How the medieval past can be used for today’s challenges

This column -- one that has gone pretty viral, prompting me to think maybe a follow-on piece is in order -- was first published on on June 20, 2018.

One of the biggest problems confronting humanity in the late modern era is that we have yet to develop a body of social and political thought relevant to what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck has called the “second modern age”. At the risk of oversimplification, Beck argues that modernity can be divided into two phases. The first age of modernity (roughly coterminous with the eras of the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism), he argues, was defined by an ethos of progress premised on an unquestioned faith in the universal ability of human beings to master nature and liberate themselves from tradition through the application of critical reason. The key categories of thought and action in this era were humanism, individualism, nationalism and a faith in science and technology.

Detail of a miniature of the arts and sciences, with a crowned woman above, perhaps Philosophy, holding two cities in outstretched arms. British LIbrary MS Additional 30024 f. 1v

In recent decades, however, two related dynamics have shattered this order, heralding the advent of what Beck calls the second age of modernity. The first of these is the failure of high modernity to deliver on its promises; the second, the inevitable turning of the skeptical and critical impulses of modernity against both its own ideological foundations and a number of traditional institutions that had escaped the first assault of high modern skeptical reason (especially those related to the nation, family and sexuality). In effect, we have witnessed the exhaustion of the historical project of modernity.

One of the ways we have sought to overcome the exhaustion of what Jurgen Habermas called the project of modernity is to adopt a self-consciously postmodern perspective. Rejecting what are characterized as modernist tropes such as Reason, Progress, Human Nature and Truth, postmodern thinkers have attempted to escape the iron cage of modernity in order to develop new forms of social and political thought appropriate to the current historical moment. However, while there can be no denying that postmodernists have made the case for the exhaustion modernity as an historical project, there are at least two weaknesses with the approach that hamper its ability to provide an alternative.

First, postmodernism is itself little more than a radical extension of the skeptical and critical impulses of modernity; if the project of modernity is bankrupt, therefore, there cannot be much hope for its postmodern echo. And second, in rejecting concepts such as Reason and human nature (which, incidentally, are not particularly modern inventions), postmodernist are often guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While it is true that in the hands of the practitioners of modernity these ideas gave us Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and all the soul-and-planet destroying by-products of capitalism, it is also true that many of these concepts have a history that predates the Enlightenment and the modern moment. This being the case, there can be no necessary correlation between these ideas and the horrors of the modern age; rejecting the former on the basis of the latter seems to me more than a little problematic. At the risk of inviting a certain amount of scorn, let me suggest that postmodern social and political thought is in effect little more than the death rattle of modernity. As such it cannot provide us with a reliable guide for individual and collective life in the dawning historical epoch.

Let me propose an alternative way forward. Assuming, as I do, that modern social and political thought (and its postmodern echo) is an historical cul-de-sac, let’s back up to where we took our collective wrong turn and start again.

Let us, in other words, return to the medieval era — with its rich tradition of thinking on topics such as democracy, citizenship, rights, the common good, constitutionalism, sovereignty, civic virtue and freedom – and see what conceptual raw materials we can collect and use to craft social and political theories that are not tainted by modernity, but that might shed light on contemporary challenges. I’m thinking here of the works of thinkers such as diverse ibn Sina, Albertus Magnus, ibn Rushd, Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, Christine de Pizan, and John of Paris, all of whom addressed questions as pressing today as they were a millennium ago: “how we should live our lives as individuals” and “how we should live together in peace, justice and the pursuit of the common good.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that these thinkers can provide direct solutions to the challenges of the current era. Nor do I believe that we can ever fully reconstruct the imaginative structure of those who lived in a very different social and cultural world. But I am suggesting that even partially recovering the intellectual toolkit of the Medievals might provide us with better ways of thinking about the great questions of our day than the ones modernity has bequeathed us. And if it is true that, as a number of thinkers have argued, we are currently entering into an era characterized by a “new medievalism”, then where better to look for inspiration than in the works of those who shaped and defined the “old medievalism”.

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