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Intellectual history in broad strokes - part 1 of 3

St. Anselm of Canterbury in an English glass window of 19th cent.
St. Anselm of Canterbury in an English glass window of 19th cent.
Unknown, English (Wikimedia Commons)

Dividing history into distinct major periods is no easy task. Indeed, such an undertaking will never go unchallenged especially by those who bring into the discussion table their own “baggages” and “garbages” that shape their own perspectives and preferences, depending a great deal on their own presuppositions, philosophical, ideological and religious commitments, educational backgrounds, life experiences, socio-cultural contexts, among others.

This is made all the more difficult by the fact that we currently live in an age of cultural diversity that has come into play since the late 20th century in a rather global scale unknown beforehand in human history. What we therefore have before us is a messy occupation, a dirty job.

While it may not be called an exact science (just like weather forecast, economics and sociology), history plays a very important role in giving us a better understanding of who we are, of the way we think and behave in our own temporal and local contexts. With this in mind this side of the 21st century global village in which we live, here then is humanity’s intellectual history presented in broad stroke in an attempt to have it neatly divided into three major periods we call today as pre-modern, modern and postmodern.

The Pre-Modern Period

Long before the advent of the modern world, the human intellect was for the most part shaped by a widespread belief in the existence of the supernatural. Knowledge was said to be derived from intellectual sources outside of the realm of human existence. It was the time (indeed a long period of time that points us back to antiquity) when major world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism were being born in the East. It was also the time when the philosophical school of thought that would provide the intellectual foundation on which the West would stand for centuries to follow was also on the rise in Athens, Greece.

Eventually dominated by the Roman Catholic expression of the Christian religion, the word authority became the buzzword of the day in the Western side of the globe. Traditional institutions such as the Church played a major role in the formation of human learning based largely on a fusion of divine revelation in Holy Scripture and religious tradition formulated by ecclesiastical authorities.

The goal of learning back then was to unlock the divine grand narrative or God’s “Big Story.” God was on the top of it all. Everything else in life revolved around Him and depended on Him. The art of learning was closely tied up to a life of faith. In the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), “It is faith seeking understanding.”

“I seek not to understand in order that I may believe,” St. Anselm proclaimed, “but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand.” Learning therefore was more than just a function of the human intellect but also of the moral and spiritual faculties of man. To know God, or to be more precise, to know the mind of God and His will, was the key to knowing everything else.

Except for the obvious departure of the Church from biblical Christianity, everything appeared to be doing well, at least superficially, in terms of developing the pre-modern intellect. It was so until, corrupted by an unlikely mixture of religious and political powers vested in them, the caretakers of the Church suddenly messed up. Those whose occupation was considered holy were suddenly found guilty of moral compromises and abuse of power.

Not only so, they attempted to suppress progress in learning, be it in the field of philosophy and theology, sciences and the arts, mathematics and the humanities, if they ever found a novel idea, an invention or discovery that would run counter to the dogmas of the Church. One classic example of this was that of Copernicus. Because of his fear that he would be judged a heretic by ecclesiastical authorities, he decided not to be too quick to publicize his discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, knowing that this would go against the long-held Ptolemaic tradition embraced by the Church which placed the earth right at the center of the universe.

The Transition from the Pre-Modern to the Modern

As Church historian Philip Schaff describes this dark hour of Christian history, Medieval scholars, satirists and preachers could then be heard condemning the ignorance, vulgarity and immorality of the clergies of the Church. Almost elsewhere in Medieval Christendom, one could feel in the air the crucial need of the hour, namely the reformation of the Church. Sadly, even this rather noble aspiration was then being systematically suppressed, if only to protect the interests of those wearing the robes of ecclesiastical authority. It was a time of spiritual darkness. Consequently, it was also a time of intellectual obscurity.

But with the revival of interest in classical learning spearheaded by the Renaissance thinkers, Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press and the emergence of humanism in Europe, light suddenly appeared in the horizon to dispel the darkness of Medieval Christendom. The human mind was then given a foretaste of what true learning is all about without the restrictions imposed by ecclesiastical authorities.

However, scholars agree that the intellectual forces of the Renaissance proved to be not enough to challenge the prevailing thought-patterns of the day, which at that point in time were still leaning to a great extent towards the hierarchies of the Church. It took the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century to finally clear the way towards the emancipation of the human intellect from the old fetters of non-sense superstitions and ignorance. With both the forces of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, the old religious shackles that forbade preachers, thinkers and inventors of the past to publicize their sentiments, inventions and discoveries were finally broken.

People were now free, at long last, to explore their world, and by so doing, to radically transform it. The transition from the pre-modern to the modern era was just around the corner.

References:

  • Hsia, R. Po-Chia, ed. The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 6: Reform and Expansion 1500-1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill and John Bucker. A History of Western Society Volume 1. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
  • Schaff, Phillip. History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.
  • Wylie, James Aitken. History of Protestantism. London, Paris and New York: Cassell & Company Limited, n.d.

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