It turns out our belief in endless progress grew out of the Enlightenment, a reaction against the medieval belief that God’s will determines our destiny. Over time, the notion of progress has replaced the dogma of divine providence and has become itself like a religion: A fundamental entity like the air we breathe.
Throughout history, most human societies have had a different take on how the world works: They saw history repeating itself, like the annual cycle of our seasons or how day follows night.
Rather than assuming continual progress, let’s hypothesize that we are repeating the cycle by returning to the Middle Ages. We can find ample evidence to suggest this might be the case.
In Europe’s history, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, while the real “dark ages” occurred between 350-550 as the Roman Empire split apart. As a result of the collapse of centralized authority, cities dwindled as folks fled to the countryside, disease spread, and the economy had major setbacks, all triggering mass migrations.
This may be in our future if polarization and the plague split our nation apart.
Jose Gouvea writes, “When we talk about the ‘loss of knowledge’ that occurred during the Middle Ages, we must understand that it happened … as a result of Roman decadence, Christian intolerance, and wars. But most of it was because of Christian intolerance.”
Christians mounted vicious assaults against Islam. Toward the end of the 11th century, the Catholic Church began to authorize military expeditions, or Crusades, to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land.
Today, what is often forgotten is how Christians went out of their way to pillage and slaughter Jews in settlements they encountered on the way to the crusades. Regrettably, once again, Jews are increasingly under attack around the world.
No one “won” the Crusades; in fact, many thousands of people from both sides lost their lives – much like the endless wars we are fighting in the Middle East today. As in the dark ages, Republicans today have begun to equate governing with conquest cloaked in religious morality.
Before invading the Middle East, President George H.W. Bush called the operation “a crusade” to “to rid the world of “evil-doers.” Thirteen years later, his son declared, “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil” before invading the Middle East again.
We often read about the wholesale burning of books during the Middle Ages. Much of it did not happen, but this did: When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we carefully guarded the oil wells but ignored repeated pleas to protect their renowned National Museum, resulting in one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times. “The scale of the looting was staggering,” but the Bush administration’s response was only that “stuff happens.”
During the Middle Ages, folks believed in witchcraft, attempted to exterminate all black cats because they represented the devil, and lived in fear that their children would be stolen and replaced with demonic “changelings.” Today we have the QAnon conspiracy theory, peddling Trump’s alleged secret plan to expose Washington elites engaged in everything from pedophilia to child sex trafficking. QAnon continues to gain followers, with no disavowal from Trump and his supporters, who retweet their messages.
And, of course, we have the pandemic, just one of the many commonalities between then and now, but the one presently staring us in the face. Some health experts are predicting that COVID-19 will end up killing half a million of us, largely as a result of political polarization and bumbling mismanagement.
I make these comparisons not to scare people but as a cautionary tale. Even if history does repeat itself, it does not follow that the cycle is shifting right now. But it does mean, quoting George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The first step is so simple: The time has come for all of us to stand up together, acting in unison, to practice all CDC guidelines. If we do so, our actions will quickly bring COVID-19 to its knees. If not, it will bring us to our knees – threatening not only our individual survival but that of our nation.
(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)