Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The intolerance of the Middle Ages - the future of Romanticism

Since the advent of the Romantic Movement with Coleridge and Wordsworth, it has been a counter-current of mainstream life to assert the truth of imagination, the validity of fantasy. But modern people, by and large, want to know how imagination is truth: they require an explanation; otherwise they cannot feel that imagination really-is valid.

But this is just part of a much larger problem for modern people; which is that they cannot feel the truth of anything. They suppose that if only they are presented with enough strong-enough evidence, that they will believe with indomitable certainty whatever is thus proven, and that this belief will sustain them through whatever may happen.

Somehow this never happens - and the usual excuse is that the evidence is insufficient, and they are (like any good modern person) simply awaiting more evidence before committing themselves. But the fact is that they never do quite seem to commit themselves. They may fool other people by acting as if they have a core of solid conviction, around which their lives are built - but they do not manage to fool themselves.

The modern consciousness is cut-off from its own thoughts, it words and emotions. And this does seem to be a modern phenomenon - in this respect something seems to have changed. Things were, for instance, different in the European Middle Ages (up until about the fifteenth century)


Consider the following edited excerpts from pp 53-5 of Romanticism Comes Of Age by Owen Barfield (1944):

In the Middle Ages, words and thoughts began to be identified. Hence the medieval period was above all the age of Logic - it worshipped Logic, in which the word and the thought are kept as close together as possible. 

But if we scrutinize the men of the Middle Ages we shall find something yet more significant. They identified themselves with their thoughts.

It is this which strikes a modern observer as most incomprehensible and alien about the men of that time - for example, their intolerance. 

Identifying the thought with the words, they felt that truth could be wholly embodied in creed and dogma; and, identifying the self with the thought, they were - quite rightly - intolerant. A wrong thought could strike them as far more immoral than a wrong action. 

When confronted with the universal intolerance of the Middle Ages, we can only explain it in one of two ways. Either common sense, kindliness and self-control have miraculously increased among us, and the great men of that time were therefore a kind of foolish children compared with ourselves; or thinking was actually something different from what it is now - not only believed to be different, but actually different. 

Today, everybody is tolerant. We are extraordinarily polite to each other, even on such subjects as religion. Does this universal tolerance arise from the fact that we have at last succeeded in subduing the evil passions that formerly drove men to quarter and burn one another for their opinions? 

Or is it, can it possibly be, that we no longer care very much whether people agree with us or not?

There is no doubt at all about the answer. The fact is that we have ceased to identify ourselves with our thoughts - at any rate with such thoughts as can be expressed in words. We distinguish between thinking and believing. This is indeed one of the most typical modern experiences. 


This is modern alienation. But the fact that we have ceased to identify ourselves with our thoughts cannot, I think, be solved by re-asserting medieval Logic, and the identity between thoughts, words and reality.

When I say we 'cannot' do this, I mean that it simply does not work. We can, or course - and many people have tried, assert that we are adopting that 'medieval' assumption that truth is wholly embodied in creed and dogma - but for us moderns it is an 'as if'.

The way our minds work means that our selves feel separated from creeds and dogmas. Since this is what we feel, an assertion of identity can only remain an assertion. In a sense we are all solipsists now...


But not so, because - as the romantics discovered - the imagination enables us to escape from this solipsism. But the escape is limited - limited in time, context, and fullness. The Romantics escaped - but sooner or later - and usually all-too-soon - they returned to their predicament.

Since then, we have got no further. Currently, we have immersive distraction by the mass media, but clearly it is no more effective - probably much less effective - than the Romanticism of the 19th century. Nobody seriously advocates that increased engagement with the mass media is a solution to the fundamental alienation of the modern condition - we know that (even if it were desirable, which it is not) it would be ineffective, we know it would not work.


So, we are not able to go back, we hate where we are, we must go forward - and seek to understand the imagination in new terms, by new kinds of explanation - and the validity of our explorations will be tested by our feelings.

Our feelings will not be fooled - if any new way of thinking fails to satisfy our innermost soul (currently trapped by its own operation, trapped by its own solipsism) then it will not carry sufficient conviction to be an effective solution.

Our appeal is not to logic (as in the Middle Ages) nor to Evidence (as in the modern age) nor to assertion of the intrinsic validity of the Imagination and Fantasy (as with Romanticism) - it must be an appeal which is not an appeal to anything else; but a kind of validation in-action.

Our consciousness must become such that it is satisfied by its own fundamental operations.


In philosophical terms this is first-philosophy - i.e metaphysics. To get where we want to go, we need to turn philosophy back upon itself, and examine the fundamental assumptions of modern consciousness.

Metaphysics is perhaps the single most important intellectual activity of our time.

This is neither futile nor paradoxical - because we have separate ground to stand upon - the ground of the imagination. The lesson of more than two centuries is that Romanticism, the power of imagination, is too incomplete and feeble to replace modern consciousness; but it is different enough to analyse modern consciousness from a separate evidential basis - and I think this analysis can point-to the next necessary step.


The future of consciousness, the cure for alienation, is something we can know - but it is not necessarily something we can, yet, do. Doing comes later, requires different circumstances; indeed doing may not come this side of death.

In a sense we could regard our task as trying to describe Heaven.

Heaven has currently lost its psychological effect, because our descriptions of Heaven typically have all the faults of our current predicament. But if Heaven can be described in a way that uses the Imagination, satisfies feeling, and if Imagination can also be validated as a genuine source of truth... well, then we have achieved our goal.

But knowing where we are going, even if we cannot expect to get there for a considerable while, can be a source of hope and an antidote for despair.