People in the 21st century, particularly in America and Europe, like to think that today is an unprecedented age of enlightenment, liberty and progress — and that, in many ways, is indisputably true. But we shouldn’t be so arrogant to believe that our own age owes nothing to historical ideas and events, and to say that our world and our culture has transcended its debt to (or its resemblances to) earlier periods of history maybe an indication of just how blind we are to our own shortcomings and misconceptions – as well as to the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead of us.
Truthfully, the modern world (like every age) is a product of the people who came before — and seeing the similarities between this and times past allows us to achieve a much clearer vision of where we’re going, and how to avoid the pitfalls along the way.
For those who believe today’s world is the very zenith of enlightened thought and progressive culture, a comparison to the Middle Ages might be especially surprising, possibly even offensive. After all, medieval Europe was practically the definition of superstition, repression and violence. Those were the “Dark Ages” that we’ve worked so hard to escape with advances in science, politics, art and human rights.
But although the stereotypical image of the medieval world is one of filth, plagues, ignorance, barbarian hordes, and witch burning, the Middle Ages was also a period of phenomenal growth, discovery and advancement – something that is explored in detail in the new book How To Run The World: Charting A Course To The Next Renaissance, by author and “global futurist” Parag Khanna. On a recent interview on the KERA’s midday talk show Think, Khanna drew the parallels between today’s world and that of the 11th century this way:
A thousand years ago, the world was truly multi-polar. That’s a word that people hear all the time, because of the rise of China, the rise of India, the Middle Eastern countries, Brazil … a thousand years ago (things were similar), China was the most advanced civilization, the Song dynasty; the Chola empire of India ruled the seas … the Arab and Islamic empires, the caliphates, from Baghdad and Cairo ruled all the way from Africa to Central Asia … The other reason that’s interesting is that that was a world before modern states. So it was a world where cities, companies, merchants, mercenaries, religious groups, they were all very powerful and competing for loyalty … All of these different players were in an overlapping, competitive set of authorities, really, everyone trying to win hearts and minds, and money for themselves. That really does feel a lot like the world of today.
This isn’t merely a geographic similarity, Khanna claims. In an article in the Financial Times, Khanna explained that power and authority in the medieval world wasn’t a monopoly of the government, or even the church. He points out that cities, like London, Paris or Venice, wielded tremendous cultural and economic influence, often practically eclipsing the kings and clerics who technically governed them. Also, the boundaries between individual spheres of influence were very nebulous: An individual might be a military commander (a knight), a diplomat, a merchant and a patron of the arts – all at the same time! In that regard, personal authority, networking, family ties and philanthropy often had more effect on society than laws and religious doctrine did — not unlike powerful CEOs, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and officials today who have international corporate, government and cultural influence.
In short, Khanna says: What we live in today is the Middle Ages on steroids.
That’s an interesting premise. But, needless to say, there are some drawbacks to living in a modernized Middle Ages. Just as in the medieval world, when the rightful government or recognized authority is corrupt, powerless or subservient to other entities, problems and conflicts quickly arise. (Does this sound familiar?) If the 21st century is “the Middle Ages on steroids,” with all the inherent problems of medieval society writ large, maybe part of the solution to our current woes is a code of chivalry on steroids.
Remember, that crude, ignorant world of the Middle Ages gave rise to the beauty and enlightenment of the Renaissance. (Though the medieval world wasn’t as “crude” as its generally portrayed, nor in many cases was the Renaissance as “enlightened” as we might think.) One of the factors that precipitated that change was the code of chivalry. Of course, Renaissance chivalry was very different from its medieval predecessor. The concept had undergone a gradual transformation from a set of roughly defined customs that addressed soldiers’ actions in battle and training, to a broad, encompassing code of social principles that reached into nearly every aspect of life. The chivalry of the 16th century was idealistic, romantic, and refined. Chivalry influenced art, culture, science, economics, and politics — for good in some cases, and for ill in others.
Today, a new, idealized sense of chivalry might provide some much-needed inspiration in the same sort of way. What sort of discoveries and advances might be made if science and industry was motivated by a sense of knightly adventure and wonder, rather than profit or self-interest? What social or political issues might be resolved if reliability and honesty became the motivators for public service instead of influence pedaling and political partisanship? What sort of benefits could be offered if financial and commercial enterprises were focused on protecting and championing their clientele, rather than exploiting and deceiving them?
To be sure, this isn’t meant to imply that the historical ideals of chivalry were perfect, or even blameless in some of the unfortunate events that took place in the post-medieval world, from religious wars to subjugation of native populations. But in the waning centuries of the Middle Ages, chivalry provided noble, inspiring ideals to live up to, even if only a relatively small number of people actually did so.
Obviously, the comparison between the Middle Ages and the world of the 21st century can only be taken so far. But if we’re willing to put aside our automatic defensive reactions at being compared to a less-than-ideal period of history and take an objective look at things, then Khanna’s “Middle Ages on steroids” descriptor might provide an intriguing lens through which we can reconsider some of the challenges and opportunities we face today.
Similarly, if we set aside the notion of chivalry as an outdated, militaristic, impractical, or romantic standard, we might see that creating a code of chivalry “on steroids,” with an enhanced commitment to the ideals of social justice, global stewardship, personal integrity, cultural camaraderie, and political responsibility could provide a powerful template of ethics and morality that would be applicable in arenas from the local community to the emerging global economy. A bulked-up code of chivalry could be the foundation for a 21st century super-Renaissance.
Below: Watch an interview with Parag Khanna on the PBS news show Need To Know, to hear him discuss his concept of “the Middle Ages on steroids.”