How to start a dark age and what myths should do for you

by John MacBeath Watkins

The term "dark ages" is not much used anymore, but it still conjures up notions of an age of ignorance following the fall of a great civilization.

It was first applied to the entire Middle Ages in about 1330 by Petrarch. Light and darkness had symbolized good and evil, but Petrarch made them symbols of knowledge and ignorance. He saw his own time as one of darkness, and aspired to a time of greater light.

That time of light arrived as the Renaissance some time later, the dawning of a time when people admired knowledge and it became more widespread. Then came a time when archaeology started digging up the "dark ages" and found a great deal had been known and accomplished in the middle ages, so now we seldom used the term for anything but the early middle ages.

It's easy to put a starting date to the dark ages. Emperor Justinian closed pagan and Jewish school in 529 AD, and the dark ages began.

The decree, as translated by James Hannam, reads as follows:
We wish to widen the law once made by us and by our father of blessed memory against all remaining heresies (we call heresies those faiths which hold and believe things otherwise than the catholic and apostolic orthodox church), so that it ought to apply not only to them but also to Samaritans [Jews] and pagans. Thus, since they have had such an ill effect, they should have no influence nor enjoy any dignity, nor acting as teachers of any subjects, should they drag the minds of the simple to their errors and, in this way, turn the more ignorant of them against the pure and true orthodox faith; so we permit only those who are of the orthodox faith to teach and accept a public stipend. 
Justinian seems mainly to have aimed this at the Athenian Academy, which traced its (sometimes interrupted) existence back to its founding by Plato in the early 4th century BCE, but he also closed Jewish schools and schools run by those judged to be heretics.

In so doing, he centralized power over what was deemed to be true. The decree made it illegal to teach things that were contrary to the teachings of the "catholic and apostolic orthodox church."

There were Greek philosophers who had figured out not only that the earth was round, but had calculated pretty accurately its circumference. They knew that the rotation of the earth explained the sequence of day and night. Justinian didn't make it a crime for the great pagan scholars of his age to write and publish -- that came later -- but he shut down the Academy, leaving the scholars to make their own way.

Hammon is a skeptic about the impact of this action. Many pagan documents survived, and were even taught in Christian academies.

But the schools in the Eastern Roman Empire were survivors after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in
476. Justinian was the last of the Latin-speaking emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire. Justinian sought to reconquer the territory that had been the Western Roman Empire, but failed. As the empire's grip over Europe failed, political institutions that had united it failed, and the only pan-European institution remaining was the Church. It became the dominant force in the preservation of knowledge and the maintenance of teaching institutions and traditions. And it demanded allegiance to what the Church believed.

Some scholars and some texts made there way to Persia, and with the rise of the Muslim religion, schools that remained in Alexandria and Cairo fell into Muslim hands. Thus began the golden age of Muslim science and philosophy, early in the 7th century AD.

The golden age of Muslim science and philosophy spanned from 750 AD to about 1100 AD. What happened then?

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, that's what. The second-most influential Muslim cleric (after Muhammad) was a scholar named  Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, who wrote a book of that title published in the late 11th century. He argued against those Muslim scholars who had based their works on Plato and Aristotle were wrong -- essentially, heretical. The spread of his thought led to religious institutions that taught that human reason by itself cannot establish truth. Although Al-Ghazali himself had nothing against science, this in effect meant that if you really wanted to establish truth, you didn't go to a scientist or a philosopher who had devoted his life and efforts to learning about the thing in question. Instead, the final arbiter of truth would be a cleric who specialized in the Koran.

This led to a decay of Muslim science and philosophy. Some would say, it led to a dark age for their civilization.

This seems to be the way to cause a dark age: You simply give religion authority over establishing what is true of the physical world.

Religion is in the business of delivering eternal verities, not of discovering new things. In fact, in such celebrated cases of the discovery of new things as Galileo's astronomy or Darwin's Origin of Species, religion has fought against new knowledge of how the universe works.

Joseph Campbell, in Myths to Live By, wrote that religion or myth (the difference seems to be that myths are religious beliefs no longer in use) serves four functions:

One, "to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe..."

Two, "to offer an image of the universe that will be in accord with the knowledge of the time..."

Three, "to validate, support, and imprint the norms of a given, specific moral order, that, namely, of the society in which the individual is to live."

Four, "to guide him, stage by stage, in health, strength, and harmony of spirit, through the whole foreseeable course of a useful life."

Can a religion that fails in the second function succeed in the other three? I doubt very much it can, because a failure in one area undermines faith in the truth of sacred knowledge in all the others. How could a church that taught the earth was flat have any authority after we had photographed the earth from the moon?

But the Catholic Church did not remove Galileo's books teaching heliocentrism from the its  Index of Forbidden Books until 1758, and in 1992 the Pope announced that the church accepted that the earth moves around the sun. I can find no indication, however, of the verdict of the Inquisition against Galileo being rescinded. The committee Pope John Paul II appointed in 1979 had, by 1992, concluded that the Inquisition had acted properly by the standards of its day, although Galileo was right about the sun and earth.

So, that's all right. Retard intellectual progress by a century of so, and it's all in good fun. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI cancelled an appearance at La Sapienza University because some students and professors sent him a letter protesting the Pope's expressed views on Galileo. He was probably thinking, "why you talkin' 'bout old stuff?"

It was the notion that there had been a dark age that gave people the notion to call the blossoming of knowledge and science the Enlightenment.

The Counter-Enlightenment, which started not long after the Church took Galileo's books off the Index of Forbidden Books, has argued that the Enlightenment undermines religion and the political and social order. This is, in fact, the basic stance of conservatism since at least Edmund Burke. The term "Counter-Enlightenment," as I'm using it here does not refer to a single coherent movement with identifiable leaders, more to a wide span of groups and individuals who have argued against the goal of constant progress to new knowledge and a more rational society espoused by the great Enlightenment thinkers.

They are probably right in arguing that the Enlightenment has undermined religion and the existing social order. After all, the Inquisition is a shadow of its former self, the church has had to repeatedly retreat on who is listed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and the most recent Pope has finally said that the beliefs of the Church do not conflict with the big bang theory about the origins of the universe or Darwin's ideas about the origin of species. It would be better if the church had not involved itself in such matters in the first place, but if it must make pronouncements about the nature of the physical world, it will have to change its tune when our knowledge changes or be undermined by new knowledge.

We are still fighting this battle. Zealots want their religion's version of the origin of specie taught in public schools (they originated as God made them) and moral notions, such as whether it is better to condemn homosexuals or accept them, are being fought out as the culture changes. A church that has failed to distinguish between its core beliefs and issues that seem less religious than social must change or fail the test of providing a world view in harmony with the knowledge of the society to which it offers spiritual guidance.

The Catholic Church is a handy way to talk about this, precisely because it is so well organized. But it is accompanied in its problems with the Enlightenment by people of many faiths. The easy way to deal with such problems used to be the one used on Galileo, tell the inconvenient person to shut up or die. But at this point in history, the world is changing too fast and the knowledge base outside the church is to big to be controlled.