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The New Middle Ages

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

The contemporary reader who follows the occurrences of the time in the daily newspaper must at some moments be intensely aware that he is living in an accelerated age of which it may be truly said that it affords to the most humble person the fascinating if not always pretty spectacle of “history in the making.” If he happens to be an intelligent man to whom the events are of particular interest, the fact that he is enjoying his breakfast in peace, with no outward sign of the world being in the least a different place from the place it was before 1914, he must still, in his deeper self, be acutely conscious of the changes which have already taken place and of perhaps greater changes still impending, and he must inevitably wonder: Where will it all end?

To the inhabitant of Europe the question is an even more momentous one. For though the American enjoying his breakfast today may wonder if he will have a breakfast tomorrow, the European is not even sure that there will be a tomorrow. He may have his economic problems, but life only begins for him there. Willy-nilly, by no choice of his own, he “lives dangerously,” in Nietzsche’s phrase, and he constantly stands on the brink of a chasm which may at any moment swallow him up. For him there is no returning to the peace and fleshpots of pre-War. He has no illusion that such a thing is possible. On the other hand, he sees down below there, in the chasm, spectres of war and revolution, racial pogroms, destruction of culture, destruction of all those precious things which have made of Europe all that she is in the eyes of rational, enlightened men, a continent in which, in Mr. Havelock Ellis’s words, “they constructed in the Heaven of the Future the endlessly renewed vision of a Perfect Commonwealth.”

The historian of the future, viewing European events in perspective, from the safe pinnacles of time, will see a spectacle on so immense a scale and depicting conflicts of such intensity, that he will scarcely be able to grasp its significance, unless his own mind, the mind of the future, will have broadened and deepened sufficiently to take in the sight and gauge it accurately. But how can that be? Nothing has been more effectually disposed of by our time than the idea of Progress, the pet offspring of the nineteenth century. The spectacle to unroll before the historian will be a staggering one. After an interval of relative peace, he will see Europe rising almost en masse and rushing into internecine conflict; he will see wide-strung battle lines moving east and west and culminating in battles which in their vastness and the extent of their ravages are without precedent; he will see thrones topple and the rise of new states; he will see the fraternal war and Red Terror in Russia followed by new battles between the Reds and the Whites spreading to a new and vaster continent; he will see the anti-Communist Revolution in Italy and the ultimate “reactionary” triumph under Mussolini; he will see sporadic risings elsewhere and the destruction of the Liebknechts and the Bela Kuns; he will see the post-War famine in Central Europe; he will see— perhaps with an ironic eye—the setting-up of the League of Nations and the numerous peace, economic, and disarmament conferences; he will see the great inflation period in America followed by a world-wide depression; he will see the rise of the Nazis and the annihilation of Jews in a land which particularly prided itself on its science and culture; he will see and appraise the leaders of the age, Wilson, Cle-menceau, Lloyd George, Lenin, Streseman, Stalin, Mussolini, MacDonald, Hitler, Roosevelt . . .

What will the historian, the detached observer, say to this extraordinary pageant? He will say at least one thing which we already know. He will head this chapter: “The End of an Era.” What Era? I have heard scholarly men say gravely, the Christian Era. Is that so certain? I have heard religiously inclined men say that we are indeed living through the prophesied Apocalypse! (There is the case of the celebrated Russian philosopher, V. V. Rosanov, who, shortly before his death by starvation, wrote a small but fascinating book, called “The Apocalypse of Our Time.”) I should add that I heard the same thing said during the air raids over London, when serious-minded and otherwise rational persons affirmed for the first time their belief in the devil! And, indeed, how else, in an enlightened age, was to be explained this dropping of explosives from on high on defenseless populations of men, women, and children? It certainly seemed downright fantastic, diabolic. On the other hand, I have heard a reputable historian, who teaches in one of our great universities the period of the rise of Christianity, declare that we are living through a moment such as the one in which the last pagan met the glance in the first Christian’s eyes and knew that he was doomed. The apparent assumption here is that Christianity is in its last throes, that it is in fact standing with its back to the wall, face to face with some young foe, a new religion, whose day has barely begun. What religion? Communists, who do not believe in religion and refuse to call Communism a religion, affirm with some emphasis that the foe is none other than Communism and that its destiny is to replace the Christian idea in the minds of men. On principle—though in practice it is different—they will not admit that Karl Marx is their God, and Lenin his prophet. The new age, they say, will be irreligious. Oddly enough, there are non-Communists and even anti-Communists who reluctantly concede the ultimate triumph which the Communists claim. Is there any real basis for this? Let us see. That this is the end of an era is admitted by all. Even the man in the street believes it. This fact must be constantly borne in mind. If a confusion of issues is to be avoided, it is necessary to define with some precision what the issues are. It has been too easily implied, for example, that Christianity and Capitalism are somehow irrevocably involved, and men of Communist persuasion, in speaking of the imminent fall of Capitalism, are far too prone to assume that Christianity will fall with it as a kind of by-product. That Christianity came before modern Capitalism is wholly lost sight of. This confusion, perhaps, has been caused, for reasons of their own, by the Bolsheviks, who have involved the corrupt Russian Church with the religion of Christ. In any event, were the Russian Church not corrupt, they would still have to destroy Christ to save Lenin; for a new militant religion and an old one which has ceased being militant cannot abide in the same place and at the same time. Again, if by Capitalism is meant a recognition of private ownership, then it may be assumed that Capitalism, if in a modified form, has always existed. Modern Capitalism owes its rise to machinery, whose coexistence with Christianity during its latter period is merely a coincidence and not an inevitably correlated factor. It is still more important— indeed, most important of all—to consider whether Communism, instead of being the beginning of a new era, as its adherents would like to have it, may not in fact be the last stage of the old one, and the final symptom of its decay. There is something to be said for this, all the more as the Communists themselves assert that Communism is not a wholesale rejection of Capitalism, but a natural outgrowth and development of it.

There is a further possibility which the speculative mind may dwell upon. It is that while Communism and Fascism and kindred movements may be regarded as the last stages in the old era, they may be said to contain, like all passing things, seeds of the new era. Thus, they have a characteristic common to them all: an aspiration toward Collectivism, following upon the rampant individualism which had begun with the Renaissance, and a predilection for Dictators, perhaps complementary to it—facts which may be considered in conjunction. To these may be added the tendency in many quarters to reject tradition, to de-intellectualize human existence, to break up all that passes for culture; the recrudescence of summary violence and intolerance; the political repressions of the Fascisti; the functioning of the Cheka under the fanatical Dzerzhinsky and that of its successor, the Ogpu, both with Inquisitorial powers; and finally the intensive revival of the persecution of the Jews, reminiscent of the medieval ages and of the expulsion under Ferdinand and Isabella.

What is the meaning of all this?

A little book published nine years ago by the leading Russian religious philosopher and historian, Nikolai Berdiayev, an emigre living in Paris, makes an attempt to supply an explanation of our age and its historical phenomena, and in view of the fact that many of the events mentioned have taken place after the publication of the book, his deductions read in the nature of an accurate prophecy. The title of the book, “The New Middle Ages” (Novoe Sredneviekovie), in itself implies the answer to the riddle. At the time of its publication it caused something of a sensation among scholars, and was promptly translated into French and German. It has been favorably commented upon by English historians, including such a writer as Christopher Dawson, himself an authority on medieval history and culture. It is a stimulating work, pregnant with thought for our own time, and, with a kind of inspired logic, works out a theory which is not as far-fetched as it may sound, namely, that in spite of all those things which in the eyes of most men constitute progress, in spite of the telephone, telegraph, railways, super-liners, wireless, radio, in spite of everything which has enabled men to master the earth, humanity is slowly but inevitably, in a spiritual sense, reverting to a state approximating that period in history known as the Middle Ages. “Our epoch,” Berdiayev categorically asserts, “I conditionally designate as the end of modern history and the beginning of the new Middle Ages.” New in every sense of the word. History, a matter of rhythms, of “rhythmic changes of epochs and periods, of types of culture, of ebbs and flows, of ascents and descents,” never repeats itself in quite the same form; humanity has learnt something from its long historic quest. The best of it cannot be wholly lost, but will be incorporated in culture to come. Berdiayev’s main thesis is that the Christian tradition, which was developing normally in the Middle Ages and found culminating points in men like St. Francis and Dante, was deflected by the Renaissance which, for all its florescent glory, brought in “modern history” and the modern man. The new epoch introduced individualism, “atomization,” scientific investigation, specialization, irreligion; in short, seeds of its own destruction, culminating in the Great War and its aftermath.

Faith alone, it is argued, the world of the spirit, can unite humanity. When man lost God he not only lost the heavens he aspired to, but also the very ground under his feet. For compensation, if compensation it can be called, science opened out to him vast vistas of space, indeed an empty void, and those bottomless chasms of horror and despair made manifest in the appearances of the world today and already described at the beginning of this article. The modern world, like Faust, has sought to encompass the illimitable expanses of knowledge and to attain to the power complementary to it. Like Faust, it has lost in the process its faith, that faith which is inherent to humanity as it was in the simple Gret-chen Faust loved and which alone, perhaps, could save it, as it could save Goethe’s hero, from potent evil forces goading on to destruction and self-destruction. Or, if you like, it is like the characters in Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed,” faithless men who, having imbibed of modern culture and become surfeited with it, are driven to revolution and self-annihilation; the book is an elaborated illustration of the parable of the Gadarene swine, which serves as its motto. Dostoevsky was abused for writing it, but it has turned out to be a remarkable prophecy come true. To this day Communists find it hard to stomach Dostoevsky, and even Gorky, who ought to know better, continues to take a fling at him whenever he gets a chance.

Beginning with the humanism of the Renaissance, which was a dual element embracing faith and reason, ending in the empty triumph of the latter, there has been a progressive “emancipation” of the individual. The religious collectivism of the Middle Ages had poured itself into cathedrals and intensive spiritual living, but it was dissipated in the orgy of individual endeavour, which first manifested itself in the Renaissance and caused a sharp break in the Christian tradition, then still in the process of development, so that its fruits were never reaped. Berdiayev regards this as a misfortune; however splendid the epoch initiated by the Renaissance, it has since in its tremendous effort of releasing vast stored-up energies, at last exhausted itself in our own day. Humanity, borne along by the momentum, has run itself into a catastrophe and, a little out of breath, has paused, perhaps on the brink of a still greater. The buoyancy, furnished by physical energy, has left if; it finds itself in a position where it has no other energy to fall back upon. According to Berdiayev and other thinkers, who have arrived at the judgment independently, at this point religion must step into the breach. It is passionately asserted that only a renewal of Christianity, the picking up of the lost thread, can offer Europe the solace it so badly needs. If Christianity is to be saved, if the religion of Christ professed but little practiced by men is worth saving, then there is no alternative but to recover its original life at the source. Nor is it a matter of choice, argues the host of religious thinkers. In the process of “finding himself” the individual has tried to be a God unto himself, but he has lost not only God but himself. He stands spiritually bankrupt. And he is tired out; tired out with that tiredness which makes him not only restless but dangerous.

Literary “prophets” of the nineteenth century, who have been called “seekers,” already foresaw or forefelt the plight in which humanity would find itself. Men like Gogol, Dos-toevsky, and Tolstoy in Russia, Baudelaire and Amiel in France, and Henry Adams in America, to cite a few extreme examples at random, sought anchorage for humanity and themselves in some faith, which they could not find, and they clearly sensed that this absence of faith was not to be compensated for by the physical conquest men were making of the earth, which indeed was driving them to inevitable destruction.

The old symbolism holds. If God made man in His own image, the destruction by man of God’s image involved the destruction of his own. Again, the arts of the time present an accurate reflection. Cubism and Futurism have been no mere whims. The first shows man as a piece of mechanism, soulless and infinitely complex. And in Futurism we have seen the fixed limitations of the human form deliberately violated. We have seen man transformed into a strange object, and newspaper clippings, bits of glass and leather and match-sticks, are seen to “push their way into the midst of every sort of form and to destroy it.” No one will say that the modern artist lacks assertion, yet the result is nearly always negation, utter nihilism. The world is sick, like the consumptive in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain,” and the illness is contagious. The young men of Europe are disillusioned; and war and revolution fill the minds of all, because the peace itself affords no shelter for racked souls desiring a very different life from the one offered them.

Two kinds of hunger face them: economic and spiritual. It is hard to say which is the more dangerous if allowed to go unsatisfied. Both are the cause of revolutions. Call it a Communist revolution, call it Fascist, or call it National.

The effect, as well as the cause, is essentially the same. The old terms, “reactionary” and “radical,” have lost their meaning; the line once drawn between them has practically ceased to exist. The nationalistic temper is strong, even in the land of the Third International; and the collective spirit and dictatorial powers are being more and more invoked: not even this country is excepted. In Europe, whether the pendulum swing “right” or “left,” the result is the same. Humanity is called upon to divide into camps, white and black—call them by what colors you like. The middle course, at which the bourgeoisie stands, is proscribed. The rule of the day is, “If you are not for me, you are against me.”

Nor is there any longer any certainty of maintaining a balance, the status quo. Nothing is stable. Once you stop to reflect, it is hard to realize that “holy little mother” Russia has swung from the extreme of an almost medieval mode of existence—remember the devout pilgrims, the devout peasants, the ikons, and Rasputin!—to the extreme of industrial effort, mechanical efficiency, and utter godlessness. Witness, again, the Germany of today swinging from the extreme of intellectual achievement and culture, of which it was justly proud, to pogroms and barbaric practices which, as many have pointed out, savour of the darkest side of the Middle Ages. A kind of hysteria, almost religious—in the worst sense—has seized upon many nations.

Yet there are points at which they all meet. They meet in their collectivism, in their despots, in their employment of violence and repression to attain their ends. Even the very modern mechanical utopia in Russia is energetic in enforcing its ways of life on others by measures which can scarcely be called “modern,” and can even merit being called medieval. Above all, they unite in crushing democracy, all liberal thought, the very things so essential to modern culture. Barbarization is patent in their every act. It is true that Mussolini has been zealously encouraging the excavation of ancient monuments, but modern Italy, in a creative sense, is singularly sterile. In Russia, in spite of increased book production, no literary figure has arisen comparable to Turgenev, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. A strong mystical note is apparent in many of the living German writers, but as they are not of the Nazi camp they are finding themselves exiles.

Collectivism in itself is a good thing, Berdiayev asserts, though there may be good collectivism—and bad. Communism is a bad form of it, because it is irreligious and wholly based on material determinism and material well-being. Humanity cannot afford to starve the spirit. It is inevitable that Communism will encounter a collectivism of another kind, a collectivism as yet unemerged—but already, if invisibly, forming—of human beings who still have faith in the world of the spirit; and this collectivism will not yield to any adversary, however ruthless. There is a definite religious trend which, while it is not heralded by sound and fury, is nevertheless more and more to be reckoned with. We have heard its voice and seen something of its power in the protest meetings in this country against the Nazi outrages. To have seen on the same platform Catholic priests, Episcopal bishops, and Jewish rabbis, to say nothing of the most liberal men of the day, all proclaiming the one God, all united against the same aggressor, was a singularly impressive and convincing spectacle. Berdiayev, employing medieval symbolism, calls the two adversaries Christ and Antichrist, and he prophesies a conflict between them, between the good collectivism and the bad. The epoch in which this issue will dominate will be known as the new Middle Ages.

It is difficult to foretell, one may add parenthetically, how the contending forces will find themselves aligned in the conflict which is coming to be regarded as inevitable. There are many who think that the ultimate issue will be one between Communism and Catholicism, Catholicism being the largest body within Christendom which can count on the faith of those within its fold and, by reason of this, which wields a power commensurate with that of the enemy. The Catholic Church has certainly had cause in recent years to be pleased with the growing accession of the intellectuals. On the other hand, it may be that the conflict will resolve itself into one between religious and irreligious forces in general. What lends weight to this surmise is the developing quest among the young, and among college students in particular, in this country as elsewhere, of a faith to fill the void left by a bankrupt generation devoted to the fetish of science and material well-being. It is calculated, too, that the antagonism of a powerful force like Communism, fanatically resolved to perpetuate materialism in the name of the greatest material good of the greatest number and using the discredited machine for the purpose, will only serve to strengthen the scattered forces of religion and weld them into an active enemy with a common purpose.

It should be borne in mind: the so-called Dark Ages were not wholly what the term evokes in those ignorant of the rich, spiritual, communal life which went on during what Berdiayev calls the “Night” of history, in which the Renaissance itself was conceived. The Middle Ages is a state of mind. It is a spiritual questioning of oneself, a spiritual stock-taking. Is it not time? Berdiayev is not a solitary protagonist of the idea. There is a growing body of opinion in Europe which looks to a religious revival, which considers it not only necessary but inevitable. Among impassioned thinkers who have expressed the same idea as Berdiayev, though each has arrived at his conclusions independently, may be mentioned H. Massis and G. Duhamel in France, Christopher Dawson in England, and another emigre Russian, Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Who knows? Events of the past nineteen years have shown us that all things are possible in this “best of all possible worlds.”


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