Rising Above With Chivalry

Scott Farrell comments:

An article about the Presidential campaign might seem an odd place for a journalist to wax nostalgic about medieval philosophy and the ideals of chivalry. But New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks found himself longing for elements from the “olden times” after being deluged by campaign coverage in the modern media. He took a break from it all to reflect on a different set of priorities and ideals in the following article.

Interestingly, his article stirred up a storm of angry (or at least critical) letters from Times readers. (There is a link to the Letters column at the bottom of this page.) Readers were incensed that an educated, modern journalist would imply that the represive, superstitious culture of the Middle Ages would be preferable to the world of modern America.

But that doesn’t seem to be what Brooks is saying. In this piece, he is simply raising the concept that, perhaps, in totally eclipsing wonder with reason, we’ve lost a little something in the mix. What he seems to be asking is, “Can we be scientific, rational and logical — and still be idealistic and inspired?” It is a question that applies aptly to the principles of chivalry in today’s world.

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Restoring Ideals and Idealism

brooksOver the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which appeared in Books & Culture, is called C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem, by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge. It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God. The medieval universe, Lewis wrote, “was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.”

Lewis tried to recapture that medieval mind-set, Ward writes. He did it not because he wanted to renounce the Copernican revolution and modern science, but because he found something valuable in that different way of seeing our surroundings.

The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

There’s something about obsessing about a campaign — or probably a legal case or a business deal — that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties. Campaigns are all about message management, polls and tactics. The communication is swift, Blackberry-sized and prosaic. As you cover it, you feel yourself enclosed in its tunnel. Entire mental faculties go unused. Ward’s essay has been a constant reminder of that other mental universe.

The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in The Autumn of the Middle Ages,

The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.

We tend to see economics and politics as the source of human motives, and then explain spirituality as their byproduct — as Barack Obama tried artlessly to do in San Francisco the other week. But in the Middle Ages, faith came first. The symbols, processions and services were vividly alive.

Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in Don Quixote.

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.

This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2008 Op-Ed section of the New York Times.

Reader response to Mr. Brooks’ piece appeared in the following week’s New York Times Letters to the Editor.

About the author: David Brooks’s column has appeared on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times since September 2003. He is also currently a commentator on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Mr. Brooks is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive : How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, both published by Simon & Schuster.

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