Our Dark Age

Every period in history is remembered in popular consciousness by a set of characteristics which have attached themselves to it. Although this popular characterization of a given period is often little more than stereotype and caricature the power exerted by this collective summarization of an epoch nonetheless permanently colors perception of the period. These characterizations frequently even become the title by which the period is remembered, guaranteeing that any time the period is mentioned the immediate implication of the truth of this characterization will follow inevitably. The Renaissance, for example, is characterized as a great period of “rebirth” and of the flourishing of the arts.  The Scientific Revolution as, of course, a period of revolution in the sciences. At some point, every historian wonders how his own era will be characterized by future generations; how will the present age be remembered by those a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now? What summarization or title will be bestowed upon our era? In addition, the conclusion one reaches about the reputation of the present among those of the future has imminent ramifications for potential courses of action to improve the heritage bequeathed to posterity by the current generation.

To arrive at a conclusion concerning how our age might viewed in retrospect, one of the soundest methods is the use of historical knowledge as a measuring stick by which to evaluate the present, one of its most traditional and important usages. In a comparison with previous eras in history, our age bears the most striking resemblance, unfortunate though the fact may be for us its denizens, to the two great dark ages of earlier times in Western Civilization, namely the Greek Dark Age and the Medieval Dark Age.

Both of these dark ages are characterized by the dissolution of centralized governmental and military authority. In the case of the Greek Dark Age, the authority which dissolved was that of the old order of the Greek peninsula, the Aegean Sea, and surrounding areas which is best exhibited by the wealth and power of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples. With the onset of the Iron Age and the ostensible Dorian Invasion, however questionable the size and nature of the latter event may be, a fracturing of institutional unity gave rise to a fracturing of cultural and intellectual unity in a world of increasingly prevalent sectionalism. The inception of the second dark age of Western Civilization arose from similar circumstances. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD removed from the western half of the Mediterranean Sea and most of Western Europe the institutional and cultural structures which had maintained some level of stability in and among societies. This institutional collapse was swiftly followed by a period of rapid cultural and intellectual decline coupled with ceaseless warfare among various tribes and peoples competing for dominance within relatively insignificant realms of power.

The cataclysmic event which triggered the onset of the current dark age is almost certainly World War I. Merely contrasting a map of Europe before and after the war is ample evidence. A look at the events “on the ground,” so to speak, is even more revealing. Through  Europe, and much else of the world, political structures collapse and disappeared altogether or were replaced by ideologies which arose from the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, ranging from Marxism and other socialist philosophies to the radical, notably not Classical, forms of republicanism and democracy advocated by some 18th and 19th century thinkers. Throughout the civilized world, the old structures of government which had united various peoples under a single figure and various empires under a universal civilizational outlook were abolished. Along with these institutions went the cultural and intellectual unity of Western Civilization and of the old order in a supracivilizational sense.

Greece emerged from its dark age at about the time of the poet Homer, in the 7th century BC, and the flourishing age of Classical Greece followed quickly. The Medieval Dark Age ended with the rise of Charlemagne and the dawn of the Carolingian Renaissance at the turn of the 19th century AD. Although it is less clear in the case of the Greek Dark Age, there is sufficient evidence to establish the thesis that the various elements of a vibrant culture were kept alive during both of these dark ages by the fastidious work of certain concerned groups and individuals.

In the better documented case of the Medieval Dark Age, more often than not these individuals were the Fathers of the Church and other great Christian thinkers. Cassiodorus and Boethius, contemporaries who lived in Italy shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for example, each recognized the precarious nature of their age and the tremendous task which their circumstances had placed before them. Each sought to preserve the greatest elements of their Greco-Roman heritage while allowing these to pass through the formative lense of Christianity. The result was that when the dark age did finally end some 300 years after this men lived, the ensuing era, which lasted nearly a thousand years, was a period of rapid scientific and technological progress as well as intellectual and cultural flourishing which remains still the greatest period in all of the history of Western Civilization.

If we are greet our current circumstances soberly, we must be honest about the perilous time in which we, who wish to bear our heritage and to pass it on to future generations, find ourselves. We must work with the same assiduity as our great forebears to preserve and improve about our great Western tradition. We must form the same sorts of assemblies for this task which our fathers before us formed. And we must continue their great work. If not, our progeny will have us to blame for the destruction of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

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2 comments

  1. Wasn’t one of the major cntributing factors was the black plague? It forced isolation of the population.
    Our advancements if had a by product of isolation.

    1. There are outbreaks of plague at various points in the Middle Ages. Interestingly, the worst outbreak of the plague occurred just before the Renaissance and was almost certainly a contributing factor that period, the zenith of the Middle Ages. Medieval Europe was far from isolated. An isolated culture is always a stagnant culture, as can be seen by the stagnation of China and Japan during their long periods of isolation. It was Medieval Europe’s remarkable openness to a diversity of ideas and their attempts to harmonize those ideas with their center in the Christian Faith that led to the great flourishing of Medieval Europe.

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