mixed good and bad intentions. But the effect was immediately to discount that part of modern history which explains our very origination. It was a way to deny our own succession, by denying what we had succeeded to. Most significantly, it involved a false depiction of the modern world, by avoiding the hard fact, that most if not all of our distinctly modern inventions and deviations can be traced from some mediaeval notion — usually one the “high mediaeval” mind consciously rejected. (This was something that Michael Roberts first taught me, when I read him in adolescence.)

I think it is worth bearing in mind, as we pursue our studies of the past, and our anticipations of the future. We descend from Christian orthodoxies, but also from Christian heresies. Clarity cannot be found until we acknowledge what they were.