The Middle Ages and Modernity
Irmã Margaret Louise Bassi
Over the last five centuries, the image of the Middle Ages ― denominated as “the Dark Ages” ― was upheld as a time that contributed nothing to humanity. Rather it was said to have hindered progress and stagnated philosophical thought, most especially due to the influence it received from Christianity while Modernity came to be known as an era open to progress and thought. This partial vision of reality though, is now widely disputed.
The Middle Ages, built upon the ruins of the Roman Empire and the consequences of the Barbarian invasions, was based on the teachings of the Catholic Church. During its initial development it was not characterized by a philosophy of its own, in the sense that philosophy has now come to be understood. Christian tenets guided human life and answered the questions of medieval man. He considered eternal happiness to be goal and the cross of Christ as his path. He faced difficulties with a spirit of sacrifice in the pilgrimage toward the celestial homeland. Philosophy therefore, was intertwined with religion and this ensemble merged with the life of society, which had proceeded organically from the historical circumstance of that time. It has been said that the philosophy of the Gospel guided the peoples of medieval Western Europe.
With Saint Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism a systemization of Christian philosophy, as a rational foundation for revealed truths, attainable by intelligence, was developed. He distinguished faith from reason and after clearing defining them he united them in a close philosophical relationship. Making use of the contributions of the ancient philosophers and thinkers in their search for truth, knowledge that had been safeguarded in the monasteries under the protection of the Church during the tumultuous epoch of wars and invasions, he strove to bring reason to an apex and to an encounter with revelation. With Scholasticism, and most especially the institution of the universities, the Western medieval world came into contact with non-Christian interpretations of man.
In this context, culture continued to develop ― principally in the fields of literature and arts with Italy among European cultural centres ― leading to the onset of the Renaissance and an aura of suspicion toward the medieval system. The initial signs of a “new spirit” appeared that would seem to substitute Christian social ideals for increasingly materialistic and mercantile values. In the cultural sphere, Humanism emerged as a super-valuation of man in detriment to the former theo-centric medieval concept. New philosophies, tantalizing to souls in search of novelties, abounded. Oftentimes faith was relegated to a secondary plane and reason was given prominence. Modernity arrived on the scene of History, severing with the past and heralding a future which claimed to give free reign to progress and thought.
Within a few centuries the fermentation of a new mentality and the transformation of the Western world was effected. Illuminism, then, appeared on the historical scene claiming to be the antidote to the so-called “darkness of ignorance”. The philosophies introduced by Renaissance and Illuminist ideas contrasted with the theological and philosophical foundations of medieval Christian thought. Where Scholastic Christian thought sought answers to human questions enlightened by Christian faith and customs, Modernity believed it was necessary to break with tradition. A large portion of Western Europe was transformed ― taking into consideration the epoch ― in a rapid, abrupt and revolutionary way.
These transformations completely altered the Western scenario and the consequences of Modernity were immediately experienced. The illusion of progress slowly waned as it became apparent that the positive sciences, which had occupied the place of philosophy and theology, were unable to provide answers to the central human questions. These effects are still felt by contemporary man who is restless and seeks to satisfy the transcendental dimension that was abandoned by rationalism and the subsequent philosophies.