Civilization & Progress: What It Takes

When I was a kid, reading all those Time-Life Science books:

Life Science Library by Time-Life Books
These guys, I don’t know how many there were, back in the late 1960s, but I ‘read’ all I could get my hands on. ‘Read’ in quotes, because they’re mostly pictures and ‘gee-whiz!’ copy.

I first ran into a persistent and pernicious idea that made me sad: that Science! was the triumph of some small few smart people, who, despite the ignorance and, often, hostility, of the masses, dragged the rest of us kicking and screaming into the glorious future. (Therefore, the Sagans of the world inescapably conclude, we little people should shut up and do what Our Betters tell us to do, for our own good!)

This attitude pops up everywhere, so much so that even for people who don’t consciously accept it, it becomes like water to a fish, just The Way Things Are. What is the underlying message, for example, of Asimov’s Foundation? That there are smart people someplace, with magical scientific powers, who know what’s going on, who are opposed by the Powers That Be and all the little people. Poor, poor geeks! They need to find their own special planet far away from us, to do their magic, and save us! At least, those few who can be saved.

Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere, and has resulted in our current Cult of the Expert. We are always looking for somebody who is an expert to tell us what to do, and any of us who don’t get in line with the ‘expert’ view are vilified. For the conventionally well-educated, there is no other option.

Later, as I read more, (I want to say, like, 7th grade? But memory both fails and is creative) I came to see how this wasn’t true. The giants of science stand, not so much on the shoulders of the preceding giants of science, but on the backs of the millions of peasants whose work has created a world where men of science can do their thing. Far from being a stumbling block or barrier to science, we little people, by our patient, stable, productive lives, produce the bedrock upon which any scientific edifice may be constructed.

When the smart people take charge, say, in the French or Russian Revolution, it ends up with your Lavoisiers guillotined and your Lysenkos making sure science is an obedient stepchild to the state. “No, no, no!” I can hear the ‘I effing Love Science’ crowd objecting – “those Enlightened Frenchmen and the Vanguard of the Collective in Russian were the wrong smartest, most enlightened, and most moral people ever. We mean *us*! And we would never do such bad things! We would only silence and lock up the deniers – those clearly evil stupid people who question the legitimacy and effectiveness of masks and lockdowns – they’re denying COVID! Those benighted morons who completely agree the climate is changing (because it always changes) and that CO2 is of course a greenhouse gas (although an extraordinarily minor one at any level of concentration ever experienced on earth) but question the sanity of those who think people can enact policies to stop climate change, something that has been going on for 3 or 4 billion years now without any human intervention – they’re climate change deniers! Those truly evil people who point out that a man remains a man regardless if he thinks he’s a woman and undergoes physical or chemical castration – those evil, evil people are denying SCIENCE! Such people DESERVE to be silenced, at the very least. If we need to lock up or even kill those deniers, we, the REAL most intelligent, enlightened, and moral people the world has ever seen, would be doing the world and those people a favor!”

The price to stay in the outer rings of the Kool Kids Klub is high.

The medieval peasants who accepted that each man had rights and duties, that God would judge the King and the pauper by the same standards while demanding more from him to whom more was given – they produced enough food and peace for universities and monasteries to thrive. The people in those universities and monasteries, some of whom were the brightest children of the peasants, believed that trying to understand the created world was one obvious way to honor its Creator, and thus was worthy activity in and of itself. The kings and nobility and the Church, believing or at least feeling obliged to honor where expedient the same notions of rights and duties embraced by peasants, also respected and supported the intellectual activities of the universities and monasteries.

Only in such a world could millions of men (and some women) learn the rigorous logic that constitutes the foundation to modern science. Only in a world where a rational Creator is accepted could the idea that creation is an objective, orderly, fundamentally comprehensible whole that man could and should understand become commonplace.

From 900 to 1250, the population of Europe approximately quadrupled, something only possible because technology allowed vastly more land to be worked vastly more productively. The famine and plagues of the first half of the 14th century brought 400 years of steady intellectual and material progress nearly to a halt. Grossly, after a couple centuries that saw a tremendous drop in population and rise in chaos, we had a ‘renaissance’ – a resumption of the the intellectual and material progress of the Middle Ages, but with a conscious rejection of its true source: the great achievements of the Medieval period were denigrated, even so far as labelling the architectural and artistic triumphs of the period ‘Gothic’ as a slur. As if copying Romans was an advance over Chartres and Giotto and Dante?

The Renaissance and Enlightenment were very modern in this respect: projecting their daddy issues onto an imaginary past.

Of course, this all is a gross simplification – but so is the idea that the Renaissance and Enlightenment represent unalloyed progress. I would go so far as to paraphrase Dr. Johnson: The Renaissance and Enlightenment were both good and original. Where they were good, they were not original; where they were original, they were not good.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “Civilization & Progress: What It Takes”

    1. When I was a small boy, my father read C. S. Lewis to me at bedtime. I didn’t realize it for many years thereafter, but nearly the most formative lesson I took away was from That Hideous Strength, that the Inner Circles aren’t nearly what they’re sold to be.

  1. Well, it was the Enlightenment that presumed to set Faith against Reason, something that the Age of Faith never attempted. And it was the Age of Reason that declared the revolution had no need of genius.

    Never let an intellectual movement name itself, it will always get it wrong.

    1. That is a totally excellent article, thanks. I don’t think I missed it entirely, because I would not start the renaissance in any material sense until 1550 maybe? Maybe 1500? Because The destruction of the 1300s were so devastating that it took 200 years before things settle back down. So I guess I’m guilty of those drifting borders Frankline is talking about. I did not know the dearth of intellectual development was quite as bad as he describes. I may have to post on this lovely article, and I certainly will read more stuff at his website.

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