Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Distant Mirrors

There are fairly compelling analogies between our current situation and the transition between republic and empire in Rome. The Iraq war has more than a passing resemblance to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition that ruined ancient Athens. And now Eric Jager reasonably asks whether this is the new Middle Ages.
With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?...

One of my students once wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages." He was partly right. Medieval people thought they lived in modern times just as we think we do today. The word "modern" was actually coined by medieval people to distinguish themselves from the ancients. The Renaissance stole the label of modernity for itself and invented a prior "middle age" when classical civilization lay dormant, awaiting a glorious rebirth. The Enlightenment made the "barbaric" and "superstitious" Middle Ages seem even more obsolete.

We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good in every sense as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.
Let's at least hope that the Reichstag fire analogy doesn't get any more applicable than it already is.

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